Bringing back the Cycling Cap one Domestique at a time

Mid-Compact Rising (on the FC-9000)

Six or seven years back, the upstart, hotshot crankset was the Compact. Offering a light 50T/34T gearing, it gave so equipped cyclists the ability to climb up hills at a higher, more comfortable cadence.  This relaxed climbing pace, to a certain extent, came at the expense of speed. Riders powerful enough to max out the 50T chainring are left wanting in terms of top end pace.

On the other side of the coin are the Standard chainrings. These commonly have 53 or 52-tooth large rings and 39-tooth inner rings. These have been de facto for so long that the setup earned Standard moniker. And we're talking about the modern Standard here. Older Standard cranks even came in at up to a whopping 54T/44T! Although these ring combinations are still around, they're now almost exclusively for time-trial use.  

All things equal, Compact will be outpaced by Standard in the top end of the speed spectrum as Compact users will eventually run out of cogs or spin their lungs out trying to keep up with Standard riders on long flats. Conversely, Standard crank users will be finding themselves grinding (and possibly cramping) their way up mountains while Compact-equipped Cyclists pass them by, spinning merrily ahead. While this may not be a big issue in shorter climbs, this would definitely manifest itself in longer, sustained climbs.

Any self respecting Cyclist must, of course, select which chainring combination is best for his particular type of riding or terrain...which works out around 90% of the time. However, the 10% needs to be addressed every now and then. It can't be avoided that that one needs to ride outside of his usual comfort zone.

For lack of a better term, an inappropriate crank is less of an issue for the guy with Compacts on the flats. However, it may certainly break the guy on Standards going up a steep mountain...... which is  perhaps the reason why most roadie built-bike offerings these days often come with Compact gearing as standard.... as opposed to 'Standard' gearing.

Yes, Triple Cranks do exist in the road cycling universe. However the added weight, cost and complexity of these systems coupled with limited availability makes this an option only for people who really really need it badly enough.

 

Enter: The Mid-Compact

Rapidly gaining popularity is a new crank setup: The Mid-Compact. Some call it the semi-compact and some even choose to ignore it altogether and dump it into the compact category. For us, however, this new in-between gearing definitely deserves to be in its own class.

The Mid-Compact crankset first popped up in our radar in 2010. This was when SRAM introduced it as part of their Red lineup. Campagnolo and just recently, Shimano joined the bandwagon and introduced their own Mid-Compact cranks in their top tier Groups. Back when the Mid-Compact initially appeared, some people scoffed at the configuration as 'confused' and 'undecided'. However, this in-between range is what makes this configuration special.

With its 52T/36T tooth count, the Mid-Compact loses very little in terms of top speed, only giving up a tooth compared to a Standard crank's 53T large ring. Little is sacrificed on climbs as well. The Mid-Compact's 36T small ring can keep up with the 34T compact crank, only giving up 2 teeth to the full pledged climbing ring.

Spot the Diff: Mid-Compact (L) vs. Compact (Installed)

The Numbers

To give us a better idea on where the Mid-Compact sits in the gearing hierarchy, we made this simple gear ratio chart.  This chart focuses specifically on Chainring-Cog ratios which are computed as Chainring ÷ Cog. Layman's terms: one revolution of your selected Chainring (Vertical) will spin the selected Cog (Horizontal) exactly that number of times.

e.g. A 53T crank will spin a 28T cog 1.893 times per complete revolution.

Depicted in the Cogs column is the Shimano CS-9000 11-Speed 12-25 cassette. The 28T and 11T cogs (in parenthesis) are included in the chart to further illustrate how they play with Standard, Mid and Compact Cranksets.  With the way equipment development is progressing, we wouldn't be surprised to see all of these thirteen cogs in a production cassette in the not too distant future.

To focus purely on the merits of the crank gearing, we shall leave discussions on cassette selection, crank length, tire thickness, inflation pressure, cadence, leg strength and what have you off the table.


Everything absolutely equal, the Mid-Compact effectively bridges Standard and Compact. The Mid's large chainring performs close to the Standard's large ring while its small chainring performs closer to the Compact's small ring.

In other words:

The Mid-Compact is like a Standard on the large rings and like a Compact on the small rings.   

To further illustrate, we took the average gear ratios of three Cranksets and the 12-25 cassette and compared them to each other.


On the Large rings (top speed scenario) where Standard is preferred, the Mid-Compact is only 1.89% slower vs. Standard. The Compact is 5.67% slower.

On the Small rings (climbing scenario) where the Compact is preferred, we find that the Mid-Compact is 5.56% harder to crank than the Compact. Compare that to the Standard's Small ring, which is a whopping 12.79% harder crank across the cassette range!

This jack-of-all-trades approach may very well make the Mid-Compact the new Standard. We're already seeing a lot of the word Mid-Compact here.

Shimano FC-9000 52/36

Our Mid-Compact crankset came in the form of Shimano's radical FC-9000. With four asymmetrically placed spider arms, this new design shaves quite a few grams off of a comparable five armed spider. The design also offers a great long-term advantage... all chainring sizes use one, for lack of a better term, bolt circle diameter (BCD). A minor miracle of sorts, this means that all chainrings are interchangeable!  Switching from Compact to Mid to Standard only requires chainrings as the crankarms and spiders are standard.

At a manufacturer claimed weight of ~600g, the four-armed design and improved hollow rings/cranks managed to shave off 60 or so grams off the 7900 version. The four arms are positioned in areas where strength is most needed during the crank cycle, which rather makes sense.  The new aesthetic, however, is polarizing. In fact, a lot of people hate the design outright. However, it's function over form and for more than a few, it's a real looker in itself. The workmanship and quality of materials on the crank, as well as for all the 9000 series components, is top notch.

On The Road

Immediately noticeable is the Mid-Compact's large chainring performance on the flats. Off the bat, we observed our cadence drop compared to our previously installed Compact crank while maintaining the same pace. Upping the ante to our normal riding cadence brought about even more speed! It's been a while since we rode Standards. And while we technically still aren't on Standards, the Mid-Compact's large ring pulls off a  very good impersonation.

The same can be said about the 36T small ring. On rolling hills, this can definitely hold its own against the Compact's 34T and in this scenario, may actually be better as there is less need to shift the RD while transitioning from uphill to downhill to uphill.

On long climbs, we did not observe any major difference between the Mid-Compact's 36T small ring and the 34T ring our our compact. In fact, the 36T ring made us climb a bit faster than our previous record using the 34T. This may be due to many different factors but at the very least, we can comfortably say that the 36T is adequate for all but the most thigh busting of ascents.

In terms of technical functionality, we can't see any fault with the FC-9000. Adequately stiff, it simply does it's job well.    

Convert to a Mid-Compact and pair it with an 11-28 and you can go virtually anywhere. We may have well found the holy grail of chainrings.

Verdict

The do-all Mid-Compact just makes sense as Cyclists no longer need to choose between Standard and Compact. Everyone can just get a Mid-Compact and do tailor fitting on the cassette end. This will be the new 'Standard' in a few short years.

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Walz Caps - All American Cycling Caps

Why cycling caps have decreased in popularity over the years is beyond us.

In our opinion, The Cap should be part and parcel of every decent cyclist's kit along with bib shorts and full zip retro jerseys.

If you should go out looking for one, you have tons of styles to select from a sea of manufacturers.

One cap manufacturer, however, stands out from the rest... and based on what we have seen from their catalogue so far, they offer some really classy caps!



Walz Caps was founded by Michael and Jennifer Gilstrap in 2007 with the aim of providing high quality cycling caps. We admire their dedication to this epic symbol of the sport as they are really focused on the one product (well they also offer socks and bandanas but Caps are what they're known for).

Want class? look no further than their catalogue page. Pure, devoid of logos, Walz caps come in a variety of models and styles which cater to almost every cyclist's styling whim. Between tweed, plaid, herringbone, houndstooth and just plain cotton, we were visually overloaded with the wide selection.

A sample of Walz's Cotton Caps

Cyclists have a choice of materials as well.  Cotton for all around weather cycling or Wool if things get a little bit colder than preferred. They also offer a Moisture Wicking variant made of polyester which promises to keep sweat from dripping on your eyes and forehead.

Some Moisture Wicking models

Each Walz Cycling Cap is made in the USA and is shipped from their Headquarters in Oceanside, California to any US destination free of charge! International orders are charged a nominal shipping fee.
Classy Wool for Colder Climates

The caps come in two sizes: Small/Medium which fits heads below 23.5 inches and Mediuml/Large, which fits noggins above 23.5. Funny thing is my head is exactly 23.5". I opted for the larger one. Good thing is that Walz gives an excellent guarantee that should the caps not fit, you can send them back and get a custom fitted cap in return! Prices range from USD 19 to around 35 for customized wool models.

If you're in the market looking for The Cap... or wanting something unique. Make sure you check out the class offerings by Walz Caps on their website at www.walzcaps.com.

We can't wait to try out of their awesome caps!


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Shimano WH-9000-C24-TU 1100 gram Tubulars

Shimano has just announced that it will be releasing the long rumored Tubular version of the C24 wheelset. The tubular version,WH-9000-C24-TU,  wheelset weighs in at a svelte 1,100 grams. No need to rub your eyes, Yes, that is the claimed weight.

This is, for us, the most interesting of the new 11-speed compatible wheelsets announced by Shimano. Other goodies include the RS-81, basically a WH-9000-C50 wit Ultegra level hubs and a new 105 series full carbon SPD-SL pedals.

From the looks of things, the WH-9000-C24-TU will be a 21 spoke affair on the rear (vs 20 spokes in the clincher). We presume that the front will sport 16 spokes similar to the clincher version.

Even if Shimano is over-optimistic on the weight figures and end up at around 1155grams (5% error margin), these will still be light wheels by any measure.

This is something  hardcore tub climbers or weight weenies will surely look forward to.

And, yes, the graphics have grown on us enough to stop complaining about them.

Sad news in all of this is that these wheels will be released in 2014. At least that gives people time to save up.

Meanwhile, you can check out our reviews on the C50 and C24 here and here.


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Review: Continental Grand Prix 4000s 23c and 25c

Yes, there are lighter tires our there. There are grippier. There are sturdier. But, in our experience, nothing comes close to being the perfect all rounder as Continental's Grand Prix 4000s.

It has all those necessary qualities you would want in your road tire. Light enough, grippy enough, sturdy enough. Just dont expect it to beat an Ultremo in a race or go thru debris like a Gatorskin or a 4 Seasons.

The key to the Grand Prix 4000s' performance is Continental's judicious inclusion of a variety of features found across its offerings.



Technical Features

For puncture resistance, Continental decided to include only one Vectran anti-puncture layer where the Conti 4 Seasons has two. This sacrifices a bit of puncture protection but yields lighter weight and improves rolling resistance.  

Key to the GP 4000s' grip is the use of the Black Chili compound. First developed in 2005, Black Chili basically infuses the basic rubber base with microscopic carbon soot particles.  Continental claims that this technology produces 26% less rolling resistance, 30% more grip... all while decreasing wear by 5%.

This is remarkable since rolling resistance, grip and wear are opposing requirements. Say you want to increase grip, wear is usually sacrificed. With Black Chili, resistance and grip are improved as well as wear. Amazing.

Black Chili technology is said to be so sensitive that it can only be produced out of Conti's Korbach plant in Germany.

The GP 4000s' are quite average in terms of weight. We measured our 700x25 sample at 224 grams, a good six grams below the listed 230g.

 700x25 - A good 6 grams lighter than advertised

What got us dumbfounded was our used 700x23 sample. Our scales have them at 218 grams where it was only supposed to be 205! We were relieved upon measuring another used sample which went for 209 grams.  You'll have to take our word on that as we failed to photograph before mounting. Although we cannot be 100% sure, we attribute this major discrepancy to the way the tires were folded during measurement. This may have distributed the tire differently and may have affected the center of gravity putting more pressure on the scale's strain gauges. Again, only a theory. Regardless of this, the 4000s' are adequately light.

700x23 - Mysteriously overweight
Mounting

For people of moderate hand strength, the tires can be mounted without levers. In our experience, initial fitting (and dismounting) requires at least one lever to get that final inch or three of bead over the brake surface. Subsequent removals and mounts required only light-moderate hand strength and no tools.  These tires were meant to be mounted a certain direction. A vague direction arrow may be found somewhere in the sidewalls. Directionality aside, we have actually mistakenly ridden the tires backwards to no ill effect.

23c vs. 25c 

Perhaps the bigger question is 'which tire size to go for?'. We have been using 700x23 GP4000s' for quite a while. For a week or two, we had two 700x25's mounted purely for testing.

Lacking any sort of scientific testing equipment or data, what we can report on is subjective ride feel.

With fresh legs, what size tires you're on doesn't really matter. You have enough strength to spin either tire size equally well.

But.

Over a long ride, we found that the wider tires are somewhat harder to spin as the kilometers pass along.  Net effect is feeling a bit more tired after a ride on 25's than on 23's. During the course of testing, all pressures were constantly maintained at 8 bar (116 psi). Going wider, even by 2mm, would also produce a less aerodynamic wind profile compared to a thinner tire (if those things matter to you).

But.

Over rougher asphalt, the 25's are noticeably more comfortable than the 23's. This can be substantiated by the 'bounce' you feel when going over road imperfections. On 23's these can be jarring but 25's take the sting out of the same ruts and pits. If you take a look at the images below, this all makes sense as the 25's stretch out to almost 30mm (28mm to be exact) once mounted.
  
 When mounted, 25's round out to 28mm

23's round out to 25.5mm when mounted

In the end, we decided to make the most of the situation and go staggered on the tires. 23's in front 25's at the back. We get the most support in the rear where we put the most weight.  And we have a more responsive, lighter and more aerodynamically sound tire at the front.  

On the Road

Size differences aside, Continental's Grand Prix 4000s delivers a performance worthy of several Tour Magazine comparo awards. Indeed these feel spin easily, grip extremely well and have adequate puncture resistance. That said, we did have one puncture where a safety pin (which looks awfully like the ones used on runners' race bibs) hung on to the tire and eventually penetrated the casing through to the inner tubes. Compare this to more than two years of puncture free performance we had with Conti's own 4 Seasons tire. However, we would readily trade the 4 Season's armored hide for the 4000s' slick and light rolling performance any day.

Getting back to the 23 vs. 25 choice. Ultimately, it's up to the rider and the road. If your'e a Clyde or  frequent rough asphalt, go for the 25's; your butt will thank you for it. If you're a lighter weight rider who prioritizes weight and performance over vertical compliance, by all means go for the 25's.

.... or maybe be like us and get the best of both?

Vedrict

With so many things going for it and virtually nothing going against it, the GP4000s gets top marks and top recommendation from us.

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