Monday, 28 January 2013

Of broken gear-hubs, snow and fixed-gears

We've had a spot of snow here in the UK over the last week or two. You could tell quite readily in the first day it fell. Not from the white stuff on the floor (though that was a give-away) but from the mile after mile of nose-to-tail traffic on the road.

I managed to get home well enough on day one but as I pulled into our street , my rear wheel started making a truly dreadful noise. It sounded like a handful of loose nuts and bolts in the gear hub. For the next day's snowy commute, I took my fixed gear MTB. I have to say that, although it's a bit of an old dog, it was brilliant in the snow. Excellent grip from the knobbly tyres and much more slow speed control than just coasting and using the brakes.

It took the bike shop just over a week to sort my Dahon under warranty (complete new rear wheel, thanks guys) and so I spent that time commuting by fixed gear.

I have always enjoyed pootling round on the fixie but have never done any serious mileage on it. I really enjoyed the simplicity of the experience though and it has spurred me on to get my old Raleigh 10-speed built up into a decent fixed-gear road bike. It's lovely spinning along in almost silence without a thought for what gear you should be in. Between spinning, standing and heaving and judicious use of the (front and back) brakes on the downhills, I managed with one gear admirably.

Today I have my Dahon back and I am glad to be back on it. I do miss the fixie but I've done so many miles on my folder it all feels very natural.

I also fitted it with a few bits of bling too. Of which, more to follow...

Monday, 14 January 2013

By jove I've finally cracked it (part 2)

Another thing that's been bugging me since I started cycle commuting is damp feet.  I like to cycle in normal walking shoes so that:

  • Walking when off the bike is a comfortable and convenient experience (I have wide feet and like wide shoes!)
  • So that my pedals don't required special shoes every time I ride my bike

I know that a hybrid "SPD one side and flat pedal the other" option is available but they don't fold.  I definitely want folding pedals so that I'm not limiting the usefulness of my bike's key feature.

I have, however found it very hard to find overshoes that are a reasonable price, which fit over my regular shoes and are waterproof.  I don't find that it's the falling rain that's an issue in itself.  Rather, it is the spray from the front wheel on wet roads and through gutters and puddles which really give shoes a soaking.  Even with decent mudguards fitted. 

However, after a lengthy Google and a bit of "out of box" thinking, I found these in (of all places) the Demon Tweeks catalogue.  Well for about 15 quid posted, I thought they had to be worth a go.

Today is the first time I have tried them in anger and I have to say I'm delighted!  I ordered the larger size as my UK 9 (Eur 43) sat pretty much between the two sizes on offer.  They are quite large, maybe a little too large but are light and laughably easy to pull on over my shoes.  OK so they look a little daft but commuting by bike is not a style contest and loads of other people on the train this morning were sporting wellies of one sort or another.  Maybe the smaller size would be snugger and no more difficult to slip on?

They are fine to walk in and I didn't notice any appreciable lack of grip between shoe and pedal.  It's pretty poor in the wet anyway (more to follow on this soon, I hope) but wasn't any worse than usual.

So all looks well on the dry toasty feet front now - I'm a happy chap indeed!

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Mechanical disasters

In previous blog entries I have written at length about the plight of our family car. What I have not yet mentioned is the string of other mechanical failures which have accompanied it in the space of a few weeks.

Some time ago, I broke a second spoke on my hybrid bike. As it's not a bike I use vety much, I have left the repair for "another day" since it happened. Over the Christmas break I finally got around to dropping the wheel in to the bike shop to get it fixed. Note to self: I really must learn how to fit a new spoke!

And so it was, with the hybrid firmly out of action and our car in the garage that I cycled home from work last Friday, full of hope for the weekend ahead.

And then, about four miles from home, I got a puncture.

An encumbrance for sure but not really a big deal because I have "Slime" in both tyres and so I quickly flipped the bike over, pumped and span the tyre to seal the leak and then got back on my merry way. About a quarter of a mile from home, as I was musing what great stuff "Slime" is, I heard a distinct hissing from beneath and felt the unmistakable bumping of a repunctured tyre. Once again I flipped the bike and once again I pumped. This time however the tyre gave up the ghost pronto with an almighty PSSSSHHH and a liberal spray of bright green slime. Even in the dim light from the pub carpark over the road I could see the large split in the tyre side-wall and so, with such a short distance left to travel, I walked and pushed the bike home.

Now I knew all along that Friday would have to be a "rush in, eat and rush out again" kind of evening as I was on the rota to help out at our church youth group. So as I pushed I hatched a plan. I decided to whip the lights off my Dahon and fit them to my one remaining mode of cycle transport - my 90's beater fixed gear MTB. And so feeling like an indefatigable hero, that's exactly what I did.

All was going well until about a mile into my ride to church. I enjoy riding the fixie but don't do it nearly as much as I'd like to. So I kind of get out of the habit of doing certain things. Things like remembering not to try and coast. Especially when standing on the pedals and heaving up a hill.

Long story short, I did just that and got thrown into a mega wobble which pitched me from the bike. I did manage to stay on my feet, but not before knocking both of my lights off, dropping the bike and clanging various parts of my anatomy on it in the process. Ouch.

So there I was, in the middle of a (mercifully quiet) road, in pitch darkness trying to find all of the components of my lights. I did manage to as well, but the clip had snapped off the rear light and the front one only worked when held together by hand. I actually stood there and burst out laughing. After all of the mechanical disasters of recent weeks I felt like something out of a bad comedy sketch! Once (relative) sanity returned, I jammed the rear light between the bungee mesh in my rucksack, and limped along holding the front one together until reaching the better lit sections of road through town.

On my way home later that night, I was much, much more careful about riding the fixie. The bike itself is a tough old thing and remained unscathed but battered body parts are a good teacher for the fixed-gear rider, it would seem.

Bright and early on Saturday I started putting things right. I rang around and ordered a new tyre for the Dahon, to be collected once the car was back in order. I also popped to town on the bus and picked up the newly be-spoked rear wheel for my hybrid. Fitting this was the work of a moment when I got home and so, when a quick trip to the shops was required later on I took the hybrid out for a shakedown. I was significantly dismayed to find that the awful grinding squeak, which is what first made me look at the back end and find the broken spoke, was still there. Mechanical woe after mechanical woe!

What I found after a thorough look and a bit of a Google is that the rear freewheel was completely shot. There is a load of play which feels as though the bearings have gone and an article online where someone cured the same symptoms with a new freewheel. At less than ten quid for a new Shimano one on Ebay it should (hopefully) be a cheap fix!

At the time of writing, we now have the car back, I have collected and installed a new Michelin City tyre on the Dahon and a new freewheel is on order for the hybrid. It is possible, just possible, that by the weekend, my stable if bikes will be fully functional. But based on recent experience I won't hold my breath.

On the plus side it's all good spannering experience!

N.B. Pictures will follow when I can get on the laptop. They are easier to upload and format there than on my iPhone!

Monday, 7 January 2013

Our completely car-free "experiment"

Well firstly a happy New Year to you, dear reader.  I am sorry it's taken so long between updates, but I have been enjoying a lovely relaxing bit of time off over Christmas.

As I mentioned before, our family car (the only one we own) chose the Saturday before Christmas to die.  It turned out to be quite a serious fault that, coupled with Bank Holidays, has taken quite a while to fix.  I hope to be able to collect it tomorrow and so that has meant we have spent over a fortnight truly car-free.

So how have we, a family of two adults and three (5-13 year old) children, managed without a car?  It's the sort of problem that would have most families in a pickle in this car-dependent society.  Indeed the first reaction of a quite a few friends and family members was to offer us the use of an alternative car.  Very kind of them but Mrs Folding-Bike and I agreed to try and go car-free, just to see what happened.

I have to start by saying that, unwelcome huge expense aside, we are pretty lucky that it happened over the Christmas break.  I had planned to have almost two weeks off work anyway and the kids don't go back to school until tomorrow.  So how did we deal with the ordinary stuff for which we usually depend on a car?


The shopping was probably the simplest thing to deal with because larger supermarkets deliver.  It took a bit of planning to make sure that the cupboards were well stocked but we did become aware of the the number of times one of us would just hop in the car and zip out for milk, bread or other essentials.  These trips I covered by going shopping with bike and rucksack and, as I commented previously, it is surprising how many groceries one can fit into a medium-sized pack.  I did find the limit though when picking up some items for my eldest daughter's birthday sleepover - it seems that popcorn, fizzy pop, pizzas, chips and sweets are bulkier than they seem.  In truth, I did throw a small sack of dog food in there as well, for the dog you understand, not the birthday party!  However, I had to resort to removing the boxes from the pizzas in order to get it all to fit.  I am sure that I looked pretty eccentric crouched in ASDA's car-park unpacking pizzas but in a dayglo cycling jacket with my trousers tucked into socks, I cut an odd-looking figure anyway.  I'm used to the looks by now!  And besides, the cardboard is better filling ASDA's recyling bin than mine.

I also used the bike to take my hybrid's rear wheel to the bike shop for (another) spoke repair.  I love my versatile rucksack - I just strapped the wheel on the back of it and cycled to town.  Again, strange looking but who honestly cares?  It got the job done. 

Strangely the wheel makes the rucksack look much smaller than it is.


Everyone likes a party over Christmas and New Year and we had two planned where we needed to travel.  Boxing Day was due to be spent 50 miles away at my parents' and on 30th December we had another large family gathering  to attend.  Our solution in both cases?  To stock the cupboards and bring the party here!  We had a couple of brilliant days welcoming people to our home and putting on the hospitality.  Hopefully a great time was had by all and we didn't have to go anywhere!  We did have to tidy up a bit but the place needed it - again more a blessing than a chore in the long run.

Random half-days out:

During longer school holidays, we'll often just pop out to town or somewhere else for half a day, to kill time as much as anything.  This Christmas break, we just haven't bothered, largely because we couldn't, and it has been lovely.  We've stayed at home and played games, walked to the park together with the dog and generally found cheaper, simpler and more relaxing ways to spend our time. 

Although we live a few miles from the nearest large-ish town, I have never taken the bus to get there.  We have one which comes through the village every hour and takes 15 minutes to get there.  I took my youngest daughter out on Saturday for a "bus to town" adventure as we had a few things to pick up (my repaired wheel among other things).  She had a brilliant time and, I have to confess, so did I!  It cost me £3.10 for a return ticket and the didn't charge for my daughter.  Had I driven it would've cost me at least £1.70 to park and so adding in the cost of a little bit of diesel and the convenience of not having to find a parking space on a Saturday afternoon, I'd say I had a bargain.  OK so we are a little restricted by the once an hour bus schedule, but we coped just fine by not rushing, taking a later bus home and enjoying a chill out together in a coffee shop.  A bit of Father and daughter time is always welcome and if it involves a treat in a cafe, so much the better.

Waiting for the bus home, she seems happy in her work!

The school run:

As it's been a school holiday, this hasn't been an issue.  We only have to get the kids to school tomorrow without the car and a friend has kindly volunteered to collect them.  The experience has made us think about how we could do it without the car though.  The bus goes at a time in the morning that would get my wife to town in time but leave about a mile to walk to Primary School with the younger two.  My eldest starts a little earlier than them at High School but could cycle to a friend's house nearby, freshen up and walk the rest of the way.  It would need a bit of toughening up on their parts but that never hurt anyone, really!  In fact the major concern was from my eldest daughter about appearances in front of her peers rather than the actual physical effort of the cycle.  Tsk, teenagers, eh?

So to sum up, in all honesty, we've managed admirably without a car.  Despite the fact that it's Christmas, there seems to be a little more disposable cash than usual and I guess this is what we would normally have spent on diesel.  It'll have to go in the pot for the huge repair bill we're about to incur but every little helps, I suppose.  We've really felt the generosity of friends too in their offers of help and transport.  Sometimes it takes a bit of a disaster for us to realise just how truly blessed we are.  And we are truly blessed.

When the mechanic told me that the car was going to cost upwards of £1,500 to repair, for a moment, I did wonder whether to bother.  The car is worth quite a bit more than that so I couldn't justify writing it off but just briefly I thought sod it, we'll manage without.

And so we'll go back to being a one-car family tomorrow but hopefully one that will make a few changes.  I hope that we use the car less for those short or unnecessary journeys and cycle more or use the bus.  We have definitely learned that a car, while very useful, is not the must-have item of hardware that we had previously believed. 

I'm sure that, with planning and a bit of ingenuity, even the larger car journeys such as holidays in the summer could be managed by other means.  I'm also certain that, if we did ever decide to go for it, we'd have a fantastic time and would learn a lot through the experience.  Best of all though, now we don't dread the loss of our only car for some reason.  It is a tool to make life more convenient and not life-or-death itself. 

I honestly recommend that we all try and live without our cars, even just for a little bit.  Even those of us who think that we simply can't.  I'm sure that somehow you can.  For the good of the planet, the roads, our wallets and yes, just for the fun of it!