Decathlon: Here comes a new challenger

Previously I shared part of my year-end Singapore jaunt as I checked out Ikea’s Sladda commuter bike. Today we’re moving from Queenstown to Bedok as I take the bus across the island to visit the local branch of the French sporting goods mega-store, Decathlon.

Getting off at a bus stop in Bedok along Upper Changi Road, you can simply turn around to see the store’s large building complex. What’s interesting about Decathlon is that all of its wares are made up of its own house brands. You know how household goods branded “Bonus” are sold cheaply at SM grocery stores? That’s because Bonus is SM’s house brand. It’s a similar deal here.

Decathlon’s approach dedicates each house brand to a specific sport or product line. Their Quechua brand, for example, is for hiking and backpacks, while their Orao label adorns most of their eyewear.

The house brand we’re interested in is B’Twin.

I don’t know how many of you read any foreign cycling websites, particularly those in Europe and the UK, but B’Twin’s stuff is almost ridiculously well reviewed in the past couple of years. Their Triban road bikes are frequently recommended for newcomers to road cycling because of a good build kit of components and great workmanship on frames…while simultaneously coming in below the magic and highly competitive £1000 (~PhP61,000) mark of the UK’s “Cycle To Work” (C2W) bicycle subsidy scheme.

From what I understand of C2W, you can either blow the whole £1000 subsidy on a bike, or spend slightly less on the bike (for example, £800 or PhP49,000), and use the remainder on cycling-related apparel and accessories such as a helmet, repair spares, and lights – all of which B’Twin also offers.

B’Twin offers mountain bikes, but I’ll be taking a long hard look at their road bike line. This is one such model, the Triban 520 – perhaps the bike responsible for so much of the brand’s positive press. Its foundation is of 6061 aluminum and a carbon-bladed fork with an aluminum alloy steerer, but interestingly has clearance for 32 mm tires and mounting hardpoints for full-length fenders and a rear rack.

The 520 build kit then bolts on Shimano’s 9-speed Sora 3500 groupset parts and a triple crank, with the exception of B’Twin’s own-brand brake calipers. Word on the street is that the calipers are the weak link in the package, but realistically speaking, they’re a cheap upgrade.

So how much does this sell for? S$700 – PhP24,000 in old money. If you’re fine with rim brakes, that’s a great value. Most other bikes in this price range are equipped with Shimano’s Claris 2400 8-speed drivetrain. The real draw for me however is just how adaptable the frame is…and there are even cheaper models in the Triban lineup.

If you’re not a brand snob and are willing to save even more, you could go for a Triban 500. You get the same frame, but the build kit now consists of Taiwanese firm MicroShift’s 3×8 R8 drivetrain. These guys have been knocking out drivetrain components for a very long time, many of them Shimano-compatible, yet do not enjoy a large brand presence and reportedly work quite well regardless.

Because not much is known about MicroShift, it’s worth taking a closer look – at least at their control levers.

From the outset, MicroShift’s R8 contol levers look similar to Shimano’s STI levers. The main difference is that they adopt Campagnolo’s philosophy of “one lever, one function” in their own way.

Unlike STI levers, here the brake lever doesn’t act as a shift lever – all it does is pull brake cable when squeezed. Behind the brake lever are two shift levers stacked one on top of the other. The lower lever downshifts to an easier or larger cog; the upper lever upshifts to a smaller, harder cog. MicroShift’s control scheme will probably take a bit of getting used to, especially for upshifting.

Just as impressive is how many frame sizes the Triban caters to. The bike on the right is a size XXS; the one overlapping it is a size L. Apparently the smaller sizes come with smaller 650C wheels. There are even flat-handlebar versions.

Over to the apparel section…

B’Twin divides its road cycling apparel into three lines. The 300 series is for occasional riders who ride for up to an hour at a time, maximum. Regular riders will appreciate 500 series stuff, built to provide comfort for three or four hours. Seasoned cyclists are catered to by 700 series garments.

Their 500-series waist shorts are a pretty good value at S$28 (~PhP960). This isn’t the best bit, however.

Just a couple Singapore dollars more gets you the equivalent bib shorts. I was always put off by bib shorts because of their prohibitive pricing, but at S$30 (PhP1030), these are a fraction of the price of name-brand stuff. Difficulty of nature breaks aside, at this level of difference over their waist-banded brothers, you might as well buy these as your first proper pair of bibs.

How good are they? Is this a case of “you get what you pay for”? That remains to be seen.

B’Twin even offers their own helmets. This is the midrange 500 series model, sold with a removable visor to cater both for mountain bikers and road cyclists. That orange is rather fetching.

Two snaps secure each end of the visor onto the helmet shell. Not as discreet as they could be, but at least they make for a solid foundation for the visor.

Decathlon advertises them as having a total of 21 vents, with about seven of them at the back to extract hot air from your head. A ratcheted knob engages the retention mechanism for better head fit, and it has reflective stickers on it too.

I wasn’t able to take photos of the inside of the helmet, but there’s not much air channeling molded into the foam, and there’s no MIPS liner either. Still, 286 grams in a Medium size is respectable, and it’s a good deal at S$56 (PhP1900).

I skipped on their jerseys, as they had no full-zipper varieties, but I took a good look at their gloves. These fluoro yellow jobs are from the 520 line and cost S$22 (PhP760), which is par for the course with branded stuff. When I tried them out, I found the padding is quite generous but cut in a pattern accounting for palm flexion well. The back side is very stretchy, and the wide Velcro closure strap holds on rather well. The 700-series gloves eschew any Velcro and are held on purely by the material’s elasticity, but are quite a bit more expensive.

Finally we look at something for our baggy-shorted cousins: B’Twin’s baggies.

Only the 300-series MTB shorts were in stock, in blue and black. The waistband has a couple buttons on the inner edge that look like they should mate with B’Twin’s own liner shorts. The material feels hard-wearing, and it’s sized rather generously – a size XL is loose around my waist. There are belt loops, two side pockets and an external cargo pocket on the right leg.

And just check out that price – at S$20 (PhP680) it’s a steal.

The best part about this story is that as of this writing, I’ve seen a Decathlon branch being constructed inside Festival Mall in Alabang while dining out. How well the French super-store’s value proposition translates into the Philippine setting is something we will only have to wait and see.

Completing the all-weather commuter

With the Longboard fenders installed, Hyro got one step closer to my folding bike Bino as a commuter machine.

One major difference between these two bikes is the riding position. Riding Bino lets me ride straighter and more upright. Hyro, on the other hand, requires a sleeker, more hunkered-down stance, even when riding on the top of the handlebars.

Now imagine trying to ride both bikes with a loaded backpack on the spine. In both cases, the bike’s center of gravity is raised because of the added load, so ultimate handling suffers. Even more damning is how the lower back is strained when riding a road or ‘cross bike with a backpack, due to the rider already being bent over the bike. I felt this within the two or so weeks I tried it, even on a relatively short ride. An alternative means of carrying my cargo therefore was imperative.

As with the fenders, rear racks are frustratingly hard to find in the Philippines, so I ordered both from the same US-based bicycle shop via its eBay presence. For Hyro, I chose an Axiom Streamliner Disc DLX rear rack.

The “Streamliner” name is supposedly due to how the rack sets its mounted panniers a little more inboard compared to others, to the improvement of aerodynamics. Uhh, okay. Maybe for the rim-brake version. Mine doesn’t look like it. Fortunately, the 700 g, matte black aluminum rack delivers better on the capacity stakes at a rated capacity of 50 kg.

Unusually, the feet of this rack are set back by a few centimeters. I assume this improves fitment for bikes with disc brake calipers on their seatstays, as well as reduces the chance of heel strike on mounted panniers while pedaling. I mounted them to the same eyelets as my fenders.

Up top are a couple of very adjustable arms which serve as the rack’s upper anchor points to the bike. The only downside is the adjustments require at least three different sizes of hex keys, which is overkill for a rack.

Hyro’s build kit came with a rack block adapter and spacers that sit over the seat post clamp plate, so these parts came into play when the rack was installed.

Finally, the rack has a plate to hang a light over. I mounted a Cat Eye Reflex Auto safety light here. Any of Cat Eye’s rear lights with the square foot will work with the mount, though.

Mounted and loaded up with my small waterproof panniers, Hyro proves up to the task of commuting to work, grocery shopping and light touring. He seems to struggle with heavier loads; I can feel a bit of flex and shimmy on the rear triangle when riding heavily laden with, say, a couple large sacks of tube ice. Most likely this is due to the lack of chainstay and seatstay bridges.

With the rack installed, Hyro’s transformation into a full all-weather commuter bike is complete. Unlike with the fenders, removing the rack is easy, requiring only that I change out one bolt for a shorter one to clear the chain and cassette.

SKS P45 Longboard fenders

When you start cycling with a bike that has fenders, it’s very easy to take them for granted until you have to go pedal in the rain astride a bike without one. That was exactly what happened to me with Hyro, my TCX.

Not too long after I bought him, the rains came. I soon experienced first-hand the joy…er, ignominy of growing a cold brown or black stripe on the back of my shirt and on my buttocks while riding through wet Makati streets. When I switched to slick tires, it became much worse. Apparently, more water rides up a slick tire’s tread compared to a knobby cyclocross tire’s, so the accompanying “skunk stripe” is a lot longer. And have I mentioned how hard this is to launder out of clothing?

This was not what I envisioned for a bike I wanted to become an all-weather commuter. I set out searching for full-length road bike fenders…only to be disappointed by the lack of options available locally.

In the Philippines, the illusion persists that road bikes are only for those who want to race – and nobody else. This explains why there are so many commute-specific parts and accessories that are not available. While I may ride at a higher average speed than most bike commuters, I definitely do not want the TCX to be a one-trick pony.

In the end, I resorted to ordering my SKS P45 Longboard fenders online, via a US-based bike shop with a presence on eBay.

They are a variation of the veteran Chromoplastic fenders which sandwich an aluminum strip inside plastic. The “P45” designation refers to the 45 mm width of the fenders themselves. SKS say that these are good for tire widths from 28 to 38 mm.

The Longboards kit is comprised of the fenders themselves, steel fender stays, plastic end-caps, a bracket for the seatstay bridge, and all the nuts and small hardware required to install them. The front pair of stays has plastic “Secu-Clips,” which are supposed to release when debris gets between the front tire and fender. This prevents front wheel lock-up and avoids the rider flying over the handlebars.

One challenge with the TCX is mounting the rear fender. While it has eyelets on the dropout area, it does not have bridges on the chainstays and seatstays. On a proper touring bike meant to accept fenders, these two points are essential for affixing the rear fender in a solid position.

To emulate a seatstay bridge, I disassembled the TCX’s rear reflector mount. Left over was a piece that could pinch the sliding bracket in place while wrapped around one seatstay. The whole thing is then held together by a bolt, a nut, and an optional zip tie on the other seatstay.

For the chainstays, I decided to simply fasten zip ties around them, going over the forward edge loop on the rear fender. It does mean that dismounting and then remounting the fender is an involved job, and led to me running the fenders as a permanent part of the bike. The only times I removed them were for races and riding on trails.

The front fender required only that I bend one of the fender stays around the brake caliper on the non-drive side. Later on, a bike mechanic gave me a 3 mm spacer and a longer bolt to push the fender stay more outboard, and to prevent the stay from affecting the front brake actuation.

You adjust the fender line over the tires via these special eye bolts that slide over the fender stays. Once the height is set, the 8 mm nuts are tightened to keep them in place, and any excess stay metal cut off and sealed with the plastic end caps.

Setting these properly is a process of trial and error. Set too far away from the tire, the fenders become air brakes; set too close, the tire tread will rub on the inside and on any protrusions there. They also have to be as centered as possible laterally.

When SKS calls these “Longboards” they really do mean it. The rubber mud flap on the front fender extends almost all the way to the floor, ensuring your feet stay dry as you pedal.

It’s a similar story on the rear. On a group ride, wheelsuckers will want to follow you instead of other riders with shorter fenders, or rooster tails shooting out of bare rear tires.

Post-install, I’ve had a very good experience with these. Coverage is excellent. However, they’re susceptible to vibrations from the road and will crack over time – under the fork crown on the front fender, and around the sliding bracket on the rear. I’m told that’s just how it is with full-length fenders. After numerous failures with super glue, I found that a layup of duct tape is an excellent fix as it mitigates the effect of the vibrations but doesn’t allow the fender to totally separate at the cracks.

They’re also a better fit for the 28 mm slicks I run. When I run my 35 mm mud tires with these fenders, their knobs rub on the inside.

Adding the fenders has transformed the TCX into an all-conditions bike, and cracking issues aside, it was some of the best money I’d ever spent on bike parts.