I’ll never forget the day I was left most perplexed by our team manager Mike Blewitt after his seemingly bipolar reaction to my newest bicycle purchase.
We were setting up our steeds in the basement of our apartment in preparation for the Dolomiti Superbike, a fantastically tough one day marathon race in the heart of Italian mountain bike heaven. I pulled out my unbranded ‘Chinese monstrosity’ as team mate Will Hayter had dubbed it and Mike was soon circling to cast a discerning eye over the beast and pass judgement.
Keen not to offend our auspicious leader I downplayed my love for my little piece of Eastern oddness. Mike’s assesment was swift, it went something like this ‘pretty decent angles’, well that’s good I figured, he doesn’t hate it. More inspection followed, ‘internal hose routing will be a headache for bleeds’, point taken, there wasn’t really an options list, ‘with the ZTRs its got a pretty good weight but you have to go 10 speed’, yep it was THAT long ago. Well that’s not too bad, I think I passed! With a final flourish and with me feeling I’d almost won Mike over, he looked me square in the eye and delivered the heartbreaker ‘I don’t like them, I don’t agree with them, they are bad for the industry and they are inherently making it tougher for quality brands to push research and development if they are continually being undermined by unregulated charlatans’ With that he rolled off. Well THAT didn’t go according to plan, but point taken!
Ironically many of the reasons people shy away from unbranded frames were similar to the reasons we were moving away from our then bike sponsor. At the time the team had been sponsored by Scott, a cutting edge brand with award winning and more importantly race winning equipment. But for various reasons the decision was made to move to Bianchi. This is an amateur team and sponsorship is definitely finite, arrangements are created for riders to take the opportunity to use frames but there is no rule that says ‘you have to ride a Bianchi’ given the team simply can’t fund it all. Some of those reasons for leaving Scott stemmed from a seemingly lack lustre after-sales service and what at the time seemed like freakishly similar frame cracking anomolies on three out of four team bike seat stays, it was not the perfect exit. I had actually bought my frame specifically as it was a copy of the Scotts the rest of the team raced just with crucially fatter seat stays, I was hoping to at least look the part!
Gossip column over, we all raced Dolomiti, suffered together and finished with smiles on our dials and stories to tell. I’d had a nightmare race, dragged home by Naomi who took pity on me and fed me energy blocks the entire final 5km and nursed my ego with a few choice heckles. But the bike, the bike was fine, its first big test and it was still in one piece, no cracks creaks or dings, no frame snaps and happily no total failures. Too hammered to notice any subtleties I was rather proud of my £350 frame just less so with its rider!
When purchasing my anolmoly of cycling I was really getting this bike as an experiment. I was not convinced 29ers were perfect, they needed more time to bed in, work out the best angles and clearances and then unleash the second wave. We were still barely paddling out the the first wave! Fast forward a few months and ‘Tokolosh’ (demon) was now racing the MTN marathon series in South Africa. I was fitter, I pushed the bike harder, but in fairness South African marathons lack complexity in terrain, a lot is fire road and although a total test to rider, one could probably argue not the hardest test for any lump of dodgy carbon, but more on this later.
The gaps in my marathon racing are generally due to a very hard and competitive road season, somewhere in there we do some time trials. Having loaned bikes left, right and center I wanted my own bike, a test bike if you will, one that I wouldn’t feel too bad about if it sat in a cupboard for most of the year, see if I enjoyed TT as much as road. So yep, another Chinese monstrosity from my favoured Ebay supplier was acquired, £350 + £50 for a white spray job, classy stuff! I went full crazy on this one, I discovered a forgotten brand called ‘Microshift’, scavenged old campag parts and built, well, ‘Dragon’ my not so pretty but crucially rather fast TT bike. The bike had it issues, rear braking non existent, clearances minute and a headset no man on earth has yet managed to tighten correctly but holy crap this bad boy flew, straight out the gate I hit PB’s and took a couple of 2nds, happily smashing lads on £5000 + super bikes. Massively satisfying, TT is about many things, I proved its not about bank balance necessarily.
Back to Tokolosh, the under-rated, under-loved root of all cycle manufaturing evil. Years had passed and the opportunity arose to race Swiss Epic. The bike had now handled so much European marathon racing I was toying up an actual new steed purchase, by actual I mean something with a name! But try as I might I couldn’t quite get the budget, off we trotted on our faithful but ageing friend.
‘Off the charts’, ‘insane’, ‘technical’ and numerous other colourful descriptions arose out of Swiss Epic. This was the marathon multi day to end all. Brutally tough on equipment I was practically laughed out the starting pen with a bike that had seen more action than a sailors cat and more horrifyingly, lacked any rear suspension. I knew I was an idiot, but sometimes idiots have the most fun. The fun is trebled when you actually exceed all expectations. 20th with team mate Matt Page, 20th against full time pros, world champions and Olympians, admittedly a fair few minutes behind them but all done on a frame 5 seasons old that held no warranty, no pedigree or no chance of making anyones ‘wish list’!
That one race redefined my outlook on mountain biking and did more to discredit naysayers of Chinese carbon manufacture and open mold purchasing than anything.
But I’m not trying to convince anyone. The way I see it is this, we love racing our bikes, the bikes are more expensive now than they ever have been. If you race a lot and you are hard on equipment you will probably be spending a small countries GDP on trying to keep up with all those ‘crucial’ training needs. I believe in both worlds I really do but I do feel top shelf brands created the vacumn that Chinese imports have filled.
I spent £2500 in 2009 on a Canyon road bike, the service and warranty on it has been exceptional, after 2 different issues were resolved through warranty I now still race an Ultimate SLX, which is beautiful. But Canyon get it, they innovate, they improve and they create ways that the little man can afford bikes their heros are racing by selling direct and and removing the middle men.
Its not to say bikes shops look favourably on being lumped with distributers as the ‘middle man’, an emotive issue but shops to me have always been about being a place you go to trade war stories while your bike is set up and you spend an hour buying things you don’t really need just because you love the atmosphere. Look Mum No Hands, a place that is thriving because it too has changed the way we see cycling, coffee shops and bike purchasing. No they won’t sell you a bike, but get everything you could possibly imagine while drinking a belgian beer and having a chat to the legendary mechanics, well that to me makes amazing sense.
The issues around the legitimacy or ethics involved in Chinese frame purchasing are complex, they enrage people on forums and despair in brand concious supporters. The fact is I am a bike racer first and foremost, a consumer yes, but fundamentally my purchasing principles are not about how bad ass I’m going to look its about price versus performance. Address those issues for me and you will have me hooked, for as far as I can tell, I got my moneys worth.
FULL BIKE GALLERY