Review in two parts

I’ve not posted a review in a little while, so thought that I would do a review in two parts: a trail and a piece of kit, I attempted to use trailside.

First of all, the trail: –

Yes. I rode this bit…

Haleigh Park, Befleet, Essex. Home of the 2012 London Olympic MTB course.

I hadn’t ridden this trail since 2015, when I was visiting friends and family in the U.K. whilst I was still living in Switzerland. Then I was riding on a hire bike and I had zero experience of UK trail centres.

From a spectator’s perspective, it is an amazing course; it’s possible to watch so much of the action without changing vantage point. From a riding perspective, it’s tough. I’ve ridden and raced on international world cup courses whilst in Switzerland and those were easy in comparison.

I currently live in West Yorkshire. So a four hour or so drive each way. So, is the payoff worth the investment?

It’s worth stating that the course is free, parking is inexpensive and the facilities, i.e. The Hub are very good. Obviously seating indoors and access to the bike shop on site are very restricted due to Covid-19. However, it’s possible to gain technical assistance and refreshment and the toilets are clean, well serviced and more than adequate for anyone not wishing to use a changing robe in the carpark (as I did).

I travelled down with my partner, who doesn’t ride, but supports me in doing so and is more than tolerant in regards to my obsessive behaviour and tendencies towards all things mountain bike related, also in the car was a friend, Ian. Bikes in question: my regular Cube Reaction C:62 SLT and his Cannonade Habit (e-bike).

The carpark allowed ample space and we parked next to a rather ratty Aston Martin (still an Aston Martin, but the paintwork had certainly seen better days).

There is an excellent skills loop, offering a preview of the type of trail features on the course itself. This, I must add, is rather better than other trail centres I have encountered a skills area on. It’s also a rather fun area just to have a quick spin around.

The course itself? It’s an Olympic course, designed to challenge the best athletes in the world. So how did two guys in their middle ages find it? The climbs are fairly brutal (this being stated by a guy who actually enjoys climbing!) the drops are steep and the chutes are terrifying. Rock gardens are unforgiving as everything is set into place in cement. Therefore, it is challenging. I certainly opted away from the black lines, riding reds and occasional blue sections.

We did find that in places the trail is rather in need of TLC; sections we bare and trail lining material was visible in many places. Additionally, on most berms, grip just wasn’t there for me in the rear, riding Schwalbe Racing Ralph Addix Speed Compound. Discussing this with my riding buddy, we were both of the opinion (opinion, we are not experts), that the berms would benefit from being ridden more and that lockdown a lot of wet weather had caused an ‘all season surface’ to deteriorate. He also stated that the weight and centre of gravity on the e-bike helped with traction; indeed I did loose traction in some places where he retained it.

It seemed a shame that a venue as prestigious as Haleigh was just let down by what appears to be maintenance. I also realise that trails require volunteers and that requires time, sweat and having the freedom to give both and I praise those who do the job, not just here, but at every trail and trail centre.

In summation of this section was the ride worth a 9 hour round trip?

If I lived within an hour or even a hour and a half, each way of Benfleet. Yes, undoubtably. In fact, I would probably look at coaching, which is available to help me in skills and confidence to do the sections which frankly terrify me. However, I live in West Yorkshire and there’s excellent riding within an hour or so, including the Peak district, the Lake district, Cannock Chase and Dalby Forest is calling me to ride and that’s a couple of hours each way. Plus, I’m about an equal distance to parts of Tweed Valley in Scotland. So, I’m not convinced that I would undertake the drive solely to ride the course again. When I’m in the area, visiting friends, it will be a place to go and ride, but otherwise, I have things which appeal more, closer.

Kit review: Stans Dart Tool

Small, light but does it work?

I’ve had this is small item in my emergency kit for a few months now. It’s basically a tyre plug for those of use who ride tubeless, in order to repair holes in the tube that are too large for sealant to seal. Basically, unless you’re cycling press, most people can’t afford to put holes in £50+ tyres in order to test a product. Therefore, this kind of item remains in your ‘get out of shit kit’ until actually required. Cue, approaching the end of Saturday’s ride and I hear that awful hissing sound…

..Confidently I yell ‘$*IT FLAT!’ and pull off the trail, root around in my jersey and produce the Stan’s DART tool, locate the source of the puncture, spin the wheel a few times to see if it seals. Nope. OK, I say, ‘Let’s try this’ The plug breaks off and becomes litter. (I pick up the litter). ‘Never mind, there’s two of them in a plastic tube for twenty quid!’ Attempts to use the second DART, which also becomes trail litter and also gets picked up…

So the tool designed to get you out of trouble in race situation, is effectively rubbish. Two darts, both of which failed to insert. Maybe the puncture wasn’t large enough, but it’s rare to get anything larger than two or three mm in my experience.

I am trying a new sealant with larger particles, which should arrive tomorrow. Let’s see if that avoids me buying a new tyre before the end of the month…

Review – Tubeless Inserts

I’ve been curious about these for a little while. I’ve ran tubeless for about 4 years now and I must confess that living and riding in Yorkshire can mean that ‘sometimes’ running a tubeless system alone just isn’t enough.

So, what is tubeless, in case people don’t know?

Basically, it’s removing the inner tube from inside of the tyre and using a latex sealant which seals most holes in the tyre as they occur. This isn’t quite as simple as that, but it’s the basic premise. You do need to make sure that the tyres are tubeless ready (i.e. non-porous) and that the spoke holes in the wheel are sealed. Plus, a tubeless specific valve as you’re still going to need air in the tyre.

If it’s a first time job and you want to avoid mess, be kind and give the job to your LBS: it supports them and it will only cost you a few pounds and it really does avoid a lot of mess: blowing a tyre off a rim will leave your workspace and everything in it looking like a Jackson Pollock!

So, why use inserts? Surely they add rotational weight?

From my experience on average when I change a tyre I can usually identify at least twenty small thorns and other detritus in the tyre; I’m just not aware of them before changing the tyre. Small punctures seal quickly and you’ll only occasionally notice the loss of tyre pressure.

In the world of mountain biking, the risk of splitting a tyre or tyre wall is far greater. Rocks can be sharp and also hitting rock ledges at speed and such can cause the tyre to break the airtight seal with the bead of the wheel, which means instant loss of pressure and sealant all of the place.

Put simply, tubeless is fantastic in reducing punctures, but it’s remiss, possibly even to the level of negligent to think that you’re never going to flat again. It has happened to me, usually when I’m in the arse end of no-where and with several miles to walk and no tube to put into the tyre.

So tubeless inserts are essentially a protective insert to keep the tyre from fully deforming away from the rim and seem to be a way to reduce this sudden loss of pressure which occurs with things like rock strikes.

The bike industry is well known for never standing still when it can make some money out of the punters. With this said, the tubeless insert market has been burgeoning within the last year or so.

Barbieri Anaconda Tubeless Protection System:

My choice for this first trial

This is essentially my choice, they are cheap, lightweight and if they fail to do the job; I’ve actually lost very little. Purchased through Planet – X for the sum of £14.99

Essentially they are a foam noodle which sits inside the tyre and stops the tyre deforming on impact. The tubeless solution will swirl around in the tyre and seal smaller punctures. They will, at a push, get you home in an emergency but will be worthless at the end and I wouldn’t risk the wheel rims myself.

In the pack, two inserts and two carbon tubeless valves. Which I found to be completely useless, the valve core is not removable and even using a compressor, I struggled to get sufficient airflow to seat the rear tyre on the bead.

The front tyre: Not so easy, quite simply, getting the tyre installed over the insert was a mission and a half, let alone getting the tyre seated on the bead. Cue much swearing, yelling and coffee consumed and a full autistic meltdown was had within the space of over an hour. In the end, I opted that my time sanity and I did the sensible thing; took it to my LBS, All Terrain Cycles in Saltaire who solved the problem but with a different class of swearing.

I’ve been running the system about 4 from and can say that in general I find it excellent. I have a tear in the rear tyre which I gained at a local race and frankly funds have dictated that I plugged the tyre rather than immediately replacing it. The plug is currently wearing slightly and I have a slow leak, but on a ride the other day I notice the drop in pressure and was able to re-inflate the tyre with a hand pump and continue with my ride. The tyre didn’t deform or lose all pressure. The insert has also encouraged me to have a little more confidence in riding sharper rock gardens. So this is all good.

Are they worth money? For this value, hell yes. Some of the other options on the market retail at £150.00 that’s getting to the point of becoming an economical factor for some people and I certainly wouldn’t got that high. There are other, cheaper options on the market, but I’ve not tried them at this point. Certainly for the time being and going into next year and race season, I will keep with this option.

Review… XO1 Eagle

SRAM’s Eagle XO1 Drivetrain

I thought that I would undertake a review of a product that’s been out for about 18 months and I’ve been using for around 12 months: Namely SRAM’s 12 speed drivetrain. Indeed at the point of writing this review, it’s not even the latest technology as SRAM has produced an electronic groupset, with wireless shifting. However, that’s still a premium product and one that not everyone will consider, at least for some time.

This comes in several variations to fit most budgets. Everything from the ultra lightweight XX1 through to the more budget conscious NX and GX ranges. Again, I’m not sponsored, paid, receive any inducement from anyone in relation to any products I review. The chances are, if I review something, I like it and think that others who share my passion for mountain biking may also enjoy them.

For a few years I’ve been a major advocate for a 1x drive train; essentially having a single chainring at the front and a wide spread of gears on the cassette at the rear. This reduces wear and tear from shifting the chain across the chain ring and reduces stress from ‘chain stretch’. I’ve certainly worn out and snapped far fewer chains since going to a 1x system.

My comparators are having spent several years riding on Shimano XT and a brief period on SRAM’s 1×11 XX1 over a demo weekend in Switzerland.

SRAM marketed their Eagle Groupset as revolutionary, stating that the front derailed is now dead. I’ve had this argument with several people I’ve ridden with, many of which disagree… until they try it.

Thankfully, at least in my opinion, a 1x drivetrain is largely becoming standard on any mountain bike worth buying from new. Also, Shimano and a couple of others are playing catch up and producing a 12 speed cassette and another company is now producing a 13 speed cassette.

The Eagle Groupset has a 500% range, running across a spread of 10tooth – the enormous 50tooth ‘dinner plate’. I recall staring in awe at the cassette when I first saw it. It is quite literally massive.

Now there are some distinctions between SRAM and Shimano, for those who aren’t aware. The thumb shift on a SRAM shifter only allows for a thumb pushing change, whilst Shimano does allow for either a thumb or forefinger. For some people I think that this is a matter of taste, but in my opinion, I prefer keeping my forefinger over the brake level, so therefore I prefer to use my thumb.

Now I am using a high end range, the price has gone down as variations are added, but the groups itself retails in the region of £850.00. It’s not their flagship model, but it’s considered ‘race ready’, with carbon cranks and components being lightweight.

At first use, I was impressed by how smooth everything felt, gear changes were responsive and crisp, even (dare I say it) under load. The 50T on the cassette meant that I could more or less climb anything and it felt a huge benefit from my previous 46T.

I’m cautious to ensure that the drivetrain in cleaned after every ride, especially a dirty ride as dirt causes excess wear on the chain and that in turn causes greater wear and tear to the whole system and, replacement parts aren’t cheap (£40.00 for a chain) and when I replace parts I usually use this as an excuse to improve upon them, where possible. This said, my chain wear indicator tells me that the chain is still good.

I’ve dropped a chain once, in fact a week ago, but frankly we were riding in an absolute ‘bog-fest’ and I blame the thick clawing mud rather than anything else.

In short, the system still responds as it always did, shifts are smooth (possibly not Shimano smooth) but there is a distinctive click as the lever engages and the shift is rapid and engages without incident.

So, personally, will I upgrade to the slightly lighter, better XX1 in due course?

Well, next year is a new season and I’m going to hold off until then, unless parts need replacement before. But in short, yes and no.

Yes: XX1 is lighter, has more exotic materials and will technically perform slightly better…

No: I’m going to start using a Power Meter in the new year. Also, with the advent of SRAM Eagle AXS, the electronic wireless shifting Groupset, why would I buy something that’s not at the top of it’s game?

So the plan is to get a SRAM XX1 power meter with cranks and then the AXS upgrade kit, which simply is the wireless shifter, battery & charger and the the wireless derailed. I’ll replace the chain with an XX1 model and therefore the bike is ready for the next season and beyond.