Tag Archives: bike

Why I’m riding “This is not a tour”

This weekend I’m riding the 400km on and off-road audax in the style and memory of Mike Hall. My motivation for this ride is similar to the reason I ride audaxes in general, but with the added variety of off-road sections. I’m interested in the question, “How much harder will that be?”. I met Mike only briefly, but I think this kind of event is what he would have wanted to inspire.

Long distance cycling is something I’ve got into over the past five years. Whenever I’ve mentioned one of my rides to friends I get bewildered responses ranging from admiration to horror. A lot of people ask if I’m doing it for charity.

“No” I say, “I’m doing it for… fun?”.

Yes, fun. I enjoy planning the route, deciding what clothing, lights and bike maintenance kit I should take. I enjoy the challenge of not knowing whether I can finish within the time limits. I enjoy the peace and solitude exploring deserted country lanes. I enjoy chatting with other riders. Sometimes I’m winding my way up a hill, sometimes I’m concentrating on a tricky descent. Sometimes I’m ambling along, sometimes I’m pushing to go as fast as I can. I enjoy the freedom of roaming and of self-sufficiency. I enjoy getting away from it all, relaxed but focused on the ride.

I’m not claiming that every journey is smooth and full of picture-postcard scenery. Things go wrong. Punctures happen, wrong turns happen, lights fail. Headwinds, achy legs and cold temperatures conspire against an easy ride. On most rides I’ll have a “low point” when I’m fed up, uncomfortable or hungry. Getting through that and whatever other challenges the ride may throw at me is part of the challenge and the reason I feel elated if I finish.

And I don’t always finish in time. If I always succeeded I’d wonder if I was limiting myself to easy challenges. Failure is a good way to learn, even though it hurts at the time.

I’m sure most of my bewildered friends take on similar challenges. Things which take unusual mental or physical effort, which take us away from the humdrum of everyday life. Things where success is not guaranteed, where temporary discomfort is tolerated to reach a goal. Everyone’s challenges are different, but we all need to be challenged.

Can you relate to that?

Side view of B&M Linetec light bodge-mounted on Carrdice rack

Rear bike lights round-up comparison review thing

As LEDs have become cheaper and brighter in recent years, there’s been a proliferation of bike lights, which makes choosing one difficult. Many of them can be had for under ten pounds but there are also plenty of premium super-bright rear lights available. For those with a particular obsession with gadgets, Garmin have created a light which uses radar to detect approaching cars, adjusting the light and warning you via your GPS display. Sounds fun, but I find it hard to believe it would make me any safer than listening for approaching cars. For deaf cyclists, I imagine it would be very helpful.

My search for the perfect rear light

I try to keep it simple. I need a reliable light that will keep me safe on long rides including audaxes in all kinds of conditions. There are other, more comprehensive bike light comparisons out there. This article is limited to the few (OK, quite a few now I list them) that I’ve tried. So far I’ve not quite found the perfect light for every situation, but I’ve tried some really good ones, each with different drawbacks.


My preferences may differ from others, but here’s an explanation of what I’m looking for and my thinking behind it. I tend to carry a rear light on every ride in case I’m delayed by a mechanical problem or just want extra daylight visibility. I do use a dynamo front light for longer rides, but I’ve not got around to rigging a rear light up to this as well. Even if I did, I’m sure if want a spare in case it failed for any reason.

AA/AAA batteries: I always use lights with rechargeable AA or AAA batteries. The main reason is that, in an emergency, spares can be bought anywhere. Pretty much any corner shop or late-night service station will stock AA and AAA, albeit the non-rechargeable kind. I prefer rechargeable batteries (usually Eneloops) as I feel like less of an environmental criminal. Obviously, if I get caught out, I’m not going to put myself at risk and ride illegally, I’ll hold my nose and buy some Duracell. Plenty of USB-rechargeable lithium-ion lights claim to last 20+ hours, which should be enough, but lithium ion batteries tend to wear out after a few years and usually can’t be replaced. If I forget to charge it or find the cell is losing its mojo, I don’t want to discover that on a Welsh mountain pass at 11pm. Sure, I could take a USB charger with me, but it’s quicker and easier to simply swap the batteries. Most of the electronics I have on the bike, including my GPS, takes AA batteries and they’ll typically last well, though this depends on the light. As they’re all the same type, I can carry fewer spares.

Night time visibility: In the UK it’s a legal requirement to have lights and reflectors after dark. A rear light for riding in the dark doesn’t need to be especially bright, but the illuminated area (the height and width of the light itself) should be large or there should be several lights separated by some distance. This can help drivers to judge your position and speed. This is harder with flashing lights, but they are more easily noticed, especially in busy urban environments. So a combination of different lights seems the best approach to me. Also, bright flashing lights can be dazzling to other road users, especially when riding in groups, so any way to reduce this is a good thing.

Daylight visibility: Being seen by road traffic during the day is just as important and there’s some research which shows a reduction in accident rates for bicycles with daytime running lights. These lights are about getting you noticed. Once you’ve been noticed, it should be easy for driver with the benefit of daylight to judge your location and speed. With all that daylight to compete with, a daytime running light should be small and bright, possibly flashing. Many lights include a lens which focuses the light into a narrower cone within which it can be seen over a long distance. However, if used at night, unless these are adjusted carefully, which isn’t always possible, they can be unpleasant for following cyclists and even drivers. Drivers who are part-blinded or infuriated are not much better than those who haven’t seen you.

Smart light with broken clip

Above: broken clip – it looks like the newer models are more robust in this area.

Robustness: Aside from the obvious frustration of having a light fail, longer rides mean a potentially long stretch in the dark without a light if one should fail. The vast majority of rear lights with replaceable batteries have a battery compartment which is kept shut with stiff plastic clips. These are often opened by wedging a coin into a slot and twisting. This bends the clips a little, popping the case open. There are several problems with this. First is that the clips often break, especially in cold weather which can make the plastic brittle.

Secondly, sometimes they’re too loose and the light falls apart when you ride over a bump, dropping half of it in the road, often unnoticed.  CatEye Omni mounted on saddle bag with lens and batteries missingThere are various bodges to work around this, including elastic bands and tape, but they make changing the batteries more of a faff. The better solution is a battery compartment that is closed with a screw.

The other aspect of robustness is waterproofing. When it’s raining you need the light more than ever and I’ve heard plenty of reports of leaky lights. Luckily, all the ones I’ve tried have kept the water out so far but there are numerous reports of otherwise good lights malfunctioning in rain.

Lights I’ve tried

Smart Superflash mounted on seatstay showing tape holding it together.Smart Superflash 0.5W, 2xAAA


A basic and popular light. Two modes, flashing and constant. Above average battery life. Bright enough main LED for daylight use. Can be dazzling. Plastic clips can come undone when bumped. Others have reported water ingress issues. Overal: 6/10

Smart rl321r held in fingers, showing broken clipSmart Rl321r – 2 Red 0.5w Superflash, 2xAAA


Features two very bright LEDs, lots of modes, including a slowly pulsing one which I guess may be less annoying to other riders. Plastic clips broke when opened at about 2 deg C. In the photos of recent models the clips look a bit sturdier, so maybe that has been improved.

Gives a good daylight flash for about ten hours on rechargeables. Overall: 7/10

Mars 1.1 with rubber strapBlackburn Mars 1.1, 2xAAA


Not especially bright, so perhaps not the best daytime choice, but the 3 LEDs offer good all round visibility for longer than average. Haven’t had any trouble with the plastic clips and basic rubber washer, but not really tested this in extreme conditions. Cost well under ten pounds. Overall: 6/10

Two LED light with button between the LEDsMetro flash Dangerzone, 2xAAA


Probably the brightest light that runs on 2 AAAs at the time of writing. Really unpleasant to be behind. Despite the claims on the box (usually for alkaline batteries), I found it barely lasted two hours with rechargeables on constant mode.

Could be good for a busy commute or in rain or fog.

The plastic clips holding the battery compartment shut broke so I used an elastic band to hold it together. Once I forgot to do this and it split apart when I went over a bump losing the light and batteries. The button is easy to press when riding, but can also be accidentally turned on when in a bag or pocket. Overall: 4/10


Glowing red stick with two black rubber ends on a dark backgroundFibre flare shorty, 2xAAA


A rather different design featuring a bar of light with a battery compartment at each end. Can be bent slightly and mounted in all sorts of creative ways and helmets, bags, seat stays, etc. Comes in a few different colours. Not especially bright, but covers more area than most, so may make it easier to locate you at night. However it’s almost useless in daylight. Rechargeable batteries last at least ten hours, more when flashing. Had slight water ingress problems until I smeared some silicon grease under the rubber caps. UPDATE: Bending by an enthusiastic child has stopped the light working. I might be able to fix it. Overall: 7/10

CatEye Omni5 with plastic bracketCateye Omni 5, 2xAAA


A good all-rounder for about ten pounds. Five moderately bright LEDs and a clear/red plastic body mean it can be seen from every angle. 3 modes, one of which is a bit headache-inducing. Daylight visibility is ok and it runs bright enough on rechargeables when set to flash. The body is rather brittle and can easily fall apart going over a bump, ditching the batteries and half the light on the ground. Overall: 6/10

Side view of B&M Linetec light bodge-mounted on Carrdice rackB&M Linetec senso, 1xAA


Probably my favourite rear light. It’s the battery version of a popular dynamo light and can be set to always on or “senso” mode which turns on in the dark if the bike is moving. There’s no flashing mode. When you stop it waits a few minutes before turning off. This prompts helpful people to tell you that you’ve left your light on whenever you park at night, but otherwise it’s a nice feature that means less faff. It’s a large “spatial” light with a wide reflector which glows at night, all of which should make it easy for drivers to work out how far away you are. The light shines evenly across a wide area so is visible from nearly 180 degrees without being dazzling. Daylight visibility is below average, but probably still worth using if you don’t have another light. Amazingly a single rechargeable AA battery will keep it going for over 30 hours; I tested it at home. The main downside is mounting. It has two bolts spaced 80mm or 50mm apart and will fit nicely on most rear racks. If you don’t have a rack there are are various ways to bodge it but, depending on your bike and luggage this may be a showstopper for some. It’s a sensible, grown up light for tourers, commuters or anyone who knows they’ll be riding a fair distance in the dark. Coupled with a small flashing light it is probably the best option. Overall: 9/10

Rear light with silver body, red bezel and clear front with rubber strap behindBlackburn Local 20, 2xAA


This is a recent purchase that I’ve only used on a couple of rides so far. However it seems sturdy in spite of the common plastic clips closure. It’s a bit bigger and heavier than most rear lights, but can still be mounted on a seatpost or bag. In a home test I got more than 24 hours of constant light out of it before it started to look a bit dim. There are also two flashing modes. Daylight visibility is poor due to the lack of a focusing lens leaving two tiny pin pricks of light that seem to get lost. At night however, the whole thing glows beautifully and is visible from a wide range of angles without being too dazzling. It fills a similar role to the B&M Linetec above, but is more compact. I may keep it handy as a backup light or place to store spare AA batteries in my bag. The RRP is about twenty pounds, but it can be found for less. UPDATE: This light fell apart, presumably when going over a bump, resulting in the light and batteries being lost. I think this was partly due to the angle it was at on a loose bag which might have created a “whiplash” effect adding to the downwards force. On my Carradice saddlebag it has been fine for a year or so. As they’re only ten pounds I’ve bought another. Even so I’m dropping the score by a point. Overall: 8/10 Overall: 7/10


As you can see there are many decent lights out there so it’s all a bit different horses for stroking different blokes’ cats. Or something.

For any long ride I will have my B&M Linetec with me and I’m considering getting another for my commuting hybrid. I would also usually take the Smart Rl321r hooked onto my Carradice bag for daylight visibility or rain or fog. I also often pack the Mars 1.1 as a spare inside the bag, if only as a place to store spare AAA batteries for the Smart Rl321r. If I was travelling light after dark and only had space for one small light, I’d take the Local 20.

How should I buy a road bike?

Despite being a relative newcomer to cycling, I seem to get asked this a lot, so rather than write the same advice out every time I thought I’d put my opinions down here. This is mostly aimed at the casual cyclist looking to gain fitness, commute or just have fun.

I’ve tried to avoid fashion or hype and provide links to elaborate on my suggestions. I love new shiny kit as much as the next cyclist, but you should be under no illusions that having slightly lighter wheels or carbon fibre cranks is going to make a measurable difference to your riding. However, you might pedal harder on expensive kit if you’re keen to feel that you didn’t waste your money. You only have to look at the wide variety of bikes on which people rode Paris Brest Paris or the guy who did the Tour de France route on a Chopper to realise that you don’t need the latest greatest kit to take on ambitious rides. So don’t re-mortgage your house just yet.

What’s most important?

Fit. The size. The shape of the bike compared to the shape of your body. Nothing I mention further down is more important than this.

Get this wrong and your riding will be inefficient and uncomfortable. No of top-of-the-range groupset will compensate if your knees are locking out or your hands hurt from pressure on the bars.

A bike that fits will be a joy to ride, you’ll be able to ride further in comfort and want to do so more often, so you’ll end up fitter and faster. Fit is more important if you intend to be riding all day.

So how do you get it right? There’s a risk that the guy in the shop may want to sell you the bike which is in front of you, so it’s a good idea to have an idea of your right size before you start shopping. You can work this out for yourself with a tape measure and some online advice. If you’re really serious or an unusual size, you can also seek the advice of an independent professional. A good local bike shop ought to help you get the basics right, however.

If you’re serious about efficiency and/or comfort, then once you’ve bought a bike that is roughly the right size you can pay to have an expert “fitting” to work out your optimal saddle height, reach, crank length, etc. If you’re keen on increasing your speed, this is probably money better spent than that groupset upgrade. For the casual commuter however, unless they have any serious issue with comfort, a full professional fit would be excessive. If you don’t have the budget for that, but want to sort out some comfort issues yourself, there’s a helpful guide to DIY bike fit here.


You should ask yourself what kind of riding you intend to do. Some things like pedals or saddles are easy to change, but other things are more fundamental. I’ve probably missed a few, but here are some questions you should think about.

  • Do you want drop bars (more aerodynamic, more varied hand positions for comfort), or straight (simpler, better control on rough ground), or something else?
  • Do you want to carry kit on the bike? This is generally easier and more comfortable than carrying it on your body, especially for longer distances. Not all bikes have rack mount eyelets built into the frame and while there are alternative solutions, they might not be ideal if you want to carry anything other than bike spares and clothes. If you want to carry a lot, then it may be worth going for a touring bike which will having longer chain-stays so that your heels clear the rear panniers when pedalling.
  • Do you want to fit full mudguards? They don’t noticeably affect aerodynamics and can make you and your kit a lot drier and more comfortable as well as being friendly to the guy behind, provided they’re long enough. On the other hand, if you’re strictly a fair weather cyclist who’s planning to hang up the bike in winter, you might not want to bother. If you do want full mudguards, you’ll need to think about frame clearances and what size tyres you plan to use (see next point). If your frame doesn’t have the clearance their are various compromise options available.
  • How wide do you want your tyres? Wider tyres are by far the biggest factor in a comfortable ride, especially on rougher roads. Suspension parts may take the bigger shocks, but a large volume tyre is the best thing for absorbing vibrations. Wheel-build, frame material and handlebar design, etc make a negligible difference compared to tyres. Wider tyres can be run at a lower pressure without risking pinch-flats. They may look less sporty but, up to a point, they’re just as fast as skinny tyres. If you’d like especially wide tyres, it may affect your choice of brakes, which are often the limiting factor. Caliper brakes have limited clearance, while cantilevers and disc brakes allow much more.

Don’t worry too much about…

  • The saddle. This is easy to change and is a personal choice – no one saddle will be right for everyone. It’s hard to tell in advance what will suit you, so if you find you don’t like the one which comes with the bike, you might need to try a few others out. Expensive ones won’t necessarily be more comfortable, but are often lighter. In my experience the angle the saddle is tilted at can have a large affect on comfort, so it’s worth tweaking before you bin an awkward perch.
  • Weight. The weight of the bike and components makes a small difference to acceleration and climbing, but remember to consider any weight difference as a fraction of the all-up weight – bike + rider + water bottles + equipment. 500g may sound like a lot, but for a 75kg rider on a 10kg bike with 1kg of water and 1kg of luggage it’s around 0.6% and unlikely to be noticeable. You also shouldn’t get too hung up on “rotating weight” either.
  • Frame material. There are fast riders doing huge distances on bikes made from carbon, steel, aluminium, titanium, bamboo and more. They’re all perfectly serviceable. Steel and titanium are reputed to offer more comfort, absorbing road vibrations. This is no doubt true, but dwarfed by the effect of slightly wider tyres or having your weight nicely shared between feet, hands and bum.
  • The number of gears. If you know your optimal cadence to 2 decimal places, then maybe having an 11-speed cassette will increase your power output. For normal people 8 speed is plenty, some do fine on one. Nothing wrong with having more, but don’t pay through the nose in the hope it will revolutionise your ride. What is more important is how low your lowest gear is. That will make the biggest difference to your average speed. You can compare different combinations with Sheldon Brown’s online gear calculator. For reference, unless you live in a very flat part of the country, I suggest your lowest gear should be no higher than a Gain Ratio of 2.5 or 33.7 inches.

I suggest you do…

  • Buy from your Local Bike Shop (LBS). If you like the fact that there’s a small, independent retailer in your town, if you’d like to be able to pop in there for last minute spares and repairs, then you should at least consider buying a bike from them. They’re usually helpful, friendly and provide a better service than the big chains.
  • If you’re on a tight budget you can get some good deals second-hand from Gumtree or Ebay. However, you do have to know what you’re looking for, especially in terms of bike size and replacing any worn components. If the frame is an old one, consider what the cost and availability of spare parts might be.
  • Take the bike for a ride. If you haven’t owned a road bike before, try several at different places before you buy. Bike designs will vary in their handling due to their geometry. Some will feel stable, others more manoeuvrable, maybe even “twitchy”. The easiest way to see the difference is to ride a few at a variety of speeds and see what you prefer. Try a wide variety and make notes.
  • Save some money for extras. Remember that once you buy the bike you’ll probably end up spending some money on gadgets, tools, spares, tyres, chain lube, lights, clothing, shoes. Don’t completely hit the budget so that this stuff has to wait.
  • Get a bike that excites you. You could tick all the boxes above and completely waste your money if you’re not enthusiastic about your new steed. If you love the bike you’ll ride more, get fitter and go faster.