Category Archives: Winter Bikes

Exposure Flare review

This is a long term, 16 month review of the Exposure Flare which has lots of favourable reviews online.

Exposure Flare

From my experience this light has some serious quality flaws that make it too unreliable.

It is half way through my second winter with this product and the light has broken twice in the last three months, my 15 mile commute in the dark requires a reliable alternative back-up light to keep me safe. My early review of this product was favourable even though I noted that I’d had to return the light for repair within its first 3 months of use.

I bought my light in September 2013, however it was showing signs of unreliability – switching off caused by road vibration – by late October. This fault was repaired in January 2014, it was then returned again to Ultimate Sport Engineering for a second time September 2014 for the same fault and now for a third time in January 2015 the light turns off when riding on the road caused by vibration again.

See this short video-clip to observe the vibration induced switch off:

I like Exposure products, I have a fabulous MaXX D front light which has served me well, and even with my frustrating experience I would buy more USE / Exposure products.

I wonder if other owners of the Exposure Flare have had a similar experience to me or I’ve just been unlucky.


Boardman Hybrid-Comp 2013 redux

As you can tell from my review of the 2013 Boardman Hybrid-Comp the component level does not have the quality to withstand minimal club level mileage of 100 to 150 miles per week.

Five weeks in and the components were showing their weaknesses; this amounts to just under 50 hours ride time with twice weekly washes and re-lubes.

The FSA Vero compact 50×34 chain-set was too warped from new and flexing too much, causes chain rub on the front-mech.

The chain had suffered enough in one of our wettest January’s for years and its performance was seriously degraded under load.

In a phrase, the transmission wasn’t up to the task.

Boardman Hybrid-Comp 2013 redux – Tiagra 10 speed transmission

Shimano Tiagra 10 speed transmission upgrade

Shimano Tiagra 10 speed transmission upgrade

A transmission upgrade to Shimano Tiagra 10 speed from the 9 speed SRAM x-5 is straightforward and with the benefit of January sales not as costly as one would expect.

Items changed:

  1. Tiagra 4600 double Chainset – 50 x 34 compact
  2. Tiagra BB
  3. Tiagra short cage rear mech
  4. Tiagra chain
  5. Tiagra 10 speed cassette – 11 to 25
  6. Right Hand Tiagra 10 speed shifter

The rear wheel free-hub supports a Shimano 10 speed cassette upgrade as a simple swap out of the cassette. The excellent and informative Sheldon Brown has documented detailed information on Shimano freehub compatibility.

Performance Improvement

All the transmission problems with the chain rubbing the front-mech when on the smallest two or the biggest three sprockets whilst on the big ring are gone. This is down to the stiffness of the Tiagra chainset and bottom bracket.  The result being there is no need to swap out the left hand SRAM 3 speed shifter designed for triple chainsets.

Tiagra upgrades

Tiagra upgrades

Remaining Issues

Headset leakage

The FSA No.11 Headset can be bought online for under £5 and is an obvious upgrade for a sealed item; the FSA No. 11 is detailed as follows:

  • SKU / Manufacturers Part No: 141-2281
  • 1-1/8″ semi-cartridge type headset
  • For 49mm OD headtube
  • 1-1/8″ steerer
  • Alloy top cover
  • Chromoly cups
  • Semi-cartridge bearings

Frameset Flex

The frameset and wheels do have some flex under load which can cause the brakes to rub – this should be alleviated with better wheels and adjustment of the brakes to dial the pads so that there is sufficient clearance between the pad and the disc whilst the brakes are not actuated.  This is very easy with the adjuster dial on the AVID BB5 calipers.


Its not light but thinking about any course of action to make this lighter would be like trying to pass a donkey for a race horse; there’s only so much you can do to train a donkey, its still a donkey.  Better to accept this bike for what it is and that is an ideal ride for the worst of the winter and commuting.  I enjoy the stability in frosty or windy conditions and the freedom to take to dirty badly surfaced roads or tracks to avoid cars on those Sundays you just want to chill out.  Riding the Boardman sets the tone for the day with the training dial set to base and yet it remains nimble and responsive, encouraging you to change your plans and add some extra base miles before you call it a day.

Boardman Hybrid-Comp review

The Boardman Hybrid Comp 2013 is an able winter commuter with nimble yet reassured handling.

Boardman Hybrid Comp 2013 - small

Boardman Hybrid Comp 2013 – small

I grabbed one via the 2013 Halfords Christmas sale and have been commuting on it and using it for Sunday training rides for 3 weeks.  Some immediate customisations were necessary to make it suitable for longer rides of 50 to 60 miles.  The saddle, handlebar stem and pedals have been swapped out to provide comfort and a better position and full length mudguards and bar-ends added.

The bike came straight from the Halfords shop floor so had not been serviced. This I did, and it required adjustment of the front mech for height and the wheels trued; everything else just worked and all the appropriate bolts had been greased prior to my inspection.

Brakes – AVID
The Avid BB5 brakes are very impressive for a cable actuated system.

Gears – SRAM
The SRAM X5 9 speed shifters and rear-mech work very well.  The front-mech is a cheaper Microshift but again it works very well.

Problems: The left-hand shifter is designed for a triple chainset and on this 9 speed with double chainset set up the chain-line can change sufficiently (even just using 7 sprockets per chainwheel to get the best alignment) that it rubs against the front-mech.  On a road bike this is normal behavior that is resolved by fine-tuning the front mech with the Shimano STI or Campag Ergo lever but on this rig it is a problem because the left hand shifter provides no fine adjustment. Upgrading – or downgrading depending on your viewpoint – the left hand shifter to a cheap fully friction based lever (twistgrip perhaps) would resolve this for under £10.

Chainset – FSA Vero compact 50×34
This compact is heavy and in my case warped when I collected it from Halfords. The result is the chain rubbing against the front-mech in various gears – even those that have healthy chain alignment and avoid the extremes such as small ring and smallest sprocket.  Diagnosis revealed that the bottom-bracket axle is true, however the chainset spider is warped – at least this means its fixable by straightening the spider with the rings removed.  Perhaps a bit more QA required to avoid this sort of thing slipping through the assembling factory.

The wheels are not light but have taken a good bit of punishment with one off-road ride on paths and rabbit tracks which they handled with aplomb.  The Hubs are an obvious area of weakness as they are not strongly sealed but rely on external rubber gators.  At this price point that is not surprising.  The rims are strong, attractive and eyeleted and are matched to Vittoria Rubino 28 mm tyres and it looks like 32mm will fit no problem even with full length mudguards.

The following pictures offer the result of three days of commuting (6 hours of riding since its last clean) and a total ride time of around 30 hours.

Boardman Hybrid-Comp 2013 (small)

Boardman Hybrid-Comp 2013 (small)

The chain started well-lubed every day but January in Scotland is kinda wet! About all you need to make this comfy is a good saddle, Shimano SPD pedals, handlebar stem and bar ends.

Chris Boardman Hybrid-Comp 2013 - small

6 hours of abuse since last wash

Geometry wise it is very close to a standard small compact road frame, like the Giant TCR.  On a small frame – 46 cm centre to top of seat clamp –  the top-tube is 2cm longer at 54.5cm but it has a small 12cm head tube which is spot on for saddle to bar height.   Most other hybrids at this price have terrible geometry’s which ruin their handling.

Headset – FSA Semi Integrated


Three weeks in and the headset is beginning to leak at the top and bottom which is a bit disappointing given its got well under 30 hours ride time.

 Otherwise this over-size  1 1/8 set-up is welcome to see.

Ride and Feel
The handling is good and very similar to a compact road bike. There is a bit of delay in the handling under load such as acceleration or descending through corners and this reflects the rigidity of the wheels and frame; but at this price point it is excellent – the angles make for a refreshing ride feel.

I commute on dirty, hilly country roads in darkness into the city and this bike made me feel more confident than riding my usual winter bike, especially on those mornings where it was a bit frosty.

Climbing hills was undoubtedly more difficult than on a £1000 road bike as the wheels and frame seemed to absorb some of the feeble wattage I could muster!

The Boardman Hybrid Comp has the makings of something much better and is just asking for upgrades like a Shimano Tiagra or 105 drivetrain with 10 or 11 speed shifters.  Upgrading the wheels to Mavic Crossrides would sharpen up the handling and shed some weight.

I would recommend one of these for the winter commute even as the winter bike trainer if you upgrade some the componentry.

To me Boardman’s input is obvious in the selection of pivotal components in the bike’s handling such as the gears, the brakes and the tyres and the key element of the frame geometry and dimensions.  It feels like a road bike.

Exposure Lights – Flare and Maxx D review

Exposure lights have a good reputation for build quality and longevity.

Exposure Flare

Exposure Flare with rubber mount.

Exposure Flare with rubber mount.

The Flare has a claimed 75 Lumens output and in our experience is a very impressive rear light that capably lights up the rear of the bike and the road for several metres behind you.

The Flare output is at its best when coupled with rechargeable CR123 batteries.  There is a significant improvement in brightness when switching to the Exposure re-chargeable batteries when compared to the non-rechargeable CR123 it is supplied with. The light has one power output setting but will run in static or flash mode.

In our experience the Flare was faulty within 3 months of use (around 36 hours ride time).  The fault was evident early in this period and exhibited by the light unit changing from flash to static mode after several minutes of riding. This behavior gradually worsened until the light would switch itself off and was obviously a connection problem because vibration could bring the light back on again.  A number of bike-forums have reports of the same issue so it appears to be a known fault with the light unit.

At this point we await feedback from Exposure and will post more here when they respond.

Exposure Feedback

Exposure have a process for returns on their website where you must contact their service department first.  I completed the forms and returned the Flare and had it repaired and returned to me within 4 working days.  This is good service and the only cost incurred was postage on the part of the owner.

Exposure Maxx D Mk 2

Exposure MaXX-D MK-2

Exposure MaXX-D MK-2

The Mk 2 Exposure Maxx D which has a claimed output of 985 Lumens  and an integral battery pack with piggy-back expansion port on the rear.

This light is into its fourth winter of service and still provides in excess of 2 hours on the max output setting from a full charge which is a small deterioration from the 2.5 hours claimed at new.

The unit is well engineered and depending on orientation can cause drivers to flash their lights to signal that the light is too bright and should be dipped. With its three different power settings this request can be met with ease even without a remote power button.

That single speed thing

First the downsides, why on earth would you want to train on a single speed bike, hills beyond a certain gradient are slow, grinding, gruelling affairs, headwinds provide a similar gruelling experience; marry the two with the hunger knock and you’ll never want to ride a single speeder again.

But there are some positives, single speeders remind you how to spin, they build leg strength, they are great for base conditioning on flatter routes and, they’re cheap to maintain and are generally light and responsive. If you’re climbing a hill where the gear ratio and the gradient are suitably in tune, you’ll find that sweet-spot where climbing with the single speeder is quicker than a road bike with gears.

Here in Scotland, a single speeder spec’d with a free-wheel is a sensible solution to the harsh winter salt and I’ve ridden one for the last three winters.  I opted to start from an off-the-peg single speed mount, the aluminium Giant Bowery, and flesh it out with a better finishing kit that is robust enough to handle a bit of mileage.

As with many club-men’s winter  bikes, much of this is comprised of old tat.  There are some interesting bits though where the primary focus has been on robustness.

SPD pedals are a necessity due to their robustness and are far cheaper at £20 a pair as compared to Look pedals which don’t suffer the salt well.

Transmission wise, the original Bowery 3 x 32 chain and crankset lasted just a-few months before it wore out and was replaced with a heavy duty 1×1/8 chain and a good quality Velo-Solo chain-ring which was paired up with an old set of Campag Centaur cranks.

The Pro Bars and stem are a good cheap option that surprised me with their quality.  Especially the stiffness of the stem which resides at the bottom of the Pro range which is great value for money.

The most common wear and tear item beyond tyres and brake pads has been the chain and free-wheel. As mentioned above, get the heaviest duty chain you can and keep it as clean as possible to maximise wear.

I’ve tried a number of free-wheels and see no difference in terms of longevity between an expensive Shimano DX BMX free-wheel which is allegedly ‘sealed’ and a cheaper Dicta or similar product.  The Dicta free-wheels are surprisingly tough with very hard wearing teeth and the internals can usually be resurrected even when they sound terrible if they are soaked in heavy grade motor-cycle chain oil.

With regards to wheels, Mavic is an obvious option but I’ve been very impressed with the cheaper Halo range.  I’ve tried a rear Halo AeroRage with has a sealed hub which is still buttery smooth after two winters of abuse and the rim surface is also hard wearing.

The riding experience is taught and responsive in general but there is noticable flex from the frame under heavy load when out of the saddle.  However at this cheap price point you take what you get.

Yes but I want a couple of gears, there’s too many hills round here

When the downsides of single-speed life wear down your mojo, you realise that all you need is maybe two or three gears instead of one.

Whatever way you look at it, adding gears is expensive with options ranging from Sturmey Archer 3 & 5 speed combo’s to Roloff at the top end.

The quality of Sturmey Archer is impressive and the   company’s longevity means that spares are readily available making servicing a reassuring option.  There is plenty of guidance on-line and the Sturmey Archer blog or good ol Sheldon-Browns are good places to start.

A new custom wheel build with the hub of choice will have to be paired with a gear shifter and Sturmey has the perfect bar-end mount for a roadie:

Two bikes or one

There have been a number of posts about this topic across the globe and there is little doubt that two bikes are required if you live in  Scotland.

A winter bike will very quickly become trashed by the harsh wet and salty conditions in just a couple of years and this comes at a cost.  For the last couple of years I’ve been riding a single speed winter bike to keep these costs down and make maintenance as simple as possible.  Its also because I adhere to the two decent bikes for summer principle – one for beating the hell out of commuting and training in wet summers and the other for those nicer days (the other 50% of the time).  I also think you benefit from the leg speed and strength gained from riding a single speeder over the winter – I’ve a 46 x 16 which is around a 76 inch gear.

Fixies and Single Speed road bikes have become increasingly popular (especially in urban areas where they are seen as a fashion item)  in the last 5 years and this post looks at the offerings in this re-born strand of the cycling retail market.

Off the peg steel framed – Giant, Specialized and On-One £400 to £800

Giant Bowery 72 Steel RRP £450

Giant Bowery 2012 RRP £450, Specialized Langster  RRP £400, On-One Macinato RRP £799

When comparing the frames there is not a lot of difference between these steel offerings, the Bowery used to come in Aluminium but has gone over to steel as has the Langster in 2011.  The Langster’s frame does stand out however but only because it uses branded tubes – Reynolds 520 – which certainly beats the Bowery on quality.

Specialized Langser Steel 2012 RRP £400

The Macinato does not use branded tubes.

They are all claimed to be strong and lightweight but anyone who has ridden a 4130 chrome molybdenum frame like the Macinato will know this is not the case and is merely marketing jargon.

Finishing Kits

The Bowery comes with largely proprietary finishing kit that is not really fit for purpose as a club level winter bike due to its poor quality; for example it is provided with a 3 x 32 chain and running gear which will wear more quickly than a heavy duty 1/2 by 1/8 chain.

The Langster is again better than the Bowery, as it’s Specialized branded parts are in this reviewer’s opinion, better quality such as the chainset and flak jacket tyres and it tops this off with Mavic rimmed wheels.

In contrast Macinato has largely branded parts, Weinmann wheels, Selle Italia saddle and Sram brakes that should last a couple of winters if maintained.

On One Macinato RRP £799

Is the Macinato’s frame and finishing kit worth the extra £400 pounds? Definitely not, those brake levers look awfully cheap for an £800 bike.

Indeed, these bikes are all disappointing from a value for money perspective and this is even more evident when they are compared with  comparatively priced road bikes that are running derailleur gears.

Same money on a bike with gears

If you want to spend your money on an out of the box winter bike with gears then you’d be hard pushed to get better value for money from the likes of the following, the Trek 1.1 RRP £550, the Giant Defy 4 RRp £599 and the Specialized Allez RRP £599.  These are sound winter bikes.

It is quite shocking when comparing the functionality and componentry of these geared bikes with the lack of componentry and sophistication provided by the Bowery and Langster (admittedly the Macinato does a better job at this) – you get a lot less single speed bike for your money.  If I’m spending the same money why am I getting quality that is so much poorer?

In my opinion off-the-peg single speed bikes are over-priced because of two factors, their target market being the fashion conscious urbanite and secondly the relatively small number of people in this market strand.

I think you can build a good base winter bike out of these single speeders.  I  have built a bespoke (cheap) but reliable single speed winter bike based on a Bowery and this will be the topic of another post.