Ursula: The Never-Ending Story, AKA Big Miles, Covid, and Continuous Improvement
I am Ursula, Mchael’s mile munching, four seasons go anywhere rough stuff tourer who has been with him through thick and thin, hell and high water these past 23 years. It's been an interesting, varied but ultimately very happy marriage.
Now, working bikes like me, are often confused with hacks (or “biscuit bikes” as Michael calls them). So, what’s the difference? Well, I wasn’t thrown together using leftovers from the bodge box, rather a selection of carefully chosen components, which have been upgraded and replaced as they wear out. I’ve gone through more chains than Michael’s had hot coffee. I’ve been 3x7, 3x8, 1x9, 1x10 and he’s toyed with taking me the 11speed Alfine route on occasions.
Michael has always been in love with the concept of an all-terrain bike, ever since he clapped eyes on a Muddy Fox Trail Blazer, back in March 1987. Crudely, a mountain bike with drop bars, bar end shifters, and enough gears to ride up, down and along the Great wall of China. Then, in 1989 Specialized with their short-lived Rock Combo - another machine that blew Michael’s fragile teenage mind.
Lightweight, go anywhere bikes that could escape the maddening crowd and went, stopped and handled in great proportion. Clearance for big tyres and full-length mudguards, four-point carriers...Michael spent much of his secondary education physically present but mentally racing along some unmade dirt road in central Asia.
By the time I came along, he was also wanting to lug trailers and other loads with similar ease. I got the impression he was getting a bit broody, too, so that included tagalongs. Both followed and I’ve done my fair share of less glamorous, lugging and tugging duties, come hell and indeed, high water. A headset spacer is the only thing that remains of my original line up and I’m reckoned to have done 130,000 miles, all told.
Ringing in the changes
Covid 19 struck, and the UK found itself into lockdown. Michael became a little obsessed with optimal gearing, considering the old 44 tooth LX ring a little on the tall side. One thing led to another and the next thing I knew, he’d introduced this made to order, 38 tooth Raval Oval Chain Ring paired with an 11-28 cassette. This gave me a range between 34 and 89 inches.
Everything played very nicely until September 2020, when my KMC chain exploded, claiming the cage of my Microshift Centos derailleur.
Michael gave me Sun Race Driven NRX Brifters and rear derailleur, which was something of an upgrade, and of course a new chain, just before we went into temporary accommodation, the rest of the fleet (and most of his worldly goods for that matter) going into storage before our new home became available.
My specification remained pretty much unchanged, save for some Schwalbe Kojak slicks which gave some additional speed, grip and supple comfort. By Christmas, we had moved. Freezing temperatures meant icy stretches and spikes - Schwalbe Winter . There was the usual inspect and replace routine- pads, chains, cables-stuff that wears that bit faster, when you’re ploughing through wet, salty stuff (thank God he treated my frameset internally with lashings of his home brewed “hillbilly” corrosion inhibitor). February can be a very mean month and we were still navigating an ice age.
Evolution, the Solution .... AKA One Thing Led to Another
The second week of February saw my UN55 bottom bracket turn sloppy, and the threads began to flake away from my square taper Shimano LX. Mind you, they’d done almost ten years, so Michael decided now was time to go the Hollowtech II route. He whizzed in a titanium bottom bracket with ceramic bearings, liberal helpings of super stocky grease and a Shimano Zee crankset with 36 tooth ring.
Sensible gearing and what he had “in stock”. However, the axle length was too long for my bottom bracket shell, so was quickly switched for a lighter Deore with 32 tooth ring, which gave me a range between 29.4 and 69.4. Oodles of trailer tugging torque but at the upper end, a little low for tarmac terrorism and catching other riders. I also got a little tired of run-of-the-mill chains, so broke that and Michael replaced with a superlight gold model, not for additional bling but it was very solid.
April came around and my machine built rear wheel started making some interesting clicking sounds-the wrong sort, according to Michael.
He arranged for another upgrade-a Rigida Sputnik and Shimano XT hub, since the cheap but extremely cheerful rim was also showing signs of corrosion and more pronounced wear. It had done 25,000 miles, so didn’t owe anything. Michael also salvaged the Deore unit, in case he fancied stripping and rebuilding it, later down the line.
July came and Michael switched the solid but unexciting Selcof post for this Kinekt 2.1 which was the icing on the cake. The final, missing piece in the all-terrain puzzle. Around the same time, my gears wouldn’t index properly. Michael had given me new cables, too. Brifter wear the culprit this time.
We went old school route, bar end shifter and Tektro RL320 brake levers, Unable to resist and since my bars were already stripped, he decided the Soma Condor2 would improve things further and he dressed them in this orange Acros Silicone Wrap Handlebar Tape .
October came and another rear mech imploded- six miles from home, taking the chain with it. Michael was exiting a junction when there was this sickening snap and a complete loss of motion. Michael ran me back and discovered that evening, that the mech had blown itself away from the threaded part, stuck like a bee-sting in my Ritchey frame end.
Removal was nerve wracking, for both of us. Michael drilled it out, and pulled the thread free, using a bradawl. Parts have been trickier to get hold of, due to global supply issues and given I’ve been running a 11-25 cassette, Michael decided a Tiagra road mech was the way forward.
Another few hundred miles spelt worn brake pads-the Genetic CX cantilevers. Michael didn’t have any spares handy, so wound up making a “Frankenbrake” based upon a Tektro CR710 cantilever, which performed better than either of us were expecting.
Midwinter also suggested my front, Rigida Snyper rim was wearing a little thin and some scoring was beco0ming evident. Michael decided to get a second wheel built around a Shutter Precision SD8 hub dynamo , which Michael had been graciously given to test.
Now, this was built around a Ryde Andra 40 rim, with machined sidewalls, meaning it could be run with my stock setup, or he could take advantage of the hub’s disc mount. The Andra is designed for bikes in very hard service-family and cargo being prime customers. However, though super dependable, we’d heard they’d a reputation for being tricky customers to build, so outsourced that to Mick Madgett, of Madgett Cycles.
When an Idea Becomes the ONLY IDEA
Sometimes, Michael can have an idea, which becomes THE ONLY IDEA. He’d been consulting with Lee Cooper (link) prior to my re-spray regarding the viability of having disc mounts added to my frameset. Lee was cool about the idea, so we put that to bed. Then he got ahead of himself, acquiring another TRP SLC caliper, a rotor, compression less cable set. He'd considered the hydraulic route-lusting after a TRP Hylex, in case you were wondering but on balance, the added cost and complication ruled them out. What with the global supply chain situation and other influences, finding something suitable on the fork front wasn’t a walk in the park. Titanium fired his imagination but would’ve been OTT, according to Michael. Just because you could, doesn’t mean you should, right?
Someone waved a set of Cro-Moly Kona Project II under his nose. Both sets of brake mounts- no mudguard eyelets but there were ways round that. P clips were the obvious choice, but Michael fancied something neater, so he acquired some clever stainless adaptors that slip over the Q/R skewer meaning my SKS Blumels Shiny Mudguards just slot into place, without adjusting the stays, or resorting to the B word.
However, we then discovered the disc mount threads were, virtually stripped, explaining why the TRP caliper wouldn’t snug down to the correct tolerances and stay aligned. These things are, character building, apparently (expletive inducing too). Now was also the time to inspect my lower headset. He had treated the bearings and bottom race to some heavy-duty aerospace grease last time round. No corrosion or pitting, so he reinstated my original fork applying fresh Peaty’s Assembly Grease and decided this would be the time to update my front stopper to Shimano CX50, matching my rear. He’s not fond of big S’s straddle wire configuration mind, so went for the Tektro hanger and a traditional straddle wire. Undeterred, he was tempted by something Chinese and 7005 aluminium alloy.
However, he ultimately decided to revert to my “School chair” forks, since these were in great shape and there was no need to cut the steerer. All he need do was add some high build marine primer to a couple of chips and the redundant cantilever bosses. Next came a crown race, bolt the TRP Spyre SLC in situ and add some slip-on eyelets to hub’s skewer.
Michael’s fixed gear winter trainer runs a Cane Creek SC5 on the same setup, we reckoned the V brake ready 520 was the best bet, given it pulls more cable, compared with the RL340. A lever bottoming out before the brakes bite does nothing for us. He had a silver one doing something close to nothing, but cosmetic symmetry was also high on our list. A silver RL340 (for my rear, Shimano cantilever) was the closest match.
Ah, then Michael got to wondering and after some formative checks, concluded my existing 340 would pull sufficient cable. (He really shouldn’t’ve doubted Tekro’s website) It all came together very smoothly - Michael was delighted with the modulation and feel. He is thinking of replacing my front mudguard (fender) stays-my existing ones are a little too short to connect with the Dia Compe slip on eyelets. For the time being, he’s gone for very beefy, wibble-free black cable ties.
The Final Chapter & Future Proofing
This is supposedly my final, major chop 'n’ change. Components like chains, cassettes, brake pads and bar tape will be replaced as they wear out. I wouldn’t be surprised if Michael talked himself into a lighter fork and going the hydraulic route, mind.
Ursula acknowledges the assistance of Michael Stennng in the telling of her life story.