Monday, 25 May 2015

Review: Hope Technology MTB Crankset

I'm a big fan of Barnoldswick based Hope Technology. Hope products ooze quality, style, functionality and durability. Whilst the only parts from the brand on my road bike, are the iconic Hope Pro3 hubs; on my mountain bike it's a different story, and the headset, hubs, rims, grips and crankset all now come from the great British firm.

The Hope Technology crankset attracted some great press attention when it was released earlier this year. That's not surprising, because although Hope are constantly testing and developing products, they're the kind of company that won't release anything until it meets the grade, and betters it. Therefore, when a new product does come into wide-scale production, it's sure to be superb. This crankset certainly is.

From the moment you unbox this carefully machined piece of metal, it demonstrates all of the signature Hope characteristics. From its anodised colouring, with its laser etched graphics, to the custom installation tools; this is a product whose R&D process left no stone unturned.

Whilst carbon cranksets are now wide spread, a lot of firms (including Japanese giant Shimano) continue to produce even their highest specification cranks from alloys. This is primarily because they find the stiffness of metal to still be greater than that of carbon, at least on a product like a crank arm. It's also because a crank arm transmits an incredible amount of force, and metal is less likely to fall victim to catastrophic failure, as can occur with carbon composites.  Hope is very much an alloy company anyway, and specialises in its machining and anodising technology; so it was predictable that they too, would opt for the metal crank option.

Unboxed and laid out on the workbench, the Hope Crankset demonstrates a beautiful simplicity, and a product that as a result could probably last a lifetime. Installation is straightforward and simple: following the instructions and using the supplied tools, you effectively lock the two parts of the crankset together at high torque, then use just finger tightness to move in the locking ring, and take out any play.

It's simple, yet incredibly reliable. The finger-tight locking ring means that there isn't a smidgen of movement, but it also means that you're not at risk of over-compressing the bottom bracket bearings. I haven't had to touch it since I've installed it, apart from a small nip up on the locking ring after a few rides. It's simple, yet bombproof.

The cranks spin freely in the bottom bracket, and the wide BB30 bearings provide a great solid feel and a strong platform. Out on the trails, the power transfer is evident, and these feel like the stiffest cranks that I've tested off-road (or on-road for that matter).

OK, so carbon cranks would be lighter; but, there is a great reassurance that you haven't caused a hairline fracture in your cranks, just because you hit that rock on a drop off. There is also reassurance that you aren't causing serious damage from occasional heel rub on the crank arm (in fact, the clever machining on these means I haven't seen any heel rub at all). Alloy is still definitely my preferred choice for MTB cranks, at least for the time being, and this is as good as alloy gets.

The cranks partner perfectly with Hope's version of the "thick/thin" single chainring. You can either bolt one on, with the supplied chainring bolts and spacers; or you can use the neat cinch rings, which do away with chainring bolts altogether and reduce overall weight [I have not tested the latter of these on these cranks]. The ability to use either a traditional crank spider or this new cinch technology, makes these future-proof.

In summary, I can't fault the Hope Technology Crankset at all. Much like their hubs, headsets and bottom brackets; it offers a beautifully simple, yet incredibly durable design. It offers superb power transfer, strength and stiffness; all in a stylish package.

Hope have done it again. They've created a product that will last for years, and quietly continue to function flawlessly throughout that time. British engineering, at its best.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Review: Aftershokz Bluez 2 Bone Conduction Headphones

Headphones and bikes don't traditionally mix well. When you're in traffic, you need all of your senses heightened; so placing plastic plugs in your ear canals doesn't really help. Luckily, Aftershokz have a solution...

The Aftershokz headphones use a bone conductor technology, which channels noise through your cheek bones to your ear drums, rather than down your ear canals. The result, is that your ears are left open to vital warnings and ambient noise, whilst you can still enjoy your favourite tunes.

The Bluez 2 headphones from Aftershokz are their latest release. As well as using the height of bone conduction technology, they also go one step further; pushing functionality in areas such as remote control and connectivity.

The Bluez 2 use Bluetooth technology, which means no wires, no in-line remote controls, and no annoying moments when you pull the connector out of your iPod. Bluetooth technology also means that the Bluez 2 can control your device, all from buttons located on the headphones. You can control volume, skip through tracks and even answer and dismiss calls (the headphones also have a built in microphone); all without needing to get your phone out of your pocket or pannier. Handy!

I've been testing the Bluez 2 out on my commute for the last week or so, and they've impressed me.

After a little bit of a fiddle finding the best position with helmet straps, I got them comfortably positioned in the optimal place just next to your ear. The sound quality is good, and despite not "plugging" into your ear, the clarity and balance are great. External traffic noise and warnings are left completely uninterrupted, and the best way to describe the mix, is like driving through traffic with the stereo on and the windows down; it mixes the two together very well.

I found that in inner city traffic you do need to have the volume up quite high, so that you can hear your tunes over the top of the vehicle noise; but, unlike blasting music out of cheap headphones, there doesn't seem to be any quality loss even at these higher volumes.

There is a fair bit of noise "leakage" to the surrounding area, due to the fact that the speakers are not encapsulated by the ear; but that's not really a problem on a bike, and you just need to remember to be a bit considerate and turn the volume down if you're wearing them on the train or in the office.

The Bluetooth connectivity is fantastic, and I really wish more headphones utilised it. I could safely stash my iPod in my pannier, and then control everything from the heaphones: switching on the unit, switching between tracks and altering volume levels. It makes on-the-bike control very easy.

Overall, the Bluez 2 headphones from Aftershokz are a very impressive gadget. I had previously advocated not to use headphones on the bike again, unless I was on the rollers or turbo trainer; these have firmly changed that. They allow you to listen to your favourite tracks comfortably, easily and safely. You don't need to worry about blocking out alerting traffic noise, and you don't need to worry about fumbling with your phone or iPod, as you try to change tracks. They're very well made, they're sweat resistant, and they even have nice little additions like reflective strips that you can add to the rear band to aid visibility.

Quite simply, these are the best solution to on-the-bike audio that I've found to date. Let those tunes encourage you to push further and ride tempo!

View the Aftershokz range at (Link)

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Nutrition: Ride Hard, Recover Well, Ride Harder

Ride hard. Recover well. Then, you'll be able to ride harder the next time...

In order to do all three of these things though, you'll need to get your nutrition right. That involves taking on essential fast-release energy during your ride, and repairing your muscles with much needed protein once you've finished.

Many of my snacks and (what I would label) "instant nutrition" for these two objectives, come from the well reputed MaxiNutrition brand. I thought I would share my favourites...

MaxiNutrition ViperBoost Gels - 'The Kick'

Energy gels are so developed now, and so effective, that I don't take much else in the way of food when I'm racing. Anything shorter than three hours, and I find these little sugar rushes are the easiest and fastest acting form of energy.

The ViperBoost gels are some of the best I've tested (and I've tested a few!). They're effective, they're a good size, they taste great and they're easy on the stomach.

Packing 25 grams of carbohydrate and a small amount of sodium to help ward off cramps; for me, these are the optimal size energy gel. You can get away with taking one or two an hour when used in conjunction with energy drink, which means you don't need to develop the sticky-mouth syndrome that comes with trying to take onboard more than that over a prolonged period.

A great taste, a great kick; a great fuel for high intensity exercise.

MaxiNutrition ProMax Shake - 'Recover Right' 

Post ride shakes aren't something that have to be guzzled down as quickly as possible because they taste like powdered milk. It's possible to make super tasty ones too, which will help you to recover, and be enjoyable to drink, too.

The MaxiNutrition ProMax protein powder packs a serious 30 grams of high quality whey protein in each serving, and also contains BCAAs, Glutamine, Magnesium and Calcium to get your muscle and bone repair quickly on track.

Mix ProMax chocolate up like this, and you'll also have 'probably the best tasting protein shake in the world':
  • Add a banana, 1.5 scoops of ProMax, and two tablespoons of Drinking Oats to a Nutribullet.
  • Top-up to the max line, with milk or almond milk.
  • Blitz for 30 seconds
  • Enjoy!

MaxiNutrition Protein Snack Bars

There's no point in having healthy meals and good on-the-bike nutrition, if in-between times you fill yourself with unhealthy junk. Having a healthy snack bar is a good place to start.

The MaxiNutrition Protein bars are a compact and protein packed bar, which also satisfy that chocolate craving! They contain 10 grams of protein per bar, and are only 159 calories. 

Great for recovery and quite possibly the best tasting protein bar I've had (I think the slim caramel layer is the gold lining!). These will fill a hole, and help to repair those tired muscles; all whilst you sit at your desk having your morning coffee.

Three products, three purposes. Whether you need to fuel up, recover or banish those snack cravings, these are three nutrition additions I'd recommend.

Shop the MaxiNutrition range at (Link)