Just before Christmas I had a vivid learning experience on the bike...namely how in wet, downhill conditions rim brakes on bikes are simply not that good. Once I'd picked myself up, and done the ride-of-shame home, I decided that I needed to sort out a proper winter bike sooner rather than later.
What is a Winter Bike?
Northern European winter conditions are brutally tough on bikes. Constant wet, loads of salt on roads, grime, mud, good chances of submerging bearings. It destroys delicate components...namely bearings and chains. It wears out sprockets and gunks up cable runs. You crash more, as you have cold tyres and oily tarmac. When a carbon road bike can cost several thousand pounds, it makes a lot of sense to have a second bike that is more suited to surviving the conditions. Typically with heavier, less expensive parts, and (ideally) easier to service.
My summer bike is a thing of beauty. Weighing in at just under 8 kilos, in the last year it's explored Gran Canaria, Spain, the Thames Valley and Yorkshire with me. It's amazing to ride. A Joy...
...and it's a nightmare to clean, and service. It has the latest and greatest hydraulic disc brakes, which are amazing...they are reliable and consistent, and never fail to provide plenty of controllable stopping force (it's well modulated, meaning that you can finely control the braking based on how the bike feels under you). The hydraulic cables for those brakes run through the middle of the bearings that allow the front wheel to turn (aka the Headset). The headset also happens to be one of the places that gets really gunked up in winter, as grime thrown up from the front wheel is shot up the headset from below...turning the normally buttery-smooth steering into something more akin to dragging a hedgehog over a washboard. To clean that headset? I need to completely disconnect all the brakes, and then re-seal, re-fill, bleed and repressure the entire braking system. The chain and gears suffer a similar fate, and the bearings in the wheels are only partially sealed, so again suffer and wear out incredibly fast. Other fun things are a bottom bracket (the bearing sleeve that allows the pedal axle to spin in the frame) was of a hard-to-service type (called Pressfit...rather than screw in it's forced into the frame via a set of presses. Removal is normally destructive).
My old winter bike was the same bike but much older. This had rim brakes (the brakes you probably know best...where brake pads are clamped onto the edge of the bike wheel via cable actuation)...simple, lightweight...and really, really ineffective in the wet. The rim of a bike gets as close to the round as you can go, and so tends to be constantly coated in grime and mud. This then builds up on the brake pads...and then when you try and brake that grime stops friction from slowing the wheel. This means it can take 2-3 seconds to start seeing any braking action at all. This is a problem when you're heading down a 10% hill and suddenly discover that there is a chicane coming up. This bike doesn't have the fully integrated headset, but does have the same Pressfit-style bottom bracket.
- I wanted a disc-brake bike (for consistent, reliable braking)...but without spending an absolute fortune
- I wanted a bike that I could maintain nearly* everything myself
- I wanted a bike that I could build myself
- I wanted a bike that could take a spill without cracking
- I wanted a bike that didn't weigh a tonne
- Screw-in bottom bracket for serviceability
- Non-integrated headset for serviceability, but internal cable routing for Di2 compatibility (see below)
- Life is too short to ride shit bikes
I already had a fair number of components...either spare, or that could be removed from other bikes.
Gears (front mech, rear mech, left/right shifters) - I have a spare set of Shimano Ultegra Di2 gears. For non-cyclists, this is an incredibly high end set of gears. Electronic servo-shifting, 22 speed (11 gears on the rear, 2 on the front), and lightweight. This set only supports mechanically actuated gears (ie, the brake lever pulls a cable). For cyclists, this is a couple of generations out of date (you can't buy rim brake race bikes anymore, and gears have moved onto 12-speed rear mechanisms. Communication between the shifters and the mechs is now wireless, whereas this one has a cable that runs from the front of the bike to the rear, connecting everything)
Crank and Bottom Bracket - I again had a Shimano Ultegra set of cranks sitting around (with my preferred 170mm crank arm length), and I also had a Stages Single-Sided Power Meter that was compatible with it. Power meters are a cycling nerd thing...they work out how much power (or more precisely how much force you are applying to the pedal, determined via a stress gauge attached to a part of the drive of the bike), and are a fundamental reason cycling sport science has advanced so much in the last decade. Heart rate tells you how your body is reacting to effort...power meters tell you what effort you are doing in real-time.
Brake Calipers - I have some Juin-Tech F1 hybrid calipers. These are mechanically actuated (ie, a cable pull), but that then drives a hydraulic piston that works against the disc brake itself. This provides smoother application of force, and higher peak force, than direct mechanical actuation of a piston, and allows me to have a disc brake with the mechanical-action brake levers.
Wheels - I have a set of spare wheels for my summer bike, picked up in the Black Friday sale. Made by DT Swiss, they are a perfectly servicable pair of wheels. About half the rim depth of my summer bike, and slightly less engagement in the hub (pawls as opposed to ratchets). I'd already fitted tyres (decent tyres from Continental, as this is one of the main impacts to speed and feel for a bike after geometry and frame stiffness) and disc brakes to them. They weight about the same as my summer bike wheels, but with significantly less aerodynamics. I used normal "butyl" inner tubes (as they are cheap).
Saddle - I have a pile of saddles. I picked the same one as I have on the summer bike
Handebars and Stem - These were pinched from my commuter, which in turn had pinched them from a bike that I stripped down and gave away the frame last year as part of the house clean-down. A basic drop bar and stem combination...reliable, if a bit heavy and unexciting.
Mudguards - I have a set of clip-on mudguards that will fit pretty much any road bike.
...so all that was really missing was a frame, fork and seatpost (often bought together). I was originally going to get a Kinesis Aithein frame, on recommendation. I ordered it, however when it arrived, I quickly found that there was a design error. Up in the "Gears" section, I mention that the gears I have need a wire to run from the front of the frame to the rear to connect everything up. Kinesis had recently had a new batch of the Aithein frame in, and the manufacturer had omitted to drill a hole in part of the frame to allow that wire to pass through. Very niche, however it meant that the frame was incompatible with the gear system I had (Kinesis admitted the fault, I returned the frame for a full refund, and they have now amended the product page to say that only wireless electronic groupsets are compatible...previously it said all groupsets).
I went back to searching and recommendations, and eventually decided on a Mason Definition. Having already been burnt once by compatibility issues, I emailed them between Christmas and New Year...and was then surprised by an almost immediate answer that was helpful, informative and knowledgeable. I was able to run through my plans for the frame, have full confirmation that everything was compatible, and get the frame ordered. As a bonus, they had a revised version of the frame due out late January, but it was already in stock (most bikes are sold as completed builds, and while stock had arrived, they had not yet started building the frames up) they agreed to send me the new version. As of today the bike you see at the top of this post is not formally available for sale (the colour gives it away, the previous version was not in that glorious blue!). This is an aluminium frame, with a carbon fibre fork and seatpost (carbon fibre is used here to act as a sort-of suspension, taking away some of the buzz you get from tarmac that a metal frame would pass striaght into the rider).
The frame arrived a couple of days ago, and I spent yesterday evening building it up. I consider myself a competent amateur when it comes to bike fettling. I can do the basics, and I have a reasonable understnading of how most stuff works...however I don't have all the tools for all jobs, and my knowledge is mostly limited to bikes I've had. There are a tremendous number of standards out there...all requiring different techniques to screw-in, pull, push, attach and twist different parts of the bike...especially at the top-end, where the main differentiation is weight and aerodynamics (so for my summer bike, a huge amount of expense has gone into hiding all the cables to reduce drag...hence the incredibly complex headset and hydraulic cables running through bearings). I can say with some confidence that this bike went together extremely easily!
Running the cables internally was easy...the internal cable runs were well formed, with access ports in the bottom bracket big enough to get fingers etc. I was able to run an old brake cable through, then use that as a guide to pull each of the wires and cables through in turn. Mason provide loads of ports for the frame holes, so you can tidy it all up and make it all "fairly" closed up.
Fitting and aligning the brakes was also pretty simple. I've used these hybrid calipers before, and they are pretty much plug-and-play...they are self-adjusting, so as long as you do not close them without having the disc between the pads, they are good to go. The brake cables are run fully sleeved lever -to-caliper (and mostly inside the frame), to reduce the number of ingress points for water and grime. The lower end of the cables are specially designed to again limit ingress.
This was the first time I had cut a steerer tube. This is the part of the fork that passes through the frame and has the handlebars attached to the other end. They always come too long, and need to be cut to length to suit the rider (depending on how high or low you want your handlebars). I like mine low, so had to carefully chop off about 7 inches of carbon fibre tube...always nerve-wracking, as you have to be within a couple of millimetres to ensure that everything can be tightened up correctly. It went fine (I have a special guide that fits onto the steerer tube, and a carbon hacksaw), and a bit of champfering with a needle file left it smooth and rounded.
Electric gears are great...I've had them for about 6-7 years, and honestly I never want to go back to mechanical shifting! Once they were fitted, and wires connected, indexing them (getting the mechs aligned to the sprockets on the gears) takes a few seconds, and then they just work. The servos know exactly how far to move the mech for each shift, so you never have a bad shift, or drop a chain, or have a chain rattling and jumping. You don't have to worry about high-tension cables running the length of the bike and slowly stretching. It makes building bikes so much easier. Wireless would be even easier. There are rumours about wireless braking being the next big thing. Not sure how I feel about that, but I can defintiely see why bike builders would want it, as it completely does away with the need for cable and wire runs of any sort.
I had to buy in a few incidental items;
1) Brake Cables. For mechanical discs it's is highly recommended that you use compressionless outers. These limit cable-stretch (which makes brakes feel spongy and soft). Everyone uses Jagwire, who provide kevlar-reinforced cable outers.
2) Front Mech clamp. This one was annoying, and delayed the build by a day. Due to a minor mismeasurement the clamp I had (this holds the front gear mech onto the frame) was too wide by 3.5mm. A quick Amazon next-day order got me the right size.
3) Bar Tape. I went cheap-and-cheerful here, as in winter bar tape gets wrecked by grubby hands. The last thing you do on a bike is apply the bar tape, as it covers all the cabling running from the shifters into the frame.
The final bike (with pedals, bottle cages and mudguards) weighs in at 9.3kg (compared to ~8kg for the summer bikewithout mudguards), which is pretty good for an aluminium bike without expensive components. I reckon I could easily fettle it down to sub 9kg without too much effort;
- Currently it has butyl innertubes. I could swap in TPU tubes (which I use in the summer bike) and save 2-300 grams immediately
- This bike has proper mounting eyelets for mudguards, so I could easily find a lighter, more slimline set that don't need the big clamps of the cli-ons
- The handlebar and stem combo are very heavy (comparatively). Ther is probably a good 3-400 grams of saving there with some prudent upgrades
- I've been looking at reviews of aftermarket parts available, and there are some carbon cranks available that are pretty decent, and again 2-300g lighter than the Shimano one I have
I'm quite excited to have a bike I can properly tinker with...as I know how it's gone together, I can be confident that I can fix any issues with it...and so I can start using this to upskill my mechanical knowledge...never a bad thing!
The timing of this build was pretty key, as on Sunday the Yorkshire Reliability Rides season starts, and I really wanted a bike I could trust to survive full winter conditions. The summer bike can finally rest, and it's booked in for a full professional servie at the end of the month, then it can rest easy until I take it to Spain in March.
*I've not done wheel-building yet, thats advanced shit