Tour de France 2017, week 2: The closest fight yet

For cycling enthusiasts, the month of July usually equates to one thing: the Tour de France. It’s the one cycling race almost everybody has heard of…even those who don’t have an ounce of road cycling enthusiasm in their souls. Over twenty-one race days, two rest days, and 3,300+ total kilometers, this most prestigious of the three annual Grand Tours has people talking.

Now, I haven’t had cable TV since 2013, nor do I have the patience to look for and/or watch streams of the Eurosport broadcast, so I rarely watch cycling races live. Most of the updates I get are from the official Le Tour de France YouTube channel, or from the excellent Australia-based site CyclingTips. Yet, even without following the Tour de France by the minute, as the stages have progressed and the second rest day has passed, I have the distinct feeling that this year’s edition is the closest fought yet.

Britain’s Team Sky have dominated previous runnings of the Tour, with Bradley Wiggins and later Chris Froome taking wins in monolithic fashion. They have also ended the main General Classification (GC) competition — the fight for the yellow jersey — very early, establishing a dominant lead from Stage 8 or so and never looking back. These hyper-efficient wins year on year have made me bored of the Tour, opting to watch drama instead on the other Grand Tour races, the Giro d’Italia in May and the Vuelta a Espana in September.

Now though, 15 stages in, only 29 seconds separates Chris Froome in the lead from fourth-placed Rigoberto Uran of Cannondale-Drapac. That has not happened in any time in recent memory; previous runnings of the Tour have had chasms measured in minutes for the same two positions. We are also seeing a combative team threat in AG2R-La Mondiale, and a solo rival in Sicilian Fabio Aru of Team Astana. While Froome is still holding on to yellow, with a week of racing left to go, it’s clear to see that this is a wide-open Tour to win…and that Froome is not as unbreakable as he was before.

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. Photo credit: Zimbio/Getty Images

The green jersey points challenge has me with mixed feelings though. Everybody’s favorite Slovak, Peter Sagan, got thrown out of the race after the infamous elbow incident and crash with fiery Manxman Mark Cavendish at the Stage 4 finish line sprint. That basically started the slow hemorrhage of other participating sprinters, leaving Marcel Kittel of Germany unchallenged with five stage wins and a stranglehold on the green jersey. I like Kittel, and I rate his sprinting very highly, but seeing him win like this feels a little hollow.

At least he has the distinction of winning the first ever Tour de France stage on a disc-braked road bike. That is a pretty big deal. Traditionalists and retro-grouches can bite me.

Just feeling grateful

Some of you, especially regular visitors, may have noticed that my usual cadence of new posts every Friday afternoon has stopped for the past couple of weeks.

There is good reason for that.

Without going into too much detail, I was admitted to the hospital twice, for a total of four days within two weeks. The first visit involved “minor” yet painful surgery, while the second involved post-operational bleeding while I was recovering.

Perhaps most damning is that, due to the nature of my surgery, I’m pretty much off the saddle for at least the coming month and a half. I will just have to focus on recovering — slowly — and accept that I will lose some of my fitness.

I usually try to keep a backlog of posts ready for publishing, but that’s now exhausted and I will have to think up some new content to build that queue up again. And yet, despite the stagnation due to emergency health reasons, I was pleasantly surprised to still see respectable traffic.

When I returned to writing and maintaining a blog with The Accidental Randonneur after a hiatus, I made the conscious decision to avoid delving too much into the personal, and let the glorious sport of cycling speak for itself with me simply acting as a mouthpiece. Some people may know that I’ve been blogging since 2001; those early efforts were almost too personal and ill-advised in this day and age. However, I realize “personal” posts like this are necessary every now and then because there are enough of you out there reading my stuff, and some of you do follow the musings I publish on this little corner of the Internet — for whatever reason.

For that, I want to express my gratitude. The Accidental Randonneur has helped quite a few cyclists maintain their bikes. It also warms my heart to hear that people listen to my reviews and comments on the products I’ve featured here so far…even people directly involved in the bicycle industry. And that’s a huge honor.

I may be sidelined for now, but I’ll do what I can to continue this journey. Thank you for the companionship, fellow randonneurs. Keep riding, and may you have more stories on the saddle.

What componentry goes into a good-value road bike?

In my previous post I looked long and hard at the features of the road bike frame you should be checking. The frame is only one part of the equation that makes up the whole bike, though; many bike makers will pair one basic frame with many levels of component package to cater for different budgets.

What componentry should you prioritize? I’ll give my two centavos on the matter.

BRAKES

Why are brakes on the top of this list? I’m a strong believer in having brakes stronger than your accelerative ability.

Shimano’s Tiagra BR-4700 dual-pivot rim brake calipers are reportedly some of the better ones around, just let down by their stock brake pads. A swap to cartridge brake pads is easy, cheap, and improves speed retardation.

They’re also one of the very first things bike makers cheap out on when outfitting bikes. Fortunately this is a very easy fix, especially for caliper rim brakes. Many rim brake calipers are hamstrung by poor pads, so swapping them out for a quality set will improve your deceleration and speed control in more conditions for not much money.

Sometimes it’s the calipers themselves that are the weak link. Given how cheap of an upgrade these are, go ahead and spend the cash for good rim brake calipers. For a few generations now, Shimano’s Ultegra brake calipers are anecdotally widely recommended.

TRP Spyre brakes: still a hallmark of a good value disc-brake road bike, in my opinion.

For disc brakes, though, I would advise getting the best stock disc brake calipers you can get from the outset, as they’re not quite as cheap as rim brake calipers on the aftermarket. Aim for at least a SRAM Avid BB5 or a TRP Spyre; if you can work your way up to a Juin Tech R1/F1 (also sold as the Yokozuna Motoko) or a TRP HyRd, then better. Given how widely panned Promax’s Render R brakes are, I’d suggest upgrading them with something else straight away.

TIRES

The single best-value upgrade you can buy for your bike: better tires.

Like brakes, these are a relatively cheap fix but offer a huge improvement for the outlay. Go for as wide a tire as your frame can take. Trust me, 700C x 28 mm tires are great for dealing with the streets we have in Metro Manila. Even Continental’s basic Ultra Sport II tires are a great all-round option for everything bar very dusty roads.

WHEELSET

This is another easy target for cost cutting. If you’re buying a new bike with a lower-spec component package, you’re bound to end up with heavy but tough wheels with basic hubs and wheel bearings. I say keep them, man up, and deal with the extra rotating weight because they got you a cheaper bike overall – but target them as a possible future upgrade. If you have a turbo trainer, you could always reuse the rear wheel for indoor training.

Hyro’s Giant S-X2 wheelset. While solid, it is rather heavy and uses hubs with loose bearings. Worse, the hubs’ bearing seals have deteriorated over the last three years.

Keep in mind that wheelsets with loose bearing hubs will need hub replacement, at least, if the bearing races on the cups and cones become pitted from water ingress and general wear and tear.

TRANSMISSION

Take a long hard look at the bike’s gearing. It doesn’t really matter how many speeds the bike has (just make sure there are at least 8 at the back). What matters more is the spread of gearing, measured by how many teeth (T) the largest and smallest cogs have.

Once upon a time, this 12-30T cassette was Shimano’s widest-range offering on road bikes.

Wide range cassettes such as 11-28T or 11-32T are supposedly better for beginners, but I’d say they’re better for all-round riding. With such a wide spread, if you’re tired or feeling weak, you could always just click into an easier gear. I’d advise going for a narrow range 11-23T or 11-25T cassette only if all your riding is done on flats or in criterium races, or if you’re a particularly powerful rider.

Top: Shimano 105 RD-5701-SS short cage rear derailleur. Bottom: Shimano 105 RD-5700-GS medium cage rear derailleur.

Similarly, look for the longest cage rear derailleur you can find fitted to the bike. There is absolutely no downside to running a longer-caged rear derailleur on a road bike. In case you want to fit a cassette with easier gears, a rear derailleur with a longer cage means it’ll accept a wider range cassette at the outset. All you’ll need is an appropriately longer chain.

Up front, a 50/34T crank is just about the best option for most riders. Only strong racers need apply for 52/36T or 53/39T options (although such cranks make more sense on a small-wheeled bike). Hyro started with a 46/36T crank, and that was surprisingly useful for most riding.

COCKPIT

To maximize value, you’ll want aluminum in your cockpit. The material has many benefits, most noteworthy of which is that handlebars made of the stuff tend not to crack in a bad crash.

Giant paired Hyro with aluminum drop handlebars, with an anatomic bend and a rather deep 140 mm drop.

If you’re pinching pennies on your road bike while trying to improve your fit and comfort, I would prioritize the shape of the handlebars over than the material they’re made of. From the traditional deep round bend, to the compact and anatomic bends, there are many shapes of drop handlebar to suit all sorts of riders.

Upgrading to carbon can improve vibration dampening and shave some weight, but carbon handlebars and seatposts are never cheap…nor are saddles with carbon rails.

PEDALS

Most road bikes don’t come with pedals as they’re a matter of personal preference, and everybody’s got their preferred clipless system.

Despite the high-zoot Saint and Deore XT branding, none of these pedals breaks the PhP3300 mark.

This is another area where more money spent doesn’t exactly get you more. Looking at the Shimano SPD lineup, you’re paying quite a bit more cash over the basic Deore PD-M530s to get the weight savings of a pair of Deore XT PD-M8020s. So far, all my pedals have cost less than PhP3300 new.

Among brands, Shimano pedals are a good choice for longevity due to their easy maintenance; many others such as Look can’t be serviced and are essentially disposable.

 

Let me know in the comments what else you could compromise to get yourself a deal on a road bike that’s long on value.