Saturday, 29 December 2012

Just for the sake of it

I use my bike a lot for commuting but, as the days are so short at the moment and weekends busy, don't manage to get out recreationally as often as I'd like to.

I have a load of time off work this Christmas and, although I have tried to be disciplined, inevitably the festive season comes with overindulgence of one sort or another.  And so for a couple of days post-Christmas, I have been promising myself a spin out on my bike.  Unfortunately the weather in the UK is pretty foul at the moment with high winds and continual rain pretty much every day.

Yesterday however, necessity got the better of my laziness/weakness and so I put on my cycling gear and went out for a ride.

Yes, it was wet.

Yes, it was windy.

Yes, I had a brilliant time!

I rode with pretty much no plan and certainly without timing myself, just a nice relaxed ride out to de-stress and burn off a few calories.  I found that although the weather was rough, it wasn't that bad and at least half of the time, the high winds were behind me pushing me a long.  Even when riding into a headwind, I dropped down a gear and pedaled in relaxed acceptance that nothing I was able to do would alter the weather.  This philosophical approach worked wonders and, once again, shows how much of a mental game it is we play.

It's not about the speed, the distance or the timer at all.  It's just about being out there, enjoying ourselves on whatever kind of bike we chose to ride.  Taking time to enjoy our surroundings and, as the poet said "to stand and stare".  I even saw quite a few other cyclists riding a variety of machinery.  Sure, I got a couple of "What do you hope to achieve riding that thing?" looks from the more "roadie" cyclists but in general I think there was just a mutual admiration for being out on our bikes in such inclement weather.

By coincidence I saw via Kent Peterson and Davey Oil on Twitter this link to Davey's own blog.  It pretty much sums up how we should think about cycling during the times when it all seems stacked against us.

To crown it all, when I got back my youngest demanded a few laps of the block together as well. Now that she can ride by herself, it's lovely to be able to just pedal alongside, even for the shortest of rides. And that pink Raleigh single-speed is an awesome little fixed-gear just waiting to happen!

The weather does not look set to improve here and with a dead car, I have no choice but to use my bike for shopping trips and other errands.  I'm not in the least bit bothered though, in fact I'm looking forward to the next excuse to get out and pedal.

And if an excuse doesn't present itself, I'll make one up and go out again just for the sake of it.

Life is good even if the weather isn't.

Friday, 28 December 2012

La voiture est tombe en panne*

*Well it is a French car, after all.

Some of you may remember that earlier in the year I got rid of my old car, thereby reducing us to a single car family. In all that time, we have managed perfectly well and there have only been a couple of occasions when the use of careful planning or clever logistics have been required to work around a situation.

The family car we have left is one of those large Citroen MPV "People Carriers".  It's only six years old, extremely versatile and with a small-ish diesel engine, pretty economical too.  It is also however very electronic and correspondingly complex and bug-prone.  In general I can forgive the latter characteristics on account of the former.

Last Saturday night, we were all on the way back from a Christmas Pantomime when just about every warning light came on and the car became very sluggish and unresponsive.  Having no breakdown cover (which has been on my list of "things to pay for" for several months) we managed to limp home and consult Google.  Apparently it seems, many modern cars have a "limp mode" whereby they operate but at reduced speed in the event of a control-related problem.  All indications were that this was what was wrong with the Citroen and so yesterday, once local businesses opened after Christmas, I took it to a garage.  An initial reset to clear any spurious alarms (and congenital electronic glitches to which these cars are prone) did not work and so the mechanic undertook a more detailed assessment...

Long story short, the turbo is completely shot.  I'm an experienced mechanical engineer and having now seen the rotor rattling around in the turbo housing, there can't be a bearing left in it anywhere!  As bitter experience has made me come to expect, it is not a simple job to repair either.  A bulletin from Citroen (shown to me by the mechanic) list all of the other parts which have to be checked and/or replaced in order that they will honour a warranty on the new turbo.  Turbo failure is a common problem on this range of engines it would appear.  Why are cars so unreliable these days or at least not simply fixable in the way they used to be?

Anyway, the upshot of all of this is a bill which will be between £1,200 and £1,800 and the car off the road until the New Year.  I was wondering what to do with all of that spare money I had left after Christmas as well...

So we are, somewhat involuntarily and in the short-term, a completely car-free family.  Always one to try and find a scrap of positivity in catastrophe, it will at least be an interesting experiment. We live in a rural village a couple of miles from a small town, three from the nearest large supermarket and four from a larger town to which we can get a bus.  I expect to be running quite a few errands on my Dahon, which is no great chore and will help to work off any excess calories stuffed in during the Christmas period.

And so the experiment begins.  Wish me luck and I'll keep you posted!

Friday, 21 December 2012

If all Christmas shopping was this easy...

Smugly, smugly past the endless queues of cars I cycle as they sweat and curse and struggle to park. A half hour Christmas shop on my bike (including coffee) would have been over an hour had I gone by car.

Online present reservations and folding bicycles FTW!

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Veni Vidi Visa*

* With apologies to Latin speakers everywhere, "I came, I saw, I shopped."

On Saturday, I needed to get a little bit of shopping and pop some books back to the library.  To be honest, even as a regular cycle commuter, I would normally have hopped in the car but this week, fancied a change for the better.  Recent inspiration from a few blogs I've found via Twitter had a hand in the decision I’m sure, in fact I really ought to do a roll of honour at some point!

Anyway, with the decision to cycle made, I emptied out my rucksack (except for puncture repair items and a lock) and headed out on the Dahon.
Firstly, it was lovely to be out pedalling in the daylight for a change!  Most of my riding these days tends to be done in the dark or, at best dawn or dusk so broad daylight was a welcome break from the norm.  Saturday was one of those bright and clear, but cold winter days which I find so nice for cycling as it takes that much longer to heat up and get sweaty. 
Over all I probably covered about 7 miles on the round trip to the small town near where I live (dropping in the library book en route) and then out to Morrisons and back.  I could have used the smaller supermarket in town but (a) it’s more expensive and (b) I wanted to ride a bit further than that! 
And so, a short and pleasant ride later, I parked up outside Morrisons and got on with the shopping.  Like any large supermarket, it was exceptionally busy on a Saturday afternoon.  I however did not have to join the queue of cars crawling around looking for an empty parking space, I cycled straight up the shop and locked my bike to the rack without hindrance.  Another win for cycling over driving.  Smug? Moi?
After filling a basket with what I had come to buy, I paid at the checkout and loaded the groceries straight into my rucksack.  It’s a Lowe Alpine bag I have had for quite a few years and have used for all sorts from overnight trips, skiing, days out walking and more recently cycle commuting to and from work.  It is a very reliable bit of kit - not a specialist cycling rucksack but it holds stuff comfortably on my back so I can't ask for more than that really.  In total it has a 35l capacity but compression straps at each side allow it to be, well err, compressed I suppose if I don’t need the full volume.  It is water resistant enough to keep out a shower and usually anything important (clothes, phone, laptop etc.) get packed in plastic bags anyway.  With the compression straps loosened, it swallowed the shopping with ease. 
Hefting the bag up onto my shoulders, I knew that it was much heavier than it usually is fully-laden (which is about 7kg) but given the nature of some of my items (a large bottle of Pepsi and four cans of beer among other things) that was not entirely surprising.  Sometimes, you just have to grin and bear it for the greater good.  Furthermore, although heavy, it was not intolerably so and I cycled home without problem or incident.  Total fuel cost – nil.
As an afterthought, I had a bit of a weigh-in when I got back to the house and found that the full rucksack weighed 11.5kg.  As I said there were some bulky items but also enough food for Saturday dinner, drinks and popcorn for Saturday night plus Sunday breakfast and lunch.  Knowing the scale of the weight I had just lugged made me feel like I had earned those beers all the more.  “Hobgoblin” from Wychwood Brewery, if anyone’s interested.  Delicious.
And like any good cycling blogger, I was penning this piece in my head on the way back from the supermarket and so had the uncharacteristic presence of mind to take a few pictures:

My rucksack fully laden on the kitchen floor.  The orange hi-viz thing is a small viz vest folded
and held in place by the elastic straps on the back of the bag.  It's there to make me a bit more
visible when the rucksack is obscuring whatever bright clothing I have on.

And the goods laid out on the work surface.  The beer went down a treat and I could just
do with another right now.  Sadly, they all got drunk on the weekend.

We often have to pop out for a few bits from the shops – often fewer items than I had been to get on Saturday.  It just goes to show that cycling is definitely a sensible and practical alternative to a short hop in the car.  With so many journeys under five miles (according to the oft-touted statistics) I think that more people should cycle for small shopping trips.  Yes, my rucksack was pretty heavy but had I used panniers the load on my shoulders would have been much less.  Or had I used both panniers and the rucksack, I could have carried much more shopping.  All on a folding bike.  I’ll be doing it much more.  Maybe I’ll get really committed and buy one of those extra-long shopping bikes like this one or even a Dutch-style “Bakfiets” cargo bike with a huge front bucket.  A guy I follow on Twitter has even built his own - the details are here.  A fine bit of engineering indeed and a very useful bike.  I could probably haul a whole week’s shopping in one of those!
It’s really easy to talk ourselves off the bike and back into the car, especially with things like short shopping trips, where driving has been our default for so long.  However, as with many things in cycling (rain, wind, hills etc.) the reality is always much easier than we imagine it will be.
For me, another small part of my life just became car-free.  A happy feeling indeed. 

Friday, 14 December 2012

Ding ding

One of the first things I did when I bought my Dahon was to remove the unsightly (in my view) bell and reflectors. In my uneducated opinion, they were things of childhood, fitted only to satisfy some draconian EU type-approval law.

Then I watched that "War on Britain's Roads" documentary last week. Much has been posted about it on the Internet, including by me. However, one part which stuck with me vividly was where a cyclist riding along a footpath (or dual use path - it wasn't clear which) collided with a pedestrian who stepped out in front of him.

It was hard to say who was at fault. Both were heading in the same direction and as the cyclist moved to overtake the pedestrian and her friend, she suddenly stepped out across the path and was hit by the bike. The cyclist had no chance if avoiding her but she had absolutely no idea that he was approaching either.

It made me think about my own commute and the number of times I have to pass pedestrians and other cyclists on dual use paths. I do try to be considerate and make my way past safely, but most of the time they have no inkling that you are behind until you're close enough to touch them.

And so the other day, I refitted my small bell.

I have to say it has made a difference. I'm now able to alert others to my presence when overtaking or approaching a blind corner (as I have to a couple of times on my usual route). No one has yet taken offence either, although a polite "ting ting" followed by a cheery "Thank you!" are not really aggressive actions. I use my bell a lot now and it does make me wonder how close I came to an incident before I had it.

I doubt that when the "Project Fixie" road bike is complete (in about 2021 at the current rate of progress) it will have a bell as it for a different purpose than my Dahon. I'd say for commuting though that a bell is essential kit and I'll be keeping mine in place.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Winter working rides

In the days when I used to run a lot (before persistent injury put an end to it) I always used to struggle with the first bit of the run. Basically, the bit that involves getting out of the front door and taking the first few steps.

It's sometimes the same with cycling, although once I have the first few pedal strokes, behind me everything clicks into place and cycling feels great once again.

It's been damn cold over here in the UK recently. OK not Northern USA or Canada cold, but cold enough all the same! Cold enough, for instance, that my rear brake cable has frozen solid a couple of times. I must have got some water in there somehow, but however it happened, when you try to brake at a junction only to find your lever frozen solid, it's a buttock-clenching moment. I freed it up with some hot water applied to the outside of the cable and then a liberal dose of WD40, but it's a new malfunction on me, that's for sure!

I digress.

I had a client meeting across town today so rather than borrowing a company car (the choice of the masses), I took my bike. I did get a few funny looks (and more than one sarcastic comment) but again, once the first few pedal strokes were out of the way I knew it was the right decision.

One big plus in the cold is that you can really press on without working up too much of a sweat. Before long I was whizzing along sucking in great lungfuls of cold air and blasting the pedals round. The miles just disappeared beneath my wheels.

In high spirits, I took a minor detour to see what the city's largest park looked like and I wasn't at all disappointed. Have a look at the pictures below and you'll see what I mean. When your working day includes time out on a bike in bright sunshine and in a place as lovely as that, life is pretty good really.

And when you reach your journey's end with a tingling face, warming your hands around a mug of tea, there is no doubt at all that cycling is the right choice and the world seems a damn fine place all round.

Well worth those first few pedal strokes, I'd say.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Mileage, winter and plans for the future

Last week was a big week for me, mileage-wise.Train cancellations meant that I elected to cycle the whole route home twice, resulting in a total for the week of 132 miles.This is not huge by some standards – it is only a small part of a single randonneuring event – but compared to where I was at this point last year (barely riding a bike ever) I feel a real sense of achievement.  The long and short of it is that I have now topped 2,500 miles on my Dahon and over 3,000 miles for the year!  I've also managed to insert a text box on the right hand tool-bar so "Mileage to Date" can sit at the top of the blog! 

It is testament to the effect of regular, short to medium mileage rides that I felt absolutely fine at the end of the week too.Todd Fahrner of Clever Cycles in the US also observed as much in
this article.He tackled a 700 mile ride down the US West coast on a Brompton with only commuting mileage as “training”.It’s a very inspiring and well-written piece which is worth a read. It is also fine testament to the capability of my Dahon Vitesse D3HG that these high mileages were as easy on a folding bike as on my 21-speed hybrid.Yes, on those small wheels and yes, with only three gears!*

On longer rides, my thoughts often turn to future cycling plans and high on that list is to do some longer distance things on my Dahon.To that end, I have been looking at some cyclo-sportive events in the spring with distances of 40, 60 and 100+ miles.I love the thought of rocking up on my “shopping bike” and going the distance with the lycra-clad, middle aged, Bradley Wiggins wannabes.Maybe not quite as quickly, but equally as far.But then again, you never know.One of my favourite inspirational articles is
this one by Kent Peterson who rode the 1999 Paris-Brest-Paris (in all of its 1200km glory) on a Bike Friday folding bike!And in a damn good time too – an awesome achievement!**Thusly inspired, there is a small part of me that is starting to believe that Lands End to John O’Groats on the Dahon is a practical possibility…

The mornings round here are bitterly cold (by British standards at least) at the moment.So cold in fact that my back brake froze up this morning!I tried to pull the brakes at a junction and found the rear lever to be solid – totally immovable!I had stripped, cleaned and lubricated the calipers on the weekend so I knew that they were mechanically fine.A quick exploratory wiggle showed that the capiers were indeed mving as they should, just not the lever.Once I reached the train station I was able to free it all up - there must have been some moisture in the cable which had then frozen.I will dose it liberally with WD40 this evening – that stuff sorts any sticky mechanism out.

I also went shopping on the weekend and bought a nice hi-viz cycling jacket and winter gloves (both bargains from Decathlon) Even so, with the temperatures as low as they were this morning, it takes a little while to warm up and some bits never quite do!However, I know that when I get round to riding longer events, these hard winter miles will pay back dividends in terms of physical and mental development.

As the saying goes, “The soft iron thinks itself harshly treated in the heat of the forge.The tempered steel blade looks back and knows differently.”

*To answer the two most commonly asked questions from non-folding bike riders!

** Incidentally, Kent’s write up of his
2005 Tour Divide race (on a single-speed, rigid MTB!) is also an excellent and inspiring read.

Dr Alex Moulton CBE 1920 - 2012

On 9th December 2012, Dr Alex Moulton CBE passed away peacefully aged 92.  Dr Moulton was a British engineer and inventor who spend his career pioneering innovative suspension products and small-wheeled folding bicycles. 

I once had the privilege of meeting Dr Moulton when he visited a factory where I worked as an engineer.  We manufactured the conical rubber spring for the Mini and “Hydragas” suspension unit used in the Metro and MG-F, both of which were developed by Dr Moulton.

He had come to discuss the possibility of producing some new development samples of the Hydragas product and so I spent a fascinating and very enjoyable hour or two in discussion with a legend of British engineering.     He struck me as a very well-spoken, energetic and bright engineer with a real passion for the products he had developed.  The typical British inventor, if you will – right down to the tweed jacket!  Given that he must have been in his eighties at the time, his youthful energy and the sharpness of his mind were incredible.  That he was still developing products and innovating at a time in life when most people sit with their feet up, is a real tribute to the man.

I wish I had been a fan of folding bicycles back then as I would not have wasted the opportunity to discuss them with him!

There is also a short tribute to Dr Moulton on the Moulton Bicycles website here.  I hope that his products can go on inspiring future generations of engineers.  British engineering has lost one of its finest sons and my own thoughts and prayers are with his family at this time.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

War on Britain's Roads

Like a lot of cyclists last night I watched "War on Britain's Roads" on the BBC.  Having read some of the grumbling complaints prior to it airing, I wasn't going to bother but then figured I'd rather be part of the informed debate than stick my head in the sand.

For those that didn't have the pleasure, it was supposed to be an hour-long documentary showing the relationship between cyclists and other road users in UK cities (mainly London).  I say supposed to be because it was actually like an hour long cycling version of "Police, Camera, Action" for bicycles.

Bluntly, I thought it was overly sensationalist and concentrated mainly on footage of incidents and accidents.  Car drivers ranting at cyclists, cyclists ranting at car drivers and a ridiculous "Alley Cat" race through the Capital. 

It did not (as far as I could see):
  • Explain why more people are using their bikes to commute
  • Explain why it is a really good idea for people to get out of cars and onto a bike
  • Suggest what could be done to improve the situation (in particular the patchy cycling infrastructure in the UK)
  • Highlight very much considerate use of the road by cyclists or motorists
There was one person on their whose story could really have been used to made a difference.  The lady who lost her 26 year old daughter to a collision between her bike and a cement mixer.  I genuinely felt for her but any learning points the documentary made from the tragedy were thin. 

A lot of the footage was dedicated to "exciting" confrontations between cyclists and other road users.  It was hard to say whose side the documentary was on as both were made to seem as bad as one another at times.  Sure we've all shouted in alarm when someone's pulled out on us but to follow it up to the degree that one particular cyclist did is asking for trouble.  If he hasn't had his head kicked in by now it is a minor miracle.  Motorists who drive like idiots are idiots. Cyclists that ride like idiots are idiots and give us all a bad name.

I was actually left feeling genuinely dismayed for the state of cycling in our cities.  I am blessed that my commute is not usually so busy, although it has its own unique issues.  It would be easy (on either side of the discussion) to have watched "War on Britain's Roads" and feel considerably more animosity towards the other party than you might have beforehand.  When they had the opportunity to make a situation better, I feel the documentary makers passed it by.  It was tabloid-esque voyeurism from start to finish.

And as for those of us getting angrier on the roads? 

Fighting fire with fire just makes a bigger fire.  How many times do we need to be taught that consideration for our fellow man and peaceful means better resolve conflicts.  Jesus said it, St Paul said it, Gandhi said it, Martin Luther King said it... the list goes on.  One day we'll actually listen, wise up and change our behaviour.  One day.

I can't help feel that there is something deeper going on here.  The "Me first!" and "Now, now, now!" pressures of modern life mean that many of us are carrying around a lot of pent up stress and anger.  Inevitably it is finding an outlet where it is felt worst - on the roads.  I'm sure that even if we all cycled, there would be instances of "cycle-rage" but as cardio exercise is proven to reduce stress, I doubt that it would be as bad.

To attempt, in my own limited way, to address the issue, I made a conscious effort to be observant and considerate in my cycling this morning.  A smile and a thumb up was given to anyone who let me pull out or even just didn't pull out on me at an island.  I even refitted my bell, the better to alert pedestrians on the shared pavement sections.       

A better infrastructure isn't going to happen overnight so we need to keep campaigning.  Car drivers aren't going to change over night so we still need to keep our eyes peeled and ride carefully. 

And above all, we all need to chill-out, get along and share the road considerately.

Peace and love.

On another note, this video has nothing whatsoever to do with the article, it was just the song I had on the mental iPod on the way to work this morning.  I like Billy Bragg and dislike tabloids.  Two birds with one stone - enjoy:

Monday, 3 December 2012

By the light of the silvery moon

Last night, like almost all nights recently, my commute home was in the dark.

Irritatingly, I had spent the day with my bike folded under my desk watching a perfectly good clear, sunny day come and go outside the office window. To have the two-wheeled antidote to my paperwork-induced boredom so close was a temptation almost too much to resist.

So it was with the disappointment of a sunny day missed that eventually I cycled off in the dark towards the station and home. Despite the traffic, once pedalling, my glum mood brightened pretty quickly.  It's always good to be out on a bike, whatever the weather or time of day.

However for the last few miles, once clear of the town and traffic, the ride became simply magical.  Just me under a clear sky, the moon and all of the stars.  Moonlight so bright that it cast shadows and that amazing silvery light which lets you see for hundreds of yards.  Had I not needed my headlamp to be seen by oncoming cars, it wouldn't have been necessary at all.  The light of the moon was more than enough.

Maybe on nights like this I'll have to switch back to the unlit lanes that I use in the Summer months.  Mile after mile of unlit lane, with very little traffic would be just awesome under a bright moon.

Happy days (and nights!)

Food glorious food

I like food and I like a beer now and again. Nothing wrong with that.

It is however a lifestyle which, if overindulged, will cause a rapid and alarming expansion of the waistline. I have long promised myself that I would not become the out of shape 40 something that populates so many of our workplaces. A belly bulging over trousers is not a good look and health-wise it's a real worry. We are as a population getting fatter though and there's a reason why it is so common a sight.

Before cycling to work, my daily activity consisted of little more than walking to the car, from the car to the office, around the office a little bit and then a reverse of the process to get home again. Most evenings, I'd then crash out on the sofa infront of the TV to recuperate before sleeping and starting the whole thing over again in the morning.  Day after day. Month after month. I started to get fatter and unfit. I did used to work out now and again but arriving home tired does not leave one in the right frame of mind for serious exercise and so it's easy to let it slip.  Excuses I know, but also just a sad fact of modern life.

I've always had a decent appetitie but once I started cycling to work, I got noticably hungrier.  A casual Google revealed that, on average, someone of my build cycling at the speed I do burns off 600 calories in an hour.  I cycle for just under two hours a day and so I now burn an additional 1,000 calories or so every day.  My expanding waistline, and fear of my rising weight, meant that I had not been near the bathroom scales in a while so consequently I have no idea what I weighed in March when I started riding.  There's no doubt though that I've lost fat.  Previously "snug" trousers now have plenty of room around the waist and I'm not nearly so paranoid about wearing slightly tight T shirts any more.  All good really.

However, it does mean that I need to carry food with me to work and try to make sure it's something that will fuel my commuting well.  Being obsessed with carrying as light a load as possible, I tend to try and make sure that my food is pretty light too.  As a result, tins and large containers of liquid are out!  Furthermore, as I work in an office, kitchen facilities are minimal (toaster, kettle and microwave tops) and so anything thast needs cooking also needs careful thinking about. 

Dried noodles are pretty good but I find that heavily flavoured "Pot Noodle" type things end up tasting dreadful after a couple of days of a similar thing.  Oddly, the cheaper supermarket "Value" noodles are not nearly so bad.  Fruit is good fuel and I always try to bring a banana or two with me.  When I'm organised enough to remember to buy some, dried fruit and nut mix is cycling-nutrition gold!  I continually plan (but have yet to organise) a mixture of porridge oats, powdered milk and sugar that I could just pour boiling water on for second breakfast when I get to work.  Both received wisdom and my own experience have shown that a combination of good, high calorie food grazed throughout the day give me the most energy in my legs for the ride home.

But, if push comes to shove, as it frequently does at the end of the month, I'll pack pretty much anything.  Jam, cheese or peanut butter sandwiches are great and also very cheap.  Inevitably though I am ravenous when I get home  and have to try hard not to scoff half a packet of biscuits before dinner is ready.

Despite all of the above detail, I'm not too obsessed with losing weight.  I don't have much of a spare tyre any longer and I suppose all of these hard Winter miles will get rid of a bit more.  Just staying healthy and staying in shape is what matters most to me now, which cycling manages in spades.  Best of all though, with so much exercise in the week, I can eat or drink more or less what I want the rest of the time and it doesn't shoot automatically to my waistline! 

Another beer?  Don't mind if I do! 

Forgot my lock today...

So the Dahon is tucked up in the warm under my desk. There are some things you can only do with a folding bike.