* Prices may differ from that shown
I used to dabble in a lot of sports, not that I was particularly good at any of them but the beauty of sports is that you can usually find your competitive level and have some fun. Over the years a lot of these sports have dropped by the wayside as work and family have encroached on the time available and participation has become sporadic at best. It is a strange paradigm that as family life has reduced the time spent on the playing field it has equally increased the time spent in National Trust tea shops. Now, as we all know the National Trust has one main raison d'etre and that is to provide customers with a wide choice of lovely, home-made cakes. They also maintain historic estates, landscapes and whatnot but it's pretty much all about the cakes. So it is that following the inescapable lifestyle equation of Passing Years minus Sporting Activity plus National Trust Cake the inevitable result is an extra pound or two around your Bottom Line. C'est la vie.
I used to do a lot of cycling as well, not as a sport but as a practical way of getting around, but when I made the tragic move from north of the river to south my comfortable 10 mile commute became an unrealistic 20 mile challenge and slowly but surely my cycling declined to the point where when my last bike bit the dust several years ago it wasn't replaced.
But time marches on and I recently found myself missing the old bike so I started giving some serious thought to getting back on two wheels. By glorious happenstance this has coincided with the government's (the old Brown one that is, not the shiny happy coalition one), frankly rather generous, Ride2Work scheme*.
Now you'd think that the world of bikes was fairly straightforward, but no. It would appear that at some point in the recent past it was decided that we should have lots of different bikes so that people have the excuse of buying two or three each. In my day you had racers and that was it. Drop handle bars, skinny tyres and uncomfortable seats - that's what bikes looked like. Next some smart alec added chunky tyres and heavier frames and called them mountain bikes, still a simple enough choice even for me. But then I go away for a few years and it's all road bikes, hardtails, fixies, single speeds, urban, hybrid or cyclo cross. Apparently, some even fold up now. Crazy. When you add in the fact that in each category the prices can range from a couple of hundred pounds to a couple of thousand pounds it soon becomes clear that some serious research is required.
At this point I'd like to tip my hat to the magazine Bicycle Buyer, which was invaluable in helping me choose the right bike. There are several excellent cycling magazines out there but most target people who are already cyclists, their reviews and commentaries are all about whether a new bike is better than your current bike or how to improve your cycling skills. Bicycle Buyer focuses on the cycling newbie and does a great job debunking and demystifying the inevitable web of jargon and terminology in the world of bikes. I should also mention that they made this bike (the 2009 version anyway) their bike of the year last year.
The type of bike you need is clearly dictated by what you are going to use it for. Obvious enough I know but really important when you remember that whatever you buy it is you who will have to drag it around the terrain when you go out. So, while the latest mountain bikes look awesome with all that front and rear suspension and chunky tyres they are heavy, and if you are only going to be riding on roads do you really want to be dragging all that weight around?
I might be taking it around some fields on weekends but most of my riding will be on the roads so I was inevitably led towards the urban/hybrid end of the market. These are quite generalist bikes, good for tramping around town or gentle off-roading they have the lighter frames and thinner tyres of the road bikes along with the upright sitting position and flat handlebars of mountain bikes. This also makes them good for people new to riding or who have been away for a while, the lack of specialisation is also good news on the price front as even top end examples will come in at well under a thousand pounds. For serious hobbyists it doesn't take long for specialist bikes to crash through the grand barrier.
Charge is a relatively new, UK based bike manufacturer. They started trading in 2006 and have gradually grown their range to the point where they now have several options available covering most bike specialties. Their bikes are freely sold across the UK and are exported around the world so it is hard to call them a niche brand but their range does call on a central design ethos and aspiration that is easily identifiable. All Charge bikes share the same understated design cues, single colour frames and minimalist branding which means that they manage to look both exceptionally cool and unobtrusive on the bike rack. They are usually pitched at the mid range price bracket between £500-£900 and offer fair value for the quality of components and build.
Like most manufacturers they often update each range annually and the 2010 Mixer retails at £899.99 with little scope for discounting. However, there are still plenty of (near identical) 2009 models available on the high street and these should save you at least a hundred pounds.
Once the price ticket goes beyond a couple of hundred pounds your bike becomes a bit like a PC in that it is more or less a collection of branded components combined to make a well balanced whole. The logical extension of this is that you can, if you should wish to, upgrade individual components as far as your personal budget and preferences want to go. I'm not aware of any factory customisation being available but I'm sure any decent retailer with a workshop attached will offer aftermarket work.
However, given that you will also probably be buying this out of the box a summary specification is as follows:
Frame: Charge Mixer with Tange Prestige Double Butted frame
Fork: Charge Whisk Disc - Tange Prestige
Shifters: Alfine Rapidfire (Right only)
Chainset: Alfine Hollow Tech II
Chainrings: 39 tooth
Bottom Bracket: Shimano outboard bearings
Cassette: Alfine 18 tooth cog
Pedals: Wellgo LUC-27G
Front Brake: Shimano M485 hydraulic disc
Rear Brake: Shimano M485 hydraulic disc
Brake Levers: Shimano M485 hydraulic disc
Handlebars: Charge Alloy Flat Bar
Stem: Charge 3D forged Ahead stem
Headset: TH 857 1-1/8" Forged Alloy Caged Bearing
Grips: WTB Street Smart
Rims: Alex DP17
Front Hub: Shimano M495 Centerlock Disc
Rear Hub: Shimano Alfine SG-S500 internal 8 speed, centerlock disc mount
Front Tyre: Continental Sport Contact 700x32c
Rear Tyre: Continental Sport Contact 700x32c
Saddle: Charge Spoon
Seatpost: Micro Adjust Alloy
The bike was purchased from Evans Cycles by Waterloo Station where the staff were very helpful and personable on each of my visits. Knowledgeable without being exclusionary they helped me through bike selection, test ride and then when choosing some accessories. It may have been something of a done deal with the £1000 voucher already paid for but the final visit took over an hour to complete and the assistant's enthusiasm didn't waiver throughout. The bike was delivered 95% assembled with most of the accessories fitted, the only remaining tasks were to attach the pedals and line up the handlebar. Even for these minor tasks tools and detailed instructions were included. Delivery was free but a bit of a faff. An early morning text promised an AM delivery but as lunchtime and then afternoon passed several telephone exchanges at various levels of emotion were held before the van finally arrived at 9:30PM. Oh well, it was here now and it was with deep joy that I unpacked each part and put it all together before launching on a midnight ride through the now empty roads down my way.
With just eight gears running through a single front chain ring this is a simple and practical set up. Gears can be selected up or down via finger paddles on the handlebar and contribute to making this bike very easy to ride and get on with, this is completed by the Alfine internal hub gearing system which ensure that gear changes are smooth and forgiving. This is intended to be an urban / near-road bike and so the gearing doesn't have the long-leggedness of genuine tourers and road bikes, there have been times when I've wished for a couple of higher gears but on the whole it is a fair compromise.
Braking is provided by front and rear discs and is reliably powerful without being disconcerting. They look rather complicated, however, and any maintenance should probably be approached with caution but for now I am very happy with them.
Wheels are the road bike standard 700C (mountain bikes tend to have 26 inch wheels) and this is matched by the slim(ish) frame. Not the lightest you can find it is easily hefted and thrown around but is reassuringly robust enough to handle our capital's rougher roads and lighter trails. The lack of suspension is noticeable on trails but as the majority of my riding is on the highways I'll happily trade this for the saved weight. Riding this around my local roads you do feel confident that your exertions are suitably rewarded and you are not wasting energy dragging excess weight around.
The frames are available in four sizes from extra small up to large and tend to err on the large size so you will probably want to look at one size smaller than you'd expect, whichever way you go a test ride will be priority. Despite being out of the saddle for several years the standard seat provided has proven very comfortable and I see no reason to change it for the moment.
Finally, let's talk about the look of the bike. Style is obviously a very personal matter but these Charge bikes really are a bit special. The Mixer is available in silver but it really works best in black, offsetting perfectly the simple white branding. The large road wheels against the mountain bike stance of the frame make this a really good looking bike. Backed up by the top quality components this is a bike to be taken seriously that you can also have a lot of fun with. Proper biker types that I know nod appreciatively when they see it and I have to say that after a couple of months and a couple of hundred miles I really couldn't be happier with it. It really is the perfect antidote to those home made National Trust cakes.
* The Ride2Work scheme is the government's attempt to create a healthier, greener commuter community. In a nutshell, your employer buys a voucher from a participating cycle supplier on your behalf (value up to a thousand pounds). You then use that voucher to buy a bike and accessories of your own choice, your employer claims back the VAT from HMRC and the remaining balance from you before tax. This means that the nett cost to you of that £1000 voucher is somewhere between five and six hundred pounds. Nice eh? Get in while it lasts, I say.
Most bike shops participate in this scheme and will have comprehensive details on-line but as a starter try these sites: