The long and winding road…grows ever longer

It was 2001, and I was in my final year of high school.

One of the things I was doing back then was riding around on my dad’s bike. To the best of my sleuthing abilities, and based on its checkered-flag top tube, it is a 1981-1982 Peugeot P8. It was a heavy steel ten-speed road bike in deep blue, which my dad says he bought from a flea market.

My dad’s 1981 Peugeot P8, as it is stored today. As much as I would like to restore or modernize this bike, back then, the French used idiosyncratic screw thread standards that translate into restoration headaches.

It had friction shifters mounted not on the downtube, as was the fashion at the time, but on the base of its quill stem. Unlike the now-prevalent “700C” (622 mm) wheel size and Presta valves, this bike had slightly larger so-called “27-inch” (630 mm) rolling stock and Schrader valves – the same kind you’d see on a car. It also had “safety levers” on its brakes that allowed braking while holding the tops of the handlebars. Brake hoods weren’t really a thing when this bike was made.

A scan of Cycles Peugeot’s 1982 catalogue featuring the P8 road bike and P18 “mixte” women’s bike. The livery and Carbolite 103 tubing match those of my dad’s Peugeot. Photo credit: bikeboompeugeot.com

Like many people, back then, I never really thought of the bicycle as a means of transportation. Sure, I could pedal to my friends’ houses in neighboring villages, but the thought of venturing any further on pedal power just never occurred to me. As a pimply high school kid with low self-esteem, I was always worrying about my body odor and underarm sweat – a mindset not really conducive to serious cycling.

Back then I had a rather sheltered upbringing, in hindsight.

Yet, one afternoon that year, raring to do something different, and way overdue for solo adventures, I thought of going out the village gates and riding south. What the hell, I was curious.

I rode the back route my school bus used to take from Sucat to Bicutan, but in reverse. I really had no idea how long it would take or how hard it would be. I just wanted to keep on going. On I went, out Parañaque Municipal Hall, then on to Dr. A. Santos Avenue (Sucat Road).

I eventually stopped in front of a classmate’s house, somewhere in the middle of El Grande Avenue in BF Parañaque. I was 7.5 kilometers out from where I started. The excitement ran through my veins, because I didn’t really believe I’d make it this far on my own two legs. It was nothing special while aboard a car or school bus, but on the bike it felt pretty damn amazing.

I distinctly remember the sky slowly getting darker. Time for me to turn around and head back the same way. I had no real understanding of hand signals or lane placement as a cyclist, other than what I had just learned from driving school back then. Needless to say, I made it back home in one piece.

I wanted to do it again.

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A few days later, fate proved it had other plans.

The blue Peugeot’s chainrings got warped and bent out of shape. Each turn of the crank resulted in the chain shifting itself between the big ring and the little ring. Our house was in the middle of renovation and expansion, and it seems something happened to it while the carpenters were doing their job at the time. Pimply high school kid that I was back then, I had zero knowledge of bike maintenance and repair. Nor did I have the proper tools. Nor did I know any local bike shops.

So began a long spell off the saddle…only ending with Bino’s purchase in 2013.

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Today, that 15-kilometer trip I relished as a teenager is a very normal part of my Sunday morning long rides. I have since covered longer and longer distances, but like everybody else, I had to start somewhere and start small. The discovery of the sheer freedom that riding a bike brings, though – that never left me.

My longest ride to date is a 210 km brevet. It all started from that 15-km ride out and back, all those years ago, though.

Many of my friends don’t ride. They are aghast at the distances I cover with nothing but my own two legs, some even joking that I’d go into palpitations from the physical demands of riding the distance. All I can say is, the now-iconic theme song of a chocolate energy drink’s advertisements contains everything they need to know: “Great things start from small beginnings.”

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Drawing a line through the fabric of hell

Back in October 2015 I sang the praises of Selle SMP’s Hell saddle. I bloody well liked it.

As great as it was, it had its flaws. The radical “bisected-lengthwise” shape did wonders for blood circulation and helped avoid numb genitals, but it also had a peculiar sort of sagging. With time, distance, and lots of rides, the two halves of the saddle spread themselves apart over time…ever so slightly.

Not the kind of beausage you want to see on your bike.

More egregious was how its top cover wore down. Selle SMP’s general design philosophy of keeping one general seating position along the length of the saddle meant that the top cover developed cracking around the spot where I spent the most time seated. Coupled with the very deep relief cutout, the cracked cover pieces were sharp enough to irritate my groin. I took a pair of scissors to round these off in an effort to lessen the irritation and potential for chafing, but that was a quick fix at best.

Add to that the separation of the cover at various seams, and it’s fair to say the Hell was begging to be replaced at this point. Perhaps my Hell was part of a batch that wasn’t quite up to snuff, but my buddy Mario told me that other users had the same experiences. Selle SMP had gotten the design concept down pat; my saddle was at around 80% of the execution and could perhaps use a bit more quality tweaking.

So…I short-listed my options.

Specialized Power saddle in range-topping S-Works form. Photo courtesy of BikeRadar.

Specialized released their Power saddle in 2015. It takes Selle SMP’s anatomic design philosophy, and applies their take on the formula. Compared to the Hell, the Power is much shorter in the nose and wider overall. Spez does say that it is effectively a fusion of its existing saddles: the triathlon/TT Sitero for its stubby dipped nose; the mountain biking Phenom for its flat shape; and many of its women-specific saddles for its wide and long cutout.

The Comp version of the Power is all black. Photo courtesy of BikeRadar.

The basic Comp version comes with chromoly steel rails and a carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic shell. At PhP4800, it fetches a pretty penny, although still lower in price than the Hell.

Three of Fabric’s saddles on display at Built Cycles Parañaque: the Cell, Line, and Scoop.

Fabric is one of the offshoots of Nick Larsen and his bicycle company Charge Bikes, creator of the original Scoop saddle, then later refined into the universally well-reviewed Spoon.

I took a particular interest in their Line saddle. Conceptually it is a spin on their classic Spoon model, but incorporates a relief channel. Unlike Specialized and Selle SMP, and more like Fizik’s Versus and Versus X saddles, at no point does Fabric perforate the saddle all the way through. Its relief channel is a trench that stops some way short of the nose, at the bottom of which is the saddle’s bare plastic shell.

With the chromoly railed version selling at PhP2780 from Built Cycles Makati, it was also cheaper than the Power. Remembering how the full-length cutout design compromised the Hell’s longevity, I wondered: could Fabric’s approach still bring the same benefits?

Even though Fabric and its progenitor company Charge still sell similar saddles, notably the Scoop, the former adopts a sleeker approach to its designs. The Line hardly has any staples, seams, or stitching that characterize traditional saddle construction. Fabric bonds top cover and foam to base plastic shell, lending the appearance and feeling of solidity.

While Fabric promises a wide range of colors, Built Cycles stocks almost all its saddles only in very basic black. At least it makes for subtle contrast. The glossy center stripe on the nose ramps down into the equally glossy plastic shell of the relief channel. Save for branding on the nose’s sides, the rest of the saddle has a matte black, slightly tacky top cover.

That top cover is tough, too. Hyro fell over twice in the span of a day, yet it’s still scratch-free.

A side-by-side comparison with Bino’s WTB Silverado Sport saddle reveals a lot of similarities with the Line. It’s the same length and width, basically differing a smidge with the shape and relief channel. The Silverado is cushier and began life with a much tackier top cover, though.

Compared to the outgoing Selle SMP Hell, except for that saddle’s split tail, the basic dimensions are also the same.

Incidentally, the Line’s rear rails are the same width as most other saddles’, unlike the super-wide ones of any SMP perch. Accessories that clip on to saddle rails, such as saddlebags and rear light mounts, will work fine.

Hanging the Hell on my baggage scale reveals a 290 g weight.

Using the same scale, the Line is a fair bit lighter at 230 g.

So how does it ride? Quite firmly, is my answer. The Line’s dense foam padding has very little give. Perhaps this is due to the way the relief channel is made, as Fabric had to make sure a rider’s soft tissues would not collapse uncomfortably into it. This does mean that the saddle gives very good support; I felt very efficient in my pedaling while riding it.

Clearly the comfort isn’t going to come from the foam; it will instead come from the shape. The narrow 134 mm width means nothing to snag your thighs on, even when riding MTB baggy shorts.

It took a bit of tweaking the Line’s angle on my seatpost to make it as comfortable as it can get. After riding around with it level, I opted to have the saddle point nose down by a maximum of one degree, to help emulate some of the Hell’s compliance for aggressive riding with hips rolled forward.

This helped, and I feel my position is now more or less dialed in. There is one aspect I miss on the Hell saddle though, and that is the way it fought off genital numbness. On the Line, it can still set in on harder efforts, and when it does set in, it does so quicker, although it’s easily alleviated by riding out of the saddle for a few seconds.

Before: Selle SMP Hell.

After: Fabric Line.

A white saddle matches the TCX SLR 2’s black/white/red livery, but the new saddle looks great and should shrug off dirt and wear better.

The Fabric Line is a pretty good saddle, but it caters to a different set of priorities compared to the outgoing Selle SMP Hell. While compact, supportive, and comfortable when properly set to a rider’s physique, it’s not quite as natural a choice for long-haul riding. It will appeal more to competitive riders and criterium racers who appreciate a solid platform to pedal from.

You tell me what “strong” looks like

There are stereotypical physical builds that reflect a person’s suitability to many sports. Rock climbers and long-distance runners, for example, tend to be wiry and thin, as their sports call for minimum body weight and joint loading. Female gymnasts and figure skaters tend to be short of stature, as this helps them perform axial spinning maneuvers easier and faster. Long limbs and great height are assets in basketball, volleyball, swimming, and racket sports.

All of this got me thinking. What does a strong cyclist look like?

As one early episode of the road cycling anime “Yowamushi Pedal” mentions, cycling is one of the only sports where competitors are freed from supporting their own body weight. The bike frees cyclists to put all of their muscle and sinew into forward propulsion. So you’ll find that great cyclists come in many shapes and sizes.

Let’s look at the professional road cycling peloton first. As glamorous as multi-day Grand Tour races like the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia, and the Vuelta a España are, they are actually multiple competitions happening all at once.

Jerseys of the Tour de France. I skipped the white jersey in this post, as it is for riders under 25. Photo credit: probikekit.co.uk

The main one is the “general classification” or “GC,” where the rider with the cumulative fastest time through all of the stages of a given Grand Tour (e.g. 21 for the Tour de France) is declared the ultimate winner. For this prize, each second counts, because it all adds up. As the event progresses, GC leaders are given the yellow jersey (“maillot jaune”) in the Tour de France, a red jersey for the Vuelta a España, and a pink jersey (“maglia rosa”) for the Giro d’Italia.

Traditionally the domain of spindly climbers – cyclists who tend to look like they can be blown away by the wind, but can ascend like nobody’s business – is the “King of the Mountains” (“KOM”) competition. The mountain passes in each stage are given ranks or categories, based on how steep and how long they are, and they are accordingly assigned a points value. Riders who can finish climbing these mountains first are awarded maximum points, and the one with the most of these KOM points at the end of the Grand Tour is the KOM winner. For the Tour de France, the white jersey with red polka dots, or simply “the polka dot jersey,” is worn by the current leader of this competition. There is a similar competition in other multi-day cycling races.

Finally we have the general points classification competition of the Tour de France, which is the domain of muscular sprinters and puncheurs, and symbolized by the green jersey (“maillot vert”). Similar to how mountain climbs have points to be awarded, there are intermediate sprint competitions that happen within a particular stage, and there are points waiting at the end of each stage as well. The first rider to cross the “finish” of an intermediate sprint or the stage finish is awarded maximum points. At the end of the Grand Tour, the rider with the most number of these points is the green jersey winner. Again, there is a similar competition in other multi-day cycling races.

Climber Chris Froome shaking hands with sprinter/puncheur Peter Sagan at the start of Stage 20 of the 2015 Tour de France. Froome is in yellow; Sagan is in green. Note how different their physiques are. Photo credit: Zimbio/Getty Images

So, obviously, the three Grand Tours in professional road cycling account for different types of riders and their respective strengths. Nobody expects a heavy, muscular sprinter like Peter Sagan or Andre Greipel to win on long mountain climbs against the likes of Chris Froome or Nairo Quintana, who are both very lean and prioritize power-to-weight ratio. Conversely, Quintana and Froome are outside bets on an intermediate sprint or a sprint finish.

That’s great, but what about outside professional cycling? It is here that arguably there are even more surprises to see.

The large man with the Corima deep-section wheels is David Charlton, CEO of the David’s Salon chain – and a known triathlete. His appearance belies his riding ability and speed. Photo credit: KulitRunner.

I’ve seen some of the most rotund people outride what most people consider the “favorites” from their external appearance, and many triathlete friends swear by this as well. I’ve seen fixed-gear riders outperform and outride Lycra-clad road cyclists in a 200 km brevet. I’ve seen what appear to be old, rickety guys with simple steel bikes hoof their way up Tagaytay faster than riders in their prime with all the bells and whistles to help them.

Clearly, you can never really tell how much ability a rider has just by looking at them. So the next time you are tempted to body-shame a fellow cyclist, keep this in mind. The only way to know for sure how strong a rider is, is by riding with them.

Now get out there, ride your bike, and you tell me what a “strong” cyclist looks like.