Saturday, 4 May 2013


Somehow I have managed to exist for almost 17 years as a cyclist without ever having ridden a really serious road racing bike. Don't get me wrong, I've slung a leg over lots of nice bikes, but nothing quite at the level of the full Dura-Ace equipped Cervelo S5 that was placed in my trust last weekend.

It was almost a tragedy, a unique opportunity scuppered by an awkward lift of my youngest son that left me with back pain and incapable of riding on Friday and Saturday. A combination of massage, embrocation and paracetamol got me right enough for an 'easy 35' on Sunday morning.
The thing is, this kind of bike doesn't do 'easy' rides. Within a couple of hundred yards of leaving home I had made two startling realisations:

i. This bike actually fits me.
I naturally have long legs and a shortish body for my height, and coupled with an inch lost out of my spine as a result of a silly accident 14 years ago, I've always believed that most race bikes don't fit me well. Too long and low in general, and for bikes from many manufacturers that is true. Yes, I needed a few spacers above the head tube, and the 110mm stem could have done with being a 90, but with the taller geometry that Cervelo introduced a couple of years ago, this frame actually fitted.

ii. For a 'normal' amount of effort I was moving a couple of miles per hour quicker than I usually do on my trusty steel Genesis Equilibrium.
This doesn't sound like much, but when you consider that its like being given 10% extra speed for free, you can appreciate why the Pros are so particular about their kit. Races like the Tour de France are usually only won by margins of a minute or so after around two thousand miles of racing. With numbers like that, a fraction of a percentage is worth investing in.

Where did the extra speed come from? Two places:
- the rear end of the frame is built from incredibly stout carbon tubes, with zero flex. Coupled with the top end components this translated every ounce of pressure applied to the pedals into forward motion.
- every part of the frame and wheels have been designed to eliminate aerodynamic drag. So even with my bulk atop it, this bike is an awful lot more slippery than my regular steed.

Once I started riding my back felt a lot better, though was feeling twinges over rough sections, so for the opening kilometres at least I tried to keep a lid on the effort. I had agreed to meet the family for coffee up at Dunstable Downs, so picked a route that gave a good variety of riding to get me there.
The first couple of miles out of St Albans were straight, open and undulating where the bike was immediately at home, rewarding smooth effort with a high pace. But with a glance at the bike, even to the untrained eye that should hardly be a surprise. And that's not what really the type of riding that flicks my switch.

Once through the middle of Harpenden I swung west up Park Hill, a short sharp ten-percenter where I gave the bike its first test. I stayed seated, not going full-gas, but the readout on the Garmin told me that I was making rapid progress. I later found that I'd beaten my personal record by a full 9 seconds.

Out towards Markyate I was now into my natural habitat; twisty winding lanes over lumpy terrain. These particular roads are narrow and heavily used by farm vehicles, so there's plenty of mud and gravel to keep things interesting. I'm sure this is not the kind of riding that the bike's designers had in mind, but I was keen to find out how it would perform and was initially impressed. The rear end is far from plush, but wasn't as brutal over broken pavement as I'd feared. And the startling efficiency of the bike kept the speed high, accelerating quickly out of bends that need use of the brakes. Out-of-the-saddle efforts up short rises indicated that the front end might not be as stiff as the rear, with the brake blocks rubbing on the rim when pulling hard on the bars.

On the steep descent to the A5 however, I had a rude awakening. Tweaking the steering angle slightly to avoid a pothole, the bike just did not respond as expected. Increasing the pressure on the bars a little more I was able to coax the bike where I wanted it to go, but it was all a bit approximate. On many lanes I ride regularly there are broken sections that need swerving through at speed, with the good surface only being a couple of inches wide in places. My Genesis handles this brilliantly, inspiring confidence by going exactly where I point it. The S5 sadly, was lacking in that department. It goes fast so incredibly easily, but doesn't always have the manners to behave properly whilst doing so.

Once through Markyate the ascent to the Downs begins. The first 3 miles are at a gradual one or two percent on a good surface. In the opposite direction this route makes you feel superhuman, flying a long at a fair lick, but into the wind I knew I'd be setting no uphill records. Once at Whipsnade however the road swings eastward and enters tree cover for the final mile or so. The gradient ramps up to a steady 6 percent, and working hard I made good progress on this segment to set another personal best.

The weather was bright though cold, but there was no way I was leaving a £7k bike unattended at the Downs cafe, so Kate and the kids were forced to sit with me outside. A quick coffee later and her sister, Mum and Dad arrived, which was my cue to get on with the ride whilst they all disappeared inside for more drinks and some warmth.

Leaving the Downs I'd planned to head more or less straight back home, but with my back feeling better and with such a quick bike beneath me that plan seemed churlish. So I descended to Dunstable (yet another PR) and swung west along the foot of the Chiltern ridge, back into the wind. The plan was to climb Bison Hill, which is a kilometer-long brute that reaches 16% at its steepest, running up the side of Whipsnade Wild Animal Park, but there was an issue nagging in my mind. My own road bike has a 34-tooth front cog, which combined with a 25-tooth rear is enough to get a reasonably fit amateur cyclist over pretty much any terrain in the UK. The Cervelo had the same set of 11-25 tooth rear cogs as my own bike, but a bigger set of front rings, making for higher speeds but harder pedalling. Most high-end race bikes come with a 39-tooth small front cog (because their riders are typically very fit), but I had a feeling that the small ring on this bike might be even bigger than that, and I just didn't know if I'd have the steam to ride up Bison with the gears available. It turned out I was on a true professional-spec bike with 42-tooth small front ring (the same size as the largest ring on many mountain bikes!!), but without the professional heart, legs or lungs.

Whilst Bison wasn't easy, it came and went remarkably quickly. I had to stomp on the pedals out of the saddle to maintain the required momentum, but hit a quick rhythm and dispatched yet another personal best - the seventh of the morning.

The 15 mile run back home via Gaddesden Row and the Redbourn Road saw more personal records set, and a lot of other riders caught and passed. There's nothing too unusual about that, I'm not slow and don't hang around, but today I was reeling-in far leaner and quicker looking riders than usual - the types that either race or look like they do. It was clear that I was punching above my weight. Some of my cheery "morning"s were met with surly grunts or stony silences, some people clearly not used to being passed.

All in, I went out worried about my back, I came home with a bucketload of achievements under my belt and a new found love of carbon superbikes. But I now really, really want what my wallet cannot provide.

I love my Genesis. It has transported me across the Alps and given me thousands of miles of faithful service. Barring accidents and freakish rates of corrosion it will remain with me for many years to come, but I've long questioned whether I could ride faster on a different bike - and now I know that I can. And in road cycling, 'faster' is (almost) everything. The next time I can't quite keep up, or miss a target by a second or two, it's going to be tough to keep on loving the Genesis quite as much as I do.

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