Wednesday, 1 October 2014

A night in with the spanners

A couple of weeks ago, my much anticipated shiny new drivetrain parts arrived.  Once the younger kids were in bed, and my wife was happily ensconced with the TV and a brew, I set to work on the upgrade.  I’ll apologise in advance for the poor pictures but in my defence:
  1. They were taken on a Blackberry (not usually the mark of quality photography)
  2. I managed to get a greasy smudge on the lens from the outset of the exercise.  This does give the photos a certain “1970’s Top of the Pops Starburst” feeling though, don’t you think?

Shiny new bike parts
I’m very lucky I suppose in that our house came with a built-in bicycle maintenance room.  Unfortunately, until I build an extension to house a separate kitchen, I have to share it with the sink, oven, dishwasher, washing machine and food preparation surfaces.  You can’t have everything.
Would be better without domestic appliances in it!
In a previous post, I mentioned how much my chain had stretched in use and here’s the proof.  Bicycle chains have a pitch of ½ inch so therefore the distance between twenty pins should be ten inches.  You can see from the photo below that the actual distance is more like ten and a quarter.  It may not seem by much but in terms of metal parts which have to mesh together accurately, it’s far too much! 


Without further ado, I set to removing the old chain.  Usually, this is a simple job with a chain-breaker tool and one I’ve done dozens of times before.  However, by inadvertently picking a particularly stiff pin to remove, I managed to break my (less than trusty) chain breaker.  Don’t buy cheap tools kids; it’s just not worth it.  It is also at points like this that you regret starting a job quite so late in the evening, which must be finished by the following morning…

It was all going so well up until this point...
Having no alternative, I consulted the modern cycle-mechanic’s friend – Google.  There I found a brilliant tip which involved using a small punch (I used the one from the snapped chain breaker), a hammer and something to support the back of the chain to drift the pin out manually.  I have to say that, while it was a little fiddly to line everything up to start with, once the pin starts to move, it’s a very useful emergency technique. 

Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.
Following this, I whipped out the back wheel and removed the rear sprocket.  This is a pretty straight forward task which only requires the removal of the single split-ring holding the sprocket in place.  I use a small, flat bladed screwdriver for the job, with caution as I’ve managed to gouge my hand on this job before.  Happily though, the operation was completed this time without medical emergency.  
Inevitably, every job involved a seized bolt or two and I had to work to get out a couple of the chainring bolts.  However, with a bit of gentle encouragement and a splash of WD40, they came undone in the end.  Again, this job would have been simple had I owned the right tool to hold the back of the chainring bolts, but I made do with a steel ruler.  A workable alternative, but somewhat fiddly.
Just out of interest, here are a couple of shots which show the state of my worn sprockets compared to the new ones.

Worn sprockets (front)

Worn sprockets (rear).  Or maybe the contents of a ninja's pocket?
I must now beg forgiveness for the lack of any further photos.  
At this point in proceedings, my hands were so filthy that I didn’t dare try to take any more pictures lest I ruin my Blackberry.  The remainder of the job was completed without major incident.  I had to use the “hammer and drift” method to shorten my new chain to the correct length and did wonder how easy it would be to re-join a chain in this way.  I didn’t get to find out though as the new chain had an innovative kind of split link called a “Missing Link”.  It’s designed to be installed with the chain and then function as a normal link, the same as any other.  It’s not possible to split it again in order to remove the chain (I’ll need a new chain-breaker for that) but may also be a bit stronger.  Given that the only chain I’ve snapped in use broke at the split link, this may not be a bad thing.
And so I now have a smooth new drivetrain on my bike with a slightly increased set of gear ratios.  I’ve had a couple of weeks to get used to the changes but will put in a few more miles before writing up my thoughts.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Gears (again)

I hope you find this interesting, especially if you're of a technical mind.  I make no apology for sleep-induced, keyboard-prints-on-the-forehead if you're not.  Caveat emptor and read on...
One of the first things I noticed about riding my 3 speed Dahon Vitesse was that the standard gearing was WAY too low for normal riding.  I’ve blogged about gear inchery a couple of times (technophobes look away now) here and here.

A little over 18 months ago, after much deliberation I pimped my ride a bit, splashing out on a new  front crank, 46t chainring, chain (as the original one was completely shot) and 16t rear sprocket.  This resulted in a pretty useable set of gears and has been the configuration in which I’ve ridden the subsequent 5,000(!) miles.  The crank, being a proper one, rather than the cheap thing fitted by Dahon, also offered the benefit of enabling me change the chainring on its own in future.

Inevitably though:

  1. Drive components wear out
  2. Being an engineer, the urge to fiddle with gear ratios once again becomes too much to bear

The former circumstance probably reached the point where new parts were required quite some time ago.  My chain is now stretched so severely that getting it to a consistent tension is impossible and as a result, both the chainring (to a lesser degree) and rear sprocket (to an almost comedy degree) are now hooked.  I’ll post up some pictures in due course and you’ll see what I mean. 
SheldonBrown’s outstanding website has a far more detailed explanation of why this happens than I’m going to offer here.  Suffice to say that it’s a combination of lengthy metal on metal wear (which is governed by miles ridden and the laws of physics) and half-arsed maintenance (which is governed by my inherent idleness).

And so I’ve had to part with some hard-ebayed cash in order to buy a new chain and sprockets. 

The straight swap choice of a 16t rear was pretty simple but I’ve elected (after an amount of consideration that marks me out as a deeply sad individual) to up the chainring size to 48t.  The main reason for this is that I tend to spend quite a lot of time in second gear and it now has a tendency to feel slightly too low.  The new gearing will raise second from 57.5 to 60 gear inches.

Inevitably, with only 3 gears on tap, gear choice is a bit of a compromise.  However, 60 inches is also the gearing which I had my single speed MTB for a good while and I always found it to be a nice, multi-purpose ratio.  I know there will be times (tired hills and headwinds) when I’ll be fondly remembering the slightly lower gear two, but it’ll be just that bit better as a gear to spin along in most other times.  Furthermore, first gear has always been way too low – used only for severely steep or tired climbing.  Hopefully, rather than a two-speed bike with a bail out gear (which, effectively, is what I have now) I’ll have three usable gear ratios.

I told you I was sad.

Best of all though, I’m having some shiny new bike parts and that means a couple of hours spent in grimy-fingered, cycle maintenance heaven!  The Royal Mail is (I hope) bringing the components with haste to my letterbox and so I’ll post up a load of pictures when they all arrive and I swap everything over. 

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Tyres - the results are in.

Pretty much a year ago, I posted a summary of my experiences so far with tyres on my Dahon.  The original article is here:

Clickety clickety

At the time I'd taken the opportunity to splash out on a pair of Schwalbe Marathons.  Well last Friday, after 3,250 miles of commuting and leisure riding, I managed to puncture one for the first time!  It was a fairly minor affair too and I managed to cycle the remaining five miles or so to home by stopping and pumping up the tyre a handful of times.  I didn't have to resort to a roadside innertube swap at all.

When I repaired the puncture on the weekend, it turned out to be a very small, but very sharp rusty nail that had managed to get through the tyre.

It would be naive to describe any tyre as "puncture proof" but these must be as puncture resistant as it's possible for a useable tyre to be.  OK so maybe they don't roll as fast as other tyres and maybe they weigh a bit more.  Well, I'm not out to win the TDF on the Dahon and if that extra weight and marginally higher rolling resistance is the price for not having to change an innertube on a freezing, dark winter night then it's no contest in my book.

When I've worn them out (which shows little sign of happening for at least another couple of thousand miles) I'll definitely be replacing them with more of the same.

£50 for several thousand miles of reliable riding?  Value doesn't come much better than that!

Saturday, 28 June 2014


Damn! I knew it had been a while but over six months??

I've been busy but the Dahon is still going strong and I'm putting in between 70 and 120 commuting miles each week.  I did have to replace the front wheel after the rim wore through (!) but after 7,000 miles I don't think it owed me anything...

And a replacement was a princely £25 for the genuine Dahon article.

It also seems that my blog got hacked too - 45 posts advertising cheap, Canadian viagra!

I'll try to keep on top of things a bit more regularly!

Monday, 13 January 2014

There Are Other Rivers

I finished reading a superb little book on the train this morning entitled "There Are Other Rivers" by Alistair Humphreys.

The author is an adventurer and writer who, among other things spent four years cycling around the world after University.  Since then he has been on, and written about, many other adventures - lots of which are described on his website which I mentioned a few months ago. 

This book tells the story of a solo walk across India which Alistair undertook a couple of years ago.  A tough adventure stripped back to the basics and on a very low budget.  It is written in what I found to be a particularly engaging style.  Rather than being a chronological account of "this happened, then this happened and then this happened..." in the way that tales of journeys are often told, "There Are Other Rivers" is a series of snapshots from the trip.  Each describes a day of the adventure, a meeting, an effort, a meal, a campsite, in lovely detail but only in a rough sort of order.  It makes the book very "pick-up-and-put-downable" as there isn't such a thread to lose as such.  Each chapter is a treat to be enjoyed on its own right depending neither on those before it or afterwards.  That said, it kept me hooked to the end.

What I love most about Alistair's writing is that there is never a sense that he's describing something beyond the reach of most mortals.  Sure it is a massive effort to walk across India and the pains are described in infinite detail but the writer is also humble enough to encourage the reader to get out and have adventures of their own.

If you like the outdoor adventure genre of books and want to try something a little different from the norm, give this book a go.  It was very reasonably priced on the Kindle (only a few quid I think) and you really won't regret it.

Inspired by the book, as I left the station and mounted my bike this (uncharacteristically sunny) morning, it was with a head full of half-formed plans for future folding bike adventures.  Some small, some not so and many which may never happen, but some will and that's thanks to encouragement and inspiration from writers like Alistair Humphreys.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Fiddly, fiddly

If there is a fiddlier bike maintenance task than setting cup and cone bearings, I'd like to know!

You get the cone locked on one side nicely but then the other side is too tight, then too loose, then too tight again.  The late Sheldon Brown wasn't wrong likening the task to feeling for the tumblers when cracking a safe! There is an excellent tutorial on his website ( as there is for most aspects of building a bike or keeping one running nicely).

My front wheel bearings started sounding distinctly sorry for themselves on Friday morning.  I managed to shut them up with a squirt of WD40 but that's way too thin to be a decent bearing lube for anything other than an emergency.  I've had to strip and regrease them a couple of times since owning the bike and the last time they still felt a little rough.  I bit the bullet, parted with a few pounds for a new set and fitted them this evening.  Getting the old ones out, cleaning up the hub and spindle and refitting the new ones is easy enough.  It's getting the flipping cups and cones properly adjusted that is the real test.  It took more than a few goes and the usual trial and error, however the job is now done and all seems right with the world.

New bearings fitted and happily adjusted now.

After so many miles on the Dahon, I've got used to the different creaks and squeaks my bike makes when in need of a little TLC. When I first had it I had to spend ages ruling out a creaky hinge! squeaky seat post or dry bearing to get to the root of an issue.  Now, I know what most of them sound like from the first noise.  This is better for the bike as issues get fixed more quickly and better for me as I don't have to get so frustrated any more!  Some of the time at least...

A friend of mine mentioned the phrase "knowing the vibes from your velo" once and it's very apt.  Over time of living with a machine a riding it a lot, you just get to feel when something isn't quite right.  You can feel for instance, through the pedals, a chain that needs oiling long before it is making that dreadful squeak which is the preserve of so many poorly maintained machines.

On that subject, I bought some more chain lube this weekend from my local bike shop.  It seems to be good stuff but has the dodgiest sounding name.  I'll let you make up your own minds but here is is in all it's glory...


Puerile schoolboy humour I know.  Forgive me.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Still here

If I had a pound for every time I'd thought "Must update the bike blog" since the last post, I could probably quit work and cycle commuting altogether.  But then that would be no fun - the office could take a hike but I'd miss the daily bike ride.

So yes, I'm still here and still commuting by bike and train and my trusty Dahon 3- speed is still, well,  trusty.   A recent change of role at work has meant that I tend to spend five days straight at our office now.  Not all the time, but more than I used to have to.  That means that I'm doing the full 115 mile weekly round trip quite often and the miles are really racking up.  I'll do a more detailed tally in the next few days but the Dahon has definitely topped 6,000 miles now.

It is very definitely winter now and while the temperatures have been reasonably mild, the wind hasn't.   Each morning last week I have had the pleasure of a monster headwind to pedal into all the way to work.  The blessing is, of course, that I have had a nice tail wind on the way home each night but the ups don't seem to balance the downs. By Thursday morning this week, my legs were dead and Friday was a real struggle.  I have had a bit of a bad chest this week too, but even so the wind has definitely taken it out of me.

Another winter treat is that I'm commuting both ways in the dark these days.  We have turned the corner this year in that mid-winter has passed and (in theory at least) the days are getting longer.  But it's lights-on morning and night for the moment. That first commute of 2014 in the half-light of dawn can't come quickly enough for me, though it'll be well into February before that happens, I reckon.

Would I swap the relative hardship of cycling for four wheels and a heater?  Absolutely not. Even on the foulest days, there is an unbeatable rush when you finally each the journey's end and sit down with a well-earned mug of tea. Also, although I'm far from an Adonis, I'm in the best physical shape I've been in for many, many years.  The prospect of turning forty in a few weeks and being able to fit comfortably into 32 inch waist jeans is a happy one.  The very, very tight jeans that my wife and kids bought me for Christmas merit a post of their own.  I got them on though and, tight as they were in many places, round my middle wasn't one.

No, I wouldn't go back to regular car commuting now.  The upsides of cycling more than outweigh the downs and if you're wondering whether to try it yourself, don't wait. Just go for it..

More to follow soon (I hope...)

Cheers x