Thursday, November 4, 2010

I Wouldn't Start From Here

Yesterday was another tube strike, the third in recent months. Of course it doesn't bother me at all, except that my Mrs, MCMLXX, wanted to cycle too and asked me to ride with her to Westminster. That's a bit out of my way and leaves me tackling Hyde Park Corner to get to my own work. Which is niiice.

Anyway, the good news is that she liked it so much that she cycled in again this morning. What's more, we parted at Waterloo and she did the last leg by herself. We'll meet again at nursery at Waterloo this evening. Another convert? Let's hope so.

The next challenge, mind, will be to get her cycling with MMVII on board. That's a story for another day.

In the meantime I want to share with you this terrific road sign which you come across if you drive or cycle north to Oxford Street from Grosvenor Square:

Looks normal? Well, now look closer:

That's right, bitches. No left turn. No right turn. And the road ahead is a dead end. You should not be here. Mwuhahaha!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Back Pedalling into the 21st Century!

I didn't buy the Velorbis. My plan was instead to find a decent bike shop locally and slowly upgrade the old Windsor Trail - although finding such a shop was proving easier said than done.

But then this came up:

Ridgeback Avenida 8D

Brand new it's a £700 bike but I got mine second hand - and, more importantly, from a neighbour who got it trade price himself - so I paid a LOT less. It's only about 6 months old and feels brand new.

So is the 21st century bike all that? Well the spec is pretty close to what I said was ideal: hub gears, a fairly upright riding position, low maintenance brakes, a kickstand and so on. Let's go through it bit by bit.


The Avenida has 8 speed hub gears which are gorgeous to use, with a quickfire push button gearchange. The range of gears is really wide. Start off in 2nd or 3rd and keep 1st for really steep hills as it's too low on the flat. I have very occasionally made it into 8th but it's too high for London really. And seemingly endless gearchanges in between; as many as anyone could need. I remember a 10-speed racer being the height of sophistication in the 70s, and a couple of those were usually redundant, so this is about the same - but in a trouble-free hub.

It's a bit odd, though, having that derailleur-style chain tensioner hanging down. What's the point of that? Especially as it stops me having a fully enclosed chain. Well, the Shimano site for the Alfine component set answers that question: "running a chain tensioner allows the use of an internally geared hub in a bicycle frame designed for use with derailleurs". Ahh... so that's what they mean by 'hybrid'.

It's interesting actually that it rather changes your riding style after a 3-speeder. You don't need to change the speed of your legs very much at all; you can just keep plugging away at a comfortable rhythym and change gear to suit the road. This in turn means you can be pretty fast without overstressing your knees. I'm certainly saving 5-10 minutes on my 45 minute commute. My thighs know about it, mind; which means it's great exercise but gentler on the knees.


Perhaps I'll get used to it but at the moment this is not working for me. It's described as a 'comfort' saddle but it's neither a Brooks-style leather saddle (which will wear in) nor luxuriously upholstered. First I'm going to try getting used to it; maybe change the angle slightly, too. But I may end up swapping the saddle for my existing black gel one. Visually it should suit the bike quite well; and the brown one would probably suit the old bike which is dark green.

Another feature of this bike is the seatpost suspension. I'm not entirely convinced by that either. It seems to be fully compressed when I sit on it - well, I am a big lad - so I don't really notice it smoothing out the ride much. Also when you stop at a red light and stand up for a second, instead of taking the weight off, the saddle rises, follows you and basically nuzzles up into your bum. Which is a bit disconcerting to say the least!

But perhaps there is a preload adjustment I can change to make it work better for the, er, larger gentleman.

Frame and riding position

It's a shame it apparently wasn't designed for hub gears, but apart from that the frame is lovely. It's made from aluminium and is certainly much lighter to pick up - so long as you don't have a child on board! The previous owner had it set up with quite low handlebars for a more racy riding position, but the stem is adjustable so I've raised the bars right up and back to get pretty close to a vertical riding position. Very flexible, and works a treat.

The sidestand is fine too. But I'm not sure about the 'anatomical' handlebar grips; feels a bit weird and cuts off the blood circulation in my palm. But perhaps I'm just putting too much weight on them because of the uncomfortable saddle. Time will tell with this one.

Lights and locks

This is where it again varies a bit from my dream spec. There is no built in wheel lock, which means I have to use the shackle lock when dropping MMVII off at nursery (yes, another Leco seat was the first thing I bought!). That's mildly less convenient, but probably safer.

And there's no dynamo, which was rapidly becoming a priority what with the nights fair drawin' in. Instead - and alongside a tougher lock! - I've ordered some rechargeable lights, with a tiny Li-Ion battery and a USB cable to charge them. I'll report on those in the coming weeks.


What a difference! The hub gears on my old bike were never very powerful, so I've gone from one extreme to another. These are not hub brakes as in my dream spec, but flipping disc brakes on a bicycle! The actuation is a miniaturised hydraulic system, with an oil reservoir on the handlebars and tiny pipes the size of a normal bicycle brake cable. I am speechless with admiration. They're extraordinary, and very powerful. In fact the levers are deliberately designed to only take 2 or 3 fingers, as a fistful of brake would definitely have you locking up a wheel or flying over the bars.

I don't yet know how they will be in the wet; but I might find out tomorrow.

Overall it's a really nice ride, and saving me time, so I'm very happy


Thursday, October 7, 2010


People often ask me about the child seat I use for my daughter MMVII.

Your bog standard child seat is a huge plastic structure on the back like this:

But how are you supposed to talk to them? Or keep an eye on them if they're playing up? And of course they spend the whole journey with your sweaty bum front and centre. Niiiice.

Those sort of thoughts led me to the idea of a front-mounted seat. These seem to be a fairly new development, but I like the idea because you can talk to your child, and they can see out the front. In the event of an accident, your arms are already round them. It all made sense, so for a long time I was going to go for a Weeride:

I like the idea of the sleeping platform, so it was definitely part of my master plan when I first bought a bike. But then I saw one of these:

It's a top tube seat from a company called Leco. I first saw it on a bike parked outside a trendy Bloomsbury bike shop (Bikefix on Lambs Conduit Street). It didn't have the backrest, so it was just this neat little extra saddle sprouting out of the top tube, like Zaphod Beeblebrox's second head. The neatness and minimalism of the thing appealed to me immediately.

Is it enough? Don't you really need a big plastic armchair? Well I think it depends on your child - and your attitude. MMVII was already at the stage where she was physically capable of sitting on the saddle; and I've always been pretty good at coaxing her into trying things that are slightly adventurous (often by just outwardly being confident and making out it's perfectly ordinary, while in reality hovering and watching like a hawk). Given that she's inside my arms, I don't see how a plastic chair could add much on the safety front. And the killer point for me is that it's so much more like actually riding a bike herself: she's sitting on a saddle and holding the handlebars. She even has her own bike horn, shaped liked Tinky Winky.

Another point in the Leco's favour is that it's extremely good value at just £20. Amazon did the honours. It all seems a bit daunting when you first get it out of the box: there's lots of steel brackets and bits, but try putting them together and they do all make sense. In fact it's quite simple. There's a clamp to go round the top tube - actually several different sized clamps to fit all sorts of bikes - with a bit of rubber inside to grip. On top of that is a standard saddle mount and the little saddle itself.

Then there's another clamp with a footbar, which goes on the lower frame tube (higher up it than you think, but probably not as high as in this picture!). Just make sure you've got the right size clamps for your bike, use your child to measure it all up, then bolt it all on as tight as you can.

Talking of which, there is one problem. The nuts that come with it are special 'locking' ones that contain some sort of sticky substance. Clearly they're designed to be done up once and then the stickiness helps hold them tight. Mine weren't quite right when I first did them, and now I've adjusted them they won't stay tight. I'm going to have to get new bolts. Ho hum.

It also comes with the backrest and the strap, and I did include them when I put it together. But to be honest - given MMVII isn't likely to fall asleep or try to climb off in transit - I'm not entirely sure what good they do. If anything that backrest seems likely to hurt one or the other of us in the event of an accident. So next time I'm spannering it might well go for a Burton.

MMVII totally loves it. We commute to nursery on it, and at the weekend, no matter what mood she's in, the offer of a ride on Daddy's bike is guaranteed to cheer her up. And therefore Daddy, too.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Free Cycle

My bike has now officially paid for itself. Since I bought it I've saved over three hundred quid on Tube tickets, which easily covers the cost of the bike (£80 second hand off eBay) plus all the bits and bobs like locks, saddles, panniers and servicing - and even little MMVII's child seat (a Leco, which is worth a blog entry in itself).

So the obvious thought crossed my mind... does that mean I'm allowed a new bike then? Now don't get me wrong, my bike's pretty good in many ways, but it is a bit old and creaky. For example, while I don't think I need 24 gears to cross Waterloo Bridge, only having 3 does make it hard work for an old duffer sometimes. The dynamo is truly terrible. The back brake ain't all that. And so on.

My ideal bike would still be a Dutch-style 'Town Bike' - I do regularly use all the features, even the built in lock. Just maybe slightly better all round than I have at present. So let me fantasise a bit... I want:

  • A good strong frame with absolutely no sporting pretensions whatsoever
  • For riding comfort, the largest frame I can actually get astride (in my case that's about 21")
  • Also for comfort: traditional large wheels - 26" or maybe even 28"
  • Full mudguards - and I quite like the look of those 'coat guards'
  • A men's (high) or unisex (medium) top tube to bolt MMVII's saddle to
  • High swept-back handlebars for a proper sit-up-and-beg riding position
  • Comfortable saddle (I hear good things about Brooks leather saddles, once you've worn them in)
  • Built in rear wheel lock - ideally also with an extending cable. Great while dropping MMVII off at nursery
  • Hub gears still, but more than 3. They come with up to 14 gears now, which is getting a bit unnecessary I think: 5 to 8 would be plenty.
  • I'd also love a 'coaster' brake at the back, where you pedal backwards to slow down
  • A hub brake at the front as well - plus a built in hub dynamo
  • LED dynamo lights with capacitor 'stand' light, so they stay on even when you're stopped at a junction
  • A kickstand
  • A proper traditional bell - or possibly even a horn
  • Fully enclosed chain guard (why on earth would you leave oily mechanical bits like that exposed to the weather?)
  • Rear carrier, ideally with luggage which doesn't look like a bike pannier
  • Maybe a front carrier too
I genuinely drew up the above list before I stumbled across this, which - apart from the chain not being completely enclosed - is pretty much perfect:

Yum. It's a Velorbis Churchill Classic 21", it's Danish designed, German made, and it costs about 6 months' worth of not going on the Tube. Tempting! Darling MCMLXX, can I get one if I PROMISE to keep riding it through the winter...?

Friday, August 13, 2010


After spending quite a lot of time cycling behind other people, I’ve concluded that there are three distinct categories of jiggle:

The No Jiggle
The hard-bodied lycra brigade do not have an ounce of fat on them, so when they go over a bump... absolutely nothing happens. This is mildly upsetting. They should get out less.

The Full Body Jiggle
Conversely, people like me who are cycling ‘to get back in trim’ (i.e. fat buggers) have a very visible response to a bump or pothole. Firstly minor tremors radiate out from the epicentre. Then there is the Full Body Jiggle: while most of the body follows the movement of the bicycle, large soft bits round the middle follow a couple of seconds behind. This looks slightly amazing actually, as if suspension were involved - but also mildly upsetting, mainly because I know that’s what other people see when I go over a bump.

The Just A Little Jiggle
I’ve only ever really noticed this on women. It’s.. um.. very nice. Do you mind if I follow you down this cobbled street?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

I Hate Cyclists

Well I don't, obviously. But there does seem to be a lot of angst and prejudice out there on the mean streets. Cyclists ride on pavements and jump red lights. Drivers cut people up and endanger those more vulnerable. Pedestrians wander into the road without thinking. Taxi drivers hate cyclists. Cyclists hate pedestrians. Actually cyclists often seem to hate other cyclists too.

I am a motorist, a cyclist and obviously a pedestrian. I get it every way.

So may I humbly present a few Top Tips:

- You do not have a right to jump red lights.
- No, nor is it your duty to do so.
- Covent Garden is not part of the Tour De France.
- Lycra is rarely flattering; especially if your shorts have built-in haemorrhoids.

- Do look before wandering out into the road. One day it'll be an electric lorry that you didn't hear.
- Quick question: why cross the road THERE when there's a zebra crossing RIGHT THERE?

Taxi Drivers:
- Not all cyclists are actively evil, you know.
- That stick thing next to your steering wheel operates some orange flashing lights; do try to remember what they're for.
- Those taxis must be terribly unreliable; you always seem to be breaking down - often on double yellow or red lines. Awfully embarrassing for you. If this happens to you, do remember to let everyone know, so we can sympathise. It's that red triangular button. No, that one. See the pretty lights? There you go.

Bus Drivers:
- Actually you're pretty saintly on the whole, aren't you? Thanks guys.
- Although do remember to let people on with buggies.

To be serious for a second, what you do observe is that it's crucial that everybody knows the rules and follows them. Everybody - car drivers, lorries, buses, bikes, pedestrians. When people bend and break the rules - so they're in places and moving in directions that other people weren't expecting - that's when it gets dangerous.

And I don't care where you're going, unless you're already in an ambulance it's simply not worth pushing it to get anywhere a minute sooner.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Cycling Nirvana

We've just got back from a weekend in Bruges and what a difference! The infrastructure and attitude are there and everyone cycles - and it's brilliant.

Of course Bruges is quite compact, and full of gnarly little cobbled streets. But there's no ban on cars. No need. They've not really discouraged cars, they've just encouraged bikes with:
  • Cycle paths galore - many dedicated to bikes and not just the edge of a road
  • Somewhere to park your bike (and nowhere to park your car)
and most importantly:
  • People drive and walk with an expectation that there might be a bike coming round any corner
It's a different world, really. Cycling is just part of life: the obvious way to get to the shops. And it's interesting to note that the vast majority of the bikes are not pseudo-sports machines - no "mountain" bikes, very few "racing" bikes. Almost all of them are what you might call "Town Bikes" like mine: a comfy saddle; raised handlebars; road tyres; often hub gears and brakes; some sort of luggage. Dutch-style, I suppose. A bike to go to work on and buy some dinner on the way home. No lycra to be seen - and very few helmets.

The benefits are enormous. Clean, quiet and less crowded. Somehow it feels more friendly and cooperative - more egalitarian. No question it's what we need in London.

And the girls have great legs.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Daddy There's A Car Beside Me

Within a minute of collecting my daughter MMVII from nursery on the bike for the first time, we were sitting at the traffic lights and a car pulled up alongside. "Daddy?" she said. "Look. There's a car beside me."

I do worry about taking her out in London traffic. But of course I think yes it is a good idea. I'm giving her a healthier Dad. I'm giving her some road sense. I'm helping bequeath her generation a slightly less polluted, fucked up environment. It's also the quickest way between home and nursery, it's better quality time together than on the tube - and she enjoys it.

Safety-wise, I think I'm doing everything that's possible - short of not cycling - to keep her safe. We both wear helmets, I've got plenty of lights, my new pannier bag is bright fluorescent yellow, and I've got a pretty good route worked out now. By myself I might be a bit more adventurous - need to be, with Covent Garden and Soho to negotiate - but for her part of the journey, between Bermondsey and Waterloo East, it's almost entirely quiet back roads. TfL's Central London cycling map was useful, and pointed out some tricks and alleys I hadn't thought of, so we're in a pretty good place right now.

And when they've QUITE finished with the whole Blackfriars Station business, it'll be even better.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Justified And Ancient

The first week I did two days commuting by bike, and took four days off.

Last week I cycled Wednesday to Friday, and was very pleased with myself for not having been on the tube for a week. But yesterday I was still pretty achy and complainy, so MCMLXX (Mrs MCMLXVII) suggested I leave it another day. Actually there's a lovely mathematical symmetry to that suggestion, in terms of building up my tolerance:

Week 1 - 2 days on, 4 off
Week 2 - 3 days on, 3 off
Week 3 - 4 days on, 2 off
Week 4 - 5 days on....?

Okay, so TOMORROW then. Yes. Just don't ask why my weeks have six days. Shh.

Yay! My Dad sent me a new saddle for my birthday. Thanks Dad! Despite what I was saying last week about sticking with the same saddle, in the end I actually went for the same brand (Selle seems to be a perfectly reasonable mid-market brand) but a slightly slimmer one than the original - and it's gender-specific, supposed to be better for one's gentleman's area. Let's see what difference that makes.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The (Back) Passage Of Time

It’s funny how time takes its toll. Having nothing but time, of course, it does it very slowly: a wobble here, a creak there, an ache somewhere else.. over the years it all adds up. You don’t really notice each one, but all them pigeon pies come home to roost when you try to do something you used to do as a matter of course twenty years ago.

So by Friday last week - after a mere twenty miles over two days - my arse really knew about me being Back Pedalling. Because I’m not fit I rest my weight on my saddle much more than a regular cyclist would, putting unaccustomed pressure on soft and sensitive parts. Combined with aching thigh muscles, that’s a definite Ooh. But I had a long four day weekend with no cycling, and by the end of it all that was just a memory. It’s now Thursday daytime, so I’ve done fifteen miles this week and, do you know, I think I’m toughening up already? Not perfect - still a little tender here and there - but definite progress.

So if you go for a ride for the first time in years, and it hurts like hell, don’t give up. You will get over it.

As it happens I need a new saddle anyway, as the Selle Royal saddle that came with the bike is leaking “Royal Gel”. Yuk. So I’ve looked into it a bit and from what I’ve read on the web, it’s very much horses for courses: a saddle that suits one person might be torture for another. I’m pretty happy with the one I have so I’ll probably just swap like for like.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The First Revolution

It's been brewing for a year or two, this idea of getting back on a bike.

Back In The Day (tm), I used to cycle everywhere. In the mid 80s I'd think nothing of cycling 10+ miles to visit a girlfriend, storming up the only decent hill in East Anglia. I was fit, slim, long haired and slightly sweaty - and wearing indecently tight jeans.

Life has changed a little since then. I'm over forty now, and the jeans are again a bit tight - but not necessarily by design. So how's a London Dad who thinks running machines are for guinea pigs to combat middle-age spread? Given my cycling history, given it's about 5 miles to work, and given that the route goes straight past my daughter's nursery school, it was obvious really; it's just taken a while to build up to it.

This week is the start of the revolution. I haven't been on the Tube since Tuesday. Yesterday I cycled to work and on the way home, for the first time, I picked up little MMVII from nursery on the bike. I've bolted a little saddle to the top tube and she loves riding on it. We went home along the South Bank of the Thames, dodging pedestrians and elephants and saying WHEEE!

So if I keep this up, in no time I should be slim, fit and sexy like it's 1985, yeah? Yeah, I'll let you know how that works out. In the meantime I'll blog about bikes, bits, cyclists, CO2, White Van Man, freewheeling through Piccadilly Circus at dusk, whether it's right to take small children on bikes in busy traffic - and, of course, regular updates on the state of my knees...