the setback post

Month: February, 2014

The faithful companion

After the unqualified success of my recent foray into internet feminism, I’m allowing myself another off-topic post. If you’d rather read about cycling, I recommend not talking about shaving.

canons95-lev (1 of 1)

If you’ve ever thought that cycling is a hobby of avarice and obsession, photography is at least as bad. Where cyclists wax anal* over the perfect stable of bikes, the ideal tyre width or the colour of their cable outers – photographers debate the relative merits of different cameras and lenses with a vehemence and fervour that might surprise the uninitiated.

[*Ouch.]

There are holy wars over brand loyalties and endless personal quests to reach a mythical state of technological contentment, one that remains persistently elusive in a realm of breakneck obsolescence. The need to expand and rationalise one’s shooting kit even has names of its own like LBA (Lens Buying Addiction) and GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome).

Influenced by this teeming world of mutual enablers, I experienced a classic modern photographer’s evolution.

1. Acquire DSLR.

2. Acquire various lenses for [1], starting with the notion of ‘covering the bases’ (i.e. focal lengths) and then diversifying to include any number of fast primes and retro curiosities.

3. Acquire film bodies to take above lenses, start developing film.

5. Acquire multiple other film cameras because suddenly a whole new world has opened up and it’s shiny and exciting.

6. Realise scanning film to share personal ‘vision’ with wider world is one endless, time-consuming ball-ache.

7. Acquire compact digital camera to carry everywhere. Enjoy, but long for better manual controls.

8. Acquire nicer, far more expensive compact digital camera to carry everywhere.

Somebody once said that the best camera is the one you have with you** and it’s a maxim I’ve taken to heart, the reason I’ve ended up at [8]. Once I’d admitted to myself that the DSLR was just too heavy and too bulky to keep about my person at all times, and that shooting film, for all its hipster cred and arcane pleasures, was a great way of ensuring that most of my photos never saw the light of day, a small and capable digital camera was the most natural place to end up.

[**This line is widely attributed online to Chase Jarvis, but I have a suspicion it's been around rather longer than that would imply.]

The Canon S95 was that place.

I’m not going to write a proper review, because the S95 has long since been superseded by newer, more feature-laden models not once, but at least three times.

What I will say is that it represents something of holy grail of features for someone like me. Camera design is an exercise in compromises like any other engineering endeavour and Canon have done a particularly good job in balancing things with the S95.

It has good manual controls, pleasant image quality (even at what counts as moderately high ISO for such a small camera) and most importantly, it makes virtually no difference to the weight of the bag I carry around, and also fits into the pocket of a cycling jersey when the need arises.

A significant proportion of the photos on this blog are taken with the S95, including action shots, box porn, hubs and more.

Sure, I’d like to be able to restrict depth of field more than the small sensor allows, and it doesn’t have the lightning responsiveness of a good DSLR, but by being with me nearly all the time, it is by definition the best camera I own.

Raleigh round kids, Gamps is tellin’ a story!

So 2007 called, and they want their blog post back.

raleigh blog

More like, it’s as smelly as it is dirty. It drinks as much beer as it is dirty.

Raleigh wants you to know that they get it:

raleigh gets it

Presumably “it” is corporate pandering to a subculture that was sort of cool five years ago. Of course, they’re pulling of a kind of double-pander* by netting the lucrative “aspiring bike messenger” and recent cyclocross convert demographics, which is no mean feat.

[*A position you'll go to jail for trying in China-land. #culturallyinsensitiveinnuendo]

Mockery aside, Raleigh are doing one thing right. Their ’cross bikes are just lovely, especially this blue beauty with it’s oh-so-butch-yet-beautiful-I-just-feel-so-safe ENVE disc fork.

©Earl HarperThe RXC Pro Disc. So hot right now. (Well, in 2012.) Photo: Raleigh

It doesn’t have thru-axles though, so Bikesnob would like it and James Huang will be Angry [sic].

I should point out, by the way, that this isn’t actually a new model or anything, I just wanted some yang to balance my grumpy yin. And you can’t actually buy one of these in the UK in any case, so Raleigh is in no danger of becoming cool here.

In other news, my ongoing project to become an industry insider douchebag has taken a small Great Leap Forward.

great leap forwardWhat is it with me and the Chinese today?

I’m not ready to go public, but I’m the guy riding the giant fixie cog across the ocean of success in this scenario.

44 stock photos that I don’t know how to react to

This is The Setback Post’s first ever off-topic post. Depending on the reaction, it may or may not be its last. If you’d rather read about cycling, I recommend some Luxembourgish CX or a bit of winter angst.

women-stock-photosImage: Getty/Facebook

A Buzzfeed link is doing the rounds of social media at the moment, featuring samples from image-giant Getty’s “Lean In Collection”, which purports to include “more than 2,500 photos of female leadership in contemporary work and life”:

The project began when Pam Grossman, director of visual trends at Getty Images, commissioned a study that would track the changes in the representation of girls and women in the media.

[...]

“This is such a big passion project for all of us, and cheesy as it sounds, by showing people powerful images of women, we thought maybe we could actually change the world,” Grossman told BuzzFeed.

Whilst I applaud the underlying intention, I’m struggling slightly with the idea of stock photography as a medium for social change. Getty is, after all, one of the world’s largest purveyors of women laughing alone with salad, not to mention any number of gender role-reinforcing scenarios.

And that’s kind of the point of stock photography; it’s not inherently evil, but it exists to supply a cosy, bland visual language to companies and content producers who want familiar, unchallenging tropes to illustrate their websites and articles. It’s the reason you can safely look for a hot woman wearing a headset* if you want customer service, and why university campuses everywhere are littered with the bodies of students who died of exposure from working outside:

students-on-grass1024Image: Google

Getty would probably argue their project acts to normalise the idea of women in non-traditional roles, but to me the act of using stock photography is itself one of tokenism.

Rather than buying an image of a Lean In woman for your corporate website, wouldn’t it make more sense to take photographs of actual female members of your workforce? And if you don’t have any, maybe you should be asking why, rather than using staged photos of strangers as window dressing.

*To keep things bike related and also undermine this post completely, I asked fellow blogger Jack Luke of mycountry.cc to ’shop a headset of the more familiar kind onto a lady for comedic purposes. The result was this decidedly un-feminist and mildy NSFW image. You’re welcome/I’m sorry.

Love’s labours last: pedals and stuff

It’s unclear to me what set of rules my internal bike maintenance schedule abides by. Sometimes something in me snaps, and action must be taken. This time it was the thought of the poor, benighted Speedplays on The Last Bike I Will Ever Buy* experiencing another day of dry, ill-lubricated drudgery.

[*It's titanium. When you buy Ti, you are legally obliged to remind people that it mates for life. Them's the rules.]

So, I got greasy.

Forget your fancy pants grease guns and cartridges of unob-lubium. What you need is a piece of crap plastic syringe off ebay and the grease of your choice. Normally I endorse the use of the el-cheapest of the el-cheapo because it used to come in a tin that even the truly slow of cadence would struggle to misinterpret (it doesn’t anymore, sadly, whatever Amazon may claim):

granville grease

…but on this occasion I had half a syringe of the posh bike stuff to use up, and also it’s much easier to refill the syringe from a tube than from a pot so there’s that.

Anyway.

Servicing these is straightforward and in no way warrants photography, but I know y’all love a bit of screwdriver on screw action:

speedplay service (2 of 2)You people make me sick.

That’s the screw that seals off the grease port. Once it’s removed and in no way lost on the floor, it’s time to play Doctor.

speedplay service (1 of 2)

I’m making this look easy by doing it all nonchalantly and one-handed, but that was just so I could hold the camera. It actually takes a bit of pressure to force grease through the pedal and you’ll probably need both paws – especially if the black plastic bit keeps trying to pop off and squirt grease everywhere like with my pedals.

You’ll know it’s working when grease starts bubbling out around the pedal spindle (next to the “R”, above) and you can stop when it’s coming out clean-ish. I say ish, because I refuse to pump half a litre of grease through on grounds of being a huge cheapskate.

Once completed, the pedals should be smooth and have pretty much zero ‘spin’ when you flick them. Now you can stop feeling guilty about neglecting your bearings and go back to feeling guilty about never bothering to lube your cleats.

I have a love/hate/meh relationship with my Speedplays, incidentally; I like some of their features, principally the non-centering float, but the cleats are fussy and expensive, and the company is, shall we say, difficult to love.**

[**Do your own research.]

Back to bike maintenance.

Since I was on a roll with the Speedplays, I decided to give my SPDs some love, starting with the two pairs of XTRs from the TCX and the XLS and finishing with the horribly neglected pair of cheapies on the Geophysicist’s commuting bike. I’m not writing a guide to servicing these as there are plenty of good ones out there, but I do recommend finding your nearest scientist and borrowing her favourite Christmas-themed tray on which to work:

spd service (1 of 4)

Here’s some more new grease/old grease porn for your delectation:

spd service (3 of 4)

Note the use of Park Tool’s peerless TP-1 (just £19.99 a roll) for general absorption and cleaning purposes.

If, like me,  you are overly enthusiastic and extremely generous with the gooey stuff, you’ll probably end up driving the rubber seal part way out of the lock bolt/spindle assembly. I splashed out on the Park PC-1 for this very eventuality:

spd service (4 of 4)Pro.

So yeah, pedals need love too. You heard it here first.

What makes a cheap bike, cheap?

bikes-pump-trackPhoto: Will Vanlue

People who don’t know much about bicycles but who do know that I like them often ask me incredibly stressful, open-ended questions like “What road bike would you buy for £600?”

[TSP note: I've picked this number because it's roughly the minimum amount of money (at normal retail pricing) you can spend and get a road bike that isn't, for want of a better word, shit.]

The problem is that my own personal answer and the answer that would actually be useful to them are completely different from one another. Given a budget of £600 I would scrimp and scrounge for a decent frame and some used groupset parts, likely aiming only to buy a chain, cassette, cables and bar tape new. I’d also build my own wheels and find uses for the some of the random assortment of parts that litter my flat.

This approach is not an option for someone lacking the time, tools or mechanical nous to build their own bike, and it’s a complete non-starter if high street bike shops are your only resource for parts. So what does £600 buy you in a bike shop? Let’s look at an example.

[TSP note: I'll write something cutting and hilaire in a minute, stop putting your coats on and sit your asses down.]

Exhibit A – The Trek 1.1

trek11-640Photo: Trek

There’s a lot to like here. Ok, the paintjob on this particular model is decidedly meh (the more expensive 1.2 and 1.5 are somewhat nicer) but for £600 you can leave the shop with a reasonably capable road bike with a sensible range of gears, geometry that will work for most people, mudguard compatibility, a carbon-legged fork and Trek’s lifetime frame warranty.

So why don’t we all ride these?

Well, aside from being aesthetically underwhelming, there are a number of ways that Trek keeps the price down. Although the 8 speed Claris groupset benefits (in a distinctly diluted manner) from the trickle-down that started many moons ago with the flagship Dura Ace 7800, you’re actually only getting the shifters and mechs from it. The rest is a mixture of bog-standard generic parts including a weighty square taper chainset and bottom bracket combination, and some indifferent unbranded brake calipers.

The wheels are heavy and basic too, with primitively sealed cup and cone hubs that the average Trek 1.1 buyer will neglect, and likely kill, before the rims have reached the end of their natural life from brake wear.

Digging a little deeper, we can see from the spec that the headset features “semi-cartridge bearings”. This rather mealy-mouthed term actually denotes low-grade caged bearings hidden under a basic seal – they aren’t cartridge bearings at all and they are not particularly resistant to a harsh operating environment like, say, winter.

In a similar vein, entry level bikes like this are often sold with with very cheap cables, including non-stainless inners that quickly fall victim to corrosion, leading to poor shifting and sluggish brakes.

And that, essentially, is what makes a cheap bike cheap. It’s not a matter of snobbery – a bike like the 1.1 is not fundamentally bad, and the frames are good enough quality that you could quite reasonably take the approach of gradually replacing parts as they wear out or seize up; but it’s important to understand when shopping for a bike that the differences between a £1200 bike and a £600 one are rather more nuanced than just the number of gears, or a few grammes here and there.

To show I’m not picking on Trek (they just happen to be a brand with which I’m intimately familiar) let’s take a look at…

Exhibit B – the Trek Madone 2.3

madone23-640Photo: Trek

 Ok, so it’s twice the price of the 1.1. So it must be half the weight and twice as fast, right?

[TSP note: As it turns out, this topic is not the rich seam of comedy I'd imagined and I'm starting to depress myself. For some light relief, check out this product manual that Trek hilariously still keeps on their website. It's funny because LIES. ALL LIES.]

Well, no.

But in addition to a lighter, more pretend-aero frame with a snazzy tapered headtube, you do get almost a whole 105 groupset (the cranks are non-series, but still decent). Compared to Claris, 105 gets you two more cogs at the back, hidden shifter cables and parts that are considerably harder wearing and more resistant to corrosion over time. With the 2.3 you also get gen-yoo-wine catridge bearings in your hubs and your headset, and a carbon seatpost.

So, in conclusion, the answer to the original question is that the bike you should buy for £600 costs just £1200.

You’re welcome.

Harder, Better, Faster, Hotter?

wigginstdf2012Photo: Robert King

According to the news today, “faster” cyclists are more attractive. Naturally, this has me worried.

The findings come from a paper by Erik Postma, published in the Royal Society’s Biology Letters, which details a study in which female participants were asked to rate the attractiveness of riders who completed the 2012 Tour de France.

While the conclusions appear ostensibly intuitive, it strikes me that using stage race results is a flawed way of determining who is “faster”. The Tour isn’t a test of who is the fastest cyclist per se, it’s a test of who is best at winning the Tour, a feat that depends on a great many variables, including luck.

In fairness, the analysis does make use of the riders’ individual TT times and the author acknowledges the potential for error in his methods section:

“Professional cycling, and especially a three week stage race like the Tour de France, involves a substantial amount of tactics and teamwork.”
[...]
“Note that, depending on their role in the team (helper or leader), riders vary in their motivation to finish in as little time as possible. Although this role is likely to be correlated with their abilities, this will introduce some error. Also, I only measure one aspect of performance, emphasising endurance capacity and the ability to perform consistently over a relatively long period of time, and thereby this measure of performance is biased against sprinters and pure climbers.”

I’m not qualified to assess the quality of the statistical analysis so I may be talking out of my chamois, but it seems to me that rather than merely introducing error, the inherent flaws in the premise of the study render the results essentially meaningless.

Or in other words, slow is hot too.

Un-pro bike: TSP gets racy

xls mud nosh (1 of 1)

This is the machine that took The Setback Post to a season-clinching 60th place in the Open CX at the John Muir Winter Carnival, held at Foxlake, East Lothian.

TSP’s Cormorant RT mechanics were tight-lipped about the details of this build, but under the mud is rumoured to lie a bone-stock Planet X XLS frameset kitted out with “components and wheels”, all chosen according to “what was on sale at the time”. TSP is alone in his team in having embraced disc brakes, and was heard to comment that they were “ok”, and very much “not a factor in keeping the game the same”.

The validity of his comments was emphatically underlined by the number of riders who beat him resoundingly riding supermarket mountain bikes and scrapheap single speeds.

Modesty aside, TSP’s lack of technical skills and fear of faceplanting in mud could not take away from a season finale that was, above all, mediocre. He’s looking forward to next year, when he will run his tubeless setup at a slightly lower pressure and is confident of a podium as a result.

Oh, and the Geophysicist survived too.

Things that I don’t hate: Knog Blinder

Around three years ago I bought a Knog Skink rear light, because it looked sort of cool and could be swapped between bikes with a minimum of hassle, requiring no separate mounting parts:

knog-skink-rearPhoto: Knog

It worked flawlessly – for about two rides.

A sniff of moisture had it behaving erratically and it expired completely in short order. Being highly organised, I never did get around to returning it, but I did swear that I would never again allow one of Knog’s cheerfully marketed rubber appendages to darken my portal, or enlighten my bicycle.

Come Christmas 2012, my ever-interfering family had other ideas, and amongst the trinkets and baubles of holiday cheer lurked a Knog Blinder rear light.

blinder500 (2 of 2)The giant misshapen hand was a gift from my parents too.

The main appeal of these is that in addition to the rubber strap mounting system, they are charged via USB, meaning that even the most resolutely forgetful cyclist need only remember to unhook the light from his ’pede and ram it into the nearest computing device. Given that most cyclists spend more time blogging about their bikes than actually riding them, this turns out to be eminently practical.

blinder500 (1 of 2)It also saves countless trips to Poundland in search of toxic triple-As.

I liked the Blinder enough that I bought the Geophysicist one. And she bought me a front to match the rear, so I’ve forgiven Knog for the aberration that was the ill-fated Skink.

Is this one light to rule them all? No, it is not. The Blinders are lights for being seen, not to see by, and while battery life is perfectly adequate, it is better suited to rides spanning cities rather than counties.

For the lazy urban cyclist in need of reasonably priced, convenient illumination however, they are hard to beat.