Monday, 23 March 2015

New Shoes! S-Works MTB Shoe Review

I’ll start by stating the obvious. Your feet are probably startlingly different to mine and this makes choosing shoes very specific to the individual.

Take any shopping trip to buy some smart/casual shoes for the weekend. You’ll spend an afternoon mincing around several different stores trying to analyse how a dozen diverse pairs feel and convincing yourself that the leather will stretch with time, just because you like the blue ones the best. Actually it doesn’t even matter how they feel because all they need to do is carry you from the carpark into the Ship & Anchor and negotiate the return journey a few hours later after a Steak and Ale pie and one too many Peroni’s. With cycle shoes it isn’t so easy to try them on and see how they feel, but is actually far more important. You’re going to spend hours in your cycle shoes trying to enjoy the view and sweating to keep up with your mates – neither of which will be easy if it feels like you have a mouse trap clamped onto each foot. Ideally you need to go out on a ride for an hour to try each pair out, but the shop keeper probably won’t want them back when you return.

I offer as an example my recent experiences with the Bont Vaypor. My friend Darren absolutely raved about them, taking them off at the every cake stop and showing anyone who’d take an interest the imprint of his little toe in the heat formed carbon. Impressed I read several glowing reviews online before committing to an internet purchase from Evans Cycles. A few days later I excitedly put them on and found it was like hammering nails into the sole of each foot. After driving 90 minutes to my nearest store I tried another size but things were even worse. So bear in mind when reading this review and looking at the pretty picture, that  you really should try these shoes on before buying. Especially since they retail for a whooping £250!

Efficient transfer of power is the raison d’etre of a race shoe. The S-Works fits the mould well: a rigid sole to minimise flex and a heel cup which grips the foot to ensure all the riders energy is transferred to the pedals. Try riding in a pair of old trainers and you can feel the sole flexing and your heel lifting up out of the shoe, which is all wasted effort. Fantastic rigidity is no consequence of course if you are in discomfort and shooting pain every time you dare to push on the pedals.

I find discomfort in my feet is one of the most debilitating distractions on a bike. For the past few years I have been using the previous generation Specialised S-Works shoes, because they were provided by a sponsor. I never felt they were ideal, a little tight for width meaning I was forced to stick with thin summer socks all year round. Also the boa dials wore out, meaning the shoes sometimes came loose just when you were trying to put the hammer down. However, having tried A LOT of other shoes I discovered that only Specialized shoes fit my strangely wide but pointy feet. So here I am back with Specialized stepping up  ½ a size in the hope that gives me the extra width I require. (For reference this time I have had to shell out from my own pocket.)

First up these are nice looking shoes, I love the two tone colour scheme and general stunning appearance. They make a style statement without being too flashy. Specialized have placed the boa dials over towards the outside of the foot, which I assume is to take pressure off the top of the foot, not that this is a problem I have experienced. While of the subject of the dials, the entire boa module is now replaceable and not just the upper. This negates the problem I had before where the ratchet mechanism in the shoe began to wear and the dial slip.

Soon as you’ve finished looking at them you’ll pick them up and realise how light these shoes are, mine coming in at 735g for the pair including the eggbeater cleats and a bit of local dirt! (Size 43.5)

Slip them on your feet, strap them up and hop on the bike and you’ll be reminded immediately of the racey intent of these slippers. They are extremely stiff and hold the foot very securely and you will notice how well attached you feel to the bike. My old shoes were a few years old so might have started to relax a little, but the new shoes definitely feel more purposeful.

First ride was a 3 hour road ride and the best comment I can make is that I forgot I was even wearing new shoes! Hidden under some overshoes they just got on with the job, no complaints from them or my tootsies. The second outing was at a cross country race and the news wasn’t so good. Within 15 minutes the outsides of my feet were aching and I had to loosen the straps and lost time as I periodically had to rest my feet. After the race I decided that I had probably got a bit over zealous when tightening the dials on the start line, forgetting my new shoes might not be so forgiving. The third ride was a 4 hour off-road ride and I took care this time not to over tighten when I started out and like the first outing I forgot all about them.

Effective, lightweight and stylish race shoe. Definitely consider if they fit your feet! The price tag is high but comparable to the competition.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

S-Works Stumpjumper HT 2015 Review

With 170 miles on the clock and one race completed, now is a good time to offer my initial impressions of the new Stumpjumper.

To provide some background I have had many bikes (just ask my long suffering wife!), but the previous generation S-Works Stumpjumper is without doubt my favourite. When I got it in 2011, 29 inch wheels were still a novelty in the UK. It was also my first true top level bike and it instantly made me a faster rider. Handling was XC racer sharp and the ride was very compliant, in fact over 4 years I can only think of two events where I missed the extra ‘squish’ of a full susser.

The new bike was never going to be the same obvious quantum leap. In fact getting on for the first time it was like pulling on a new pair of slippers. I'd transferred the saddle position from the old bike, so everything felt comfortable and familiar - just a little bit more taught. Specialized have only tweaked the geometry, creating a slightly slacker head angle and shortening the chain stays a few millimetres. I'd be lying if I said I could really tell the difference.

Much more obvious is how every ounce of power applied to the pedals is transferred into forward motion. The bottom bracket and chain stays are noticeably larger than the previous S-Works and this converts into an almost electric transfer of effort to the rear wheel. I rode a Yeti ASRc last year which was extremely stiff and tightly packaged at the rear. The S-Works feels every bit as purposeful when you put the hammer down.
With the Yeti the trade off for the direct power transfer was quite a harsh ride. The new Stumpy isn't like that, although I don't feel it cossets you in the same way the previous S-Works did, it definitely took the edge off hits from the many roots during the race last Sunday. The ultimate test will be how fresh I am after a long marathon event like the Kawasaki 100 in May.

The vast majority of bikes are now 29ers so that isn't the advantage it was 4 years ago. The frame does however come with a 142x12 bolt thru rear axle and 15mm front axle on the Rock Shox, which increase stiffness and do seem to help make the steering more direct and handling a little more crisp. Internal cable routing is a nice cosmetic touch, but I'll be honest it makes servicing a fiddle and I really liked the way the cables were hidden under the top tube on the old bike, but remained accessible.

I mentioned last year that the SID brain fork is an undoubted improvement over the Reba that came with the previous generation S-Works. I dialled the fork in straight away, it seems easier to set-up and less fickle to subtle changes in pressure. On the flip side there is not the same level of adjustment, so although it is less hassle you can’t dial it in quite as sweetly as the previous dual air design. The brain fade dial that lets you adjust the threshold, or force at which the fork activates, is now located on the top of the crown instead of the bottom of the fork leg. This means it can be adjusted on the fly and used a bit like a standard lock-out. The suspension can be opened up for technical sections and then locked down for climbs. The fork seems to have a wider operating window, coping better with the range of varied terrain you might experience on a single ride from repeated ripple bumps to big hits. I felt the Reba had to be tuned to favour either one or the other.

Frame weight is a light, if unspectacular 1250g, so the extra rigidity over the 2011 bike does carry a slight penalty. However, it builds into a light bike, my complete build is around 19.7lbs and there is still plenty of room for improvement. I bought the frameset including brain fork and kitted it out with M9000 XTR brakes, shifters and 11 speed rear mech. To increase the gear range I have opted for an XX1 10-42 cassette. My favourite Romin saddle sits on the light (197g) S-Works seatpost supplied with the frame. The Light Bicycles carbon wheels with Stan’s hubs are carried over from my previous bike, as are the S-Works bars and 90mm Ritchey stem.

To summarise:
It is always fantastic to have a that new bike feeling. Everything is running smoothly and the bike feels lithe, responsive and fresh. Specialized have definitely made a step forward with the new frame. It is so clear that the frame has been well designed, thought out and thoroughly tested. Take the slick and tidy cable routing for example, the sculpted chain and seat stays and the lightweight rear axle. The power transfer feels wonderful and brought a huge grin to my face as I hooned down the road on my first outing. The lateral strength combined with the bolt thru axles brings a positive directness to the handling. All together this means that on the trail everything feels nice and predictable. That might not sound like a glowing recommendation but it is! I spent months trying to dial in the ride of the Yeti last year. It was a great looking frame, but a catalogue of niggles took the gloss off every ride. On the Specialized I can focus on my own performance and the trail ahead, and that gives the rider so much confidence and is the biggest recommendation of all!

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Gorrick Spring Series - Round 3

I've ridden and raced at Porridgepot Hill many, many times over the years. This wooded area around the military town of Deepcut has such a warren of fantastic trails to choose from that the course is always varied and different. That means it sometimes suits me and I've had some great results, but I've also had a couple of real shockers, so you never know what to expect. 

Although in their wisdom British Cycling have dropped the Masters category at a national level for 2015, Gorrick still offer the over 30's a choice of two categories. I chose the Masters Plus race - Plus meaning an extra lap. 

Tired but happy!

The majority of the course was fast flowing, rooty singletrack. The end of the lap featured some serious undulations, including one loose climb that had me using the full range of my new 42 tooth cassette. Dry weather during the week and genuine spring sunshine meant not only the first 2015 exposure of my white legs, but no muddy puddles. However, wander off line and the loose surface meant there wasn't a lot of grip.

Sprinting away from the start I got shuffled back in the pack during the usual first corner argy bargy. Sitting 10th the rider ahead of me let a gap open infront to the leading group. I ducked and dived and finally got through, dashing up the first climb trying to close down the chain of riders ahead. In truth I probably pushed too hard and had to throttle back a little, meaning I spent much of the first lap on my own.

Into lap two and a rider came past, I stayed with him for a while chasing his wheel, but the elastic broke and he pulled away. Now is the chance to get in my excuses! This was the first serious ride on my new bike and it would have been optimistic to think everything would be completely dialled first time out. I'm still struggling with the brakes which are suffering from a slightly long lever pull, effecting my braking into corners and confidence on some of the loose decents. Also I obviously got a bit over zealous when tightening my new shoes because my feet started to throb halfway round the first lap. I loosened them off but the pain in my feet was a distraction.

On the long climb at the end of the second lap I caught sight of another rider 50 meters ahead. I wasn't closing quickly and over the entire third lap I literally inched up on him. Through the singletrack we were pretty evenly matched, luckily I was marginally stronger when the course opened up or went uphill. I eventually pulled alongside and despite towing him along for a mile or so eeked out a small margin going into the fourth and final lap.

Unable to relax I had to keep pushing, and was constantly checking behind me. So I was very concerned when two riders closed in right at the end of the race. It is hard to check glancing over your shoulder, so it was a huge relief as they came past so see their number boards indicated they were in a different category.

This was my first XC race since October so I was pleased with 9th place. I'd forgotten how frenetic and full on XC racing is! Basically it is 1 hour 26 minutes at full throttle with no time to rest or regroup! Undoubtably I have some room for improvement, both on the bike and tuning the bike itself, but it is good to start with a top ten finish.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015


My new bike is still cosy and warm in the house, she hasn't even been ostracized to the shed yet! So why have I found my motivation flagging this week? 

Well for a start I'm struggling to get the new bike up and running. Brakes are now bled and seem ok, even if the lever pull is longer than my old Formula R1's. However, a new bottom bracket hasn't sorted the grinding noise and the feeling that I'm churning a sack of broken glass when I pedal. So this meant I missed the first round of the Southern XC series on Sunday while I furiously stripped, cleaned, tightened and greased all to no avail. A new chainring is now on the way for this weekend, so fingers crossed.

Even when I have got out on the road bike I just seem to be getting weaker and weaker at the moment. After the Brass Monkeys series I sort of gave myself a month off. I was still commuting to work but during February I didn't worry about a few days off, what I ate, or having a couple of beers with my dinner. However, this can't explain my total lackof energy, if anything I should be fully stocked, loaded and raring to go. 

My commuting speed seems to be reaching all time lows. Today I dipped below 16mph average speed - old ladies do better heading to the shops. Part of it is physical and I need to get seriously training again, but I'm pretty certain a lot of it is in my head. I just can't be bothered! 

Why? Maybe I am fed up with months of trawling along the A259 in the wind and rain. Possibly all I need is some dry singletrack and a bike to nail it on! I also need a goal, an incentive to push a little harder and dig a little deeper. A reason to be out there fighting the head wind and drizzle at 6.30am. 

So here are my main targets for 2015. Putting them out there will hopefully focus the mind. I'll tell you tomorrow!:
  • Gorrick 100 - 5th May
  • Southern XC Championships - 12th May
  • Summer Monkey - 14th June
  • South Downs Way - June/July
  • National XC Championships - 19th July
  • Brighton Bog Dog - 16th August
  • TORQ in your sleep - 30th August