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The life of a pro cyclist. Train and race your heart out. Show promise. Train your heart out even more. Get some results. And then, if it all works out, leave everything you know to go live in a foreign place like Andorra, Lugano, or Girona, simply to focus, repeat and better the cycle.
But what if there is no promise of a pro contract, and rather, the allure of the lifestyle is simply too much to ignore? Professional photographer and former Sydney-sider, Tristan Cardew, did just this. He left his thriving wedding photography business and life behind in Sydney and settled in Girona, riding every day and finding local work along the way.
Here we take a look at Tristan’s Legor Cicli steel ride, a bike that has seen in excess of 16,000km of use in its first seven months of existence.
“I came here for a two-week holiday in September 2015 and after the first 48 hours and 300 kilometres of riding, I had fallen in love with the place,” Tristan says of Girona. “When I came back again in September 2016 I decided that when I returned, it would be for good.”
It was May 2017 when Tristan packed his bags, knowing full well that a new life awaited within the cobbled streets of Girona.
“Girona has a vibe you can’t describe until you’ve been here. As a cyclist it fits every bill; roads like butter, weeks on end of blue sky, very few cars and those that are on the roads are more respectful to cyclists than anywhere I’ve ever experienced. It’s a stone’s throw from the Pyrenees to the north, the Costa Brava to the East, and Barcelona located 80 kilometres south.
“Girona is home to arguably some of the best cycling in the world, which is why something like 140 professional cyclists call it home these days.”
Tristan is a talented rider. In Sydney, he’d often be found on the podium at A-grade (Cat 1) races while representing local National Road Series (NRS) team, Mobius-Bridgelane. However, the long days and late nights of shooting multiple weddings a week took its toll. And his previous two escapes to Girona showed a different life; one that he didn’t have to apologise for.
“It’s got a country town vibe and is big enough to have places to explore when you’re not on the bike, and small enough to escape from in three sets of traffic lights when you are,” Tristan says. “Many of my friends are professional cyclists and everybody I know rides, so it’s nice to be understood when you say ‘Not tonight lads, I’ve got four hours to do tomorrow.’ More often than not, they’re doing five.”
Settled in and racing
Through training with pros, guiding traveling friends around the place, and a few brand photo shoots along the way, Tristan’s weekly mileage is nothing to scoff at. “Most weeks I ride between 500 and 600 kilometres — about 15-20 hours …” he says of his 2018 mileage. “In the first nine months of 2018 I’d clocked just shy of 22,000km.”
Tristan started 2018 with some specific racing goals. Podiums at Cursa del Pa de Palafrugell (third), the Gran Premi Vilajuiga (second), the Gran Premi Ceramica de La Bisbal (first) and the Gran Premi Inauguracio – Les Franqueses (first) were just the beginning. Such results help grab the attention of the Valencia-based team Electro Hiper Europa, where he guest rode in two Spanish stage races, not dissimilar to the Australian NRS.
The infamous Haute Route Alps, a race often referred to as the Amateur Tour de France, was his most recent showing. Tristan walked away with a win on the final stage and a second place finish overall.
And it’s results like that that make Tristan’s choice of a custom steel bike all the more interesting, especially given his past two race bikes were a Trek Madone 9 with Di2 and a Focus Izalco Max with eTap.
Local connections and a custom bike
“When I first came to Girona in 2015 I met then-professional cyclist, Christian Meier,” Tristan explains. “The following year he retired from professional cycling to focus on running his two cafes and a coffee roastery here in town, and in December 2016 he and his wife Amber opened The Service Course. They wanted to bring a complete cycling experience to Girona, rather than just opening another bike shop.”
“The Service Course offers everything from high-end rental bikes with Dura-Ace and eTap groupsets and Enve and SRAM wheelsets, to lockers and showers for clients, professional sports massages, guided rides, multiple-day training camps (with Christian), professional mechanics and a retail space that’s just downright beautiful. Christian and Amber’s focus is high-end in everything they do, and this translates instantly when you step foot inside the store – or go to either of their cafes that are a few minutes walk away.
“When I walked in the doors of The Service Course two days after moving to Girona I knew it was a business I wanted to somehow be a part of.”
No doubt, Tristan’s choice for his next bike was heavily influenced by his new local hangout and advice from Christian. “Knowing I wanted a race bike, Christian suggested we make a trip to Barcelona to meet with Mattia (who runs Legor Cicli) at his workshop in the centre of town,” he says. “I explained what I was after and he explained the process and options I could have in going steel. I’ve owned a couple of very nice race bikes, but have never had something made specifically for me, so I thought I’d bite the bullet and see what all the hype around custom is about.
“I came to learn that Mattia was an apprentice frame-builder under Tiziano Zullo and so because of the background and heritage in building steel race bikes, I made the decision to go with a Legor. I should add that after the workshop visit we went for a ride in the hills behind Barcelona where I watched Mattia thoroughly test – i.e flog – a recent road/gravel frame he built, which inspired confidence that I’d made the right decision.”
The move to steel
Tristan had a pretty clear idea of what he was after. His fit was well dialled, he knew what he liked in a bike, and where things could be better.
“My requests to Mattia were to make the frame long, low at the front, and stable at speed,” he says. “While I can climb pretty well, I wasn’t the most confident descender on my previous bike, so this was a big focus for us. Mattia explained that for confident descending, often the stiffest frame isn’t the best option; a bike that’s somewhat compliant will stay in touch with the ground more, and the less jarring the ride is, the more relaxed (and quicker) you’ll be.
“Further to this, at 63kg I don’t exactly flex frames when putting down watts, so we decided on slightly lighter tubing in the toptube and seattube to save weight, and chose slightly stiffer tubing for the down tube and chain stays for sprinting and climbing.”
However, not everything was an easy choice, and as is proven time and time again in going custom, the paint is often the hardest part. “When you’ve got all the options, none of them ever seem like the right one,” Tristan says. “I spent countless nights flicking through Instagram for inspiration, and colour wheels for combinations that might work, but in the end I went something pretty simple, almost conservative, but I think it looks pretty stylish.
“The beauty of steel is, if I change my mind down the track, I can strip the bike and have it repainted with ease.
“I was hesitant that initially the bike wouldn’t ride the way a race bike should, but had the frame designed and built specifically with racing in mind (tube selection and frame geometry) and it’s turned out to be the best bike I’ve ever ridden. It has most definitely changed my perception of carbon being critical for racing.”
Weight is an obvious concern when it comes to racing on steel. Carbon frames are undeniably lighter, so too those made from other materials. But Tristan isn’t as worried as he might be.
“In the same way a deeper and heavier wheelset will offer a certain performance benefit on the right terrain, so does a steel frame,” he says. “While it doesn’t quite accelerate from slow speeds at the same rate as a light carbon frame, above 20kph or when the gradient is less than 7% this difference becomes indistinguishable and the two feel the same. It does, however, ofter a whole raft of stability at speed I simply haven’t felt with lightweight climbing bikes. This stability, and the way the bike sits on the road and tracks round corners adds a real confidence above 50kph, which in racing I’ve found a serious benefit.
“Everybody has an opinion on steel bikes, and during the last seven months I’ve heard all of them – more often than not by people who haven’t ridden a modern steel frame – but generally, I find once people actually swing their leg over one they’re pleasantly surprised. I guess I try to let my results speak for themselves, but my opinion is that it’s most definitely not holding me back.”
Tristan is also a fan of the comfort offered by steel — a comfort that carbon can’t provide.
“The way it seems to round the edges of sharp bumps and dampen the harshness of rough roads and cobbles is a welcome change,” he says. “I thought there would be a bit of a transition period when going from carbon to steel with regards to racing, but with the exception of a very slight weight penalty, I can only say good things about the swap. If anything, the extra weight helps the bike get up to and stay at speed over crests of climbs and down the other side.”
Despite his satisfaction now, Tristan had some initial hesitation when going for a steel frame. Was it really the right choice of material? Was a relatively small-scale custom bike builder the way to go?
“Even once the frame was being built and I was committed, I still had concerns,” he admits. “However now, after seven months, 16,000 kilometres, 250,000 vertical meters and a whole bunch of races (hilly as well as flat), I can say unequivocally that the bike just feels ‘right’. Not because of the material, but because of the way it’s been built; namely, for me.
“The fact the frame is sized exactly for my leg and torso length means that I felt at home on it from the moment I first got on, and it’s only felt better since then. Mattia really did nail the geometry and tube choice.”
In addition to the frame, Tristan’s choice of Shimano Ultegra Di2 may seem surprising for a bike being raced at a high level. But such a groupset makes a whole lot of sense when you consider how much mileage Tristan is doing at his own expense. Certainly, though, the Ultegra is a rare budget point amongst the full CeramicSpeed system and Enve 3.4 wheels.
Speaking of the wheels and bearing upgrades, Tristan notes: “I noticed my average speeds increased by a good couple of kilometres an hour while riding the same roads I’d ridden for the year before getting it.”
The bike weighs in at a total of 7.64kg and Tristan is considering how he may get that figure lower for the local hills. Some Cane Creek EE brake calipers, a Rotor UNO cassette, a lighter saddle and some titanium bolts are on his mind, but then he admits he’s extremely happy with how it is setup currently.
“It’s beautiful, rides amazingly, has taken me to a handful of race results and makes me smile every time I roll out the door,” he says. “At the end of the day, that’s really all I want a bike to do.”
Frame: Legor Cicli Nuiorksiti+ Road (pronounced “New York City Plus”) with Di2 internal cable routing
Tubing: Columbus Spirit
Fork: Columbus Futura SL
Headset: Chris King
Drivetrain: Shimano Ultegra R8050 Di2 with CeramicSpeed OSPW pulley-wheels
Bottom Bracket: CeramicSpeed T47 ceramic
Power meter: Stages Ultegra dual-sided crankset, 165mm
Brake Calipers: Shimano Ultegra R8050
Wheels: Enve Composites SES 3.4 clincher
Skewers: Enve Composites
Tyres: Continental GP4000s II 25mm
Seatpost: Enve Composites
Saddle: Fizik Arione carbon
Handlebars: Enve Composites SES Aero Road 40cm compact drop
Bar tape: Lizard Skins 2.5mm
Stem: Enve Composites Road 120mm
Pedals: Shimano Ultegra
Bottle cages: Arundel Mandible
Weight: 7.64kg as pictured (7.44kg without bottle cages, computer mount and Garmin)