One more note on cyclocross

Given all the talk about brakes – mud clearance, power, modulation, cantilevers, disks, do they work at all – I’m surprised that one simple mechanical option is almost totally overlooked by so many ‘cross riders.

STI or Ergopower levers have the obvious appeal of allowing braking and shifting without taking one’s hands off the ‘bars. But they are vulnerable to mud and gunk, and expensive to repair or replace if crash-damaged.

And, if you like V-brakes – a good choice because they are cheap and easy to set up, provide lots of stopping power and don’t need a cable hanger, which is often awkward at the front – you need either to run mini-Vs or install a travel agent to take up enough cable so that the STI or Ergo levers, which aren’t designed for direct-pull brakes, don’t bottom out against the handlebars.

The other problem with these levers is that they are fine for people with biggish hands, but a stretch for many women and most juniors.

Bar-end shifters are a good solution to all these problems. They are cheap and robust – and widely available for 8- or 9-speed derailleurs, which remain a very good choice in ‘cross – and are nearly as good, ergonomically, as combined brake/shift levers.

Bar-end shifters also allow use of any brake levers. For V-brakes, use an inexpensive and widely available model designed for linear-pull brakes. For riders with smaller hands, there are many types of junior lever available.

Riders who like to run a single-ring might also consider bar-end shifters; being relatively cheap, there’s no big grief associated with paying good money for two expensive STI/Ergo levers when you need only one.

Bicycle design and set-up is always a series of compromises. Don’t overlook a time-tested option if some of those trade-offs are working for you.


More cyclo-cross notes (actually, the bike matters a lot!)

In my post from New Year’s Day following the cyclo-cross at Newbury, I made a remark that needs more fleshing out – in fairness to bike companies, mechanics and, of course, fellow riders.

That is, “the bike doesn’t matter much”. I said that with weight in mind, not taking into account all the other performance characteristics that make for a happy ‘cross experience. I’ll stand by that comment, in that weight is just one factor and there are a lot of trade-offs. But, and it’s a big “but”, I was working from an assumption of only marginal differences in weight between generally modern ‘cross bikes.

So, while a few grams one way or the other doesn’t matter a lot – especially when carrying some really big chunks of weight in the form of mud – it is obviously true that getting the iron out of the basic machine does count.

Actually, I’d go so far as to say that bicycle weight matters more in cyclo-cross than in any other discipline, because on most courses you’ve got to carry the bike part of the way. As anyone who goes to the gym knows, lifting a lump of iron again and again is exhausting. A few grams don’t make much difference, but a couple pounds sure do, especially after the bike gets loaded up with several kilos of wet, sticky mud. And, some races are actually run in non-Passchendaele conditions (there must be some, someplace!).

My first ‘cross bike was a steel Diamant, which I later learned to have been one of a batch supplied to a Great Britain juniors team that more or less rejected them as too heavy. The bike rode very well, and it was cheap, but lightweight it was not.

My second ‘cross bike was a lovely Alan Unicross, one of the fat-tube welded aluminium models they made to succeed the bonded frames that served many champions so well through the 1980s. The Unicross was light, and off-road it rode really well. But it had two big design flaws. One was the (still bonded) alu fork, that didn’t have enough gap between the blades to let the brake shoes spread for wheel removal and installation. That meant letting the air out to remove the wheel, and pumping it up again only after installation. Obviously a problem when time came for a mid-race wheel change.

Second, the drive-side chainstay really needed an indent – which it sadly did not have – for tucking in the small ring. Hence, chainline was terrible – a flaw well known to owners, who knew all about stopping to re-mount a shipped chain. By the time I finally decided enough was enough and determined to hit the chainstay with a rubber mallet and buy a shorter bottom bracket, the bracket shell threads gave up and the frame got retired.

My current machine, then, is a properly modern Kinesis Crosslite, which is reasonably lightweight and has a proper chainline and all the other stuff that makes for a modern ‘cross bike. It does the job well enough that the limiting factor is the rider; hence my “the bike doesn’t matter much” remark.

Having said that, my Kinesis is one of those understandably popular ‘cross bikes with mudguard eyelets and rack fixing points that can double as an all-purpose winter training, commuting, light touring machine. I suppose that’s what the industry now likes to call a “gravel bike”, in search of something new to sell.

Casual observation of machines-at-a-race, however, suggests that frames like this one don’t have as much mud clearance at the brakes and bottom bracket as some dedicated ‘cross racers.

Races in dry-ish conditions aside, mud clearance matters a lot. Some of the newest models – especially the carbon ones – have really impressive mud clearance; doing away with the little bridge behind the bottom bracket is a very good idea that builders working carbon can get away with nicely. The Daccordi pictured below (credit @daccordicycles) is a road frame, but what a good view of the sort of very clean undercarriage that is just the thing in ‘cross.

So, I stand corrected. The bike does matter, quite a lot. My first carbon frame is probably going to be for CX.






Cyclo-Cross notes

Today I rode the New Year’s Day cyclo-cross at Goldwell Park in Newbury, Berkshire, and what a wonderful way to see in 2016! Full marks to organiser Chris Boulton and the Palmer Park velo club*.

For tedious reasons this was my return to competition after a spell away, and after coming in “cold” it seems a good time to make a few observations on cyclo-cross, which I hope are interesting to both the seasoned and the curious:


-The bike doesn’t matter much; lighter is nicer, but how much difference does that make when you’re carrying 3kg of mud?

-Brakes aren’t important – anything that squeezes the rims will do, unless you have disks in which case anything that squeezes that steel plate bolted to your hub will do.

-Seriously, brakes don’t matter much. Once in a while you’ll need to lay into them so as not to hit somebody who fell off for no apparent reason or went wide or completely lost traction and stopped. But beyond that, don’t pay much heed to fuss about brakes; the ones you have are fine, and anything else is probably money that would be better spent on entry fees and travel, tyres or maybe a natty one-piece suit.

-Having said that, if you’re going to buy a new bike anyway, consider disks. In any other other discipline I’d say the balance of trade-offs points to lighter-simpler-cheaper callipers, but in ‘cross it helps to keep the forks and stays as clear as possible of mud-catchers.

-Having said that, don’t run out and buy a new bike just to have disks; they may ease one part of the problem but no matter what you do, mud still packs up around the front mech and bottom bracket, and it’s not many minutes in that all the gunk thrown off your front wheel is gunging up your rear mech and chainrings. All of this is worse when the mud is sticky (without having any samples lab-tested, I’ll venture a guess that there’s plenty of clay in English soil). Many courses cover grassy parks and fields; a handful of grass mixed into mud, recall, is a key component of what our pre-industrial brethren knew as wattle-and-daub, which is probably still a good way to build houses. See also: “adobe”.


-General observation 1: a casual survey of post-race damage says cantilevers are just about as satisfactory mud-wise as disks, certainly plenty good enough. Mini-Vs are cheaper and easier to set up and adjust, but less good with mud and grass. The best solution is two bikes and a confederate with a pressure washer in the pits, but that’s getting into big money and a lot of hassle.

-General observation 2: A single chainring is enough for many courses if you carry a very wide range of 10 or 11 sprockets. But 10s and 11s aren’t good when the mech gets gunged up. And, with a single ring you still, really, need a chain-holder – which has all the mud-carrying capacity of a front mech. The 2×8 or 2×9 setup that’s on your bike already is a pretty good compromise.

[Note to self: home workshop experiment turning an old spoke into a brake boss-mounted rear wheel mud scraper was an epic fail.]

-One thing that does matter is tyre pressure; low is good, maybe in the 20s PSI if the ground is really soft and slippy. This is one of those areas where experience pays off. Try things in warm-up or training. As long as you won’t roll a tyre you’re probably OK. Tubulars make some sense – but what an expense and hassle.

-On the equipment check-list, pedals and shoes matter. If you aren’t happy with your set-up – and getting in and out easily, especially back in when it’s muddy, is important – have a look at what other people are using and ask for advice/opinions.

Mostly, get out there and do it! Whether you’re riding to win or riding to finish, CX is fun and the people are nice. If you get wet you get wet, which you expect in the winter, and there’s always a cup of tea to be had to warm things up at the finish. Road racing in the spring is often wet and still cold, and cold and wet is a lot less fun on the road.


* Chris and his team set out a challenging course that used every square foot of ground available, and laid on a slick operation, from sign-in to showers and a celebratory wall of foam. They weren’t of course responsible for the good weather, but after days of stormy rain it was a pleasure to ride under clearish skies, however wet the ground.


Has unclean Curiosity let Mars slip from NASA’s grip?

I note with interest that NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity is “not clean enough” to explore the wet places on Mars owing to the risk of its contaminating them with Earthly microbes. But as fortune would have it the next rover mission, ExoMars, launching in 2018, has been perfectly conceived to seek signs of life at the fringes of the so-called recurring slope lineae (RSL), where liquid water apparently flows in warm months. Indeed, ExoMars, from the European Space Agency and Roscosmos, is being equipped with an exotic on-board biolaboratory and drill capable of reaching down a full 2m, well below the reach of deadly solar radiation. This is a good thing on the principle that we’d all like to know if there’s Life On Mars.

However – the Americans must be bordering on apoplectic at the prospect of such discovery being made by, well, foreigners (notwithstanding the somewhat glossed-over fact that the flowing water thing comes out of a great deal of data gathered from orbit by spacecraft that include some put there by, well, foreigners and studied in detail by scientists in – Dear God! – France).

So – Americans being Americans, there will be three possible ways forward:

  • Launch a land and air invasion of the Soviet Union on some pretext, the actual but unstated objective being to disable prospective ExoMars launch sites;
  • Hire expensive New York marketing wizards to convince everybody that ExoMars is, really, a NASA Thing; or
  • Go to court in a bid to stop ESA and Roscosmos from launching before NASA can get a properly clean rover to Mars.

1 is fraught with difficulty, not the least of which is the irony that the search for life on Mars could end life on Earth. 2 is a bit pathetic. So, 3 is the obvious approach, especially since failure does not preclude having a go with 2.

No doubt Airbus Defence & Space, preparing the ExoMars rover in the most exotic clean room ever built in Europe, and the European Space Agency, have lawyers who’ve thought of this before I.

I’m not being entirely facetious



Asteroid defence gets complicated when the asteroids get complicated

From Nature, we learn that one high-on-the-watchlist near-Earth object – asteroid (29075) 1950 DA -“is a loose blob of particles that clot together much as Moon dust collects on astronauts’ spacesuits”. Because it is spinning quickly, 1950 DA’s own gravity can’t be enough to hold it together, so cohesion is owing to van der Walls forces, the weak net attraction between molecules. The same may be true of other so-called “rubble pile” asteroids, if they are spinning fast enough.

And, says the study leader, planetary scientist Ben Rozitis of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, that means we’d need to take great care in any intervention designed to prevent a collision with Earth. Specifically, he reckons, flying out there and blowing it up into pieces would be a bad idea, because we don’t (yet) understand the forces holding these lumps together and we may just end up turning one threat into many.

After last year’s meteor strike over Chelyabinsk in Russia, we are keenly aware of the danger from NEOs. One of the first priorities is to find them – the Chelyabinsk rock came literally out of the blue, ironically while scientists were watching the close pass of another, known, object. Thankfully, both NASA and the European Space Agency are dramatically ramping up search resources, and many serious scientists are working on plans for diverting NEOs from Earth-collision courses.

It’s worth looking back at my May 2013 flightglobal story for a guide to what’s being done to make sure we don’t go the way of the dinosaurs. And, for what it’s worth, if we survive the next decade or so without being blindsided by an undetected killer asteroid, I reckon we stand a good chance of keeping the worst of them at bay.

See Also: On Asteroid Day, take a minute to look skyward (

Homing in on threats posed by near-Earth objects (

Meteor showers: ISS camera to focus on orbiting threats (

ATV era opens final chapter with ‘flawless’ space station docking

The International Space Station marked the end of an era on Tuesday, 12 August 2014 with a “flawless” arrival by the fifth and final resupply flight in ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicle programme.

ATV-5 – named after Belgian priest and physicist Georges Lemaître, who formulated the Big Bang theory of the creation of the Universe – docked with the ISS at exactly 1330GMT, packed with 6,602kg (14,600lb) of fuel, water, gas and dry cargo. The spacecraft will remain docked to Russia’s Zvezda module of the ISS for six months, while it is unloaded and eventually packed with rubbish before being cut loose to burn up in the atmosphere during a destructive re-entry.

Meanwhile, from 14 August, ATV-5’s thrusters will perform a series of reboost manoeuvres to maintain the station’s altitude. Orbiting at only around 450km (280 miles), the ISS passes through enough residual atmosphere to slow it down slightly, so it would eventually fall out of orbit without boosts from visiting supply ships.

ATV-5 flying below ISS, August 2014 (credit NASA)

ATV-5 flying below ISS, August 2014 (credit NASA)

A more extensive report is available at

UKSA’s bold vision is to be the most modern of space agencies

When Tim Peake dons his spacesuit and climbs aboard a Soyuz rocket in November 2015, it will not be just another expedition to the International Space Station – at least from the perspective of observers in the UK.

Peake – one of six astronaut trainees selected by the European Space Agency in 2009 – will be only the third British-born person to fly in space.

It has been more than a decade since a Brit last left Earth, and 25 years since a Union Jack made it to orbit. Peake’s predecessor, Michael Foale, was by any measure a star astronaut, with more than 373 days in space between 1992 and 2004 on three Space Shuttle missions and stays aboard both Russia’s Mir and the International space stations. But Foale, a UK-US dual citizen, flew for NASA with a stars-and-stripes patch on his shoulder. Britain’s spaceflight trailblazer, chemist Helen Sharman, made her trip to Mir in 1991.

So, it is hardly a surprise that Peake – a former Boeing/Westland AH1 Apache helicopter pilot and major in the British Army with a degree in flight dynamics – is poster child for the UK’s push to encourage young people to pursue the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. Indeed, in 2009 Peake was appointed a UK ambassador for science and space-based careers.

Tim Peake (credit: UK Space Agency)

Tim Peake (credit: UK Space Agency)

The complete story is available at Flight International; register online for access to special features like this one

UK hopes regulatory light touch and commercial spirit will open path to space

The UK is laying the groundwork for a commercial space transport industry by opening a consultation on a site for a spaceport. And it is looking across the Atlantic for guidance on how to regulate the nascent business of ferrying passengers into space – with operations possible from 2018.

A memorandum of understanding signed at the Farnborough air show will see the UK Civil Aviation Authority and the UK Space Agency work with the US Federal Aviation Administration to ensure that operations are safe without keeping companies Earth-bound with excessive regulation.

Aviation minister Robert Goodwill – speaking in place of David Willetts, the science minister who lost his job in last week’s Cabinet reshuffle – said the UK goal was to command 10% of a global space business estimated to be worth some £400 billion ($680 billion) by 2030. Goodwill underscored the UK government’s appreciation of the fact that the spaceplane technology for so-called “space tourism” was “just over the horizon” and that it is expected to be adaptable to launch small satellites. Critically, he said, enabling more low-cost launches of small satellites – a UK industrial strength – was a key to that strategy.

The UK is looking to learn from best practice, which at this point means the FAA – the only safety authority yet to establish rules on so-called space tourism. As FAA associate administrator George Nield said at the show during the launch of the UK’s discussion paper on spaceplane operations, it needs to take a different approach to space tourism from aviation, by regulating operations rather than the equipment and treating the machines as experimental aircraft. “A certification regime would stifle commercial operators,” he says.

A more extensive report appeared in the 22 July edition of Flight International. Register for free online access.

Roadmap to Mars is paved with ambition, high hopes and money

For as long as there have been telescopes, there has been fascination with Mars and its tantalising similarities to Earth. Although it has been a very long time since anyone seriously believed in Martians or feared a HG Wells-style war of worlds, the orbiters and landers that have probed the Red Planet since the 1960s have left open the most fascinating question of all, is there – or if not was there ever – life on Mars?

As enticing as answering that question might be, however, it has been more than 40 years since the last Apollo mission to the relatively close Moon. NASA’s follow-up George W Bush-era Constellation programme was ultimately axed by the succeeding Obama administration – apparently because it was deemed unaffordable. Constellation had the goal of returning to the Moon by 2020.

So, it would seem reasonable to surmise that sending astronauts to Mars is not on the proverbial radar.

However, as NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan recently explained to a full house at the Royal Aeronautical Society, there are reasons to believe that human explorers could resolve our questions about Mars the way robots never could – and there is indeed a plan to land on the Red Planet in 2035.

The complete article is available at Flight International; register online for access to special features like this one.

Steering a rover from orbit? Challenging but doable

When astronauts finally one day arrive at an alien world, they might want to send a robot advance party down to check out the surface before committing themselves to landing – but controlling a rover from space is far from straightforward, as the orbiting driver would only have intermittent line of sight contact with a ground vehicle.

So, the European Space Agency has been working on a “space internet” concept to store commands when signals are interrupted or the surface unit is lost, and then forward them once contact is re-established. And, on 7 August a trial run went better than expected, with ESA’s Alexander Gerst, orbiting Earth in the International Space Station, steering the agency’s Eurobot rover for 90 minutes around a test facility at its ESTEC technology centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands.

This article originally appeared on