While most review bikes go back into a company’s demo fleet pretty quickly, the Fairlight Secan that Morgan Taylor reviewed back in 2022 has gone on to live an illustrious life of ultra-distance riding, mostly of the randonneuring variety, with their friend Andrew. In this re-review, Morgan and Andrew consider the Secan’s updated build and speak to the easy wins and marginal gains of preparing both bike and rider for very long days in the saddle.
After publishing my review of the Fairlight Secan in the summer of 2022, I suggested to my friend Andrew that he might enjoy it for his preferred flavor of long distance riding. Andrew is a humble dad, an accomplished randonneur, and one of the only people who willingly hops on the bike for a 5am start time with me.
Andrew also helps me with editing my overly long bike reviews (including this one, apparently), and is one of my favorite people to bounce ideas off of. I was curious what he’d think of the Secan, and secretly hoped they would hit it off. (Spoiler alert: he did end up buying the bike from Fairlight.) I handed him the bike with both wheelsets from my original review, and the bags from Straight Cut Design.
Andrew’s story with the Secan began with hesitation: he had been honing the build on his Rawland Nordavinden for six years and has for the past few seasons been refining his ride habits and training for his annual goal of a sub-24 hour 600k event. Not having the cash flow to throw a bunch of new parts at the build, Andrew finished off his 2022 rando season on his Rawland, and then committed to the Secan for 2023.
Like a Fine Wine
A year and a half has now passed, and Andrew’s taken the Secan on two 600 km brevets and many other very long rides over about 10,000 km. His style is decidedly frugal home mechanic, with a taste for good vintage parts and good deals on nice stuff. Like a fine wine, Andrew’s Secan build has developed functional character and style that you can’t simply buy. The details run deep, and we’re gonna run through them.
We’ll take a holistic look at what it takes to build a distance bike on a budget, and some of the other factors that come into play when considering the interplay between machine and human engine over the long haul. The big questions are still rolling resistance, aerodynamics, preparation, and nutrition, but other factors we like to call “mise en place” are still important.
If you think “I’m not fast, this doesn’t apply to me,” think again. The less power you put out, the more important some of these gains can be. So, cozy up to the screen with a refreshing glass of Trash Juice™, and dig in.
Ring, ring, ring, ring, ring, ring, ring… Morgan and Andrew on their 410 km ride in 2009.
Hi, I’m Andrew
I’ve been into long distance riding since 2009. That June, Morgan and I rode our first very long rides together on three consecutive Tuesdays. Morgan was working two part-time jobs and I was doing my Master’s degree and we both happened to have some free weekdays. The first week we rode 220 km, then 320 km, and culminated with a 410 km ride. I was hooked.
While Morgan diverged from distance and got into ‘cross racing before falling headlong into mountain biking in the years after those rides (Morgan is quite the bicycle generalist), I joined the BC Randonneurs club and began a years-long process of trying things out and learning from both my own mistakes, and the wisdom of more experienced riders.
I have around ten years of Super Randonneur medals for completing 200, 300, 400, and 600 km brevets in a single season, and have in the past few years focused on a sub-24 hour 600k as my season’s goal. I’ve done six or seven of those now as well. I’ve spent years perfecting the build on my Rawland Nordavinden – a skinny-tubed, low trail, 700c frame with a rando bag up front. It’s been through a lot of iterations as I tried various things that didn’t quite work how I wanted, and scraped together money to try other things.
Because it takes years for me to hone in on an ideal setup, I was hesitant to fully commit to riding the Fairlight on event day, despite knowing it could be quick. While the review Secan was nicely appointed, I couldn’t simply put my tires on it and go for a sub-24 600. When Morgan finally pushed me to swap my trusted 32mm GP5000s and my favorite saddle onto the bike, I began a new journey building the Secan.
Easy Wins and Marginal Gains
The title of this story intentionally implies that making your bike setup significantly more efficient is often simple, while chasing marginal gains can be more costly. The marginal gains philosophy might be about squeezing every last drop of efficiency from your setup, but there’s no reason to do that if you haven’t first addressed your easy wins.
When we speak of marginal gains, much of the conversation these days is driven by the excellent podcast of the same name produced by Silca. Morgan and I are big fans of the deep nerdery on the Marginal Gains podcast, and particularly of their critical approach to costly upgrades.
While chasing marginal gains can be an expensive hobby, the real ethos of the podcast is to make smart choices and be critical of your setups. When you’re doing long rides, the easy wins and marginal gains can indeed add up to minutes and hours, no matter what your experience level is.
The most important thing to consider, though, is that throwing money at your setup might not be necessary: a lot of the biggest improvements are relatively very simple and cheap, when considering making changes to your setup over time.
Variety Is The Spice
Before looking to my annual goal of completing a sub-24 hour 600 km brevet, I took the Fairlight on a few shorter events to dial things in: two wet season 200s around Vancouver, and a 360 km gravel flèche on Vancouver Island in April. In order to properly commit to the bike I needed my power meter for road training, but also spent a lot of time messing around on singletrack on Burnaby Mountain.
The bike handled this wide variety of conditions with panache and aplomb. This is mostly due to its ability to fit a very wide range of tires from skinny 700c road tires to rough rugged 27.5 mountain bike tires. I did road brevets with my 32mm Continental GP5000 S TRs, the flèche with Panaracer Gravel King SK 43s on the same wheelset, and swapped wheels for trail rides on the Teravail Rutlands in Morgan’s review.
The flexibility of this bike with tire size makes it a pretty amazing implementation of the Crosscheck “do it all bike” dream. I had so much fun on big tires in the quiet of the woods, gradually learning to clean formerly unbikeable obstacles. On the GKSK 43s, the bike was totally sublime. And on my fave 32s, the Secan sings underneath me.
Tubeless: A Not-So-Marginal Gain
I did prefer tubeless setups in every case, from 2.1″ to roadie 32mms. It’s worth some watts but mostly is just more reliable. Particularly on the road, the majority of my flat tires riding tubes have been in the category of “stupid flats” – just a staple, pinch or tiny shard of glass. Tubeless and sealant cuts out stupid flats completely: since taking it on three years ago I haven’t had a single flat during brevet season. Every time your tubeless setup just works, which is most of the time, you get to save ten minutes on your brevet, often without even knowing it.
Of course, you do hear about tubeless horror stories, but I’m not going back. Beyond the necessary plug kit, I keep my tools in an old sock which I plan on using to mop out sealant if things ever go completely wrong. I still bring a couple of tubes and even a spare tire on big remote brevets. But so far, in three years of steady road tubeless riding on GP5000s, I haven’t had to use a tire lever on the road.
If you listen to an Ask Josh Anything episode of Marginal Gains, you’ll absolutely run into long discussions on chain wax – they jokingly call the podcast Marginal Chains – and on tire efficiency. Tire efficiency is essentially two parts: tire pressure, and the structure of the tire itself – for which you can use Bicycle Rolling Resistance Dot Com to compare tires.
I won’t try to get too far into the explanation of why, but the general consensus regarding tire pressure versus efficiency is that you’re better to err on the side of too little, than too much. Using the Silca tire pressure calculator I’ve landed on 58 psi in my front 32mm GP5000 and 60 in the rear. These numbers would have been unheard of in this tire size only a few years ago, and certainly benefit from the move to tubeless.
The rolling resistance of nice tires is not so important to worry about before your current tires wear out, but worth considering when you need to replace them. At 11.1 watts per tire, you’ll find the GP5000 S TR at the top of the heap for efficiency in BRR’s tests of 32mm+ tires. This is around 4.5 watts per tire faster than the 38mm Gravel King slicks Morgan rode on this bike, and around 9 watts per tire faster than the Gravel King SKs that I sometimes use.
9 watts for two tires may not be a lot, but 9 watts doubled is getting into the territory of not-marginal any more. Particularly for riders putting out less power, and who might be pushing 100-150 watts at their all day pace, 20 watts will make a difference to how you feel at the end of a ride.
And yet, from the point of view of someone who is not riding at an elite level and who is doing a lot of bigger things wrong, it’s wise to make sure you get the cheaper and more effective things sorted out before dorking out on these smaller details. 10–20 watts lost to slow tires (or too much pressure) isn’t great, but there are bigger gains to be found in other places. An immediate example is body position, which starts out with the saddle.
Get a Bike Fit
For many years riding on flat ground was what I was worst at. This didn’t really make sense because I am big and heavy, but climbing seemed to be where I was at my best. The issue was bad back pain that made it hard to put down power while seated for any length of time, even with a +6º stem and lots of spacers as I had at the time.
Through a comprehensive fit session with Ed at Mighty Riders in Vancouver (who Morgan has also worked with over the years), he let me know in short order that my back position was way off. I had a nasty kink down at the bottom of my spine that was exactly where it hurt. Ed told me that the real issue was how my hips sat on the saddle, yet finding my one-and-only didn’t happen overnight.
I fooled around for years with positions and different saddles, and actually remember crying myself to sleep from pudendal nerve damage after one 600. But eventually I found the one: the Selle SMP Drakon. The funky looking Drakon cradles my pelvic bowl in an oddly comfortable way, letting my pelvis roll forward so that my spine gets into a no-kink position I can sustain all day while generating power.
For me, figuring out position stuff was key to transitioning from the flats being my worst thing, to their being my super power. For my specific body type, as long as I can keep myself physically in the correct position, getting through flat windy sections without burning a lot of watts is very much the thing I’m best at.
I think unscientifically that sorting this out was good for around 50 watts of added sustainable power on long rides. This is not marginal, and also unscientifically it’s about five times more significant than the gain you get from installing GP5000s instead of Paselas. I think that this is somewhere around the inflection point between marginal gains, and easy wins.
The saddle is on an FSA carbon straight post, and moved pretty far forward to work with the aerobars. It’s far enough forward to be arguably in between a road and TT position, which is actually fine for two reasons. First, the GRX levers have quite forgiving, pinky-friendly ergonomics when holding the very front of the hoods; and second, having the aerobars to rest my elbows on also helps offset the added weight up front, which prevents any numb fingers.
Narrow is Aero
The bike is set up with an FSA Adventure bar in what they label a 40 cm, but compared to other brands it measures more like a 38. I smushed the levers together to around 35 cm wide, because I hate having my elbows out in the wind. I became obsessed with getting my elbows closer together when I realized it’s a far easier way to shave area off your “aero silhouette” than lowering stack. There’s just more square centimeters to lose on either side of this rectangle, and getting your elbows in has fewer ergonomic implications than lowering stack.
That said, I have chased low stack since getting my hips and spine sorted. The bars are on a 110mm -17º stem without any spacers. It’s been a journey to get here from starting out years ago with +6º stems on lots of spacers. I am just really keen on fitting my big engine into as small a shape as possible, and I’ve personally found that there was no downside to my getting really low. For me and my specific body type, it’s just free speed.
As a person of some stature (80 kilos or so) I can’t hope to be a truly fast climber, but getting very small in the wind while continuing to put out large person power has been something I have been able to make a lot of progress on.
More Free Speed
The aerobars on this bike are Ritchey Slivers. Unlike normal aerobars that cross over top of the handlebars, they are set up so that they “T” straight out, on the same level. This makes the stack ultra-low, which suits my specific body type. They also have really minimal pads that don’t bump your legs when you stand up, at the cost of being somewhat less comfy.
Getting set up with aerobars a few years back was probably the biggest infusion of free speed I’ve gotten from installing a specific bike part. Silca reckons they’re good for around 40 watts at pro-racer speeds, and I honestly think they’ve been good for over an hour faster times on a 600. In other words, this is very much an easy win and not a marginal gain. As mentioned above, they also solve a lot of nagging ergonomic issues that result from resting all day on your hands’ karate chop areas.
In any cycling discipline where aerobars are allowed, very much including randonneuring, and for any cyclist who is dithering about buying gear to get faster, I think they’re something you should just get before beginning to worry about anything else. The “CdA per dollar” of getting this specific equipment set up is absurd. All the other usual aero options—aero frame, aero wheels, etc—are much more expensive, and offer gains that are much less significant.
Ergonomics and Shifting
The levers on this bike are the GRX mechanical shifting / hydro braking levers that Fairlight sent us with the bike. My main bike for years has had Simplex friction shifters, but in my time with this bike I have come to enjoy clickin’. I do find on huge rides that my wrist gets tired of twisting the levers inward, particularly for upshifting the front derailleur. In this respect, and in the specific context of randonneuring, it’s worse than a simple downtube lever ergonomically.
For this reason and because of the possibility of adding blips to the aerobars, I would not mind trying electronic shifting eventually. Other than this issue, the ergonomics of these levers is just fantastic, miles ahead of anything else I have used, including the gutted 10 speed Campy on my Simplexed rando bike. The GRX hoods are really well shaped and feel great to hold onto for a long day and night.
For over ten years I have been an enthusiastic boxy front bag user, specifically an Acorn rando bag on my Nordavinden. I came to appreciate the ability of this style of bag to swallow random cargo without having to put any thought into it. For just riding around this is generally nice, and for randonneuring when you are being quite hard on yourself mentally and physically, it’s actually a form of self care not to have to think hard about how to put something away.
So it took me a while to warm up to a nüevo-rando setup based on bikepacking bags. I initially found it harder to stay organized, more fiddly to get at stuff, and found it was missing capacity to easily hold bulkier items. This was made even harder after installing aerobars and sending the handlebars to #slamsterdam (though aerobars don’t really get along with box bags either), because I no longer had enough space to have a handlebar bag without obscuring the front lights.
The key to fixing this was my old 6L Porcelain Rocket seat bag. It takes over the “big random thing holder” role of a boxy bag. Day to day it’s good for weird one off loads that are too bulky for zippered luggage. For brevets it takes my “advanced” tools (spare tubes, tire levers, tire boots, CO2, chain links etc) right at the bottom, then clothes for the night and bad weather on top, in what I hope is an order that leaves the stuff needed first on top. I do somewhat miss being able to get in while rolling, but on a huge hard ride a boxy bag can get jumbled anyway, and you might have to stop to look for something complicated.
Mise En Place
I have gotten really big on “mise en place,” a term that people in the restaurant industry use to mean “keep ur shit in good array.” During huge physical output, keeping your luggage organized goes along with keeping it together mentally and physically. This is another big, easy win that’s much more important than anything discussed under the heading of marginal gains. Getting it right versus falling apart can mean being hours faster on a big ride.
At first I didn’t understand how to keep mise en place with bikepacking luggage, but I’m happy to say I feel like I get it now. The “sideways column” of a frame bag is actually easier in some ways for me to keep organized than a big rectangle, because it has such a definite front, middle and back. The Straight Cut Design frame bag has a divider on the left side and zippers on both sides. The left flat pocket is for my rando paperwork, phone, wallet, multi tool and tubeless tire stabber. The right, 3D pocket is almost exclusively for food and lots of it.
On that topic. It may be disgusting for the reader to contemplate, but: like a bunch of other ultracyclists who were on the internet in 2023, I started drinking white sugar mixed with water as “nutrition.” We affectionately call it Trash Juice™. It sounds completely horrible but it really works. I’ve had no difficulty going 24-plus hours with it as a primary food source. Compared to Ensure, the more classical choice of debased randonneurs, white sugar avoids the ecological bummer and mess of all those discarded empty bottles.
Also it’s way cheaper, it’s easier to find, it’s lighter weight, and in bike bottles it’s easier to chug because it requires only one hand. Finally, in my opinion it actually works a little better than Ensure as fuel. I think that Skratch and other fancier preparations are probably significantly better for performance; but they are also around 20 times more expensive and nowhere near as widely available.
So the frame bag has white sugar re-ups (200 gram / one cup / 775 calorie doses) in upcycled Costco ziplock sachets. Dumped into a 750 mL bottle, each of these is enough to go around 100 km; the frame bag can easily swallow five of these with added room for real food snacks to help stay topped up and cheerful. So, that’s all your food for a 600 with no drop bag required.
In any case I always like to load up with as many calories as possible so that I can avoid gas station stops and the unpredictable time that they add to rides. Every stop you can cut is around ten minutes saved, and that’s a non-marginal gain.
The top tube bag, also from Straight Cut Design, holds a USB battery for my GPS, sunscreen, drugz and loose gummy bears… generally little stuff that’s needed while riding and that would tend to overwhelm the organization of the frame bag. The bag has a divider that I use to keep gummies clear of other stuff, but which is also cleverly adjustable for width. This is a fantastic detail that lets me keep it clear of my knees. There is a port out front for the USB charging cable that forms a little cloth labyrinth; it works perfectly when it’s needed, and it’s invisible and prevents stuff falling through when it’s not getting used.
Jersey pockets handle smallish clothes as they come off and on… gloves, arm warmers, vest; anything too big for that requires stopping to open the seat bag. Using jersey pockets like this isn’t as big a pain in the ass as I feared coming from a rando bag. As a fun little bonus, according to Silca’s wind tunnel testing with Dylan Johnson, keeping stuff in your back pockets is actually worth a few watts. Actually, I was chuffed to find out that the frame and seat bag setup probably makes a bike more aerodynamic than no bags at all.
Ride Smarter, Not Harder
In my opinion aerobars are the first piece of equipment someone who wants to go faster should get, but structured training is even more important than that; it’s the first thing that people looking for more speed should do, period. Being on any kind of structured program whatsoever is very much better than just riding around.
There is lots of literature out there for free these days; I like Dylan Johnson on YouTube and the Empirical Cycling Podcast, but any structured program is going to beat the Eddy Merckx “ride lots” philosophy for those of us who are not superhuman. I made significant gains a few years back by simply wearing a heart rate monitor and stopping chasing Strava segments on my commutes.
And while you can do structured training with just a heart rate monitor, a power meter really helps keep you focused in addition to dialing in your rate of perceived exertion. A really important insight that I figured out for myself after getting a power meter going is that I was riding extremely inefficiently. The natural way cyclists tend to approach rides is to hammer hills way too hard, and take flats and downhills way too easy.
This style of riding is very common, in my opinion due to background facts about our psychology. It’s just how people tend to want to ride bikes: we get impatient on steep grades, and lazy in the flats. But, particularly for solo riders, riding in this “natural” way is also a lot slower than riding with even power output throughout a ride. What tends to happen is, hammering all those hills in the first half of the ride causes the rider to shatter. That’s how it was for me.
After some extremely ill-advised 400-plus watt efforts early on in a ride, I would finish going slow on everything, and especially the flats where I would have had a great chance to make time. And I could spend hours of extra time sitting on the curb at gas stations feeling terrible. Just not doing that is another easy win that cuts hours off your brevet times, and in my opinion increases the amount of cycling enjoyment relative to suffering.
Gearing and Crank Length
The GRX 800 175mm double cranks that came with the bike were totally nice, but my knees like shorter cranks, and I really need a power meter. So I have my mismatched power meter cranks on there. These are 170mm Shimano Ultegra cranks, a Shimano 6750 “HR Giger era” right crank with a 6800 Stages power meter left arm. They have a Bikingreen 46-30 pair of rings on, which don’t shift as well as the Shimano rings but do get a bit lower gear and fit onto 5 bolt 110 BCD cranks.
In general I still don’t feel like the gears on this bike are low enough. On really evil steep gravel pitches in the 30/34 bottom gear, I often find myself grinding at 30 rpm. On the other hand, they aren’t high enough at the top end either. I do find myself spinning out the 46/11 top gear. Maybe triples will come back!
Hidden Benefits of Chain Waxing
The bike’s chain is a regular old Dura Ace 11 speed lubed with Silca hot wax. Wax is a famous “marginal gain” supposedly good for more watts; I like it more because it really enhances mise en place / overall bike cleanliness. I think that drivetrain gunk is at least 80 percent of what makes a bike disgusting and wax simply makes that disappear. It’s magic. I remember dropping my chain on a 300 km brevet, way up high on an awful dirt road up to a ski hill, and just popping it back on by hand. My hand came off the chain completely clean, and that really helped keep me focused on my ride and not get frustrated.
There are mild marginal gains to be had from keeping one’s drivetrain clean, and wax really helps with that. Simply put, it’s much less sticky than traditional lube, so it plus any grime comes off with hot water only. Getting the entire drivetrain crispy fresh after that requires only dropping the chain into a pot of wax, and cleaning everything else up with a wet cloth. The chain has a gold KMC quick link because Shimano’s quick links are not supposed to be reuseable and it does have to come off the bike to get re-waxed. The gold is just because I think it’s fun.
Yes Gadgets, But Also, No Gadgets
I’ve really taken to my Wahoo Elemnt Bolt for navigation, in addition to giving me data to plan and manage effort. Our local rando club publishes gpx tracks for all routes and using the Bolt to navigate has boosted my speed on brevets, simply by cutting out most of my blown turns. Missing a turn or having to stop and dither can suck up a lot of time and momentum.
The Bolt is absolutely not perfect, and has died on a couple of huge rides. So, despite relying on the GPS for directions, I always have a paper cue sheet to fall back on, and spend a lot of time before rides nerding out on Google Maps learning the turns. I also use the head unit for my power meter and heart rate monitor. These are indispensable for training and really useful for keeping output nice and steady on huge rides, although it’s great to know how to fall back on perceived effort if it dies.
In general perceived effort does work fine; but it’s subtler to read, requires more wisdom and interpretation, and correspondingly introduces more room for error. Learning to use a power meter and heart rate monitor helps you gain wisdom around perceived effort. In a Bluetooth Murphy’s Law situation, both of these crapped out early on into my first 600 this year, and I was able to pull through on perceived effort and still hit my sub-24 goal.
Finally, while the big efforts of a season stand out, most of my annual mileage is boring training rides, and for those, I love my Spurcycle bell. I use it all the time because my area has so many river dikes with a lot of walkers. I just don’t like riding a bike without a bell because it makes it exhausting to get around pedestrians politely – something we should be doing as much as possible.
So as I just mentioned, I did manage to squeak in a sub-24 hour 600 on the Fairlight this past season. This was the BC Randos Whidbey Whander that snakes around Whidbey Island in Washington State. It’s a hilly, breezy coastal route that also happens to be astonishingly beautiful and full of surprises. After losing both power and heart rate data I just had to use “the force”, aka perceived effort plus monitoring my overall average speed, to maintain a reasonable pace all day and night. This was an ultra-fun bike ride and a peak experience.
I also completed a not remotely sub-24 hour 600 in the fall. This route – from Vancouver up the Fraser Canyon to Lillooet, over the mountains to Pemberton and Whistler, and back down the Sea to Sky to Vancouver – is something I had been dreaming of riding for many years. It falls into a new category of extra-difficult “Rando 10000” 600s that the Audax Club Parisien recently established, since it has over 8000 metres of climbing. I rode with a small group of friendly riders from the Vancouver and Seattle rando clubs. We stayed at a hotel and stopped a lot, and getting over the entire route felt surprisingly mellow.
So what have we here? A comfy and quite fast ultra-distance bike, that’s what – built up with the goal of not leaving any easy wins on the table, while grabbing as many of the more marginal gains as I can reach with my own limited time, budget, and knowledge. It’s definitely not in its final form, and I do have some ideas. In randonneuring it’s always possible to get something wrong, then try to do better next time. That’s part of the fun and I look forward to lots more of it on this fantastic bike.
See more at Fairlight.