thirty five – an overdue review.

This review has been a long time coming. Nearly a year in fact! Around June 2017 I strapped a pair of Formula 35 forks to the front of my bike. These have been reviewed by professional reviewers heaps of times – for example here; and here. I’m writing another one – after riding them hard on the front of a Liteville 301 for a while.

Impressions

Here are some photos to help you out. Firstly, how they turned up in a nice, minimal box.
…which made me happy! They are incredibly, noticeably light. That was impression number one. Impression number two is that they are filled with neat detail. Most noticeably the steampunk compression adjustment assembly atop the damper leg. It’s sweet!

Here’s how they look fully assembled and stuck to the front of a bike. Classy and burly – the tubes on the 301 are fat – and the 35s fit in beautifully.

How do they work for me?

Forks are forks, right? They bounce and stop you from getting too beat up on the trails. Well sort of. At this level, a fork is a precision tool for controlling your ride. It’s not meant to smooth the trail out for you, it’s meant to keep your front wheel in touch with the ground, help your bike stay balanced as a unit, and ultimately keep you able to control your ride at speed.

I’m no fork expert – I’ve ridden Pikes, Yaris, Fox 36’s, and owned X Fusion Sweeps – but I don’t have a long term picture of all of them.

Having said that, the formula is the first fork I’ve jumped on and thought ‘wow. really. wow’. So why is that? To flesh the story out I’d been riding on XF sweeps for a while, and had most recently taken a demo bike equipped with Pikes for a good thrashing. On advice from the importer I had strapped the formulas  on, and pumped them up with no other adjustments. I took them to a trail I was very familiar with, and blew my fastest time out of the water.

I railed into the fist big berm, laid the bike over and instantly thought ‘what! something’s going on here!’ – the formula magic was at work.

What was the big difference?

Formula’s key system is allowing both the damping piston and air spring piston to slide when under lateral load.

All forks experience lateral load when you corner – and the formula solution simply works well to overcome fork binding when this happens. It is the key difference between the 35s and all of the other forks I’ve tried. I believe the hype!

How are the forks going a year later?

First impressions been and gone – I’ve ridden the forks at Thredbo, Stromlo, Majura – picked up some PRs, and had a heap of fun. The 35 perfectly balances the rear suspension of the 301 (super supple to sag, then progressive), making it an incredible platform for playing around on in the dirt.

The forks are stiff – I can hold a line and plow into all kinds of crap. Yet supple, and supportive, and magical. You know how you huck a 5 foot drop and your bike sucks it up smoothly, then rebounds with perfect pose at perfect speed? That’s my life. I’m one happy cat.

Here is how they look now

I now run them with the standard compression valve fully closed; about 10% less pressure than recommended for my weight; and I’ve recently installed a neopos – after running an extra 10cc of oil in the air spring to add some progression. I haven’t ridden them enough to really feel whether the neopos system is working magic or not – but they do feel incredibly composed – a little more than the usual, incredibly composed norm.

A lowers service is truly simple, and can really be done with some Ballistol and a 4mm allen key. I just replaced the dust wiper seals and air spring o-rings – really easy. And I’d recommend a regular service (see below), because a quick inspect and check is so quick.

What issues have I had?

Nothing that is the fork’s fault.

I ignored warning signs to replace the seals  overly long and have a minor polishing of the anodised coating after letting Stromlo grit get at for a few rides. Fortunately, Eightyonespices can replace the uppers and recalibrate the bushings for a really reasonable price. Something to consider in another 50 hours time.

How have they evolved my riding and myself?

Since this site is all about evolutions and revolutions, this is the standard question. Stepping up to these units has taught me a couple of things. Firstly, be decisive. I was planning to buy these when I built the 301 in 2015. I could have, but didn’t after much vacillation. That was a mistake!

Next, it’s another level of confidence and control I have on the bike. Which means I can play more, ride more, learn more and crash less. All good things.

Would I buy them again?

Without hesitation. Next time I’ll get the EX version, to keep my bar height level when eventually stick the -1.5 degree headset in my bike. Or a Selva if I replace the 301 with another 301 and 29 inch wheels.

In Australia, get in touch with Eightyonespices and get sorted out!

 

Measuring a hub

Imagine you have a hub. You don’t know anything about it and can’t find any manufacturer specifications. However, it’s a really great hub that you love, and want to build a wheel on it!

You can jump online and see how to find the parts you need to measure – this screen grab from the ProWheelBuilder.com spoke length calculator shows what you need to know.

The key observations are PCD – or the diameter of the spoke flanges; OLD – or the distance between the two hub end caps; locknut to flange – or the distance from each end cap to flange centres; and flange to centre – or the distance between the centre of the hub and the centre of each flange. For reference, the DT Swiss spoke calculator uses the same data.

But how do you get these data if you can’t look the hub up online?

I use a few simple tools. Here, I have some hubs; a pretty basic set of calipers, a right angle rule, a piece of corrugated card, and things to write with. It helps if the card has at least two edges at a proper right angle.


First thing is to measure PCD. That’s simple – use the caliper. You could also create a tool to measure this out of card – get creative!

Notice I’m not trying to measure the middle of the hole – just measure between the top of  the hole on one side and the bottom of the hole on the other. It’s the same as centre-to-centre difference.

These hubs have different sized flanges, so I had to do this four times. Unlucky!

Next, measure the flange to flange difference. This is where the card comes in.

Here, since the flanges are different diameters I have the large flange off the edge of a table, pushed up hard against the edge of the card. I’m pressing down on the hub body hard enough that the smaller flange makes an impression in the card – you can mark each edge and hey presto – you can measure flange to flange!

Measure from the card edge to the far edge of the impression; and add the flange thickness (use the caliper to measure that).


If your hub has identical flanges, you can just push both into the card at once and make your life easier. Just ensure that your impressions are far enough into the card to allow for the whole hub to be measured up each side.

Next, taking the flange to locknut distance for one side. Here, use the right angle rule to ‘drop’ the end of your hub on the small flange side down to the card.

Again, for hubs with symmetrical flanges you can do this for both ends while the hub is still in it’s ‘impressions’ and save a bunch of effort. This time, however, we need to do it the long way and do some quick maths. Now that we know our OLD (hub spacing from end to end), our flange to flange distance and one locknut to flange distance we can infer the rest.

Mark out a couple of ‘axles’ and transfer your measurements across. From here, you can work out the hub centre; then the flange to centre from both sides.

In this picture, the rear hub is marked out at the top, and the front hub at the bottom. Note, I’ve transferred my measurements of the partial hub (from one flange across) from the other side of the card. This side also has a neat right angle to work from (upper right corner). Lining the hub up, it looks pretty good.

…and you’re done! Combined with your PCD measured at the start, you can go to a spoke calculator and determine which spokes you need!

So how did I go? I made:

PCD: (rear) 49/58 (front) 45/58

Brake side locknut to flange: (rear) 36 (front) 25

Drive side locknut to flange: (rear) 50 (front) 14

Flange to flange centre: (rear) 54 (front) 58

Flange to centre (brake/drive): (rear) 20/34 (front) 23/36

…and Novatecs own specs are here (from weightweenies.com). Note Novatec’s F2F measurement is from the outside of the flanges – not centres.

So not too bad! What’s the next step?

I usually use both prowheelbuilder.com and the DT Swiss calculator. If both are around the same, I go ahead and order spokes! If not, I check my measurements and try again.

For reference, I always use and recommend double butted spokes at a minimum. Because engineering that you can googlify because it’s over my head.

 

Shimano SH-M163 RRLTR, welcome SH-ME5

I recently replaced a pair of Shimano M163 mountain bike shoes. So I thought I’d get to giving them a really, really, really long term review. I’ve ridden them more than 9000 km. They’re my daily commute shoes as well as getting a good workout on in the mountains.

Yeah, yeah, they’ve been reviewed a lot when they were new and shiny – but since when do normal people ever get stuff in time to do a proper long-term ‘pre release’ review? Never – so here is the ‘non-current model’ version.

Cutting to the chase – my pair are black (and were when I got them), had two opposing velcro straps and a ratchet strap to help snug feet into place, and a spot underneath to put cleats. At size 46 they fit my size 46 feet.

What I liked most about them was Shimano’s adoption of the ‘way back is way better’ approach to cleat positioning. They also solved a problem with the previous M162 – which had a seam in the ratchet strap that pulled apart in very short order. I got these M163’s as the second warranty replacement for my M162’s.

What can I say after 9000+ km? They are still alive. Well done Shimano! Also, you can still buy spares for them. Well done x2! There’s an extra vent ( ie hole where the mesh material has been devoured by my nasty foot sweat) forming between the toe cap and the crank-side strap holder bit on both shoes, and the sole is looking pretty beat up – exposing the cleat if I walk around. But that’s pretty much it – the 163s have been a solid, reliable shoe that is still kicking and will now be my wet weather/spare/?? pair of kicks. Thanks Shimano, well done x3.

Finally, I’d like to welcome my new SH-ME5’s. They are also black and have the same super far back cleat positioning. Straight away I see that Shimano have fixed things so that the new vent will no longer appear – the front of the shoe is one continuous piece of material. Shimano also solved the dangly strap thing, with very neat hidden ratchet straps, and added some inside cuff protection from menacing cranks. Here’s a stock photo of them from Shimano’s product page:


First impressions? Very solid feeling, comfy, a little slimmer fitting than the 163s but the wear in is proceeding well. A wide version is available, and if you found the 163 a super tight width it may be wise to consider those. I like the reverse buckles, and I think these are a great iteration of a fine bike riding shoe. I’m looking forward to another long and dependable relationship.

919 km of absolute black ovalness

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I’ve been running an absoluteBLACK oval chainring on my mountain bikes since late May 2016. Winter hit, and PhD deadlines hit, and I really haven’t been out on the big bike enough to give you a great impression. My first ride impressions on that chainring still stand – except I’ve adjusted my timing for technical bits and now, well, I just pedal more smoothly with less stress on my old man bones.

The acid test, however, was always going to be an oval ring on my daily drive. This has a few substantial testing benefits:

  • My commuterbeast is also a 1×11 system, but it has a 42t chainring. The chainring is likely to be subject to quite a bit more structural stress
  • It clocks up vastly more kilometres than my mountain bike
  • I like to point it up longish (for Canberra) hills from time to time

Now I’ve put in 919 Strava km, so I feel like I can tell you how it’s been working out. You can see here that the ovalness of the 42t ring doesn’t seem extreme, and I didn’t really notice it when I first took it out for a spin. This is likely based on acclimatisation using my mountain bike – but there was, and still is, a subtle difference from pedalling a round chainring.

I feel this difference most when climbing. Getting the pedals over the top of the chainring is just smoother – there’s a point where I would really have to push on a round ring, and that spot has disappeared. The end result is that I can hold a cadence for longer up hills, and I’m going to repeat myself a lot here – put less stress on my hips and knees. This is important once you hit 40! So I’m really happy with my absoluteBLACK oval chainrings this far in. My daily drive has become that bit less wearing on my body, and I can steam up hills on a single 42 tooth chainring.

The photos at the top show the chainrings in their current state after a relatively normal springtime commute to work and back (yay Canberra). The anodising has stripped from the sides of each tooth, but shape wise the teeth look pretty fresh. I’ve had zero issues with chainring flex or creaking noises, and haven’t taco’ed it yet (yes, I have turned chainrings into tacos… Hefalump!).

Performance aside, they are also some serious bling. I have yet to be mobbed in the streets by adoring admirers of good taste in bicycle parts, but I feel that day will come.

Oval rings, wider bars

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Two weeks on the road, with chain factory grease still going hard.

So I recently gave my daily driver a big birthday – including an absoluteBLACK oval chainring and wider bars.

Chainring
Two weeks in, I think the oval thing has well and truly stuck. I didn’t notice a huge difference – likely because I’ve been oval’ed on my MTB for a while now. However, the summary of my experience is:

  • Hills are still hard. Damn.
  • I can keep a cadence more easily – essentially if I’m riding flat and come to a hill, I can push a little longer before dropping gears
  • My hips and knees are very much less stressed
  • Standing and mashing pedals feels more effective
  • It’s a very bling bit of kit! The attention to detail is amazing.

So far, I’m really liking my family of notround chainrings. It’s safe to say the kool aid glass is empty here. I haven’t tested other oval chainrings to see if there are benefits to different ovality or clocking – but I’m so far very happy with absoluteBLACK’s design choices.

Wider bars

I’m pretty tall, at 187cm, and broad shouldered. Switching from 44 cm to 46 cm bars has been immediately noticeable – I can open my chest up more and breathe better! I’ve also noticed the extra leverage off road. It’s really nice to have that slightly wider lever when rattling along singletrack with a laptop in my backpack. Canberra – what a place to commute!

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Happy trails!

I’m pretty stoked on riding to work and back right now. Which is a nice place to be. Happy trails!

Happy birthday, Fuego del Fuego!

My Fuji Altamira CX 1.3 is just about 9 000 km old now. 8 700 officially on strava, and quite a few off the books – so not precisely 9000, but very nearly or maybe more.

So it’s time for a big birthday service! And a look at what 9 000 km of commuting and gravel riding does to a carbon fibre wonderbike with curly wurly bars. My pre-rebuild photo in the workstand came out blurry, so here’s one from out on the trail.

Commuting in Canberra
The Altamira CX 1.3 in fine form

Far from the highly tuned racing life this bike is made for, she’s (yes, it’s a girl!) been my daily driver – logging kilometres in all sorts of weather conditions, on all sorts of trail surfaces. I haven’t done any epically long rides, but with new slighly lower gearing coming that will probably change. So what’s happened to it over nearly 9000 km?

Drivetrain

The first part of the drivetrain to go was the bottom bracket. I replaced the SRAM unit with a wheels manufacturing/enduro BB set at about 3 500 km (after the first winter). The replacement is still spinning like the day it was installed, and has remained creak-free. It’s been through 3 chains – two KMCs and a shimano Ultegra chain that I threw on because I couldn’t get anything else at the time. All shifted acceptably on the SRAM cogs.

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Enduro/wheels manufacturing BB – it stays

 

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SRAM Force 1 chainring vs 9000 km

 

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Some pretty worn cogs.

The chainring and cassette have had an extraordinary life! I was expecting to change both at around 5 000 km. So well done SRAM, the 1170 cassette and Force CX chainring have gone the distance. The cranks have had no issues – no creaks, no oddness, just reliable transmission of power.

I should mention the clutched rear mech. This is a superb addition to a 1x drivetrain on what is essentially a rigid MTB-lite. SRAM were exactly on point transferring their mountain bike system to a cyclocross oriented group.

Frame and forks

Not much to say here. No cracks – only a few stone chips and and unfortunate loss of clearcoat after catching a nail in my rear tyre. I’ve had minor niggles with the headset vibrating loose, because the tensioning nut slips loose inside the carbon steerer. I’ve replaced the alloy topcap bolt with a steel one, so if I notice any play I can quickly and easily fix it. This is not surprising, given the rattling Fuego gets out on the trails. Headset bearings still smooth, no unusual wear on any internal surfaces. Good work, Fuji!

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Nails in tyres don’t make carbon frames happy. Fortunately just a clearcoat chip.

 

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Normally you only ever see Yoan Barelli’s CX bike from this angle! Undercarriage check, all good.

Wheels and tyres

The Oval 527s have been excellent. They still roll like new, no crunching or grinding. The rims are true and strong and easy to set up tubeless tyres on. I haven’t cracked the rear hub open before – it was nice to see clean grease in there. One minor niggle is that the drive side endcap works loose every now and then, which lets a little moisture in and contributes to minor corrosion on the axle (shown below). The freehub bearings could use replacing soon, although the main wheel bearings are still rolling like the day I built this bike. I replaced the rear wheel spokes with DT Alpine IIIs, because I mashed the drive side spokes with my chain at about 3000 km old. Since then, lots of abuse and no dramas at all.

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Inside the CX 527 hub. Rolling on a nice fat axle! Yes, those spokes are not the factory versions, they’re DT Alpine IIIs. Correct tools for the job. Bearings still rolling like a boss.

 

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3 pawls, nice and simple. The grease in here was still clean – but those bearings were not 100% happy.

Tyres – I’ve used a few sets. The OEM Challenge Grifos lasted about 1500km, then their replacement Vittoria GX Pro did around 2 000 km, then some Maxxis locusts for about another 1 000 km, some random cheap tyres just for fun for another 500 -1000km, and for the last 3500 km I’ve been using Vittoria Revolution city G+ tyres. These have been great for daily driving on all surfaces, even mountain bike tracks. I would not race CX on them and can’t run them tubeless, but I am very happy with 3 500 km and one puncture. Yes, just one! I’m looking forward to Vittoria’s new G+ semi slick CX tyres, but I’ll stay on the revolutions until then.

Cockpit, controls, brakes

I really, really like SRAMS exaggerated horns out front. When I’m riding down hills that are not made for CX bikes, I can stay confidently on the hoods or go to the drops – either way feels safe. The Oval bar tape has held up exceptionally well, and the 310 bars are still comfortable.

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Lots of hand on bar tape time – it’s held up well, and so have SRAM’s hoods.

 

Braking is still precise – I haven’t felt the need to bleed the brakes yet. Gear shifting is still precise, and I’ve finally stopped accidentally up shifting on the double tap or looking for something to rest my left fingers on.

My butt did not like the Oval Concepts 710 saddle, it was replaced early on with a Pro Condor – essentially a touring perch – which has been much more agreeable.

 

Upgrade time – what’s going on, what’s coming off

So now it’s time for a full drivetrain swap, what’s the program? Given the durability of the SRAM driveline, it’s another PG-1170 cassette in 11-28. I also really like the ratios used on this one. Up front is an absoluteBLACK 42t oval direct mount chainring. I’ve really liked how the oval ring has worked on my mountain bike, so I’m looking forward to some less stressed knees and hips on the daily driver.

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Oval 42 vs round 44.
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Close up – absoluteBLACK use a shorter, broader tooth. Let’s see how it goes.
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Direct mount – it’s pretty!
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Installed!

Also, dropping a couple of teeth from the front will open up new horizons. I’ve avoided long rides in the hills around Canberra simply because 44/28 is a hard ratio to push up a hill at the end of a long ride. I’m not brave enough to go much faster than I can pedal the current gears, so I’m pretty happy that I’ll be OK on the downhills too. Connecting them up is a SRAM red 22 chain.

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New cassette stacks are also pretty, especially this part. Worth appreciating before it gets hidden away.

New rotors and brake pads have been installed front and rear. The rear 140mm had a fair bit machined off it in 9 000 km. The front rotor is still safe to use, but it’s birthday time and I’ll keep the old one as a spare.

Finally, a new gear cable and housing is a good excuse for new bars! I wanted to go a little wider so I’ve gone from 44 cm Oval concepts 310 bars to 46cm Oval concepts 310 bars. I was happy with the stock bars, and they’re great value. The new bars also feel slightly lighter, have a deeper groove for cables, and a 4 degree outward sweep on the drops as well as the 4 degree sweep on the top. I’ve also used Oval concepts bar tape again, it was excellent.

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New 310s, 46cm

 

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All taped up! Job done.

Would I recommend this bike to my mother in law?

Oh yes I would!

 

Summary – 9 000 km of Altamira CX

This bike is designed for CX racing. It is very light, stiffer than the equivalent road version (far less buzz absorption in the seat stays), very quick handling, and strong. I’ve repurposed it as a daily drive/gravel grinder, and it has been truly amazing at that job as well – making commuting a lot more diverse and fun than it would otherwise have been. I really don’t know how I’d improve this bike – maybe put thru axles in, but I’ve never felt the need for more direct steering out on the trails. Very occasionally I get a small brake rub, which thru axles might help. But really, it’s been a no nonsense machine that is very capable and a lot of fun.

I’ve found the ride excellent, and the geometry really sorted – quick handling but not twitchy, stable at speed, and predictable in absolute rocky chunder.

I don’t ever catch the external brake hose (and to be honest, I prefer it there). As a ‘buy it and ride the hell out of it’ proposition, all the bits are in place on this machine. For the cash outlay, though, it’s what you would expect. If you can make the stretch to get a hold of one, it will take you further than a road bike should, while letting you travel the world efficiently and in style.

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Finished

Where can you buy it?

These beasties can be had from any Fuji dealer, or click and collect from the importer Oceania Bicycles. Unfortunately Oceania don’t have any 2017 CX bikes in the standard lineup, but you can get a great deal on remaining 2016 and 2015 models. And a brand new aluminium frame gravel ride is coming in – the Fuji Jari. These actually look pretty exciting as an all terrain, all the time cycle riding machine – and would tick the ‘can I tow trailers’ box that the Altamira CX is way too badass for.

Mine was supplied by Cycle Canberra – who can help you to source one too.

Disclaimers

When I built this bike I worked for Cycle Canberra, who sell Fuji bikes. I left in January 2016 because PhD = done! I’m not obliged to write anything either good or bad about Fuji products, and I’m not being paid by the shop to write about Fuji bikes. However – I do like to support people who support me, and Cycle Canberra still give me pro deals on parts.

I am on the absoluteBLACK ambassador program – so I am supposed to write about my experiences (good or bad) with them.

My chainring isn’t round anymore!

I recently added an oval chainring from absoluteBLACK to my mountain bike. After a few rides on it now, these are my impressions.

First of all, the thing looks quite incredible, and it is insanely light! For something which replaces the chainring and spider on my X01 cranks, I wondered if this piece of CNC artistry would hold up. So far, so good. Installation was problem-free, the chainring fit nice and snug on the splines which hold it in place.

So how does it pedal? I came straight from a round chainring in the same diameter. Straight away I noticed that my cranks kind of ‘fell through’ a segment of the pedal stroke – which took about 20 minutes to really get used to. After a decently tough hour and a half out at Mt Stromlo, I realised a few things. First, the ovalness was no longer odd. Second, my knees and hips seemed a lot happier, and finally, I had to change timing of pedal chops to get up steep rocky sections  just a touch.

On the knees and hips thing, I’m pretty sure that the spiel about modern oval chainrings is actually true – I think my knees are getting less stressed because there’s that little segment of the pedal stroke I don’t have to push through each revolution now. I notice it jumping back on my commuterbeast, which still has a round chainring  (for now).

I didn’t go any faster. But thats OK – I feel like I got some fun factor back!

…would I recommend absoluteblack chainrings to you?

Yes, I would! I will keep making notes about them – how many kilometres they last, how they hold up to being abused and so on. But on first impression they’re worth investigating if your knees are unhappy, or you’re in the chainring market.