New Focus – The Bike Experiment

Now that I had set myself on a course to complete the Great British Escapade I needed to get comfortable with off road riding. But with my Ribble CGR having a road set up, I needed to consider whether it was going to possible to make inexpensive changes to the bike to make it suitable, or if I would in fact be better off dusting off my old Specialized Rockhopper that had been languishing in the basement for years.

The Bikes

Ribble CGR

Ribble CGR on the trails

When I purchased my bright yellow Ribble CGR, one of the first of it’s kind, I had dreams of long distance adventures, on a bike that had the flexibility to be great on road, but also with a simple change of tyres would handle itself nicely if I decided to go touring on trails across Europe. Over the years my gears have been improved to provide 11-32 on the rear, and I have 38mm gravel tyres on it. But, when I bought it I had visions on travelling across continents on it, and had doubts on my ability to repair hydraulic brakes in the event of failure. So I ordered cable rather than hydraulic disc brakes. These are fine on the roads, but off road or down steep descents they just don’t quite provide the stopping power of a good set of hydraulics, whilst still being more reliable than the rim brakes of standard road bikes. My purchasing logic however was flawed, as to be honest, I’ve never had a set of hydraulic brakes fail on the road, and I don’t know anyone else who has either. So if you want a bike buying tip…..there is no need EVER to specify cable disc brakes over hydraulics.

Anyway, I digress.

I have loved riding my Ribble over the years, and done many long distance events and tours on her, but was she really suitable for a tough and sometimes technical off road adventure?

Specialized Rockhopper Mountain Bike

First attempts on a slightly loaded Rockhopper

When I remember back to the 1990’s I really only ever rode a mountain bike. I lived in Somerset, with the Quantock hills on my doorstep. I was very unfit by my current standards, even though I was 20 years younger. I really was quite rubbish at mountain biking, but did learn some useful bike handling skills from my brother Kerry, who is actually a pretty good mountain biker. I rode Giants back then, but once I upgraded to a Specialized Rockhopper there was no going back, I loved these bikes. Sadly my first 2 were stolen, but this silver one was the final replacement and was a move away from old school hardtails with straight handlebars. It took me a while to get used to such wide handlebars, and to be honest I didn’t really use it much….although it did take me across Spain from Barcelona to Santander, and also on the first part of my ride around Britain. But after that, I discovered road bikes and after the brakes ceased up, it languished unloved in my basement gathering dust, where it remained for several years until I decided to get it brought back to life last year.

Sadly the years of neglect had taken their toll. The brakes were given a service, but weren’t quite right. It needed a new chain & cassette, the saddle had seized completely to the seat post in a very peculiar position, and there were several rust spots on the body. But, with the exception of the strange saddle it all worked…but as I couldn’t really ride it until I sorted out the saddle it got returned to the basement.

Until last month……

When I took another look, the brakes had once again seized up. At my LBS, I was advised they were pretty much beyond help, and so they were replaced. I replaced the seat-post and saddle, and started to get out into the woods to try it out.

I was taken back 20 years riding this kind of bike again, but this time it was a very different experience. I am so much fitter now, with 10’s of 1000’s of miles under my belt, and it was a feeling of pure joy, although a somewhat slower affair than on my Ribble, especially as it ran traditional 26″ wheels and not the 29’ers of modern mountain bikes.

So here was my dilemma, which bike would be best for the Escapade. My old mountain bike, or my Ribble which would still potentially require a few more changes?

It was time to experiment

The experiment

On a chilly but sunny weekend in April, I decided to repeat a section of the Surrey Hills ride that had previous cast doubts on whether the Ribble would be a sensible bet for this race.

The question was simple. Would the fast sections for the Ribble be fast enough to make up for the extra pushing that I would have to do?

I knew that the Ribble would be much faster than the Rockhopper on tarmac sections and general trails and forest sections. But I would also have to walk the bike more often on some of the more technical sections, steeper climbs and sand. The Rockhopper would come into its own where the surface was uneven, rocky, rooty and on steep climbs and descents, but would be slower on the ‘easy’ stuff.

So, averaged out, which would be quicker?

There was only one way to find out, and that was for them to go head to head over a weekend.

On the Saturday, I would ride the route on the Rockhopper, and on Sunday I would repeat it on the Ribble. I wore the same clothes, took the same food, stopped in the same places, and tried to make it as identical as I could. I chose to ride the mountain bike on the first day as I would be fresh, and I had a feeling that I would use more energy trying to go fast on it. And if I was still faster on the Ribble despite fatigue from the first day, then it would be clear which was the winner. Secretly I was hoping that the Ribble would win.

To see what happened during the weekend, take a look at the video

From my You Tube channel Mawonavelo Marcia

The results

As expected both bikes had sections when they came into their own. On tarmac sections the Ribble was fast and comfortable, as you would expect from a road spec bike, and the Rockhopper felt slow, and uncomfortable on wide bars and fat grippy tyres. It certainly took more energy out of me. But once off road, both bikes initially performed well. On gravel sections, and through the woods there was very little between the bikes. Although the MTB was marginally slower in speed, I found myself not concerned about picking my way around tree roots, and rocks quite as much as on the Ribble.

On the shallower climbs I was ok on either bike as long as there weren’t too many rocks or loose stones, when at such times the Rockhopper reigned supreme. The biggest different though was on the ability to ride through sand, and down the more technical descents. The tyres on the Ribble just weren’t wide enough for the sand, and I was terrified on the descents and found myself walking most of them. There was only 1 climb that I couldn’t manage on either bike, so I guess there will be times I will find myself pushing whichever bike I choose.

Looking at the numbers though in both Strava and Training peaks provided a more scientific answer than just what it felt like.

RockhopperRibble
Average Speed9.2 mph9.1 mph
TSS score (effort)256218
Average HR156150

Once I looked at the numbers it was clear that taking into account fatigue on the 2nd day, there was actually very little difference in the speed between the two bikes. But, there was a significant difference in effort levels. These rides were just 3 1/2 hours long and I worked so much harder on the Rockhopper than the Ribble. Given that the actual event will be 10 times as long, I had to consider whether I could in fact keep up that level of effort for 12 or more hours a day on the Rockhopper.

I made what I believed to be my final decision, I would ride the Ribble and see what I could do to improve it’s suitability for the ride. Options were being made available to me, but it was going to involve travel and quite a lot of faff, and would not be immediately available.

A change of heart

A week later I was keen to start getting used to riding the route, and set off to some of the harder parts of the South Downs to try riding the bike with a load. I loaded up my Tailfin (full of stuff I didn’t really need), just to make the bike heavier, and set off straight into the hills. The South Downs may look like lovely trails to walk and ride, but they are made up of chalk, and lots of hard flint. We’ve had no real rain recently, and so the trails were solid and like concrete. The week before I had found my bike bouncing quite happily over the rocks, but today, loaded up, the bounce had all but disappeared. I seemed to find every rock, and it was becoming quite a painful experience. The handling was completely different to the lightly laden bike and I dreaded what should have been the dream descents off the downs. It didn’t take much for me to feel off balance and as a result I gripped the bike tightly instead of just letting it guide me like normal. It took so much concentration to try to miss the rocks, and I soon realised that with around 100 miles of this kind of route, there was no way I’d be able to ride the Ribble once it was loaded up.

I do have a new gravel spec Ribble CGR on order which would have loved these trails, but sadly with all the current supply chain issue affecting the bike industry at the moment, I won’t have it before this event.

A few days later I rode my Rockhopper on a local section of the South Downs, loaded up, and although it was heavier, there was no impact at all to it’s handling. It continued to bounce over the rocks and tree roots, and I hardly noticed that it was carrying anything.

So, I’ve made some minor changes to the handlebar arrangement, to give me some additional, narrower hand positions for easy sections and tarmac, and I’ve purchased some new faster rolling tyres, which have increased speed, and reduced fatigue considerably when I’m riding.

I’m no longer looking at this event with dread, but with excitement instead. I can’t wait to see what I’m made of, and whether in fact I can actually complete a 300 mile off road event.

2 thoughts on “New Focus – The Bike Experiment

Add yours

  1. Have you thought of 650b tyres on the Ribble? This with a wolf tooth and larger cassette would give you bigger, softer tyres and automatically drop your gearing. You could add a super compact chains as well.

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