SciCon Aerocomfort 2.0 bike bag

It goes against conventional wisdom to think your bike will make it through a commercial flight in what amounts to a cycle-shaped haversack.

We’ve all seen the baggage handlers launch luggage off those airside carts as we stand there helplessly, jaws agape, silently head-banging the terminal window.

This potential for abuse was driven home on a flight from Palma last year when I was told in no uncertain terms that the bike I was presenting in its softbag would not be insured by whatever non-existent policy the airport was employing and therefore must be taken to a different luggage point.

This and many other allusions to destruction swam around my mind as I packed up my favourite bike for a flight to Nice in a Scicon Aerocomfort 2.0. This is a bike bag so soft that it will actually fold up into its own sack for storage.

The main advantage of the Aerocomfort is useability. You can pack your bike in ten minutes easily

But it’s used by six ProTour teams and ten pro cycling teams in all. The more I spoke to people to gauge whether my bike might make it to the other end, the more I discovered that a lot of cyclists swear by the Aerocomfort 2.0. This is comforting in itself, especially when Scicon have a perfectly adequate hard case in their arsenal.

The main advantage of the Aerocomfort is useability. You can pack your bike in ten minutes easily, less after a bit of practice, I would imagine. It’s a simple case of taking the wheels off and attaching the bike to the internal frame of the bag. No dropping of the seat or removing of the bars - everything else remains in place. This might well fill you with horror: what about all those things sticking out that could snap? It did me, if I’m honest.

In reality the most fragile part of a bike is the dérailleur, and Sci-Con provide a very effective guard that slots over the skewer to protect that. Everything else can withstand a reasonably hefty knock. Nothing is going to put up with being run over by an Airbus or whatever other potential hazard exists out there on the runway and when you look at it like that, hard cases begin to look a bit excessive.

My bike was almost in the exact condition in which I had packed it when I arrived in France - the right shifter had been knocked in towards the stem, but was undamaged and required only a bit of adjustment to return it to its rightful position. Otherwise things were exactly as they should have been, including that fragile derailleur, and the wheels which are packed in their own zipped compartments alongside the frame. The proof was in the riding and the 140km gran fondo the following day was completed without a hint of a mechanical issue.

The Aerocomfort 2.0 is light, and easy to move around the airport thanks to a couple of padded straps which will also allow you to shoulder the bag should you feel that way inclined. There are plenty of nifty little pockets and details that you will find a use for. But best of all you don’t have the issue of where to store it when it’s not in use, thanks to its foldable nature.

If it wasn’t for the knocked shifter this bag would be getting full marks but in light of that it might be a good idea for Scicon to come up with some kind of brace that would fit between shifters and prevent that happening. It’s also handy for you to employ some extra padding in the form of pipe insulation tube. Scicon do provide pads but you can never have too much frame protection.

Summary: A bike bag that delivers in looks, portability (helped by its 7.9kg weight) and ease of packing, but most importantly delivers your bike in one piece. And for that, it is priceless. Highly recommended.

* Sci-con also produce an extremely versatile wetbag that doubles very nicely as hand luggage, especially when used with the smaller strap from the bike bag. 

4 / 5

€550 (£475)

Available here

This article was first published on www.thetimes.co.uk/onyourbike on June 5 2015

Rapha Classic sunglasses

It’s not like Rapha to do things by halves, which is why we’ve been waiting such a long time for the release of their Classic Sunglasses.

The brand has already enjoyed a brief flirtation with eyewear - a few years ago it released Oakley Jawbones, Radarlocks and Frogskins in the Rapha-Focus cyclocross team colours, which had such limited availability that they became instant collector’s items.

The Classic Sunglasses are a different gravy and their release has been hinted at for well over a year. These have been designed by Rapha and the frames manufactured in the Mazzucchelli factory in Cadore, Italy from acetate. They are available in the fairly standard black and tortoiseshell as well as a grey frame with pink lens. The acetate frame construction means the Classic Sunglasses can be adjusted to fit individual head shapes by an optician and will also accommodate prescription lenses.

All of which sounds nothing at all like a pair of cycling sunglasses, rather something you might wear for less energetic pursuits, such as promenading in the sun. It also follows that Rapha’s shades don’t look an awful lot like sports sunglasses. They are actually aesthetically pleasing - you would quite happily integrate them into your day-to-day wardrobe. Try doing that with your standard sports eyewear without looking like an off-duty policeman.

This will have the cycling hardcore no doubt guffawing into their ristrettos. You can see them all now, the type who find a £3 pair of sunglasses from Aldi “perfectly decent.” It’s not even worth the effort pointing out the differences.

They are shaped to gently curve around the face, in a form which Rapha says will help to prevent the misting of the lenses”

Rapha’s sunglasses offer a lot more than a pleasing silhouette, though. They are shaped to gently curve around the face, in a form which Rapha says will help to prevent the misting of the lenses. The lenses themselves are scratch resistant and manufactured by Carl Zeiss. There are little rubber bits on the arm ends and on the nose piece to stop the frames from slipping during exercise. The overall impression is that an inordinate amount of thought has gone into the development of these - something that really should come as no surprise.

“I have a strong affinity to Dieter Rams’ ideals of ‘Form Follows Function’,” said Miles Gibbons, Rapha Hard Goods designer & developer. “For me a product must work flawlessly and give the user a special feeling even when simply picking it up to look at it.”

Dieter Rams, in case you’re wondering, was a mid-twentieth century German industrial designer who was responsible for creating versions of everything from bookshelves to pocket calculators. His ‘ten principles for good design’ are the designer’s equivalent of the Ten Commandments.

Rapha’s aim was to create a “timeless style” with the glasses, which would have ruled out anything in the true sports glasses category, which can be dated merely by glancing at the frame style. That said, the fact these are called Classic frames does suggest that Rapha could be planning a separate style to run alongside its racier Pro Team line.

By opting for a more enduring look, Rapha has delivered an inoffensive silhouette while at the same time delivering the kind of performance you would expect.

There has been no holding back when it comes to presentation, either. As with everything Rapha offers, packaging is gloriously excessive. The glasses are dispatched in a cardboard box, inside which, in a nest of tissue, sits a black tin. Inside the tin are the glasses, a supersoft leather travel pouch handmade in Italy by Giorgo Fedon & Figli, lens wipe and the obligatory information pamphlet, which as well as explaining in fine detail the technical properties of the glasses, offers up a history of eyewear in competitive cycling. All very readable and presentable, and guaranteed to make you feel as if you have chosen to buy a quality piece of kit.

On the face, the glasses offer the sort of comfort you would expect. Over the period of a 60 mile ride in 23 degree heat there were a couple of occasions when they slipped down on the nose slightly, but we haven’t found a pair of glasses that won’t. And at a claimed weight of 30g, or just over an ounce, they’re actually lighter than a pair of Oakley Jawbreakers.

Styling could be considered by many to be on the feminine side, especially the way the frame rises at the corners to join the arms, although for a brand that made it totally acceptable for men to wear neon pink, this is unlikely to cause a problem. More of an issue could be frame width, which is a little on the narrow side. This doesn’t make for a flattering look for those with fat heads.

The biggest issue for us was less to do with the design of the glasses themselves and more with the Carl Zeiss lenses, and could easily be put down to a freak of personal vision. Amber lenses can do strange things to our eyes - greens became extra-vivid, drain covers appeared to almost shimmer. The biggest problem came when viewing an iPhone - the whites of the screen became green and presented a strobing effect almost similar to watching a TV through a digital viewfinder. To be sure this doesn’t affect you, we would recommend maybe trying the different coloured lenses available to see which suit your vision best.

The other consideration, as anyone who wears acetate frames regularly will agree, is the effect of prolonged sweat on the frames. This is not something the wearer will need to worry about for maybe years, but frames will eventually begin to aesthetically deteriorate. This process will be accelerated by salt emitted through sweat so it will be necessary to clean the frames regularly.

It would also be wise to think about where you’re going to hang the glasses on your body when not in use. We wouldn’t recommend sticking them through your helmet, hanging off or putting around the back of the neck. They’re a bit too nice to ruin with a high-speed drop.

You might even decide they’re a bit too nice to cycle in, which defeats the purpose of them slightly, but does illustrate what a gorgeous pair of shades Rapha has released.

Summary: Rapha have created a pair of sunglasses that successfully delivers in timeless styling with an incredibly high level of performance functionality. Perhaps not something you would wear to race in but absolutely suitable for other levels of riding. You might even consider them too nice for riding, which is perhaps their biggest drawback. 

4 / 5

£195

Available here

This article first appeared on www.thetimes.co.uk/onyourbike on August 17, 2015

Fly6 camera light

The perception, among a lot of cyclists, is that the whole world is against them, drivers especially. This is a perception reinforced by the drivers that actually do hate us, who take great pleasure in making their views very clearly known.

But there are a hell of a lot of drivers on the road, and most of them don’t honk or swear or punish you with a close pass. Unfortunately we don’t tend to remember them, and the point as we all know is that it only takes one …

It only took one joker to shoot Kingsley Fiegert in the backside with a slingshot while he was merrily cycling on his way for the Fly6 to be invented.

“By the time he realised what just happened the young men had driven off,” explained Andrew Hagen, the co-founder of Cycliq, parent company of Fly6. This left Kingsley with a sore rear and no means of tracing the perpetrator. “The concept to capture the evidence was how it started.”

Three years later, in November 2014, the Fly6 was launched: “The name is a combo of two sayings: First: A fly on the wall; and second: The military term for your back is your 6 o’clock or ‘6’,” says Andrew Hagen. The pair, based in Perth, Australia, have worked together in property development for a decade and have known each other for 20 years. It goes without saying that they have a fondness for cycling.

Fly6 is a rear light with a built in HD camera (1280 x 720px) which films on a continuous loop, meaning you can turn it on and forget about it. The light itself is a decent 30 lumens and offers numerous illumination options to suit all sorts of conditions, from daylight to thick fog. By holding back from sticking a ridiculously bright LED in, the battery life is a very respectable five hours.

Fly6 is a rear light with a built in HD camera which films on a continuous loop, meaning you can turn it on and forget about it”

The camera delivers a very decent, stable image, thanks to built-in technology that accounts for road vibrations and the light, with its myriad LED dance routines, is sure to catch the eye of following drivers.

Whether they will notice the little camera lens steadily recording them is another matter, but chances are they won’t, so surreptitious is the device. For all intents and purposes the Fly6 looks like any other light, and not a very expensive looking one at that, making it ideal for covert surveillance.

So it is mildly disappointing that with at least four months of continuous use under our belt, we have failed to get in any scrape serious enough to feel it necessary to download the footage for use as evidence. There have been a couple of close passes, and we mean a couple, but when you view them on the computer they don’t look that bad at all. Maybe it’s the wide lens. The worst incident in that time was an oncoming car that failed to stop at a mini roundabout as we were turning right the other week. That was close but it was also oncoming which means the gravity of the situation was lost on a rear-facing camera.

As with most gadgets, there is that novelty period when you download all your rides and play through an entire three-hour trip to check out the bike handling skills of your fellow cycling group, but you’ll soon get bored with that. One thing you’ll notice, if you ride without mudguards, is the tendency for the lens to become covered over with mud quite quickly. On wet days or during winter riding you’d be well advised to give the lens a wipe every now and then.

Downloading your footage is a doddle, although in these days of wi-fi connectivity, still involves a little too many mouse clicks. Firstly you have to physically plug the Fly6 into your USB port before launching VLC media player (easily downloadable from the net if you don’t already have it). You then need to find your ride files (located under the Fly6 icon that appears when you plug it in) and drag them over to VLC. Then you can watch them or save them or whatever.

Build is bombproof. We have been through all sorts of weather on and off-road and not once has the Fly6 even hinted at letting us down. The rubber connection cover fits very well to protect those sensitive ports and the unit is manufactured to an incredibly high standard. At 4oz the weight will never be an issue and size of it is no bigger than a standard rear light. It is a little deeper but not so much as to pose a problem.

What the Fly6 makes you realise is that there is a perception of inherent danger on our roads which is thankfully not borne out by reality. This reality of cycling in the UK is distorted by hour upon hour of Youtube video, uploaded by militant cyclists who feel they have been disrespected or who have taken it upon themselves to behave as vigilantes. They won’t show you the hours of uneventful, pleasant riding, because who’s going to click on that?

There are the terrible fatalities in London, none of which should have been allowed to happen, but they do still need to be taken into perspective.

And that is the thing with the Fly6 - the camera element is a thankfully largely unnecessary piece of equipment. The great thing about it is that it doubles up as a light, which in contrast is totally necessary, so there’s a reason to use it, and it is so unobtrusive that its use doesn’t even require a second thought.

But should the statistically unlikely actually happen and you get shot up the backside with a pellet fired by a spotty yoot with a catapult you’ll have the evidence there to take the matter further. Fly6 is an added insurance policy that will provide you with great peace of mind, even if, as with all insurance policies, you hope you never need to use it.

NB: Cycliq, the parent company of Fly6, are on the verge of releasing a front-facing light, called the Fly12. You can help fund ithere

Summary: A solid camera-light combo that is so unobtrusive that you will forget it is there. Rock solid construction will put up with everything the road can throw at it, plus some. But be sure to wipe the lens occasionally if you’re riding in foul weather without mudguards. The light alone is worth the money, frankly.

4 / 5

£99

Available here

Assos Habu 5 Windproof jacket

Dubious marketing strategies aside, you have to admire Assos. Not many clothing brands have lasted as long in the cycling sector. In fact when Assos began, not many brands even existed. 

Since 1976 Assos has been pedalling out high quality garments from Lugano, a little town on the Swiss border with Italy, stone-skimming distance from Lake Como. 

Over these years the brand has garnered a loyal following, and it has become the mark of a true seasoned cyclist. See someone out riding in ancient Assos gear and you know he has a good few miles under his belt. 

Recently Assos has come under threat from younger rivals. Years of doing its own thing and laughing at its own jokes, have left it stuck in the past. The growing popularity of women’s cycling has thrown up a new dilemma. Assos’s risque marketing of its women’s clothing featuring models wearing nothing other than the garment in question has already alienated a large section of today’s marketplace, namely women, even if the brand appears to have started to address the issue. 

Which is a shame because it taints what is otherwise a seriously good clothing brand. The look is an acquired taste, very German (even though it is Swiss), very nineties in graphics and design, but the quality is outstanding. 

It’s no wonder Assos customers are legion and loyal and full of tales of the hardiness of their garments. One colleague will happily recount how he fell off his bike on a grit-covered MTB trail and his Assos bibs looked none the worse, which is more than can be said for his legs. 

Assos released its first Habu5 in 2010, which would be around the time anyone produced a phone small enough to fit in the mobile phone pocket on its arm. These days that pocket will just about fit a gel. 

The Habu 5 is a spring and early winter softshell. It is articulated in an Assos Man manner for a perfect fit while ‘in the position’ on the bike. Off the bike the shoulders are a bit tight, but the arms are lengthy and the material has extraordinary stretch to provide you with the necessary race fit. So much stretch does this have that it will actually look three sizes too small when you pull it out of the box. 

Once you get out on the road in an Assos jacket it becomes clear why the brand appears to shrug off criticism like water off one of its jackets. This is remarkably well thought-out gear - incredibly comfortable and capable. The habu5 is not waterproof but it does have a high repelancy and thanks to the cut it keeps you well covered. And it is breathable, in a lightweight softshell manner with fabric panelling on the underside of the arms to allow bodyheat to escape. All of the fabrics employed in the jacket are developed by Assos - the front panelling is fleece-backed, wind and water resistant, while the sides and back are more breathable. 

There are clever details, too. The zip features reflective piping either side and there are other reflective elements around the jacket. 

But it is the rear pockets that offer the greatest indication of the mastery of manufacturing that years of producing cycling garments gets you. It’s a standard three-pocket layout round the back, but their positioning makes them incredibly easy to access, and they are just the right side of tight, that crucial balance that allows you to store multiple objects while also being able to access them. The centre pocket is the only one that isn’t zipped. 

There are some questionable design elements though - one is a vertical logo patch that sits between the rear pockets and picks up dirt like a babywipe and the other is the aforementioned arm pocket. These aspects could be changed by Assos with a minimum of fuss but for the user don’t exactly present much of a problem anyway. 

Assos say this jacket should be used as part of a layering system and we could have done with some additional bulking up to the single thermal baselayer we employed on our 5 degree ride. If the temperature had been any lower we would certainly have needed at least a gilet on top. This jacket would remain comfortable with a standard base layer down to around ten degrees, below which think about adding extra kit. 

Summary: Assos have employed a stack of new fabric technologies in their latest version of the Habu5 and it shows through in comfort and protection. The black version will suit most tastes although many design elements are unmistakably Assos, and you either love that or you don’t. There’s no denying the fact that this is an incredibly well-made garment that is supremely comfortable and is built to last. 

4.5 / 5

£225

Available here

Knight Composites 35 wheels

It could be argued that wheels are a more important element of your bike than the frame itself, in terms of how the thing performs as a whole. Putting a decent set of wheels on an OK frame will always prove more rewarding than installing a ‘starter’ set on a top-of-the-range bike.

This is because your wheels do an awful lot more in terms of moving you than any other part of the bike, with the exception perhaps of you. This is also one of the reasons the cycle wheel industry is booming, with new wheel brands rolling out all over the place. But only a fool would believe that they all offered a similarly rewarding upgrade.

It has traditionally followed that the performance of a wheelset improved in direct correlation to the escalation of the price tag. This is still true, to an extent. You would never, for instance, compare a set of Fulcrum Sevens to a set of Lightweights.

Knight Composites is setting new parameters here. This is a sub £2k wheelset built with the quality of parts and rim construction that should put it in a much higher price bracket. Hubs, for instance are the highly-regarded DT Swiss 240s, a tried-and-tested component that is renowned for reliability (you can upgrade to the DT Swiss 180 hubs for an extra £500). Same with the spokes (20/24 front/rear), which are Sapim, and the nipples, which are Pillar.

But it is the rims that will attract the most attention, both in terms of looks and operation. These are of a composite construction, using aerospace-grade Toray carbon fibre, which is the same stuff used in Boeing’s 777 airliner. The aerospace comparisons don’t end there - Knight have used the same technology used in the development of military jet fighters, specifically the F35 Lightning II which is itself built out of carbon, to perfect the aerodynamic qualities of their rims.

This is a sub £2k wheelset built with the quality of parts and rim construction that should put it in a much higher price bracket

It’s all about the Trailing Edge Aerodynamic Manipulation Technology (TEAM Tech) apparently - we do love an acronym. Essentially it boils down to looking at how aerodynamics affect the entire cycling package - tyre, rim, fork, frame - rather than working on the wheel in isolation. Makes sense really.

The result is a “parabolic” cross-section (a bit like a stretched out avocado) on wheels, in 95, 65 and 35mm rim depths that offer “superior aerodynamic benefits.”

Knight do of course have the numbers to back these claims of superiority up, alongside the know-how and the facilities, because this is as far from a Chinese backyard carbon fibre chopshop as you can get.

The brand, based in Bend, Oregon, is headed by Beverly Lucas, a woman with more than 15 years in the upper echelons of the US cycle industry. During this time she helped develop the Felt brand, before moving to Enve Composites, where she brought in an aerodynamicist and masterminded their revered Smart System.

Founding partner Jim Pfeil already has co-development of the hugely successful Reynolds Ouzo Pro forks on his CV, and Kevin Quan helped design the Cervelo P3C time trial bike.

So there’s a bit of industry knowledge in the team, which is why they were confident enough to develop their wheels from the ground up. All this borrowing of aerospace technology results in maximised “laminar flow”, with a reduction in “dirty air” - the stuff that produces drag. The result of all this research, they say, is a pair of wheels that requires the rider to produce less watts to achieve the same speed.

In other words, you go faster with less effort, which is what we’re all after at the end of the day. That avocado shape has resulted in a 25.5mm rim width, a smidge wider than the 25mm tyres you’re likely to shoe them with. This makes the rims appear slightly bloated when you look at them from above (think airflow). The ride itself is smooth and forgiving while remaining solid and responsive and the wheels have so far proved bombproof, staying true even after hitting a pothole that no-one pointed out.

Are they fast? They certainly feel it. They roll up to speed incredibly quickly and while we haven’t been testing in lab conditions, Garmin data reveals a significantly improved performance compared to comparable Dura Ace C35s on the Times Mustard test bike. Also, at a claimed 1.4kg for the set they come in 79g, or 2.75 ounces lighter than a pair of Enve Smart System 3.4 rims, compared to which they run very closely in terms of build.

Fast wheels demand decent braking and this has traditionally been where some full carbon rims have added a few grey hairs to riders’ heads, especially when going downhill, when the friction of the brake pad on the rim can produce excessive heat. Knight has addressed this by “overbuilding” the carbon structure on the braking surface - doubled it, in fact, from an average 1.5mm to 3mm. Knight believes the added weight of the carbon is a price worth paying for rims that won’t let you down when you’re hurtling down a mountain at 50mph, and we’re inclined to agree.

What you are getting here is a wheelset which looks, behaves and performs well beyond its price grade (if you go for the 240 hub). Knight are competing with the £2k+ wheelsets on the market such as Enve and Zipp while delivering a price more in line with Mavic and Dura Ace, which they quite frankly are a league above.

The only surprise here is that given the phenomenal componentry and built quality, they don’t appear very easy to come by in the UK. Hunt them down, seek them out, use any means necessary to find them, but do. Before you lose the advantage to someone else, or they put the price up.

Summary: A wheelset that looks and performs far in excess of its price point. Knight claims to have made the fastest and safest wheelset in existence and we found nothing to dispute that. Very highly recommended.

5 / 5

£1,648 (DT Swiss 240 hub option)

Available here

UPDATE: We've been running these more than a year now after being so impressed that we bought them. Since then two spokes have gone on the same wheel. Once a couple of months after the review and again in April 2016. This is not especially unusual with handbuilt wheels. Also, with this type of wheel, the failure of one spoke will often set off a chain reaction. It's to do with the tension, apparently. But most importantly, they're still fast as hell and a pleasure to ride.

This article first appeared on www.thetimes.co.uk on April 24 2015.

 

Sidi Drako cyclocross shoes

There is one guaranteed certainty when it comes to cyclocross, regardless of the weather - your feet will get filthy.

Not just a bit dusty, but full-on covered. If you’re lucky you won’t race on a field mined with cowpats, and if you’re luckier still it won’t have rained, but the simple fact is that the proximity of your feet to the ground puts them in the firing line.

So why would you get yourself a decent pair of shoes to race in? Imagine the horror of seeing those box-fresh carbon-soled numbers disappear beneath a pebbledash of filth.

Thing is, your cyclocross shoes are just as important as your road shoes when it comes to comfort, and considering you will spend a fair amount of your time running in them, maybe more so.

They need to fit perfectly, to grip your heels when you’re forced to dismount and leg it up a hill, be light enough to not even be noticeable and to be made of something that can be cleaned back up time and time again.

Sidi’s Drako MTB shoes have a carbon sole for lightness and are manufactured with a glossy plastic upper. They are fastened using the Boa tightening system, which is great when your hands are too cold to grip hold of anything and applies uniform tightening across the top of the foot. Rather than offering a selection of inserts and heel pads, the shoes also feature a multitude of tweakable aspects to ensure you get the best possible fit.

The heel cap, for instance, can be tightened to grip your heel securely, and there is a wide strap which adjusts across the top of the foot but helps distribute pressure over the instep.

Sidi are just as well known for their motorcycle boots and they have brought the knowledge they have gained in that area over to cycling shoes. This long and in-depth experience has helped develop areas other than pure comfort. Many parts of the shoe are replaceable, for instance. This is something you won’t find in the offerings of many competitors.

One thing you might think when you first set eyes on a pair of Sidi is that they don’t actually look very comfortable. When you first put them on you might think the same. These shoes seem to be possessed of the ability to be both well fitting and lacking in comfort at the same time. It’s hard to explain - there is plenty of padding, no rubbing thanks to the fine-tuneability of the shoe but at the same time you’re not going to fall in love with the fit, not immediately. It’s more of a utilitarian kind of feeling, that the shoes are doing exactly the job they were intended for, with no pain. A pair of slippers these are not.

But for good, hard, practicality, the Sidi Drako are a tough one to beat, especially with their rubberised toe caps and wipe-clean aesthetic. A couple of words of warning, however: these run small, so size up, and be careful where you’re snipping with the scissors when you’re de-tagging - cut through the Boa fastening cable and your shoes are screwed before you’ve even worn them.

Summary: An extremely lightweight, practical and utilitarian shoe with many replaceable parts and wipe-clean outer. The Boa fastening system is a joy to use and fine adjustments around the heel and across the top of the foot provide the perfect fit. Despite the fit and the padding, however, the shoes stop short of luxury.

4 / 5

£260

Available here

Kask Protone helmet

  The eyebrows might not be as noticeable from this angle, but they are there

The eyebrows might not be as noticeable from this angle, but they are there

BY GRAHAM HUTSON

Eyebrows. Big bushy cartoon eyebrows. Once you notice them in the design of Kask’s Protone you’ll see them all the time. At least someone had the decency to make them look a bit dashing, a bit Dan Dare.

Perhaps Chris Froome was in on the joke, perhaps not. If not he’d best not study the photos of his Tour de France success too closely - those eyebrow-shaped vents are far more noticeable on a yellow coloured Protone.

All joking and Dennis Heally references aside, the latest incarnation from Kask is a wonder in aerodynamic achievement. This is, Kask claims, a vented helmet with the sort of air carving ability to rival a full shell lid, with one of the lowest drag coefficients of any vented helmet on the market.

Team Sky have a long and distinguished background in collaborating with Kask on helmet design. Before this they were instrumental in the development of the Mojito, Bambino and Infinity - Kask’s true aeroshell.

The Protone was a different gravy to the previous designs, however. The moment this, or a previous version of it, was seen on the heads of Team Sky on the 2014 Tour, it was clear that Kask had thrown away the rule book.

So began a year-long guessing game as information about the new lid was drip-fed from Kask in Italy. Even the March release offered little respite to the frustration. The reason a lot of those Protones look like pimples on a hippo’s back on a lot of people is that for a good six months only a size medium was available, and those unable to wait for a large simply put up with a helmet that was the wrong size. The large was eventually released in late summer.

Those fresh looks, while clearly a reaction to the new direction pioneered by Poc, are far from being simply cosmetic. The shape is a result of so-called computational fluid dynamics software, which Kask says has resulted in giving the helmet one of the lowest drag coefficients of any ventilated helmet.

Does this mean anything? Well it’s interesting that the software also helped make the Protone particularly attractive but if you’re buying in the belief you will go a bit faster you’d be better off eating one less pasty. The weight might be a selling point however - it is a claimed 210g which puts it in the featherweight league.

Weight aside, the things you will notice are the way the helmet sits atop the head, with added protection for the sides of the skull and neck. You’d also appreciate the Coolmax padding and the lack of head-stink that you might get from the antibacterial and antimicrobial treatment to it.

Then there’s the signature Kask luxury chin strap, which is made from pleather, a fact you might actually be grateful for after a few months of use.

But the best feature is probable the way your glasses sit nice and securely in a pair of vents shaped specifically for that purpose. And it’s not the eyebrow vents.

Over a few months of test which included an ascent of Sa Calobra in 35 degree heat, we can atest to the venting and Coolmax qualities on the basis we didn’t succumb to heat stroke. We can also confirm the Protone hasn’t begun to kick up just yet.

The comfort factor goes well beyond the venting. This is a marked improvement on previous models, helped by the fact that it is easily adjustable with a satisfying click from a behind-the-neck dial.

Summary: Kask’s Protone is now available in a large, opening its availability up to a whole swathe of the population with a head size bigger than 58cm. But it’s been well worth the wait. Ground breaking design and solid build quality, and you get a free pair of Dan Dare eyebrows to boot.

4.5 / 5

£195

Available here

Challenge Baby Limus CX tyres

  It might sound daft but to toughen up the rubber, apply vinegar

It might sound daft but to toughen up the rubber, apply vinegar

Ask anyone what tyres you should fit on your cyclocross bike and it’s a fair bet that they will answer “Challenge.” 

The fact that the trademark gum walls serve to increase the look and lines of your bike immeasurably only adds to the Challenge appeal. But are these tyres all they are cracked up to be? 

It’s true that some riders’ opinions of Challenge tyres are less than glowing. The rubber they are constructed from is particularly soft, which contributes to the low rolling resistance but as a result, nasty things can stick to it. These could gradually work their way through until the inevitable breach in the rubber occurs. 

This blighted the Belgian women’s team who Challenge sponsor - they reported a lot of punctures on training rides. Meanwhile the men’s team, who were riding the same Challenge tyres, didn’t report any problems. This turned out to be because the men’s team was coating its tyres with vinegar in winter, known as the “season of the little stones” in Belgium which lasts about seven months. 
The logic is simple. The vinegar hardens up the rubber and prevents sharp stones from bedding in. The centrifugal force of the spinning wheel does the rest of the job, flinging the stones back away from the tyre. Vinegar should be applied every two or three days during the winter, according to anyone who has ever raced in Belgium, apparently. 

  Gum walls make for an attractive tyre

Gum walls make for an attractive tyre

Hadleigh Castle Olympic MTB track isn’t, admittedly, Belgium, although it wouldn’t have been far from it before the tectonic plates shifted. Nevertheless it provided an ideal testing ground for the Challenge Baby Limus, with its gravel trails and snaking hillside courses. On top of that, you can choose to cycle along road to get there or ride along the edge of a field. We chose road one way, field the other. On one of the grimmest days of a particularly grim winter so far. 

You only realise how good your tyres are when you realise you are tackling ridiculous terrain and still remaining upright. It helps to keep the PSI low (we went for around 50 to allow for the variety of surfaces) but generally if you’re descending confidently on wet stones around hairpins so squished together that they almost overlap themselves, on a track designed for mountain bikes while you’re riding a cross bike, then they must be pretty decent. 

Challenge tyres are of a handmade tubular construction - even the clincher versions are known as “open tubulars”. The casing is 300 threads per inch, which is almost unheard of outside of tubular tyres and means you are actually getting a tubular that you can put an inner tube into. Generally speaking, the more threads per inch, the thinner each individual thread. This makes the casing thinner and lighter and consequently the tyre more supple. The rubber is natural, rather than the usual synthetic, which Challenge says aids grip, and each tyre is hand stitched in the factory in Thailand. None of this vulcanisation (essentially melting of rubber), which also hardens a tyre up and affects the grip. 

The Baby Limus is a new model to the Challenge lineup, offering a more spaced-out tread which enables it to cut its way through mud. Varying tread heights help when you’re riding along a hard surface, such as a road. A pretty decent all-rounder really, although you won’t want to ride too long on the road with them. 

You really notice the difference the softer rubber makes to grip and overall ride characteristics, but the thing you will notice before anything else is how easy they are to get on the wheel. So easy, in fact, that we wondered if we had done it right, especially since the Hunt tubeless-ready wheels we were attaching them to were supposed to be a bugger for attaching tyres. 

We admit we haven’t given our Baby Limus the vinegar treatment yet - it’s one of those things that you remember just as you’re about to do battle with a muddy field. We might be tempting fate but neither have we experienced the sharp end of the “season of the little stones.” Talk about tempting fate. 

Summary: All the feel and benefits of a tubular tyre minus the four-day gluing process. Regarded as the premium cyclocross tyre for good reason, although if you want to avoid falling victim to the “season of the little stones,” get the vinegar out. 

4 / 5

£46.80 (per tyre)

Available here 

Previously published on www.thetimes.co.uk/onyourbike on January 5 2016

Pas Normal winter collection

Long, dark and cold. That pretty much sums up the Danish winters - it’s no wonder the vikings were a hardy bunch, even if they were also a bit nuts. 

It also explains why the Danes know how to wrap up. When you look at it like that, it’s surprising that Pas Normal Studios didn’t launch on a winter collection. They could have quite effectively trounced the competition. 

Instead they launched last spring with an inspired capsule collection that stood tall in the quality of manufacture and even taller in terms of originality. This was thanks mainly to the design experience of the people behind Pas Normal, who own the Danish WoodWood street style brand. 

Pas Normal offered the standard stuff - bibs, a couple of jerseys, gilets, that sort of thing. Since then they have gone through a super lightweight summer offering before delivering what can only be described as a mark of collaborative genius in its winter collection. 

The lineup includes a thick fleece-lined jersey that acts as a barrier to the worst that the weather can throw at you, from storm-force winds to torrential rain, snow, ice, you name it, and thermal bibs which do much the same for your legs and incorporate waterproof ankle zips and reflective stitching. Then there’s a lightweight “combined elements” jacket, with taped seams and three-layer construction. 

The jacket and leggings proved capable in possibly the worst weather we have ridden in since we got stuck up a mountain on the 2011 Etape du Tour. Torrential driving rain and gale-force winds sent the weather slamming into us but the water just beaded away with not a drop getting through. The rain did eventually breach the tights after a prolonged onslaught akin to standing in a shower, while the top remained persistently waterproof. 

The real innovation in Pas Normal’s winter kit lies under the surface - with the base layers, to be precise. They have got together with their Norse countrymen at SNS Herning, who have turned ultra-warm fisherman’s knits into a style staple, to come up with a unique line of base layers, neck warmers and beanies. 

The collaboration is manufactured from a merino blend and features neat little touches such as an “anatomical fit” and muted grey, navy and green colourways with contrast horizontal pin stripes. This collection is so good looking that it feels wrong to subject it to the rigours of cycling - it would fit just as easily in an everyday wardrobe and look great with a pair of jeans. 

If you can bear to employ it in the manner for which it was made, you will find PNS x SNS knits phenomenally capable at wicking away moisture, while the cotton mix seems to regulate temperature at a far more efficient level. All this, along with that fit, results in a high comfort level regardless of the effort you are putting in. 

A few washes in and the PNS x SNS base layers are looking as good as ever, even given the label advice to handwash (we’ve been putting it on a 30 degree delicates cycle). Pas Normal say the stuff doesn’t even need washing after every ride, although we didn’t fancy testing out that assertion. 

Summary: Pas Normal Studios are one of the more notable entrants to the cycle clothing scene over the past year, and they have come into their own with the new winter collection. While the collection is another achievement in stylish and extremely well-performing kit, the real story here is the remarkable collaboration with SNS Herning. Some of the finest base layers in production, if you can bear to wear it on the bike. Otherwise it’s perfect for everyday use. 

5 / 5

Pas Normal Studios winter kit from €215

PNS x SNS from €69

Available here 

Rapha training jersey

  Great for mild, grim days when you can head out with a gilet in your pocket

Great for mild, grim days when you can head out with a gilet in your pocket

If you ever pondered the necessity of a long sleeved jersey, this would be the year that proved the need for one in your wardrobe. 

If the weather is particularly cold or rubbish they might not get used - a rain jacket or windproof jersey proves far more suitable for deflecting the elements. But things are different this time round. With temperatures still hovering around 15 degrees, and the weather a unique kind of crap, the long sleeved jersey has proven a valuable asset. 

Just the right amount thicker than a short-sleeved jersey, these are made for mild, grim days when you can head out with a gilet in your pocket just in case. 

Rapha’s training jersey has its DNA in the pro-team development with its high-stretch fabric and minimal styling but offers a slightly more forgiving fit. As its name suggests, Rapha intends it to be worn on training rides and for crazy stuff such as hill repeats and slightly more intense sessions. 
Ultimately it is the comfort that gets you. This is such a great fitting jersey that you are at risk of actually forgetting you are wearing it. There are no saggy points, there’s nothing that squeezes too hard or gives you any cause for irritation. 

It is however worth noting that while this jersey has been released to slot somewhere between pro-team and the classic sportswool range, the features lean more towards the former. The neck is cut low and the pockets are limited to the standard three rear with a little zipped valuables pocket. There will be a little less warmth than the sportswool offerings and it certainly isn’t windproof or waterproof, which makes a gilet essential until you warm up a bit. 

There’s also not a lot in the way of high-vis, in fact we couldn’t find anything. This shouldn’t in itself present a problem - you simply make sure you have something that reflects on the bottom half or better still, use lights - but it will be an issue to some. The colours - navy blue, maroon and dark grey - while wonderfully stylish, don’t do a lot for visibility either. But then Rapha has plenty to offer should you want to be seen so just team the jersey with something bright. 

Summary: A jersey designed for high-tempo training that leans more towards pro-team than relaxed riding but retains a more forgiving cut. An absolute essential for the wardrobe, especially in milder winters such as this. 

4 / 5

£110

Available here 

Cafe du Cycliste Claudette jersey and Therese tights

If there’s one garment that comes to mind when you think of French style, it has to be the breton top. Its horizontal stripes are a year-round indication of style, great with a gorgeous navy wool peacoat but equally at home when paired with … well … pretty much anything. Except maybe vertical stripes. Don’t want to look like a crossword puzzle. 

Every clothing brand has a version, from high street to high end. The navy breton stripes have become beloved in their ubiquity. They are of course filtering through to cycling jerseys, with some testing the definition of breton to the limits.

But if you want a cycling jersey styled with genuine French flair, you should really be directing your attention to a French cycling brand, and when it comes to style, Cafe du Cycliste (CdC) is the only contender. 

There might be some women who find the use of female names to identify all garments in the range to be verging on the misogynist but CdC at least appear to have dropped the embroidered woman on a bike decoration they started off with. And quite frankly you’d have to be quite a staunch feminist if you let this get in the way of what happens to be some of the most beautifully made cycle gear out there. 
This is what happens when you name a jersey, you instantly develop a fondness for it. You view it as a comfortable friend that keeps you nice and snug and makes you feel good, although that has something to do with the fact that you also know you look good. 
The Claudette jersey is not burdened with all over breton stripes, but it is white with a band of navy stripes around the chest and arms and references Breton rather than full-on rips it off. 

This is a good thing. If there’s one stereotype more typical of France than a Breton top, it’s a Breton top worn by a man with a big moustache riding a bicycle. With a beret. And a string of garlic bulbs around his neck. Smoking a Gauloises. 

CdC’s Claudette has got French style and flamboyance in equal measure without digging up any cliches. The white colourway might be the single most impractical shade for a cycling jersey ever conceived, especially one manufactured from a fantastically soft merino-silk blend, but that is what makes it so desirable. Neat little details such as a red zipper and ribbon zip pull on the rear pocket add the finishing touches. 

Fit is nice and slim and tucks in at all the right places. I’m usually an 8 and took an extra small in this, just to give you an idea. 

CdC could be a bit more generous with their pockets. None of the rear pockets will even accommodate an essentials case without a good shove and if you’re of the persuasion to undertake a lengthy ride you’ll find them lacking. The tail could also do with being a tad longer. This jersey, while it fitted in all other areas, rode up, especially when pockets were fully loaded, and exposed the small of the back. 

But then again, 100-mile odysseys aren’t strictly what CdC are about. This is a stylish jersey designed with Riviera cafes in mind, and to that end it fits the brief perfectly. It’s worth noting that there is also a merino neck warmer available which complements the jersey perfectly. 

We were also sent a pair of the Therese tights, in the de riguer black. These are fleece lined for cooler riding conditions and incorporate a four-way stretch, which should allow for most body shapes. They sent me a small in these, and the fit was spot-on for a 32” inside leg and standard hip width.

The crucial element of these is the lack of bibs, which actually makes them more suitable for longer rides when you might get caught short in the middle of nowhere. It is however worth tugging the leggings right up in order to ensure the lower part of your back isn’t exposed to the winter winds. Another thing I always pay particular attention to is the chamois and can confirm this passes the padding test with flying colours. 

Summary: If you can get your head around the white colourway and smaller pockets, this is one of the most stylish women’s cycling jerseys around. Full of French flamboyance and comfortable to the point you’ll want to wear it all the time. Leggings are great for all-round riding, and allow convenience when it comes to visiting a convenience. Jersey pockets are a bit small however and the jersey could do with being a bit longer on the tail. 

Claudette jersey
4 / 5
€165

Therese tights
5/5
€185

http://www.cafeducycliste.com/

Rapha data print gilet

   Rapha's data print gilet is fully waterproof with a race fit

Rapha's data print gilet is fully waterproof with a race fit

Rapha has offered its fully-waterproof, taped seam, nothing-will-get-through it pro-team rain jacket, which it calls a race cape, for a few seasons now, and while nothing indeed does get through it, this turned out to be one of the main issues for many users. Because just as water didn’t get in, sweat didn’t get out, either. 

Which is one of the main stumbling blocks for rain jackets, especially those designed for use in race conditions - the moisture a body in full exertion produces overwhelms the breathability of the fabric, thus rendering the user a soggy mess. 

Rapha does actually offer a handy tape strip on the arm of its Pro-Team race cape to allow those riding in warmer climates to dispense with the bottom half of their sleeves. 

Successive incarnations of this jacket have seen breathability improve and the addition of zipped cuffs allow better circulation of air. But the most promising development has come from Team Sky who were going a step further and cutting the arms clean off their rain capes. 

This season Rapha has decided to spare them the bother and so was born the pro-team rain gilet. 
It is quite amazing the difference the absence of a pair of arms can do to the usefulness of a garment. What was once something that would only be deployed in the event of a particularly nasty downpour has become a fairly standard kit option - the lack of sleeves providing the perfect balance to the total wind and waterproofing of the gilet itself, which is manufactured from exactly the same material as the race cape and also includes taped seams. 

Don’t get us wrong, there have been times when the rain gilet has become a little too warm for comfort, but that’s the point of gilets really, easy to get on and off, a doddle to stash away in a pocket. And the data print is really noticeable, even if it does seem to resemble camouflage at first glance. 

If the weather turns particularly nasty you will still want to grab the race cape proper but for everything else, there’s the rain gilet. 

Summary: The solid weather protection of the race cape, without any arms. It might seem an unnecessary addition to the pro-team range when you first think about it, and then it makes perfect sense. Something you will use time and time again. 

4.5 / 5
£140

Available here

Sportful Extreme Neoshell jacket

  Sportful claim the Extreme Neoshell to be the only jacket you will need under ten degrees

Sportful claim the Extreme Neoshell to be the only jacket you will need under ten degrees

In Flanders they can’t hear you scream,at least not if the wind is blowing in the wrong direction. There’s nowhere to hide either. More or less flat and crosswinds that have seen pro riders, namely Geraint Thomas of Team Sky, lifted clean off the road. 

It is these conditions and everything else that the Belgium countryside can throw at a cyclist that Sportful’s Fiandre kit has been designed for and named after. Which is nailing your colours to the mast if I ever heard of such a thing, naming a kit line after some of the grimmest cycling conditions you can imagine. 

But then Sportful didn’t enter into this on a whim. As part of the Castelli family they test their kit in much harsher conditions, the Italian Dolomites, where the weather can swing from baking to blisteringly cold with the passing of a cloud, where downpours come along quicker than you could turn your shower on. In these conditions, kit has to be many things, and weatherproof is just one of them. 

It’s therefore not much of a surprise that the Fiandre Extreme Neoshell and Norain Bibtight did exactly what they said on the tin. As it transpired the vagaries of this autumn meant that the claim of the Neoshell to be “the only jacket you will need below ten degrees” wasn’t actually tested even if the weather was otherwise suitably Belgian - namely thick, soaking fog. 

This presented other challenges for a garment with taped seams which purports to be totally waterproof - namely would it liquidise the wearer by means of boiling him in his own juices? A sack of primordial soup doesn’t tend to be the most effective controller of a bike. 

The great thing about the softshells that have become a staple part of every brand lineup is their breathability. They do in fact address a multitude of factors, but the ability to keep the owner dry from the outside while not boiling from the inside has to be the most attractive. 

This is also the main concern for the wearer - that and windproofing. The two environmental factors that have the ability to turn a ride from a pleasure to a chore in a heartbeat. 

Fog presents challenges of its own. Like drizzle, its molecular structure seems to endow it with the ability to seep into your very marrow, to make your bones feel damp. The water beading up on the Norain bibtights was a graphic illustration of how much moisture was actually in the air - in reality probably more than big fat droplets of good solid rain. 

You’ll be relieved to know that in these conditions the Fiandre kit performed admirably. It has also since performed just as well in traditional rain and against some fierce winds. It has yet to be tested below ten degrees however, but you can blame El Nino for that one. 

We should finally mention the colour here, given that it is a factor in decision making. The jacket comes in red. Not a bright, pillar box red, more of a sunset red, but a red that still manages to stand out against the dull winter landscape like a runway beacon, which is a good thing if you’re keen on being seen. 

Fiandre Norain bibtights and gloves complete the outfit and proved so effective after a mud-drenched cyclocross expedition that they adequately fended off a post-ride hosing down with the reviewer (me) still in them. 

Summary: Fiandre kit is designed for the harshest environments and while we weren’t able to test its claim to be the only jacket you’ll need below ten degrees, it certainly kept us comfortable through a variety of moisture levels and wind speeds. Water beads off the bib tights and also the gloves with incredible efficiency. 

4.5 / 5
Sportful Fiandre Neoshell £250

Available here 
Sportful Fiandre bib shorts £80
Available here