Its Not About The Bike

Health warning: if you don’t like talking about bikes and bike kit then this post really isn’t for you.

At the height of his fame Lance Armstrong said it isn't about the bike.  Of course for Lance at that time it really wasn't about the bike: it was about injecting industrial quantities of EPO and then lying about it.

As all cyclists know, it is about the bike.  As Rule #4 is very clear about this.  Also, given that I won't have access to industrial quantities of pain killers and performance enhancing substances, my nether regions are going to be intimately connected to a bike for the thick end of 2 weeks so the bike really matters. 

Early in the 2020 lockdown I was, like so many people, bored.  I'd watched Tiger King (remember that?) I'd disappeared down YouTube and Wikipedia rabbit holes, I'd annoyed people on Twitter because I could, and, crucially, I had maintained and fettled all my own bikes to perfection.  I'd also stooped to fixing up my friends crappy old shoppers, a couple of friend's racing bikes and a tandem!  

I set myself a little arbitrary goal.  I wanted to build myself a gravel-bike for less than £1000.  Disk brakes, tubeless tyres, “one-by” group set.   The vaguely artificial cost constraint was going to make it fun and the bike stuff I didn't know about (tubeless tyres, disk brakes) would make it educational.  I set about haunting AliExpress, Gumtree and Ebay looking for cheap knockoff parts and second-hand stuff.

I managed to find a fully carbon frame from China.  I also got some unbranded carbon deep section wheels on AliExpress which seemed to be good and which were within the budget.  Clicked the button and prayed to the Gods of e-commerce that they would (a) arrive and (b) not be totally shit.  We hadn’t hit the supply chain crisis yet and two or three weeks later, the frame and wheels arrived and they didn’t seem to be totally shit. At the same time I had ordered a 1x12 (for those of you not in the know, this means 1 ring on the front and twelve cogs at the back) group set from China.  It also arrived and also looked reasonably good (although it was definitely very heavy).

So the build began and it worked out pretty well.  Most things fitted.  Some of the finishing on the inside of the frame was rough but I’ve seen worse,  Some handlebars, a saddle and some cables from my “bits box” completed the bike and I was done.  Well under £1000 and time to take it for a test ride.

It was terrible.  Changing gears happened as-and-when the derailleur wanted to change rather than when I did, the cable disk brakes were lethal, the bike was heavy.  Urgh.

Therefore I was back on EBay.  Over the course of 3 months I got second-hand SRAM Force1 hydraulic shifters, a set of carbon cranks, a Force1 chainring and a much better derailleur. Took a long time to find some hydraulic brake callipers and a lot lot longer time to work out how to assemble hydraulic brakes.  The frame had fully internal cable routing and getting those hydraulic cables through the handlebar and frame was a giant pain in the arse.  And then there’s the bleeding of the brakes and all the time you’re getting covered in this horrible Dot5.1 brake fluid.  Grim.

However, got it done “Bat Bike” was born.  Unbranded frame, black wheels, black tyres, black saddle, black handlebar tape.  Even a black chain.  And I loved the bike.  Really loved it.  The really good thing was that if I ignored the terrible Chinese group set and didn’t factor in the amount of time I wasted on EBay and AliExpress, I could probably squish up my eyes and convince myself I’d still got it in under £1000.

I rode it for hundreds of KM.  The picture above is on a ride from Cambridge to Cromer.

And then late in 2021 some bastard stole it in Cambridge.  I’d locked it outside a coffee shop.  Turned my back for a few minutes, the sub-standard lock was toast and my lovely bike was in the wind.  I said a lot of extremely rude words for quite a long time. If you're the lovely Chinese family who were walking past when I discovered it gone, I'd just like to apologise now for the stream of profanity which you had to put up with.

After a lot of stomping about the house grumbling and muttering about bike thieves and the appropriate level of legal punishments that they should suffer,   I decided to rebuild the bike. Exactly. Of course, now we were in the middle of a supply chain crisis and shipping from China is a mess.  Second hand bike bits on EBay are going for more than the new bits because they just can’t be sourced.  I got as much as I could but waited months for them to arrive from China.  The incomparable Stephen Hawkes at Primo Cycles in Cambridge managed to source me a new group set. Admittedly it cost more than the entire bike did in 2020 but to not rebuild the bike would be giving in to the arsehole that stole the bike.

Rebuilt and as good as the original Bat Bike, Son of Bat Bike (Robin Bike?) was good to go.

And where better to take it than across Europe?  I have to admit, I’m a little concerned about the whole thing…  Whilst it’s definitely in the whole Tim Moore vibe to ride a long way on some sort of  funky bike, I just hope I haven’t screwed up something vital which is going to fail catastrophically and leave me miserable beside the road in some god-forsaken place in Germany or something. We shall see.

The Details

The rest of this post is for the true bicycle maintenance obsessives.  

The Frame

Bought from Trifox in China.  Their prices have gone up a bit due to the supply chain crisis, Brexit (sigh) and exchange rate movements but they seem to be pretty good frames.  The carbon layup is good, they're light and the interior of the frame is pretty clean.  I've now built up 3 bikes with the Trifox 16TA frame and they've all been good.  One of the cable holes is badly routed but there's nothing you can't fix with a little rat-tailed file.

The Wheels

I bought carbon disk brake 45mm deep wheels from Elite Wheels in China.  These have been, on the whole, good although it's very irritating buying wheels from Elite.  I've now bought four sets of the wheels from them and every time I got a message from them 24 hours after ordering saying that they were just making a new batch and the promised 30-day delivery window had to be increased to 60.  Once would be ok.  Every single time?  One of the wheels had a delamination issue on the rim.  Elite wheels were not wonderfully helpful.  They offered to send me a new rim which would have meant completely undoing all the spokes and rebuilding the wheel myself.  I'm not a wheel builder and it basically would have been more expensive than a new front wheel.

The Elite wheels also have the loudest freehub on the planet.  When you freewheel, people can hear you in the next postcode.  It saves buying a bell though.  You freewheel up behind somebody on a path and they jump into the bushes because they think they're being attacked by a swarm of angry hornets.

Tubeless tyres and wheels

This is the first bike I've had with tubeless tyres.  Tubeless tyres are the New Thing™ and people rave about them.  Basically there's no inner tube and you inject some sealant ("tyre-jizz") through the valve. The upsides are that the sealant seals small punctures without you having to do anything and you can run them at much lower pressures which makes for lower rolling resistance and a lot more comfort.

I put 31mm tyres on the rims and I run them at about 55psi.  The comfort upside is definitely true and I haven't had to do anything about punctures.

Downsides are that if you get a big puncture then the sealant doesn't seal it in time and you're left at the side of the road with a hole in your tyre.  Tubeless tyres are much harder to get off and on.  And, when you do get the tyre off, it's full of tyre-jizz.  You can fit a tube but it's going to be messy.  

On the whole, happy with the tubeless setup but it is like being short an option.  If things go badly, they're going to go very badly.

SRAM Force 1 Groupset

Part of the reason for building the bike was to try out a "one-by" groupset.  One chainring on the front and a wider range on the back.  The only issue was that I had to drill out the rivets to get the front derailleur hanger off.  The trusty Dremel™ worked well here.  

I have one 38T chainring on the front and an 11-42T cassette on the back.  It all works pretty well. It's quieter than a traditional double chainring and the "narrow-wide" tooth pattern on the chainring means you never drop a chain.  

One might think that this causes the jumps between each gear to be bigger but I wrote a quick Python program to calculate the gear ratios and, at least at the range of speeds I cycle at, that isn't the case.  The only downside I can see is that with a 38-11 as your biggest gear, you spin out your gears going downhill at around 40kph.  I don't really mind about that and I'm happy to give up a 53-11 ratio for the 38-42 easiest gear for hills on a laden bike.  

Cranks, derailleur, BB are all absolutely fine.

Hydraulic Disk Brakes

This was another "first".  I normally ride bikes rim brake bikes with Mavic Exalith rims and these have a lot  of stopping power even in the wet: in fact, enough stopping power for me to go over the handlebars of the bike and break my arm...  The stopping power of the disk brakes is fine but, compared to rim brakes setting them up and maintaining them is a giant pain in the arse.  Getting the disk brake callipers aligned with the disk is fiddly and bleeding the brakes is a horrible job.  You get covered in Dot 5.1 brake fluid, and, for the SRAM brakes, the bleed procedure is an incredibly involved 10 step process.  Even after doing it a number of times, they're still not right.  I would probably go for cable actuated disk brakes in any future build.

Finishing Kit

Trusty Selle SMP Stratus Saddle, a nice Deda Super-Zero handlebar, a random stem made by Prince. All of these extra bits I had in my "bike bits box".

Power Meter

Power meters are fearsomely expensive especially when you buy the branded SRAM/Quark one.  I decided to go for one from XCADEY.  Once again, a Chinese brand and the cheapest ($299) power meters on the internet.  $299 is pretty cheap but it appears to work pretty well.  It's got a fiddly and proprietary power connector which is a little irritating but if you can get an XCADEY power meter for your specific setup, I would recommend it.


  1. Hey Ewan, great to read this, and I am as obsessed with “the bike” as you are. At the moment I’m really into a Surly touring-type model, which is great for commuting in NYC as well as longer distances. Good luck on your journey to Warsaw!


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