Friday, 30 November 2012

Road or path - a bit of a rant

There are two immutable facts about travelling by bicycle.  Cars don’t want you on the road and pedestrians don’t want you on the footpath.  So what do you do?
The better-lit “Winter Route” (as it has now become known) which I use to commute at the moment follows for the most part one of the Sustrans National Cycle routes.  This can mean one of many things from a dedicated, traffic-free pathway, a spilt level pavement, a cycle lane at the side of the road or a shared pavement.  I’m glad we have the cycle route system as it’s something which many countries cry out for.  It’s not perfect, but it’s much better than nothing and I think Sustrans are doing their best with the hand they are dealt.  I digress…
My route is generally of the shared pavement type.  It is well signposted but that doesn’t stop pedestrians blithely dawdling along in the bike lane (which I note they don’t do in the road).  The pavement (shared or otherwise) also has the disadvantage of plenty of kerbs to bump up and down which, on 20” wheels can be bone-jarring. 
So then there’s the road.  Cars, vans and trucks simply don’t want bikes there at all.  They are so locked into the rush hour race to get to the next static traffic queue as fast as possible (or so it seems), that a cyclist is quite an inconvenience to them.  Incidentally, I found an interesting site the other day explaining that historically, roads were not built for cars.  It is, appropriately enough, at and makes an excellent point.  A point which is sadly lost of my fellow road users, every morning and evening. 
My solution is to use whichever option is the safest and most considerate at the time.  If the road is busy and the pavement not, I’ll use the pavement.  If the pavement is busy, poorly lit or poorly surfaced I’ll use the road.  If there is a clear, well lit and well surfaced cycle path, I thank the Lord for my good fortune and cycle on unimpeded and with a huge grin on my face*.  Sometimes there’s no option and I just have to use whichever route is at hand in the best way that I can.  In other words, I stay switched on and ride to the conditions at hand.  This is something that car-drivers, on commuter auto-pilot, are shockingly bad at doing. 
Ideally, I don’t want my journey to work to be an inconvenience to anyone.  On the contrary, I want to have less of an impact in terms of noise, pollution, congestion and general annoyance to those around me.  However, very little of our transport infrastructure is built around the needs of cyclists.  This is despite the fact that cycling offers a genuine sustainable alternative to most car journeys (which are I believe under 5 miles).  Until the Government wises up to the fact and design roads and towns with cycling in mind, we cyclists are just going to have to keep campaigning, keep our wits about us and ride in the best way we can.
And to end on a lighter (but relevant) note, there’s this sign which I found somewhere on the internet (credit to whoever took the picture – it’s not one of mine):
A valid message!
*Throw in a decent tail wind and I’d die happy there and then. 

Thursday, 29 November 2012

In the moment

A beautiful clear, crisp and very cold morning. A full moon so bright that lights were not necessary (for vision at least) on the lane. Wheels crunching through the thin layer of ice on puddles, ears burning from the cold. I knew I should have worn my skull cap. Sitting on the train now, breathing settled, feeling the glow, thawing fingers with a cup of tea. It's good to commute by bike. It's good to be alive.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Some general randomness

I had a lovely ride into work this morning. One of those rides where everything seems easy, one's mood is positive and the miles fly by. It was in high spirits that I sat at my desk this morning with my usual banana and mug of tea. Even the prospect of an exceptionally dull day at work was not enough to break the spell!

When I used to run a lot, folk talked about the "runners' high" - the rush of feel-good, pain-killing endorphins that comes after exercise. No one really mentions a "cyclists' high" but there is a definite feeling of all being rosy and right with the world after even a short ride.

People pay good money to bad people or need a prescription to feel this good. When all you have to do is get out on your bike and get pedalling, it seems almost too good to be true.

Having used my large-wheeled, multi speed hybrid for a few weeks, I mused as I pedalled this morning some of the main differences between it and my Dahon.

Gear inch calculations show that, on paper, there shouldn't be much difference in speed between the two bikes. In truth, the hybrid is a bit faster and I think this is for a couple of reasons:

Narrower gaps between the gear ratios mean that one can maintain a particular cadence under most conditions by going up or down the gears. That is, after all, why they were invented!

Greater inertia from the larger wheels means that when coasting (or at a more micro level, between power strokes on the pedals) the bike carries itself forward better i.e. it slows less. This seems particularly so when grinding uphill or pushing into the wind.

However, though it may be a bit faster, it's not by a large margin. The minutes saved on my reasonably modest commute don't add up to much and anyway, who's racing? Besides, the lower weight of the Dahon make it much nippier and, well, just more fun to ride!

I have waxed lyrical about gearing a few times before and had planned to mess about with the Dahon's gears some more. However, I recently came across Justin Simoni's website ( He seems like a pretty serious cyclist having ridden the Tour Divide a couple of times (a 2,750 mile monster, unsupported mountain bike race) among other achievements. From his blog, most of his general riding (if you can call a 200 mile, mountainous, ultralight bike-packing trip "general") is done on a sort of single speed bike. Using a flip-flop hub and clever "dingle cog" arrangement he actually has (albeit with some mechanical messing about required) the choice of fixed and free in a few different ratios. What really interested me though, was that Justin's highest gear is set at about 60 gear inches. That's pretty low by geared bike standards and so it must be possible to spin along quite nicely at high speed in a low gear. Justin also wins races on this bike after all.

So it made me rethink. If such things are possible with relatively low gearing, I'm not going to mess with my Dahon's gearing for a while and just spin the pedals faster instead! It is after all supposed to be easier on the knees too.

I think when I'm managing 180 rpm with ease in top gear on the flat, I may have to rethink. But I doubt those days are just around the corner.

Happy spinning everyone!

Monday, 26 November 2012

It's dark out there

With just a month to go until Midwinter, it is very definitely dark out there and my commute in both directions now starts and finishes in pitch blackness.  I'm lucky enough to live in a small village which, although on a reasonable busy road, is a couple of miles out of the nearest town.  The upshot of that is though, that most of my usual and very lovely rural commuting route is completely unlit.

I discovered in short order on my first night ride that my front light, bright though it is, struggles to illuminate much beyond the first two yards of road ahead of my front wheel.  The road surface is not that great in parts either and so, with some regret, I looked for an alternative winter route.

I've found that by taking a different route to the station in the morning, it's only the first couple of miles out of the village that are in pitch darkness.  OK there's more traffic going that way, but a seriously bright, flashy rear light and a high viz jacket mean that I've done as much as I can to be seen.  No close calls yet either so it must be working! 

To be honest, commuting in the dark is not nearly as bad as I thought it might be.  As with riding in the wet (and to a degree, the wind) one's mind tends to make a bigger deal out of the situation than ever transpires to be the case.  Through a sleep-fogged, pre-coffee brain first thing in the morning, getting on the bike in the cold and dark is not often an appealing prospect.  However, after the first few pedal strikes, the world is a brighter place, figuratively if not literally!

To paraphrase something I read recently, it is not what you ride that counts but that you ride at all.  In any conditions, it is preferable to commuting by car.

In other news, I spent some of the weekend mucking about in the garage on the resurrection of my fixed-gear MTB.  It's an old bike that I used to commute on years ago which was converted to fixed-gear knock-around duty when I found this site.  An addiction to fixed gear (and other quirky bikes to be honest - folders being a case in point) was born that, even though I have other bikes, continues to this day.  I have raided it for parts over the years but decided to get it back together for reasons which escape me now.  It's not going to be pretty but will (I hope) be an absolute hoot for bombing around the local lanes and trails in the mucky winter weather.  Bring on a bit of snow is what I say!

Thursday, 22 November 2012

I've been unfaithful...

Dear Dahon Vitesse,

I have a confession. 

While you were left cold and alone in the garage this last month, I have been seeing another bike.  In fact not just seeing but riding her as well.  Sometimes as often as two or three times a day.

It's not my fault.  She enticed me with shiny red paint, promises of 21 gears and a high top speed and I, being but a weak human, was taken in.  Alas her promises were shallow.  Yes, she was faster than you but not nearly so reliable.  I even treated her to a rack, new slimmer tyres and mudguards.  But two broken spokes in as many weeks have shown her to be the needy, high maintenance bike that you never were.  She promised so much but failed to deliver.

So now I look to you my faithful old companion to forgive me and continue to deliver the reliable service that you always did.


Bloke (back on a Folding Bike)

Yes I've been back on my hybrid for a few weeks. 

I can't honestly put my finger on what made me make the switch but it seemed like a good idea at the time.  In truth, it has been a reasonably pleasant few weeks change and there is definitely a benefit in speed and flexibility to having 21 gears.  But a second broken spoke this morning in as many weeks has seen it go back in the garage in favour of the Dahon.  I only suffered spoke breakage once on the folder after a particularly rough ride home.  The hybrid hasn't been over any such terrain though so I think it's just the physical limitations of £250 Halfords bikes showing through.

So this morning I whipped out the Dahon again for the ride to work.  I had forgotten how light it is in comparison to the hybrid - really light and nippy - and I had a really pleaseant ride in.  I'd love to take it on a decent city tour (fantasy bike-ride plan no. 457...) as it would be perfect in and out of traffic.

It was nice and sunny this morning if a little windy, though that headwind will be an awesome tailwind on the way home so no worries there.  Best of all I was treated to a couple of huge queues of cars to cycle past, beating then through the traffic lights with ease.

I am constantly surprised how much faster a bike is than a car in even moderate traffic.  Between work and the railway station (4 miles) there are some decent roads but also several sets of traffic lights and buses etc.  The result is that I can usually get to the station in around the same time as a car that leaves the office when I do, even on the folding bike. 

As another case in point, last night was utter chaos on the rail network.  After a very long delay, the train I needed was eventually cancelled and the single replacement bus was nowhere near big enough to get everyone on.  To burn off my rising frustration, I elected to cycle home the remaining 19 miles.  This decision was vindicated when I passed through a small town about half-way there and passed a couple of people walking who had earlier been waiting at the station with me.  The bus had driven them about 7 or 8 miles in only a little less time than I managed on my bike.  I was enjoying myself anyway by then but that put a large smile on my face!

Cycle commuting for the win!