Sunday, 16 November 2008

Northwave Aerlite 3 Road Show - IMO

Northwave lie in the Treviso region, the heartland of Italian cycling manufacturing bicycles and parts. Over the years the company has made just as much impact with their memorable advertising campaigns as the products that they sell. The designs may have toned down a little and both shoes are now the same colour, but at the heart of it all is their passion to make great shoes.

Looking at their current riders list (whether they are fully sponsored or have just a kit deal) reads like a 'who's who of cycling'. Okay the company doesn't have the long history surrounding it as Sidi may have, but hey they have only been making cycling shoes since '95, first making snow board boots in '91. In that time Northwave have helped propel riders to great victories, which include Paris Roubaix (4 times), Tour of Flanders (3 times) and numerous Grand Tour stage wins.

The hard men of the sport have adopted this shoe as their own, with Boonen bringing attention to the brand whenever he throws a leg over the bike. Speaking of Boonen, although cosmetically it looks like he also rides a Aerlite 3, he doesn't. Upon some investigation I found out that the top is indeed unchanged, but the bottom comes from the range topping Aerlite SBS. The reason given is that Tom has a high instep and so prefers the adjustability that the three velcro straps offer. Although the new ratchet top strap is now adjustable, and could deal with the high instep, PRO riders will normally stick to what they know. Unfortunately the custom option is not available until you can exchange it for a Rainbow jersey or a Monument win.

Since Northwave started to make shoes the last used was pretty normal in width and length. Then in 2001 the last got a little wider around the ball of the foot, having it's widest period between 2004 - 07. For 2008 the shoe has lost some width, which depending on size is 5-10 mm across the mid section. The toe box shape is also has a little less volume and has again become more pointed like the Genetix of 2001. These comments are probably only relevant if you have had NW's shoes before, or tried them on.

Having spent the last couple of years wearing various shoes, but most recently three different models of Specialized, they share some common areas of fit. Both are wider than the norm (for me the normal width is Shimano) and both share good volume around the toe box area. Over recent years I have been plagued by hotspots in long warm Sportives. Talking with RCUK's Richard Hallett he recommended that I try a less stiff shoe. I first tried this option with a Specialized Expert shoe, which solved the sore feet problem, but compared to other options in the SBC range did not afford the same fit I needed. The quest for a more voluminous shoe began.

As all quests take you on many paths mine led to Northwave. I bought them in February and knowing that the 2008 edition of the Ronde was just around the corner I was conscious that I needed something comfy on my feet. Fitting in some long training rides presented no problems and all was good. Quickly the Ronde was upon me, and the kasseien sections would prove the ultimate test. Hitting the pave left my hands and wrists with a tingling buzzing feeling, a bit like using a large pneumatic drill, the feet had no issues at all. Seventh heaven.

Part of the comfort comes from the sole having an 8.4 rating (which is a three layer carbon number), but the unseen aid is the cork footbed that lays hidden under the insole. At one point you could find this on cycling shoes, but now many forgo it due to the extra expense. If you have ever walked on cork flooring you will be able to testify to the spring in your step as you move across it. The shoe now comes with replacement heels, as this had been a criticism thrown at the shoe in previous editions. Sometimes it is the small details that add up, and in end make a better shoe.

My only gripe is that I don't have a wide foot across the mid and heel section. At times I would have preferred a ratchet for that locked in feeling, even though the long velcro straps offer lots of adjustment. Having talked to Paul at Jim Walker (Northwave's UK importer) he assures me that switching to the SBS model would be equally comfortable. The added stiffness of the SBS sole (five layer carbon) is offset slightly by the use of a wood laminate between the sole and insole. I asked if it was made by Quickstep to which he laughed and said "No". I am hoping at some point to test the Aerlite S.B.S. model and I'll be able to tell you for myself.

I can't really fault the shoe for me. Having used the shoe pretty much exclusively since February I have not suffered a single hotspot. Depending on your foot shape it may not work for you, but if you have a wider foot it is worth trying a pair on, as if they fit in the showroom the ride should be a sublime experience.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

A New S.T.A.R. is born

As manufacturers are always looking for the next new sub genre, I think one has evolved organically already. A S.T.A.R. has risen in the horizon, read on for my thoughts on this new bike.

S is for Sportive. This bike will be capable of handling any sportive that a rider can undertake. From the climbs of France to the rough roads of Flanders.

T is for Traveling. This is somewhere between long day rides and a 'credit card' light touring epics. The type of surface covered would include the regular asphalt and some 'green lanes' or 'dirt roads'.

A is for Audax or Allday. This bike needs to have that all day comfort, so no matter how far or how long you are out, the bike is an ally in your great escape. This could mean hidden away there may be some rack mounts and maybe the provision for mudguards.

R is for Race. No matter how much we look for all of the other attributes, the bikes handling should not be compromised. Aspiration wise we look to the peloton, but it may be races like Flanders rather than the Tour that provide the remit for the design ethos.

So what am I trying to say, or should I put it what is the question. For many the question is 'what if I only had one bike' or the question can be worded in other ways but the goal is the same, to find a bike that is as flexible as a gymnast and as reliable as mans best friend.

Currently there are bikes that would fit this bill, they may not be the most desireable, but they are probably closer to what most riders require to suit the different moods. The majority of these bikes are not going to be off the shelf, as this would represent a bold move for any manufacturer. But they will be put together with as much care and thought that 'the great bard' toiled over a sonnet.

Comfort will be a guardian to these bikes as the nature of the rides undertaken will border on the obsurd, and at other times heroic. The ride will be measured in time and not miles. A destination may be set, but plans may change, but the ethos remains 'enjoy your ride' and make it a treasure for your memory chest.

Lightweight but reliable will be watchwords for the build. The frame itself should blend comfort, stiffness and repairability. This lends itself to certain materials, steel, titanium and carbon (depending on construction) all fit the bill. The theme will continue across the bike as strong, lightweight and reliable (SLR) will be the guiding lights in the product choice. Unfortunately these components don't come with a lemonade price tag, but probably closer to the champagne end of the spectrum.

I doubt very much if this would be a first (or even a second or third) purchase bike for the road rider. In an almost religious experience you will need to have travelled on that road to come to a place where the question has to be asked in the first place. Normally it is the experience of life and in particular life on a bike that can bring you to this crossroads. So my quest is about to begin, where it will end or what the bike will look like in the end, as yet I do not know. This isn't a journey all will make or have to make, but my wheels are in motion.

Does this mean I'll end up with 'just one bike', I don't know, I doubt it but it may depend on how successful I am in my decision making.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

The Lure of the Cobbles

There is something within the human brain that seems to thrive on the difficult, the things that many normal people would shy away from. Not all cyclists are lured by the cobbles, but I now have a quixotic relationship with them as my experience was cemented at this years Ronde. In many ways it is much harder than any cross country mountain bike trails that I have ridden, with a less than appropiate  bicycle.

Having watched many Paris Roubaixs' and Rondes' over the years were I have sat transfixed as the battle unfolded before me. From this point on I will view with different eyes, ones which have experienced the bergs, felt the vibrations through my hands and the elation on getting to the finish.

At the end of the day 'you can only possess what you experience', roll on next year.