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In praise of reliability rides

Trevor Ward
8 Jan 2020

It may seem an anachronism in an age of carbon and GPS, but the reliability ride is a tradition that should be cherished and nurtured

In certain sports, a pre-season warm-up will often be an excuse for a trip to sunnier climes for a spot of gentle physical exertion. It will be about renewing relationships, consolidating camaraderie and bonding over beers. The participants will usually return home with a tan and something from duty free.

Not so cycling. The traditional season curtain-raiser for amateur cyclists is rather more back-to-basics. It will usually involve a ride in sub-zero temperatures at a pace propelled by dangerously high levels of early season bravado or testosterone.

Riders will be expected to navigate a set route within a certain time limit but without the aid of signposting, marshals or feed stations.

Neither will they have the incentive of prizes, goody bags or T-shirts. Participants will usually return home with frozen feet and an aching sense of wishing they’d stayed in bed.

Reliability trial

Welcome to the joys of the reliability trial, a peculiarity of the sport whose roots can be traced back to the introduction of the safety bicycle on Britain’s roads 130 years ago and which has kept its spartan, unadorned format largely intact ever since.

Back then, the ‘ordinary’ or ‘high-wheeler’ had been consigned to the scrapyard, and the two-wheeled, diamond-shaped frame of JK Starley’s ‘Rover’ design was all the rage.

With it came a dizzying rate of technological advancements and refinements that were loudly trumpeted by manufacturers in what was becoming an increasingly competitive market.

Riders who made their name by breaking distance or speed records were signed up by the big brands to promote the reliability of their products.

They would put their sponsors’ bicycles and components through the sort of rigorous testing that was demanded in an age where durability and reliability were far more important than such fripperies as aerodynamics or wheels inspired by the pectoral fins of whales.

With time-trials and long-distance races becoming ever more popular, the machines had to be robust enough to deal with roads that were often little more than deeply-rutted cart tracks where carbon forks or deep section rims would have been as useful as chocolate pedals.

Highways were still the preserve of horse-drawn carriages and farm animals rather than tweed-clad dandies trying to log the Victorian equivalent of a KoM.

So the reliability trials were born of necessity in an environment that was at best unsuitable, and at worst hostile, to cyclists’ needs.

Real world testing

These days bike designs are tested in wind-tunnels or with computer simulations, while riders can measure themselves in sports labs or on Strava, but back then manufacturers such as Humber – one of the first to mass produce the safety bicycle in Britain – or Dunlop had no option but to test their products in the ‘real world’.

Pioneering brand ambassadors such as George Pilkington Mills and Lawrence Fletcher – both members of Anfield BC in Liverpool – would push themselves and their bikes to the limits.

In 1893 Fletcher claimed the 1,000-mile record in four days, two hours and 30 minutes, trialling a Raleigh with pneumatic tyres supplied by Dunlop.

Mills, meanwhile, was trialling a Humber safety bicycle weighing 50 pounds (22.5kg) when he won the first Bordeaux-Paris race in 1891.

‘Both of them worked for bicycle manufacturers and tested the machines they built and designed,’ says David Birchall, author of Amazing Anfielders – An Illustrated History Of The Anfield Bicycle Club.

‘You name it, they tested it. And they rode hard, far and fast. So as well as the machines, they were testing their own abilities.’

While advances in design and materials have led to a degree of built-in reliability with modern-day bikes, reliability ‘rides’ (‘trial’ has been replaced with a less intimidating verb) remain popular at many clubs today.

It’s customary for amateur racers, whose ‘reliability’ may have grown a bit rusty during the winter months, to treat them as the first serious leg-stretcher of the year.

‘It’s a good way to set a benchmark after the winter’s training,’ says Amanda Brown, a member of Pedal Power RT in Scotland, where one of the first reliability rides of the year usually takes place, hosted by Fife Century Road Club.

Tradition under threat

But the tradition is under threat. Some newer clubs have dispensed with them altogether, while a little over 10 years ago Catford CC sent purists spluttering into their tea when they replaced their reliability ride with – whisper it – a sportive.

Even more shockingly, it attracts hundreds more riders than the reliability ride ever did.

In Scotland, coach Scott Maclean has extended the remit of the traditional reliability ride. His 100-mile version retains the no-frills approach of the original, eschewing even a cafe stop, but is designed to encourage group co-operation in between bouts of interval training.

‘When riders work together in a bunch, form echelons in crosswinds, signal road furniture and work together to repair a puncture or other mechanical, they form a bond that unites them during that ride,’ he says.

‘When they also navigate, encourage, slow up and, of course, suffer together, and are still able to laugh about it in the cafe afterwards, they form a bond that lasts for life.’

And that’s surely the nub of reliability rides these days. We can more or less guarantee the reliability of our modern hi-tech bikes, and the miles we’ve put in over the winter will determine the reliability of our bodies.

What’s really being tested on a reliability ride these days is our spirit. If we can retain a sense of camaraderie and humour in the dregs of winter, and offer encouragement to the riders around us, then it bodes well for a good year on the bike.

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