Bike Gears: How Do They Work

Bike Gears
Re-cog-nise this? (arf arf)

Gears are a pretty fundamental part of the modern bicycle.

In fact, as the handlebar-moustache-sporting, Victorian gents amongst you will know, the introduction of gear rings and chains spelt the end for the Hi-wheel (the Penny Farthing to you and I) and other direct drive bicycles.

By varying the size of the chainring at the front and the sprockets (or cogs) at the back, cyclists could generate greater speeder without having to spin the pedals at ever-increasing RPMs (or balance precariously above gigantic front wheels).

In this post, I’m going to give an introduction to bike gears.

Since this is a blog about road cycling, I’ll stick to talking about derailleur gears (i.e. the ones seen on road bikes). Conveniently, this means I can avoid having to admit that I really don’t understand how hub gears work (what? ah…).

Read moreBike Gears: How Do They Work

King of the Downs Sportive: A RideLondon Training Opportunity

As you prepare for the 100 miles of RideLondon, you might be looking for other (shorter) sportives to help you on your way.

Long time reader of this blog, Giles Roadnight has just emailed me to point out that The King of the Downs Sportive takes place this Sunday (2nd June).

The sportive, organised by Evans, features two routes: the full one is 115 miles; the shorter option is 54 miles.

I can’t find an official route map, but the longer route sounds pretty tough. If you’re thinking of doing this one, I doubt you have any concerns about RideLondon’s flatter, shorter course.

It’s the shorter route that Giles points out is useful for RideLondon newbies, as a stepping stone to the longer event. Last year’s event took in both Box Hill and Leith Hill, and featured total ascent of around 3,450 feet (~900 feet less than RL).

If you want to enter, you’ll need to get your skates on. Online entry closes later today (Wednesday); if you miss that, you can print out a form to enter on the day.

Good luck to all those that decide to participate (or who have already entered), and thank you to Giles for giving me the heads up.

Bucket Lists for Cyclists: What Do You Have On Yours?

Bucket list
What’s on your bucket list?

Whether it’s scaling the 21 switchbacks of Alpe D’Huez or building your own bike frame, we all have our own cycling ambitions.

For some, these desires remain hidden – unvoiced within the depths of our brains. Others delight in listing their objectives, for their own amusement or to share with others.

That’s where a bucket list comes in.

Read moreBucket Lists for Cyclists: What Do You Have On Yours?

Bicycle Insurance: What You Need To Know

Bicycle insurance
The world of bicycle insurance (

I’m seeing more and more photos of stolen bikes being retweeted on Twitter.

Partly this is due to an increase in the use of social media to track down missing bikes, but it reflects a genuine increase in bicycles being stolen.

According to analysis from UCL, cycle theft is increasing (this is based on victim survey data; police statistics suggest the level remains static).

Bike security used to be about find somewhere safe to park your steed, then using two locks to put off would-be bike-snatchers.  Increasingly it seems that thieves are stealing bikes from owner’s garages and sheds – bikes worth thousands of pounds, which their owners would never dream of leaving chained to a rusty lamp-post.

The UK police even believe that dirty snafflers are using Strava and other route-mapping apps to identify target addresses (tip: make sure you have ‘privacy’ switched on, in order to hide your start/finish point).

In this post I look at one way a bike owner can protect himself from (financial) pain, should an acrobatic cat-burglar gain access to his Fort Know-style bike cave: bicycle insurance.

(For the more aggressive amongst you, next week I will look at how you can convert an innocent looking bicycle pump into a 50,000 volt taser.)

Read moreBicycle Insurance: What You Need To Know

Peak District Cycle Routes: Ashbourne – Ilam – Calton – Ashbourne

Cycling Peak District Dovedale
The descent into Dovedale

Do you ever feel frustration when searching for cycle routes on the internet? I do.

I struggle to find courses that have been properly curated and accurately described. When looking at a Jackson Pollock of route markers on a website, it’s difficult to decide whether the route is suitable for me.

There has to be a better way than Google Streetview-ing my way around the A roads of England in order to find my perfect cycle loop.

Oh yay! Oh yay! The rot stops here. At least for the people of south Derbyshire and the Peak District (and anyone visiting the area).

Read morePeak District Cycle Routes: Ashbourne – Ilam – Calton – Ashbourne

Training for RideLondon 100: March – mid-May update

Peak District Snow Cycle
Route blocked by snow… in April!

This is the second instalment in a series of posts recording the progress of my training towards RideLondon 100, the 100-mile cyclosportive taking place in and around London on 4 August.

My first training update can be found here.

As readers of this blog will know, my cycling prowess is very much at the lower end of the athletic range. As well as providing on-going motivation and accountability with regard to my own training ‘regime’, these updates aim to provide encouragement to other non-athletic types and those that struggle to balance training with everything else they have going on.

Read moreTraining for RideLondon 100: March – mid-May update

RideLondon 100 Route Analysis Redux: The Five Things You Need To Know

This post is a little different from my usual offerings.

It’s a slide presentation (woo-ooh!) that looks once again at the RideLondon 100 route and offers up some interesting titbits for participants (and anyone else with a passing interest).

I shoved the presentation (or ‘deck’, if you hail from corporate America) onto Slideshare in an inglorious attempt to increase the number of people that get to see it.

If you find the slides useful and think that others would too, then please share it via Twitter and Facebook.

So, without further ado…

Ladies and Gentlemen, I Give You… The Presentation!

Want to know more about the RideLondon 100 route?

Of course you do.

In that case, why not take a look at my extended RideLondon 100 route analysis and the post where I try out the Leith Hill and Box Hill climbs.

A Cyclists Guide To Bike Frame Materials: Carbon Fibre

Carbon fibre-framed Team Sky time trial bike
Carbon fibre-framed Team Sky time trial bike

Welcome to the second in my series of posts on the materials used to make bicycle frames.

**UPDATE: The full list of ‘materials’ posts can be found on my new page dedicated to bike building: How To Build A Bike **

Readers of my previous article (which you can read here) will no doubt have been shocked, intrigued and ultimately delighted by my razor-sharp insights into the world of steel manufacture.

Now it is the turn of the young pretender to the throne: carbon fibre.

Virtually the entire professional road cycling world, and certainly all of the teams at the ProTeam level, use carbon fibre frames for their road race and time trial bikes. This would tend to suggest that, as a material, it has certain performance benefits.

So now, why don’t you join me, as we go … through … the … keyhole investigate the hi-tech carbon fibre industry.

What is carbon fibre?

Or carbon fiber, if your spelling is of a more American persuasion.

Carbon fibre is the shorthand term for carbon-fibre-reinforced polymer. Fibres are used to reinforce a polymer (normally expoxy) in order to create a light but very strong material suitable for making things that need to be, er, light and very strong.

The layout of the carbon fibres, and the proportion of carbon to polymer, allow manfacturers to vary the strength and rigidity of a piece of carbon fibre to suit its particular purpose.

How are carbon fibre frames constructed?

The individual pieces of carbon fibre are molded into their desired shapes. Once a mould has been created, sheets of carbon fibre cloth are layered within it and the epoxy is introduced. The contents of the mould are heated in order to bond the elements together.

As to how the bike frame itself is then constructed, the short answer is, ‘it depends’.

You can get carbon fibre tubes and lugs which are then joined together in much the same way as you would with steel tubing (albeit using glue rather than welding equipment).

Alternatively, you can form an entire section of the bike (for instance, the front triangle) using a single piece of carbon fibre before joining it to the other pieces of the frame.

A carbon buzz word that you often hear thrown around is ‘monocoque’. It sounds cool (very ‘racing car’) but is a bit of a misnomer in the cycling sense. Strictly speaking, monocoque refers to an object that derives its structural strength from its skin, rather than the underlying frame. Since a bike is only a frame, the word is a little nonsensical.

That said, the term is used to describe bikes that are made from a single piece of carbon fibre with no joins, such as the Lotus bike used by Chris Boardman to win gold at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

Presumably, to the Spanish, monocoque can also refer to the appendage of a male monkey.

Who makes carbon fibre for bikes?

The main suppliers of carbon fibre used to make bike frames and components are Japanese, and enjoy exciting names such as Toho Tenax, Toray Industrial and Mitsubishi Rayon.

The companies responsible for turning ‘raw’ carbon fibre into individual frames and components are almost entirely based in China and Taiwan. The manufacturers work with bike makers and designers around the world to implement their carbon visions.

Why do people choose carbon fibre for bicycle frames?

The two main arguments in favour of carbon fibre frames, at least from a professional racing perspective, are weight and aerodynamics.

All else being equal (and let’s face it, they rarely are equal), a carbon fibre frame will be lighter than an equivalent quality and strength steel (or titanium) frame.

The process of manufacture allows bike makers to produce frames sculpted to maximise aerodynamics. Using computer simulations and wind tunnel testing, frame (and other component) designers can adjust the shape of the bike to reduce air resistance and ultimately allow it to go faster.

The lightweight nature of carbon fibre means that such aerodynamic augmentations can have minimal impact in terms of increasing bike weight.

What are the limitations of carbon fibre as a frame material?

It is important how we define strength (i.e. in my description of the advantages of carbon fibre above). There are a number of properties that might come under the umbrella term, ‘strength’, in which carbon fibre underperforms other materials.

Carbon fibre is a less durable material than, for instance, steel. It is more likely to crack or shatter when something strikes it (or, more likely, when it, and you, strikes something else).

An important factor, particularly if you’re riding the bike at the time, is the speed at which the material fails. If steel receives a dent or a crack, it will generally continue to perform its function for a time. Carbon fibre, on the other hand, tends to fail ‘catastrophically’, which sounds… er, entertaining…


As I’ve already mentioned, this post is one of a series looking at all materials that are used to make bicycle frames (well, all sensible ones at least). If you’ve missed it, be sure to take a look at my barely-disguised love letter to steel (here’s the link again).

In future posts I’ll be looking at aluminium, titanium and wood, plus any other materials I discover in the meantime.

I do hope you’re finding the series interesting. Please do share it with your own personal peletons (or just click one of the buttons below).

I look forward to welcoming you back to the Grimpeur Heureux soon. Until then, I hope your road surface remains smooth and the wind is always at your back.



A Cyclist’s Guide To Bike Frame Materials: Steel

Steel framed bike
Simple steel beauty

Most people with any interest in bikes will have at least a passing familiarity with the materials that are used to make them.

The sculpted, wind tunnel-honed lines of pro peleton bikes are unmistakably formed from carbon fibre. The skinny  road bikes of old evoke images of bespectacled engineers in oil-stained overalls, squinting at steel tubes in complex jigs.

But do you know how these materials are used to make bikes that meet the needs of cyclists in the 21st century?

The basic diamond shape of a bicycle frame may not have changed significantly for more than 100 years, but the materials used in their manufacture have progressed considerably.

In this series of posts, I am going to look in detail at what bikes are made from: why those materials were chosen, who makes them, and how they are used to make a bike.

**UPDATE: The full list of ‘materials’ posts can be found on my new page dedicated to bike building: How To Build A Bike **

My first choice of material is steel, a metal whose own development over the past century has been interwoven with that of the bicycle.

So, whether you’re a man of steel or an Iron Lady (or any other superhero/1980s British prime minister), I hope you find something useful in this post.

What is steel?

The question you’ve always wanted to ask!

[quote style=”boxed” float=”right”]Men are like steel. When they lose their temper, they lose their worth – Chuck Norris[/quote]

Steel is an alloy of iron and carbon, amongst other elements. The types of steel used in bike manufacturer vary from lower quality metal (carbon or high-tensile steel), similar to that used in car production, through to specialised steel alloys.

Higher quality steel bikes are generally made from alloys. You might remember the name of one of the more familiar steel alloys, chromium-molybdenum or ‘chromoly’, from the sticker on your first bike. The highest-performing steel alloys these days include even more elements, such as nickel, niobium, titanium and copper.

The aim of the game in the development of newer steel materials is to increase strength, allowing bike manufacturers to use thinner tubing and therefore reduce the weight of the bike.

How are steel bikes constructed?

The frames of production steel bikes tend to be TIG welded together.  The tubes are cut and mitred so that they fit against one another and then a weld is made to join them together. (TIG stands for ‘Tungsten Inert Gas’, chemistry fans)

Higher end and custom-made frames commonly use lugs in the joining of the tubes. Lugs are joining pieces that fit around the ends of tubes, allowing two or more tubes to be joined together. The lugs are then brazed onto the tubes in order to secure them into place. Brazing involves the use of another metal (such as brass or silver), which is melted to form the join, and then cooled to secure it.

I could try to argue that the use of lugs benefits the performance of the bike. The argument goes something like this:

The brazing material melts at a temperature much lower than steel. By brazing on lugs, rather using higher temperature TIG welding to join the tubes directly, you avoid the risk that the tubing is brought close to its melting point, which causes the metal to crystalise and can result in the seperation of its alloys. Hence, lugged joints are stronger (all else being equal).

I could argue that.

But the truth is, steel bike aficionados tend to like lugs for aesthetic reasons. They hide what would otherwise be ‘unsightly’ welds (although there are those that will write poetry about a well-formed visible join) and introduce style and individuality into what can otherwise appear a rather utiliterian object. The use of lugs, and their design, speaks to the framebuilder’s skill – they remind the owner of the bike, and anyone that sees it, that craftsmanship went into its manufacture.

And who doesn’t like to see a little bit of craftsmanship?

Who makes steel tubing for bikes?

The major manufacturers of steel tubing for bikes are Reynolds and Columbus.

Reynolds is based in the UK (who said we’ve lost our industrial base!). The company started life in 1841 as a maker of nails, before turning to bicycle tubing at the end of the nineteenth century. The firm patented the invention of butted tubes (whereby tube walls were made thicker, and therefore stronger, at the ends) in 1898. Their flagship product these days is Reynolds 953, which purports to benefit from being a ‘martensitic-aging stainless steel alloy’ with ‘tensile strength in excess of 2000 MPa’.

I’m guessing that means that it is strong and light.

Columbus has its origins as part of an Italian firm founded in 1919 by Antonio Luigi Columbo. In addition to making tubes for bicycle framebuilders (Edoardo Bianchi was an early customer), A.L. Columbo supplied a diverse customer base, from furniture makers to manufacturers of aircraft. In 1977, a dedicated firm, Columbus, was established to develop and manufacture specialist bike tubing. Being an Italian firm, Columbus has benefited from (and contributed to) the reputation for quality associated with Italian framebuilders.

It’s always difficult to decipher the website of an Italian manufacturer (it is – I used to come across them a lot in my previous career), even when they’ve been translated into English (or maybe because they’ve been translated into English). As far as I can work out, Columbus’s top of the range steel offering is called Niobium, but your guess is as good as mine as to how it is made or why it works…

Why do people choose steel for bicycle frames?

The main argument in favour of a steel-framed bike, particularly over a carbon fibre frame, is strength and durability.

Steel is resilient to the repeated stresses placed on the bike frame when riding (flex, for instance). It is tough, being resistant to cracks and impact. When dents or nicks do occur, with steel, they are less likely to turn into full-blown failures. If there is a failure, it tends to progress slowly rather than catastrophically (unlike carbon fibre).

A steel frame can be repairable. If a tube is broken or corroded, more often than not it can be repaired or swapped out and replaced with a new one.

If you’re planning on cycling around the world (what, you mean you’re not?), and hit an argali somewhere on the Mongolian steppe, you’re more likely to find a workshop in an Ulan Bator backstreet that has the tools to fix a steel-framed bike than a carbon one.

(An argali is the world’s largest wild sheep).

Using steel is probably the most cost-effective way to get a custom-fit bike made to suit your precise requirements and body shape.

Many people (and I include myself within that number) consider steel-framed bikes to be more attractive than those made from other materials (particularly carbon fibre). This is, of course, entirely subjective. The aesthetics will depend on the design of the bike, and who (or which factory production line) made it. There are countless steel-made atrocities; some carbon fibre bikes are attractive (yes, really).

On the whole, when buying a product, people like to know there was a human directly involved in its manufacture. They like to feel there is expertise, craftsmanship and care deeply imbued within its fabric.

In buying a higher-quality, or custom-made, steel frame bike, a cyclist is supporting and celebrating the craft of bicycle-making and doing their own little bit to ensure that it continues into the future.

What are the limitations of steel as a frame material?

The traditional argument against the use of steel in high-performance bicycles is weight. All else being equal (in terms of quality and purpose), a carbon frame will be lighter than an equivalent steel one.

However, we’re not all pro riders looking to save every last gram.

Add on the weight of components (which will be the same in each case), graciously accept that we do not have the hungry whippet physique of Bradley Wiggins and then acknowledge that we would ideally like the frame to survive more than one season on our pot-holed roads, and suddenly the weight differential of the frame material becomes a little less important.

Sign up to the Grimpeur Heureux e-mail list: it’s a steel…

So that concludes my appraisal of the use of steel as a bike-making material. I hope you find it interesting and enjoyable.

The Grimpeur Heureux (that would be me) has been considering purchasing a new road bike. I’ve been looking at a variety of options, including a custom steel framed bike, to be made by a local framebuilder. If you’d like to read more about that, you can find the post here.

Look out for the other posts in this series, as I look at carbon fibre, aluminium, titanium and more unusual materials (at least as far as framebuilding is concerned).

If you liked this post, it would mean a lot to me if you could share it on the social network of your choice. Just click on one of the buttons below.

In the meantime, I wish you happy and safe riding.


RideLondon 100: Please Sponsor the Grimpeur In Aid of Macmillan Cancer Support

RideLondon for MacmillanReaders of this blog have probably picked up on the fact that I will be taking part in the inaugural RideLondon-Surrey 100 cyclosportive in August.

As the name suggests, the event is a 100 mile bike ride that loops out from London into Surrey, before returning for a triumphal sprint along the Champs Elysees the Mall.

I am not a naturally gifted athlete. 100 miles is considerably further than I have ever cycled before. Just over half way around, I’ll have to climb a series of hills, including the foreboding Leith Hill and the Olympics-gilded Box Hill. I’ll be putting in considerable training time and effort in order to make sure I finish, ideally with some of my dignity left intact.

What has this got to do with you, you ask?

Well, I want you to sponsor me.

Why am I supporting Macmillan?

I have strong personal reasons for supporting a cancer charity.

Last year saw the death of John, my wife’s stepfather, from a particularly aggressive form of bladder cancer.

John was a truly awesome person. He was a practical man that delighted in helping others. His patience and good humour were demonstrated on a frequent basis, as he helped me resolve my latest DIY blunder.

Despite never having had children of his own and really only entering my wife’s life as she turned 18 and left for university, John embraced our children as if they were his own grandchildren (to all intents and purposes, they were). He spent hours building train tracks with our son and showing him his treasured collection of Matchbox cars (his ‘swapsies’ – even I wasn’t allowed to handle his first editions). Even though he only saw the first 18 months of our daughter’s life, he thought her wonderful.

I want to raise as much money as possible for Macmillan in order to honour John’s memory.

What do Macmillan do?

Macmillan logo RideLondonMacmillan provides practical, medical and financial support to people diagnosed with cancer and their families. Having seen firsthand the pain and suffering that comes from a cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment, I believe that the help that Macmillan provides is vital.

The NHS is under increasing financial pressure. Its ability to provide support to those with cancer, and particularly those in its terminal stages is limited. Macmillan provides that support. We, in turn, need to support Macmillan.

Why should you sponsor me?

I would really appreciate it if you could sponsor me. You can donate as little or as much as you feel able.

If you have enjoyed reading the Grimpeur Heureux blog, then perhaps you could consider a small donation to Macmillan by way of thanks.

You might have noticed that there are no adverts on the site. The situation may change in the future, but for now and certainly until after the RideLondon event takes place, I will not be using the blog in any money making capacity.

If you are one of my former investment banking colleagues, then reach deep into those pockets of yours and give generously!

How can you sponsor me?

It couldn’t be easier. Simply click on this link to the mydonate website:

I chose mydonate because after some extensive research (i.e. a Google search), I determined that they have the lowest transaction fee of all the online charity websites. For every £10 you donate, £12.35 goes to the charity (due to gift aid), with only 15p going to mydonate as transaction charge.

Once again, if you sponsor me, you will have my eternal gratitude (well, okay, I’ll like you for a very long time).

Thank you for taking the time to read this post.

Best wishes,