Sour Bike's Purple Haze

brown is the colour of winners

the start of this story starts back when gravel bikes were just a twinkle in someone’s eye. Actually around 10 years ago when I bought a Cotic X cyclo cross bike. I didn’t want a cyclo cross bike but what i did want was a road capable bike with a compact frame and the Cotic had a radically sloping top tube (for the time). it also had disc brakes, a fairly relaxed geometry , again for a cross bike and it fitted me like a glove.

Cotic X

I did lots of miles commuting to work and using it as a winter bike with the usual mudguards etc but with slick tyres which made it efficient enough on tarmac but pretty useless off road, but then i had an MTB for that.

Then i started to see bikes called “gravel bikes” on the internet and races like the dirty Kanza and I though yes! i have a bike i can do that on easily. I was going to drop the road groupset with it’s double chainring, make it 1 x, add hydraulic brakes and shifters instead of the frankly useless mechanical disc brakes i’d run for the last 5 years or so and all would be great. cheap Grav Grav! However, this bike was designed around the UCi’s rules for cyclo cross and like the baddie in a cowboy movie or the wicked witch in a fairy tale the UCi rules usually ruin everyone’s fun. It was just so in the this case. at the time (and now iirc, how progressive UCi) the max tyre clearance for cyclo cross bikes was 33mm. 33mm is frankly useless for UK gravel riding. it maybe fine for Californian dust (looking at your 38mm clearance Diverge Mr Specialized) but add some traditional UK mud and grit and at best you have no traction, at worst the rocks dragged through your frame destroy the paint and the stays. Sooo long story short the Cotic had to go!

I’m not the best at making a decision, just ask everyone about my shed, nearly 12 months on in construction 😦 so it took nearly twelve months of research, of writing geometry comparison charts, agonizing over frame size and this was even before i’d considered groupsets and wheels.

Then, as happens in these situations a bike comes along at the last minute, one that i’d not heard of before, from a place I’d never even thought produced bikes and fitted the bill perfectly in seemingly every way!

Enter stage left Sour bikes a company from Dresden in Germany and their Purple Haze gravel bike.

650b boots

The purple Haze (no it’s not purple) has almost to the mm the exact same geometry as the Cotic that I got on so well with but this one will take 650 x 2.1mm or 29 (700c) x 2.0 in the frame and 29 x 2.2 in the carbon fork. the flat mount disc brakes, external cable routing, external bottom bracket, sloping top tune and the fact it was of steel construction was just the icing on the cake! it also came in a choice of colours.

The Ride

I added the frankly brilliant Shimano GRX groupset and some DT rims on hope hubs I’d built myself and from the first ride after the traditional moving of saddle height, bar height, bar roll, saddle pitch etc etc…then inevitably doing that quite a few times the bike felt like an old friend, but then as i said it was almost identical to my old bike. The addition of 42mm tyres and it’s off road manners makes the purple haze a very comfortable off roader. The feel of steel that lots of people bang on about can actually be felt, there’s definitely some sort of compliance going on vertically compared to the aluminium gravel bikes I’ve ridden.

Step on the pedals though and it’ll go forward nicely, it’s never going to compete with a carbon frame in the weight stakes but it bowls along nicely and after lengthy off road stints you don’t feel fatigued as much by the terrain as on other bikes i’ve ridden. but the extra weight certain helps on rough tracks. it doesn’t get pinged all over the place and it’s got me out of trouble a few times, especially down “MTB” trails. this thing is fun!

Conclusion

if you are looking for the lightest weight gravel bike money can buy or a full on race geometry this is not the bike for you. If you like to look at the scenery, explore unknown tracks where there’s a chance of getting out of your depth, want to load your bike up with bags and disappear into the wilderness safe in the knowledge that you don’t have to worry about the bike letting you down, if you are more about fun than staring at the backside of the rider in front then this is the bike for you.

I’ll also add the back up from the guys at Sour bikes was second to none, I asked lots of questions and despite me asking in english the replies were always quick and knowledgable. The website lets you choose the colour of the frame, whether you have a carbon or steel fork, even the colour of the head badge. the added bonus is that you can now buy a complete bike removing the agony of trying to decide the spec for yourself!

but in the end despite the choices the “autumn glow” sparkly brown paint job was enough for me to love it.

Training ride with a twist

sunshine and blue sky

It all started so well. With some big events in the diary already it was time to start riding some longer distances. To make the most of the days forecast sunshine and blue skies Dan and I planned to ride to Worcester and back using as much off road as possible which would make it around 50 miles. no massive gradients really but some good base miles.

The issue with blue skies on January is that they come with low temperatures and given the amount of rain we’ve experienced lately lots of ice. Run off from the surrounding fields on our route were frozen solid. The very bright sun dazzled us through the hedgerows giving that flickering effect that did nothing for our vision. this meant i saw the patch of ice that was across the road on a corner at the last minute. using my “cat like” skills i managed to stay upright but the only way to do this was to not deviate from my course so i ended up in the middle of someones driveway feeling relieved i’d not hit the tarmac.

It was at this point we had a little chat to assess the planned route that was ahead of us. We could see the frozen bars of water across the lane and knew that the route had a couple of miles downhill from this point on where picking up speed, or more importantly the need to brake for corners would arise. So a remarkable event took place, we were actually sensible (it won’t last, mark my words) for once and thought about how we could get to the nearest off road without braking a hip or worse, damaging the bikes. Off road, perversely in these conditions would give more grip and be safer!

So we made our way to the canal and relative safety…….well until the freezing fog descended and turned the 0 to 1 degree temperatures to a finger numbing -5! (that’s degrees Celsius Fahrenheit users) We bowled along passing other towpath users who looked out of the mist for a few miles until Dan shouted for me to stop. He was sprayed from ankle to chest in tyre sealant with the tyre rapidly deflating. we revolved the wheel so all the sealant would be over the hole but the hole was actually a slit and the sealant couldn’t cope with the size of it. so rather than lose all the sealant we went for the slug option. No Gastropods were harmed today though. A slug is a little tyre insert that you plunge into the tyre through the puncture hole using a split needle. the slug stays in a plugs the hole enabling inflation and the ride to continue! yay!….actually boo! as even though the slug worked perfectly during the re-inflation process the tubeless valve managed to destroy itself.

freezing fog and lack of air

just about enough air to make the wheel rideable had made it in though but there was no way we were going to limp the next 35 miles of the route so again we did the sensible thing (i don’t think i like this new trend) and turned around and headed in the direction of home. So, all in all not the ideal ride but I think it was equally as valuable as if we;d done a hundred mile ride…

making the best of it

….you see, not every ride is going to be perfect, if you look at social media it might look like everyone else’s weekend was idyllic and ridden under warm skies with no mechanicals but the reality is there are going to be times when things don’t go to plan and rides like today are excellent training for these times. As we regrouped with coffee and cake on the way home we could reflect on our new “in the field” puncture repair and the need, if on a long ride or event away from civilization to take a spare tubeless valve (being so close to home we decided not to stick an inner tube in, we did have these with us though) and the most valuable lesson was to take things as they come, don’t panic, don’t throw your toys out of the pram. It’ll all look different when sat in front of the fire recounting the days adventure with your non cycling family.

No embellishing the tale though!

"what the **** was that?"

a review of the Smokestone Mr Harry

The Smokestone Mr Harry Review

As you might have read in a recent post I was lucky enough to be invited to the launch party for Graham Foot’s latest Smokestone bike, The Mr Harry “Gravel” bike. I’ve used inverted commas here as I think it blurs the boundaries of lots of bike genres, but read on and see.

When I used to sell and fix bikes for a living I always spoke to the customer about buying the best frame they could for their money as this was the heart of the bike and all the things that hang on it to make it go, make it stop, make it comfortable or make it fast are all replaceable. Buy the bike with the great handling frame and upgrade the parts as they inevitably wear out.

And so I approached this review as a test of the frame rather than the parts it came with. this is doubly important as it will be sold as a frameset first, allowing the purchaser to spec it exactly how they want it. However, the way this frame has been designed challenges this, again blurring the conventional wisdom. So with this in mind there will be a report on some of the parts.

Disclaimer: This isn’t my bike, I’m just lucky enough to be the first person to test it in exchange for a UKgravelCO sticker 🙂

The frame

The Mr Harry is a titanium frame, officially Titanium grade 9 (3Al/2.5V) designed in Gloucestershire and manufactured in the Far East and comes with that lovely finish you only get with Ti. The welds are neat and tidy and it comes with a sloping but straight (yay for aesthetics!) top tube which is there to give a better anchor point for a frame bag, bent top tubes create all sorts of headaches for bike frame bags even if they do give more stand over height. The frame is drilled for an internal dropper post size 31.6mm to give you maximum options, has three bottle cage mounts, two inside the front triangle and one under the down tube and production frames will come with rack mounts as standard.

hurray for a threaded BB & proper tubes! See also exit for dropper post routing

The bottom bracket is external and threaded, rejoice! and is a standard size (73mm) despite the huge amount of clearance the frame allows. The chain stays are tubes rather than the current fashion of one side being a plate to allow clearance and the ability to run a large chainring and this not just enhances the look of the bike it helps with the side to side stiffness but still allowing vertical compliance. With the bike static and with me putting all my weight on one pedal there was next to no side to side deflection so all your pedalling power is going towards propelling the bike forward.

neat welds and sliding dropouts

The rear dropout is bolt through and the spacing is 148mm boost. these dropouts slide fore and aft along with the disc mount to accommodate the wheel/tyre size and shorten or lengthen the wheelbase. With 29 x 2.6mm tyres fitted the dropouts were set nearly all the way back, so almost max wheelbase. The head tube is standard Top cup = IS 42, Lower cup = IS 52 full specifications for all the sizes can be found here

The Ride

Typical NWAlps conditions

The first ride was a dialling in process, i adjusted the roll and the height of the bars, the saddle height and fore-aft placement to try and replicate as near as possible my own gravel bike to give a fair comparison. Initially I was going to ride in the Forest of Dean but then I thought the best test would be to ride the bike on familiar trails, routes which I know well and know how my own bike feels on them. These are a mix of short sections of tarmac, very muddy bridleways, lots of slick tree rooted forest, sandy field edges, canal towpath, wooden steps, gravel double track, slick clay cut throughs, draggy grass and moorland and trails the local MTBers have built in the woods with steep drop ins, off camber berms, rollers and deliberate obstacles such as fallen trees. So just about everything apart from dry and dusty and rock gardens.

climbing was actually fun!

I was concerned that as the bike was set up with pretty much the longest wheel base possible it would handle like a narrow boat but it turned into corners just great, it’s not a 26″ wheeled 4x bike but you turn the bars and it goes where you point it, be it downhill off camber or loose soil over roots. as the ride went on I challenged it to more and more trails that i tip toe down on my gravel bike and it just bombed through, the more i rode the more confident I got. Add a dropper post to this and it’ll go pretty much anywhere you point it. Seated climbing is comfy and only the slickest climbs defeated it, but this is more to do with the tyres than the frame. Climbing was also enhanced by the seat angle, not being too steep it allowed a great sitting position that enabled weight shifting to add traction when needed. All this off road prowess wasn’t at the expense of road manners though, it happily bowled along the tarmac sections and the big tyres just shrugged off pot holes, in fact I was deliberately riding over the worst bits for fun!

Titanium is known for its comfortable ride and I’ve ridden Ti frames in the past that have been comfy but the downside of this is they can be a bit noodle like, flexing in the wrong places visibly. I’ve had MTBs that you can feel flex from side to side at the head tube and bottom bracket area. this frame however managed to be rock solid in these areas but at the same time was a very comfortable ride. The only way I can describe it is it’s like a good quality steel frame without the weight penalty.

Lets talk about tyres

Vittoria Mezcals XC-Trail were fitted to the test bike

So, as i mentioned earlier even though this is really a review of the frame there’s no getting away from the fact that he bike in this specification has big tyres. They are 29 x 2.6 a size you see on trail or enduro MTBs altough the tread on these isn’t as aggressive as most. The astonishing thing is that these aren’t even the biggest tyres the frame will take. it’ll happily accommodate 29 x 3.0.

This bike is marketed as an adventure bike and in this guise with these tyres I can see the bike tackling the Highland 550 or The Tour divide. loaded up with everything you need to survive it’ll deliver you to the end if not in comfort then less fatigued than on an alloy framed bike and less scared of a carbon frame being able to take the knocks of such an adventure.

For my local riding the tyres were an absolute giggle, on the off road sections they were brilliant, confidence inspiring and rolled well. On the tarmac sections they actually surprised me how little resistance they gave. Would i want to ride a 100k on the road on them? no, but read on.

Perception is your only limit

mind the gap

The title of this article comes from a comment made during my ride. On a short section between woods there was a quarter mile of tarmac with an off camber grass verge to one side, of course I took this option and towards me on the road came a group of road bike riders, i waved and they waved back and as they passed I heard one say “what the **** was that?” which I love! But it made me think that this bike has unlimited possibilities. The big tyres are great fun if you are lucky enough to ride 100% off road, although I’d probably go 2.4″ for myself. But run narrower tyres and the frame is nimble enough and light enough to gave a great account of itself in a cross race, a little larger tyre and it’s going to be exploring back lanes and unknown bridleways with all day comfort. you could even slip some 28mm slicks on there and join the local chaingang or 10mile TT. I’d have two sets of wheels, one with big tyres and one with 40-45mm tyres because I think this bike would absolutely fly on a set of light wheels with gravel tyres. The only limit is the riders imagination.

Conclusion

Graham Foot, the designer of this frame has deep seated roots in mountain bikes from almost the first day they caught on in the UK, Graham knows off road and has produced frames since those early days, better known these days for his Fat bikes. All that accumulated knowledge has gone into this frame, but I think Graham will be the first to admit he has less experience with drop bar bikes but Graham listens to his customers and with the likes of Andy Deacon, star of this years GD-Duro and long distance riding events inspiring and adding ideas he has come up with a super versatile, well mannered frame that somehow manages to be stable but still exciting with the feel of steel and be light in the process. However you spec this frame, as adventure bike, monstercrosser or gravel bike you won’t be disappointed.

The Details

As mentioned above, this is really all about the frame but for those interested here’s the spec as ridden,

  • Frame weight – 1.98kg (size Large)
  • Price (frame only) £1600 for Titanium frame , sliding dropouts 12mm bolt through
  • Full bike as pictured £3800
  • Fork – Whisky No9 mtn 15mm
  • Wheels and hubs – Halo Vapour 35mm
  • Tyres – Vittoria XC Trail 29 x 2.6″
  • Chainset – Sram GX with 36T ring
  • Rear Mech – Shimano GRX R800
  • Shifters – Shimano GRX R800
  • Cassette Shimano GRX R800 11-40
  • Brake Caliper – Shimano SLX
  • Bars – Genetic “flare”
  • Stem – Genetic STV
  • Seatpost – Genetic Syngenic 31.6mm
  • Saddle – Prologo Dimension NDR
  • Size Tested – Large
  • Sizes Available 52cm, 54cm, 56cm (large), 58cm, 60cm

Smokestone Mr Harry

a brief first impression…

it looks “right” somehow

I was recently invited to the Slam69 shop to view a very interesting new bike. The Smokestone Mr Harry.

Graham Foot, the guy behind this new bike has lots of experience in this sort of thing, producing his first bike back in the hey day of MTBing in the late eighties right up to the present and very successful fat bike range (the Henderson) the latest of these being made of Titanium.

The Mr Harry is also titanium and currently this is the only frame in existence and was literally only built an hour before the launch which is why a few of the parts are eclectic.

The basic idea of the bike is an Adventure/Gravel/bike packing bike that can take standard gravel size tyres or rubber right up to 29 x 3″

plenty of clearance even with 29 x 2.6 tyres

It has 3 bottle cage mounts, a larger triangle for full size frame bags if that’s your thing, is 100mm suspension corrected and pannier and dropper post compatible. This build with not particular lightweight parts nudged the scales at 26lb (11.8kg)

The quick ride I had showed me that the handling was very neutral, more MTB than twitchy road which is good for load carrying and unladen tech riding. The front height has been on my wish list for ages, high enough to see where I’m going without the need for a million spacers and a high rise stem. riding on the drops would be a comfortable place on this bike. It did no hands riding comfortably always a good sign of a balanced bike. I Loved the stand over and straight tubes on this large size frame and the sloping geometry. Stick a fork with the 3 bolt mounting options on it & I think it’s got the potential to cater for a wide range of rider.

I’m hoping to get a few days riding on it in the next couple of weeks to give it a proper run in real local conditions but first impressions are really positive.

More info can be found on the Smokestone bikes website

Missing out

So last weekend was the first “Gone Gravelling” ride out from The Trailhead bike shop in Shrewsbury. I’d love to tell you about how great the route was through the Shropshire Hills, how I made new friends and hooked up with people with invites for future rides. How although I was tired at the end it was all worth the effort and the pizza and beer reward at the finish was the best thing ever!

Yes, I’d love to tell you all that but unfortunately the weekend before the event I had a full on man-cold. Starting with a less than par ride that should have been easy to the next day when the sore throat began to full on constant runny nose to a sinus infection meant the weeks commute riding was a write off. Hoping that the enforced lay off the pedals would hasten recovery I left my first ride post cold to two days before the Gone Gravelling start. This ride didn’t go as I’d hoped. lacking energy i managed around 17 miles before heading home for a little lie down. I knew then that even though the ride was billed as going as fast as the slowest rider I would not have enjoyed the hills there, we don’t have the same gradients or length of climb here in North Worcestershire. “suffering” might be the buzz word for cycling in some quarters but in my mind that’s only acceptable if you are holding off the bunch with 10k to go at the end of Paris-Roubaix. Holding on to disappearing riders in the hope that there was some pizza left by the time i got there isn’t.

So it was heavy heart i messaged by friend that I was pulling out. I hate letting people down, I dislike not sticking to the arranged plan but it was the right thing to do no matter how much it sucks.

I’d been dreading seeing the pictures

Inevitably Sunday evening brought the deluge of pictures from the ride, filthy bikes and mud splattered smiling faces, pictures of pizza, beer and big grins. I’d been dreading seeing those but actually it cheered me up. It meant that the ride was a success and that could mean it’ll happen again and next time I won’t be weak and feeble!

So if you are planning a ride or gathering please invite me I don’t want to miss out on anything!

Going nowhere fast V going somewhere slow


I recently attended an evening at Stroud Brewery. A visit there just to sample the beer and pizza would have been enough to justify the journey as it’s that good and well set up but on this particular evening there was a talk on long distance self supported endurance riding and bike packing.

At the end of the 3 talks there was a Q&A session and amongst the questions was one for which the answer really hit home to me.

The question was “after doing these long distance events what would you do different next time” One of the speakers spoke of taking less than 1.5kg of flap jack and the other less socks but Katherine Moore said the thing she’d do differently is “ride more slowly”

I’ve never been fast even though I’m probably fitter on the bike now than when i was in my twenties but I’ve always looked at my average speed on rides with a bit of disappointment. I work in a bike shop and a lot of the chat with customers revolves around how fast is that, how many watts will it give me, my average speed etc etc so I know many cyclists are obsessed by this, not just the road riders but MTBers too who love to check their time on a downhill segment or try for a KOM on strava or similiar stat based apps.

Katherine said “ride more slowly” and went on to explain that she’d done lots of races in incredible places with dramatic scenery and ridden with riders from all over the world but because she had either been trying to go as fast as she could or needed to finish before a cut off time she hadn’t really taken notice of the scenery or spent time getting to know those interesting people. She said that her goal now was not to worry about the clock and enjoy the ride instead.

This was the one thing that stood out for me. I’ve been hashtagging my photos on Instagram UKgravelCO with #lowspeedadventures more to make excuses for the lack of pace but I realise now that going slower and enjoying the ride rather than the performance is the way to go for me. I want to do rides where looking over the hedge at the view is more important than looking at the backside of the rider in front and holding their wheel. I want to ride at a chatting pace and not worry that a checkpoint isn’t going to be reached at an allotted time.

i feel liberated, the pressure is off. it’s time to enjoy the ride rather than the numbers, sit back, relax and just turn the pedals. This just might be a huge turning point in my riding experience. Will it put me off doing “race” based events? maybe, but perhaps this will now give me the impetus and motivation to seek out like minded riders, those who like the idea of no pressure low speed adventures where the actual ride and the people are the focus rather than the minutiae of the stats.

Katherine’s website can be found here and her instagram here

The art of being lost but knowing where you are

grass up the middle trails always lead to adventure

There’s no getting away from the fact that I live in a built up area, I am 30 minutes pedal from the centre of (arguably) The UK’s second biggest city. It’s not that much further into the heart of The Black Country and the massive industrial and manufacturing heartland of the midlands (yes peaky blinders etc, but lets not go into the fact that they were from Small Heath and not Cradley etc etc) so you would expect that riding here unless it was on tarmac via industrial estates lacked any sort of off road routes.

Well you’d be right and wrong at the same time. Around here you are never far from civilisation, it’s not the wilds of the Scottish highlands, the peak district or the wolds etc. What we do have though is hundreds of years of people walking home from work, horse made trails, canal infrastructure and disused rail tracks.

I followed a route I’d been shown once which loosely followed the route of the Tour of the Black country, a sportive that has tarmac and road sections and tries to emulate the great pro race Paris Roubaix. The ride was just over 50 miles and at least 25 of those were off road and for at least 15 of those off road miles I had absolutely no clue where i was going but knew exactly where i was. Let me explain.

Exploring is in my opinion what gravel bikes are made for, they can do multiple miles on tarmac and cope with off road trails too. I wouldn’t want to ride say 40 miles on a mountain bike on tarmac to ride 10 on bridleways. believe me i’ve done it and those MTB miles are a slog and the short bits of off road aren’t an exciting challenge on a capable MTB. a gravel bike will cruise the black top and scare the pants off you off road! who doesn’t like a bit of an adrenaline rush now and again?

so when I’m out riding and i spot a bridleway sign or a track I’ve never ridden i just go for it. it’s at this point that even though i know the general area i’m in I realise i have no clue where the track is going, what the riding conditions will be like, if i’ll have to turn around, climb a fence. cross a stream or cope with any situation. i call these follow the wheel rides, i just point the bike in a general direction and follow it. I’m not lost but standing in a field or a thick wood with no sight of anything i have no clue where I am or where I’ll end up.

Todays ride was just like that, I used the route I knew then followed any bridleway that i came across, one lasted for 3/4 of a mile, a mix of stones and sand across open fields that lead into a wooded section of roots, twists and turns, gravel and drop offs. It came out onto a tiny lane. I looked left and absolutely had no idea where i was, I looked right and saw the back of a pub…hang on I think i recognise that, yes! I knew where i was but no way would i have thought the track would have come out there. i rode up to the end of the lane and there across a busy road was a sign…

there’s nothing more exciting that exploring an unknown bridleway. Adventure awaits!

Of course I couldn’t resist this and it turned out even better than the last, a steep off camber rocky climb turned into sublime singletrack through some woods. there were various points where there was a choice of going on or right or left, i plumped for straight on and it popped me out onto a very sandy track sign posted ” roman road” i knew this path! seconds ago i was lost, exploring the unknown, now i was back on familiar territory and i knew i could link this up to the canal which would take me in the direction i needed.

You can do this any where, don’t despair that you live in the middle of a city, the gravel bike will transport you to places you never knew where there even though you’ve lived in the area all your life, that happened to me just last week on a ride guided by a local, 50 years in this county and there were routes I’d never ridden literally on my door step.

So please try it, go and get lost in your local area (but do tell someone which area you will roughly be in, just in case) i guarantee you’ll be surprised what you discover. In the words of @24TOM LOST IS FOUND