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Update… Project Forever Slow

Thought it was time for an update on this project, with some long term reviews, opinions and an updates on the new bits.

So let’s jump back to where we last left off. February…

It feels like such a long time ago, little did we know that everything was going to change just a couple of weeks after I took those shots — for me this was going to be over 4 months of isolation with no time outside let alone any cycling. The bike was setup for winter riding, which for me tends to involve more road riding.

We’ll skip ahead to June — my birthday. As you can imagine I was keen to get outside and it was looking likely that I would be able go outside again so felt it was time to treat myself to some bits I had had on my list for a while — wheels & handle bars.

As I’m sure a lot of you are aware—the bike industry has gone a bit nuts, new bikes are taking anywhere from 6 weeks to 6 months to arrive and the same has applied to a lot components as well. With an update from my specialist that I wouldn’t be outside for at least a month (end of July) I ordered some parts hoping they would arrive in time… they did, but took over a month!

New Bits

New look. Who dis?

So what’s new? Well the bike has been great, but there were a few things I felt could be refined. Feel free to play spot the difference above!

New Wheels

My wheels; more specifically my hubs were pretty fucked. I’ve had them for about 3 years and whilst the rims are great the hubs are quick release with thru-axel adapters, not ideal. They were actually booked in for a service 2 days after I went into isolation as the bearings were shot… but that never happened. They have been on my list of things to upgrade and so its seemed like the perfect time to do so. The plan was to have 2 wheel sets, a winter wheel set and a summer wheel set, thus making it a 2 minute job to change what the bike does.

With that luxury in mind, it posed the question — do I need to 2 sets of 700c wheels or should I go 650b? I’ll openly admit I was sceptical about 650b. There’s a lot of gravel trends which are eye rolling, but from talking to people about the benefits it seemed like something worthy of an investment.

After lots of researching and hunting around I’d narrowed it down to a set of Hunts or Hopes. I had budgeted £300>£400 and I wanted to go with something British, Hunts have been getting great reviews since their fairly recent beginning and Hopes are historically brilliant wheels. I ultimately went with the Hopes as its a brand I have always aspired to have through mountain biking since the 90’s, but they have never been attainable to me. Now they were; so it seemed like the right time.

Also… because bling.

I opted for the Fortus 23 — this is actually a 27.5 XC/Trail wheel. These are built up with their iconic Pro 4 hubs, which are bulletproof. I ended up pairing this up with a set of Panaracer Comet Hardpack 27.5x2.00 (650b x 50c).

So why an XC/Trail wheel and tyre? My background is mountain bikes and I used to ride a fair bit of XC/Trail. I noticed that actually, that’s still what I ride a lot of — just with a fair bit of road and gravel grinding in between.

Why not get a mountain bike? That list bit is the important bit. For starters I have one; but to answer the real question “why this is better for me?” — distance and comfort are the big factors. I can go out for 50-100km+ days riding trails and not suffer when I have to ride roads in between or need to haul ass (lol lets not kid ourselves) along a long stretch of something. Riding position plays a lot into that and I’ll come back to that with the handle bars. These bikes make stuff that on an MTB would be chill/borderline boring, exciting again.

So what were my concerns with 650b / 27.5? Well… with a mountain bike mentality, do you really need it? 26 and 29 serve their purposes — is it really the goldilocks size? I’m a shorter rider (172cm) and so there is actually some benefits for it over a 29er. But what about on a “road” bike. It was an unknown for me... which is always a risk. I was concerned that smaller wheels would make things more of a slog, I was actually expecting the outside diameter with tyres to be slightly less. As this photo proves, that’s wasn’t the case.

We’re talking mm’s when in the outside diameter. Obviously tyre choice will make a difference.

So what are the benefits? The big one for me is the higher volume tyres. This means you can run lower pressures, decreasing the chances of punctures and also its a far more comfortable ride.

I had quite a few people singing their praises for 650b and one that surprised me that kept coming up was that they were faster. There has be been a big shift in recent years towards bigger tyres. As they say smoother = faster.

This is old news in Mountain Biking, full-sus bikes in pretty much all scenarios are faster than hard tails and rigid bikes. Roadies are slowly catching on and its the norm to run 28c at competition level so for the casual rider 32c is pretty common place now. I do not miss 23c tyres in the slightest.

UK Conditions

You might have noticed I’m talking a lot about mountain biking, when clearly this is a gravel bike. I’m not the only to hold this opinion but the term gravel doesn’t really sit well in the UK landscape. Here in the UK, we have a lot of dirt or as it more commonly known due to the weather… mud! Yes, we have gravel, but it’s not the smooth, dry, compact stuff you get for endless miles in America and where it does exists its in very small rare quantities. With that in mind a lot of gravel stuff — specifically tyres, aren’t always right for the conditions here.

As with any bike setup, it’s about choosing what’s right for you. This is why I chose the Panaracer Comets. With my frame and fork I’m limited to 47c (by spec). There’s plenty of 650b x 47c tyres out there, but they are all quite gravel focused and even the more treaded options look a bit mimsy. I have previously ridden WTB’s and Gravelkings and found them a bit of a let down on trails. I think this was down to their tread depth and space between the tread pattern. Small close nobbles.

I have heard great things about the WTB Nano, but I could only find 650x42c (too small) or 27.5x2.1 (too big), they do a 700x47 which isn’t much use to me right now. After some digging I came across the new Pirelli Gravel M, which has a similar tread — fast rolling centre with tread on the side. This is available in 650x47 & 50. However as expected it comes at a premium, and I wasn’t willing to take a punt a set of tyres costing over £100.

So back to mountain biking. What XC / Trail tyres were out there? Sadly for me most 27.5 tyres start at 2.1 (53mm) — I measured and felt that would be a bit too tight, especially if they got any mud on, and to be honest I don’t think I really need that width for the riding I do, you really should be on a MTB if you need that sort of size. However, 2.0 (50mm) seemed safe. Unfortunately this isn’t a massively popular size. It would seem gravel tyres go up to 47c at 650 and MTB stuff kicks off at 2.1 for 27.5, which put me in a bit of a dead zone. I didn’t want something too aggressive and I didn’t want something designed for gravel which the majority are a super fast rolling mimsy tread (basically slightly treaded slicks).

Essentially I wanted an XC/Trail tyre under 50c.

After reading up on reviews, the Comet seemed like a bit of an underdog and everyone that has them says they’re the ideal do-it all tyre — with the only negative feedback from people being that they aren’t tubeless compatible. This wasn’t a big gripe for me and after tracking down a set for £40 it seemed like a no brainer. Panaracer, if you want to make a tubeless set, it seems there’s plenty of people out there who are keen for them!

So… Actual thoughts on 650b

I fucking love it. I don’t know why I would ride 700c again for the sort of riding I do any more. I will keep my 700c set for winter, but to be honest I’m keen to try a road tyre setup on them. My favourite road tyres, Jack Browns actually do a 650b version called the Maxy Fasty… so may be I’ll end up giving them a punt?

The wheel set is amazing, build quality is exceptional and they ride great. I’m sure I wouldn’t have been disappointed with the Hunts, but the Hopes have exceeded my expectations.

The tyres are also great, they’re far more fast rolling on road than I was expecting and I’ve never had this level of grip on the trails I’ve ridden with this sort of setup. I’ll have to wait to see how they cope when it gets really wet and muddy (it was damp as rained just before I went out), but since getting them a couple of people who also run them have sung their praises… and the other sad fact that they’re actually quite hard to get hold of now, considering how good they are!

New Bars

Appologies in advance — Please ignore my rushed bar wrap, it was a bit bodged for the shakedown and so I’ll be re-doing it!

This is meant to be my forever bike. My kinda do-it-all, fit and forget job. One of the biggest factors with it is making it comfortable. So contact points are essential for this. One thing I have always been disappointed with, was my handle bars. I was running Specialized Hover’s — essentially a drop bar with a rise. If I’m honest, I thought they looked cool having a riser, which was one of the reasons I got them. But they just never felt right. The other issue was fitting bar bags was a pain. They would end up sliding and bunching. I tried a few different things to fix this but you can see in the picture below how they would rub on the bars.

Worn marks from the bag straps sliding about.

I also became aware of my riding position. Something I do a lot is put my hands together near the stem. On these bars this is really awkward and uncomfortable, so you essentially lose that position. One of the great advantages of drop bar is the riding positions and levels of comfort you get.

I didn’t want to just get another set of drop bars, as I already own a few pairs and knew other people must have addressed these issues before. After spending lots of time looking at some pretty wavey bars I saw the benefits of the Jones, looped H-Bars and the extra riding positions it offered. However, I didn’t want to upgrade my levers and shifters to fit them, also they’re quite wide and its difficult to stand your bike up against walls etc…not for me this time.

I eventually stumbled on the Farr Aerogrvl bars. Overlooking the awful model name these looked exactly what I was after. The only thing I was unsure of was the flare. They say its a 25° flare, but it doesn’t actually seem that severe in person.

Again, as with 650 I was sceptical of flared bars for it being a trend but once again everyone who uses them loves them… so I took the risk and order a set.

The flare is great, I run a 420mm wide bar which I find really comfortable, anything wider would be stretching my position. With the flare the drops are about 520mm, as you are tucked when on the drops you have a bit more reach which gives you so much more control when you are descending.

One of my biggest concerns with flares was access — in the UK we have quite a lot of anti-motorbike guards into green spaces. I also have one on my commute. So if they didn’t fit I’d have to change my route…

Like a glove.

As you can see they fit a treat, I think you might start pushing your luck with the wider width bars. But so far I’ve not found a gate I can’t get through.

The game changer for me though has been what I’m calling the bullbar (also would have been a better name than Aerogrvl lol).

Wahoo also fits snuggly in the gap!

This riding position, be it 1 or 2 handed is so comfortable. I’ve actually gained 3 new riding positions on the bullbar, which as any cyclist who has ridden a long distance will know, is such a luxury to have.

The unexpected benefits, which is the only time I can give credit to its name, is the aero. Now I’m not one for aero gains, but cycling efficiency has its advantages. I don’t have any scientific data to prove this but I have found that I am getting far less fatigued with these bars. I think this is a combination of less drag when I’m riding with the bullbars and the fact its more comfortable, as the reach is reduced, putting less strain on my back.

As I mentioned earlier, I was aware at how much I was putting my hands near the stem and I am actually riding in the bullbar position for quite a lot of my rides.

They were about £90 shipped from Australia but I believe they may now have a UK supplier. To some this may seem like a lot, to others it may seem pretty reasonable. Personally, I think investing in contact points, like pedals, footwear, saddle and bars are totally worth doing.

I couldn’t recommend these more highly.

Long Term Reviews

While we’re on the subject of contact points, its worth updating on 2 things I’ve been riding with for a while now.

I’ve had these for over a year and half now and I love them. I have always ridden Shimano SPD’s up until these. What I love about them, other than the fact they are pink (other colours are available), is they are so much smoother than the shimano pedals. They aren’t as stiff and clicky. You can unclip without even making a sound if you’re slick. I prefer a platform with the clips as sometimes I like to unclip and pedal to releave some pressure and just if somethings a bit sketchy and I don’t think I’ll be about clip out in time. They could do with a tad more grip for this but they work fine for my riding needs.

I’ve never understood narrow saddles, I personally find them super uncomfortable, which is why I was I got a C17 over the popular C15. I have owned this saddle for several years now and see they also have a C19 version which is even wider. I think the C17 is optimum for my bum though, but you you’ve got a bit more meat out back the C19 might be good choice.

One thing people are always unsure of with these saddles is there is no padding. It’s something I took a punt on after people reassured me they are the comfiest saddles they have ever owned and I can now endorse those opinions! Rather than having padding the saddle flexes which when you’re cycling is far more ergonomic. This is also why I got the carved version as it released more pressure in those delicate regions. One issue with padded saddles is they are very stiff and hard under the padding, so once you have been sat on it for a while you are basically sitting on a hard unmovable surface. Saddle pain is a non issue now, its rare that I even consider it as something I notice when I’m on a ride which can only be a good thing.

What’s the frame pump?

People always ask. Its a Zefal HPX frame pump. Its aluminium, so super strong but also not too heavy and its the best hand pump I’ve owned.

Frame pumps aren’t for everyone. But everyone wants a friend with a frame pump. They come in various sizes to fit your frame, so make sure you do the research before buying one. Proper life saver and I think it look pretty rad too.

It’s just a 90’s mountain bike with drop bars!

Yup. Pretty much. And you know what, I loved riding mountain bikes in the 90’s. I’ve basically built my dream 90’s mountain bike for the riding I do today. I’m not going off down enduro trails or downhill slopestyle courses. I’m pootling along single track, fire roads and gravel tracks, occasionally getting sendy on some blue trails and its exciting on a bike like this! Once I’m done doing that I can smash along a bit of b-road not not have to worry about pot holes the general state of our British roads.

Ride this route

If you’re curious about where the photos are taken, it’s from my shakedown route. We are putting together a collection of 1>3 Hours rides and this is one of our favourites.

Check it out:

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