A very Good Friday

In the past, we’ve always closed over bank holidays. Partly because Nunhead is often quiet on a bank holiday weekend, but mainly because everyone deserves a break, including our awesome staff.

This time, however, we want to give something back to our wonderful community, and in particular the people putting their lives at risk every day to protect ours.*

So, if you’re an NHS or emergency worker who relies on your bike, on Good Friday (10 April) we’ll service it free of charge. We’ll need to charge for any parts fitted, but we’ll discount these as much as we can. We won’t charge for labour.

We’ll be accepting walk-ups (although we’ll still have the door shut and be practicing safe social distancing) but if you want to book in, call us on 020 7732 1933.

And if you’re not a key worker but want to help, we’ll be taking donations to put towards parts for key workers’ services between now and then. Just call by the shop or give us a call to work out how to get money to us. Anything not used on Friday will be put towards key workers’ services in the coming weeks.

*I want to emphasise that this is a joint decision; my staff suggested working on Good Friday; we collectively came up with this idea, everyone volunteered and we’ve worked out the details together. I’m utterly proud of them all.

Thank you, NHS and key workers

NHS and emergency service workers are currently having an even tougher time than normal.

We’re honoured to keep so many of their bikes running reliably for them; for most, this means they’re not dependent on public transport. For some it also means a safe ride home and some vital decompression time after long difficult shifts.

We’ve always given a blue light discount, but for now we’re increasing that to at least 20% off, plus discounting labour wherever possible. And we’re giving NHS and emergency workers priority booking space in our (currently busy!) workshop diary, to get them up and running as soon as possible.

Please tell us if we can this do for you, but please don’t be offended if we ask for ID as confirmation.

A change of opening times, for a time

It’s been amazing seeing how many people rely on us to keep their bikes rolling, and the messages of support have been truly heartening – thank you.

We’re trying to keep up with demand as best we can, and we’ve made some changes to the way we work to keep everyone safe.

We’re doing lots inside the shop to disinfect bikes, our gloves and our tools and work surfaces, and you may have noticed the shop door is staying locked so that we can help everyone keep distanced. Sorry if it’s meant waiting outside the shop for a while.

The main difference from today – and we’re sorry for the inconvenience this will cause – is that on Tuesdays and Thursdays we’ll be in the workshop from only 9am to 6pm and we’ll just be servicing booked-in bikes. So we won’t be open for walk-ins and we won’t be answering the phone on those days, but we will check our answerphone messages and get back to you, so please do leave a message!

This is to make sure we have enough mechanics in the shop at busier times during the day, and to deal with the extra time needed to serve one customer at a time at the door. Basically, to make sure there are enough of us to go round! Thanks for your patience.

An essential service

In the absence of any more specific restrictions, we are self-identifying as an “essential service” and continuing to service bikes.

We’ve kept many NHS workers’ bikes on the road and enabled them to avoid buses, trains and tubes; we’ve serviced many bikes that people rely on for basic transport, their well-being and good mental health.

Like Germany’s government and the governor of New York, we view cycling as an essential part of public transport. And although less of the public will need transport in the coming weeks, those that do will really need their transport to work properly, and that’s where we come in.

We’re making this decision because at the moment the guidance isn’t clear about our status; we are in no way cavalier about the risks of COVID-19.

We’ll continue to make sure we do everything we can to minimise infection and transfer. Our shop door stays locked and we’ll only allow customers in one at a time (there’s our awning to wait under if it’s raining). We’ll continue to disinfect our surfaces and our tools frequently; we wear gloves and we disinfect the contact points of every bike we touch and disinfect our gloves between bikes. And, if there’s anything else we can reasonably do to lessen the risk of infection, we’ll do it.

So, although our door will mostly be closed, we’re going to keep working on your bikes until someone tells us we can’t, because we know how essential a working bicycle is to those who rely on it.

UPDATE: as of 23h30, we’re on the UK government list of specific exceptions to closures – http://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/874732/230320_-_Revised_guidance_note_-_finalVF.pdf – twice!

Riding while not going anywhere, part 1

Got a few minutes? Read the whole thing, for explanations and tips.

TL;DR – just read the lists coming next. 🙂

The basics you’ll need for riding your bike indoors are:

  • a bike
  • a trainer (rollers or turbo)
  • lots of determination, or a high boredom threshold.

However, you’re going to sweat. More than you’d expect. And also that boredom will suck your determination. So the “bearable” list also includes:

  • a good fan
  • a towel
  • water bottles
  • something to listen to, preferably with sweatproof earphones – music, podcasts, etc.

After a while, you may well find this training useful and even enjoyable. And want to make your bike work well with the turbo. So on the “good” list is:

  • sweat mat
  • turbo trainer tyre
  • heart rate monitor
  • screen / tablet / laptop – something to watch, iPlayer, Netflix, etc.

And if you want to do some targeted training, or virtual riding, or for longer periods, a “great” setup will have:

  • smart trainer
  • bike thong
  • cycle training videos or software – Sufferfest, TrainerRoad, Zwift, etc.
  • dedicated clothing

Wait, what? You think I’m going to ride a bike in a thong?!

No, the bike wears the thong – read the long stuff below and in the following posts to find out what I’m on about. And, at the end, to find out about the full pro-level bells-and-whistles setups if you’re really serious and / or have plenty of money to spend.

So, on to the long waffly article I started writing before realising I need a “just give me the facts” at the top…

As the pandemic continues and the shadow of lockdown approaches, a lot of us cyclists are really hoping that the UK government doesn’t follow Spain and France’s lead and ban leisure cycling. The logic behind that, apparently, is that cyclists injuring themselves while riding will put an extra strain on the emergency and health services. I totally understand that, but so many more people injure themselves falling out of chairs and slipping in the shower each each year, not to mention those injured and killed in and around cars, that banning an activity that generally maintains mental and physical health seems counterproductive.

Anyway, this entry’s about indoor training and should provide some basic information about how to get started and buy a trainer if you still want to ride your bike but you can’t leave your house. It can be a great way to train as you don’t have to worry about traffic but, if you’ve never done it before, here are a few pointers.

The bare minimum you’ll need is a bike and a trainer. And probably quite a high boredom threshold. You find space, fit the bike to the trainer, climb on and get pedalling.

Until a few years ago, there were only two types of trainer, and both involved keeping your bike fully assembled.


Rollers are literally a set of rollers on a frame and you adjust them so your rear wheel sits between the two close rollers and your front wheel sits on the other one, then basically ride your bike on top of them. You might have seen experienced riders using them to warm up at the velodrome or before races. The gyroscopic effect of your wheels spinning helps keep you upright, but they take a bit of practice to get right, and you need to stay focussed to stop you falling off. However, they engage your core muscles much more and because you are basically riding a bike without going anywhere, have a very natural feel.


The other kind was a turbo trainer, an A-frame that you clamp your rear axle into, that lifts your rear wheel slightly off the ground and usually has a roller that you push against the rear tyre. As you pedal faster, the resistance increases. And some have variable resistance with a cable- or electronically-operated remote. You’d usually need to lift your front wheel slightly off the ground so the bike feels level, and there are various devices for this, but a good old thick phone book has served well for thousands of riders.

Turbo trainers and rollers are great but can be noisy – all the moving parts on the bike channeling your pedal power, and all the moving parts on the trainer also rolling away and dissipating that power can make quite a hum, especially if you’ve got the setup sitting on bare floorboards in a flat. Your downstairs neighbours might not appreciate your new-found souplesse.


Wheel-off, or direct drive turbo trainers became commercially available a few years ago and have made a big difference to enjoyable and / or serious indoor riding. You literally remove your bike’s rear wheel and clamp the bike to the trainer, or the trainer into the bike in place of the back wheel. The advantages are that the trainers are usually quieter and because your chain is directly driving the cassette on the trainer they can offer significantly more resistance, more quickly-variable resistance and some can even provide a virtual road feel, simulating cobblestones for example. The disadvantages are that they’re usually heavier and can be significantly more expensive.

If you’re looking to get started and you don’t have the patience or the space to learn how to fall off a bike inside your own home, I’d recommend an A-frame classic turbo trainer. There are a huge number available and often many second-hand bargains that have been purchased with good intentions and then left in a dusty corner. Although I’d guess that may have turned into a bit of a seller’s market at the moment.

If you’re after classic track training, Nelsy swears by rollers. They teach good technique, smooth pedalling, they’re fixed-wheel compatible and they’ll train all the muscles you’ll actually use to ride a bike. And, after quite a lot of practice, you can balance no-handed and pedal and juggle at the same time like her!

But if you want to get into tekkers stuff later on like Zwift or TrainerRoad, you’ll be best off with a direct drive trainer. They can offer much more resistance and silence, but be prepared to pay a fair bit more. In the next post I’ll cover some simple set-up tips but I’ll leave it at this for now!

We’ll keep you riding!

As I write, a nearly-overwhelming amount of information is coming in about the approaching COVID-19 pandemic and what measures the government may impose to help slow the spread and lessen strain on our hospitals.

I’ll leave that stuff to the experts, but I will be updating this blog over the next few weeks to give what useful information I can on how you can keep riding if it all starts feeling a bit like a zombie apocalypse. We know that cycling’s good for your health in general, but for many people it’s also closely linked to good mental health; a bike ride can be a much-needed antidote to the anxieties caused by current news.

First I want to say that we’ll stay open as long as legally and humanly possible. We’ve seen plenty of people visit us for the first time in the last few days because they’re starting to ride their bikes instead of use public transport – long may that continue! – but we’re aware that shops may be shut down very soon.

We’ll keep our normal opening hours, 7am-7pm weekdays, for as long as we can; we’ll stay open on Saturdays from 9-5 and we’ll try and fit every service in as soon as possible. We generally try and fix punctures and do small tweaks and adjustments on the spot, while you wait, and we’ll continue that although we might ask you to wait outside the front of the shop just in case (under the awning, if it’s raining!).

I’ve got a separate blog to write about the pleasure and sanity-restoring solitude of riding on your own, and how to stay safe, but we’ve got stock of saddlebags, multi-tools, pumps, tubes, and all the other stuff you’ll need to take with you, in the shop.

And for those who are already self-isolating or quarantining, there’s another blog on its way about how to set up your turbo trainer if you need or choose house-bound cycling; we have turbo trainer tyres (yes, they’re a thing) and those bike protector things that are generally known as “bike bras”.

We’ll also be offering a turbo trainer setup service. Like servicing your bike, it’s not rocket science but if you’d prefer it done quickly and properly by someone with a bit of experience, we can help out. Give us a shout for more details, or watch this space.

And in the meantime, take care of yourselves. And each other.

Why do I need to replace my chain and cassette?

(Originally published 16th October 2011)

When we service your bike, things like oils, grease and hydraulic fluid are included in the price. However, some things aren’t included and the most common extra charges are for brake pads, chains and cassettes.

The brake pads are fairly self-explanatory, and you’ll certainly notice if they’re not replaced in time. But it’s not always clear why the bike’s chain, and sometimes the cassette, needs replacing.

newchain bw

As a bike chain is used, something called “chain stretch” occurs. This isn’t a great term for it, because the chain parts don’t actually stretch. At each point where the chain pivots, the constant rub of metal on metal starts to wear the parts away. Although this happens very gradually, this wear means that that pivot point starts to become a little looser. As it wears down, the distance between two consecutive chain rivets becomes very slightly further apart.


The image above shows a very worn chain link and a brand new link. You can see the wear on the rivet, the inside of the roller and the inner edges of the inner plates.

The chain and the cassette (the set of sprockets on the rear wheel) are designed to align perfectly with each other. When both are new, this is what happens; the teeth on the sprockets all mesh equally with the links on the chain, and the force you put in when pedalling gets spread evenly to each tooth in contact with the chain.

But as the chain wears, the length of each link gets very slightly longer. Only by a tiny amount, but this can mean that the pedalling force gets transferred unequally to the sprocket on the back wheel. Because of the way the chain transfers force to the sprocket’s teeth, the teeth at the “bottom” of the sprocket will have more force on them than those at the “top” at any time in the sprocket’s rotation. In turn, this wears down those teeth very slightly. As the teeth wear down, they match the wear of the chain, the chain’s load is spread more evenly across the teeth and the wear lessens.

This isn’t a huge dramatic process (unless your components are made of very cheap metal, or you run your chain dry), but it is a gradual process that occurs steadily all the time you use the bike. In time the chain, and also the cassette, become slightly worn.


I use a very handy tool to measure this “chain stretch”. When new, all bicycle chains will measure exactly 1″, 25.4mm, across one link. (“one link” is the repeating unit – one inner pair of links, one roller, one outer pair of links, another roller). As the chain wears, the very slight lengthening of each link is hard to measure but, because it usually happens evenly over the whole chain, one can measure the lengthening over several links. The tool actually measures from roller to roller, so gives a better measure of the effective elongation of the chain.

The chain tool pictured above is inexpensive and fairly foolproof and I’ll often refer to it as the tool that determines whether the service is going to be a little more costly or not! One end hooks into the chain and the other end will fit into the chain further along if the chain has “stretched”. It has two carefully measured sides, one that will drop into the chain if it’s 0.75% longer than when new and one that drops in at 1% total elongation. Those are important measurements.

Most chain manufacturers recommend that their chains are replaced when they have elongated by 0.75%. Because the chain wears slightly faster than the cassette, this is the point where you can usually just replace the chain (and not the cassette) if both were new to start with. As an aside, if you’re fairly meticulous about swapping chains regularly, you can usually get through two or three chains for every cassette.

Once the chain wear is approaching 1% “stretch”, it’s usually time to replace the cassette as well. Because the teeth on the cassette will have worn down to more or less match the chain wear, if a new chain is fitted to a worn cassette, it won’t mesh properly and may jump or skip, especially when changing gear. Conversely, if a new cassette is used with a worn chain it will also mesh and change gear badly and the cassette will wear much faster than usual. As chains are less expensive than cassettes of equal quality, it’s much more economical to replace them before you need to replace both.


The next logical question, of course, is “if my chain and cassette are worn but working well together, why do I need to replace them at all?”

There are two answers to this. One is, in turn, to reduce wear on your chainrings, the big cogs that the pedals directly drive. The teeth on these won’t usually wear as fast as the teeth on the cassette, because the pedalling forces are spread over more teeth on the chainring. A worn chain will still lead to unequal distribution of force on the teeth on the chainring and will wear the teeth down in the same way the cassette wears. But usually if the chain is kept well below 1% “stretch,” most chainrings will outlast several chains and cassettes.

Back Camera

The second answer is simply that eventually the teeth on the cogs will wear out. I was asked to “have a look at” the bicycle pictured above because “the gears are slipping”. When people tell me this, it’s usually because the gears aren’t properly indexed and the chain is jumping between sprockets, but this chap’s chain had actually begun to slip straight over the cogs whenever he put any pressure on the pedals! There simply wasn’t enough material left on the cogs for the chain to grip on to, so it was jumping over the teeth. Unfortunately for this bike it needed a new chain, new cassette and a new set of chainrings, which worked out more expensive than the bike itself and he chose to scrap it.

The moral of his story? Replace your chain regularly, keep your bike running for longer…

The end of an era… and the start of a new one.

Last Friday we said goodbye to Joel, who’s been with me almost from the start of Rat Race Cycles. He’s moving onto pastures new (sorry, we’re already racking up the clichés and I’ve only written the title and first two sentences!). His other passion has always been for music and he’s moved up North to start a Masters course in Music Technology at the Birmingham Conservatoire. His first album is incredible, and being released on 5th October, and his next ones promise to be even greater still.

But as excited as we are for him, Joel leaves some pretty big shoes to fill. For the last five years he’s been my right-hand man and customers tell me all the time how brilliant he is, and how great he’s been with their bikes. I know I’m not the only one who’s going to miss him.

In his place, though, we’re really excited to introduce two new members of staff. They are Dax, who coincidentally has left a career as a professional musician to work in the bike trade, and Nelsy, who’s joined us from Look Mum No Hands (we’re very grateful they let her leave!). They’re both ace people and great mechanics. As they don’t yet have Joel’s expertise, I’ll be spending more time in the workshop over the next few months to help them hone their craft. They’re already well on their way.

Marlowe and Andis are still with us of course, and still keeping bikes and their riders on the road and working superbly.

Finally, our last bit of news is that we’re changing our opening hours. Earlier in the year we conducted a highly scientific Twitter poll (!), and – coupled with anecdotal customer feedback – we’ve decided to try opening 7am to 7pm on weekdays, to help those who have found it difficult to get to us during our previous hours.

As autumn approaches, we tend to see more punctures, more cyclocross bikes and more of the hardy commuters who brave the weather. Good news for you guys – we’ve recently restocked on our autumn bestsellers, so if you’re in need of new lights, reflective stuff or mudguards to fight the dark and wet come on down.

We look forward to sharing this next stage of our grand tour with you all.

Get on your bike and ride!

It’s not easy to start something new. Particularly something that doesn’t come naturally to you. It takes discipline. Courage. Determination. Commitment.

And, if you happen to co-own a bike shop, and the new thing you’re starting is cycling regularly, it takes a good dollop of humble pie, too. Because who ever heard of a bike shop owner that didn’t ride a bike?


A kick in the lady parts for equality in cycling

Some months ago, Pete did a talk on bike safety and maintenance at our local WI. Now, before you start picturing a load of silver haired ladies staring blankly at the nice young man showing them how to change a tyre, let me point out that the demographic of the Nunhead WI isn’t quite that traditional. Much of the Nunhead branch, from what I understand, is made up of 25-40 year old professionals/mothers/creatives, or any combination thereof. Women like me.

It was after this talk that Pete received the shop feedback of which I am most proud. I paraphrase, but a member told him that she loved Rat Race because she never felt patronised or embarrassed there. That she was treated no differently to any other customer, and was never sneered at or assumed to be stupid.