Popping the carbon cherry

With my first Century ride fast approaching, I toyed with the idea of borrowing a carbon road bike for the day, as a way of cutting some time. My thinking was: lighter bike, faster climbs, faster descents, and home before you know it.

So, I borrowed a Giant TCR Composite 2 (2012) – a serious endurance road bike, which probably weighs less than me. That was one of things I felt quite wary of. I had visions of the bike just crumpling beneath my heavy body.

Giant TCR Comp 2 2012 – at a glance

This is quite an old model now, but it’s still a thing of beauty.

  • Lightweight T600 carbon frame
  • Advanced-Grade Composite fork with alloy steerer
  • PowerCore bottom bracket
  • Shimano Ultegra shifters and rear mech matched up to a 105 front mech
  • 2012 Shimano brakes and chainset
  • Giant PR-2 wheels with Giant PR-3 tyres

The ride

Starting from the centre of town, we headed out through Long Ashton and onto some country roads, away from the angry drivers and out where the air is a bit cleaner.

As always with a new bike, we had our fair share of teething problems. Adjusting saddle heights, tilting handlebars backwards, tweaking the SPD tension, re-angling the saddle, and various other things. Eventually we got going, out into the summer heat.

Admittedly, despite planning a 20-mile loop, we only strayed out for about 10 miles before we decided to turn back. It might have been the heat to a certain degree, but mainly it was the fact that neither of us were enjoying our bikes very much.

The verdict

Carbon is fast, I know. I felt it as I shifted into my higher gears and threw myself down various hills. It’s light, too, as I learned when I climbed a pretty short but sharp one.

I’m sure that if I rode it for the full 100 miles, I’d probably make faster progress, and take the climbs and descents in my stride.

The truth is, though, I hated it. I hate carbon. There, I said it.

I totally see the appeal for others, but in my opinion you’re sacrificing all that is nice about riding a bike, to gain some extra speed.

To summarise:

  • My wrists, my bum, my poor aching body. You literally feel every bump in the road.
  • Oh dear god the noise. Thanks to a hollow plastic frame, you hear every click and grind echoing as you freewheel. On busy roads this isn’t that bad, but in quieter areas I found it quite embarrassing and irritating.
  • Skinny tyres scare me. Every time I experienced a bit of gravel or general debris on the road I tensed, with visions of toppling over.
  • I felt a bit unstable. I think I’m just more at ease knowing that the bike carrying me weighs more, and is up for the job of carting my heavy load around.

Sticking with steel

I’m definitely a steel convert, and I’ll be riding Dori on Saturday. She may be heavy, but she’s got a great gear ratio for climbing hills, and the 32c tyres mean that I gain speed while keeping traction. After riding the TCR, getting back on Dori was like reclining on a sofa.

As I said, I see the appeal for others. If you’re one for speed, then it makes sense. I’m definitely one for comfort!

At least now I’ve tried it, and I can make an informed decision on the right bike for me. Another notch on the belt, so to speak.

Square one wobbles, or, test-riding a YoBike

Riding around Bristol now, you can’t help but notice the flashes of yellow. Casually dressed cyclists pass by, sitting upright, Dutch-style, on these distinctive cruiser bikes with 26” solid rubber wheels, high handlebars and ‘join a Cycling Revolution’ printed on their frame signs.

That’s right. YoBikes have come to Bristol.

Naturally I had to have a go, so last weekend while we were in town, we decided to hire a couple to ride home. This was partly because my feet had been torn to shreds by evil flip-flops, and partly so we could be naughty and pick up a Chinese takeaway on the way home. Ssh.

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How YoBike works

Unlike its London counterpart, YoBike doesn’t require bikes to be docked in terminals. You’ll find them spread throughout the city, propped on their kickstands in pre-approved public parking areas.

All you need to do is download their app, create an account and enter your card details. Your first ride is free, and after that it’s £1 for every hour you have the bike.

Simply find an available YoBike, select ‘Unlock bike’ on the app and scan the QR code on its rear lock. You’ll need to have your location settings and Bluetooth switched on. The bike will automatically unlock, and now it’s available to ride. Quick release skewers allow for a swift saddle height adjustment, and then you’re good to go!

Once you’re done, you need to leave the bike at one of the approved public parking spaces, highlighted on the map. If there’s nothing near you, you can park them in a public bike parking area (where there are racks), and send a couple of photos, along with the location details to the YoBike team, so they can add the area to their map. Select ‘End journey’ on the app, and the bike will automatically lock. It’s pretty nifty.

Within the app you’ll find an interactive map of the city, which points out the locations of all available YoBikes, and the areas where you can leave them. Their zone coverage seems to be pretty good as well. We saw bikes left outside the UWE campus near Filton, and we were able to cycle them home to Kingswood, which is about 5 miles from the city centre.

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Square one wobbles

I have to say, I’m not very experienced when it comes to riding many varieties of bikes. Now that I’m so used to being in the racier position that Regina puts me in, returning to an upright position threw me a bit! The handlebars are very wide, and raised really high above the stem, so it has that feel of a Dutch bike (which personally I’m not a fan of, but it will appeal to many).

It’s always like riding a bike for the first time, and I started off quite wobbly! It took me most of the journey to adjust to the upright position and the sensitivity of the steering. I’ve gotten so used to steering with my body, so it was strange to go back to steering with the handlebars. However I can see that this will work really well for people who don’t normally cycle, and will be familiar to those who are used to hiring town bikes in large cities.

The only misgiving I’d raise really, is that they’re not ideal bikes for the hills of Bristol, having just three gears. Riding up the Bristol-Bath Railway Path towards home, it’s only a gentle incline but I found myself working up quite a sweat in the middle gear. I can imagine a lot of people who live in uphill areas, such as Clifton and Redland, may hire these bikes to cycle down into town, but will be unlikely to ride them back up again towards home! This could result in some uneven distribution of bikes, though perhaps the YB team are aware of this and will re-disperse them. I know they’re very quick to respond to misplaced and abandoned bikes, thanks to their in-built GPS trackers, so they’re definitely out on the roads.

Judgement call

The most interesting part of that journey was realising that I felt a bit like an outsider.

It’s not like I felt as though I was the butt of any jokes, but I was very aware that the bikes drew a lot of attention from the more ‘serious’ cyclists, and a few knowing smiles. Lacking a helmet, wearing flip-flops, and being ever so slightly wobbly as I adjusted to the unfamiliar riding position, I can only imagine what I must have looked like.

It’s certainly made me more aware of the judgements we’re very quick to make about other cyclists. After all, while YoBikes certainly will appeal to those wanting to get into cycling without yet investing in their own bike, it also makes for a really convenient way to get somewhere when your other transport plans haven’t panned out.

If the buses aren’t running properly (do they ever run a good service in Bristol?), it’s much cheaper and quicker to jump on a YoBike. You won’t be prepared with a helmet, and you may not have the most practical shoes, but you’re as much a cyclist as the guy in lycra next to you at the lights, smiling with an air of ‘aww, bless’.

It’s a great scheme, and has been a glaring omission from Bristol until now. It’s exactly what’s needed to get would-be cyclists out of their cars and onto two wheels. Long may it continue.