7 things I’ve learned in a year of road riding

Steve Williams reflects on rim brakes, Lycra, alloy frames and car drivers

I’ve written before about road bikes, and how baffling some aspects can be to beginners. While I’m not new to cycling — I’ve ridden mountain bikes for years and decades and oh god grey hairs how did this happen — this is the first time I’ve seriously ridden roads since I had a Raleigh ‘racer’ in my youth.

So after a year as an enthusiastic road rider (if not always an enthusiastic roadie…), what have I learned?

1. Road bikes are best for fitness

I’m way fitter now than I’ve ever got in all my years of pure mountain biking. Scrolling through Strava shows I’ve dropped around 3m 15sec from my personal benchmark climb across 50 recorded attempts, for a 24 percent improvement. I know that’s way better than in previous years. I don’t need a graph to tell me; I can feel it.

What the hell is wrong with you people? Why did you ever think brakes like this were acceptable?

With far taller gearing on a road bike than a mountain bike, there’s no option but to dig in on the steeper pitches. I rarely stand to climb off-road, because it reduces traction and increases effort-wasting suspension bob. I’ve also realised I tend to spin easier gears, because it’s more efficient over time. On a mountain bike, you have the option to twiddle and rely more on power (work rate measured over time) than grunt out torque (the ability to generate twisting force). And it seems I have been — more than is ideal. Maybe you have too?

On the road bike there’s little to do but ask for more torque, plus the relatively constant nature of sealed surfaces means measuring the effects is easy.

All this will seem obvious if you train seriously or have always been athletic, but many of us aren’t that way. I was never sporty at school. My favourite events were the Long Drink, the So-High Jump and the 100m Dash To The Bar. I mountain bike for fun first and fitness second, and while I’m fantastically old (having recently been carbon dated to 45) I’m not yet mentally beaten enough to faff about with life-invading training plans, nutrition science and weighing bits of Lycra. So I tend to learn the hard way.

My point is this: if you’re the same, a road bike is a brilliant way to tune your engine. It’s the quick way to more power.

2. Budget brakes are terrifying

What the hell is wrong with you people? Why did you ever think brakes like this were acceptable?

The cheap rim jobs (pun intended) on my bike are about as effective as motorcycle helmet bans are at stopping petrol station robberies: they work OK when it’s not important, then have zero effect when it is. I’ve upgraded to Shimano 105 and am reaping the marginal gains. My next bike will have discs.

Disc brakes only went into production in 1901. Newfangled nonsense! [shakes fist]
Disc brakes only went into production in 1901. Newfangled nonsense! [shakes fist]

3. This is a brilliant time to get into road bikes

I’ve never understood the level of conservatism in road biking. New materials seem welcome — so long as they drop weight — but everything else, it seems, must stay the same.

But the situation is slowly improving, perhaps driven by mountain biking finally breaking away from years of its own (road-based) conventions. You’re welcome.

Disc brakes are at last being accepted, and with Tom Boonen taking the first pro win in Argentina this year, and Marcel Kittel christening them in the Tour de France, why not?

Tyre technology has also stopped listening to conventional wisdom (narrow tyres roll faster) and started checking reality instead (wider tyres roll faster). The advent of adventure and gravel bikes has seen geometries begin to mellow, too, as designers begin to consider riders other than hardcore racers. Not every change is necessarily progress, of course, but a new openness to it can only be positive.

4. I really should switch to clipless

I know, I know.

5. An alloy frame still serves amateurs well

When people find out what I do, there’s one pretty common response: “No wonder you’re such an Adonis. Here, take my wallet, my wife and my first-born!” But there’s another response too: “Do I really need a carbon bike for my weekend rides?”

Define ‘need’…
Define ‘need’…

I had the pleasure of riding a very lovely, all-carbon Lapierre Pulsium for six months. As an endurance bike it’s built for extra comfort, even featuring an elastomer in the frame. So it was a surprise, to say the least, to find that my entry-level alloy GT — on narrower tyres — was actually more compliant.

Sure, the GT is 5lbs heavier at 22lbs, but outside of competition that doesn’t matter. It honestly hasn’t bothered me — I ride to the same level of effort on both, so I’m not losing out.

It’s not that carbon isn’t lovely. If you’re a keen amateur as opposed to a ICBM-legged racer, you’ll have a faster time with carbon. Just not necessarily a better time.

6. I still don’t know why I need such nervous handling

It seems odd that a professional racer and an absolute beginner should need geometry that’s all-but identical. While I’ve got used to the hyperactive responses and appreciate the extra stability that greater speed brings, I’m still steering by weight-shifting my retinas, trying to keep my arse somewhere behind the front axle and generally treating the bike like a grenade built by the lowest bidder.

I’ve still got no idea why an entry-level bike — which will never be caned at race speeds by a super-demanding rider — needs to react like this.

Because we all ride like this, all of the time. Right?
Because we all ride like this, all of the time. Right?

7. Cars turn people into morons

Probably 95 percent of drivers pass me wherever they find me, regardless of whether there’s room, a blind corner or brow, or even — on one memorably tyre-screeching occasion — a large traffic island in their way.

I’m not so paranoid as to think they’re only doing it to me. And while I applaud the staggering optimism that Everything Will Always Work Out Fine, I’m personally not optimistic enough to see it as anything but lazy, selfish and stupid. You don’t have to deal with this in the woods.

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