Friday 20 August 2004

#1 Road C


It was my partner who first drew my attention to Terry Dolan's bicycles. My partner inherited my sister's Raleigh Royale when my sister died; it's a thoroughly nice bike quite apart from the sentimental attachment, but it bears the scars of twenty two years and she was thinking of having it professionally repainted, so she went trawling round websites looking for people who could make a good job of repainting a precious bicycle.

Terry Dolan, among other things, paints bicycles. But he chiefly paints bicycles because he makes bicycles, and he makes some very nice bicycles indeed. The first time I looked at his site my attention was caught by his carbon monocoque frames, which look almost organic with their flowing curves. And ever since I'd had a sort of distant fantasy of having a new road bike built on one of those frames.

It was a distant fantasy, frankly, because my Number 1 Road Iron was (is) perfectly good, so I didn't actually need another road bike, and any money I did have for another bike was supposed to be going on a recumbent. So when the subject of 'what would be your dream roadbike be' came up in conversation I mentioned the Dolan monocoques, but that was really all there was to it.


Sometimes in the evenings I find myself sitting in front of my computer idly browsing the Web because I'm frankly too tired to go to bed. And on such an evening a couple of weeks ago I was idly browsing bike frames on eBay, frankly looking for interesting mountain bike frames. There was a link without a picture: 'EX DISPLAY DOLAN CARBON FRAME'. And I looked, and there it was: a Dolan frame, in my size, with no bids on it. It wasn't actually the frame I'd been seduced by on his website - slightly less swoopy and organic - but gorgeous, and if the price didn't rise much I could afford it.

I watched that auction obsessively, and for days there were no bids. 10 minutes before the end someone put in a bid which was just ten pounds over the start price. I waited until two minutes from the end and put on twice the start price... but the other bidder didn't bid again and I got the frame for just twenty pounds over the start price - a very good bargain indeed.

When I spoke to Dolan's they agreed to throw in a carbon wing fork for half retail price, which made it even more of a bargain. And two days later it was here.

The next decision was the groupset. I don't know if you, like me, spent hours as a broke young man gazing into bike shop windows at kit you could not possibly afford. I still have memories of utterly gorgeous chainsets and brakes which I lusted after painfully (yes, I know, sad). And the name on the box was almost always the same: Campagnolo. For me that was the ultimate aspirational brand. Consequently, I've been riding around with a Campagnolo logo on my jersey without having a scrap of real Campagnolo kit on my bike.

But it would be a crime to put inferior kit on a frame like this: Campagnolo it had to be. I phoned Oldham Cycle Centre (who'd been recommended to me as Campagnolo specialists, and I'd had good service from before) and ordered a Centaur groupset; after some agonising I ordered it without hubs, and ordered a set of prebuilt Mavic wheels. I wanted to get the bike ridable as soon as possible.

The Saga of the Headset

When I spoke to Oldham, I asked them about what headset to get. Their answer was unambiguous: get it from Dolan. So I phoned Dolan and asked what headset I needed. They said it was a Cane Creek integrated, but they didn't have any in stock. They recommended I phone a particular bike shop, who they had regular dealings with, and get it from them. So I phoned the shop and they said, ooh, no, don't get a Cane Creek, what you want is a Campagnolo. Well, as explained above, I'm predisposed to think that what I want is a Campagnolo, so I ordered it.

And on Wednesday of this week the headset arrived. Then the frame and forks arrived. And finally the groupset and wheels arrived. and I could start playing. Now, putting the crown race of a headset onto the forks is a specialist job, so I took it into my local bike shop, and Marcus the proprietor kindly fitted it for me. And I took it home and started to build up the bike... and it quite quickly became obvious that the headset was not going to fit, no way, no how. Panic. My partner looked up Cane Creek headsets on the Web, and found one called an S2. It was by this time five to five in the afternoon, and I rang Dolan's. Yes, they said, I definitely needed a Cane Creek. Is it an S2, I asked. Yes, the person said, that sounds familiar.

So I went over to Wiggle's site, where my partner had found it, and ordered an S2.

And then, in the middle of the night. I woke up with just one thought in my head: the picture on the website was wrong. The headset in the picture was the wrong shape to fit in the frame; it would not work. In the morning, further phoning revealed that the headset I needed was a Cane Creek IS2, and that none of the suppliers I usually use had one in stock. Google came to the rescue with a list of shops which listed the IS2 in their catalogues, so I rang them one by one; and one by one they said they had none in stock, but two said they had the IS6 - identical in size and shape but twice the price. Having run out of options I phoned one of these back to order an IS6. And the salesman at the other end said that since putting the phone down on my first call he'd had another look, and he did have an IS2. In one and an eighth inch, which I needed. In black, which I wanted. Bless you, I said, put it in the post.

So the next morning - yesterday morning - the headset arrived, and I was able to complete the bike. All up, including my old but comfortable Brooks saddle, it weighs just twenty one pounds. With a lighter saddle it would be under twenty. That's still quite a lot above the UCI limit, of course, but it's far and away the lightest bike I've had.

When I'd finished the build it was, of course, raining. But I had to go for a ride anyway.


I've ridden so far only about fifty miles on it. It's not far. But it already tells me I've got something pretty wonderful. The frame first: it has the very short angles which I like, which make for a responsive and engaging ride. It is, essentially, designed to be a professional time trial frame. But at the same time carbon fibre is quite obviously far more compliant than aluminium - more compliant even than good Reynolds steel. It is just so comfortable. Very little roadshock gets though either to the bars or to the saddle. At the same time it accelerates easily and climbs well.

And the transmission is just so crisp. Every gear change is precise and immediate. I've never ridden a good road transmissions before, but it's far crisper than the high-end Shimano transmissions I have on my hill bikes. I'm very impressed. I'm impressed with the brakes, as well. I had thought until recently that road bike brakes were just fairly crap and you had to put up with it. But less than a month ago I upgraded my road bike to Centaur callipers, and I had been amazed by the difference. But when you team Campagnolo callipers with Campagnolo levers, the brakes are not merely very powerful but also very light. And last but not least, those levers. I've never ridden a road bike with integrated levers before, either; always before I've had downtube shifters. But the ergopower levers instantly felt natural and comfortable and easy to use.

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