Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Review: Soul S3.0 Wheelset

Rim Material: 6061 T6 Alloy
Rim Depth: 32mm
Rim Width:23mm
Bearings; Stainless steel, sealed.
Weight: 1550g without skewers
Spoke Count: 18/24
Tyres used: Continental Grand Prix Classic 4000. 25mm

In my research for the perfect all-rounder wheelset I had pinpointed the most likely contenders as being those with characteristics much like those displayed by this wheelset.

The required properties: low weight for climbing, moderately aero for descending but not so as to reduce speed of acceleration, alloy rims for braking in all conditions, and strength for power transfer. I'd also been keen to try out the hotly touted trend amongst the pros of using wider rims and to run 25mm tyres on them. This setup seemed ideal for the type of riding I do most: long, hilly rides in groups on variable road surfaces and in tropical weather.

I'd have to say that none of the price tags I came across were particularly alarming. This is not an expensive setup. Even the Zipp 101s were reasonable. The Rol Race SL seemed the most likely option for a while, until I came across these wheels on the recommendation of a friend. The big attraction here was of course....location: they're produced by a local company in Singapore. The specs however were exactly what I was looking for.

Soul is the brainchild of Sean Wai, originating from the Malaysian capital city but now firmly resident in Singapore. Sean is a trained architect, but has followed his passion and skill for making things into building wheels, then frames. More recently he has created the company MoVas as an outlet for his passion for building watches, with a few classic mechanical designs as well as some really daring creations on the menu.

The hubs and rims are a Soul proprietary design and, though these are manufactured in Taiwan, the wheels are assembled by Sean and his team in Singapore. They come complete with bags and a set of skewers that so far have held out pretty well - no mean feat really; skewers are the weak link in most wheelsets I've bought, and invariably get replaced almost immediately by a good old trusty pair of Dura Ace. I'm still using these after 1000+km.

Anyway, on to THE RIDE.

The first thing I noticed was that these are very nicely free-rolling; the bearings are very smooth. The rear hub freewheel has a nice sound to it. Not a look-at-me Zipp-like sound, but somewhere between a Chris King buzz and a Campagnolo whirr.

It would be hard to give a truly fair comparison to the feel of other wheels since I'm running 25mm tyres  at 100psi on these as opposed to 23mm at 120psi on the others. The difference of the tyres and pressure is very noticeable in the smoothness of the roll, and rougher surfaces no longer create quite the same bone-jarring effect, so from a feel point of view I'm sold on the 25s. One small issue is that the clearance to the fork crown and frame on my test bike is now pretty tight, so the smallest amount of grit or sand on the tyres create an audible scraping. It's not really a problem though, and on a frame with less of a race-geometry would not be an issue at all.

They look pretty mean from the side. I opted for the grey decals which give a more subtle, stealth effect, and the otherwise completely black components have a nicely understated aesthetic.

In the hills they feel very strong on the upward trajectories, and very quick to respond with a nice secure feel on the out-of-saddle surges. The feeling of having a few extra millimeters of contact with the road is very reassuring, and this of course is best felt on the downhills. This is probably their greatest strength: super-stability on technical descents.

They really plummet very well, with a great stiffness in the corners, and excellent braking facility. The extra contact with the road is very intoxicating, though it will take me a while to really develop the feel and confidence to push these babies to their max....but then I might have trouble going back to 23s!

Having now done some seriously long riding with a couple of sections in heavy rain, and some very wet descents (which felt about as secure as they ever will), I can't see myself riding anything else in these sort of conditions. They really do all I expected them to.

Just up and running is the wheelset comparison in my long-awaited Wheelset Road Test. I'm sure these will fare well with the numbers, though they may not win all categories. But bearing in mind I have some pretty good wheels already in my collection, the fact that these have overhauled the others for all the most technically challenging riding I do speaks volumes.

Road Test - Wheels

Monday, March 17, 2014

Compact Convert

I can't think what took me so long. I finally got myself what's commonly known as a "compact" crankset and my life is transformed!

Well my excuse was usually that for the type of riding that's largely available in the areas where I cycle most frequently, the standard configuration of a 53/39 on the front and a 11-28 on the back covered most of it...or seemed to at the time.... it's just another case of hanging on to what you know. I would find myself grinding only on long climbs of over 10%, of which there are not that many on my schedule.

My main fear was (and I think this accounts for a lot of the resistance to changing to a compact) that through always having an "easier" gear I would lose maximum strength.

Having spent years turning myself into a true spinner (one with a natural cadence of over 90rpm) it may have seemed an obvious choice to get myself a gearing configuration that would ensure I was always able to keep the cadence high. It took my experiences in Northern Thailand last November to bring the point home to me. We're a conservative bunch, us cyclists!

zig-zag :)

Climbing Doi Inthanon with my above-mentioned standard setup convinced me. Without really having the top fitness I should have needed at that point, I was definitely guilty of underestimating the 2600-meter-high beast and it's notorious long sections around 20%. By the time I got to within 5km of the peak, my lower back was giving me so much grief I needed a rest. The grinding had taken it's toll. I did make it to the top, but it was not a noteworthy performance, and I needed some good  physiotherapy.

After that experience I realised that there was a lot of riding I wanted to be doing that would hit gradients for which my current gearing was far from ideal, and so after some serious investigation I finally settled on a set of Rotor cranks with Q Rings at a 50/34 configuration. The Q Rings are elliptical chainrings which ensure a consistent application of power to the pedal stroke by passing quickly through the dead spot in the cycle - but I will expound more on that choice elsewhere. I was already using the Q Rings on the standard setup anyway, so I knew they worked.

I had heard many riders saying they had not been able to get used to riding a compact. Others mentioned that it took a long period of acclimatisation. I experienced no such trauma. I was sold from the first ride.

What I notice immediately is that I now use all the gears. I do much more of my riding in the big chain ring, staying in it through some rolling terrain which used to be back and forth between the big and small. I'm using a 10-speed 11-28 cassette on the back and in the 34 chainring I can now spend much more time in the smaller cogs below 17 which are more gradual increments and mean that I'm much more able to keep my cadence optimum.

Of course a big thing is that I now am able to keep an almost Froome-like spin going up much steeper gradients, which is the more expected result. I may now spin out out on the faster descents but, though I'm unlikely to stick a compact on my TT bike, I think for most other purposes the compact setup works perfectly. I honestly am 100% sold!

But then I'm not stuck permanently with the same gearing. An additional attraction with the Rotors is that for the smaller 110mm BCD spider needed to fit chainrings as small as a 34-tooth, you can now actually get chainrings up to the full standard configuration as well, so if I want to ride a standard setup on the same bike at any point, all I need to do is switch out the chainrings. There is also a "semi-compact" configuration of 52/36 which - I am told - is popular.

Ok - on to the science.


According to this great gear calculator site ( if I'm spinning in my 34x28 at a cadence of 80rpm - theoretically at the lower end of my ideal cadence range - I'd be progressing at a speed of 12kmh, whereas on the 39x11 I'd still have to be doing 14kmh to be at this cadence.

Or looked at another way: let's assume for the sake of argument that on a steady 15% I can just about hold 12kmh. My cadence on a 34x28 would be 79rpm whereas on a 39x28 it would be 69rpm. That's the difference of a spin to a grind for me.

At the other end of the gears, in a 53x11 gearing I will spin out at above 72kmh - that's assuming I can still deliver some force at a cadence of 120rpm. On a 50x11 I'd be spinning out at above 69kmh. Not a big deal.


The main argument for keeping a high cadence is that it helps flush lactic acid away from the working muscles. As we all know, it's the accumulation of lactic acid in a muscle as it works at a borderline intensity at which the body is able to supply enough oxygen (aerobic threshold) that will determine it's point of absolute fatigue. So if we are aiming to keep our threshold efforts going for as long as possible, it would seem a no-brainer that we prolong the time we can spend at that effort by keeping the muscles working optimally. No?

On long climbs this would mean using a compact crankset. Discuss :)

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Fraser's Loop - All The Way In A Day

We just completed a fantastic little epic Sunday ride as part of one of our weekends out of Kuala Lumpur. This was the complete loop from KL out to the historic colonial hill station of Fraser's Hill and back again. This amounts to 200 kilometers of riding, and a journey we usually make in 2 days with an overnight in Fraser's for a cool break from the Malaysian heat. No cool break this time, but the weather could not have been more perfect, with cloud cover and a cool northern breeze on us all day.

My fellow adventurers on this day were a small but powerful collection of my best riding buddies and staunchest Equipe Nomad regulars - which also contributed massively to the memorable day.

Clarence Tang flew in from Hong Kong on the Thursday for some good carbo-loading and a warmup ride through the idyllic roads of Genting Sempah and Janda Baik. My longest-serving riding companion Jim Bryan also joined us on this ride.

The following day the group was amplified further by the welcome addition of Jarno Lamsa - the Flying Finn - and we did a ride Jim calls the "Hard 100" through the consecutive climbs that make up a 100km out-and-back from Ampang southwards into Negeri Sembilan.

All of this is just warmup of course. On the Sunday we were once again expanded by the addition of fellow Equipe Nomad think-tanker Rueban Balasubramaniam. This day would be all about pacing. In a group with fairly varied abilities (degrees of extra padding actually!), it meant that the hills would split us up, with each person staying within their comfort zone in order to complete the task.

We started at the break of dawn rolling out of the Klang Valley directly up a 12+% ramp within the first 3km past Batu Dam and around the reservoir, cresting another lump at 400m about 18km into the ride after a steady 3km at 5-6%. Thereafter down the fastest descent of the day (76kph recorded) down to the town of Ulu Yam, where we would re-group so that we could ride the short section of main KL-Ipoh road as a group with vehicle protection.

First food stop at around the 50km mark in Kuala Kubu Bharu.

After this the road rises for the next 40km up to Fraser's Hill at an altitude of 1200m. The first section passes another dam and reservoir on wide straight roads before gradually morphing into a long winding ascent at a 3-4% average. The last 8km to the top is the more challenging climbing of the day, with many sections at 8-9% on a beautiful road with one-way traffic. The descent of this section is equally stunning though slightly more gradual - and also unidirectional which makes for stress-free cornering.

At this point we had our only real mishap of the day as Jarno's carbon handlebars developed an alarming flexibility all of a sudden on the descent. Luckily he managed to steer his way to the foot of the climb. The carbon had cracked directly under the clamp for the right lever suggesting that whoever had put the levers on had over-tightened the clamp and the carbon had eventually failed. No way around that one so it meant that Jarno's ride was over.

Not one to dwell on his misfortunes, he decided to assume the role of our head coach Gunther Von Agony and yell encouragement (albeit of a slightly sadistic nature) at us from the car. The rest of us made relatively short work of the remaining 22km descent and subsequent 20-something km rolling through to the second main road section of the day and a re-grouping for the paceline.

The highlight of hitting the town of Bentong at this point in the day is that the famed restaurant serving up Cendol (a Malaysian dessert made with ice, tapioca flour and coconut milk) and Yong Tau Foo (google it), is in full swing. That became the venue for the final feast before the last onslaught back towards Kuala Lumpur.

Once out of Bentong the roads resume their quietly serene nature and, refueled with some good carbs, we hammered along the rolling section to the start of the climb up to Genting Sempah, after which it was down to individual focuses once again. The climb is a fairly steady 3-4% once again with only the last 2km ramping up gradually to the final section which is the last kilometer to the peak hitting some 15% moments near the top.

This was now payback time, with all the hard stuff done, and just an exhilarating 15km descent through lush jungle to the foot of the hill and the end of the ride.

Watch a video summary of the ride.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Secret Road

It’s Chinese New Year. At this time of the year you will always find me in the far north of Malaysia, about 40km away from the border with Thailand in the state of Perlis. This is the hometown of my wife and a necessary annual pilgrimage point for family re-bonding.

The weather at this time of year is the coolest you will get in this region. The north wind is always present, rising to a reasonable force mid afternoon. The skies are clear and it rarely rains but the force of the sun is nicely off-set by the wind which also reduces the humidity significantly.

It’s absolutely the best weather for cycling, and of course I never fail to have a bike with me. It’s an area of stark contrasts: the pancake-flatness of the padi fields off-set by the abruptness of the hills which mostly look like they have pierced the surface of the earth by some cataclysmic subterranean force. So lots of flat riding interspersed with some brutally steep climbs.

Most mornings of my stay here you’ll find me out on my bike for a few hours, spinning around my favourite routes, but - eternally inquisitive - I can never resist seeing where roads I’ve never been down lead to.

On one such exploration I followed a road through the back of a village that had no indication of direction, but nevertheless was well tended and seemed to be going somewhere. The road eventually came to a police post - not an unusual sight in this border area - at a T junction. Since there didn’t seem to be anyone around to get information from, I ventured forward.

What I came across literally took my breath away. With tidily cropped verges and good tarmac, the road went on and on in both directions through some incredibly beautiful scenery, included a few brutally steep climbs and fast descents......and absolutely no traffic!

By this time I was talking to myself. “This is too incredible”, “this can’t be real!”. It honestly felt surreal - and slightly spooky - to be riding along on such a beautiful road by myself. Like a 2-wheeled Alice In Wonderland - I’d found cycling heaven!

My first thoughts were: private estate? plantation road? secret military installation?

At one point a high wall appeared at the roadside with barbed wire along the top, and then I came across the first of the observation towers and it dawned on me that I was in fact on the border road that ran along the actual wall between Malaysia and Thailand.

But what an amazing road! 25 kilometers of peace and quiet, climbs, descents and stunning views. Unfortunately not linking anywhere to anywhere, but that is of course it’s reason for survival in this state. In the couple of hours that I was riding on it I was passed by a total of 2 cars and 1 motorbike - all at a crawling pace - and I saw one dog and one human. Incredible.

That proved to have been a busy day. On most subsequent rides I haven't come across any other humans.

Gong Xi Fa Chai!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Bike Fit

A couple of weeks back I had a bike fit done in Kuala Lumpur by a company called VO2 Max run by old friend Patrick Potvin, a Canadian Sports Scientist - also an excellent cyclist and triathlete - who originally came to Malaysia to work with the National Sport Centre testing and training the national cycling squad. He subsequently married a local, settled down (familiar story), and moved on from his position at the NSC to set up his own coaching and testing operation. He's really quite a rare gem to have in this part of the world. He runs it in a suburb of KL in partnership with (and above) a shop called Cycle Studios.

So I've been cycling for a few decades now. Why would a bike fit be of use to me? Surely I should have ironed-out an effective riding position that would make this sort of thing redundant by now.

Well yes...and no. I didn't expect any massive changes (and nor did Pat), but I did want to make sure I was getting an optimal transfer of power, and also iron out the occasional niggles that would occur sometimes on long rides. The tiniest shift in anything on a bike can affect the ride quality and cause us to use the wrong muscles to compensate for something that may have us wasting energy or developing strain injuries gradually. Plus I'd heard rave reports from other highly respected and experienced riders who had been re-fitted by Pat.

He's using the Retul system of bike fit which seems to be one of the most trusted ones around.  It's a tool - as always it's down to who's using the tool that is important, and I really trust Pat's experience and understanding of the science. In the info pack he sent through was a list of the stuff I should bring - basically bike, shoes and bibshorts plus a towel.

To start with he set the bike up on a turbo trainer on a movable plinth in line with the Retul-sensor-interface-thing and, with something that looked a bit like a thin soldering iron, pinpointed the crucial points on the bike for the sensor to pick up and form an exact representation of the relative position of all points on the bike for the computer.

Next he made an assessment of me physically - usual stuff first: weight, height, inseam etc. He then tested me for flexibility and symmetry. This from his assessment:

"A mobility and functional assessment showed good hamstring and lower back flexibility. Hip mobility however is restricted somewhat especially on the right side with internal and external rotation. You left shoulder inernal rotation is slightly restricted compared to the right. Your stability and balance on one foot could use improvement as you display quite a bit of foot,hip and torso movement when doing single leg quarter squats, a clear sign of lack of muscular control of the lower limbs and feet. You walk pretty straight on your toes with feet pointed a bit outward, Your hips are uneven when standing and lying down, with your right side being higher than the left. You also possess a noticeable leg length discrepency with the left leg appearing longer at the ankle and thigh. This could be the result of a rotated or shifted pelvis on the left side and not necessarily a true limb length difference. Your feet are pronated (low arches), left more than right and both your forefeet are flat (no in/outward tilt). These findings are considered when fitting you properly to your bike." 

Whew! Lots to work on there!

The fit included a check of the cleat position on my shoes which he did next, finding that they were about 5mm forward of where they should be for proper power-transfer. I'd been cycling on my toes!

Once he'd repositioned the cleats, he wired me up with the sensors that would be picked up by the program to locate me in relation to the mapped points of the bike. Now it was time to get on the bike and warm up. I could already feel the difference in the slight shift of the cleats - feeling that my foot had more contact with the pedals.

After a warm-up he asked me to keep a constant output of 180w for a short period, and then at 220w for another couple of minutes. Once the computer had picked up the relevant information from these 2 effort zones I rested while Pat extracted it's findings for assessment. He then patiently explained the optimum angle ranges in great detail and pointed out where my own position would need adjustment. Before I got off he asked me to take my hands off the bars while pedaling in the drops. Perhaps predictably my balance was off and I couldn't hold the position for long.

The outcome of all this was that my saddle should not only come up and back, but should have the nose tilted up more. Bars also up by about 1cm. Pat set about shifting all these things around.

After the adjustments had been done, we went through the same process again of riding through the required power zones to assess efficiency compared to the previous test. The computer showed a definite improvement and my position was now falling within the prescribed parameters. It felt comfortable to me, and perhaps a little more effective - though that may have been a little wishful thinking at this point.

The whole session took about 3 hours - all completely fascinating to me, and time well spent I think. The real test would be whether the position continued to feel comfortable on subsequent rides, and if it enabled me to produce more power.

Obviously, outside the lab - even with a power meter - one can't be entirely objective about the difference in a short space of time, especially as I've had a rather fragmented riding schedule since then. But it does seem to be giving me better power results, and my ability to engage my core comfortably into a smooth pedal stroke is definitely improving. I'm happy.

At least now I know if there are any shortcomings in my performance as a cyclist, there are no excuses relating to the gear I'm using; it's purely down to me to improve myself!

For more information and to contact Patrick for a booking get in touch at