Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Canyon Endurace CF SLX Disc. Part 2: Road Test - Singapore To Kuala Lumpur

The continuing story of my new endurance road machine. See part 1 for the background. This is where I put it through it's paces, pitting the machine against the elements that it was designed for.

After a couple of short rides around Singapore to get my position sorted, my plan was to do a 2-day ride to Kuala Lumpur through a route up the west coast covering around 450 kilometers.

Though it's long been a part of our bike touring operation, I had been itching to do this ride 'randonneur style' - carrying everything on the bike with me - for quite a while, but contingencies had always been against me for one reason or another. Having a home in 2 cities definitely creates this option, but the caprices of my working life do mean that I can't function for too long without my laptop - in either place - and I'm really not willing to carry that much!

The stars eventually aligned - more through determination than anything else - and I chose a Thursday/Friday slot in late October for my mega-commute. A little over a week since the arrival of the Endurace in my clutches, and it was time to get this beast onto some proper roads. I deliberately made no precise plan or hotel booking, or warned anyone of my ETA. I want to enjoy this!

Day 1: Singapore to Malacca

Though the ride would be a solo endurance effort, I had the welcome company, for the 40 or so kilometers of the Singapore stretch, of my good friend Charles, who offered to accompany me in the wee hours up to the border crossing. I don't often ride in Singapore at 5am, but I can see why so many of the city's riders do. It's about the only time you get anything resembling a relaxing stretch of quiet roads to ride on, and the ubiquitous road-lighting means visibility is great.

The weight of my luggage, though minimal, was definitely affecting the bike's handling, and any incline in the road had a significantly greater effect on my effort than it normally would have. Just as well I have 2 almost completely flat days ahead. Actually, beyond phone/wallet/passport/keys,  and the crucial tubes/pump/tool kit, I was essentially carrying only one set of ultra-light shorts and t shirt, plus a small tube of sun block, and chargers for the gadgets. My plan, as usual with these rides, was to get hold of a cheap pair of flip-flops in Malacca for the evening footwear - that is if the hotel didn't provide them anyway. Nevertheless, I wouldn't be able to get a true feeling of the handling properties of the bike with all this ballast, but I would at least get to see how it fared as a beast of burden.

Charles bids adieu

Charles left me at the Woodlands crossing into Malaysia, and continued his morning ride. I found my way onto the end of the expressway approach to the crossing, hopped over the kerb into the motorcycle lanes through immigration, and made my way among the noisy rabble of motorcycles, bracing myself against the toxic atmosphere.

Dawn was breaking as I rolled into Malaysia. The route follows the coast for the first kilometers and then cuts inland through the urban sprawl of Johor Bahru. I was overjoyed to find a Shell station with an espresso vending machine, which gave me the essential morning caffeine shot. This was already more than I expected: an espresso is still a rare commodity outside of city centres in Malaysia. A short while after, and still before leaving the larger urban area, I stopped at a good breakfast spot that we have used a few times in the past on our tours.

breakfast stop day 1

Rush hour in JB. By now I was enjoying the incredibly solid feeling of the bike. I mean, this bike feels like it can deal with anything, so you worry much less about patchy road surface, and this also means that the proximity of heavy traffic is less alarming, since you can actually ride in the ditch if you have to.

The overall feeling of the front end is super stable. On rails. I guess it's the combination of the fork rake, head tube geometry, single-piece cockpit, wide rims with 28mm tyres, through-axle precision, and disc braking. If this was a heavy steel touring machine it would perhaps be more expected, but it's not.

About the 135km mark I hit the town of Air Hitam. This is my next food stop at the Chinese food court on the corner doing pretty good Dim Sum. Up until this point I've been mostly on route 1, which is the old main Singapore to KL road, but from here I will turn down to join route 5 up the coast. Should be slightly quieter.

The town of Batu Pahat marks the point at which I join route 5 which will bring me all the way through to the day's destination. At the moment I'm still feeling good, motivated, and enjoying the ride, though the tropical sun is now bearing it's full weight down on me. I'm getting through more water now, and I stop in Batu Pahat at a petrol station to refill the bottles. At this 165km point I am well over half way with around 100km to go.

I'm getting to like the gearing on this bike. The 52/36 "semi compact" chainring pairing of this bike with its 11-32 cassette is not a combination I've used before. Having been an overnight convert to the joys of compact gears a few years back, I had gone immediately for the smallest chainring options in order to be able to deal with the gradients above 25% common to Northern Thailand. So my default chainring set up has been a 50/34, whereas I switch between cassettes depending on the terrain. On initial consideration the gear selection on the Canyon seemed slightly illogical: extreme at the back, but moderate at the front - but I'd have to say that I'm beginning to understand the choice.

The alignment of chainring to cassette on this bike allows me to stay a lot longer in the big chainring, which means that even a combination of 52x28 is possible - and effective. Basically the idea is that transfer of power is better when using larger rings, mainly because torque stress is less, plus the chain has to bend less, which means less friction. Being someone with a relatively high cadence that mostly chooses to  ride hills, I tend to spend a lot of time in the small ring, but on this ride I don't think I used the small ring until somewhere near the end of day 2 on a couple of short grinds.

As I approach the 200km mark I start to fantasize about a latte. Only option I can think of is that in the upcoming town of Muar I might be able to find.....a McDonalds with a McCafe! Quick google moment later and I have a plan. At the 215km point I am sitting with some of the worst food on the planet in front of me, but at this point it is what I need. The meal is followed by the closest thing I'm going to get to a latte today.

After spending way too long fiddling around trying unsuccessfully to book a hotel for the night in Malacca on my phone, I eventually leave the air-conditioned chaos of McDonalds behind and head back to the furnace of route 5, eager by now to arrive at the day's conclusion. The unrelenting flat, long-and-straightness of the route is starting to wear on the patience.

The day is cooling down as I enter the urban edges of the ancient trading city of Malacca, and I make my way through slow traffic to the centre of the old town. By now I'm really looking forward to dinner, so though I need to identify a likely hotel, my plan shifts to identifying first the restaurant, and then a nearby hotel so walking is minimised. I quickly discover one likely combination and my day's ride is over at 269.5km.

Well not quite. After checking in and discovering that the hotel doesn't provide flip-flops in the bathroom, I jump back on the bike and ride around the block to a convenience store to buy the cheapest pair I can find. Then my legs officially get time off.

Malacca is getting hipper these days, and I manage to find a couple of promising places for a dinner in 2 courses with some quite acceptable Rioja. Perfect end to the day!

Day 2: Malacca to Kuala Lumpur 

a beach-side moment

After a fairly good sleep, I hit the road at the relatively lazy time of 7am in the beginnings of daylight. Seems I'm getting used to riding in rush hour traffic, but I have some nice beach-side routes out of Malacca which are a great way to start the day. Weather seems fine at this point, and I succumb to a second visit to McDonalds - this time just for the latte. Hard to ride without coffee.

The stretch between Malacca and Port Dickson is one that I look forward to most on this route. If you look at maps of Malaysia, it seems there are a lot of roads that run along the coastline, but when you're on most of them, you don't see the sea at all. People in this part of the world are not beach lovers, so mostly they build roads a few hundred meters inland from the actual coastline, and you often get quite thickly growing plantations completely obscuring any beach view.

This road is an exception. Possibly something to do with linking the old port of Malacca with the colonial beach resort of Port Dickson, but at any rate, it's a lovely road to ride a bike on. There are plenty of little chalets and homestays along this stretch of road that presumably cater to the globally itinerant backpacker community. I stop in one of the beach-bar type restaurants for a breakfast, more to enjoy the beach-side moment than the more-or-less-edible food.

breakfast on the beach

I get to try the bike on a couple of brief off-road moments riding over patches of gravel and at one point sand onto a beach, and though hardly enough to form any solid opinion of the bike's off-road capabilities, it does remind me that this bike can do way more than I'm using it for.

I'm starting to see some dark clouds up ahead over the sea. A bad omen. I try to mentally brush it off. I'm happy if I get cloud cover all day, but I'm really not looking forward to the kind of rainfall that those clouds are promising. Hope they are moving towards Sumatra. Fat chance.

that road-beauty moment

At around 100km in, Port Dickson provides another nice beach side moment featuring one of my favourite bits of coastal road. Here I stop at a great roast duck and pork place for second breakfast (or is it third by now? or lunch?). From here on we're moving inland towards KL, and it's going to get increasingly rolling, and increasingly urban, at a painfully gradual pace that will really test the resolve.

Then it starts raining.

For those of you who don't have first-hand experience of a tropical downpour, it's like having a bathtub of water dumped on you continuously. The road turns into either a pond or a river depending on the gradient, and you can barely see 5 meters ahead.

The rain started as I was getting close to the town of Sepang, at around 140km. I stopped in a petrol station for shelter until the more torrential part was over, but soon it had faded to a steady drizzle and I set off again.

Now I was really getting to see what this bike could do. I was riding through a lot of standing water, getting repeatedly drenched by the bow wave from passing cars and trucks, and it just felt solid as a rock. The rotors of the disc brakes have a distinctive squeak when it rains, but they never got any less effective regardless of what was happening, and my wheels were just ploughing through it all with disdain.

The new road after Sepang gets wide and straight through acre upon acre of oil palm estate, before getting back to some more rolling, older roads as we get towards the more traditional settlement of Semenyih. Normally I'd take this road and continue through up past the dam to Ulu Langat and back onto some quiet but hilly roads that lead into the eastern side of the Klang Valley, but in this case I had to aim for the centre of town where I would pick up my car.

I have honestly never ridden through the aftermath of this sort of deluge on a Friday afternoon rush hour in Kuala Lumpur, and though I can't say I'm looking for the next opportunity, I was on the right bike, and would be prepared to tackle it again only with the assurance of being on the same one.

The kind of confidence this bike inspires is so intoxicating that I haven't been able to ride anything else since. I am starting to tick off all my favourite endurance rides, and testing it against all the toughest, roughest surfaces and hairy descents, and it's shrugging all of it off without breaking stride. I honestly can only liken it to driving a top new BMW model after spending your whole life driving cheap hand-me-downs.

I finished day 2 in the centre of Kuala Lumpur after completing 184 kilometers. The rain had made the last 50km pretty miserable, but it had tested the bike to the extreme. It was completely coated in mud and sand, which had dried to a solid cake by the time I got it home and hosed it down.

a seriously muddy beast

One other great feature of using discs is that it's very easy to access all the muddy bits. No fiddly calipers at the wheel arches exactly where all the worst shit congregates. No sand and grit ground into oily smears on your poor wheel rims. The actual brakes pick up very little muck from the road since they're at the centre of the centrifugal force of a spinning wheel.

A Verdict?

What I've tested here is basically how this bike handles adversity: load it up with a few extra kilos, ride it on some dubious road surfaces for 2 whole days in tropical conditions, throw all kinds of shit and truckloads of water at it, and how does it fare? Well it came through with flying colours.

What I didn't test on this ride is how it behaves under normal, unladen riding conditions: how it climbs, descends, corners, sprints, and handles or compliments my riding style. I have tested all of these things regularly since then so I guess another chapter is brewing....

I'm sure I'll write about this bike again. I can't stop riding it, and when I do, I can't stop talking about it. My only dilemma now is what to do with my other bikes.

My Strava record of Day 1
My Strava record of Day 2

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