When I first started this blog way back in the autumn of 2008, I had just purchased my first ‘proper’ road bike, an Orbea Aqua 2009 model. It was a £500 bike, as I recall, and it set me on the road to my current lifestyle in many ways, as I have cycled as a matter of course when ever time allows, ever since.
As regular readers of the blog will be aware my cycling tastes have evolved ever since. The Orbea donated many of its parts to my next purchase, a lovely Post Office Red Thorn Audax Mk3. That was ridden a fair bit, including my first 100 mile ride, and in the summer of 2010 I sold that and bought my Thorn Raven Sport Tour with the Rohloff gear hub. Along the way, I also acquired a Circe Helios tandem as well. So why, you might ask, am I now writing about my most recent purchase, a 2011 Cube Streamer road bike?
The Cube was one of those ‘too good to be true’ bargains in the autumn sales, when bike shops habitually clear out the ‘old’ year’s models in readiness for the coming years bikes. This one was reduced in price significantly, but also had an extra 10 percent off as well, which made me crack. But why a road bike, after all this time?
Well, I have to admit that the frequency of my riding has dropped off somewhat this summer. Partly that was due to being busy most of the time, but it was more than that. The Raven Sport Tour is a heavy bike. It runs 1.4 inch tyres on 26 inch wheels. I guess I was finding it hard to get excited about doing my regular circuits on a bike which, I was painfully aware, took a massive amount of dragging around. And the problem with doing less riding is that you get less exercise. Which kind of leads me full circle – I began to recall the excitement that a lightweight bike with close tolerances gave me.
Since about March this year I have been using the excellent Garmin Edge 500 GPS computer on my rides. This, when you connect it to the Garmin Connect web site, allows you to upload ride data and analyse it – average speed, distance, time, elevation, heart rate, etc. When you are faced with actual metrics regarding your riding, it becomes too stark to ignore. My average speed was declining, my ride frequency was less; in other words, alarm bells were ringing. And so it was that I began to seriously consider a road bike again, as an addition to my stable.
A quick look at the bikes on sale caused the usual problem – where to start? I anted to go for something rather less entry level than my Orbea, which, although an excellent bike was rather sparsely equipped. And I must admit to having considered Cube last time around as well – the dealer I bought my first bike from was also by chance a Cube dealer. Being German, they are a very respectable marque, who along with the likes of Focus, Rose, etc have penetrated the UK market quite successfully in recent years with bikes that have a standard spec way above their price bracket. The Streamer is a mid-point model – between the entry-level Attempt and the ‘serious’ level Agree, it had the same Aluminium frameset as the higher priced line, and a decent level of kit – which included Ultegra levers and rear mech, 105 triple chainset and front mech, cassette and chain, and ‘old’ 105 brakes. I’m not sure why the Germans tend to supply so many of their bikes with triple chainsets, and after much pondering I decided to change this to a double Ultegra chainset and front mech.
So, what was it like taking to the tarmac on a sleek road bike, after a year of riding an upright, long wheelbase comfy tourer? In a word, my first ride scared me senseless. The excitement and engagement that a road bike gives you came flooding back. I rode around the village in a mile long loop, and came back heart pounding and smiling all over. Since then, I have managed a couple of decent rides, the last one being just over 30 miles. I am getting accustomed once again to the feel and position of the bike, and the very direct feedback that it gives.
I have replaced the standard fit saddle with a bargain last years model Specialized Romin SL, which is feather light and very comfy. I have also fitted the cadence sensor that came with the Garmin, so I can now use the ANT+ links that allow the heart rate monitor, speed and cadence sensor as well. These modifications have got me motivated once again.
The bike has a Deda carbon fork which gives a nice comfortable ride, and on normal road surfaces it is a very firm but not uncomfortable bike which seems to be stiff and not given to flexing under accelleration. The standard fit Easton EA-30 wheels [made specially for Cube, I guess, as you can’t seem to buy then anywhere else] are perfectly reasonable hoops, although a wheel upgrade will be on the cards at some point. But even so, it gets up to spped easily, and seems to hold that speed as well, the awesome Ultegra brakes bringing me back to a more sensible pace when applied. I have taken the step of replacing the standard pads with Koolstop Salmons for the winter. The Ultegra levers, which are carbon bladed, allow very precise modulation on the brakes, and the gear shifts are sweet. Having moved from 105 triple to Ultegra double seems to have been a smooth transition, given that the left hand [front mech] shifter is actually designed to work with three gears not two. I just figured that living in flat old East Anglia, there would be little use for the small 30 tooth ring and I always liked the 52-39 gearing on the Orbea, so have replicated this against a 12-27 rear cassette. I just have to accept that next time I try and do Holme Moss, Mark will beat me to the top as I struggle and puff away….
I’ll report further in a few weeks, but initial impressions are good.
Today has, at last, seen the cloud disappear temporarily. In its place was bright sunshine, so I took my camera in my Carradice handlebar bag, and shot some interesting things on my 31 mile ride through the wilds of north Suffolk.
Above: Down a little lane near Botesdale, in the wilds of North Suffolk, I found these pylons stretching into the distance and decided to try and get a nice geometric shot of them. I used F10 in aperture priority mode and employed an ND4 Grad filter to darken the sky.With a little processing in PS, I rather like the results.
Above: Stopping for a rest, I liked the old wooden gate and the view behind it, which I have applied a detail effect to in Topaz Adjust.
Above: I rode past this shot on the way out, and considered stopping but couldn’t be bothered. Then I happened to come the same way on the return leg and stopped to take it. The field has been partly harvested and I love the way the lines all lead up to the tree on the horizon. Some nice clouds were appearing by this time, as it was about 11 am.
Back now to a cycling theme. Regular readers will know that, a year ago now, I sold my beloved Thorn Audax Mk3 in order to fund the purchase of a Raven Sport Tour. It hardly seems like a year ago – but having now completed my second Rohloff oil change, the anniversary is very real. So, in the tradition of Flamme Rouge’s Long Term Test series, what have I found?
The inspiration for this unusual choice of cycle was based on the fact that my cycling pal Mark had bought one a year earlier for his trans-Wirral commute. You can read his reports for FR here [the first year], and here [the second year]. Now, not being possessed of much in the way of original thinking, I saw his bike, rode it briefly, and experienced the magic of the Rohloff hub gears. I was sold. The only problem was that they are a rather expensive bicycle to purchase – you can blow two grand without extras no problem. My reasoning was that this would represent a do-it-all bike which was designed to last a lifetime – well, you can justify anything of you really want it, can’t you???
I scoured brochures, checked specifications and got glummer every day. No way could I afford the price of a new one. The Raven Tour, Thorn’s slightly less expensive touring steed, was a little less painful price-wise, but this would involve compromising on speed and sportiness. Then, last June, I was browsing the Thorn Owners Forum, which includes a bikes for sale section when I chanced upon an advert for a used Raven Sport Tour with what seemed an incredible specification, for half the new price:
- Red gloss finish
- Rohloff 14 speed hub (black anodized)
- Rohloff reversible sprocket 16t
- Rohloff SLT -99 8 speed road drive chain
- Rohloff chain oil
- Rohloff gearbox full oil change kit (new)
- Chainset Thorn alloy 110 PCD, crank length 175mm, Chainring 44t
- Mavic EX 721 rims (black)
- Shimano XTR M960 front hub (black)
- Shimano XTR M960 V brakes and XT M739S levers
- Thorn Comfort handle bars
- Cane Creek Ergo Comfort bar end grips
- Gents San Marco Rolls Classic saddle (new)
- SKS P45 mudguards (black)
- Profile bottle cage
- S/S rear rack
- All handbooks
500 miles approx., beautiful condition
That was enough. I had to have it – and a flurry of emails with the seller sealed the deal, the only problem being that I am in Suffolk, and the seller was near Penrith. Ho Hum.
I decided to bite the bullet and drive up to collect it. And so, setting off ludicrously early, I drove through the dawn and ended up on the A66, snoozing in a layby as Northern England woke up. I arrived by breakfast time, and after a quick test ride and an excellent coffee to revive me, I was on my way home again with a shiny red Raven Sport Tour crammed into the back seats. I was home by lunch time, having completed a 600 mile plus round trip! Here it is the day I got it back:
Now there were one or two changes I had to make.
- I did an immediate Rohloff oil change
- I swapped the 1.75 Panaracers for 1.25’s
- I replaced the 42t chainring with a 46, and lengthened the chain with some kindly donated extra links (it has the Rohloff ST-99 chain and I didn’t want to lose this)
- I put on my trusty Brooks saddle and Carradice SQR bag
- I removed the foam handlebar grips and added a set of Ergon grips.
It rode beautifully, and the Rohloff fulfilled its promise. My buddy and fellow Thorn owner, Crudson, said ages ago that once you ride a Rohloff you will never want to go back to derailleur again. And he’s right. The bike was a pleasure to ride from day one – there are one or two eccentricities that the Rohloff forces you to get used to, chiefly the gorgeous whirring sounds made in certain gears, and the uncanny ability to change gear when stationary. I rode it and rode it, tweaking things here and there. The tyres had to be changed because they were four years old and perished, but thinner tyres gave a harder and faster ride. But then….
I adjusted the chain tension using the eccentric bottom bracket one evening, and overtightened one of the two screws. The screw head broke off! I was stuck! I tried drilling the screw out in order to use a reverse threaded extractor tool, but to no avail. Eventually, in despair and missing my riding, I contacted a small engineering firm locally and they managed to get the screw out with a drill. No need to re thread the screw hole, thank goodness!
Not Red Any Longer!
My only frustration at this stage was the fact that the frame size, although in theory perfectly ok for my height [6′ 1″] was feeling a little on the small side. Mark’s bike is the next size up – 587L. I began to research the possibility of selling the red frame and buying a used 587 L one, but again to no avail. Everything I found was sold as soon as it was advertised, or in poor condition. So on receipt of a little spare cash, I took the plunge and ordered a new frame from Thorn in the larger size and in the ‘Stealth Matt Black’ with no visible logos save for a discreet Thorn badge on the headset. And, as of today, here she is:
I have acquired a few extras for the bike over the last year, perhaps most notably two new rims, and a dynamo lighting set up. The rims, which were originally Mavic EX721, were not really built for high pressure touring usage. As I reported at the time:
The rear wheel rim on my Thorn, being over 4 years old, has been retired. I was using the original Mavic EX721 rim, which as well as being old and worn had the distinct disadvantage of being a extreme downhill mountain bike rim – designed for 2 to 3 inch wide tyres! Quite why the original owner specified these rims I don’t know – they’re expensive and highly thought of within the MTB fraternity but not really suited to touring. They are I guess a long-distance option in countries where few real roads exist!
The wheel was packed off to Madgetts last Saturday, and I have been in London working all week so today was the exciting moment when I went northwards to Diss to collect the wheel. I have posted an article about Madgetts before, and in my opinion there are few wheelbuilders around that would gain more respect in the cycling world than Mick Madgett himself. I felt that although not cheap, I was guaranteed a good job – and I was. There’s a great quote on the shop’s website:
“Mick’s expertise in wheel building is renowned world wide having learned from his father at a tender age and his wheels have been used in the Olympics.
Eric Madgett still holds the Trump Card of wheel building as he also built wheels used in the Tour de France. The nearest Mick has got to this was supplying the ‘Mavic’ service mechanics with spoke keys!!”
True to form, it is a tremendous job. I specified their last remaining Mavic XC717, the ‘standard fit’ rim for Thorn bikes where Mavic rims are specified. The spokes are DT Swiss stainless, and the whole Rohloff hub has been given a good clean into the bargain! It means I can now run the tyres at a much higher pressure than was safe before, and I can also run narrower tyres in the summer (Marathon Pluses at 1.5 inches in the winter, and something slicker in the warmer weather). A quick chain lube and a tightening of the chain via the eccentric bottom bracket later, and the bike is fit for the year ahead.
So, having now got a new rear wheel in effect, I treated myself to a Christmas present of a dynamo lighting system to be included when I had the front wheel rebuilt:
I ordered a wheel and hub, plus a light, on 21st December and resigned myself to receiving it some time between Christmas and the New Year. After all, the newspapers have spent days proclaiming with glee about how the country has ground to a halt and deliveries are piling up at sorting offices. But I had not reckoned on German tenacity and efficiency [Bike24 is an online bike shop based in Dresden, Germany, if you are not already au fait]. On Christmas Eve, I got my parcel and within an hour or so, I had fitted the light and hub / wheel.
On the left, the old front wheel, soon to be usurped by the new dynamo-hub wheel, right.
The box contained one new wheel, with a Mavic 317 rim and a Shimano DH-72 Dynamo Hub. This is a lovely bit of engineering, with Ultegra-quality bearings and a 3 watt, 6 volt output. The wheel was beautifully made, and true running. After fitting the tube and tyre to the rim, which incidentally is far more suitable for my kind of riding than the old Mavic 721 rim, which is only built for wide, low-pressure tyres, I fitted the skewer and locked the wheel in place. Next, I unpacked the light, a Busch and Müller IQ Cyo [175qndi, if you wanna get geeky].
The light is a beautiful, solid item, and obviously German – made. B&M make the lighting for BMW among others, so you know you’re getting a quality product. One note – you may find, if you have a Thorn like mine, that the standard-fit bracket fouls against the bottom part of the FSA headset. If this is the case, then a stout pair of pliers will soon sort it out, although I opted for an old SJS bracket that was in my spares box. I fixed the light onto the fork crown, and then began the fiddly process of clipping the wires to the fork, being careful to avoid the recently installed Cateye wireless computer [I have cleaned the bike since this picture was taken, you will be reassured to know].
**NOTE: In the picture below you will see two mistakes I initially made. One, the Cateye sensor is, as Cateye advise, BEHIND the fork. I have now repositioned it in FRONT of the fork. If an obstruction got caught up in the spokes, the sensor would have been pushed into the wheel The second is the wire from the dynamo, which is now routed INSIDE the fork to protect it from damage.**
Having fitted a lavish number of cable clips, the only really irritating part of the install was to insert the bare wire ends into the two little greased connectors on the dynamo hub. This seems to be a process that has to be repeated every time the front wheel is removed, which I shall have to learn to deal with. Then, I gave the wheel a quick spin and, behold, light issued from the small black pod.
I lost no time in getting wrapped up in my thermals, and then hitting the road for a ride. I used the light as a day light running light, and could barely wait until darkness descended so I could witness its legendary output [I chose the 60 lux version, which throws the light beam further forward that the 40 lux version of the same light, which simply has an altered beam pattern designed for slower riding].
The most recent change I have made was a new rear V-Brake. The old one, an M970 XTR brake, was the top of the range and when the cable retaining bolt threads sheared, I felt it safer to replace it rather than try to fix it. So, horrified at the price of a new one, I dropped down a level and bought an XT one instead which, although noticeably less effective, is still a good solid brake.
So, after all this excitement and 1500 miles added to the Rohloff, what are my thoughts?
- It’s a seriously expensive choice for a bicycle! But you get what you pay for.
- The Frame is, like all Thorn frames I have ridden, enormously capable and endlessly entertaining in terms of comfort and handling.
- The Rohloff hub has never missed a beat. It is like a big Swiss watch [although it doesn’t tell the time!].
- The flexibility of the gears, and the fact that all the mech is hidden away inside the hub, means worry-free riding all year round.
- It is a bike built for long rides, possibly carrying luggage. It is not a full blown touring bike, but most people will never need such functionaity.
- The handling is not snappy like a road bike, but it is quick and it goes wherever you point it.
- For anybody with the money, and a regular ride such as a year round commute or a regular riding habit like me, it is a near perfect choice.
- You will rarely see another one, as they are as rare as hens teeth!
Many of you who read this blog will either own, or have an interest in, cycles made by that most unique and eccentric of companies, Thorn Cycles of Bridgwater. If this description includes you, then you will know that Thorn have been in business for a number of years building and selling traditional touring bikes and tandems, and they have gone on to become probably the UK’s main specialists in this area, as well as one of the first to introduce bikes with the Rohloff hub gear system in the UK. In addition, they have also built up a sideline business with St John Street Cycles as a web-based ‘specialist’ bike shop. At one time, they even ran a cyclists’ pub in the same street as the shop, although not being a local, I can’t vouch for what happened to that.
Now having been the owner of two Thorn bikes, one of which I still have, I thought that I know pretty much hat the company had produced. A range of models exists, from derailleur – geared Audax focused bikes through to the mighty Raven Tour and Sherpa, two machines built for hauling heavy loads through badly made roads and mountain passes. But it was by chance when I was browsing the YACF cycling forum recently that a fellow member, who shall identify himself only as ‘Cycleman’, mentioned in passing his Thorn recumbent. Now hang on, I thought to myself, Thorn never made a recumbent. But, on further questioning, Cycleman verified that indeed he had bought this very laid-back bicycle from Thorn a number of years ago, and despite having been stolen, recovered and losing all its decals from the frame, it was very definitely sold as a Thorn.
By this time, my interest had been piqued, if you will. I decided that the only possible course that my investigation could follow was to the desk of the man who stareted it all, Robin Thorn himself. And so it was that I corresponded with him recently to seek the facts out.
“From memory we bought 5 frames from a builder in Belgium i think, something like 15 years ago, maybe more. We built them up and sold them, 2 to a couple locally.”
Robin points out that, although badged as Thorns, the frames were actually designed and built externally, and Thorn themselves then decided that tandems and touring bikes were their main focus, so the project was not taken any further. So these bikes really are as rare as the proverbial hens’ teeth. I’d love to hear from anybody else who owns one, and I can only imagine the thought of riding one with a Rohloff. They are a distinctive design, and I have to say on looking closely at the pictures I rather like the bike. The front end is very Chopper-ish, but it looks like a very viable long-distance steed.
Today, a couple of photos of my Thorn Raven Sport Tour taken on a cold but refreshing 25 mile ride in the sun. I had to go off-road a couple of times to avoid ice patches, but the Raven doesn’t mind that.
The fittings that winter riding requires of you commonly include the obligatory lights, as well as the computer, bell (if the mood takes you!) and so on. Like any horizontal surface, the tendency is for it to become filled with useful things – useful at the time, that is. As I’ve been building my Thorn, I’ve realised that it would be much less hassle to get these things off the bars – I tend to ride either on the brake hoods or the top of the bars – and only recently have I become aware of a gadget that Thorn supply to alleviate this problem – the Thorn accessory bar.
Prising open the lavish packaging, the bar is a well made little steel acoutrement which fits onto the stem like a mini handlebar, really, in place of a spacer.
Fitting is something of a breeze – simply loosen the headset crown, loosen the stem clamp bolts, work the bars and stem off, and then replace the bottom spacer with the accessory bar, then reverse the process!!
I’ve used mine to fit my computer and my Cateye front light to, but those Thorn owners who want the twin excitements of Rohloff hub and dropped bars are supplied with one to hold the Rohloff gear shifter – which I suspect was its initial design purpose.
So, a bit more weight, yes undeniably. But it’s an elegant solution to making sure that your bars are not cluttered and uncomfortable, and I like it.
It’s 25 minutes until the second week of March as I write this, which has some significance I’m sure somewhere in the world. Sunday night, and I’ve done a number of things this evening which have made it somewhat memorable. But, apropos of none of this honeyed banter (and there’s a highbrow literary reference in there too which you have no doubt already spotted…), I wanted to note down some thoughts and appreciations regarding the Thorn cycles ‘experience’ which I have been involved in for the past few weeks.
The bike is sitting in the garage and will hopefully see some more road action shortly. But it’s the whole aesthetic of the Thorn ‘brand’ (if you’ll permit me to use such an appallingly vacuous and modern term) that has really pleased me thus far.
Now I haven’t been to the shop (SJS Cycles, Bridgwater), so cannot pronounce thereon. I imagine it to be something so wonderful and fascinating that I should be turned into a child in a sweet shop, but hey, when you’ve got Madgetts of Diss within a half hour drive you take some impressing as far as bike shops are concerned.
No, it’s probably best summed up by the website and the brochures, which talk the same language as the bikes in a sense. Slightly amateurish, ever so English (think Parish Council newsletter style), packed with streams of relevant, hype-free (mostly), knowledgeable and useful information, they are a riot of clashing colours, text boxes that are stuffed to the gills with words, in general a gleeful two fingers to the ‘less is more’ attitude of many bike manufacturers these days. In the Thorn brochures, which run to many pages in the style of an old-fashioned engineering led British car maker’s missives, fonts and text sizes are almost randomly chosen. Images are haphazardly inserted. But this is part of the charm of the whole thing – here we have a watering hole for those shrewd souls who have realised that this is how bicycle buying should be.
What you get is an untrimmed, unpolished, enthusiastic and joyful appraisal of not only why you should consider a Thorn as your next (and let’s face it, only) bike, but just for good measure, a few reasons why perhaps you should not.
And so to a ramble. In the course of my job, I attend an exhibition once a year at Olympia, a London venue where unionisation means that there is still a person employed to manage the lift, in other words to press the ‘1’ or ‘G’ buttons (there are only the two floors) – inspiring multitudes of passing passengers to make the ‘How was your day dear? – ‘Oh, up and down!’ joke.
When I am at this exhibition, the hotel we stay in abuts the corner of what becomes Kensington High Street. Under the corner of the hotel, decked out in wood-effect formica wall panelling that evokes the 1970s, is the only showroom in the world of Bristol cars. They still, to my knowledge, require that you write to them (yes, a real letter), should you wish to be considered for the purchase of one of their cars. You then get a treatment, I am led to believe, similar to the Thorn buying experience – photocopied forms giving details of inside leg, which Jermyn Street tailor you frequent, which regiment you served in, etc.
The reason I mention this, and of course it is a certainty in the game of roulette that is life that I shall never be addressing a letter to Mr Tony Crook requesting permission to buy a Bristol 410, is because in bike terms, it’s the same thing. And so is the aforementioned Jermyn Street tailor. You want a machine (or a suit) that does a job. Functionality is key – not marketing. If you want hype, go to the Specialized Concept Store and get yourself a carbon-covered road bike, sold to you by a salesman with a fat target.
In many ways, I am straying into the ideological territory of one of my literary idols, the late, great L.J.K Setright. A man who wrote eloquently about machines with an engineer’s insight and an understanding about their reason for being. Setright knew that when reviewing a car (or an aircraft engine, if the mood and circumstances took him), he was concerned by not only the immediate – sensations, performance, and so on, but its place in the wider world. Did it do what the designer intended it to do?
And that, I guess, is the thing. Thorn have established a set of products – bikes to you and me – that are seriously good at a very defined purpose. They do not rely on slick photographs and clever wording. They do what they say on the tin.
And in a world where one gets tired and cynical just wandering down the street because of the onslaught of advertising that seems able to be both aggressive and also idiotic, that is a wonderful thing to be.
My cycling buddy Mark’s foray into the world of custom-build bikes has piqued my interest, and using the miracles of the Internet, I have been looking further into this strange, specialist world. Here are my travel notes.
Thorn, the makers of Mark’s lovely bike, are probably the best known of the UK’s crop of bike makers. Based in Bridgwater in Somerset, they make their own bikes, mainly tourers and tandems, on site. You don’t just go on their website and click ‘add to basket’ like you might at wiggle, however – the process, which Mark has explained to me, is rather like going to your tailor’s in Savile Row for a bespoke suit. Quality is the only criterion in such a company – thus they are not as accessible and mass-market oriented as other bike makers.
You are measured in ways you never thought possible, and this data is translated into tubing lengths and geometry commensurate with your exact stated requirements, and very likely a rohloff-equipped drive train. Looking at the bike Mark has ended up with, it looks like a fine way to go, if you’ve got the money. They even have a forum for customers, which is a great resource.
Koga Signature is another bespoke bike maker, a Dutch firm based in Heerenveen. The Dutch are one of the most innovative and dedicated cycling nations on earth, so the heritage is good. You can buy them in the UK, and you can also configure your own bike online using their very clever configurator.
Perhaps the most extensive directory of ‘specialist’ bikes available is the Kinetics web site, which deals with anything from a tourer to a tandem, via recumbents and folding bikes. Kinetics is a one-man-band, a guy from Glasgow called Ben Cooper who has one of the best websites I have seen in ages, absolutely full of info and well worth a visit.
That’s a small selection, I intend to extend this article and also look out for one about recumbents in the not too distant future.