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Vintage vs Modern Fit



A few times, when writing about a vintage bicycle's setup, I have mentioned that it has been configured for a 'modern fit.' Subsequently, I have been asked what that means. Seeing these two bicycles side by side in our yard the other day provided a convenient opportunity to explain. I will preface this by saying that, to experts on the topic - with whom I do not doubt my readership is replete with - my explanation will come across as overly simplified and merely grazing the surface of the subject at hand. But in the interest of those new to the topic and not technically-minded, a discussion needs to start somewhere. And so I'll start mine here.

The two bicycles in the above photo belong to the same rider. Both bicycles fit him. Moreover, despite their dissimilar-looking setups, they fit him similarly - meaning, he is stretched out in a similar way when astride each one. The bicycles achieve this differently: The one on the left stretches the rider out by means of a long top tube. The one on the right does it by means of low handlebars.

If you sit down on a chair and have someone hold an apple just within your reach, this will start to make sense. If they lower the apple, you will have to lean over and reach for it. Now if instead of lowering the apple, they move it slightly further out, you will, likewise, have to lean over and reach for it.

There is a rudimentary geometrical explanation for what I am trying to describe here, but I am going to stay away from abstractions. If you do the reaching for an apple bit, you will start to see how a bicycle can be set up in a variety of ways to achieve similar upper body extension in order to reach the handlebars.

You will also start to see that, just because a bicycle has a metre of seatpost sticking out and a slammed stem, does not necessarily make it an 'aggressive' setup. In fact, depending on the rider's size, it can be quite upright. Similarly, a cyclist riding a bicycle with the saddle and handlebars level can be in a super-aggressive flat-back position.

So why are bicycles today sized down and set up with lots of saddle to handlebar drop, whereas bicycles in the Olden Times (roughly pre-1990) were sized larger, with the handlebars and saddle nearly level?

There are several overlapping explanations, and here is where we get to the more complicated stuff. The move to the modern drivetrain, with its integrated brake/shift levers, resulted in cyclists spending more time on the 'hoods' of their handlebars rather than in the drops. It therefore made sense to lower the entire handlebar setup. Some will argue that the rise in bottom bracket heights over the decades contributed also, as did the changing shape of the bicycle frame as tubing manufacturing practices evolved.

It also goes without saying that there is more to a bicyclist's position than reach alone, and the vintage vs modern setups - combined with a specific frame's geometry - will affect the overall balance and handling of the bike differently. All this is part of a quite multifaceted and sometimes heated discussion, which you can follow on many a bicycle forum.

But also... It cannot be denied, I think, that it's at least partly down to trends - which change for bicycling-related matters just as they do for other aspects of popular culture.

To the eye of today's sporting cyclist, the modern setup simply looks cool - fast, sleek, aggressive. The vintage setup looks quaint, heavy, relaxed.

But trend-based perceptions are not always in line with reality. And let's just say that quite a few of my friends of a Certain Age gently poke fun at the younger road cyclists for being far too upright on their bicycles compared to the 'correct' position. Of course the modern bikes, with their short top tubes and tall head tubes, are to blame.

What constitutes an 'aggressive' setup is subject to cultural/ peer/ marketing influence.

From a practical standpoint, the vintage vs modern fit preference matters, mainly because it determines the frame size we look for in a bicycle. For example, referring again to the photo in this post the bicycle on the left is a 57cm top tube frame, and the bicycle on the right is a 54cm. Put simply: for a vintage fit, you will need a larger frame ...and a polishing cloth for those pretty downtube shifters!


Sure, I Can Hold That Speed. So Why Was That Club Ride So Difficult??



Having been away for a spell, I have lots of email questions built up in my inbox. Here is another one that seemed apt considering we are well on our way to spring.

It is around this time of year that cycling clubs begin their annual schedule of group rides. Depending on the club, these can include anything from paceline training rides to brevet-style social jaunts, endurance rides, and 3-speed meet ups (see also: On Club Rides and Finding the Right One for You). Some hybrid of the formal training ride and the social ride seems like the most common style on offer. Typically, these rides will be divided into several groups, based on ability, with corresponding average speeds posted as a guide (i.e. Beginners' Group: 12mph, Intermediate Group: 15mph; Advanced/Fast Group: 18mph+). This way, cyclists who are considering joining for the first time can decide which group best suits their abilities.

It seems fairly straightforward. After all, most cyclists use computers nowadays, so we have a pretty good idea of what average speeds we are capable of doing. Join the group with the corresponding speed and it should be fine. However, what often happens (and I have experienced this myself!) is that the club ride feels far more difficult than expected, sometimes to the point that the first time out we just can’t hang on.

So… why?

A few readers have asked me this question over the years. And, having pondered the mysteries of this phenomenon myself after several rather humiliating club-ride initiations, here are some things I have noticed...

The Novelty of a Steady Pace
First of all, we all have our individual patterns of energy highs and lows. When we ride alone, we are able to make the best use of them. We speed up when we feel an energy burst, slow and rest when we hit a dip. In the end it averages out. By contrast, the club ride tends to proceed at a steady pace. And this in itself takes some practice. Being unable to take advantage of our natural energy rhythms can feel absolutely exhausting.

Rest Makes a Difference 
By the same token, when we ride alone,  or casually with a couple of friends, we probably also tend to take breaks whenever we feel like it. Tired in the middle of a ride? No worries. We get off the bike, walk around, eat a snack, maybe snap a photo. On club rides, there are usually no breaks (unless it's a super long ride with a lunch stop). A 30 mile training ride usually means 30 miles without stopping - which is a lot more demanding than a 30 mile ride with rest breaks.

What About Terrain?
Considering that terrain plays a role in the average speed we are able to put out, it helps to have a look at the route the club ride will be doing. If the route has more elevation gain than the routes you typically ride, you may not be able to hold your 'usual' average speed.

The Optimistic Self-Assessment   
Repeatedly psychological research shows that on the whole people tend to slightly overestimate their skills, abilities, favourable traits - even physical features such as height! - compared to what they actually are, despite the availability of correct data. It follows that we also tend to be overly optimistic about our average cycling speed - so that even when supplied with concrete evidence, such as cyclo-computer data, we might tend to cherry pick average speeds from our 'best' rides when deciding what speed we are capable of holding on a typical random day. Of course in the course of a club ride, held on a typical random day, the truth comes out!

...And is that a bad thing? Personally I think not, even if it does knock the ole self-esteem down a notch. After all, there is nothing quite like a few shattering club rides to turn one's aspirational average speed into their actual average speed!

On the other hand, structured, performance-oriented club rides really aren't for everyone. There is nothing wrong with going it alone or keeping it casual with a few close friends, sticking to one's natural energy rhythms, and taking plenty of breaks. It is useful to know there is a difference, is all.

I recall the first time I joined a club ride in Ireland. This particular ride was women's only, and it was funny, because the leaflet advertising it read something like 'This is a ladies' ride, not a beginner's ride!' I phoned the ride leader to clarify, and she said I should be comfortable holding 16-17mph. I was feeling good that summer. So I thought, well okay I can do that - especially in a group, where I'll be getting the benefit of drafting.

I lasted maybe two thirds of the ride. In fairness to this group, they didn't drop me; I peeled off voluntarily when we hit the meaty portion of a long climb and I just couldn't take the pace anymore. And as I hobble-pedaled defeatedly home in a stupor, I remember thinking 'Those girls must have gone faster just to mess with me!'

Later I looked over the ride stats on my computer. An average of 16.7mph (not counting my ride home), precisely as promised. They were, after all, ladies of their word.




Rough Ride



I had known the remote mountain road would be battered after the winter. But I did not predict it being this stunningly bad. It was not a matter of having to watch out for potholes. The whole thing was a pothole. More of a ravine than a road. More of a riverbed. As I plummeted, bouncingly, down the mountainside, mud and water sprayed everywhere. Stones slingshot from under my tyres in all directions.

It had been some time since I'd gone on a ride like this. Alone. Far. Wandering the back roads in search of a location the way to which I could only vaguely remember. Last time I had cycled this way, I did not recall there being quite so much climbing - which could only mean I was still pretty weak. My lower back was starting to ache. The wind was picking up and the mist growing heavier. If I didn't find the place in the next half hour, I would need to turn back, unless I wanted to do the return trip in the dark and fog (I did not).

As the headwind showered my face with gravely dust from the road, there was a question I was asking myself - or rather, trying not to ask, which amounts to a more pressing, repetitive asking. Was I enjoying this? And if not, why had I not waited? Another month, even another week, until I grew stronger and the weather improved, before taking on this trip.

But I hadn't waited. And now I was tired and slow, and needed to make a decision. My decision was to descend down a road which I knew was tricky, but would get me off the mountain before dark.

A quarter of the way down, 'tricky' was no longer the fitting word for the terrain I found myself on. 'Tricky' had given way to 'no longer qualifies as a road.' Well, no sense going back now.

It had been a while since I had last done this descent. But somehow my body retained the memory of the sequence of bends coming up. Rather amazingly, I sat through the bounce and jostle calmly, more surprised at the road condition than anything, as I steered away from the more gaping openings in the rough surface, and equally away from the cliff's edge. All the while I tried to take in - and enjoy - the glorious misty views.

At some point during this, I felt my front tyre dislodge a particularly large rock. As my bike bounced sideways before regaining its composure, I saw, from the corner of my eye, the rock flying. It must then have bounced off of something violently, as I then heard a loud clanking noise. Hoping it was not my derailleur, I tested my gears. Luckily, they seemed fine. And so I continued the hideous high-speed bounce down the ravaged lane with no further incident. Two hours later, I was home. And after washing the mud off my face, I fell promptly asleep.



It was not till the following week that I felt up to trying another adventure. I'd begun to feel better by then. And I also started to tell myself, that the earlier trip was not nearly as 'epic' as I'd made it out to be. The road had probably been fine, maybe a pothole or two. I had just been tired, is all, and my mind played tricks, exaggerating every tiny thing I encountered.

After breakfast that morning, I looked over my bike - checking it, as I do before any long ride. I am especially concerned about the wheels; having built them myself I still don't entirely trust them to stay intact. And indeed, this time around I noticed a spoke on my front wheel was loose. In fairness, this has happened to almost every set of wheels I've ridden in Ireland, including factory-built ones. Not a disaster: the spoke gets tightened; the wheel re-trued it need be, loctite applied and afterward all is well.

And so I did just that. And it was not until afterward that I noticed the ...other thing. When I saw it at first I had to force myself to stand up quickly and walk away - far away - from the bike, before I did anything stupid like fling it at the wall in anger. When I finally calmed down and looked at it again, I still had to take deep breaths.

Wow.

Wowwowwow.

So that's what the rock had bounced off of.

I ran my fingers along the dented seat tube, again and again.

After a minute or two it finally sunk in that the dent was there, and would not disappear no matter how much I wanted it to. But whatever mix of emotions I felt initially, dissipated. With a clear head, I checked the frame for other signs of damage. There were none. I put on my shoes, got on the bike, and rode for a couple of hours. The weather was good. The bicycle felt wonderful as ever.

I would not be the first to use cycling as a metaphor for - you know - Life. And this one is so obvious, I almost can't help but chuckle at the sight of that dent. (Almost.)

We go through a rough time, convince ourselves all is fine, that it wasn't that bad really. But when trauma or damage occurs, it will surface afterward, sooner or later. Sooner or later we will notice and have to acknowledge it. And then?

Well, that is up to us, isn't it. Either way, I think noticing is important.



Basket Case: How Do You Secure Your Wicker?


It's a sure sign that spring is on its way and the new bike-buying season has begun, when people start to email me about baskets! Specifically, over the past weeks I've had a few questions about the best method to attach a basket to an upright transport bicycle: Does the basket require a front rack? Some other form of support? Or are the buckle straps that often come with baskets sufficient to hold them up?

And as is often the case, my answer is: 'It depends!' Because really, so much in cycling is context-specific. Speaking broadly, a bicycle will always handle better when a front load is tightly secured and well-supported. And the more performance-oriented a bicycle is, the more important this becomes. So, for instance, on a touring bike on which you ride many miles over mountain passes, do quick winding descents on, lean into corners at speed, etc., absolutely: a front rack is ideal. But is it necessary for the bicycle you will be riding <5 miles to work and back? Allow me to make the bold suggestion, that probably not!



At the same time, I find that the leather (or similar) straps which come with many baskets are suboptimal. First, because no matter how tightly I pull them, the basket will slide side to side, as well as bounce over bumps or potholes. But also because the metal buckles tend to clank against the handlebars and this irritates me to no end!

So in leu of either the front rack or the straps method, I opt for the high-tech and lightweight solution of using cable ties (aka 'zip ties'). Two around the handlebars, and - crucially - one around the headtube, pulled tightly, does the job splendidly. The basket does not bounce or slide, and remains stable even when heavily laden.


Importantly, you want to use thick, industrial strength cable ties for this job, not whispy household-use ones! The latter will easily snap under a weight load; the former are practically unbreakable. You should be able to find them in a hardware shop, commonly in a choice of black or white - and, if you're lucky, sometimes even green.

While of course not as attractive as leather straps, the cable ties, once in place, are actually quite subtle. And if you long for a quainter look, you can always twine them!


The best feature of the ties, is the level of adjustment they allow. Just thread them anywhere through the basket's wicker or wiring, and pull as tightly as you like for a secure, stable fit. And if your container is made of more solid stuff (i.e. wine crate), you can cut, or drill, 4 holes.

It's a pretty effective way to avoid a front rack or other hardware. And on a bicycle used for unaggressive transport cycling, I find that it does the job nicely.



The Cyclist Rest



Here is a local tidbit to brighten your Monday! Every time I post a picture of this pub on social media, it is greeted with such enthusiasm and so many questions, that after passing it again yesterday I vowed to finally write about it here.

The Cyclist Rest is a pub in the village of Fahan, Donegal. Now, some people have tried to find its address and then emailed me when this proved impossible, so allow me to explain: In much of rural Donegal there are no street addresses as such. No postal codes, no house numbers, often the roads don't even have names. So, say you wanted to mail something to the pub? Its official postal address would be simply 'The Cyclist Rest, Fahan, Co. Donegal, Ireland.' And if you wanted to find it physically, you'd need descriptive directions. Luckily, in this case it is pretty easy: From the start of the Inishowen Peninsula at Bridge End, head along the main road toward Buncrana (R238). After about 5 miles, coastal scenery will open up on your left. The pub will be across the road on the right.



I first discovered the Cyclist Rest when my husband and I were cycling home from the Gap of Mamore last summer. We were so out of it, we did not stop ...in fact we both assumed we had hallucinated it! It was only later that I looked up the name online out of curiosity and realised the pub was real. There was not much written about it though, which I thought odd - as surely something like this would be a well-known cyclo-tourist attraction?

In reality though, as I discovered on subsequent visits, the pub is pretty low key and does not have much to do with cycling. The owner, Róisín, was kind enough to explain:

The current owners took over the pub 10 years ago. It was the previous owner, over 4 decades earlier, who had named it The Cyclist Rest, and they simply kept the name. It was a name that, as I understand it, was once not uncommon in Ireland, though today it is pretty rare. As for the name's origin, it  is rather straightforward! The pub is located along a rolling road, and it sits on a rise - so that no matter what direction you're coming from, you are climbing for a couple of miles steady by the time you reach it. Hence: time to have a rest and replenish one's strength with a pint. The name is also apt for anyone doing the popular Inishowen 100 circuit counter-clockwise - which would mean passing the pub on the final leg, after having climbed the Gap of Mamore the 'difficult' way.

But while decades ago this may have been the thing to do for cyclists, nowadays the stretch of road where the pub sits is quite busy and not entirely convenient to stop at. In fact, the pub's owner herself was gracious enough to recommend an alternative destination for my readers: The North Pole Bar (and B&B), outside of Buncrana, which is today a popular local cycling hub.

That said: Should you wish to visit the Cyclist Rest - if only to take the obligatory photo - they will be happy to have you. They even keep emergency biscuits and tea for cyclists who need rescue from the 'bonk.' And, of course, Guinness for strength.


The Reluctant Roadbike Commuter



When I moved to rural Ireland, lots of people said (or wrote) to me some equivalent of: Aha! There’s no way you will continue commuting on an upright step-through bike. Those distances, those hills, those wind speeds? A roadbike will be more efficient and faster.

And they weren’t wrong about those factors posing a challenge for plain-clothed transport cycling, as I had hitherto known it. However, I resisted the switch. Not out of principle. But because for transport, I genuinely feel more comfortable, more relaxed, more at ease, on an upright step-through bicycle - pedaling at moderate speeds, wearing my street clothes and shoes, arriving at my destination refreshed but not bedraggled.

And so, despite the challenges of my new environment, I never changed my ways. And three and a half years later I still mostly commute on upright step-throughs. There are, however, times when even I must concede this is not a suitable option. When my destination, for instance, lies over a mountain and time is of the essence. Or the wind is so strong, that an upright bike would mean traveling at walking speed. Or even when I want to get some exercise and do not have the time to cycle for transport and sport as separate activities.

On those occasions, I do use a roadbike to get around. And while it's not exactly ideal, I try to make the best of it. And as I rarely discuss this particular topic, today I thought I'd share my setup with you here.



Setting up a roadbike for commuting is not in itself a problem, even for a backpack-hater such as myself. As my freelance work involves mostly writing, taking photos, and meeting with people regarding both of those things, in simplest terms I need the bike to carry my laptop and camera. This can be easily achieved by attaching some cycling luggage. The easiest candidate in my stable is Alice, as she is permanently fitted with full mudguards and a front rack.

In commuter mode, I affix onto Alice a handlebar bag, a saddlebag, front and rear lights, and a stainless steel water bottle.

Not so much because of the bags, as because of what is in them, in this state Alice weights at least 30lb, yet remains a fast performance bike - ready to deliver me to and from my destination with minimal struggle.



More complicated is figuring out what to wear for this style of commuting. If I'm planning on meeting with people, or on sitting indoors for any length of time, I cannot arrive in all-out cycling gear. I know there are cyclists who find this doable, and I am genuinely glad it works for them. But for me it's uncomfortable, both physically and mentally, to spend the day in roadcycling apparel. Equally uncomfortable is riding a roadbike in street clothes, especially when distance and hills are involved. In a leaned-over position, jackets and tops start to pull at the seams; waistbands dig into tummy fat. Overall, 'normal' clothing begins to feel too fluttery and bulky to me once a roadbike gets involved.

My compromise outfit aims for a happy medium. I wear padded shorts, with stretchy leggings over them. A base layer on top, with a long tunic over that. This tunic - a genius garment from Ibex - is a heavyweight jersey knit that nearly resembles a tweedy jacket-like thing, features a 2-way zipper, and is long and drapey enough to disguise the unsightly bulge of my padded shorts.

Naturally, all of this is wool. As are my socks, underwear, neck warmer, and inevitable hat. From some angles (sadly, not from the one photographed!), this outfit almost passes for presentable. Except of course for those clipless shoes...


Not to worry though, as I can bring my walking shoes, or boots, along in one of the bags (see also: Hysteria and the Cyclist's Wardrobe). Today they are in the Berthoud handlebar bag (size Small). However, normally that space would be occupied by a massive camera and lens(es), so the shoes would go in the back.


For the rear I use a Dill Pickle saddlebag, size Large, made extra-wide for me on request to accommodate my 13" laptop inside a padded sleeve. This bag takes only a couple of minutes to attach/detach, and does not require a support rack. It can turn any bike into a laptop-toting commuter!


The interior can swallow a 13" laptop easily, and then some, with room for shoes to spare. I can even stuff some random food items in there in addition, if I feel like stopping by the shop on the way home.


The Lezyne lights I use these days (see review here) are reassuringly bright and easy to share between bikes.

On Alice, which was previously fitted with a generator hub that has since been removed (needs servicing), I thought I would miss the lack of generator lighting and be quite annoyed to use these clip-on lights. However, in practice it has not been an issue. And miraculously, the headlight beam actually clears my handlebar bag.


In the winter, I will also wear the dreaded 'puffy jacket.' Although normally I am no lover of the aforementioned garment, it is a jacket that is both warm enough to accommodate the sort of extreme temperature dips we can get here in the course of the day, and compact enough to shove into an already-stuffed handlebar bag should its services not be required.

Overall, I stay comfortable, warm, dry. I have all the stuff I need for work. I look not great but okay. And even as I long for the step-through frame, the upright posture and the joys of a long tweed coat, I have to admit that the roadbike's speed and position are assets in difficult riding conditions.

I'm a reluctant roadbike commuter. But when push comes to shove, a grateful one. 


On the Dating Scene



It's a situation which some people enjoy quite a bit, but which I, frankly, hoped to not find myself in again. I mean, the stress of it. The awkwardness. The expense. The uncertainty about future compatibility. And of course, that question most of us dread to even ask... What if he, or she, is French?

That's right dear reader, I am back on the dating scene.  This time around I am older, possibly wiser, and - most importantly - armed with calipers.



Where did we meet? Well, where else. On the internet. But it wasn't a random profile search that led me to him; in fact I wasn't even looking. We were sort of introduced, by a mutual friend.

This friend did not beat around the bush.

"Look here: I found a Sabliere. In your size. You must buy it."

"Oh good lord, why?"

"Because maybe then you'll believe that a bike from the 1960s can rival a modern racer in weight and performance."

"I already believe. I don't need another frame. I really, really don't need another fr..."

"Another frame?! This is not another frame, you philistine. This is a Sabliere!"

At this point, I should have slammed my laptop shut. Walked away. Taken a cold shower. Instead I clicked on the link.

The following week he arrived at my door. And yes... He was French.



Now, what, or who, is this Sabliere, you might ask? And chances are, ask you will. Because Charles Sablière of Lyon was one of the lesser-known constructeurs - custom builders of fine racing, randonneuring and cyclotouring bicycles - in the heyday of such machines in 20th century France. Nowadays, you are more likely to find a bicycle made by his son, Andre Sablière, who picked up the torch in the 1970s. As far as the father, Charles, it is slim pickings. You can find some information on the older Sablière's machines here, along with illustrations by Daniel Rebour, along with other scatterings of published words and images, mostly in French. The rest is, alas, word of mouth.

But while today the Sablière name is not as readily recognised as the names of Singer and Herse, it is nevertheless recognised in collector circles. Specifically he is known as an early adapter of fillet brazed construction, and for his exceptionally lightweight machines.

How light? Well, our mutual friend - the one who got us together - challenged me as follows: To fit the Sablière frameset with period-correct components of the sort the builder himself would have used, and see how the result compared to my 2012 Seven Axiom - or, a typical carbon fibre bike seen at club rides today, for that matter. He reckoned they would be similar.

"I want to believe," I replied. And wondered what the heck I had gotten myself into.



Of course, to fit the frameset with period-correct components, it must be known what the 'correct' period is. Which is where the dating comes into it.

So how does one date a bicycle, anyway? Well, you can't be too modest or shy when it comes to these things. Ideally, you'd inspect the bottom bracket. Look for a stamp indicating a serial number which can then be researched. Often the date itself will be part of that serial number, or stamped next to it.

In the absence of such an easy tell (which, alas, is the case with the frame in question) there are other visual clues. To my eye, the 700C frame - in its aesthetics alone - suggested the mid-1960s, and with this my friend agreed.



To confirm this, the measurements began - which for me, was pure torture, as I am hardly the most precise person in the world and seem to find it a challenge to even hold a ruler or a set of calipers straight. Still, after several tries I managed to get replicable measurements. The spacing between the rear and fork dropouts are consistent with 1960s manufacture. The inner diameter readings on the seat and head tubes, and the bottom bracket width, were all also consistent with a French frame of mid-late 1960s manufacture made using quality, thinwall tubing.

So we are going with the mid-late 1960s hypothesis. Now, getting the appropriate components will be another matter. The wheels are built (more on those later), but the rest is up in the air. And my oh my, I am not sure what I look forward to more: sourcing lightweight French components, or honing my downtube shifting skills! Perhaps I can barter hand-knit hats again for components and coaching sessions?



That the frame has been identified by a reputable party as a genuine Sabliere makes it rare and interesting. Still, its lack of markings makes it difficult to prove both this, and its age, definitively - which is frustrating, but also exciting, as it infuses the project with some degree of mystery.

The 1570gr frameset is a beautiful shade of shimmery cerulean blue and, aside from the tidy fillet-brazing, has some other cool features. Notice, for instance, the flattening of the downtube toward the bottom bracket. Also quite sexy are the super-skinny fork blades. The fork crown and the wrap-around stays stand out, embrace-like, against the otherwise sparsely embellished frame.



Overall, the frame has a look of minimalist chic about it. A nonchalant coolness. I imagine it smoking a skinny cigarette and shrugging its shoulders over a tiny cappuccino, as it throws me a glance - daring me to build it up and ride it, daring to compare it, without sparing its feelings, to the modern roadbikes I've ridden and praised over the past 5 years.

And that, dear readers, is where dating a bicycle lands you. Let this be a tale of caution.



I Sell Fluffy Things



So, dear readers! I have been threatening to do this for - what - over a year now? And at last I am here to annoy you with an announcement of my little side project.

As you might have noticed, there is a new sponsor on the sidebar. And that sponsor is ...me! Well, the knitting version of me, now known as LB Handknits. I will leave you to guess what the LB stands for.

It was nearly 7 years ago now, as longtime readers might recall, that I first began bartering hand-knitted hats for bicycle parts through this blog. That went rather well. So well, that it evolved into a knitting-for-hire side project which, through word of mouth, has grown slowly but steadily over the past few years.

Why knitting?

I love making stuff, not just writing about others making stuff. And while I'm fascinated by things bicycle-related, I am not good at physically working on bikes and never will be. Which is fine, and which is why I admire those who are. I am, however, rather good at knitting. I have been knitting since childhood. I am quick. I can envision a design, pick up two sticks and some wool, and - woosh! - a garment materialises. In our day and age that is a nice skill to have. And it gives me great pleasure to use that skill to create clothing, start to finish, that someone out there will wear the heck out of and enjoy.

If you'd like that someone to be you, you know where to click.

I have tried to keep my prices low, at least to start with. And by low I mean: covering the costs of materials, plus paying myself a not-quite-minimum hourly wage. And while I realise that some will find the resultant price tags unaffordable, I hope in any case you find them fair.

At the moment I have a small selection of ready-made socks and hats up in the shop. All are unisex, all made by me with locally spun Donegal Tweed or Alpaca wool. The temperature-regulating, moisture-wicking properties of the stuff are well known to us cyclists, and my designs aim to maximise these features. Once the things up on the site are sold, they are gone, but others will appear from time to time. I also take custom orders.

For the knitters, there will be patterns added to the site very soon, as well as bits and bobs such as sock blockers and stitch markers down the line (I am working on some exciting collaborations!). Also watch for free tutorials on the LB Handknits blog (ever wanted to hand-knit a tweed jacket? I tried it!), and new photos added to the Look Book every week.

And with that, I end this announcement, which I thank you for enduring, as I also thank those who encouraged me to 'launch' the shop. In launches as such I do not believe, but it's up anyway! If you are looking for some fine handmade woolens for yourself or a loved one, do consider LB Handknits and pay me a visit there.


The Curious Case of the 3-Speed Hill Climb



For a good few years after I first began cycling, I was quite weak at climbing hills. For steep gradients in particular, I needed low gears, a lightweight bike. And by 'needed' I don't mean preferred; I mean that I would be walking otherwise.

Three years of living in Ireland changed that. I am not the strongest cyclist out there by far. But I've adapted to my surroundings. And my surroundings are hilly! If I'm riding long distance, I sill prefer to have (and use) low climbing gears. But when it comes to each hill on an individual basis, I no longer strictly speaking 'need' a super-low gear to scale most of the ones within commuting distance.

As I look at the road that rises ahead, no longer do I wonder anxiously, 'Will I be able to make it, on this bike?' Instead I find it interesting to notice differences in how different bikes will behave. For bikes, not unlike cyclists, can certainly have different climbing styles! Some skip up like mountain goats. Others will float like helium filled balloons. Others still will feel like dead weights, requiring effortful dragging. But most interesting of all, is that almost living-breathing feeling of accordion-like flex that I experience on certain steel upright bicycles.

They are bikes which are neither too light, nor too heavy, for their type. And they are nearly always 3-speeds, of the 'sports roadster' variety.

For casual cycling in ordinary clothing I prefer to ride them in a low gear - because I don't want to sweat, and because an easier gear just makes for a better 'smell the flowers' experience. With the flimsy looking 3-speed shifter I switch to 1st at the slightest provocation. And truth be told, it kind of feels like I need to. Whereas a roadbike might crest the bumps of gently rolling roads unnoticeably, on the upright 3-speed I feel resistance even on mild inclines.

And if I am already in 1st on this gently rising road, it hardy seems a bike like that would manage up the 14% gradient mountain lane?

Yet when the harmless looking 3-speed is truly challenged, it flexes its muscles! I could not appreciate this until I had the strength to actually make it happen enough to feel it. But as the gradient steepens and I push down on the pedals harder, I can nearly feel the bike contract under my effort, and then tense and relax in sync with my pedal-pushes, thus heaving the pair of us uphill.

The sensation is like a wringing, a squeezing-out of 'performance,' drop by drop. And of course it is but my mind's translation of the raw sensations. What actually happens - to the metal, to my body - I do not entirely know. But that it is flex I'm feeling, I am pretty certain of. I am also fairly certain that this flex helps, rather than hinders, my climbing efforts. At least on these particular bikes.

Whereas the lightweight roadbike bestows performance upon me, the heavy upright 3-speed must be made to yield it. It yields it coyly and reluctantly, sometimes begrudgingly. But it does yield it inevitably. And as we crest that hill, we are friends again, ready to smell the flowers.



When They Were Good



A friend of mine owns a late 1980s Claud Butler roadbike. And whenever I have occasion to look at it, I experience a mix of feelings that, for the longest time, I could not quite place.

Once in a while the bike is extracted for show-and-tell. Neighbours gather round.

"Ah this one's from back in the day," one says, "when they were good." And he points to the lugs, the Reynolds 531 decal on the frame. Others nod understandingly.



To most present-day cyclists in Ireland and the UK, the Claud Butler brand means internet-bought budget bikes. But once, this name was associated with greatness.

And I realise the specimen in front of me somehow encompasses both ends of this spectrum: It is as if its look simultaneously tells the history of this renown make, and suggests the extent of its future decline.



Described by cycling historians as the 'king of lightweights,' Claud Butler was one of the better-known British Lightweight manufacturers of the 1920s - 1950s. And one for whom, the 'lightweight' description holds true even by current standards.

I grew fascinated with this, when I noticed how little my own, original 1936 CB mixte, weighs compared to similar bikes produced today. I then had a browse through old Claud Butler catalogues, and realised that for them this was pretty much standard practice. In fact, my befendered fat-tyred 26lb mixte was a monster compared to the sub-18lb racing bikes the catalogues offered at this time. To see such weights quoted in an era we tend to associate with 'outdated' equipment and 'heavy' materials was an eye opener.

But Claud Butler was revered for more than just their lightweight production. The proprietary lugwork,  the finishing, the overall workmanship were amazing. In particular they were known for the quality of their fillet brazing and bilaminate (lug/fillet hybrid) construction. And, although this is seldom mentioned and little known, they were also among the first (if not the actual first) to develop the solid top tube/ split-stay style of mixte frame construction - the likes of which we still see today (i.e. the Rivendell Cheviot/ Betty Foy).



But all this, alas, was in Claud Butler's heyday, which ended by the time the 1950s arrived. As the British interest in cycling declined in favour of motorised and televised entertainment, so did the population's eagerness to purchase hand-crafted cycles.

For many bicycle manufacturers, the sharp drop-off in business at this time proved lethal. Claud Butler hung on for some time yet, and in 1958 was purchased by (another well known British Lightweight) Holdsworth, which extended their production by several decades. The Holdsworth-era Claud Butlers were bicycles of good quality. However, they lost the characteristics which made the original brand remarkable and unique, becoming instead a rebadged sub-brand of Holdsworth, and growing more generic in construction and appearance with each passing decade.

Finally, by 1987 Holdsworth too was in decline. And the rights to both brands were sold to the conglomerate Elswick-Hopper, which continues to own the Claud Butler name today.



My friend's late '80s Criterium has to be from the early years of these conglomerate-ownership days, twice removed from anything resembling original Claud Butler production.

Judging by the lack of a "handmade in England" decal (which I am sure would have been present were this the case), I am guessing it was factory-produced, in the Far East.

None of this, of course, makes this Claud Butler a 'bad' bicycle. But other things about it strike me as peculiar.



For one thing, despite the prominent decals touting the Reynolds 531 frame (although none on the fork), the bike feels remarkably heavy. Much heavier 'than it looks' and heavier than it 'should be;' I am guessing close to 30lb easy.



The Shimano Exage compoments (comparable to today's Sora) no doubt partially account for this. And their choice by the manufacurer probably indicates that the handlebars, stem, wheels, and other parts, are of similar weight and quality.



The decision to combine heavy budget parts with a Reynolds 531 frame struck me as odd and mysterious at first.  But after studying this bike on several occasions now, I think I get it.



It was a bike made to look and sound the part, in a superficial sort of way, without costing the part. It seems a similar mentality that produced the Raleigh Rapide I featured here last year - but taken a few steps further.

The crisply outlined lugs, the sparkly metallic paint, the aggressive lines of the frame and fork (check out the rake on that!) - I imagine when this bike was brand new it all looked rather dreamy. Not to mention, the Reynolds 531 frame, which everyone knew was good! 



And to a fledgling cyclist, I can see how this made for an attractive package, with details such as the low-end components and the weight seeming far less important.



It is no surprise that several locals I know recall the Claud Butler Criterium, from this very era, as their first adult racing bike. To these folks, the bike, from back in the day, was 'good.' Good as in durable. Good as in tactile in a way a modern bike is not. Good as in bringing back memories of their first club rides and races, of old friendships.

But of course - the bikes' former owners will add, snapping out of their nostalgia -  this good old bike was also heavy as heck! Naturally, because it was old. And made of steel. Which is why those who still cycle today will have of course long replaced it with aluminium bikes, and later still with carbon bikes weighing under 20lb.

I open my mouth to tell them, that an even older Claud Butler would have rivaled that weight. And sometimes I actually say it. But most of the time I do not.



Sticky, Squishy Love, Part II: Of Tubeless Tyres, Their Joys and Sorrows



On the heels of a certain holiday which celebrates all things heart shaped, I thought it apt to post this second installment of 'Sticky, Squishy Love.' In Part I, as you might recall, I shared some notes on my experience with tubular tyres. Allow me now to share my experience with tubeless setups.

By way of a basic introduction, the term ‘tubeless' refers to a clincher tyre and rim setup, which foregoes the use of an inner tube. Instead, the tyre is inflated directly. To the naked eye, a tubeless tyre and rim look identical to an ordinary clincher setup. However, it requires some modifications. Namely, the rim needs to be completely sealed to ensure no air leaks from any part of it. Also, a valve needs to be sourced, since the tube it would normally be integrated with is absent. Finally, a specially formulated sealant is pumped into the tyre prior to inflation.



In theory, a number of factors makes setting up one's bicycle with tubeless tyres attractive. The lack of an inner tube is said to make the tyre more compliant, thereby improving ride quality and reducing rolling resistance. It also saves weight. 

But perhaps more importantly, tubeless setups are said to offer superior puncture resistance. The reasons given for this are two-fold: The absence of an inner tube removes the possibility of pinch flats. And furthermore, the sealant used in tubeless tyres is meant to be self-sealing in the event of a puncture, eliminating the need for repairing flats on the go (see, for instance, this video, for an ideal version of how this is meant to work).

Unlike tubular tyres, giving tubeless a try requires less of a commitment, since it can always be converted back to an ordinary clincher setup simply by inserting a tube.

And speaking of: Although some rims and tyres are specifically labeled as tubeless-compatible, often even those not labeled as such can be run tubeless. The basic idea, is that the rim needs to be sealable, and the tyre needs to sit airtight. But there are no hard and fast rules and in the end it is really just trial and error. If you are curious whether a specific rim and tyre combination can be run tubeless prior to investing in a bunch of supplies (see next section), an online search will soon bring up accounts of others who have tried it. Although mind you, there is no guarantee.


If running a tubeless setup for the first time, you will need the following items (in addition to the rims and tyres, of course):

. tubeless rim tape
. 2 valves
. valve core remover
. sealant
. an injector for delivering the sealant into the valves

The process itself is fairly straightforward:
. Seal the rims with tubeless-specific rim tape, cutting small holes for the valves.
. Insert valves into the vale holes in the rims.
. Fit the tyres.
. Remove the valve cores and pump sealant into the valves using the injector.
. Rotate the wheels to ensure sealant is evenly spread.
. Replace the valve cores and inflate the tyres.

Now, that last step - and tubeless enthusiasts tend to keep slyly mum in this regard! - is where people tend to run into trouble. Some rim and tyre combinations are very difficult, if not impossible to inflate using an ordinary track pump, and instead require the use of an air compressor which is able to deliver air in quick blasts.

They do make special tubeless floor pumps now, which store pressurised air in a separate chamber and are able to 'pop-inflate' the tyre. After reading their descriptions I am a little skeptical they have enough oomph, but will with-hold judgment until I get a chance to try one.

There are also conversion kits sold, where a thick rubbery layer of padding is placed over the rim to re-shape it for a more airtight fit with the tyre. But for anyone interested in weight savings this rather defeats the purpose. Plus it adds more complexity and cost to the process. And in the end, I am told, it still does not always work.

That is all to say... you may or may not be able to inflate a tubeless tyre without access to dedicated equipment!


My own forays into the tubeless world consist of the following two experiences:

Spada rims (700C) + Schwalbe Pro1 Tyres (tubeless specific)

Over the summer, my husband acquired a set of tubeless-ready 700C road wheels by the Italian manufacturer Spada. Conveniently, they arrived already taped, and with a tubeless-specific version of Schwalbe Pro1 tyres. With the help of the internet, we figured out the other stuff we needed. Installation went smoothly, and we were even able to inflate the tyres with an ordinary floor pump.

Gary enjoyed the feel of the wheels and tyres very much, and after 'running' them for a month and a half on his modern roadbike, he decided to try them on his vintage Italian bike for comparison. The vintage racing frame has tight clearances in the rear triangle, so he had to deflate the rear tyre in order to squeeze it in. We then spent hours trying to re-inflate the tyre, with no success! Having stretched after some use, the tyre would not sit on the rim sufficiently tightly, to be inflatable with a floor pump. No matter how quickly we pumped, the air was not being delivered fast enough. The tyres sprayed white fluid everywhere but would not inflate, inspiring jokes of a nature not fit to be retold to a cultured audience such as yourselves.

At length, we admitted defeat. Gary took the wheel to work and got it inflated with an industrial air compressor. Despite the rims and tyres being tubeless-specific, that was the only way he was able to successfully re-inflate the tyre ...a method that would obviously be unavailable in the event of getting a flat mid-ride! (And I know air cartridges are an option ...but not so much for wider tyres, and not everyone likes this disposable solution). The discovery of this limitation pretty much ended his excitement about tubeless setups. However he continues to ride his Spada wheels (they are his only remaining clinchers) and has had zero flats so far.


Pacenti PL23 rims (650B) + Pari-Moto Tyres 

Several months later I decided to give tubeless a go myself - on Alice, my DIY 650B bike with the Pacenti wheels I had rebuilt. My reasons for this were in equal measure to reduce flats, to save weight, and to achieve an even nicer ride feel than the bike had already. There are no tubular options available for (non-disc brake) 650B wheels, so I thought I might as well give tubeless a try - especially since we still had all the supplies.

Now, as far as I understand, neither the Pacenti rims nor the Pari-Moto tyres I used are tubeless-specific per se. But I knew that others (most notably, Peter Weigle) had successfully run this combination tubeless, and that allegedly it worked.

It worked for me as well ...but only with the use of the afore-mentioned industrial air compressor. We were not able to inflate the tyres in the house with a standard floor pump. However, a quick blast from the compressor did the job, and with weekly air top-ups using the floor pump at home they are holding air without problems.

As for the ride feel, having experienced the same tyres with and without tubes, I have to admit it does make a difference. Run tubeless, the same tyres feel 'squishier' and make for a softer, pleasanter ride feel. I imagine on a bike that is harsh, they would reduce that harshness considerably. On a bike that already rides nicely, as mine did, getting rid of the tubes makes for absolute luxury.

After 4 months or so of pretty frequent cycling (it’s the bike I’ve put the most miles on over this winter), I’ve had no flats so far. Whether that’s luck, or the sealant doing its job, I cannot say for sure. However, when run with tubes, I had found these same tyres to be pretty fragile.


In summary...

My impression is that tubeless tyres are an excellent idea in theory, but that in practice their usefulness is seriously limited by the fact that - more often than not - they require an air compressor to inflate successfully. I would also add that not knowing about this in advance can lead to lots of frustration at the user end, so the industry is not doing itself any favours by trying to downplay this drawback.

The availability of special pressurised air floor pumps is intriguing, and I do hope to test one in the near future. But once you start adding special pumps, and rim conversion kits and the like to the mix, the cost and awkwardness of the whole thing starts to rise pretty quickly. I suspect that in the future all of this will somehow be ironed out, and I look forward to that time. The idea in itself is appealing. And tubeless tyres eventually becoming the norm is, I think, inevitable.

As always, if you'd like to share your own experiences, you are very welcome to. Have you tried tubeless setups? Which rims and tyres? And was it love or hate?



Yesterday's Champagne



In college I had a friend who was known for one curious thing. Any time she would attempt to throw a party, some inexplicable calamity would halt the festivities. The causes were as varied as they were dramatic. A fall necessitating a trip to the ER. A flood in the building. The death of a relative. A cat giving birth in the basement. Food poisoning. Leaking carbon monoxide. A hurricane. Those of us close to her grew so used to this state of affairs, we did not even bother to show up for whatever event she'd invite us to. Instead, we would come on the following day, to help clean up and sip on stale champagne whilst listening to her recount what had happened. It was all a rather hilarious, pathetic mess. And truth be told, we enjoyed it more than the more 'successful' parties we had gone to.

It occurred to me the other day, that this blog is more or less my version of the yesterday's champagne scenario. If I plan a schedule of reviews, you can rest assured that Things - perfectly legitimate things, mind you! - will happen to make that schedule go out the window. If I announce intention to take part in an organised event, some emergency will make that impossible. And if I run a give-away with a promise to announce the winners 'tomorrow,' my internet will get knocked out by a storm while I am simultaneously felled with a bad case of flu.

I console myself with the thought, that hey - no doubt my readers are well used to this by now!

A smooth and punctually running magazine with an editorial staff and deadlines and plans and stuff I am not. But what I lack in that department, I make up for - or at least so I hope - with a certain je ne sais quoi of a flavour you cannot get elsewhere. If you are a fan of that flavour, LB is for you and I thank you for putting up with me. If not, not. No offense meant or taken!

I was mulling this over last week when my husband snagged, on a certain online auction site, a pre-owned carbon frameset made by a large mainstream manufacturer. He had all along intended to try a carbon bike and compare it to his vintage Italian and modern steel steeds, so it was only a matter of time and now a frame in the right size and with the right characteristics presented itself. Knowing of my preference for small independent makers over the big names, the husband did ask for my 'blessing,' so to speak, before buying the frame. I told him (and meant it) to buy what he wanted. It was none of my business what brands of bicycles he owned. And besides, I was curious what he'd make of this industry benchmark make and model (let's call it an Expert Pavement, for argument's sake). The only thing was, I said, I hoped it would not offend him, but I would not feature this bike on Lovely Bicycle.

Oh, he said. Even if it's a used bike? But I think people would be interested.

He is probably right. And I have nothing against big brand bikes, even shiny new ones. But at some point I made a decision - and it's a decision that has only grown firmer over time - not to promote them. There are already many, many cycling publications in print and online which do - often reviewing updated versions of what are essentially the same bikes, every year, so it isn't as if those brands are suffering from lack of exposure. But moreover, Lovely Bicycle ultimately reflects this author's interests - which are in small, obscure manufacturers, in small-batch and handmade production, in custom projects, in various aspects of vintage bikes and parts, and in describing the cycling experience from that somewhat un-slick, overzealous viewpoint that many of us share but the bicycle industry seldom reflects. To add features - or even adverts - of mainstream brands would, I fear, have a bulldozing effect on the eclectic weirdness of all that other stuff which characterises the blog.

On the one hand, this decision has been 'financially suicidal' on my part. Big, mainstream manufacturers have much larger budgets than small makers. It is no big deal for them to send demo bicycles for review. They are also able to pay considerably more for advertising space. By declining their ads and instituting a policy where I feature only small and independent makers, I have put a rather tight cap on any potential revenue or work opportunities I can ever hope to get from Lovely Bicycle.

On the other hand, drawing these boundaries and keeping things low-key has afforded me a great deal of freedom in the running of this blog, with its hodge-podge subjectmatter and Calamity Jane hiatuses. I can take things in any direction I want, publish according to whatever schedule suits my circumstances.

There are reasons why most blogs, no matter how wonderful and popular, tend to be short-lived. Pressure - whether real or imagined - is one of them. I intend to avoid that fate and keep LB going for a while yet. And I guess the point I am ultimately trying to make, is that my mad, unpredictable, and at times, I am sure, frustrating management of this space, is also what makes it sustainable.

So thank you, again, for putting up with 'yesterday's champagne!'

Please check the comments of the Bookman Curve post for the give-away recipients. And stay tuned as regular programming resumes.

Cycling With Your Legs



A few months ago I underwent some minor surgery in the abdominal area. In the aftermath I was on two weeks mandatory rest from bicycles entirely. Then two more weeks of riding upright bicycles only. After that, the cycling ban was lifted, albeit with a warning not to strain my pelvic or abdominal muscles.

"Well, that should be fine," I thought, "I mostly cycle with my legs after all." And for the first time in a month I set off on my roadbike.

Of course, 'cycling with my legs' was easier said than done! And very quickly I became aware of just how much I relied on muscles other than those in my legs when riding a roadbike. In particular, having to go easy on my abdominal and pelvic regions, felt - not inappropriately - as if the floor had dropped away beneath me, leaving a vague and murky hollowness.

When I tried to accelerate, it felt as if my legs had been disconnected from their primary power supply and were now expected to run in some weird and clearly inferior energy-save mode.

Climbing uphill felt like running on a dead battery whose smooth and fully-charged functioning I had previously taken for granted. Powerless. Drained.

In both of these scenarios, in fact I quickly realised I did not even know how to engage my legs without the use of these other, off-limits muscles.

The expectation to power the bike with my legs now seemed entirely unrealistic. They were motorised tools and I'd taken away the motor. Now what?

Fortunately, the body does adapt. Day after day my legs grew more 'self-sufficient' for lack of a better term. It was almost as if they developed their own backup mini-motors, upon realising that no help was forthcoming.

Then my bum and lower back came to the rescue. Even my arms and shoulders got in on the action, hardening from the effort of holding up my torso over the bars with limited abdominal help.

It all felt very strange indeed: first like running on empty; then like tapping into alternative sources of energy. But it sustained me through months of cycling, as follow-up procedures left my abs in a state of perpetual convalescence.

In the course of those months I wasn't exactly an invalid. I rode a century sportive, and went on weekly hilly metric-century trips with my husband. I had a great time cycling with my legs! Still, I did not feel like myself on the bike. Most of all I missed that feeling of pulling at my core to propel myself upward. And the strangest thing is, I had not even been aware of that feeling until I lost access to it.

When we think of the bicycle, what immediately comes to mind is pedaling. And it's easy to forget there is so much more to it. Now, more than ever I appreciate what a marvelously full body experience cycling truly is.

Last week was the first time I got on the bike with my abs and pelvic core fully back in service. I went for a 25 mile spin and I did try to take it easy on those now out of practice muscles! Still, the next morning, my middle was so sore I nearly screamed when I sat up in bed. A week later, I am still feeling the growing pains. But they are pains I gladly welcome. And my legs are happy to have their motor back.



The Bookman Curve: Eye Candy You Can See In the Dark



Of all the fetishes one might develop for bicycles and their accoutrements, thankfully I never had a thing for lights. Living in the countryside these days, I mainly want my bicycle lights to be bright. If, at the same time they manage to be fairly lightweight, easy to recharge, visually inoffensive, and reasonably priced, I am happy enough to give them no further thought.

Unfortunately, the Swedish designers at Bookman seem intent to change this sane state of affairs. While I've always found their tiny LED concoctions visually compelling, their latest iteration of the Curve takes it one step too far. When I see these lights, I want to touch them, sniff them, eat them, decorate my body with them... And yes, I know this isn't a normal reaction! Or is it exactly the reaction they want?.. Well, we'll have to ask them. But their confectionary aesthetics aside, are these objects more than just eye candy? Read on and decide for yourself. Or better yet, take one and find out firsthand. Because the samples are free to a good home.



Now in its second generation of production, the Bookman Curve is pretty much what the name suggests: a curved bicycle light. The overall design minimises the size of the unit itself, while maximizing the area of the glass - which is shaped so as to 'spill light over the sides' for 180° visibility coverage around the cyclist.

I've had an ongoing relationship with Bookman for some time now, and I have tested a few iteration of the original Bookman lights. Their products always impressed me with their durability and simple, fool-proof functionality. But the problem for me was, that the overall luminosity in these tiny beautiful units just wasn't enough for my use case scenario once I moved to the countryside. The Curve model began to change that. With its 80 lumen output, the Curve 1 was noticeably brighter than the manufacturer's previous offerings. And the peripheral light output produced by its design was indeed quite striking.

The new Curve 2 model takes it up another notch, with an output of 100 lumens. For the city and suburbs, that amount of illumination is actually quite respectable, and on par with much bulkier headlights. It is even beginning to approach acceptable range for the country roads. I still can't use it as my only light along the backroads on moonless nights (for reference, the headlight I normally use puts out 900 lumens at its highest setting). But along the main roads, peppered with reflective 'cat eyes' and luminous road markings, it is sufficient.



This lumen output is particularly impressive, considering the tiny size, light weight, and no-fuss  attachment method of these lights. You can fit both tail light and headlight in the palm of one hand, or stash both in your coat or cycling jersey pocket. On the handlebars, the headlight sits unobtrusively, and will fit no matter how cluttered your cockpit.



The elastic silicone band is easy to open and close, but impossible to lose as the other end remains attached to the unit. It fits handlebars (or seat posts, for the tail light) from 22mm to 42 mm in diameter.

The on switch, integrated into the clasp, is large and obvious, and responds to the blunt push of even a heavily-gloved finger. Holding the button for just under a second turns the light on and off, and a quick click switches between 4 modes, including flash. The battery life indicator flashes here as well.



At its highest setting, the Curve 2 has a run time of two and a half hours, and can last up to 35 hours in flashing or power-save modes. It takes two hours to charge via USB, and a USB cable is included with the product.

And while the Curve might bring to mind colourful casein jewelry, unlike casein it is, thankfully, weatherproof - resistant to humidity, rain, hail and snow.



While the Bookman Curve lights are certainly bits of eye candy, to dismiss them as decor over function would be unjustified. The compact, durable, intuitive to use headlight puts out 100 lumens of light, provides 180° visibility coverage, and charges via USB, with a pice tag of €39.

Here in the booneys, I may have to wait a few more iterations for the Bookman engineers to figure out how to stuff yet more lumens into those tiny shells. But for city and suburb dwellers these beautiful, minimalist lights could be just the thing.

If you would like to get your hands on one of these darlings: I have one coral and blue Curve 2 headlight, and one light gray and yellow Curve 2 headlight, as shown. They have been gently tested, but will come in their original packaging with USB cord and whatever else is in there.

I am willing to post anywhere in the world, if you don't mind cheap and very slow postage. So entries from Mongolia and Paraguay are fine.

And for those interested in other products from this manufacturer: The fellows at Bookman have asked me to convey, that signing up for their newsletter (see: 'subscribe' at the bottom of the page) will result in a 10% discount on your first purchase. However, this is not necessary to enter the give-away.

Now, if you'd like one of the lights, please leave a comment by the end of the month (i.e. Tuesday 31st January) which includes some method of contacting you (OR send me an email with your contact information) {entries now closed - thank you everyone!} In the comment, please respond to the following:

Imagine you work in the purchasing department of a faux Scandi-chic shop. What name would you give a bicycle light to make it sound extra sexy-minimalist-Scandinavian? I ask, because to me the name "Curve" is disappointingly straightforward, for what a foreigner has come to expect from a Swedish product! Perhaps for their next design the manufacturer might think of something more romantically unpronounceable?

Two recipients will be chosen, one for each light.

And with anticipation of your replies, I wish you a very Happy Weekend!



Stranger In a Strange Land? Some Musings on Revisiting the Coaster Brake



As mentioned earlier, I am in temporary guardianship of a small lot of vintage bicycles, of various styles and stages of decrepitude. While the majority of the bikes are English 3-speeds, hiding among them was this classic Dutch omafiets. Although it has clearly seen better days, the bike is actually not that old: judging by its parts and styling, I would estimate the late 1980s. And despite its dire condition, I was pleased to discover that it is perfectly ridable, if rattly and creaky. So I've been using it for local errands for these past couple of weeks, delighting in the novelty of its ultra-upright position, boat-like steering, and other bits of traditional Dutch-bikeyness.

Among these features is, of course, the coaster brake.



When I first discovered transportation cycling, I quickly fell in love with the coaster brake - to the point of converting my old Raleigh DL-1 into a 'coaster roadster.' The coaster brake allowed me to use leg strength to modulate speed, which was a welcome relief at the time, as my hand strength was non-existent due to nerve damage. It was also, overall, simply a more intuitive, pleasanter way of braking, which I found easier to integrate with the then-novel act of pedaling a bicycle in the city.

In this early blog post (keep in mind it is 6 1/2 years old!), I summarised my love of the coaster brake as follows:
. I find that coaster brakes deliver softer (no sudden jolts), smoother, and more consistent stopping power in city traffic 
. I like to have one hand free in traffic, so that I can signal while braking 
. I find it easier to modulate coaster brakes at finer increments without losing momentum 
. I have problems with the nerves in my hands, and find it painful to use hand-operated brake levers frequently (like in stop-and-go traffic) 
. I find coaster brakes intuitive and stress-free to use: it makes sense to both accelerate and slow down with my feet
Reading through that post, the reasoning completely makes sense considering my circumstances at the time. But as circumstances change, so do preferences.

As years passed, I started riding longer distances. My routes grew hillier and my travel speed increased. At the same time, my hand strength improved, making hand-braking no longer problematic. Gradually, the once-essential coaster brake became suboptimal. And it has now, I realise, been years since I have ridden a bike equipped with one.



The nearly 4 year interlude made the prospect of re-visiting the coaster brake all the more exciting - considering especially that the hilly rural landscape where I now live is not exactly the ideal environment for it.

Historically, coaster brakes have been unpopular in the British and Emerald isles. And while Sturmey Archer has always offered coaster brake hubs, they were mostly made for export. By contrast, in regions such as Holland, Denmark, Belgium, and the flatter parts of Germany and Austria, coaster brakes are by far the most common braking system on transport bicycles. In fact, when living in Vienna I was amused to discover that even the modern, hybrid-style bikes equipped with v-brakes front and rear, had coaster brakes in addition (so 3 brakes in total)! When I asked a bike shop owner why this was, he explained that the locals were so accustomed to braking by way of back-pedaling, it was dangerous to offer bicycles without this option.

This regional difference in braking preferences is usually explained in terms of hills and speed. While the coaster-brake's gentle modulation may be preferable on an urban bike path, its stopping power is insufficient when approaching a rural T-junction at the bottom of a long descent.



Of course, whenever I hear this argument, my immediate response is: But are rod brakes, found on English and Irish bikes well into the late 20h century, any better?!

But never mind such pesky details! What is a Dutch bike actually like to ride in hilly rural Ireland?

Well. On the main, it felt unexpectedly strange - as in 'foreign.' Even the neighbours noticed that it was different from the seemingly identical black step-through rust buckets I have pedaled past their houses in the past.

The main signifiers of this difference are, I suspect, the suared-off bend of the handlebars, the bolt-upright sitting position, and perhaps the fold-down kickstand. And although, in the grand scheme of things, these may seem like minor details, they do give the omafiets a distinct vibe that makes it stand out noticeably from its Roadster cousins. To my eye, it also looks like the typical Dutch bike has less fork rake and a steeper head tube angle than a typical English 3-speed, albeit I'm not sure it's the sort of thing that would stand out to others.



As for the coaster brake... Okay, I must admit I hated it at first! But only for the half hour it took me to remember how to deal with it. There is a method for ensuring your starting pedal is 'in the right place' for pushing off each time you stop and start, and basically, it is this: When coming to a stop, you need to remember to always bring your starting pedal into position, so that it's already waiting for you there when you start again. This needs to become an automatic process, committed to body-memory, in order for the coaster brake not to drive you nuts. But once it does become an automatic part of stopping, using a coaster brake is easy.

In the course of a single trip to my local shop, I remembered everything I loved about the coaster brake. There really is something so gentle, smooth, and intuitive about braking with the pedals, especially when maneuvering around tight spaces at slow speeds. It works best with a very upright cycling position, and on flat terrain. But when the conditions are right for it, it is a treat that almost gives cycling the feel of a mesmerising slow-dance. It is exotic, and strange after a long absence. And not at all a bad way to carry home a heavy bag of vegetables.


Frustrations, Transformations, and Biological Limitations: On Watching My Husband Become a Cyclist Again



I did know the entire time that it was only temporary. Like one of those stories, where a girl finds a weakened wolf cub, takes it in and nurses it to health as if it were a puppy, only to realise - once it gets better and starts doing scary wolf things - that it really is a wolf after all. I knew that it was only a matter of time until the tables would turn and I - with all my advice, encouragement, and energy - would be left in the dust, smarting with disappointment.

"But then so what?" I thought, and feigned a cool anticipation of this inevitable outcome.

Not long after I met Gary, I learned that he had been a cyclist some years earlier. He rode with a local club, whose members still remember him with uneasy admiration: quick, hard, relentless, in a rabid sort of way. I delighted in hearing the stories and seeing him through their eyes.

He did not experience cycling the way I did. He did not 'enjoy it' as such. He didn’t care for the views or the fresh air or the wind against his skin. He only felt compelled to pedal, and in so doing to push himself to the point of pain and beyond. Grace through suffering and all that. Did I understand?

I'd shrug, with a neutral expression. "You did it your way, I do it mine."

"But hey," he said. "That was then. I am older now. I look at things differently. I see you cycling with your camera and it makes me want to get on the bike again."

And eventually he did, for the first time in a decade. Predictably, it was a bit of a disaster. His idea of a casual friendly ride was, apparently, interval training. Too stunned to object, I went along with it... and after 10 miles nearly had to carry him home. We did not speak of this incident for months.

Other attempts to cycle together followed, with similar results, leaving him increasingly discouraged. Clearly, he’d expected to get on the bike and pick up roughly where he left off 10 years earlier. But at the age of 47 his body - despite being in otherwise good shape from running and weight training - was not cooperating. He couldn't do distances. He couldn’t do hills. He couldn’t do anywhere near the speeds he remembered doing. Oh, and everything about the bike felt uncomfortable; every body part hurt.

Finally I had the presence of mind to take control of the situation. Did he want to get back into cycling? I could help. But there would be an enforced speed limit. We would increase the distance gradually. And he'd listen to my advice on gearing, nutrition, and bike fit.

Somewhat to my surprise, he agreed readily, and put himself entirely in my hands. From then on, I was 'in charge' of cycling. I determined the routes, the distances. I suggested what to eat and when, how to dress for the weather. I advised on what adjustments to make to his bike setup based on the pains he was describing. I convinced him to try lower gearing and a different saddle.

After about a year of this, we were able to do 20-30 mile rides together at touring speed, without bonking or significant discomfort on his end. The progress was slow and frustrating. At times I could tell it was difficult for him to stick with it, such a blow it must have been to his image of himself as a cyclist. What kept him going was a difference in attitude: A new appreciation for the local landscape, as well as for the social aspects of cycling. We would pedal side by side and chat and enjoy the views of the beautiful countryside. It wasn't cycling as he remembered it. But it became a new pastime. There were highs and lows, and creative pain management, and a learning curve as far as food intake. But he stuck with it.

By the following year, it was clear that he had turned a corner. While still not back to his 'old self,' it was as if there was now a new solid base to his cycling. He continued to tweak his bicycle setup, no longer needing my advice at this point. With a tolerance for milage now built up, he also began to work on his speed ...and, in turn, on mine! Our relationship on the bike now became more reciprocal - with my helping him increase distances, and his helping me increase speed. By the end of our second full summer cycling together, we were able to cover 50 miles at a decent clip - both of us transformed with each other’s help. We went on lots of scenic and memorable rides that year and even successfully (well, sort of!) tried our first overnight mini-tour. It was the ideal balance, I thought at the time.

But of course, nothing stays the same. And this past summer was when things transformed dramatically. We had planned out a 5 day tour through County Kerry. It seems funny in retrospect, but at this stage Gary was still nervous about his ability to handle distances, especially on consecutive days. So we kept the daily distances at sub-50 miles, and designed the tour as a loop with several potential shortcuts back to the starting point, in case we had to cut it short. As the tour progressed, however, an interesting thing happened. With each day on the road, instead of growing tired Gary seemed to be gaining in strength, energy and confidence. By the final day of the tour I was, frankly, ready to wrap it up, while he could have easily kept going!

Upon our return home, he was a changed creature. He had no discomfort on the bike to speak of. No distance seemed too far. And his average speed, when he’d go out on his own, was back to what it was in 'the old days.' It had taken him 3 years to get back to his prior cycling shape. But get back to it he did, and then some.

It was actually quite amazing to fully grasp just how much stronger he now was on the bike than me. He could climb any incline in seemingly any gear combination. He could accelerate with such violently quick bursts, that just watching him gave me vertigo. Rides which I found so challenging as to leave me drained for days, were for him now effortless. Finally, our biology had caught up with us.

I was proud, to have helped him get there, in whatever small way. And I was also disappointed, for I fully expected at this point, for our cycling paths to diverge: For him to re-connect with the local fast crowd, and for me to do my own thing as I'd done before. I was sad about it. But I also encouraged it. I was no match for him. And I knew he liked fast, competitive roadcycling. I didn’t want to hold him back.

So he reconnected with the local men again and went out on a few rides. But it didn’t last: He no longer felt the competitive drive that had dominated his former cycling life. And he missed cycling with me.

So he stuck with me despite his transformation ...which, to be honest, is a circumstance I am not always sure I am happy about, since I now get the full 'benefit' of his energy and attention! There are times he tries to make me his project and pushes me beyond my comfort zone, and then beyond that still. It frustrates me - because it’s difficult. And even more so, because I know that no matter how hard I work I can never match his physiology; I will never become his equal on the bike.

But then there are times, when I climb a hill, almost effortlessly, or do a treacherous descent without fear, and I know that I would never have gotten to this point if left to my own devices. And this makes me happy, because it is not really about the hill, or the descent, or the speed, but about the freedom and independence that having this new strength grants me.

It's a reciprocal situation. And through it we've developed a way of cycling together that is like neither of our former styles, but a new one entirely. There are times we play games with speeds and distances and elevation gains and route shapes, and this is something that I genuinely have fun with even though I never would have liked it in the past. There are times we seek out mountain passes, explore new territories. And there are times we simply ride to the nearest cafe.

All in all, this is not an especially exciting story. But it's one I wanted to share, because I know that a good portion of my readers are older men - many of whom got back into cycling after a pretty long break. Some are now well into their 'comeback,' others are only now getting back on the bike. It can be difficult to readjust expectations, to readjust our image of ourselves. But the thing to remember is... whether we take breaks or not, we are anyhow always changing.

Whatever our former history, our memories of prowess or lack thereof, there is always room to experience cycling in a new way, to integrate it into relationships, and to find in it new aspects of ourselves.

And with that said, Happy Trails!




Slower In the Cold? Facts and Psychosomatics



It seems like I've had a few conversations lately where cyclists have mentioned off-handedly the notion of being "slower" in the cold. Since I don't experience this phenomenon myself, my gut reaction is to question it, which, in turn is met with insistence that it's a well known fact, complete with Reasonable Explanations.

Here are some popular explanations I've heard:

1. Cold air creates greater resistance and is more difficult to push through.

2. The cold affects tyre suppleness, increasing their rolling resistance.

3. The cold affects the performance of moving parts, making the bike less efficient.

4. The body loses energy in trying to keep warm, detracting from performance.

5. Road surface conditions degrade in winter, slowing down the bike.

6. (from people who mount mudguards and lights in winter only) The mudguards and lights create extra drag.

7. (from people who switch to a "winter bike") The bike itself is heavier and slower.

So firstly, let me make it clear that I do acknowledge the first 4 explanations have merit. But they have merit in true winter conditions, not in hovering-above-freezing, at worst, Ireland. In fact, typically the difference between summer and winter temps here is quite modest. I believe the average temperature in winter is around 8°C (47°F) and in summer around 17°C (65°F). And it isn't unheard of for those to reverse: An 8°C day in the middle of July is not out of the ordinary, and neither is a 17°C day in January. In short, cyclists in this comparatively mild climate shouldn't really be experiencing the sort of detrimental effects on their body's and equipment's performance that are associated with true cold.

Likewise, I believe the Road Conditions argument is exaggerated: The roads here are covered in farming debris, loose chipseal, and slippery oily residue year round, especially after it rains. Since it rains more often in winter, sure it gets a bit worse now and again - but it's not the sort of dramatic difference that should cause seasonal shifts in speed.

Finally, while the mudguards/ winter bike argument might make sense, it is one that applies to few cyclists these days - as most simply carry on riding their favourite roadbike year round, and choose to remain fenderless.

So why do cyclists report feeling slower in colder months, even in places with comparatively subtle seasonal changes? Is it cycling lore, absorbed from stories that take place in Continental winters, then internalised and expressed psychosomatically?

There is some element of that, I am sure. But I wonder also, whether our temperature sensitivity is reflective of the climate we're adapted to - so that a 3°C winter's day, for someone accustomed to a steady 8°C average, might actually be a shock to the system.

I remember dragging my husband out cycling one February morning. It was a couple of years ago, when he hadn't yet become the avid winter cyclist he is now. I remember the temperature was fairly mild, and yet he genuinely had trouble breathing - in the same manner I'd have trouble breathing back in Boston, once the temps dipped below freezing. It is true that our bodies - and minds - adapt to whatever conditions we are faced with.

Then again, I think the most reasonable explanation could be this:

With the shorter days, we tend to get out less in the winter. Consequently, our fitness decreases - so that when we do go out on the bike, we feel slower, temps and road conditions and draggy accoutrements notwithstanding.

What do you think? Do you notice a difference in your cycling performance in the colder months, and if so what do you attribute it to?




Sticky, Squishy Love, Part I: Some Notes on Tubular Tyres



I had no preconceived notions of tubular tyres, until I tried them, for the first time, 6 years ago. A friend in Vienna lent me his track bike thus equipped. I had it for about two weeks and rode it for hours on end around the nearby park and countryside. I do not recall the brand or model of the 23mm tubulars. But the memory of their soft, squishy, very particular ride feel stayed with me for some time and I knew that some day, when the opportunity presented itself, I would have a set of tubular wheels for one of my own bikes.

The opportunity presented itself this summer, when a friend agreed to build me a set of lightweight "vintagey" wheels (this was the prequel to my learning to do it myself). He suggested using tubular rims for the build, and I readily agreed. On riding my bike with the new wheels, I was so ecstatic that my husband grew curious and wanted in on the action. So we built him some tubulars too. And he liked them so much, that he then built another set for his second bike. Long story short... 6 months later and with 3 sets of tubular wheels between us, we feel sufficiently committed to this setup to have now sold off most of our clincher wheels.

Why? Well, I can only speak for myself. And here are some notes on my experience.



So firstly, what are tubular tyres exactly? Put simply, they are just what the name suggests: tyres in the shape of tubes (I'm great at explaining stuff, aren't I!).

While clincher tyres are essentially strips of rubber with curled edges, designed to tuck under the lip of a rim, tubulars are sewn and sealed closed, designed to be glued onto a rim bed.

Because of this inherent difference, tubular tyres do require tubular-specific rims, just as clincher tyres require clincher-specific rims. So once you choose to go with one rim type vs another, you are committed to a system.



Because they are essentially a tube and a tyre in one, tubular tyres do not require inner tubes. The valve is part of the tyre, and air is pumped into the tyre directly.

For many, this is what makes a tubular setup preferable to a clincher setup: The integrated inner tube and lack of bead reduces weight, and the closed design delivers superior suppleness. But I will come back to this later.



Attaching tubular tyres to the rim requires a specially formulated adhesive, and a multi-step process that takes at least 24 hours from start to finish.

Perhaps understandably, this tends to intimidate those accustomed to clinchers. Gluing a tyre to a rim seems quaint, and questionable in its security. I had qualms about this too at first (OMG glue?!). However, I now feel confident that, if done correctly, the bond is rock-solid.



For those who downright hate the gluing idea, there is now tubular tape available instead. But personally, I agree with the argument that traditional liquid glue is best, as it doesn't detract from the tyre's natural flex.

The glue is available from a number of brands, and is sold in small tubes and larger jars. It is easiest to apply using a small tube, as you can just squeeze from the tube directly and do not need a brush. However, buying the larger jar makes sense if you plan to do more than 1 set of tyres in the near future.



There are many variations on tubular gluing methods. But the basic principle is a 3 step process:

1. Coat rim and tyre's underbelly with tubular glue.

2. Fit tyre onto rim. Inflate to a high PSI.

3. Let "cure" for 24 hours before riding.



In fairness, each step is a bit more elaborate than that. Ideally, you would stretch the tyre by mounting it onto the rim "dry" and inflating first. You would also inflate it and let it dry a bit after the first gluing, then deflate and add a bit more glue before finally fitting it onto the rim for realz. But you get the general idea: glue on both surfaces, then inflate and let sit. If the surfaces are coated well, the pressure and the drying time will result in a solid bond, so that the tyre will feel impossible to budge. And then, off you go cycling.



As far as the cost of tubular tyres, there is a pretty wide range. You can buy expensive high end ones for as much as $100 a tyre (Dugast and FMB are considered the crème de la crème) , or budget ones for 1/10th of that price. And a tip if you want to get a good deal on a higher-end tubular tyre: I have noticed there tend to be quite a few pre-owned but unused ones sold on the secondhand market; so if you can tolerate eBay that can be a good option.

On our bikes we use the fairly high-end and puncture-resistant Schwalbe Pro1 and Vittoria Corsa tubulars, and keep some budget Vittoria Rallys as spares.

We have not had any punctures on any of our tubulars yet. But the idea is, to carry a lightly pre-glued spare, and then simply change out the tyre, inflate the spare and ride. The punctured tyre can be repaired at a later time.



With all that being said, I am aware that on paper the whole thing really does sound kind of complicated. Nevertheless, I prefer tubular tyres by a fairly wide margin. So here is a summary of why:

1. They are comfortable. So ridiculously comfortable. Contemporary clincher-advocates will say this is a myth, that modern clinchers have caught up and surpassed, and so on. In my experience this simply isn't so, and I say that having ridden some of the nicest modern clinchers. There is no comparison. The best way I can describe how a tubular tyre rides... It feels as if it has at least 30psi less pressure in it than it actually does. Or else as if your bike has suddenly become more flexible. The effect is simply amazing, and like nothing else I have felt before.

2. They are easy (for me) to mount. As I've mentioned before many times, I have trouble mounting, removing, and changing out tubes with clincher tyres. This is a hand strength/ nerve damage issue, and it brings me to tears, because basically I cannot change my own (clincher) tyre in a way that is even remotely efficient. In comparison, mounting or changing a tubular is a walk in the park. Glue may be messy, but wielding a paintbrush is much easier for me, physically, that tucking in a stiff bead core. Likewise, cracking the glue seal and pushing a tubular off the rim with my hands is easier than wrangling off a tight clincher using tyre levers.

3. Having had a pretty frightening experience with a rapid puncture on a clincher tyre on a 45mph descent, I am more comfortable with the potential outcomes of getting a flat on a tubular setup. I genuinely feel safer on tubulars.

4. While the need to "buy a new tyre" in the event of a flat is often cited as a deterrent, I am confident that I can repair a tubular myself if need be (I have seen it done, and for anyone with even basic sewing and crafting skills - it is not that big of a deal), so this is really not an issue.

5. I enjoy the tactile aspects of handling and working with the tubular tyres: from applying the glue, to tapping on its crème brûlée-like crust with my fingernails, to the satisfactory crunch of cracking that crust when removing the tyre. Maybe that's a little weird, but all these things make me feel more viscerally "connected" to the tyres, which is nice.

6. Finally, compared to clincher setups tubulars do save weight. It's not my top reason for preferring them, but it does make a difference.

Despite my rather awkward explanations, I hope that this has been interesting or at least a little helpful for those who've always wondered about tubular tyres. They have a reputation for being mysterious and complicated, and granted they are not for everyone. But after the last 6 months, I feel pretty certain they are right for me and am happy to have finally taken the plunge!

{Also: stay tuned for Part II... when I relate our trials and tribulations with tubeless setups.}



Gifts That Make You Go Broke!



Well, it's only early January and already this year is off to an interesting start. The other evening I had a visitor. A neighbour from down the road arrived in his van ...and dropped off half a dozen or so vintage bikes! Most of them were for me to photograph, and he'd be back to collect them later. But two of them I could keep, if I wanted them. Well then!..

Now, if you were to ask me which English 3-speeds are definite musts in my hypothetical dream vintage bike collection, I would say without hesitation that it's a tie between two: the Rudge, with its "hand of Ulster" chainring, and the double-forkbladed Humber. And wouldn't you know it?



That's right. I present to you, Exhibit A.



And Exhibit B.



But of course there is a catch, and that catch is plain to see: Both bikes are in horrendous condition. The wheels were frozen so stiff, I could not even roll them along the ground and had to carry them to move them.



The Humber is a step-though roadster, just about my size. It sports a full chaincase, rod brakes, dynamo lighting (powered by a rear generator hub and a battery pack?), 3-speed gearing, a fork lock, and the remains of a Terry saddle.



The Rudge looks a slightly newer and sportier model, with rim brakes, no chaincase, bottle-powered lighting, and what looks like a Brooks 73.



In the early morning light I thought at first that the bicycles were green, but realised soon they were black - just covered with a layer of moss.



Or, more accurately, covered with a layer of bright orange rust, which in turn is covered with moss.



And while you might, quite reasonably, assume these bikes were fished out from the swamp, in fact they were kept in a shed for the last 4 decades. And if this is what the Irish damp does to bikes kept in a shed, just imagine what happens to them outdoors! (See also: Meditations on Early Ruin)



Overwhelmed by their overall look of decrepitude, my initial thought was, the machines were beyond rescue. But a scrape here and there revealed that the rust - on the frames at least - was mostly surface. And that the rims are actually in decent condition.



With a sigh, I acknowledged the nightmare scenario at hand: the bikes were not so bad as to be dismissed as unrestorable, but bad enough to need lots of work, and probably lots of replacement parts, if one were to take that on.  I've received a "gift" designed to make me go broke!



Standing there, all pitiful and neon in their "swamp thang" colourings, I admit these bicycles pull at my heartstrings. Nevertheless, there is no danger of my taking on such a project any time soon. So I'll look around for anyone interested, and pass this "gift" on to them if they're keen. Until then, I suppose there's no harm in giving these moss-ridden beauties a home, and simply enjoying their presence. If you're local and eager for a super-fun restoration project, do give me a shout. And to all, a happy weekend!


Retrospective Resolutions



Over the holidays I was doing a major house cleaning, which included sorting my clothing. In the process I discovered something unexpected. Most of my current wardrobe - sweaters, dresses, skirts, even socks and hats and gloves - are of my own making. As a rather proficient knitter and a middling but brave sewer, I have always made bits and pieces by hand. But there is a difference between that, and being able to make most of the clothing I need myself. The latter had long been a dream. But some time in 2016 it became a reality. Is there such a thing as a retrospective New Year's resolution? If so, I achieved one of those last year. And to notice this was such an odd feeling - like the opposite of (the more usual) making a resolution and not keeping it. So perhaps keeping a resolution without making it is the way to go?



I mention knitting a lot here, which must confuse those who read this blog purely for cycling content. But in my mind, the two are inherently linked. Cycling for transport in this damp, cold and windy climate has influenced the direction of my designs, the choice of yarn I use, the technique I've developed, even the speed of my progress. Without cycling and the specific set of challenges it has posed over the past 3 years, I would not have reached my current level of skill, creativity and proficiency as a knitter.  So... thank you, cycling, for this achievement.


The connection between the two things goes deeper though. Because 2016 was also the year I got my bike-tinkering mojo back, and with a vengeance. I have made no secret here of the fact, that I find it difficult working on bikes. In part due to physical strength limitations, in part due to nerve damage in my hands, even the most rudimentary repair and maintenance tasks have always been a challenge - making me feel helpless and inept. For someone who takes 30 minutes plus to change a flat, learning the skill of framebuilding was really an exercise in masochism. It involved so much sweat and tears and handholding, the experience did not make me feel empowered as I'd hoped; it made me feel terrible about myself - if anything, cementing my decision to limit my interest in design to the abstract, and leave the physical aspects of working on bikes to others.

Then, this year, the Wheel Obsession happened. I don't know why now, and not earlier or later. People have been trying for years to interest me in the role wheels play in the cycling experience, but it fell on deaf ears. I guess one has to be ready for that kind of thing, ready to process the information. And this year, I must have been finally ready. The result initially was an interest in rim shape, which progressed to an interest in tubular and tubeless setups, and finally in the wheelbuilding process. I had no intention to do the latter myself at fist. But once I tried it, I realised I was actually... good at it. Unlike most other bicycle-related tasks I've tried, not only did it present no physical challenges, but it was also, for me, quite intuitive. I can look at a lacing pattern and it makes sense to me; I don't need instructions. It is as if I can visualise the end result and then space out, letting my hands do the work, until I snap out of my daze and - oh look - it's done! In that sense it is much like knitting.


Unfortunately, unlike knitting you can't quite make a regular practice out of building wheels. There are only so many sets you need for yourself after all, and the parts are far too expensive to make them as gifts. But while I won't be building wheels on a regular basis, the very fact that I can has boosted my confidence in bicycle DIY tremendously. And this too, has felt like an unmade resolution kept.

What about you?  Have you had a bicycle-related breakthrough, achievement or realisation "sneak up on you" over these past few years?  Here's hoping for 2017!

Old and New



Visiting the Gap of Mamore a couple of days ago, we intended to photograph the formidable pass in a way we had not had a chance to when transversing it on bicycles earlier this year. But before we reached the mountain road, we made a detour for a tiny hamlet by the beach at Tullagh Bay, having noticed something there that piqued our curiosity.



On arrival there we saw that a cottage, which had formerly been a crumpling ruin, was being renovated. A man was up on a ladder, laying down the thatch. Of course I could not resist and meandered toward him carefully to watch. Minutes later, we were inside the cottage, being given a historical tour and a telling of its repairs.

Thatched cottages, once iconic of the Irish landscape, had all but disappeared from existence in the past several decades. Unvalued, these structures were abandoned or knocked down nonchalantly by the thousands in favour of contemporary housing. Only in the past few years has an interest in the preservation and restoration of vernacular architecture appeared. Not only for historical reasons, but because, increasingly, it emerges that these structures can be made remarkably energy efficient, breathable, weather-resistant, and eco-friendly, whilst using natural and locally sourced materials - from the stone, to the paint, to the thatch.



The roof, the thatcher explained, was actually flax - harvested from a local field, pleasantly soft to the touch and flexible in its unprocessed state.  Excited, I told him I often use linen yarn for knitting but had never seen it in its raw form (the thatched cottages I know all use reeds). He then showed me how flax is turned into linen thread from the raw stalks. To my surprise, not much needs to be done to it. The inner stalk is removed and the outside is combed, until it becomes ever softer and more flexible, almost hair-like. You can get it to a rough, but never the less spinnable state by hand, if need be.

On the subject of spinning, it wasn't long before talk turned to the serpentine monster behind the cottage and the challenges of conquering it by bicycle.



One of the steepest climbs in all of Ireland, the Mamore Gap sits in the northernmost corner of the island, on the Inishowen Peninsula in Donegal. When crossed from north to south, it is a 2 mile ascent with an average grade of 15%. I believe the maximum surpasses 30%, but my computer gets wonky at that point so I can't be exact.

For the first time, we crossed the Gap of Mamore last September, as part of an 80 mile spin around the peninsula. My husband went up it in 34/32t, all in one go. I dismounted and walked a couple of stretches - most notably the nearly vertical section pictured. And in honesty, I don't think my gearing was at fault. My nerves gave out merely looking at the slope. Its pitch seemed so implausible, my courage failed me.

Many years ago now, the thatcher told us, there was a man who lived in the stone cottage. He owned a horse and cart, as well as a bicycle. He alternated riding them over the Mamore Gap, on his way to the town of Buncrana (and back!) every weekend. The bicycle was, of course, a black 3-speed roadster. High gearing, chaincase, the works. I gulped, despite only half-believing this story, reliving again my own trek up Mamore.

It was the first time I got off to walk on a climb in over 3 years. This had upset me at first. But later, it cheered me. There are still bits of the landscape - and in my own back yard, at that - that can reduce me to a sniveling novice. And isn't that wonderful?

There is familiarity to cycling, but also a never ending capacity for novelty. And it is this which I think keeps so many of us coming back to it - day after day and year after year.

With the very best New Year wishes, I thank you all for reading.  


The (Murphy's) Law of Convergence

Traffic patterns are an interesting thing. And interesting especially to observe on quiet country roads, where each encounter - rare as it is - stands out as an act of vehicular drama.

One curious phenomenon I've noticed, is what my friends and I have come to refer to as the Law of Convergence.

See if you've ever encountered something akin to the following:

It's a quiet day. I am cycling along a lovely, gently winding country road. I have not seen another vehicle for miles.

Along this empty road I pedal and pedal, till I finally notice something ahead: There is a delivery van pulled over on the side of the road in the opposite lane. The road has no shoulder, so the van takes up a good part of the actual traffic lane. Which affects me not at all, since it's the opposite side of the road. I keep riding.

Just then I spot something else up ahead. Another cyclist! I can just make out their figure in the distance, heading toward me in the opposite lane beyond where the van is parked.


As I squint at the cyclist to see whether I might recognise them, I then see yet another thing in the distance. It's just a dot on the horizon, in the opposite lane, beyond the parked van and beyond the approaching cyclist. An approaching car.

I can just about make out its shape, when I hear a faint sound behind me. I realise it's another car. Oh boy - we have gone from an empty road to a rural party in no time!

As I keep pedaling, the noise of the car behind me gets louder. The cyclist coming toward me grows more visible, as does the car behind the cyclist. And just as I am nearing that van on the side of the road in the opposite lane, it begins to dawn on me what's about to happen: We are all approaching that parked van at exactly the same time!

That is to say, the car behind me is going to catch up with me at the same moment as the car in the opposite lane is going to catch up with the cyclist pedaling toward me... the pairs of us will then intercept each other right in front of the parked van!

As I realise this, I try to take measures to avoid the bottleneck. I attempt to slow, so that the car behind me can pass me before we both reach the van at least. In fact it seems as if all four of us are now modulating our speeds to try to avoid all crossing paths at the same time. But it's almost as if these efforts only serve to enhance the inevitable. Here I am in front of the van now, face to face with the approaching cyclist, while the two cars have slowed to a crawl behind us, neither able to overtake.

In the end, we handle it all politely of course. Both cars stop completely, while me and the other cyclist proceed, crossing paths in front of the van. Then the car behind me lets the car in the opposite lane go first (they can't both fit with the van blocking part of the road). And finally, having passed the van, I am overtaken by the car that had followed behind me... after which the road remains empty again for miles.

Granted I am not great at explaining these types of scenarios. But I hope my highly technical drawing above was of help.

Now my question is this: How does it happen that 4 lone vehicles, traveling down an empty road, happen to cross paths not only at exactly the same time, but also in front of the only obstacle on an otherwise unobstructed swathe of land?!

I would dismiss it as a coincidence, except that it's happened on more that a few occasions. And I think the cause is a type of target fixation. With the presence of others being so rare on the empty road, all parties involved will naturally have a heightened awareness of each other, as well as of the stationary vehicle. Ironically, this awareness might unconsciously compel them to "gather" even as they try to avoid a bottleneck.

It's inherently a social instinct. And a rather endearing situation to find myself taking part in. We complain about congestion ...yet go out of our way to seek it out, when deprived of it entirely.


Does Your Bicycle Want to Be Named?



I was visiting friends who had given their 5 year old daughter a bicycle for Christmas. They encouraged her to come out and show it off to me and the other guests. Shyly, the girl wheeled it out to the garden. Purple. Princess decals. Streamers. Training wheels. And already splattered with mud - a good sign of use!

"And have you named the wee bike yet?" asked the mother, probably for my benefit. In reply, the girl gave us both a look suggesting her patience for adult displays of stupidity was being thoroughly tested.

"Oh mummy! The bike doesn't want to be named."

This statement was so unexpected, that my first reaction was to burst out laughing. I then thought how interesting it was that, on some level, such a young child showed an awareness of anthropomorphism, including the fact that naming objects is done for the benefit of the people naming them rather than the objects themselves.

Then on my way home, I remembered the comment again and considered it more literally. Because really, I can relate.

While I do tend to name my bikes as a matter of habit/tradition, I have noticed that in practice not all bicycles actually suit having a name or being referred to by name.

For instance, technically my Brompton is called Belinda Maze. But I never actually call it that, either out loud or in writing. I refer to it as The Brompton. That seems a little impersonal for a bike I have made the most use of over the past 4.5 years, but for whatever reason it never really "wanted" to be called by name. Go figure.

On the other hand, my DIY 650B bike is most definitely Alice. "I'll take Alice out today." "Remind me to pump Alice's tyres." "Have you seen Alice?!" and so on.

The naming of the aforementioned bike was actually unintentional, and a little spooky. It was my second or third ride on it, late October 2014, and we had an early frost. The road was glazed over with icy patches and as my tyres rolled over them, the Tom Waits song Alice popped into my head - remaining there, stubbornly, throughout the ride. Then later at home, my husband asked teasingly, "Will you be naming this bike?" I said that I probably would, but hadn't thought of a name just yet. "She looks like an Alice," he said.

Other names were chosen in a far more straightforward manner. My Claude Butler mixte is named Claudia. My Mercian is Mercy Anne. Some manufacturers do make it easy!

I am always interested in others' bicycle naming practices. Do you name your bicycles always, never, or sometimes? Do you actually refer to bikes by their names?

Whether a bicycle "wants" to be named we might never know. But the possibility cannot be discounted.



Won't Be Long Now



I am noticing that every year there is more and more attention paid to the Winter Solstice. On the radio this morning they where playing solstice-themed songs. I hadn’t even known they existed. They were also discussing Solstice parties. Some parents called in, to say their kids are being taught about Solstice in kindergarten and primary school, complete will little celebrations. Overall it seems that quite a few people are celebrating Solstice now, either in addition and in leu of religious festivities.  I've received a few cards and emails this year that actually wish me a Happy Solstice, unironically. And I'll be going to a party tonight.

Winter Solstice is an easy occasion to mark. It is obvious and observable, and the buildup to it is trackable. But the notion of celebrating it per se, used to confuse me. The shortest day. The deepest recess of winter. Is that not rather glum? Then it hit me, that what's being celebrated is the turning point. The shortest day is also the end of shortening days. Days will only get longer from here on.

In Ireland, there remains a dread of winter so deep and so serious, I can only attribute it to persistence of cultural memory. For today, in their heated homes and vehicles, few are affected by the relentlessness of the elements. Few rely on daylight to seek sustenance. Cold and wind and early nightfall make hardly an impact on most people's work lives and social lives. But the dread remains, as if there is a suspicion that all of this [sweeping gesture] stuff can go at any time, leaving only the brutal realities of landscape and weather. And then where would we be?

There is an undercurrent of anxiety that begins in late October and grows, slowly and steadily, through the following month through the early days of December. Its buzz can be heard, almost like an electric current.

Then, with Solstice, comes the release.

"Sure it won't be long now!" I hear again and again this week.

Even though there are still two months of winter remaining, there is a collective feeling of having survived the difficult part, thus being encouraged to hang on for the rest.

Having always enjoyed winter, I cannot emotionally partake in this subtle cultural drama. Still the longer I live here, the more it feels as if I sense Winter Solstice, as a turning point and a special occasion at least. I have even developed a ritual. I go out on my bike and attempt to catch the last of the daylight, stopping at the beach or along a forest path to watch the light wane. And then, with a sense of having witnessed something important, I ride home in the semi-darkness, feeling something akin to "it won't be long now" ...despite knowing rather too well that the harshest winter months are still ahead.



The Elusive Finish



Most bicycle builds begin with a vision, a plan, an ideal of what it is the maker wants to accomplish. Then, somewhere along the way, reality intervenes. Unforeseen compatibility issues arise. Certain parts turn out to be unavailable when the bicycle is being assembled. Budgets shrink. Inevitably, compromises are made, and the end result can deviate quite a bit from the original vision.

It was exactly 4 years ago now that I built the frame and fork for this bicycle. And 2 years ago that I first assembled and rode it. In between these two events, I underwent some major life changes, including a move overseas. When I finally got the opportunity to put the bike together, I just didn't have the stamina - or the resources - to care about the details as much as I did back when I was planning the build. On a short visit to Boston, I dragged the frame, fork, and a burlap sac full of spare parts, to a friend's house. Mumbling "doesn't matter, let's just get it ridable," we used whatever compatible parts were on hand.



The result - promptly named Alice - was by no means bad. In fact I was delighted by how well the bicycle rode. Not only did the frame and fork not shatter immediately beneath me, but over the next two years the bike proved feisty, comfy and dependable. It was close to what I had in mind when I first set out to build it.

So what exactly did I envision when I conceptualised this bike 4 years ago? Mainly: I wanted to make a bike that was not a compromise between, but a combination of, a performance machine and a fully equipped mixed terrain traveller. The distinction is an important one. The former implies sacrificing performance for the sake of having fat tyres, mudguards and a rack for carrying luggage. The latter implies that, if done just right, both can be achieved. Inspired by Jan Heine's descriptions of sub-20lb fully equipped brevet bikes from the 1930s, I was convinced this was possible. And I built the frame and fork with this in mind from the start, using the lightest tubing and fittings - sometimes against the advice of my instructor! - and aggressive low-trail geometry, to achieve an exceptionally light and (I hoped) responsive frameset.

Aside from that, I wanted the bicycle to have a modern drivetrain with low gearing. And to look aesthetically pleasing, yet muted and unfussy. I did not want a gleaming remake of a vintage French museum piece, but a classic/modern melange that reflected my needs and preferences more than any textbook ideal.



The first iteration of Alice accomplished these things to some extent. There were, however, some niggles. Firstly, the fit. The too-long stem, combined with handlebars I had not originally meant to use, proved more uncomfortable than I anticipated. No matter what adjustments I made, I could never quite get the feel of the "cockpit" quite right.

I also knew pretty much straight away that the drivetrain - 10speed Chorus married to Rene Herse cranks - would not be staying. I will not go into detail on that topic here, but let's just say combining modern Campagnolo Ergo systems with vintage-style chainrings doesn't work perfectly for me, and I am done experimenting in that regard. In future, I would either go with an all-classic, friction-shift drivetrain if I wanted to keep the RH cranks, or all modern.

In the looks department, everything was good, except that the overabundance of silver-coloured parts began to bother my eyes over time. The bike was literally too shiny!

And finally, there was the weight. As those who've aimed for a lightweight bicycle build know, the only way to achieve this is to scrutinise every single component obsessively (see: Toward an Understanding of Weight Weenie-ism). Not having done that at all when the bike was first assembled, it is perhaps not surprising that it ended up heavier than I had hoped (just under 25lb complete). Now, weight doesn't bother me for weight's sake. But on a bike that is meant to be performance-oriented, ridden by a fairly lightweight and not very powerful rider, it does make a difference. I could especially sense the weight in the wheels, which felt noticeably more effortful to rotate than the wheels on my skinny-tyre roadbike, especially when accelerating and climbing.

While, visually, the re-build of Alice was quite subtle (so subtle that none of my local friends even noticed a difference!), it addressed all of these issues.



For the handlebars and stem, I considered several possibilities but in the end - influenced heavily by my husband's recent adventures -  decided to go for some used Italian racing parts. The 3T Prima199 bars have massive amounts of reach and drop with lots of hand positions, which is what I wanted. And with the 80mm Cinelli XA stem the reach is perfect. This stem and bar combination is also quite a bit lighter than the previous Nitto/Soma setup, so I saved some weight with this change.



In keeping with the Italian/ weight savings theme, I also replaced the original seatpost with a sexy carbon fibre Spada (imagines seatpost singing "I'm too sexy for this bike"...).



Having found new homes for the Rene Herse crankset and the 10-speed Chorus parts that made up the drivetrain previously, I then moved over the 11-speed Chorus bits from my Seven Axiom - except instead of using a Sram setup in the back as I had done there, this time I was able to go all-Campag. Because luckily, Campagnolo had recently released its new Potenza 11-speed group, which allows for low gearing.



The Potenza derailleur accommodates cogs up to 32t, and my cassette is 11-32t. The levers and derailleurs and chainrings all play together perfectly. I have tried to drop or jam my chain through deliberate awkward maneuvering, but have been unsuccessful so far. The 11-32t, paired with a 50-34t crankset, gives me a nice range of gears. My lowest gear ratio is not quite 1:1 as it was previously, but nearly. And so far, it seems that the missing low gear is well compensated by the bicycle's sudden weight loss and the rider's gradual fitness gain.



And finally... the wheels. The original wheels were built impeccably, quality-wise. But they were not performance wheels. I'd been planning to re-build them as soon as I could find a local willing to take on my "exotic" 650B setup. At last, I found one: Me! You can read about how this happened here, but long story short I can now build wheels. I will describe the 650B rebuild project step-by-step in a separate post, but to summarise briefly: I re-used the original Pacenti PL23 rims, re-lacing them with light double-butted spokes and a lightweight front hub (the original generator hub needs servicing, and is temporarily out of commission).



I also converted the wheels to run tubeless and fitted them with lighter tyres. All in all, I removed nearly 2lb in weight off the original wheel + tyre setup. And let me assure you, I can feel the difference when riding the bike - especially accelerating and uphill.



As pictured, Alice now weighs in at just over 21lb. That's including mudguards and front rack, but not including handlebar bag. I could have brought it down to sub-20lb by opting for a lighter saddle (the Brooks C17 being not exactly weight-weenie territory), using a rackless handlebar bag setup, and making a few other minor changes. But for the sake of comfort and utility I decided not to do any of that. Once I rode the bike with the new wheels and tyres, I knew the crux of the matter lay there. The current overall weight is fine with me, considering how well the bicycle feels in action.



In the long term, I will probably return to integrated lighting (a project for my friend Velo Lumino, formerly known as Somervillain, perhaps). But for now I am just sharing the Lezyne battery lights that we use on all our road bikes.

In the nearer future I might also outline the lugs in metallic copper, and finally get the poor girl some decals. Oh and I'd like a sexier brake hanger for the rear, than the one I currently have. But none of these are pressing matters.



I've been riding this bike in its revamped state for a couple of weeks now, and could not be happier with the end result of the modifications. It's the same bike, yet a different bike. With the dramatically lighter wheels (1490g for the pair), it is as fast and responsive as a skinny-tyre roadbike - no compromises. The drivetrain works like a normal modern drivetrain, freeing me from anxiety during tricky elevation changes. With the altered handlebar setup, the fit is absolutely perfect now, and the bike feels better balanced as well. Finally, the infusion of matte black and gray parts makes it easier on my eyes.

To my eye, the modern Italian bits also work nicely as a way of shaking up the French museum piece look, which I think can at times overwhelm these types of builds. I know that some people look at the "ugly" handlebars, and the drivetrain, and all the black parts, and the Tacx bottle cage and go "Huh?" But to me it all makes sense. (Oh and the plastic cage, before anyone asks, is to make it easier for me to grab and replace the bottle while I ride. I find the metal ones too grippy.)



But all the minutiae aside, the main thing is this: the bicycle feels finished, in a way it didn't before. Certainly when I look at it. But even more so when I ride it. It feels finished, finally allowing me to breathe a sigh of relief and satisfaction, in that the project I began 4 years ago is completed, as intended - with not only the frameset, but now also the wheels, that I built myself.

With sincere thanks to Mike Flanigan, Jan Heine, Somervillain, Curious Velo, Mr. Wheelson, and my very own O.G., for the help, advice and inspiration, Alice and I are off for our evening constitutional.

The Winter Animal



Ah winter, with its fabled gift of rosy complexions! Alas to me it has been overly generous. I am one of those people whose face turns a deep beetroot red after time outdoors in cold weather. Not awash with a flattering pink glow. Not charmingly rosy-cheeked. I am talking blotchy all over coverage. It's the kind of pigmentation that has prompted people to ask "did you run a marathon to get here?" even if I hardly exerted myself. And it's the reason I try to allow myself a 10 minute "cool down" between reaching my destination by bike and entering any kind of professional environment (the facial equivalent of waiting for sweat stains to dry?).

With a friend similarly afflicted, we decided to look up what causes the effect. We were rather disappointed by the obvious and unromantic explanation. It's the body's attempt to warm up the part it senses being exposed to the cold. Upon sensing the face is exposed,  it pumps more blood toward it to warm it up. On pale complexions, this is more noticeable than on tanner ones, since the skin surface is more transparent. And on top of that, with some people the temp-regulation mechanism over-reacts, exaggerating the effect further. It appears I am doomed to be red-faced in winter.

It's a nuisance. But then again, there is something rather nice about the cyclical nature of such nuisances. I like the idea of people being seasonal animals. Changing colour, texture, even size throughout the year.

In winter I grow paler, dryer, flakier.  My feet shrink half a size.  I gain a bit of weight. My hair colour darkens. My freckles go into hiding. My sleeping patterns change as do my food preferences. I become a slightly different animal. And the more time I spend outdoors, on foot and on my bike, the more I grow aware of it.

For quite a few of my friends, winter is a time for hibernation. Cuddle up indoors, hot coco mugs, wooly blankets. Me, I am not a hibernating animal. I love the stripped, hollowed-out quality of the cold air. The low, mad slant of the winter sun. The frosty rot of the forest floor under my boots. The hiss of the slushy road under my tyres. The high contrast cut-out look of the dark bare trees against the bleached-out sky.

And while I'd far prefer to emerge from the cold rosy-cheeked, I'll take the beetroot blotches just the same, grateful for the time out of doors and all the wonderous changes that the seasons bring.



Would You Rather?



It's a game I inadvertently ended up playing over the weekend, and I now pass it on to you. In short:

Would you rather?

A. ride short distances for work and errands every day, but give up roadcycling completely, or

B. put in all the road miles you want, but give up utility cycling altogether?

It may seem like a silly and unnecessary choice. But actually the question was posed to me seriously, by an acquaintance who is moving. She is choosing between two different locations. One is densely urban and close to her new job. It's a good opportunity, in that the property is a partially work-subsidised, very nice townhouse. The neighborhood is cycling-friendly and full of amenities. But it is far from the edge of the city and will make setting off on her roadbike so inconvenient as to make it virtually impossible once her time constraints and work/family obligations are factored in. If she moves to this location, she'll be able to ride for transport all she wants, but will most likely give up roadcycling as a sport.

The other location is a house that is way out in the outskirts. It is sort of close to her husband's job, but the bigger consideration is that a family member owns it and has offered them a favourable deal. The house is beautiful, as is the rural location. She can go out on her roadbike straight out the front door. There is even a cycling club that meets down the road. Unfortunately, the area is purely farming/residential, with not even a village centre nearby. It is 12 miles from the city, and the roads in that direction are not cycling friendly. If she moves to this location, she'll be able to do a lot of roadcycling and other outdoor activities, but will most likely give up utility cycling, using the car for transport.

Of course the solution that immediately comes to my mind, is to compromise. Find an affordable, maybe not so glamorous property on the very edge of the city, so that it's both cycleable to work/shops and a good starting point for road rides? But I appreciate that logistics might not make this possible in all situations.

The polarised choice also brings into focus my own preferences. Because if pressed between A & B, I would choose A without even needing to pause and think about it.

"Ride short distances for work and errands every day, but give up roadcycling?" Sure. I mean, I'd rather not give it up. But if I had to, it would not be a catastrophe.

"Put in all the road miles you want, but give up utility cycling?" The idea of this makes me panic. I do not think I could cope.

It may seem odd to consider myself primarily a transportation cyclist, when my road milage dwarfs my utility milage. Though if I look at it in terms of trips rather than miles it makes more sense. I make many short utility trips throughout the day - compared to one roadcycling trip a day, at most.

But it's about more than milage, or numbers of trips, or any other quantifiable stuff. Roadcycling is a pastime, a passion. It in turn engages me, obsesses me, brings me joy, frustrates me, challenges me. But as fantastic as all of that is, I know that I can do without it.

Utility cycling... Hmm it is different. It is far less dramatic. But more solid. It is not a passion, and not a pastime, but rather somehow a physical part of me - like eating and drinking and sleeping and needing fresh air. I might take it for granted most of the time. But to even imagine being deprived of it, feels suffocating.


Planning a Wheelbuild: Hypothetical Practicalities



After my earlier post on wheelbuilding, many expressed an interest in the concrete details of the process: specifically the costs, and where to source supplies. I had planned to cover that in describing my recent 650B project (all done now!). However, as I prepared to write about it, I realised that would not really work. Being more of a re-build than a fresh build, I did not actually buy anything for that project other than spokes, so it won't provide an opportunity to discuss the thought process behind sourcing parts. So instead I’ve decided to dedicate a post to a hypothetical but very realistic build, starting from scratch.

A crucial part of the wheelbuilding process is the planning stage. Firstly, because we must make sure all parts are compatible. But just as importantly, because the feel, performance and weight of our end-result wheels will depend on the parts we start out with. Therefore, at the onset, it might help to ask ourselves some questions:



What are these wheels for?
Performance, utility, smooth roads, harsh roads, velodrome racing, hilly brevets... you get the idea.

Who are these wheels for? 
Namely, the cyclist's weight, power output and riding style. A heavy and powerful rider will call for different build parameters than a lightweight, gentle rider.

Are there any special properties you want these wheels to have? 
Superior comfort, aerodynamic advantage, crosswind resistance, extra stiffness?... It is good to decide in advance what is important to you, as some of these characteristics are in direct conflict with one another.

Do you care about the weight of the wheels?
If yes, what total weight are you aiming for?

Aside from this, you will of course need to know what size of wheels you are looking to build, and whether you want them to be clincher or tubular, rim-brake/disc-brake/rod-brake compatible, and so on... as well as your budget.

As we consider the answers to these questions, we start to realise there are countless possibilities. And since it would take a book to cover them all, I won’t attempt to do that. Rather I will use myself as an example and explore a possible build I am contemplating for the future.

So first, in answer to the questions above:  I want to build a set of 700C performance wheels, tubular and rim-brake compatible. I weigh 60kg, and am a fairly gentle rider. I would like these wheels to give me an advantage in climbing and acceleration. I would also like the wheels to be crosswind resistant. My target weight is sub-1,300g for the set (not including skewers, cassette, or tyres). As far as budget, I would ideally like to spend not too much over €350, selling my remaining clincher wheels afterward to offset that cost.

With these parameters in mind, I begin to source the required parts: rims, hubs and spokes.



When choosing rims, factors to consider include: rim depth, rim profile, rim weight, and the number of holes the rim is drilled for. Because for my hypothetical build I am looking for climbing wheels that are crosswind resistant, I know that I need a rim with a low, rounded profile. I also know that I want the rims to be lightweight, and that at my weight and riding style I can get away with pushing the envelope in that regard.

So what constitutes a lightweight rim? The current consensus seems to be, that an alloy rim is lightweight if it is in the ballpark of 400g. If I can find one at sub-400g, that would be spectacular. I could also go the carbon fibre route and get the weight down further. But there are complications associated with carbon rims that I do not want to go into here, so to keep things simple let’s stick with alloy.

After searching far and wide, I’ve come across a few options. And here I mean literally just a few, because shallow profile rims that are also super lightweight and tubular, is not a popular combination these days (in fact, a good alternative approach would be to stalk eBay or local bike shops for NOS rims of 80s-90s vintage, when this combination of features was more common). But modern rims do exist that meet these criteria. And the best option I've found so far are the Ambrosio Crono Formula F20 rims. Described as "climbing rims", they are alloy, tubular, low profile, and they weigh 340g per rim! Priced at roughly €65 apiece, depending on the retailer, the cost is very reasonable. Sounds like I've found my rims.



Now onto the hubs. The rims I chose are available in 28/32/36 hole versions, and the hubs will obviously need to match. Opting for the lower spoke count option (though still not "low" by contemporary standards), I am looking for a lightweight hubset with 28 holes.

And what is considered lightweight in the world of modern hubs? Short answer without getting too deeply into it: around 100g for the front, 250g for the rear. It is not especially difficult to find hubs in this weight range across different pricepoints. But it's important to keep in mind other factors, such as quality, durability, and weather-resistance. Some hubs are more delicate than others, and this information is revealed in forum threads and reviews. If you find a hubset that you think might be right for your build, do some research on it before buying, or ask a knowledgeable seller for advice.

My own research led me to consider Bitex hubs. Specifically, I've heard good feedback from several builders now about the RAF12 and RAR12 (front and rear) models, which are said to offer a pretty good combination of light weight and robustness, especially for a low-impact rider such as myself.  These hubs are available in 24/28/32 hole versions and various colours. The weight is 85g for the front and 215g for the rear. The cost is around €120 for the set, depending on the seller.



Once I have my hypothetical rims and hubs in hand, the "fun" can begin. And by fun I mean deciding on your lacing pattern (actually fun) and measuring for spoke length (not at all fun). You will, of course, now also need to decide which spokes to use.

Since I want to make my wheels as crosswind-resistant as possible, I am going to go with round (not bladed) spokes. And since I am going for "climbing wheels," I want lightweight double-butted spokes (pictured on left). Considering that the rider is myself, I know that I can go with lightweight spokes quite safely, especially since - with 28-hole rims and hubs in hand - I'll not be building a wheel with low spoke count.

So how much do "lightweight" spokes weigh? Now, some of the very lightest round alloy spokes available (again we are ignoring carbon here for simplicity's sake), are the mythical Super Spokes (1.8mm-1.4mm-1.8mm; 3.61g per spoke) from the Belgian manufacturer Sapim. However, they are hard to get even in Europe, expensive, and - as I understand from some wheel builders I've spoken with - not without their quirks. The next lightest option, and one I have ready retail access to, are the Sapim Laser spokes (2.0mm-1.5mm-2.0mm; 4.27g per spoke). Both my husband and I have used these spokes already in our first builds, so I already know that I like them and find them easy to work with. My "spoke dealer" Ryan (yes, he's as exciting and dangerous as he sounds) offers excellent prices on these, and a bundle of 56 (28 per wheel x 2 wheels) will run me roughly €38.

Now as far as lacing patterns... I see this as an entirely subjective, individual decision. On my 650B wheels I did single cross in the front, then in the rear triple cross on the drivetrain side and radial on the non-drivetrain. I decided on this myself, after reading all sorts of nonsense interesting stuff about optimal comfort vs power transfer, then passionately debating it all with my husband. Whether placebo effect or not, my re-built 650B wheels feel amazing. I may or may not go for the same pattern for this 700C hypothetical build. But in any case, I do not want to start a debate here about which lacing patterns are best, under what circumstances, and why. You can read about all that from a number of sources far more knowledgeable than me and decide for yourself. What I wanted to say though, is that you do have to decide before you order the spokes, as the lacing pattern will be one of the factors determining their length. The other factors are your rim and hub dimensions, and once you measure them very carefully you can determine the spoke length using one of several handy online calculators, including Sapim's own. Typically, the seller you order spokes from will then cut them to size for you.



Of course when ordering spokes and calculating the total weight of a wheel build, let's not forget the nipples (or, alternatively, for the squeamish - "spoke ends").

Most spokes come standard with brass ones (roughly 1g per unit). Or, you can go for the lighter (.4g) and more expensive aluminium ones, with the added bonus of being able to get them in various colours, but also the added drawback of them being easier to crack while tensioning. A wheelset's worth bundle of festive aluminium nipples will run me roughly €12.

So! Now that I have hypothetically ordered all of my parts, let's total up the weights and costs and see what we've got here:

Ambrosio Crono rims (2): 680g / €130
Bitex RAF/R12 Hubset (1): 300g / €120
Sapim Laser Spokes (56): 240g / €38
Sapim Aluminium Nipples (56): 22g  / €12

Total weight: 1,240g
Total cost: €300

Holy smokes. Is that right? I had to check my numbers after I first calculated this, as it seemed too good to be true. But everything is correct.

The weight is impressively light by current racing wheel standards. And the cost is excellent compared to off-the-shelf wheels. Not to mention that the custom aspects of the build, such as its crosswind resistant characteristics, are not easy to come by off the shelf even at top prices.

I am not planning any new wheel builds just yet. But if I do decide to make myself a set of ultra-light climbing wheels, these are the parts I would use. I hope this breakdown was helpful (despite, for readers from other continents, the Eurocentric nature of the specs).  If anyone would like to share their own builds - either real or ideal - I am sure we shall all find that extremely interesting.

And with that I bid you a Happy Weekend, pausing to remind you that unused aluminium "spoke ends" make for perfect holiday decor!


Seek the Wise One



"What is the thing you want most in the world?" they asked the Struggling Cyclist.

"I want to climb steep hills on my bike," he replied. "And I want to be fast. And I want it to feel easy."

"Ah! Well, you just have to ride again and again until all of those things happen."

"I have tried. But it's hard. And my progress is slow. I am always the Struggling Cyclist."

"Oh. Well, in that case there is only one thing to do."

"And what is that?"

"You must visit the Wise One. If you go to him, and give him the things he asks for, he will teach you secrets - tremendous, spiritual secrets - that will help you circumvent all that and make your wishes come true."

And they marked the address on a map.

The Wise One lived many miles away. To reach him the cyclist pedaled for days, crossing several mountain ranges. As usual, he struggled terribly, dismounting and walking his bike for miles at a time. But at length, he reached a village in the middle of nowhere, and some miles beyond it a small white chalet atop of a freakishly steep hill. It was precisely the sort of nondescript structure that wise and magical persons are known to choose as their residence.

As if foreseeing his guest's arrival, the Wise One opened the door before a single knock had sounded. His age was as stunning as his frailty. He wore garments of indeterminate designations and formidably padded slippers. His eyes were half-shut, his face an ashen bundle of folds, and his brows deeply furrowed.

"What is it that you want, cyclist?" he said in a not entirely welcoming tone. But this was to be expected.

"I was told you could teach me tremendous spiritual secrets that will end my cycling struggles, if I give you the things you ask for."

The Wise One studied the cyclist for several minutes silently. He furrowed his brows ever deeper and exhaled many meaningful sighs. And finally he spoke.

"Salami."

"I'm sorry, what?"

"As you say, you must give me what I want. And what I want is salami. Mind you, be sure to get the good organic kosher stuff. In that village over there. And be back in 40 minutes."

And with that he shut the door in his visitor's face.

In a panic, the Struggling Cyclist raced to the village deli. To make it there and back in 40 minutes seemed an impossible feat even in the best of circumstances, let alone having to deal with scaling several hills in the process. But so desperately did the cyclist desire access to the Wise One's wisdoms, that in a pool of sweat and with barely half a second to spare the task was completed.

Again the Wise One opened the door just as the cyclist was poised to knock on it weakly. Without a word, the elderly creature grabbed the salami from his visitor's trembling hand, broke it in half, and began to munch enthusiastically. Then, nodding with approval, he handed the other half back to the cyclist to eat, observing in silence. And then he opened the door wider, gesturing his guest inside.

When imagining his visit, the Struggling Cyclist had been determined to memorise every inch of this mystical dwelling's interior. However overcome with exhaustion, he collapsed into sleep straight away and saw nothing.

The following morning, the Wise One ushered the cyclist out of doors before sunrise, so the interior remained a mystery. And as the cyclist blinked and shivered in the cold, the Wise One again spoke to him:

"Sardines. Loctite. And a hole puncher."

"And be sure to return within an hour and a half's time," he added sternly. "I require these items most urgently."

In the bitter morning cold, the Struggling Cyclist despaired. This time he would need to visit several shops, in several different villages - each of them up a horrendous incline. He still ached from his long trip and from the previous evening's errand. How could he cope with this monstrous task?

But the Struggling Cyclist reminded himself, that he had come to seek enlightenment. And if The Wise One had eccentric wants which needed satisfied before he would yield his secrets, then so be it. And so to one shop, then another he pedaled will all his might. And though many times he wished to dismount and walk on the uphill sections, the time did not permit it. And so he remained on his bike, and pushed, and sweated, and arrived at the chalet a sweaty nauseous mess with the requisite items in tow.

Again as if by magic, the chalet door opened at the precise moment of the cyclist's arrival, the scent of freshly baked bread wafting out. Out stepped the Wise One and again, saying nothing at all, grabbed the objects out of the cyclist's hands. He then wordlessly slipped back indoors and for minutes on end the cyclist could hear the sounds of frenzied hole punching and tube-squeezing fill the air like some glorious concerto. Finally, the old man emerged with a platter overflowing with freshly baked bread and sardines, which the cyclist was invited to eat on the small front porch.

The strange requests continued. The Wise One's whims were varied and unpredictable. One day he might demand canned lichen fruit, sold in one supermarket only, that supermarket being at the other side of a mountain pass. On another occasion, he'd request a VHS tape documentary on the fountain pen collecting community between the years 2003 and 2009, available in a library two counties away. From sauerkraut, to orthopedic shoe inserts, to oversized bakelite sewing buttons, the demands were seemingly endless. And always urgent. Each time the Struggling Cyclist could only barely make the deadlines, arriving half-unconscious and needing food and sleep so badly by the time he made it, that he could not describe the interior of The Wise One's residence.

Finally, after several weeks of this, the cyclist grew unbearably curious. When would the time finally come when the Wise One would deem him worthy to reveal his secrets to? Or was it up to him to ask - nay, to demand, insisting that he was ready? As he contemplated this on his return from an errand to procure a roll of burlap sacking most urgently, suddenly the cyclist was struck with a realisaiton: he was running early!

He was running early. And he was feeling clear-headed enough to be thinking all of these thoughts. But most importantly... he wasn't struggling. In fact, he hadn't struggled for days now, he realised, no matter how steep the hills to his destinations and how tight the deadlines.

When the door of the Wise One's chalet opened, as always, in anticipation of his arrival, the cyclist ran forth and put his hand on the old man's shoulder joyously.

"I know what you have done for me, Wise One! How utterly stupid of me not to see through your method earlier."

The old man stood there silently for some time, darkening in the face. Finally he uttered a deep, regretful sigh.

"Dog gone it," he said, with a sad shake of his head. "And there I thought I had another fool who got the address of that other feller wrong, to do all my shopping. Ah well, I suppose you'll be going now. Well at least you lasted longer than the others!"

And as the cyclist stood there, speechless, burlap sacking still clutched in his hand, the old man added:

"And for heaven's sake, get that nasty drivetrain cleaned and oiled! I can hear you coming up the hill a mile away."



On Tyre Width: Sensations and Social Representations



There is a branch of psychology, nearer to its border with philosophy than with science, which deals with a concept called Social Representations. It is an intriguing field of study, with the central premise that an individual’s perception of reality is shaped inasmuch by cultural narratives as it is by direct physiological perceptions. And further, that physical sensations are, in of themselves, shaped by cultural narratives to begin with.

In the cycling world, trends in tyre width offer an almost too perfect real-life scenario to see this phenomenon at play.

Over the past few years there has been a distinct shift in the popular narrative regarding what tyre width is optimal. I am sure I can’t be alone in remembering that as recently as 5 years ago, 23mm was considered the standard width for road use, and 21mm were not uncommon. When I moved to Ireland, some cyclists were even riding 19mm. The 25mm tyres on my roadbike were seen as exotically wide. And slow!

“You are making things harder on yourself with those big fat tyres,” I was told by People Who Knew, by People With Experience. This was followed by convincing technical explanations as to why narrow tyres roll faster.

Which is all well and good. People are entitled to their opinions. Except…

A couple of days ago, I bumped into one of those people again. I don’t think he remembered our earlier tyre debate; it had been a while. As bike people do, he examined my bike. When his gaze fell on the tyres he gave them a critical look: “You’d do better with 28s sure!” As I listened in stunned and not undelighted silence, he then proceeded to explain why wider tyres run at lower pressures roll faster, referencing road.cc, which in turn had referenced “that clever German fella in Seattle.”

“But sure you'll feel it yourself!” he added, encouraging me to give wider tyres a try as we waved good-bye.

So what exactly is it that we feel as we ride tyres of different widths and form impressions of speed and comfort? If the same people who were convinced they felt fastest on 21mm tyres a few years ago are now convinced they feel fastest on 25mm tyres, there must be some degree of external influence involved. To what extent are these physical sensations shaped by the current popular narratives - by the latest arguments in cycling magazines and forums, by the opinions of club-mates and bike shop staff, by what "the pros" ride?

I am no stranger to a 28mm tyre on a road bike. Or to a 32mm tyre. Or 42mm for that matter. And like everyone else, I sense - or think I sense - the so-called sweet spot. For road use, that sweet spot hovers at 25mm. Too wide by 2010 standards and too narrow by 2016 standards, it stubbornly persists in feeling “best,” to me. I cannot justify that feeling with a scientific explanation of rolling resistance. All I can say is 28mm+ feels clumsy and sub-23mm feels precarious, whereas 25mm feels like all is right with the world.

For mixed terrain, in the 650B size, I thought that I had settled on 42mm. Then recently I rode a pair of 38mms for a bit, when testing a batch of tyres a manufacturer had sent. When I switched back to my original tyres I was surprised to find that I missed the slightly narrower width. In what way the 38mm felt better, I cannot exactly say. But I am open to re-examining my preferences.

How do you know what tyre width feels optimal? And has this changed for you over the years?


DIY Two-Tone? Long-Term Impressions of Brooks Leather Handlebar Tape



I still remember how uneasy I felt when, 5 years ago, I decided to wrap the handlebars on my nascent new roadbike with leather bar tape. It is not that I am against using leather. I have owned leather shoes, bags, jackets, bicycle saddles. But in using leather, I feel a heavy sense of visceral respect for the material. And I reserve it for products which I know will see a lot of use; products which I hope are with me for the long haul.

This is why the leather bar tape gave me pause. Me and handlebar tape... we did not have a history of long and meaningful relationships. On my previous roadbike I must have changed bar tape (cloth and synthetic variants) more than half a dozen times within a two year period. On a couple of those occasions this was because I altered my handlebar setup and the tape did not survive the re-wrap. But in the other instances, I would simply wear it out with alarming speed - destroy it with my death grip, or corrosive palm sweat, or who knows what. The synthetic cork would quickly grow filthy, then curl at the edges and tear. The shellacked cloth would crack or wear down. The microtex stuff I'd tried toward the end lasted longest, yet still grew tattered in a way I cannot account for by the time that bike made it to its new owner.



Things did not bode well for the Brooks leather handlebar tape, with its aura of organic vulnerability. But I got it anyway, the pull toward its softness and beauty winning out over my misgivings. Stifling niggles of guilt, I hoped it would last me a year, which would certainly have been a record.

It has lasted me nearly five years so far.

The bicycle this tape was on, was my Seven Axiom - the bike I have put by far the most miles on of any bicycle I've owned. And after all those thousands miles, in the heat, cold, sun, rain and snow, the only signs of wear this tape showed was colour fade.



While the tape isn't waterproofed with any sort of treatment or top layer, I have found it untroubled even by heavy rain. To the scorching sun it is more sensitive.

The fade happened gradually. Having started out a dark and saturated violet, the colour moved toward a toned-down mauve in its first year of use. Then, slowly, over the following years, toward a bleached brownish-taupe.

A couple of months ago, I disassembled my Seven Axiom. Its frame being in transition, I "loaned" most of its components to another bike. And as I took apart the handlebar setup, I fully expected the bar tape to crack and rip. Instead, it unraveled with a graceful elasticity, revealing its hidden stripes of still-pigmented purple underneath the bits that faced the elements.

With renewed love for this long suffering bit of dressing, I transferred it to my 650B DIY bike. I was hoping for a neat stripey effect. The kind that some manufacturers produce deliberately. But the discoloration was too varied for that, and instead I got some rather half-hazard streaks of violet and brown and taupe.

Compared to its original state, it has now also attained a sort of glowing sheen - brought on, I am guessing, by years of greasy handling. It was almost as if the very things that destroyed every other bar tape I've used, have made this one thrive.



When I first got the Brooks leather bar tape, it had been an un-tested novelty. Now that it's been around some years, you will find all manner of feedback. Mainly: it is praised for its stretch and reusability, criticised for its colour-fading and price. Make of that what you will, and you now have my feedback to add to the mix. I should note that Brooks now also offers non-leather models: Cambium rubber bar tape, and microfibre bar tape.  I have not tried either and can't comment on their qualities.

How much life does my tape still have in it? I have no idea. But I'll take whatever it's got to give. And I've now replaced the tape on my other two drop-bar bikes with its siblings, in different colours. The cost works out less in the long run. And the leather gets lots of use, and lots of love.



A Fine Day for a Knit-a-Bike



It seems that a good portion of LB readers are fellow knitters! And recently someone asked whether I know of any bicycle knitting patterns that are designed around a step-through, not a diamond frame bike. I recalled having seen one, but couldn't remember the source. So I did a little search, and not only found it, but ended up testing it out.

The pattern is available for free, and from none other than Po Campo - the Chicago-based manufacturer whose Loop Pannier I reviewed here a few years back. The "Bike and Be Free" dishcloth pattern features a 2-tone colour chart for this step-through bicycle motif.  And of course the chart need not be used exclusively to make dishcloths; you can integrate it into anything from a simple scarf, to a hat, mittens or a sweater.

My idea was to possibly incorporate this pattern into a Scaninavian-style yoke design, similar to the Woodrup cardigan in Ann Kingstone's Bespoke. In knitting my swatch, I modified the chart slightly by mirror-imaging it (so that the bike is shown from the drivetrain side!) and lengthening the crank, but otherwise I followed the design and found it pretty simple.

Not sure I will actually make anything using it, as I prefer to design my own motifs and am not a fan of intarsia colourwork (although repeating the pattern in a yoke would actually make it possible to adapt the stranded method). But in case you want to try it, here is a how-to idea using free resources:

Seamless "Bicycle Jumper" with Scandi-Style Yoke:
Follow this bottom-up sweater pattern from Drops Design, completing the body and the sleeves. Join it all in the round, but stop when you get to the yoke. Now, instead of following their colourwork chart, you will do repeats of Po Campo's "Bike and Be Free" chart. Work out how many repeats you will need by dividing the yoke stitches by the number of stitches required for each bicycle (for example: in my size I will have 240 yoke stitches to work with, and can repeat the bicycle motif - which spans 40 stitches - 6 times). Forgo the hearts in Po Campo's original pattern. Instead, use those spaces for your yoke decreases (depending on fit, you can do either single or paired decreases between each bicycle). Once you've knitted up the yoke, return to the original Drops pattern instructions and finish the neck.

Alternatively, here is a cool vintage bicycle sweater pattern, also available for free. This one is an original 1940s pattern for a man's cycling jersey ("jerkin"). To make the styling more contemporary, I would suggest lengthening both the torso and the sleeves. But otherwise it should look fabulous.

If you have never knit a sweater before, but want to learn the principles of basic, bottom-up sweater construction (it will have to be bottom up, unless you want to knit the bicycle motif upside-down), there are several free resources out there. I've recommended this easy to follow knit-along by Hands Occupied to a few friends now, as it seems particularly accessible. You can follow the method to knit a simple single-tone sweater, then follow Po Campo's chart to knit a single bicycle in the centre using contrasting yarn.

Or, if you are like me and prefer to design everything from scratch, you can also make your own bicycle-themed knitting chart, based on a drawing, logo, or even a photo of your favourite bike. One method of doing this is to use an online ap, like this one (yes, also free). It works pretty well, but if you use a photo, you will need to clean up the image of the bike in photoshop first by removing as much of the background as possible. Alternatively, you can transfer your favourite bicycle picture onto graph paper by tracing the image over a piece of carbon paper. Don't trace every detail, just the prominent parts. A semi-abstract bicycle motif could be nice as well.

Finally, if you fancy some "free" yarn to do all this experimenting with, one way to get it is from your own closet. Find a sweater which is either damaged, or no longer worn. Make a cut at either end. Then unravel the yarn, winding it up into a ball as you go along. This is called "frogging." And yes, you can do it even to factory-made, machine-knit sweaters, with interesting results.

If anyone tries any of these - or other bicycle-themed knits - I would love to see your handiwork. Get in touch, and maybe we could do a feature post over the holidays. Or, would anyone be interested in an actual bicycle themed knit-along? Get in touch and if there is enough interest, I shall organise it. When not out riding our bikes, it's a good antidote to all this black-Friday-cyber-Monday-sheepauction-Wednesday nonsense anyway. Keep warm and enjoy your week-end!





Knowing Our Limits



It was about a month ago that it first happened, this role reversal of sorts. It was a beautiful autumn day and I was cycling with my husband down a winding descent. Not too steep, not too tight, the kind  - I thought - where I can pick up speed with a calm confidence, especially if I know the road. It was a crisp sunny morning, with golden foliage scattered over the road and glistening after the rain.

I was riding slightly ahead. And on approaching a bend, bordered by a stone wall, I could suddenly hear behind me: "Slooow!"

Snapping out of my half-daydream, I scanned for whatever obstacle he must have noticed, but saw none. So I proceeded around the bend. A few seconds later he caught up with me. "Oh my god. Are you okay? Did you not hear me shouting?"

"Yes, sorry. What was that all about?"

"What was that all about! Are you joking? You can't corner on a wet road at that speed."

"What do you mean I can't? I just did."

"Yes, I know you did! Did you not feel your traction going? I nearly lost my front wheel there."

"Traction going? Nope. How would that even feel?"

"...!!"

At this stage I can practically see his mental struggle to take a deep breath and keep calm, and suddenly it dawns on me: He is actually worried about me; he thinks I did something dangerous on the bike! In all our time cycling together, this has never, ever happened before, and the novelty of the situation prevents me from taking it seriously.

I laugh. I tell him that if there is one thing I do know about bike handling, it's how to ride on wet roads, snowy roads, slippery roads. How else would I have survived winters in New England?

"Yes. But you never used to descend this quickly even in the driest weather. I spent all summer encouraging you, so now I feel responsible."

Later we have a talk about cornering and road conditions and I promise to be more careful.

Then two weeks later it happens again.

It is clear now there is a discrepancy. He thinks I am being reckless, or - worse -  am unable to tell safe road conditions from dangerous ones. Whereas I think I am being careful, that I judge the road conditions to be safe for the speed I am doing (and doesn't the fact that I do make it around the bend, prove my judgment to be sound?).

Of course when a loved one is genuinely worried about us, it's not about debating a point. It is not up for debate.

But the situation did get me thinking. How do we determine what is safe for us?...

I can think of several ways.

The most obvious one is fear. We talk about being fearless, as if that's a desirable characteristic to aim for. But fear has an evolutionary purpose. It serves a protective function, our body's way of alerting us to an activity it deems dangerous. The overly-cautious among us perhaps give into it more than necessary. The reckless ones ignore it entirely. The lucky ones develop an instinct for when to listen and when to ignore.

There is also the trial and error method. We can start by pushing the boundaries a little. And if that proves okay, we can push them some more. Then some more. Ideally, we would do this until we have a close call (and  hopefully not an actual crash or injury), which is how we come to know exactly where the danger zone lies.

An alternative method - useful for those whose fear gauge is broken, or who are not the experimenting type  - would be to follow the logic-based route: to rely on laws of physics, and on the rules taught to us by more experienced riders. When our instincts are lacking, or letting us down, it's a good method. But to use it in leu of what our own intuition is telling us can be a struggle.

The cold season is upon us, providing plenty of opportunities for caution.

How do you know your limits on the bike? And has this changed as you gain in experience?



A Cutting-Edge Classic



There are times when you see a bicycle, and you know straight away it has nothing to do with you; you know that it is wholly inappropriate for your style of riding. And yet... And yet, there is something about it that grabs you, that engages your imagination.

It was this very thing that I felt, when I saw Raymond's Argos racing bike.

"Wait... What is that? Why is that?" I wanted to ask. I could not stop running my hand along its unusual knife-thin fork blades.



Not to be confused with Argos the catalog retailer, the tiny Bristol operation that is Argos Racing Cycles has been in the business of making custom steel bicycle frames and forks since 1973.

Raymond is a fan, and owns two Argos bicycles: a classically lugged touring steed, and this sleek lugless racing beast with aero tubes and fork.

The frame and fork, Raymond explained, were optimised for racing  time trials. However, even though he no longer races, he finds the bike - and in particular the fork - quite comfortable for road use.

"Really? That is comfortable?" It was not exactly what came to mind, looking at those massive, flat blades.



It's strange that this piece of equipment fascinated me so. But long after my visit with the bicycle's owner, I kept thinking about the Argos fork blades - especially since the topic of aerodynamics seems to come up as of late in my household. Finally, on a whim, I gave the builder a call.

The son of the original Argos founder, Garry Needham was friendly and casual, and kind enough to tell me all about the fork.

They designed the Argos aero-bladed fork in 1995 to create a competitive advantage in time-trials, and have been making them ever since. The forks are made to measure and built to order - either with Argos frames, or to fit an existing frame from another manufacturer, at a cost of £250.



The forks have been made in the same manner and from the same materials for the last 20 years: with Reynolds 853 blades, Reynolds steerer, cast crown, and stainless dropouts.

But despite its now-classic status, the Argos aero fork actually offers an advantage over contemporary carbon fibre rivals: Because the fork blades are steel, they can be made thinner than carbon fibre blades. And therefore more aerodynamic.

"And what about cross-winds?" I ask suspiciously. Mr. Needham tells me it's fine.

At 750 grams, the Argos aero fork is heavier than a typical steel road-racing fork, and of course heavier still than a typical carbon fork. But in a time trial context, on a flat course, aerodynamics matters more than weight. And possibly the Argos bladed fork is the most aero fork available on the market today.



I do not know why I felt the need to learn all this about a fork I will never have occasion to use. Nevertheless, I found the information to be immensely satisfying, and feel as if a mental itch has been scratched. Even just the idea that someone is sitting there, in a small workshop in Bristol and brazing up a piece of classic, cutting-edge technology, makes me smile.

If you're in the market for a custom frame from a small UK builder, consider Argos Cycles. With over 40 years of experience, they can do the whole range from classic to modern, from racing to touring, and lovely custom paint, with a reasonable price list and waiting list. They also specialise in repairs and restorations.

With thanks to Raymond Kennedy for access to his collection, and to Garry Needham for the talk, I wish everyone a Happy Weekend!


Wheelbuilding: For Health and Recreation



Ladies! Have you always dreamed of your man becoming a wheelbuider, but were never quite sure how to nudge him in that direction? Well, you can now follow these simple steps:

1. Bring home a set of handbuilt wheels made by somebody else.
2. Talk endlessly about how great they are - how light, how quick, how exquisite.
3. Soon he'll wonder out loud whether he ought to try it too.
4. And to this you reply: "Oh, I don't know... it seems so difficult."

Now, sit back and enjoy as he pores over spoke length charts, youtube videos, and memorises Sheldon Brown passages in their entirely (difficult you say?!).

You are very welcome.



Ah, relax everyone. I am only joking. Regardless of gender, obviously we do not "need" a spouse to build us wheels any more than we need them to make us cups of tea (...although of course it's always a lovely gesture when they do. Unless we truly prefer to make our own cups of tea, because like we make it a certain way or super strong or whatever and they do it all wrong. Okay, enough with analogies!).

But anyway. The situation is, we've both been lured into wheelbuilding. By a fellow whom I shall call St. Wheelson, who made me that first set of wheels. For those wheels turned out to be a trojan horse of sorts. They were everything I wanted, before I even knew I wanted it: Lightweight, fast, crosswind-resistant, vintagey-looking, and tubular. After the first ride I was in love. After the first week, I knew that I could never buy factory wheels again.

"And the good news is, you don't have to," said the subversive St. Wheelson helpfully. "They are easy to build yourself."

Encouraged, I had a browse at the literature. After which I was promptly discouraged: It was gibberish.

Luckily, Gary didn't think so, and spent the next two weeks reading seemingly every snippet of text available on the topic. He then decided to give it a try.

It was only as I watched him that the process came alive for me. I guess (ironically?) I am bad at "book learning," and need hands-on experience to properly understand how things work.

So here are my initial impressions of wheelbuilding, as I reflect on Gary's first build and begin to embark on my own...



Wheelbuilding: Is it really "easy?"

Yes and no. And of course it depends on where your aptitudes lie. Personally, I found it easier than expected in the sense that it doesn't require nearly as much physical strength or dexterity as I thought. The spokes are flexible until they are tensioned, so lacing them requires only a light touch. It is easier than weaving a wicker basket for sure.

Also, it turns out I just love using the spoke wrench. I find it one of the easiest bicycle tools to work with. No awkwardness, no upper body strength required, no broken fingernails. Just grip widely and twist gently - pure meditative bliss.

What I do find difficult is the precision of all the measuring and calculating. And later, the endlessness of the truing. It helps to be exacting, and patient. And I possess neither of these qualities.


What is involved?

Firstly, lots of decision making. Unless you are building wheels purely for the building experience (in the sense that you don't care how they ride), you will need to carefully select rims, hubs and spokes, to ensure the final result possesses the properties you want. You will also need to decide in advance how many spokes the wheels will have and what lacing pattern you will use (there are a few to choose from), as the selection of parts will depend on this.

Next, some careful measuring. When you start gathering parts, you make sure you have the rims and hubs first. You will then need to measure them and make some calculations to determine the length of spokes you need. Once you know, order the spokes. The way it works is the seller cuts them to size and threads them (although you can also do it yourself, if you have the equipment).

Finally, the building commences. Assuming you are starting from scratch and not taking an existing wheel apart first, you lace the wheel - which is to say you weave the spokes into their slots in the rim and hub, using whichever pattern you decided on. You do not need any tools at this stage; you use your hands and it is much like weaving a wicker basket or braiding a holiday wreath - only easier.

You then use a spoke wrench to tension the spokes.

And finally (and this is the most time consuming part), you true and dish the wheel. Until it's perfectly round and straight.


What tools do you need?

Well. Ideally, you need: a truing stand, a dishing tool, a spoke tension meter, and a spoke wrench.

However {nervous chuckle} we sort of went rogue and made do with just the spoke wrench ...using the rear triangle of the bike in leu of a truing stand, and judging the spoke tension subjectively. And honestly, it was grand!

Now before a professional builder yells at me for promoting this: We do plan to invest in the proper tools down the road (maybe), and don't try this at home, and so on. But I'm just saying, it's not impossible to do it without all of that stuff. After 100 miles on bad roads, Gary's wheels are holding perfectly true.


Is it worth it?

Again, it depends on what you are after. For me,  it is worth it, because really it is the only way to get a wheel with the exact ride characteristics and weight I want, plus have complete control of the process. There are also those who enjoy the process in of itself, the way I enjoy knitting.

From a financial standpoint, it is worth it compared to factory wheels and boutique wheels. But not really compared to getting the wheels custom made by a small-time, reputable wheelbuilder. I am not sure what the situation is in the US now, but in the UK and Ireland there are reputable guys who will build anything you like fairly cheaply. You will probably not save much doing it yourself, especially if you have to buy all the parts and do not already own the tools.



In Gary's case, he not only did not buy any new tools, but used mostly parts he already owned. Namely: Campagnolo Chorus hubs, extracted from a pair of older, heavy-duty wheels he acquired last year, and a set of delicious Campagnolo Omega tubular rims, NOS.



He decided to go for a 32 spoke wheel, but to use lightweight double-butted Sapim spokes and aluminium nipples (Oh yeah - get used to saying the word "nipples" without giggling, if you plan to get into this stuff. Admittedly, it's tough.).


The complete wheelset came in at 1,500g (not including skewers, cassette or tyres of course). This is respectable, and on par with many modern racing wheels. For example, the Mavic Ksyrium Elites which these wheels replaced come in at 1,550g. Like the Ksyrium Elites, Gary's handbuilt wheels are quite stiff. Unlike the Ksyrium Elites though, they are crosswind-resistant and cushy, and tubular.

When building the wheels and selecting the parts for them yourself, all of these factors can be tailored to one's liking.


I would describe my role in Gary's build as mostly observational, and participatory only in an educational sense. However, I have since also started on my own build.

For a while now, I've been dreaming of getting the 650B wheels on my DIY bike "redone" to be a bit lighter and livelier. Of course I never in my wildest dreams imagined tackling that myself, but it looks like that's exactly what is happening. I will write about that process in a more concrete, step-by-step fashion, with pictures of every stage in case it might be helpful to others.


I Am a Slow Moving Vehicle



I got chatting to a fellow the other day who commutes to work by bike. He has been cycling for a couple of years now, having bought a racing bike as part of the cycle to work scheme.

Eying up the bike I was on, he said, "Right enough, all that would be handy!" - gesturing sweepingly at the mudguards and racks and bags and upright handlebars.

"Why didn't you get one like it?" I ask.

"Ach, where I live it would be too slow. Drivers would go mad sitting behind me!"

I was taken aback by this explanation. Not because I've never heard it, but because I haven't heard it in quite a long time. In fact, the last time I heard it was in Boston, before transportation cycling had become popular there, and when the few cyclists who did take to the roads seemed sharply divided between those virulently opposed to drivers and those trying desperately to appease them. The idea that cyclists who go fast are less of a nuisance to motorised traffic belonged to the latter group. And I always thought that reasoning to be flawed. Not only from an "it's futile for minorities to try and appease the oppressor" standpoint, but also purely logically.

I mean, let's have a look at the actual speeds we're dealing with.

On a relatively heavy, upright utility bicycle, I typically average 12mph along the road into town. But instead of me, let's use an "even slower" cyclist as an example and for the sake of the argument say they are traveling at 10mph.

On a relatively light, racy roadbike, I typically average 17mph along the same road. But instead of me, let's use an "even faster" cyclist and for the sake of the argument say they are traveling at 20mph.

So, it is fair to say that a fast road cyclist can travel twice as fast as a slow utility cyclist, which on the face of it sounds like a huge difference.

But then I consider these speeds from a motorist's point of view. The posted speed limit on the road into town is 60mph. But let's say the motorist is me, and I am being conservative on this winding narrow road and traveling at 50mph. And as I travel at this speed, I see a cyclist up ahead. Am I going to sit behind the "fast" cyclist at 20mph, admiring their speed? No, I'm going to want to pass them, same as I would want to pass the cyclist going 10mph. Compared to me, they are both slow moving vehicles. Both will require slowing down and overtaking with care, probably switching to the opposite side of the road. And in that situation, if anything I actually find it easier and safer to overtake the slower cyclist. The closer an "obstacle" is to being stationary, the less risky and more predictable my overtaking maneuver can be. The more I think about it, the more I realise that as a motorist I am more anxious when passing faster cyclist than slower ones.

But it occurred to me that other drivers might see the matter differently. And so I did an informal survey of friends and family who are drivers. Interestingly, the replies were split fairly evenly: with some finding it easier to pass slow cyclists, others finding it easier to pass faster cyclists, and others still finding that it doesn't matter - a slow-moving vehicle is a slow-moving vehicle. And hey, it's easier than passing an enormous tractor anyway - at least your view of the road ahead isn't blocked.

There are exceptions to the bicycle's relative slowness. In congested areas or at peak commuting times, when cars are stuck in bumper to bumper traffic, cycling speed can be superior to motorist speed. But we are not talking about this kind of scenario.

Regardless of my choice of bicycle and of my pedaling prowess, I do not kid myself: On the open road I am a slow-moving vehicle. And does it matter how slow? I should certainly hope not.


Ground Control



Since the start of this blog, I have tried not to comment on political events. This is not because I do not care, or do not have opinions. It's because I wanted to establish a separation between Bike and State, so to speak, so that readers of all political leanings could perceive this as a "safe space" to express their shared love of niche bicycle-related minutiae.

I make no exception to this now. And neither do I make assumptions regarding where any given LB reader stands on the British vote to leave the EU, and on the US presidential election.

What I do know is that, in the wake of these two events there has been a major upset. Regardless of what they wanted the outcomes of these events to be, people en masse are upset by the fallout: the divisiveness, the free-flowing abuse, the violence, the general lowering of standards when it comes to civilised, humane discourse, and perhaps more than anything else, by the uncertainty.

Both in the time leading up to these events and in their aftermath, it is clear that a great number of people have been feeling a lack of control over their environments and destinies. I can see it - overtly all over my social media feeds, as well as more subtly, through glimpses and undercurrents in the emails I receive and even in comments left on this blog.

In my close to 8 years of running this space, I don't think I have ever observed such a mood before, so pervasively. And it is this that I feel compelled to comment on.

Feeling a lack of control over one's life is a leading cause of depression and anxiety. It can also be linked to physical ailments. I would urge you therefore, to resist giving into that poisonous sense of helplessness - even if you feel that your situation warrants it.

I am not saying ignore what is happening around you. And this isn't a prequel to "ride your bike and forget everything else."

What I am saying is: It is vital, at times of feeling helpless, to redirect our focus toward things that we do have control over. It is vital for mental survival.

In that sense, we are lucky that we do have the bicycle as a tool. A tool to help ground our focus and regain control. Not in order to forget or ignore the world around us. But in order to attain a clarity and a sense of agency, which might ultimately guide us toward ideas of what next.



Dude, Where's My Kayak?



It was a bleak late-Autumn afternoon, when I found myself heading for the beach. I expected it would be too cold and windy to spend much time there, so the plan was just to see the waves and cycle back. But to my surprise, the air was warm and eerily still. The beach itself was empty. And a strange, angled glow illuminated the water, almost like a light in a photographer's studio. Standing beside the sea felt like being indoors in front of a backdrop, rather than next to the real thing. To shake the feeling, I left my bike by the dunes and walked toward the waves. It was then that I spotted something out in the water. A black figure, a surfer. I wasn't alone after all.



As I got closer, I spotted something else - a contraption that stood in the shallow water and, from a distance, was camouflaged rather too well against the sea-gray backdrop. From the angle I approached it at, the object resembled a long and weird sort of tricycle. But as I got closer still, I could see it in its full glory: a mountain bike connected to a long trailer.



It finally dawned on me that the bike must belong to the surfer I'd seen out in the water. How cool! The trailer looked hard-core, like something designed for a car rather than a bicycle, and rated to haul more than surfboards.



As I examined the setup, I could see that the tide was coming in and wondered whether I ought to move the bike, lest it get swept away. But I should not have underestimated its owner's vigilance, for soon the surfer was out of the water and moving his bike to safety. Then he noticed me, lurking, and he noticed my bike, and we got to chatting.



Turns out the cyclist was actually traveling light on this occasion. For the trailer's true purpose is to transport his kayak, which on this day he had left at home.

Was he happy with the trailer setup? Oh very. And he showed me how the surfboard attached and secured. Though the bicycle itself would benefit from being more weather-proof. We discussed the merits of internally geared hubs and hub brakes, for this purpose.



For some reason, the mere image of all this - of cycling to the beach with surfboards and kayaks in tow - made me tremendously happy. It's not that I didn't think it could be done. These objects are not especially heavy, just long, so why not. I've just never seen anyone actually do it.

"Oh you should see us in summer then," said the bicycle's owner. "There are three of us. All on bikes towing kayaks, it's a spectacle."

Oh I bet. And I pictured them, like some aquatic version of the Three Musketeers, cruising along the country roads in their wet suits, to the cheers of delighted farmers and kids playing ball out in their front gardens. It made me think of the bicycle's many uses. And of its seemingly infinite power to generate joy, even on bleak late-Autumn days.




It's Aliiiiive! The Re-Birth of Ulster Cyclo-Cross



When I tell this story now, I suspect that no one will believe it - not even the parties involved. But the honest-to-goodness truth is, when I brought over a cyclo-cross bike from Boston less than three years ago, the local cyclists scrutinised it like an object from outer space.

"What is cyclo-cross?" some would ask. I would explain, and this would be followed by “Never heard of it!” or “Sort of like mountain biking then, but in a field? Weird."



Others - those who had been on the racing scene for decades - knew well enough what it was; they had even raced it twenty years ago. But the concept of an off-the-shelf cyclo-cross bike was unheard of then. Everyone knew you raced cyclo-cross on an old, heavy, decrepit steel bike that you force-fitted with the widest tyres you could manage. Not on a bike manufactured specifically for the purpose!

“Well," I would say, apologetically, "these bikes have been getting kind of popular over the last few years."

“Sure, maybe in the US. You’ll not see that carry-on here!”



Today at St. Columb’s park in Derry, that carry-on was in full swing. It was race number 7 in the fledgling Ulster Cyclo-Cross Series. If I didn't know any better, I would think the cyclo-cross scene - with all of its accoutrements - had been thriving here for years.

It was all here, as if ready-made: the racers, the bikes, the kits, the magical woodland course.



Not to mention the fashionable knitwear,



the behind the scenes romance,



and the sheer intensity.



The day was a rather bleak one, hazy and washed out, but without the drama of rain or mud. Still, the excitement was there.

The racing went on all day, with multiple divisions including men's, women's, juniors, and a separate mountain bike category.



I had to leave before the Elite men's race, but the ones leading up to it were plenty exciting to watch, especially the women - who chased each other up inclines with an aggression so tangible I could nearly taste its phermonal spray from the sidelines.



The overall styling of the race was very "American," I thought (as opposed to continental European).  However, the energy was different. There was an emotional intensity, a seriousness to the people here once a race was in progress, of a type I have never seen in any race I've attended in the US. Perhaps this is because American riders tend to disguise their emotions at such events (as a psy-op tactic of sorts, I have always thought?), projecting an aura of either toughness or merriment. The riders here looked more vulnerably earnest. At times I found myself entranced, standing stark-still, camera limp in my hand, just watching their faces.



Why do I go to cyclo-cross races? I am not into the sport in any meaningful way. I do not feel a sense of duty to "support the local scene" either; they do well enough without me. But I go because, when I learn there is a race nearby, I want to go. Because I find it... I was going to say "entertaining," but this is perhaps the wrong word. I find it enchanting.



All those colours, all that energy, and all those nuances - including the cultural ones - spread out in front of us spectators, as if on a platter. A gut-wrenching reality-theatre, gifted to the public free of charge. How can I not come out and see it.



Too much?...

I don't know. I think cultivating spectatorship is important. And if a sport is to thrive, then getting people to feel the way I do - even if perhaps they do not describe it quite so dramatically - is important. Aside from the organisers, spouses, parents, and retired racers, there need to be people who come out just because.

The Ulster Cyclo-Cross Series is new, but I think  - judging by the number of riders and spectators present - it is clearly starting to attract an audience.



Cyclo-cross is not new to Ireland. But the flavour of the sport I see gaining popularity today is not the same as what was raced here 20 years ago. It is a re-birth of sorts. A hybrid, coloured as much by the American scene of the past 10 years as by its original Belgian heritage.



And I suspect that in the years to come - for I can see it happening already - it will evolve into something different still; something uniquely local. I look forward to coming to watch.


Long Term Review: Lezyne Power Drive and Strip Drive Pro



Last year I wrote about wanting to update my battery-powered lighting with something that was bright enough to ride confidently in the countryside, simple to recharge, and convenient to share between different bikes. I ended up with a set of lights from Lezyne that fulfill all of these criteria: the Power Drive 900 XL (which Lezyne has since upgraded to the 1100 XL) and the Lezyne Strip Drive Pro  I have been using these lights for about 10 months now. And as the season of early nightfall is once again upon us, I thought it was about time for a review.



The Power Drive 900 XL was actually not my first choice of headlight. I initially bought the even-brighter Deca Drive 1500 XXL (the model numbers refer to the lumen output) while getting the 900 XL for my husband Gary.

However, I soon realised I'd made a mistake. Don't get me wrong: The Deca Drive 1500XXL lit up the road like a floodlight. But it was quite a bit heavier than I expected (truth be told, like having a brick attached to the bike). And, with its screw-on mount and system of shims to accommodate different handlebar diameters, sharing it between bikes proved a cumbersome process.

In comparison, Gary's 900XL was featherweight and took milliseconds to attach and detach to any bike. He insisted it was bright enough to light up the country roads. So I tried his light and immediately realised that this was the model I should have gone for as well. I then returned the Deca Drive 1500 XXL and exchanged it for a second 900 XL. We now each use a 900 XL and remain very pleased with the choice.



As this backstory illustrates, the benefit of the Lezyne Power Drive 900 XL is not in its brightness alone - but in its brightness, to weight, to ease-of-use ratio.

While the model is not the most luminous available, it is sufficiently bright for me to cycle confidently on unlit country roads and forest trails for the duration of my commute, which fulfills my brightness requirement.



At the same time, it is lightweight (146g). And let me just say that I never thought I cared about the weight of lights until I tried its heavier sibling. I could actually feel the awesome heft of the 1500 XXL in my handbag, whenever I had to shlep it around with me all day. At nearly half the weight, the 900 XL is a much easier light to live with.

And, at the same time, it is extremely - ridiculously - easy to share between multiple bikes. This is because instead of a screw-mount system, this headlight is lightweight enough to use with a silicone mounting strap. The strap is not only quick to affix and detach. But, by virtue of being stretchy, it fits over any size and shape handlebars without requiring finicky adjustments or the use of shims.



The Lezyne Power Drive is charged via USB lead. And it does require regular charging. In its brightest (900 lumen/ "overdrive") mode, it lasts only 1 hour and 15 minutes, in its second brightest (650 lumen / "blast") mode 1 hour and 45 minutes, and in the more economical 450 lumen "enduro" mode 2 hours 40 minutes.

There are modes that are more economical still, but in country-dark conditions they are insufficient, so those three are the ones I alternate between - which means that I need to charge the light after every use. It's a pain, but for a non-dynamo light that is shared between bikes it is inevitable, and still beats disposable batteries. So what we've done now is set up a dedicated charging station for our lights and instituted a ritual. We come home at night and immediately put the lights on the charger. That way, they are always ready to go.



Getting back to its illuminating properties, I use the Lezyne 900 XL both on homeward commutes and on road rides that run late. Over a variety of circumstances, the light has proven sufficiently bright for me at both commuting speeds and roadie speeds, on very dark country roads. I have also ridden with it on trails, albeit slowly (I do not think I would feel comfortable riding trails at speed at night with any lighting setup, so I am the wrong person for feedback in that context).

Aside from repeating that the light is sufficiently bright for my needs, I am afraid I don't have any nuanced feedback about how its beam pattern compares to others, etc. I just know that it works for me, to the extent that I can see bends coming up ahead and potholes directly in front of me, and I am able to ride with a calm confidence even on moonless nights.

The elastic strap and pivoting mount make the beam easy to adjust from both the higher position of upright handlebars and from the lower position of drop bars. The only problem is, using it on a bike where a hefty front bag blocks the beam. I have yet to rig up an elegant system (i.e. one not involving the use of a tree-branch) for attaching the light to the very thin tubing of a front rack. But if you are dealing with an unobstructed front end, adjusting the aim of the beam is a wizzy-wig process, even on the go. Switching it on and off, and changing modes, is also easy: There is just one large button, which you press multiple times. It remembers the mode you last used after being switched off and on.



The light is also highly visible to oncoming road users. One time I was cycling home after dark form town, when I heard shouting behind me. "Hey, wait! Jeez, will you wait!" and so on. I realised it was my husband. He had come to meet me half way, so that we could cycle home together. But as he intercepted me on the road, I ignored him. He had to make a U-turn and chase me down.

That's odd, I said, I did not see you coming toward me. In fact, I've seen no other cyclists on the road tonight. Only a motorbike a little while ago... Oh!!!

Only then did it dawn on me that his headlight shone so brightly and appeared so large from a distance, I had mistaken him for a motorbike. Come to think of it I did wonder why that motorbike was so quiet.

Like I said, the Lezyne 900 XL is not the brightest model available. But we find it bright enough - which, together with its other features, makes it the ideal light for our purposes. According to the manufacturer's specs, the recent 1100 XL update should have those very same features (the stated weight seems to remain unchanged), with 200 lumens of additional brightness. And the 900 XL remains available from many online sellers.



When both of my Cateye TL-LD610 tail lights broke after seven years of use, I was drawn to the Lezyne Strip Drive because of its similar shape, combined with its versatile silicone mount and direct-charge USB design. Also, since I was already going with a Lezyne headlight, I thought it would be nice for the tail light to match.

There are two versions of the Lezyne Strip Drive model: the regular, and the "pro." The latter offering  greater luminosity for only a marginal difference in cost (at least for the European market), that was the version I chose.



With an output of 50 and 25 lumens in its highest two constant modes, and 100 lumens in its highest flash mode, the Strip Drive Pro is pretty bright for a tail light. When I cycle behind my husband (who uses the same model), I can see his tail light, no matter how far ahead of me he is, as long as he hasn't gone around a bend. When I cycle alone, cars overtake me in a way that suggests they'd seen me a good deal in advance. This alone has increased my confidence cycling at night along the utterly unlit country roads.



As I always use tail lights in constant mode, rather than as blinkies, my run times tend to be on the lower end of the range manufacturers boast. When used in its two brightest constant modes, the Lezyne Strip Drive Pro gives me between 1 hour 40 minutes and 3 hours of run time. (There are more economical modes available with up to 15 hours of run time, but they are useless to me).

So, as with the Power Drive headlight, the Strip Drive does need to be charged every single night. But again, I prefer this to using batteries. Not only because it is less wasteful and allows for the light to be more lightweight, but also because the USB gives me better control over ensuing the light is freshly charged at all times. It is especially convenient to stick it into my laptop's USB port while I'm working, should I want to top up the charge.



As with the headlight, there are no complicated or screw-on attachments involved with this tail light. The silicone mounting strap makes it quick and extremely versatile to use on any bike. It will fit seat posts of any shape and diameter. But if you don't have enough seatpost showing on your bike, or if you are sporting a saddle bag, the light can also be fitted on seat stays. Even super-skinny and unusually shaped seat stays. The mounting straps are stretchy, adaptable, and do not require superior dexterity. I can attach and remove the lights even with gloves on - which is useful in the winter cold.

Unlike other tail lights I've used, it can also be turned on and off with gloves on. The switch is in an intuitive location, and fingertip-shaped. When you turn the light off and on again, it remembers the mode you left it in. Easy.

Another thing I will say in favour of this tail light, is how durable it has been for me so far. The co-molded lens/body construction is rubbery and bouncy when dropped. And I've dropped it quite a few times. How long it will last in my clumsy, abusive hands only time will tell. But I'm hopeful.



One final thing I will note about the headlight and tail light both, is the side visibility. Lezyne describes both products as having "built-in side visibility." And they do, to some extent. But in my opinion, this isn't their strongest point (compared to, say, the Bookman Curve lights, and some of the Light & Motion models). Now, for my use case scenario, side visibility is far less important than extreme front/rear visibility. But those who frequently navigate intersections in the course of their nocturnal travels, should perhaps do some research into this particular feature.

Lezyne is a California-based company founded by a German designer, which could explain why they've always had pretty good European distribution. The Lezyne Power Drive 1100 XL retails at $99.99 USD, and the Strip Drive Pro at $49.99 USD. The prices from EU and UK sellers seem to fluctuate considerably, and (as of last time I checked) if you do some online stalking  you can get a pretty good deal.

The lights reviewed were a personal purchase, and not items I was requested to review. They are not the first products I've owned from Lezyne. For years I have used and loved their wonderful mini-pumps, which I am never without. When I decided to try their lights, I was hoping for the same quality, reliability, compact design, and user-friendliness. And after 10 months of use I am not disappointed.




When Infrastructure Goes Unused: Some Ideas



Lately there has been talk on social media stemming from accusations that some of the recently built vehicular infrastructure in the city of Belfast goes unused. Normally, I try not to get involved in such discussions, not being resident there myself. But once in a while I do have occasion to visit Belfast. And yesterday I was, frankly, concerned to observe this very phenomenon for myself.

I arrived into the city centre by train in early afternoon and proceeded to cycle some 4 miles to my destination in the industrial outskirts. And while I enjoyed the traffic-segregated cycling path that I was able to follow most of the way, I could not help but sense a strangeness...



I could not pinpoint what felt off at first. But at length it dawned on me: The main road beside me - all four lanes of it - was completely empty of motor vehicles. Being an experienced urban cyclists, I was accustomed to a constant flow of cars in my peripheral vision, to the ever-present background buzz of traffic noise. But all I heard on this journey was the chirping of birds and the woosh of passing cyclists' tyres. I stopped my bike, pulled over to the side of the path, and faced the road. Out of curiosity, I wanted to count how many drivers per minute used this expansive multi-lane avenue that had obviously been constructed for their benefit. Would you believe that I had to wait nearly two minutes before a single motor vehicle drove past. And that was a lorry backing out of a produce warehouse.

So I took some snapshots documenting examples of the city's transport infrastructure going unused. And make no mistake, I plan to send it to the relevant authorities, adding my voice to those calling for its dismantlement. In the meanwhile, as I always try to temper criticism with constructive suggestions, allow me to use this platform to throw some ideas out there on alternative uses of the space.



Firstly... One word, good people of Belfast: Rainbow-Ways!

Okay, that's more like two words. Or a double-word? Well, whatever. The point being, you know the concept of urban greenways? Well, Rainbow-Ways would be similar, except they'd be swathes of wildflower meadows.

To the delight of residents and visitors alike, the city has already been planting mini-meadows around construction sites, unsightly municipal buildings, and vacant lots. Now imagine entire wildflower meadow thoroughfares, for pedestrians and cyclists, unfurled throughout the entire city like like a fragrant rainbow carpet! Sounds lovely, doesn't it. And judging by the overcrowded state of the Lagan river path, the Comber Greenway, and all those pedestrian alleyways around the Cathedral Quarter, a nice spacious rainbow-way will help clear up those areas from all the bike/walk congestion.


Another possibility worth looking into, would be to institute some dedicated horse and cart tracks.

Ever visit the town of Killarney down in County Kerry? Let me tell you, the place is thick with horse and cart operations. It's actually quite ingenious. They use them both as taxis and for sight-seeing purposes, and make no mistake about it: they are making a fortune in revenue down there. The passenger capacity of the carts surpasses that of private motorised sedans, and their speed is comparable to that of a typical taxi in urban traffic. And since the views are better from up high, the tourists love it.

Let's not forget that countless new job opportunities can be created, for horse&cart operators and for urban pony breeders alike. And just think of all the free manure generated, which could then be collected and used to fertilise the adjacent wildflower meadow rainbow-ways.  It could be the perfect self-sustaining ecosystem.



Another option to be seriously considered, is to do away with the gratuitous roadways in favour of canals. That's right, canals. And hear me out here:

Whenever I visit Belfast, I can't help but notice that the Lagan river is really crowded beyond capacity with boats offering tours, barges that are also pubs, a variety of maritime museums, and other floating businesses. Dismantling some of Belfast’s low-usage roads and turning them into lovely artificial waterways would allow the boat tour/ floating pub/ moored barbershop industries the room to grow they so obviously need. And again, think of the jobs that will be created. And of all the tourists who roam the riverside endlessly in search for activities will have new places to visit.



Finally, on a related note: I have long noticed that the city of Belfast attracts persons of an artistic inclination. This is obvious not only by the overabundance of sculptures, murals, and all manner of artistic creations that pepper the urban landscape, but, more tellingly, by the fact that these installations are perpetually so crowded with admirers that it is nearly impossible to enjoy an unobstructed view in passing.

I mean, have you tried to get near the Big Fish lately? That's what I thought! You have to queue for a good 30 minutes to get an unobstructed view of that ceramic marvel these days. You'd be lucky to catch a glimpse of the nearby seal sculptures without someone sitting on every one of their heads. And let us not even speak of the murals, sectarian or otherwise. It's like vying for a peek at the Mona Lisa at the Louvre; you'd need a pogo-stick to see over the other onlookers' shoulders.

Clearly, no matter how many art pieces the city of Belfast erects, there is simply more demand than supply. So I was thinking, that with all the roads standing empty, why not create a dedicated sculpture trail? An avenue of the arts, as it were, with occasional snack booths, gift shops, and (tastefully constructed) toilet facilities to ensure uninterrupted public use of the space.

That said, I do not want to dominate this conversation with my views. There are many wonderful uses for all those horrible multi-lane roadways that cities misguidedly construct to cater to their imagined motoring culture. Regardless of which alternative usage ideas are implemented in the end, I am proud of Belfast for getting the narrative started and look forward to a city transformed. What would you like to see in place of gratuitous roadways in your city or town?


It’s Not the Length of Your Stem. It’s What You Do with It.



If we look at some overall trends in today’s roadbike setups, there is an undeniable preference for long stems. For most male cyclists I know, a stem length of 110-130mm seems to be the desirable range, with anything shorter considered suboptimal, if not outright weird. 

Now, if you ask a rider to explain this preference for length, chances are they will tell you it is to do with handling, as it “puts them over the front axle.” The problem with this statement, is that the location of the rider’s hands in relation to the front axle does not depend on stem length alone. Rather, it is a function of stem length and handlebar reach, which can vary greatly from one set of handlebars to another.

I am reminded of this as I mess about with the front-end setup of my DIY 650B bike, which is currently undergoing a makeover …a makeover that has made me aware that I too am far from immune to the “longer is better” stem bias.



When I assembled this bike originally, it was during a visit back to Boston. I was in a hurry and had no money to buy new parts. So I fit it with whatever spare stem and handlebars were laying about in my old apartment, which happened to be a 11cm Nitto and a set of super-compact Soma Hway1s. It was never an ideal setup. The stem was 1cm longer than the length I had designed the frame for. And the shape of the bars wasn’t quite what I had in mind for that particular build. So a few months back, when I swapped over the bike's drivetrain, I decided to also change the stem and handlebar setup. 

The “new” (well, actually old; but new-to-me) handlebars I am going with are a set of 3T Prima199s. Not only is their bend significantly different, but they have quite a bit more reach (i.e. more space behind the hoods). To compensate, I knew that I would need a shorter stem. But how much shorter?

Well, I hate math. But let’s do some math. 

My old, compact bars had 75mm of reach. And I used them with an 110mm stem. So my overall reach to the hoods and/or outer drops was 185mm. 

The new bars have 95mm of  reach. To maintain the same overall 185mm reach to the hoods ad/or drops I would need a 90mm stem. 

But wait. Because, the thing is, I wanted the bike to have a tad less reach overall. Which meant that I needed an even shorter stem. 

"An 80mm stem?! Oh no, that’s too short!” I heard myself say, before I could stop the words escaping my mouth. 

Clearly I too have succumbed to the long stem bias. 

For days (okay, more like a couple of months), I stalled while the bike stood disassembled, trying to think up reasons why perhaps I didn’t want shorter reach after all, unwilling to admit that I simply didn’t want to put an 80mm stem on my bike because I thought it was uncool.  As it often happens in such cases, my mind then proceeded to conduct a psychotherapy session on itself.

“Tell me… Why are you so reluctant to accept that you need an 80mm stem? What would an 80mm stem mean to you?"

“It would mean… "

"Yes?"

"It would mean..." 

“Yes, what would it mean, for heaven’s sake?”

"Okay, I guess it would mean I had made a mistake in designing the bicycle frame; miscalculated in determining the optimal frame dimensions.”

“And why is that?”

“It just seems standard to design a bike for a 100-110mm stem these days."

"But what kind of handlebars does that standard assume?”

“Compact bars.”

“And are you using compact bars?”

“No.”

“Interesting…”

"Oh shut up!”



Anyway. In the end I got a grip, and snagged myself a sweet 80mm Cinelli XA.  Not only was it a bargain (shorter stems not being especially desirable, and therefore typically selling for less on the used parts market), but the new bars plus stem setup is practically weightless. 

And the reach? Well you can see for yourself in the pictures. The reach to the hoods and outer drops is a mere 1cm shorter, if that, which is exactly what I wanted. And yes, I am over the front axle.  

When folks today talk about stem length, I notice they seldom take handlebar reach into consideration. For that reason alone I think it's fair to suggest that the trend for longer stems is largely aesthetic. And I guess there isn’t really anything wrong with that ...Except in cases where a rider might benefit from long-reach handlebars, but will go with compact bars instead only for the sake of sporting a longer stem... which, I daresay is kind of silly.

Just remember, it’s not the length of the stem alone that determines your reach. The handlebars you use play an equally crucial role. Relaxing about stem length can open up a world of possibilities beyond the constraints of compact bars. 


Felled No More: Wheel Lessons in Crosswind Resistance



Firstly, a warning. This post is a product of months of obsession. As such, it is a little technical. And more than a little tedious. And of limited interest to anyone who doesn't live in a part of the world plagued with crazy, un-cyclable wind conditions. Nevertheless, crosswinds really are a big deal for some of us. And as it took me three years to stumble upon a solution, I wanted to share my recent experience.

It began when I started to ride a prototype bike for a project I'm working on with Seven Cycles. Until then I had been content to leave well enough alone. Which is to say, I had come to terms with being unable to ride my (lightweight, modern) roadbike in extremely windy conditions, when the cross-winds would get so bad they would blow me off the roads. I had mentioned this problem to several industry contacts since my move to Ireland; I have even written about it here. Over time I received a lot of advice. And while much of that advice was conflicting, two factors were mentioned again and again as potential culprits: (1) deep rims, and (2) light weight.

Since my own roadbike was not equipped with deep rim wheels (the Mavic Ksyriums I had used from 2012 onward have 22mm rims on the front, 25mm on the rear), I concluded it must be the weight - both of the wheels and the bike itself. It seemed logical enough to accept that a lightweight bike would get blown about the road more than a heavy bike. I would just have to live with not riding it on extremely windy days.



Then the project bike arrived. With its Ti-carbon frame and medley of lightweight components, it was lighter than my Axiom by a good 2lb. When I expressed concerns about this in relation to cross-winds, one of the engineers at Seven suggested that a specific set of wheels - Mavic's R-Sys model - might help. I was cautiously optimistic.

The wheels didn't help. They got rid of the problem entirely.

I could hardly believe it at first and it took me some time to trust the bike on increasingly longer rides in bad weather. But time after time, it really did seem impervious to sideways gusts. Not only compared to my lightweight modern roadbike, but compared to all my bikes, including much heavier ones. So much for the "heavier is better" theory.

There was one time in particular when I was testing the proto bike with its magic wheels, and got caught on a mountain pass just as the weather turned. The wind blew directly from the side at over 20 knots along the exposed road. I prepared for the possibility of having to dismount and walk. But while I felt the wind's force on my body, the bicycle seemed not to care. The front wheel went where I wanted it to. And the bike stayed planted on the road.

It can't be the wheels, I thought at first, and looked for other explanations. The magic-wheel project bike, designed by me, had low-trail geometry. So perhaps it was that rather than the wheels? But fitting the wheels on my Axiom (with mid-trail front end geo) yielded the same results. It was indeed the wheels.

The realisation was frustrating to accept. It felt foolish to have struggled against crosswinds for 3 years not realising that the right set of wheels could instantly fix the problem. But also, Mavic R-Sys wheels are expensive. There had to be an alternative! What I hoped for, was to figure out what it was about these specific wheels that made them so good at resisting crosswinds, then look for those same features in a more moderately priced wheelset.

One thing that immediately struck me as odd, is that the R-Sys and Ksyrium models reacted to cross-winds so differently despite their identical rim depths. The biggest difference I could see, was that the Ksyriums used bladed spokes, whereas the R-Sys used mostly round ones (round on the front wheel, round and bladed on the rear). Were round spokes the answer?


As it happened, we soon had a set of modern performance wheels with round spokes in the house, from the sexy Italian builder Spada. I tested them before they went on one of my husband's bikes. Our impressions were similar: The wheels rode like butter. And they were certainly better at resisting crosswinds than the Ksyriums. But still not as good as the Mavic R-Sys. Despite having round spokes and lower profile rims.

More surprisingly still, the Campagnolo Zonda wheels, which my husband had acquired for another build, beat the Spadas in the cross-wind resistance department, despite having bladed spokes.



This last bit in particular surprised me. Comparing the Campagnolo Zonda and the Mavic Ksyrium wheels side by side, they looked of the same ilk. Their weights, rim depths, spokes, were all very similar. So where was the difference coming from?

I thought about this for some time and could not come up with an answer.


Then one day, as I ran my hand along the Ksyrium rims while cleaning them, I noticed something interesting. The Ksyrium rims have a very sharply squared-off edge to them.

The Zonda rims have an edge that, to the naked eye looks similar, but in fact is ever so slightly rounded. The edge on the Spada wheels was somewhere in between the two. This alone seemed to be making a difference. A bigger difference than rim depth, and than whether the spokes were round or bladed.


I then reviewed the Mavic R-Sys wheels: a dramatically rounded edge. A "u-shaped" edge in current wheel design parlance, I believe. None of my other wheels had such dramatically rounded rims. Could this be the secret to crosswind resistance?

I kid not when I say that I grew a little bit obsessed over this. I even made a chart (and I never make charts! I mean, for godssake!) where I listed all the wheels that we had in the house. I labeled them according to weight (now I appreciate the husband recording these figures!), spoke shape, rim depth and rim shape. Then I gave each a "crosswind resistance score" on a scale from 0 to 10, with 0 being "wind is unnoticeable" and 10 being "bike becomes unridable."

The score corresponded most strongly with rim shape, where the more rounded the rim the more crosswind resistant the wheel. The shape of the spokes and the depth of the rims seemed to play comparatively marginal roles. And the weight of the wheels seemed to matter not at all.

But what to do with this information? After doing some research, I learned that the Mavic R-Sys wheels are actually rather unique in their combination of features in today's market. It seems that nobody really makes lightweight performance wheels with the qualities I am looking for anymore.


So the solution turned out to be old-school. What I have ended up with, is a set of positively scrumptious DIY wheels, built for me by an acquaintance (more on this later). They look "vintagey" but are shockingly lightweight, having been build with carefully selected parts and a low spoke count. They are also remarkably cushy, quick rolling, and fantastic at climbing. With their rounded, low(ish)-profile rims and round spokes, they resist crosswinds on par with the Mavic R-Sys for a fraction of the cost.

Oh, and they're tubular! But that too is a topic for another time. For while my crosswinds problem is solved, my wheel education has only just begun.

In Theory...



Having recently studied for the Irish Driving Theory test, I was impressed by how much of the material was devoted to dealing with cyclists. In fact, next to tractors, cyclists were probably the most frequently mentioned "other" in the questions involving other road users, outnumbering mentions of motorbikes, pedestrians, and horses. Every possible scenario involving an encounter with a cyclist was covered: from how to read hand signals and what sort of maneuvers to expect, to how to overtake a cyclist and what to do when passing is not safe ("be patient and wait; do not sound horn").

In theory, anyone who manages to pass the test should be well equipped to share the road with cyclists. In practice ...well, you know yourself.



Does the information fade over time, I wonder? I certainly notice again and again that the motorists who overtake me with the most care and give me the most space tend to be younger drivers, often sporting learner decals. Even a car replete with the sort of rowdy teenage boys whose look suggests trouble is likely to quiet down, then slow dramatically and give me a wide berth, before proceeding with their merriment once they overtake. In contrast, the drivers who tend to pass inches from my elbow without reducing speed tend to be older, "respectable looking" motorists.

Perhaps the learning does fade over time. Perhaps beginners are more careful. Or perhaps this is something that's only been added to driver's ed curricula more recently. I do not remember any cyclist-specific content in the Theory Test I took in the US 20 years ago, and I wonder whether that's changed now.

Regardless of what the reason is, my impression that a good portion of motorists today mean well, but genuinely do not know the rules when encountering a cyclist. Which, in Ireland, is especially odd considering how much attention is given to the issue at the driver's education phase.

One time, I met in the town the very group of boys who had passed me on the road earlier. They were now loitering beside a fish and chip shop, talking loudly, spitting on the pavement. When I approached they stopped spitting and said hello and complimented my bike. In turn I complimented their overtaking skills.

"Oh aye, that's how we're taught to do it."

They might spend their nights "diffing" recklessly. But they know how to pass a cyclist. As, in theory, should everyone who holds a valid driver's license.



Home Before Dark



Among the more delicious memories I have of childhood, are those involving rushing to get home by curfew. Like so many others of my generation, I would be let loose for hours on end, free from parental vigilance, to roam the neighbourhood on my own recognisance with just one caveat: that I was to return before dark. Or else.

Of course, our gang of friends would squeeze the most we possibly could out of this notion. The definition of "before dark" was, after all, expandable. If the sky was still kind of pale, it was not actually proper dark just yet, right?

With this reasoning, we would wait till the last possible moment to halt our important activities and part ways. And then we would each run home like hell. Trying to outrun the twilight, and the inking-over of the sky.

As grown adults, it is almost sad how few extrinsic controls we have to slyly chafe against in this manner. Yes, a family might be waiting for us at home. They might grow impatient with us, or worry. But that really isn't the same as the childhood thrill of just making the curfew.

That is why it is all the more exciting to experience a glimmer of that old feeling, thanks to the bicycle and the occasional forgetting of lights. It is childish and it is silly and it is an unnecessary bit of risk-taking. But the question of "How long can I stay out, and still get home safely?" has a flavour of that same delicious thrill.

Early autumn is the trickiest, most dangerous time for this game, at least in Ireland. For the sun does not merely start to set sooner. The duration of the sunset itself becomes shorter, as does the twilight period after. For what seems like most of summer, you are safe in expecting at least an hour from the time it begins to grow dark, to the time it actually is dark. But in the course of a mere couple of weeks in late September and early October, the season of endless evenings ends. The sunsets become rushed, abbreviated, almost as if someone fast forwards through them. And then, with the twilight skipped almost entirely, darkness falls thick and without delay.

In an Autumn that is more like an Indian Summer, it is easy to get caught out. To think you have an hour, then realise with a gasp that you only have 15 minutes and pedal, pedal like mad down the rapidly dimming country roads.

As my husband would say, it puts an edge on things. Which he means as a good thing, pointing out that I get "some of my best times" during these manic rides home. Then again, in his view of life, "a bit of an edge" sweetens any experience. Once when we were hiking up a nearby mountain he convinced me there had been puma sightings there. "We might have to climb a tree, and quickly. Can you climb?..." Never had I been so vigilant on a hike, since or after.

But there isn't an edge on me exactly, as I rush to race the sunset. It is more of a magical feeling. A feeling that, if I try hard enough, I might - just might - pedal fast enough to achieve time travel. Drenched in sweat and panting, full of promises to always carry lights, I arrive at home before dark, only just. And I am stupidly, stupidly happy.



What Goes Up Must Come Down



Admittedly, my experience with mountain climbs is far from expansive. But the ones that are local to me seem to follow a distinct pattern. I've attempted to illustrate it for you in this highly technical drawing.

Since mountains are rarely symmetrical things, it is often the case that one face is steeper than the other - sometimes dramatically so. And should a road happen to cross the mountain, it is likely that the stretch along the steeper face will have different characteristics than the stretch along the face with the more gradual incline.

Along the steeper face of the mountain, the road will usually twist in a series of tight bends, as a means of reducing the monstrous gradient. Along the face with the more gradual incline, the road will be comparatively straight, following the natural slope of the mountain.

Now, a cyclist seeking to climb (and, eventually descend) a mountain, is faced with a choice of which direction to tackle it from: Ascend via the straight gradual incline and descend the steeper twisty bends, or the other way around?

Around here, it is considered that the former is the easier method. A nice steady climb followed by a "fun" twisty descent? Why that's nearly cheating! More challenging is to endure the pain of climbing the steep twisty bends, only to descend in an endless, monotonous manner.

For me, however, it is exactly the opposite. As difficult as a climb up the twisty steeper face may be, it pales in comparison to my terror of hairpin descents. For a while it used to be that the very sight of a steep tight bend downhill would launch me into full anxiety attack mode, complete with flash-sweats, trembling and tears. As my handling skills improve, I'm at least able to descend stretches where I would previously have walked. But the experience remains so stressful, I prefer to avoid it if possible.

So, while I get some local street cred (farm lane cred?) for always climbing in the "difficult" direction, it is entirely undeserved, as I do this out of necessity. What goes up must surely come down, and I want to come down the easy way. Far from finding the long even slope monotonous, I enjoy the time it affords me to examine the view, and the speed I can pick up without the worry of upcoming bends. Beyond all that, there is an otherworldly dreaminess to a long, steady descent, that I find incomparably beautiful. And I suppose, like beauty, the notions of what is easy and difficult are in the eyes of the beholder.

What is your preferred direction for climbing and descending mountain roads: Steep and twisty up, or steep and twisty down? Or are you one of those sickos who needs to ascend it from both sides, to feel as if you have truly conquered a climb?


Can We Hope for "Interestingness" in Performance Road Bikes?


from the Monday Mailbox...
I have been enjoying the recent string of reviews of interesting and reasonably priced utility bikes. Any chance of something similar for the roadies out there? Seeing the same big-name brands again and again in bike shops and mainstream reviews is starting to get depressing and I was hoping LB could offer some alternatives. Obviously, you do a lot of road cycling and are drawn to fast, lightweight bikes. It would be great to see that side of things get some attention in the review section of this blog. 
Right. So I get asked this every so often, and it is true that I don't typically review roadbikes. To be honest though, I do not see this changing. Because here is the thing:

Reviewing bicycles involves a degree of commitment and due diligence, especially when the manufacturer goes through the trouble and expense of mailing the product back and forth for review. It also involves riding that bike in a way that taps into the performance potential it was designed for.

With transportation bikes, the parameters of all this are such, that I can seamlessly fit test rides into my everyday activities on a fairly regular basis - without it taking over my life, and without sacrificing the enjoyment of riding my own personal bikes as well. With performance road bikes, not so much. The milage I would need to put in, and the manner of cycling required to test such a bike with due diligence, is beyond what I can accommodate within a reasonable time frame without feeling that I am "sacrificing" my own preferences for the kind of ride I might want to do on a given day, as well as quality time with my own bikes.

So, while there might be the occasional review of a roadbike, it is unlikely to become a systematic thing here.

That said, I do agree there is a niche waiting to be filled in the print and blogospheric cycling literature that is precisely that: attention to roadbikes that provide some alternative to the usual suspects. By this I do not mean custom-made, or super-rare, expensive bikes. I am talking off-the-shelf, reasonably accessible, modern road-race bicycles. Just not from the same old tired repertoire of half a dozen big name manufacturers.

Which brings me to a perhaps more interesting topic: Do many of such bikes even exist?

In the past few years there has been an absolute explosion of interestingness when it comes to bikes for mixed terrain cycling, adventure cycling, randonneuring, and, of course, cyclo-cross. Small, independent, quirky manufacturers continue popping up like mushrooms, spoiling us for choice at various price levels.

On the other had, pure road racing machines seem to remain the realm of the bigger manufacturers. Moreover, when it comes to aesthetics and the "soulfulness" factor, it is as if they are stuck in the last decade (or even the decade previous), when the more appliance-like a bicycle looked, the better.

Does this reflect an underlying cultural difference, I wonder, between the kinds of cyclists who tend to be drawn to pure roadcycling these days, versus its various alternative forms?

Personally, I hope not. Indie brands such as Ritte, Honey, Aprire, and Mason do exist, if not yet in large numbers, and they are doing their thing. A few bigger brands, such as Condor and Planet X provide some interesting alternatives to the same-old as well. So perhaps there is hope for roadies yet, for something just a wee bit different, without having to go custom or spend a fortune. Judging by my interaction with readers, and by the locals whom I hear complain that all the performance roadbikes "look the same," I do think the demand is there. Manufacturers (and keen reviewers!), take note.



What Happens on Ventoux



Here is the problem with being a contemporary Dutch novelist - especially a contemporary Dutch novelist who delves into the theme of cycling: You are going to be compared to Tim Krabbé. The brilliant author of The Rider, The Vanishing, The Cave. And it’s unlikely the comparison will be in your favour.

In this alone, Bert Wagendorp's novel Ventoux was at a disadvantage before a word of it was ever written. Cycling. Dutchness. A mountain touched by tragedy. The danger of high expectations loomed large.

As if to inoculate against this, the publisher of the English-language translation chose a cover design that communicated such peppy lightheartedness as to almost suggest a how-to guide, a collection of inspirational quotes, or a humorous tale of two-wheeled hi-jinx. None of these being qualities that draw me to a book, Ventoux sat on my shelf until, under threat of an arduous train journey, I finally gave it a go - only to come full circle and discover that it was indeed a Dutch novel of the most Krabbéan (Krabbé-esque?) kind. A slow, morose psychological thriller, with cycling playing a prominent role. It was also unexpectedly sexual. In fact, if there is one thing The Rider lacks that Ventoux is chock-full of, it is "that."

So here is the gist of the plot (and I am not giving anything away here that isn’t printed on the back cover): In the 1980s, a tightly knit group of Dutch schoolmates decides to cycle up Mount Ventoux as a way of marking their high school graduation. More accurately, only two of them actually cycle. The rest join in for the camping portion of the trip, then follow along in a van for the actual climb. But that detail isn’t important.

The friends have a strange dynamic between them, as four are boys and one is a girl. Naturally the girl is exceptionally beautiful. Conveniently, she is also just ever so slightly off, emotionally - which keeps her away from the popular crowd at school and steers her toward the somewhat more geeky foursome. Of course all four boys are in love with her. She, in turn, gives hints of being a little in love with each, albeit in different ways. There is a strong undercurrent of Stephen King’s It here (the book, not the movie), and I half expect her to channel the actions of Beverly in the way she relates to the boys. While this doesn’t exactly happen, it’s not too far off the mark.

From the start, the Ventoux trip is marked with a tense, confused atmosphere. And then one of the boys - the most charismatic and talented one, essentially the group’s leader - is killed on the descent. The remaining friends scatter in shock - not to be reunited until three decades later. What brings the estranged bunch together at that exact point in time is not explained altogether convincingly. But events align, the dreaded Facebook plays a prominent role, and their exaggeratedly different life paths (a criminal, a journalist, an award-winning scientist...) converge once again.

Coincidentally, it turns out the former friends had all returned to cycling again in their 40s. And so the idea is born to repeat the tragic trip of their youth as a way of bringing closure to their mate’s death. As the story progresses, however, one gets the sense that what they really seek closure for, is their unfulfilled romantic yearnings. They want answers from the woman in the group. Which one of them did she fancy back then, if any? Was it the dead boy she loved, or one of the men still alive?

By the end of the reunion trip, this question is answered. And with an unexpected twist.

Weaving back and forth between past and present, the entire novel is really a long and slow buildup to the ending, which is meant to come as a shocking revelation (the back cover says so). In the end - and, a bit of a spoiler here (but not really) - there are actually two revelations. First a secret is revealed that reframes the way the group sees their past friendship. And then, just when it would seem we’ve crested the story’s apex, an even bigger revelation follows.

The first of these surprise twists, I admit, I could not have predicted. But that was only because it was such a weird thing. I am not even sure it is relevant to the storyline, to be honest. And I am also not sure that it packs as much shock value as the author seems to intend (maybe it's a generational thing, but growing up in the '90s it was not uncommon for brainy, lonely teenagers to have some pretty messed up relationships).

In contrast, the final revelation was really too predictable and clichéd. In fact, it came as a surprise only because I doubted the author would conclude with something so obvious. But conclude with it he did, hastily wrapping up with an improbably tidy and happy ending.

So what sort of novel is Ventoux, and will you enjoy it? That's a hard question to answer. The story in of itself is potentially interesting. I am just not sure that potential is realised. The writing style comes across as confused. It cannot seem to settle on a tone - darting unevenly between darkness and humor, irony and earnestness. Situations and scenes are over-explained, so that at times it reads like a novel for young adults (again Stephen King comes to mind: imagine a blend between The Body and It - only with bicycles). At other times it reads like a movie script hastily reworked into a novel - which, I later learn, is precisely what it is. Well, at least that puts it into context.

That said, I still found Ventoux an engaging read. And that is largely because of how true-to-life and contemporary the parts to do with cycling feel. There is talk of vintage 10-speeds, and tubulars, and custom framebuilding. There are funny scenes of men past their prime sucking in their Rapha-clad tummies whilst checking their i-phones. There are interesting asides on the role of Ventoux in cycling lore, as well as at least one fine description of the actual climb that made me want to attempt it myself.

Oh, and there's Dario Pegoretti. He is mentioned a few times actually, as one of the main characters commissions a handbuilt frame from the Italian builder ("only the best!"). Truth be told, that was probably my favorite part of the book.

If you are of that generation who raced as a youth in the '80s, then returned to cycling again in your middle age, in wonderment of how the scene has changed, Ventoux is full of references you may find relatable. I am not sure that is enough to carry one’s interest through the main storyline. But possibly. And if not, I think the film is available with English subtitles. It may even feature a Pegoretti.

.....
The English translation of Ventoux by Bert Wagendorp was sent to me for review by the publisher. If you are on the islands of Great Britain or Ireland and would like this book, say so in the comments and I will pick a recipient at random. 




The Plastic Bag Incident (Or, Why There Is Hope for Bicycles Yet)



The other day I had occasion to stop by a large supermarket in Co. Derry, where I had not been in some time. In the soft fluorescent glow, I wandered its abundantly stocked aisles and grabbed a couple of things that I needed, then headed for the till. The cashier rang me up, placing the items I bought in a pile at the corner of the register.

“Could I please have a bag as well?” I said, handing her the money.

She gave me a look so nuanced in its shades of contempt, suspicion and disappointment, it would have given a Soviet-era Univermag cashier a run for their money.

“Is it a plastic bag you want?”

“Yes please."

“They cost extra, you know,” she said, in a tone that hinted she doubted I had the money.

“That’s all right.”

And as she tossed the flimsy receptacle in my direction, my heart swelled with joy.

“I’m sorry,” I said, beaming at her stupidly, as I scrambled to pack my purchase, “I usually bring my own bag.”

And that, dear readers, I do. But it is hardly the point.

The point is how astonishingly different the behaviour I encountered on this occasion was from the way things stood when I first arrived in Northern Ireland 3 years earlier. Near to where I lived at the time, this particular supermarker was one I used to visit regularly. By default, the cashiers would cheerfully place a heap of plastic bags onto the register. And any protests of “No thanks, I have a bag” would be met with genuine confusion - with pitying looks that said: (1) Well, that’s a bit weird to carry your own bag! and (2) Surely you still want these wee plastic bags as inner bags? you know, to keep your nice bag from getting dirty?

I have written about encountering the same attitude in the US some years earlier. But the bag-pushing cashiers in Northern Ireland were both friendlier and more insistent, making it a true challenge to emerge from the supermarket plastic bag-free.

When I pointed this out to some local friends at the time - as part of a general conversation about plastics - they said something to the effect of “Good luck trying to get people here to stop using plastic bags and drinking out of plastic bottles! It’s part of the culture."

Part of the culture, eh? Well, then it is all the more remarkable to now see the attitude reversing. The most interesting part, is that the cashier wasn’t just following the new store protocol. She was actually judging me on a personal level, having internalised the "asking for plastic bag = bad; bringing reusable bag = good" narrative.

But enough about bags. Because what I'm really trying to say is: Attitudes change. Cultural practices change. Societal norms are not eternally fixed, but in a constant state of flux.

Which is why it amazes me how often the faux logic of impossible-to-change local ways is used to argue that cycling culture can never take off here (insert your city/ town/ rural region of choice).

In theory, cycling can take off anywhere if circumstances align just right. Now what determines that alignment is another topic - a topic I think is exciting, and far from a lost cause, no matter how unlikely the region in question might seem.



Meet Ellen's Urban Arrow: a Cargo Superbike in Belfast

Ellen's Urban Arrow in Belfast

When I found myself in Belfast some time ago with an hour to spare, I used that hour wisely: I met for a coffee with local cycling celebrity and trans youth advocate Ellen Murray.

As I locked up my bike in St. Anne's Square, her arrival was tremendous. The sleek, black, shark-like contraption she pedaled appeared not so much to roll, as to slice through the stately, rather Viennese, backdrop of white neoclassical buildings. Pedestrians stopped in their tracks. A passing flock of birds hovered overhead. And I, mouth ajar, nearly dropped my U-lock on my foot, as my own bicycle made a meek neighing sound in the presence of this formidable giant.

"Your new Urban Arrow!" I said, trying to play it cool and hide my awe, "How do you like it?"

Ellen's Urban Arrow in Belfast

Unsurprisingly, she liked it very much indeed. Ellen's transport cycling history began with a roadbike, then progressed rapidly to a contemporary Batavus step-through, and a Pashley Postie. With each bike, she enjoyed sitting ever more upright, and appreciated being able to haul ever more stuff. It began to dawn on her, that perhaps what she really needed was a full-on Dutch style cargo bike.

One problem, however, was that Ellen's disability (when off the bike, she moved with the help of a cane at this time; she now uses a wheelchair) was making it difficult to put in as much daily milage as she wanted. And switching to an even larger and heavier bike probably wouldn't help matters. So she did some research. And then she researched some more. And she discovered the Urban Arrow.

Ellen's Urban Arrow in Belfast

A comparative newcomer to the cargo bike scene, in many ways the Urban Arrow is a typical Dutch bakfiets (box bike). It's a step-through frame, with swept-back handlebars, generator lighting, chaincase, mudguards, internal gears, and an enormous front crate - which can be adapted to carry cargo or human passengers, including infants and children.

However there are several crucial features that make the Urban Arrow a bit different. First, it is made of relatively lightweight materials: the frame aluminium, the box a durable foam (expanded polypropylene). Second, it is designed to be zippy and maneuverable whilst retaining the tame, easy-to-master handling of a traditional bakfiets. Third, it is modular: The front end of the frame can separate from the rear, allowing to switch platforms (family, cargo, "shorty").  Finally, the bike is available - and, in fact, comes standard - with integrated e-assist.

Ellen's Urban Arrow in Belfast

Adding e-assist to cargo bikes is not exactly a new practice. But the key word here is "integrated." The Urban Arrow was designed as an electric bike to begin with. As a result, it incorporates the assist in a manner that is streamlined, native-looking, and economical weight-wise.

There is no awkwardly attached battery taking up valuable real estate and adding bulk. The Bosch 400 Wh Powerpack sits in a special nook behind the cargo box, so stealthy it is nearly invisible. The motor integrates with the cranks and bottom bracket in a way that looks wholly organic. Both are low to the ground and compact, making minimal impact on the bicycle's look and balance.

Ellen's Urban Arrow in Belfast

On the cockpit-end sits the e-assist control unit that monitors battery range and allows for different settings (turbo, sport, tour, eco), and the gear shifter for the NuVinci N360 hub.

Ellen's Urban Arrow in Belfast

For those unfamiliar with the NuVinci system, it in itself is really something, and a treat to experience on what is already interesting machine. An internally geared hub, the NuVinci is unique in that it offers a continuously variable transmission. There are no individual gears as such. Instead, there is a wide (360%) range of continuous, "unlimited" gear ratios. You twist the shifter, in increments as tiny or as large as you like, and the gearing grows proportionally lower or higher. The animated icon on the shifter reacts by continuously steepening and flattening the landscape, thereby indicating where you are within the range.

Having dealt with fixed systems of gearing throughout my experience as a cyclist, NuVinci's smooth, continuous drivetrain felt exhilarating to try for the first time. And its integration with the Bosch e-assist felt seamless.

Ellen's Urban Arrow in Belfast

Also seamless is the integration of the generator lighting (which runs off the battery), and, of course, other standard bakfiets accessories, including mudguards, chain guard, heavy-duty kickstand, and giant loud bell.

Ellen's Urban Arrow in Belfast

The overall look of the Urban Arrow is really - to my eye, at least - incomparable to any other front loading cargo bike currently on the market, in terms of sleekness of presentation. And it's more than just the clean lines, the contemporary materials, and the almost architectural minimalism. There is an aggressive wooshness to it that communicates speed and excitement, reminding me, more than anything, of one of those raw-finish racing supercars.

It's an interesting choice of aesthetic for a cargo bike. And one that would almost have you forget that these things are designed for everyday family life. But perhaps the point Urban Arrow are making, is that family life, and sexy woosh-wooshness, need not be at odds with one another.

Ellen's Urban Arrow in Belfast

The open-box design of the Family model is ideal for the transport of passengers, cargo, or a mix of the two. With benches, seatbelts, and easy options for both child and infant seat attachments, as well as optional rain cover attachment, it is a versatile system for up to 4 passengers, dependent on age. It is also, Urban Arrow claims, superior safety-wise, placing passengers "lower than other cargo bikes, as its center of gravity is closer to the ground... And the robust and shockproof foam (EPP) box gives extra protection."

Having experienced the Urban Arrow as a passenger, I did find myself seated deeper in the box than I recall from having tried this in several other bakfietsen. I can also report that it was cozy and fun.

Ellen's Urban Arrow in Belfast

While Ellen does not use her bike as a family vehicle, she does have occasion to transport passengers now and again, usually adults, and describes this process as a relatively easy one - thanks to the bike's maneuverability and to the e-assist.

More frequently though, she uses the box to transport work supplies, and her wheelchair. The combination of the two machines - chair and bike - is in fact rather perfect for Ellen, helping her move about at speed throughout the day and get things done with the efficiency she likes.

Ellen's Urban Arrow in Belfast

For those who'd want to use the Urban Arrow as purely a non-passenger work bike, the Cargo version comes with a lockable hardshell box designed for 150kg (330lb) of weight. And for those looking for a considerably more compact option, the Shorty features a two-level container that hauls a combined 73kg (160lb).

All versions of the bike are designed around a 26" rear wheel and 20" front wheel with Schwalbe Big Apple tyres, integrated Bosch e-assist, and NuVinci drivetrain, with a choice of hub or hydraulic disc brakes. The Family model is also available in a non-electric version. Optional accessories include rear racks, child seat adaptors, rain cover, luggage net, and more.

Ellen's Urban Arrow in Belfast

Measuring 244cm in length, the Urban Arrow Family model is a large cargo bike - on par in size with other popular front-loaders, including the Bakfiets.nl (225cm), the Larry vs Harry Bullit (243cm), and the Workcycles KR8 (264cm).

However, weighing in at "only" 43kg (95lb) for the electric version, it is lighter than what most front-loaders of this size weigh without the e-assist. Which makes it easier not only to propel along the road, but to walk and lift over kerbs - something I noticed immediately when playing around with the bike in the city.

While I did briefly ride the Urban Arrow, it was for a very short time and in a limited context. My only impression worth reporting is that it rode "normally" from the start, rather than like the sort of front-loading cargo bike where the steering takes some practice to get used to. It's a bike that I would certainly love to get to know better.

Ellen's Urban Arrow in Belfast

With a current (European market) price tag of €2,150 for the unassisted, and €3,950 for the electric, machine, the cost of the Urban Arrow is on par with other cargo bikes in its class. Which is to say, quite high if you judge it by city bike standards. But more reasonable if you think of it as a family car replacement, which is how the manufacturers of this category of bike promote them.

In future I would love an opportunity to do a proper test ride of the sexy, fascinating machine that is the Urban Arrow. While the name suggests it is designed for cities, with the e-assist I do think it makes for a good candidate for hilly, windy rural areas as well, which is where I normally ride. Even more so, I am curious what the non-electric version would feel like, with that lovely NuVinci drive.

As far as Ellen's use case scenario, it is delightful that she and the electric Arrow have found one another. Thanks to the Urban Arrow, not only has there been improvement to Ellen's mobility, but, I daresay, to the streets of Belfast.

With thanks for allowing me to paw her bike, I invite you to check out Ellen's tumblr and ever-entertaining twitter feed, as I wish you a Happy Weekend! For a full picture-set: visit here.



The Last House



It is a road that I have climbed so often, it is really no longer a road, or a climb, but more like some inexplicably repeating drama. A play in which I find myself performing some peripheral, but necessary, role, again and again, as if caught in a dream loop.

The play consists of three acts. First is the long and sweeping, gentle pull, through meadows and gated gardens. So subtle is the gradient here, at times I would almost wonder whether I were climbing at all, feeling compelled to check my tyres for flats. It is a slow beginning. Time seems to drag. The sound of insects is loud. The landscape feels suspiciously open, bringing about that sense of being watched. Uneasily, it stretches on and on, until its monotony comes to an abrupt end at a sharply rising slope.

The slope intimidates with its vertical immediacy. But this is a ruse - as the crest, hidden from view by its steepness, is near. And after it, a dramatic dip. End of Act 1.

As the road twists and narrows, I climb my way out of the hollow, in which sits a small village. Or maybe it is a settlement. There is no shop, no postoffice, no pub. There is, however, a surprisingly large church, and it sits back from the road behind trees and an iron gate, almost coyly.

The houses are densely clustered and old, different in shape and size but nonetheless resembling each other in a way that suggests they were built in the same era. At a gradient that steepens with every meter, the road snakes narrowly between them, now almost like a private driveway. The temperature rises here; the hollow is a sun trap. Sweat runs in streams into my eyes. There is a crossroads now, with roads to each side offering a way out of completing the climb.

After the crossroads, the houses grow sparser, the tree shade thicker, the gradient steeper. As I round the next bend, I keep my eye out for the pillar with the white mailbox attached. When I see it, I drop into the small ring. I stand, then sit back down again, then stand for a while longer. And I keep my eye now on the houses. After the last one, ends Act 2. The real climb begins.

And of course Act 3 is what it's all been driving toward. When it arrives, it is almost cheap in its shock tactics, a jumble of pain, desolation, loosened emotions. But it is not only painful, this climb, this third act. It is plain bad. It is all so exaggerated and improbable - from the eye-poppingly sharp gradient of the final mile, to the bare and windswept bogland that is now the only thing to be glimpsed in any direction. It is this improbability - the sense of suspended disbelief - that propels me through the whole thing every time. It is also what keeps me coming back. I remember the play as being bad. But could it really have been that bad? Perhaps I need to sit (or stand) through it just one more time, to be sure.

But after every last time, would come the next last time. Until the bad play becomes a cult play. A bizarre obsession.

How many times have I done this climb? Don't ask, I have lost count. And the ending never fails to surprise me. Because by the time I recover sufficiently to attempt it again, I forget how bad it is. I forget every single time.

It is only once I am cycling up this road again, that a point comes when suddenly I remember. And that point is just as I'm about to pass the last house. The last house before the trees end and the bogland begins. The last house before the nastiness and the drama assail me.

The last house stands on the righthand side, on its own and some distance uphill from the ones that come before it. It is white, with green trim. And although there is nothing in it unusual, I study its nuances with a grasping intensity, as if stalling for time. From the texture of its finish, to the likely number of rooms within, to the possible character of its occupants, I have given all things about it tremendous consideration. Over time they've acquired a sort of secret meaning, as if hiding clues as to what sort of time I'm about to have up the road ahead.

When I last attempted this climb, the journey took on an unusual sense of buoyancy, as it does on those rare occasions when my head is extra clear and I am in my very best shape. I began to think I had conquered the climb and the shock of its final drama.

It was then I caught sight of something ahead. I could not discern it at first. But as I drew closer, it looked like the beginnings of a new construction. The site stood unsheltered, surrounded by bog, some ways up the road from the last house.


Rubber and Cork: a Gripping Review


There are few upgrades one can make to their bicycle that will have as much bang-for-the-buck impact, as new handlebar dressing. The style and materials of this crucial accessory have the potential to transform the comfort of our bars, while its colour and finish can play a surprisingly dominant role in the overall aesthetics of our machine. All this, at what is usually a fairly reasonable price, makes experimenting with handlebar tape, wraps, and grips worth it - until, hopefully, we find our personal favourite.

For bicycles with swept-back handlebars, my favourite grips have long been the Rivendell Portuguese cork grips. Then, just over a year ago, I tried the newly re-issued Rustines French rubber grips, and it quickly became a tie. While these grips are quite different from one another, they also have some commonalities that I think will make them appealing to many of my readers. And so I present you with this review of both.



Rustines Constructeur-Style Rubber Grips
made in: France
sold by: Rustines in Europe, Velo Orange in North America
price: 16€ / $19 USD

In the Spring of 2015, there was much excitement when Velo Orange announced they'd be stocking Rustines products, including their constructeur-style rubber grips.

Now, there were some of us familiar with the Rustines brand - known for its invention of the patch kit (in 1922), and for its assortment of constructeur-era accessories. But few were aware that the company was still in business making these classic products.

That's because, until recently they weren't. Production was re-started in 2013, by the great-grandson of the original founder (you can read about the history here, in French). Today Rustines specialises in patch kits and classic bicycle accessories - including bungee-cords, rubber brake hoods, bar-end plugs, and grips (browse their French website at your own risk - you can seriously get lost in it for hours). They make it a point to manufacture their products locally.


The constructeur-style grips are available in an assortment of colours, including red, blue, black, white, yellow, and the natural rubber shown here. I chose the natural version because the grips were destined to go on a bright-lilac mixte. Any other colour would compete with the paint scheme, and the stark white would look too '80s, I thought, whereas I was going for more of a '60s vibe. The natural rubber looks "vintagey," matches any paint scheme, and - I hoped - would be fairly forgiving to being gripped with dirty hands, as is my custom (on this last point, I am pleased to report that I was correct!)

There are those whose interest in Rustine grips lies mainly in evoking a period-correct look. And they are certainly a good choice in that regard. However, to my eye the grips are very versatile - suitable for modern and vintage bikes alike. Picture them, for instance, on a Brompton. On a long-tail cargo bike. Basically on any new, or old, upright bike. Red on black. Yellow on silver. Blue on white. Are "fixies" still a thing? They would suit those as well.

These grips are also a good choice for bikes that spend lots of times outdoors - being quite durable and resistant to aging, even when the bike is left in the rain and the sun, intermittently.


But the thing that makes these tied for "my favourite grips" status is mainly their feel. And this is of course subjective, so keep that in mind, but the beauty of the feel is two-fold:

1. They have just the right amount of smoothness vs non-sliperyness to the touch. Even in the rain and even in hot sticky weather. While hard plastic grips can feel too slippery for some, and cork grips too textured, these are smooth, but stop just short of detrimental sleekness. The raised rings additionally help keep the hands in place, while being soft enough to not cause discomfort.

2. They have just the right amount of firmness vs give when squeezed. This is again, a personal thing.  But I have tried other rubber grips, and they have been too soft, making my hands hurt after some time from over-squeezing. These are just the right consistency for that not to happen.

The overall girth of the grips is good for small hands, which could mean that those with very large hands might find them too narrow. Another potential dislike that immediately comes to mind is the rings - some people can't tolerate textured grips. Otherwise, unless you are allergic to rubber or simply don't like the look of these, I can hardly think of how you can go wrong for $19.


Rivendell Miesha's Portuguese Tree Cork Grips
made in: Portugal
sold by: Rivendell Bicycle Co., USA (ships worldwide)
price: $25 USD

The cork grips you'll find in most bike shops today are plentiful and cheap. These ones by Rivendell are pricier than most. This is because they are an inherently different product. While typical bicycle handlebar grips are made of pressed reconstituted cork, these are made from unprocessed, whole pieces of cork - directly from the tree - cut up into large hollow rings and glued together. Rivendell works directly with the harvester/manufacturer to design and produce these grips. There is a very detailed description of the process on their product page, with photos of the tree bark being collected and carried around by donkeys. Worth a look for the educational value alone (to to mention the donkeys).

The result is a grip that is as uniquely beautiful as the texture of each individual chunk of cork bark. In fact, sometimes I find myself staring at the texture and it's a bit distracting! But the point is, they are lovely, and more organic-looking than any other grip you are likely to find on the market. Plus they help the (apparently, struggling) Portuguese cork industry.

Some time in the last couple of years, the Rivendell grips underwent a slight redesign. Consequently, they are now a tad skinnier and longer than they used to be. And the price has dropped. As before, they remain available in two versions: "normal," and grooved/hole-punched for bar-end shifters.


With a coat of clear or amber shellack, Miesha's cork grips can be made to match any shade of brown leather saddle, which is a nice aesthetic bonus. And like Rivendell bicycles in of themselves, they are not so much vintagey as timeless, and somewhat post-modern, and difficult to place into a category. They do suit a wide variety of bikes - with the obvious exception of the racy/sporty aesthetic.

Because the grips are designed to be used with shellack, there is an element of control the owner has over both the look and the feel. The more shellack, the darker, stiffer, and smoother (aka more slippery) the grips become. The less shellack, the lighter and more textured, but also the more prone to dirt and flaking. Over the years I have developed a preference to "run" my natural cork grips with only a single coat of shellack, which is what you see here.


At this stage in the review I find myself struggling to put into words what exactly I find so appealing about these particular grips. I mean, it's something in the texture and feel, certainly. But what about the texture and feel? This is not as easy to break down into digestible, logical points as with the rubber grips covered earlier.

So I won't force it, and instead will try my best to describe the very subjective sensory reality of it - which is that, for me, these grips have a familiarity and warmth, which my hands rejoice at whenever they fall upon them. The ergonomics of the shape and width work for me, so much so that of all grips I've used I notice holding these the least. At the same time, the surface texture is ...engaging, for lack of better word, maybe even "invigorating." Why, even as I write this, I feel compelled to run outside and touch them. Better yet, to grip them, then take off on the bike. If that doesn't explain my fondness for them, I don't know what will.

Does the above make sense? Probably not. But neither does love. And over the years, my love of the Rivendell cork-tree grips has even trumped my fear of their one significant flaw, which is their fragility. In fairness, this aspect of the product is not something the manufacturer hides at all (warning even that if you crack them in the process of installing them, they are not responsible). As with all materials made of unmessed-with organic matter, this is an inherent risk. How often do they actually crack? Well, it has never happened to me and I've used a few sets of these over the years. But I've seen it on other bikes. If you're willing to risk it for $25, I am certain the Portuguese cork industry will thank you.

...

Being my two favourite bicycle grips on the market, I believe the Rustines rubber grips and the Rivendell cork grips are each worth considering whether you are looking to spruce up your bike, going for a classic build, or - perhaps most importantly - still hunting for that grip that feels "just perfect." One of these could be the one. And while not the absolute cheapest grips on the market, they are unlikely to bankrupt you either -  making for a fairy low-risk way to inject some loveliness into your ride.


On Maximising the "Retention Factor" of Budget Bicycles



When someone new to transportation cycling asks me for advice on what bicycle to buy, my reply is influenced by two factors. Firstly, their budget. Once that is established, I will suggest a bicycle within their price range. This bike may not so much be "the best" by some set of technical or aesthetic industry criteria, but it will be one I believe is most likely to make a good impression on that person, and, most importantly, to keep them cycling. Because, really, the important thing is not just that the bicycle is purchased, but that it is ridden. And that it turns the new owner into a cyclist!

This idea of judging (or producing) a bike on this merit is one that seems to surprise manufacturers, whenever I have occasion to mention it to them. But really, it shouldn't.

Consider, for instance, how many people who try transportation cycling stick with it, and how many do not. For those who do not, what is the reason? While environmental factors - such as distance, terrain, and the availability of cycling infrastucture - certainly influence the cycling experience, the bicycle itself plays a crucial role as well.

It goes without saying that the bicycle should be comfortable, be designed with suitable geometry and accessories for transport, depending on the customer's requirements. But the thing I am talking about here is, in a way, more basic. Think of a person's first bicycle as a sort of ambassador for the cycling experience. The bicycle needs to convince its new owner that cycling for transport is convenient and easy, not troublesome or problematic.

So in honour of the upcoming Interbike, I would like to share some thoughts on what manufacturers of transport bicycles can do, to maximise their product's "retention factor." In particular, here are 3 crucial things in this regard which I feel are often overlooked:

1. Equip bicycles with puncture-proof tyres and quality tubes.

Whenever I mention the importance of this to a manufacturer, there is almost always resistance.

"Oh come on. Customers aren't stupid. Flats are so easy to fix! If they want puncture-proof tyres, they can upgrade themselves."

Well, I didn’t say customers were stupid. But you are thinking like a cyclist. And first-time buyers aren't cyclists. Bicycles are new to them. They don’t necessarily find flats "easy" to fix. They don’t necessarily know that tyres can be upgraded to puncture-proof ones ("You mean they are puncture-prone by default?" asks a friend, scandalised, when I attempt to explain this. "Why?!").

On a bike with low quality tyres, it is not uncommon for the first flat to happen within just a few weeks of ownership - an extremely vulnerable period during which the bond between owner and bike is still in the process of forming.

It is my impression, that a fairly high percentage of would-be transport cyclists give up if they get their first flat at this early stage. They do not necessarily mean to give up. In the first instance, they might declare the bicycle "broken" and set it aside in the garage until they can figure out how to fix it, or have time to drive/walk it over to the bike shop. However, life gets hectic, and all too often such a day never comes.

It may seem too trite to be true, but I guarantee this is how a considerable percentage of potential transportation cyclists are lost. Flats! Something so easily avoided by speccing a bicycle with puncture-proof tyres.

2. Ensure that retailers understand your bikes, and know how to set them up. 

When it comes to transport bikes in the budget category, they are likely to be retailed not at specialty shops, but at mainstream bike shops and even non-cycling related venues (for example, clothing boutiques) - where the staff might not be adequately trained in setting them up. This often translates to the bicycle not being adjusted properly when it is handed to the customer - in every respect, from drivetrain setup, to the attachment of components and accessories.

It is a very, very bad idea to sell a bicycle to a newbie in this manner. And not just for safety reasons - although there is that, too... I still recall with horror, that time, when the rear wheel fell off a bike I was test riding (a floor model in a Boston bike shop) just as I was half way through an intersection!

But in addition to safety, it is again about the impression the customer gets of cycling based on the bike. Those who decide to try cycling for transportation are not necessarily ready to open a home mechanic's station. After all, they were never expected to fix their own car as soon as they drove it home from the dealer! And cycling is supposed to be easier, more convenient, remember?

If a brand new bicycle does not work properly - chain falls off, gears won't shift, fenders rattle - it is going to result in an impression of cycling as high-maintenance, finicky, fragile, unreliable mode of transport. Any retailer chosen by the manufacturer to carry their products must be trained to ensure this does not happen.

3. Make accessories functional, or don't bother.

In reviews I often praise transportation bicycles for being "fully equipped" - that is, fitted with mudguards, racks, and lighting.

However, an important caveat here is that these items need to be functional in order to be useful. Otherwise, they are just dead weight and an unnecessary expenditure on the manufacturer's part that could have been allocated elsewhere (on puncture-proof tyres, for instance).

The worst example of this I see lately, is lighting. Some manufacturers will equip their transport bikes with an enormous and quite heavy, but ridiculously dim, halogen headlight. The actual light output on this sort of unit will be so low, that the headlight is really mostly decorative. And the bicycle's owner will still have to buy supplementary lighting ... but probably only after trusting the original lights their brand new bicycle came equipped with, and experiencing terrifying disappointment!

Again, at this stage some fledgling cyclists might simply decide that a bicycle's lighting isn't sufficient to get around safely at night and give up; it might genuinely not occur to them that they can get brighter lights aftermarket.

But that extreme possibility aside, functionality is simply not the place to cut corners on a bike that is intended to be used. If a bicycle comes equipped with a rack, this rack needs to be actually rated to carry weight. If it comes with fenders, they need to have adequate coverage.

None of this is to say that there isn't room to scrimp and save and cut corners when it comes to budget bicycle production. Only that every corner-cutting measure should be undertaken bearing in mind its impact on the "retention factor."

After all, making a bicycle affordable is all about increasing accessibility. It's a delicate task to maximise that, without cutting so many corners as to risk put new owners off from cycling entirely! Any manufacturer that can pull this off is to be applauded, and will certainly earn my recommendation.




On Fit and the Myth of Flattering Cycling Clothes


Last week I got a message from a friend who has recently, and very enthusiastically, taken up cycling with a local club. Having gone out on her first few rides, mostly everything is good. The beginner's group pace is comfortable, the bike is comfortable, even the saddle is comfortable. Nevertheless, she was getting pretty bad chafing in the inner thighs after every 20-30 mile ride. Chafing to the point of bleeding - way in there, in the crevices between thigh and crotch. It could be her saddle after all, I thought. But, intuition told me, it could also be the shorts.

Send me a pic where you're wearing your shorts, I wrote.

She did. They were lovely bib shorts, with a nice attractive design. And they were at least one size too big. This was obvious by the way the leg grippers gapped around her thighs, and by the looseness at the abdomen. Most likely, they were equally loose in the inner thigh and crotch area, and the extra fabric was causing the chafing. I have experienced that myself, with cycling shorts that have been even slightly too big, and have observed it in others. Whenever a cyclist I know complains of chafing and the saddle is not the cause, loose shorts nearly always turn out to be the culprit.

I tell my friend this. It is clearly not the answer she wants to hear. And she then explains that, oh - she sized up deliberately, as the smaller shorts looked horrendously unflattering.

Sausaging? I ask.

Crazy sausaging! she confirms, amused by the word.

Well, girl. What did you expect messing around with lycra?! 

And therein lies the rub, when it comes to performance cycling apparel. In order to do the job it was designed to do - not just in terms of performance, but in terms of comfort - it needs to fit right. And "right" in this case means tight ...which, for the vast majority of us, is almost guaranteed to be unflattering.

Now, if you ask me, the sooner we make peace with this fact, the better.

Unfortunately, there is quite a bit of marketing literature these days that would have us believe that their hip, gorgeous cycling kit will make us look like rock stars on the bike. And in fairness, the product in of itself might indeed be lovely - never has there been so much choice when it comes to tasteful, beautifully crafted performance cycling apparel. However, once we squeeze our bodies into said apparel, it is a different story.

So to protect you from false expectations, I am just going to get this out into the open.

There are only two types of people who look good in performance cycling apparel:

1. preternaturally lean people - you know, those folks with visible abs, chiseled thighs, sinewy arms

2. fictional people

Unless you belong to one of these two categories, you will not look good in performance cycling apparel. Doesn't matter what brand it is. Doesn't matter if it is minimalist or features the latest colorful must-have design. Doesn't matter if you've seen backlit photos of it where the models look epic. You will not look good in it. And if anyone tells you differently, they either:

(a.) are trying to spare your feelings,

(b.) are trying to sell you their cycling clothes, or

(c.) have grown so desensitised to the look of the human body encased in technical fabrics, their opinion cannot be trusted.

To be sure, there is a lot of cycling kit out there that I think is truly beautiful. But I am under no illusion that this means I look beautiful wearing it. One of my most comfortable and attractive cycling outfits, is a Richard Sachs set that, sadly, makes me look like a giant, leaky bag of blubber imprinted with House Industries typeface. I enjoy wearing it ...just as long as I don't catch sight of myself in the mirror! Being no less vain than the next gal, I do try to minimise the damage to my self-esteem. But when proper fit and flattering looks are at odds, I'll go with proper fit (i.e. comfort) every time, sausaging be damned! After all, when I am pushing hard on the bike I already look quite unsavory. The blotchy face, the bloating, the streaming sweat, the glazed-over eyes... to think that I could counteract all that with some glamorous cycling duds - even if there was such a thing - would surely be folly.

It goes without saying that not everyone who rides a bike requires cycling-specific clothing (see previous post!). But if such clothes are relevant to you, beware of falling into the vanity trap at the expense of proper sizing. Just remember: No piece of cycling kit is actually flattering. We might as well ignore our tummy rolls and pedal away in a beautiful shared delusion.



...When We Talk About Cycling



When I first met my husband, our initial form of “curting” was to walk through the local countryside. Slowly and aimlessly we strolled, talking - what about I don’t even remember now. It was lovely. And, seeing as I was a cyclist, he kept telling me that one day he would get his old bike out of the shed so that we could cycle together. I looked forward to this.

The day came and we arranged to meet with our bicycles. Judging by the time-capsule look of his neon blue aluminium racer and his logo-emblazoned jersey, I believed it when he said he had not been on the bike in over a decade. But that would hardly matter on our romantic meander.

Amidst the lush surroundings of Irish late summer, we set off. The sky was a cornflower blue. The waning afternoon sun shone gently upon us.

Within moments, we were flying at 16mph, in silence. Then, about 3 miles in, he looked over at me and said,

“After this bend coming up, let’s start to crank up the pace.”

Too stunned to reply, I followed his lead. Doing my best to stay on his wheel, I worked harder, pedaled faster. Then faster again, till my vision began to blur. Just as I was on the verge of blacking out, his pace relaxed. And it dawned on me then: We were doing interval training.

“What the hell are you doing?!” I panted, eyes bulging out of my head, after three repeats of this and no sign that the rest of our ride would be any different. He looked at me with such genuine, innocent confusion, it nearly melted away my annoyance.

“Cycling?..."

We would not ride bikes together again for months.

The problem with cycling - or, rather, with the word “cycling," at least in the English language - is that it is used to describe a range of very different activities. Riding a bike for transport is grouped together with pedaling for leisure, with using a bike as a brutal athletic workout, even with professional racing. These are activities which, in of themselves, have nothing to do with each other - even though some cyclists do choose to engage in more than one, and, in some cases, to overlap them.

Whether this makes cycling conceptually problematic or fascinating, is a matter of perspective. But the point is, when the word cycling is mentioned - be it in conversation, literature, social media, event descriptions, or marketing - we need additional context to know what sort of activity is being referenced.

The number of times I have clicked on articles about “women’s cycling” only to realise they were about women’s racing is staggering.

Then there are the endless debates as to whether one “needs” special clothing for cycling. And what about mudguards, panniers and baskets? Clipless shoes? Segregated infrastructure?

Is an upright bike "better" than one with drop bars? More "comfortable?"

Why ever would you want to “suffer” on your bike?

Why ever would you want a basket on your bike when it produces drag?

Why on earth does anyone need to know their average speed, let alone their cadence?

So often in these debates, people are not so much disagreeing, as talking about entirely different activities, for which they are forced by the limitations of language to use the same word. This can cause some needless frustration and friction.

It can also, however, get us to venture down roads we might have otherwise never considered. The sheer number of vehemently “un-athletic” people I know who started out commuting on vintage 3-speeds and now ride brevets, race cyclocross, go out with fast roadie clubs, compete in time trials.

Semantic confusion is often to blame.

“Oh, you’re a cyclist? So are we. Come join us this Saturday morning!”

It can also go in the other direction. There is a sizable category of people who get into bicycle racing by way of motorsport. They are drawn to the speed and the danger of it, in the same way they are drawn to rally racing and motor cross. But essentially they are petrolheads, who would never have dreamed of pedaling a bicycle for transport, let alone selling their car and advocating for bicycle-friendly infrastructure. Yet there they are, some years later - "accidental" bicycle commuters and even activists, passionate typing away on forums about front vs rear load cargo bikes.

Discrepancies in our understanding of cycling can take subtler forms. There have been a number of pivotal moments throughout my adult life, when my concept of cycling was redefined or expanded. The first memorable one, was when I realised that I could ride my bicycle with traffic and not only along riverside paths and park lanes. Another, was when I saw that the bicycle could truly serve as my only method of transport. When I joined my first paceline ride, everything I thought I knew about cycling as a sport underwent a colossal upheaval. Then it happened again, when I began to take part in timed events.

And no matter how much my concept of cycling expands, there is always room for more; there is always capacity for tremendous, mind-blowing surprise. Last weekend I rode a 100km loop through southern Donegal that nearly made me feel as if I couldn’t ride a bicycle at all - not in the way this place required it of me, anyway. Once again, my concept of what's involved in this umbrella term, cycling, was shaken. And I was reminded, that just when we think we've settled into a comfortable place within the spectrum of self-awareness, we are never quite as experienced, quite as strong, quite as wise or resilient, as we think.

These days I cycle with my husband a lot. Yet we have not compromised toward a joint definition of cycling. Rather, we have each expanded our repertoires to keep the other company. I will join him on hill climbs and on rides the sole purpose of which is speedwork, horrendous painful speedwork. He will join me on going to the shops, on casual meanders with cameras in tow; he has even given touring a try.

And although our house is full of two wheeled contraptions, we hardly ever call it cycling.

"Will you do some intervals with me this evening?”

"I am going to the shops, want to come?"

The bicycle is, of course implied. And misunderstandings are - mostly - avoided. That is not to say that, every now and again, training rides don't get paused for emergency photo-ops. And that "sprinting out of corners" never happens with a pannier full of groceries. But, in the end, being content in life requires flexibility. And that goes for what we talk about, when we talk about cycling.


Rivendell Clementine: a Belated, Befuddled, Bedazzled Intro



I do not like to describe a bicycle as magical, or mysterious. Despite any romantic cooings that might sometimes suggest otherwise, in the cold light of day I do not actually believe there is such a thing. Whether a bicycle is "fast," "comfortable," "stable," "climbs well" (insert other praiseworthy attributes here), it got that way not through some alchemical je ne sais quois, but through specific and replicable design factors. From tubing selection, to geometry, to method of construction - it all plays a role. Other, less obvious factors, lurk in the background also. And while even the most sensitive, most knowledgeable reviewers (of which I am not one!) find themselves stumped on occasion as to how to account for a particular bicycle's behaviour, that doesn't mean the explanation is not there - only that they can't see it.

All of this is to say: I've been testing a Rivendell Clementine over the summer. And I have stalled with its introduction precisely for this reason. I refuse to describe it as a magical bicycle. Yet there are certain things about it, which I am not sure how to communicate without coming across as implying just that...



But allow me to put that aside for a moment and provide some background. I have a bit of experience with Rivendell bicycles. My first roadbike was a green Sam Hillborne circa 2010. With its relaxed geometry, allowance for an upright fit, wide tyres, and general sense of sturdiness, it helped me learn how to ride with drop bars and eased me into the sportier side of cycling, despite my then-problems with balance. I owned the Sam Hillborne for two years, before ultimately switching to a "racy" skinny-tyre roadbike. The Sam's new owner set it up as an upright commuter, and, as far as I know, remains delighted with it to this day.

Having been lucky enough to live near Harris Cyclery during my time in Boston, I have tried other Rivendells over the years: the Betty Foy/ Yves Gomez, the Atlantis, the Roadeo, the Quickbeam, and a good few customs belonging to local riders. The bicycles continued to fascinate me, and I followed Rivendell news with interest.

In so doing, one trend I had kept an eye on, was the company's gradual shift from sport-oriented design (their very first bicycles in the '90s were fairly traditional roadbikes), toward utility. Over the years, angles relaxed, chainstays grew, virtual top tubes stretched, extra top tubes emerged, dynamo lighting appeared... and while the reasoning behind this was presented as mostly camping-oriented, to my eye it looked as if Rivendell was also inching toward releasing a transport-specific model. In thinking this, I was encouraged by Grant Petersen's involvement in the designs of Brooklyn Bicycles and the XtraCycle Radish - some of the best-handling urban utility bikes I have tried. Was Rivendell about to "drop" a homespun, country bike equivalent? I could only wait and see.


And one day, it finally appeared on their website: The Rivendell Clementine. In a strangely visceral way I knew immediately what I was looking at. Step-through construction, omafiets-like angles and chainstays, low bottom bracket, fat tyres, huge range of saddle and bar height adjustment, derailleur gearing... and a $1,500 price tag for a complete bike.

My goodness, I think they've done it! I had to unbutton my collar from the excitement.

At this point, I had been in vague discussion with Rivendell about getting a bike over to Ireland for review. And so now I immediately asked for the Clementine. The initial response was one of suspicious discouragement.

Are you sure?! It's not even fully lugged. And it's hefty, you know. You'll try to ride it in pacelines and complain it can't keep up with carbon bikes... 

Touché. But I assured them I understood what the Clementine was, and wanted to try that specific model. Eventually Rivendell relented. And when the huge box arrived covered in drawings of talking cats (have you ever received a Rivendell-packaged bike? a topic worthy of its own discussion!) I prepared for something rather interesting.



What I was not prepared for, was to be surprised. I had thought - or, rather, hoped - that I knew what this bicycle was. And to be sure, the Clementine is exactly that. Only... how do I put this? a better version of it. In addition to doing the things I expected of it, it has also behaved in some unexpected ways - leaving me dazed and confused and more than a little in love - in the end, uncertain how to write about it at all.

Having admitted that, I will nevertheless try my best to describe this bicycle.

In 2015, Rivendell introduced a pair of new, lower priced bicycle models, for utility-oriented town and country cycling: the Clem Smith, Jr. and his "mother or sister" the Clementine. These models were designed much the same as standard Rivendells, but with partly welded construction ("cutting some artsy corners to lower the price"), and beefier, reinforced tubing, for extra durability. The models were made available as frames or complete bicycles, for a considerably lower price than typical Rivendells.


While the diamond frame Clem Smith might resemble other Rivendell models, the Clementine is particularly unique in that it is the manufacturer's first truly step-through frame, with a considerably lower stepover than their mixte models (i.e. the Betty Foy, Yves Gomez, Cheviot and Glorius).

The Clementine frames are available in three sizes, with size-proportional wheels. The small frame is built to fit 26" wheels; the medium frame (shown) for 650B wheels, and the large for 700C wheels - and all are designed to fit tyres up to 60mm wide, with fenders.

You can see the geometry chart here.


The overall style of the Clementine I would describe as: best of Dutch omafiets meets best of 90s mountain bike, but with the added benefits of proportional sizing and a low bottom bracket. Here is what I mean by that in more detail:

Best of Dutch omafiets:
. ultra-low stepover, for easy on/off
. the possibility of a bolt-upright riding position
. relaxed angles, for comfort
. super-long chainstays, allowing for monsterously sized panniers without heel strike

Best of 90s mountain bike:
. all-terrain capability
. stable handling
. derailleur gearing, with possibility of ultra-low ratios for serious climbing

Proportional sizing:
. as frame size grows, all aspects of the frame (including wheel size) grow proportionately
. this makes for better fit
. and eliminates toe overlap concerns

Low bottom bracket:
. makes it easier to put a toe down at stops without having to dismount from the saddle
. particularly in transport bicycles, this enhances overall accessibility


In both aesthetics and feel the Clementine reminds me most of a certain type of German and Austrian utility bike that had been around for decades through maybe the early 1990s. While clunky in stature and most commonly used as city bikes, these types of bicycles were also surprisingly good over long distances and over unpaved terrain. They were not designed for sport, but for casual - yet, potentially endless - cycling. It is the idea of precisely this kind of cycling that first attracted me to bicycles.


As per its online description, the Clementine is a compromise between elegance and utility, between welded and lugged construction. Specifically, most of the frame is welded (you can see pictures of this in "naked" form here), save for the fork crown, head tube rings, and seat cluster.

But while the manufacturer describes the look as somewhat "less Rivendellish," I personally do not feel that way. To my eye, the overall aesthetic of the bike is unmistakably Riv. But in a way that you'll be perhaps less worried about scuffing it, leaving it locked up in the town, or using it in terrible weather.


When it comes to the Clem Jr. and Clementine builds, Rivendell recommends a medley of sturdy, but not overly pretty or fancy, components. I left it in their hands to decide on the demo build, specifying only that I wanted very low gears and dynamo lighting. The result was a build much like described here, with a 38/24t front / 11-34t rear drivetrain, v-brakes, an upside-down thumbie and brake lever setup, cork grips, and SKS fenders. I fitted my own saddle and pedals, and have been riding this bicycle as my main form of transport for much of the summer.

For anyone who reviews bicycles, we can never really anticipate what will go on in our lives when a demo bike arrives at our door. In case of the Clementine, it caught me at a time when I was in pretty great shape, followed swiftly by a period of time when, having just had minor surgery, I was unable to ride a bicycle at all for weeks. When I was finally allowed to cycle again, for a while it could only be on a bolt-upright bike. Having initially ridden the Clementine with the stem "slammed" nearly all the way down, I now extended it by a good fistful and a half and was pleasantly surprised with the bike's versatility - not only did the Clementine allow for a range of semi-upright and upright positions, but it felt equally "natural" in each setup. It also felt equally lovely to ride in sickness and in health, so to speak.


Despite the epic length of this post, this is not yet a review. But by way of introduction I would sum up the Clementine with the word "easy" - meant in the most positive sense. It is a bicycle that manages to accomplish what so many cyclists I know have been asking for since the Dutch bike's arrival to hillier, less bicycle-friendly lands: an upright, comfortable, casual, accessible, non-sporty bicycle, that can be ridden up hills and over longer distances without struggle.

The Rivendell Clementine is not a performance bicycle. It does not achieve its ease of travel by means of light tubing, aggressive positioning, or racy handling. In fact, it is a rather massive, and obscenely relaxed machine. Riding it down the road, I feel remarkably at ease. I want to be wearing dresses, fluttery clothing, flimsy footwear - and often I do. I want to meander endlessly. Yet despite this, the bike eats up miles. And I am left with the impression of getting to my destination quickly, without that tedious feel that long milage often begins to take on for me, when riding an upright bike.

Is it magic? Certainly not. But I have yet to put my finger on what exactly gives the Clementine this quality. Along with other mysterious traits, such as its unexpectedly lively climbing skills and superior headwind-coping abilities. I hope to explore all of that in detail in the long-term review, as well as to try the bike equipped with racks and some serious luggage by then (so far I've been riding it with an oversized saddlebag, large enough for my laptop and camera, but not nearly representative of what this bike is capable of hauling).

In the meanwhile, if you are in the market for an upright, step-through, non-performance bicycle that will take you places, have a look at the Rivendell Clementine. It may not be mysterious or magical, but it is more than meets the eye.


The Cyclist and the Roadworks


On my bike, I often find it a challenge to make it through stretches of roadworks within the allotted timeframe. The type of situation I'm talking about, is where the entire road is dug up and only a narrow single lane is open in one direction of travel, the traffic along it managed by a streetlight at each end. More often than not, it seems that even when I take off immediately, as soon as my light turns green, by the time I get through the cars at the other end already have the green light to start in the opposite direction.

Now, in theory, there is no reason this should be happening. The speed limit at entrypoint is 15km/h (just under 10mph), which I am certainly managing on my bike - I should not be any slower than motorised traffic.

The possibility that immediately occurred to me, is that the traffic light functions on a sensor. It senses when a car is still going through the single travel lane, but not a bike?

But later I realised that couldn't be it, as I've also been in situations with a colonnade of cars behind me, and still by the time we all reach the other end of the roadworks the vehicles on the other side already have the green light.

It was a mystery, until recently I found myself traveling through some roadworks in a car. Despite the 15km/h sign prominently displayed, the drivers in front of me were doing 55km/h. And judging by the screech of brakes when I attempted to actually follow the speed limit, I was expected to do the same.

It would appear, then, that the timing of the streetlights regulating the roadworks traffic can conflict with the posted speed limit - so that it may actually be impossible to travel through the single file stretch of roadworks at 15km/h, and make it before the cars at the other end get the green light.

I should say that I have experienced this inconsistency not only in Ireland (Ulster, both sides of the border), but also back as a cyclist in New England, USA. It is a worrying discrepancy, as it means the cyclist risks a head-on collision with oncoming traffic when traveling at ordinary bicycle speed.

We all know that roads are not exactly optimised for non-motorised vehicles. It should come as no surprise that roadworks are no exception. Nevertheless I believe the issue deserves some attention - especially in areas where flood-damage has made roadworks a common occurrence this year.

As a cyclist, have you encountered problems with roadworks? How do you deal with them safely?



The Lough, Lapped!

Lap the Lough 2016

In the interest of honesty, I should say this up front: I would not have considered riding Lap the Lough had I not been invited to cover it. There are several reasons for this. First, it's a sportive. And in my seven years of cycling, I have avoided sportives as some might avoid poison ivy, or jellyfish, or malaria. I am a cautious, risk-avoidant cyclist. And sportives (aka charity rides, gran fondos, or whatever you want to call them), reek of danger: a heady cocktail of riders with mixed handling skills trying to go fast in very large groups, without necessarily knowing how to ride in groups. In addition to this, I am generally not a fan of crowds. Crowds make me panic. And crowds on bikes just seem like a special kind of nightmare that I want no part of. A club ride, a niche dirt road event, or a local brevet, are just about the height of what I can cope with. A "famous," mainstream sportive in which 2,500 cyclists are expected to take part? Oh goodness me.

The other thing about Lap the Lough is, well, the lough! Or rather, its absence. I had visited Lough Neagh once before. The countryside is pleasant enough, even though by Irish standards it is, frankly, somewhat lacking in drama. But the most curious part, is that the lough itself is mostly invisible from the road. So, while it's true that Lough Neagh is the largest lake in all of UK and Ireland, the satisfaction of lapping it requires some capacity for abstract thought, since the actual body of water would remain hidden from view.

Lap the Lough 2016

So, in summary: 100 miles, in the company of 2,500 other cyclists, around an implied, but mostly invisible lake. I was about to thank the lovely organisers (whom I've met, and who really are lovely), and politely explain it was not my cup of tea. But first I mentioned the ride to my husband, Gary. And he stunned me with a degree of enthusiasm I had not thought him capable of for such an event. He had never shown interest in organised cycle rides before. And he wasn't too keen on distances either. When I took part in my last brevet, he was happy enough to send me off with a friend, helping us load our bikes in the car and muttering "not in a million years!" under his breath. But now, for whatever reason, this particular ride attracted him. And, before I knew it, we were both signed up to Lap the Lough on the 28th of August.

An eventful summer followed. At the start of it we cycled lots. In July we even did a mini-tour through scenic County Kerry. But following that I had some minor surgery. Consequently, I was off the bike for 4 weeks, and was cleared to cycle again only days before the event. Getting back on the bike after a month's absence, I had definitely lost fitness. But a couple of training rides later, I could tell that if I took it easy I could manage the ride. Lap the Lough was on!

Lap the Lough 2016

Now, in case I have not made it clear already, everything about this type of cycling event would normally make me nervous. But for better or worse, my husband has an animal-whisperer/ large dose of valium type of effect on me. And even though I should know by now to take his "ah, you'll be grand!" assurances with a pinch of salt, I fall for them every time. Hypnotised into an unnaturally lighthearted attitude, I hummed contentedly as we got ready the night before. The morning of, I hopped out of bed at an ungodly hour, chirpy and excited for the long drive. Sure, it would be grand!

On approaching from the west, we did not even need directions to the Dungannon start, so thick was the road with vehicles carrying bikes. In the car park, alongside many others, we stealthily changed into cycling clothes, whipped out our bikes from the back seat of the car, popped in the front wheels, checked that we had everything with us, and, along with a steady procession of other cyclists, headed toward the Hill of the O'Neill. Somewhere between all the commotion and Gary's mischievous grin, I forgot to feel nervous.

Lap the Lough 2016

The ancient capital of Ulster, the Hill of the O'Neill rises up sharply from the otherwise tame local landscape, offering an expansive overview of surrounding lands. In more recent times, the site has served as a British army base during the Northern Ireland conflict, complete with helicopter pad and bomb disposal garages. Access to the hill was barred to the civilian population throughout this time, until a decade ago the land was finally handed back to the local council and turned into a historical park, its castle ruins restored.

Considering this history, it was quite a sight to behold the hill now being "invaded" by hordes of cyclists and their bikes, rushing toward the registration pavilion. With our wrist bands and helmet stickers affixed, we took our place in the lengthy queue down the cobblestone hillside toward the starting line.

Lap the Lough 2016

I was surprised right away not only by the sheer number of cyclists still queuing up for the start (considering that many waves had already gone ahead in the fast group), but also by the variety of Irish, English, and even continental European accents I could hear all around us. This was not a locals-only sportive by any means! Did I mention 2,500 people were taking part?

The event start was staggered, so that the fast group (17mph+) would take off first, the medium group (14-17mph) second, and the casual group (10-14mph) last. And within each group, the start gates would open to let 20 riders out at a time, with pauses of several minutes in between each "release." This made for a rather drawn-out, but remarkably un-chaotic start to the event, with plenty of space for everyone and no need to jostle for position. Having arrived on the late side, we set off at the tail end of the medium group, with plenty of breathing room to get our bearings as we followed the road markings out of town in a civilised cluster of cyclists.

What happened next was very interesting, as I had never experienced such a thing before. Without any overt communication having passed between us, there seemed to be an unspoken consensus in our group of 20 riders to:
(1) immediately form a non-rotating double-paceline,
(2) crank up the speed steadily, until we caught up to the group in front of us.

And once we did catch up with that group, it became clear that they had done much the same, as had the group in front of them. So in fact, we merged not only with the 20 riders who had immediately preceded us, but with an enormous echelon.

We sat in this group for a while, in a remarkably neat double paceline without anyone changing positions. And when I use the word "sat," it seems apt, as it did not feel like we were doing any work at all. I looked down at my computer, and the speeds that were registering were just surreal, especially considering that I was mostly coasting.

After a while, and once we were out on wider open roads, the nature of the echelon started to change: A third column of riders began to form on the righthand side, and in single-file procession to slowly but steadily overtake the two columns on the left. We fell in with this faster stream, until we had emerged along with them from the main echelon and formed our own, smaller bunch, that surged on ahead.

In this smaller group we then plowed on ahead until we caught up and merged with the next large echelon. And then the same same thing would begin again - the echelon forming slower and faster "streams," the latter of which would eventually separate and surge ahead to catch up with the next larger group. It was like some organic process of cell multiplication/ mutation, except with bicycles. And my one regret on this ride is that my handling skills are not good enough to have snapped a photo that shows what it's like to be a part of this organism.

Lap the Lough 2016

Somewhere in the midst of this, and once the novelty of the situation began to wear off, it suddenly dawned on me that we were moving ahead through group after group at a rather fast pace. Was this a good idea, considering the milage still ahead of us?  I should mention perhaps that Gary had never done a 100 mile ride before, 60 being his previous limit. Me, I have done many 100 mile rides, but was out of shape from a month off the bike. When I first suggested we should perhaps slow down and just stay put with a steady group, the husband smiled and winked in a que sera, sera sort of way. Falling for it yet again, I kept pedaling.

If I have to trace when the trouble began, it was when we both had to pee some time after mile 20. The rest stop would not be for another 10 miles and we agreed we would not be able to hold it in. So we pulled over at a service station. We were very efficient. We peed, and were back on the road in no time. Still, the stopping meant we were now well behind the group we had separated from. The reasonable thing to do would be to wait and fall in with whatever group came along next. But the husband had this brilliant idea that we put in some effort and attempt to catch up with the faster group. And, like an idiot, I agreed.

It took us some time and effort, but we did catch up with the faster group. And when we finally did (in a headwind, no less), I was so spent that despite the drafting benefit I had hardly the strength to stay with them. By the time the first rest stop came along, it felt like I'd spent all the reserves of energy I had for the entire 100 mile ride, on those first 30.

Lap the Lough 2016

At the rest stop, I pulled Gary aside: "Listen. I can finish this ride one of two ways. Either we both slow down. And I mean, way down, I'm talking 14mph, not the 19mph we are doing now! Or you go on ahead with a fast group, and we do the rest of the ride separately. Who says we have to ride together anyway? We can meet up at rest stops and share impressions, it'll be fun."

With a mouthful of banana he was straight out laughing at me.

"Look I'm wise to your tricks by now. You don't like to suffer and you pull this stuff at the slightest hint of discomfort. But you're fine. You look fine! There's no way we're doing this separately; you are my fast group."

My head nearly exploded. "You're wise to my tricks? It's you who tricked me. We said we would take it easy, have picnics. What the hell is this?"

"We'll have a picnic at the lunch stop," he said, planting a banana-smeared kiss on my cheek. "Come on, it's only 20 miles up the road!"

Lap the Lough 2016

What can you do with a fellow like that? For the next 10 miles my legs were propelled by sheer frustration. Then suddenly the frustration flipped to uncontrollable laughter. We rode in a very tight bunch for this stretch, along back roads, and the sun was beating down on us hard as morning transitioned to noon.

There was something surreal to finding myself in this situation - the tight echelon, the fast pace, the mere fact that I was riding a friggin' sportive! - and suddenly I was able to enjoy it all despite putting in what felt to be an absolutely unsustainable level of effort.

For the first time since the ride's start, I even caught glimpses of Lough Neagh once or twice along this stretch.  The Lough, we were lapping it!

Lap the Lough 2016

The lunch stop in Antrim Gardens was lush and inviting, in a forest clearing type setting. There had been a tent put up, and remarkable amounts of hot soup on tap, since the forecast had promised rain. But as instead the day was scorchingly sunny, most riders were sunbathing on the grass in various states of undress and guzzling water while waiting for their soup to cool.

Some riders' families had arrived to meet them here and cheer them along, and family picnics - complete with Frisbee games, cooing babies, barking pets, and the like - were in progress throughout. I should mention here also, that all through the ride there were, here and there, spectators cheering us on along the roads, with noise makers and balloons! And while some of them were clearly family members of ride participants, others seemed to be local residents whose houses happened to be along the route. I have never experienced being cheered along on the bike before, and must say it is not entirely disagreeable!

Lap the Lough 2016

After having a rest and some soup, I actually felt as if I'd recovered a bit. And we both agreed not to dawdle too long at the lunch stop, lest our bodies get used to all this lounging about and refuse to go on! We refilled our water bottles, used the fine portable toilet facilities, and set off as marshals directed us out of the Gardens back on the main road.

Lap the Lough 2016

"And how are you feeling," I asked before we went on.

But I could see without him having to tell me that the 50 miles had hardly made a dent in him. He had trained for the event by doing short, intense rides, and clearly this tactic worked well for him.

By contrast, I had "trained" for the event by not cycling at all for 4 weeks, then doing two moderately paced rides at the eleventh hour. But I tried not to dwell on this as we continued around the lough.

Lap the Lough 2016

Technically more than half of the way through at this point, we expected to join with a well-paced group once again and enjoy that "moderate tailwind," that the weather forecast had promised. But the character of the ride had changed somewhat on the return leg.

Firstly it seemed that a good portion of riders were starting to tire at this point. There were cyclists pulled over at the side of the road every few miles, just sitting and resting. The promised tailwind turned out to be a headwind. And the mild, but not infrequent climbs that began along the return leg also had the effect of breaking up groups. As a result, groups grew smaller in size, and were strung out far apart.

We found it quite difficult to get in with a bunch of the sort we were able to take advantage of on the first leg of the ride. Every time we would join a seemingly large, steady group, a hill would come along and half the group would be gone. Then a cyclist or two would pull over to the side of the road to rest. And suddenly we'd find ourselves in a cluster with 2-3 other riders battling a headwind. We would then all do our best to catch up with another small group and join forces, only for the newly-formed bunch to implode in the same manner.


And so for the next 30 miles we spent much of the time riding either alone as a pair, or in very small groups. And although the rest stop on the return leg helped, I was not immune to the effects of the headwind and hills. I was clearly not in good enough shape to tackle this ride at the pace we'd attempted to do it in, and as a result I was now suffering pretty badly. How the event photographer [credit: Industry Image] managed to get this shot of me grinning, I honestly have no idea. I assure you that I was having a terrible time of it at this point. Terrible, I tell you!

To my credit, I did hold on a good long while past that point, at mile 30, when I first declared that I couldn't sustain the pace. But somewhere between mile 80 and 90, my body finally gave up. It was no longer a mind over matter thing. The mind had checked out long ago and left the body alone. But despite their best effort, my legs simply couldn't turn the pedals anymore. I slowed down considerably. And then I slowed down some more. Until, with 7 miles to go, I was barely churning 12.5mph into a headwind despite putting in every grain of strength I had left.

And then the climb to the finish began.

While most of the Lap the Lough route really was comparatively "flat," by local standards, the final 5 miles featured a sustained, at times quite steep, climb into Dungannon, culminating in a cobblestone(!) section straight up the Hill of the O'Neill. While for those of us "lucky" enough to live in the northwest of Ireland, the climb was really nothing unusual (and really a rather fine way to end a 100 mile ride, if you ask me!) others were quite taken aback by this twist to the plot at the end. A few people got off their bikes and walked. Unprintable words were uttered.

Me, I just got into my lowest gears at this point, tried to turn my brain off completely, and resigned myself to fate, as Gary surged ahead for the final stretch and waited to greet me at the top. The final cobblestone section was brilliant, as I'd never ridden on that sort of texture uphill before.

At the end, there was much hormone-induced weeping and hysterical laughter, in rapid succession. And some delirious lolling about on the grass, before we finally calmed down.

Lap the Lough 2016

On the ancient hilltop a brass band was playing to celebrate the finish. And apparently, medals were being handed out - although we'd somehow managed to miss this in our dazed state, and returned home empty-handed!

Aside from sore leg muscles and some saddle-induced skin abrasion, I cannot report much bodily damage (I was fine to commute on my upright bike 15 miles the next day). And there seems to be no damage at all to the husband... unless you count a sudden desire to ride more sportives (oh god help me!).

As far as logistics: Our overall moving average was 16mph, over 96 miles with 3,500ft of elevation gain. This may not be impressive by roadie standards, but for me it is unprecedented to sustain that speed over that kind of milage, and I couldn't - simply wouldn't - have done it without Gary's influence. Now, whether it's a good or a bad influence, I still can't decide!

And as far as Lap the Lough 2016 in of itself... Well, they don't call them sportives for nothing. It was not a leisure cycle, and not a parade, but an all-out athletic event. Most of the participants were quite fit. The majority rode carbon fibre racing bikes. Many treated the ride as an unofficial race. It was basically like a club run, on steroids. And with food stops, roadside cheerleaders, marshals, support vehicles, plentiful road markings, and a festive vibe. So, as far as sportives go, this was an overwhelmingly fun and friendly one. And a safe one, with all the riders attracted to this particular ride apparently being endowed with excellent handling skills and knowledge of group ride etiquette. I should also stress again how comparatively "flat" the route was, for what you'd normally get in Ireland, and in that sense it is a good choice for cyclists of all abilities. No doubt it is for all these reasons and more that the Lap of the Lough is such a cult-status event, with 2,500 cyclists eager to circle a largely invisible lake!

From a personal viewpoint, perhaps the most satisfying part of the event for me was how much my husband enjoyed it, and how amazingly well he did on his first 100 mile ride. Gary absolutely loved Lap the Lough; he is already planning next year's event, telling his friends. It melts my heart to see him enjoy cycling on his own terms.

Me? To be honest, sportives really are out of my comfort zone, so perhaps once was enough. Although who knows! Admittedly, being out of my comfort zone isn't all bad.

The Lap the Lough event is run by the Upbeat Agency - a non-profit organisation aiming to increase cycling participation and improve conditions for cyclists throughout Northern Ireland. These folks are also behind projects such as the Fred Festival. Profits from Lap the Lough go toward future cycling events and activities.

With thanks to the Lap the Lough organisers, designers (check out Victory Chimp and Donard.CC), volunteers and participants for a wonderful day. And, as always, with thanks to you all for reading.



Etiquette on "Helping" Others with Their Bikes?


I had an interesting encounter over the weekend with a woman I met out on the road. She told me that her bicycle felt uncomfortable. Why? Well, prior to setting off, her neighbour - an Expert Cyclist (what is that, exactly?...) - had topped up the air in her tyres. She said her tyres had felt fine just as they were. He insisted they needed topping up and did it anyway. They now felt hard as rocks and the bike was bouncing her about, but she was afraid to let air out on the go, lest she deflate them too much without a pressure gauge. I pinched the tyres and said that a few quick taps on the valves should get the pressure down to comfortable range, without any danger of losing too much air. I then stepped aside while she did this herself. She already had one "expert" molest her bicycle, I figured, and did not need another stranger stepping in.

The anecdote might seem like a harmless example. But the phenomenon of "helping" others with their bicycles uninvited has come up in conversations here before. And tyre pressure is a particularly familiar context in which this seems to happen. For me, the situation typically unfolds like this:

Fellow cyclist, at the start of a ride: [squeezing my tyre and immediately reaching for pump] Hang on, I'll just top up your air before we set off.

Me: Oh, they don't need topping up please, I'm fine.

Cyclist: But your pressure should be at 100psi. Yours is at 90.

Me: Yup. I like mine at 90. I run them at 90 deliberately.

Cyclist: What! Why? You'll go much faster at 100psi [proceeds to attach pump nozzle to valve]

Me: [grabbing bike away] Thank you, but I disagree. Please don't touch my bike...

Later I might hear that I had been rude to this cyclist. That is fine. I'll take rude, over getting my tyres over-inflated against my will.

And should anyone think that I really do run my tyre pressure too low in that example, now take this story and reword it in the opposite direction. That is to say, there have also been occasions when I've been scolded for running my tyre pressure (same tyres, same pressure) too high. And in those scenarios attempts have been made to let air out of my tyres, without my consent.

The point being, we all might think we know how to set up a bicycle optimally - be it in terms of tyre pressure, saddle height, handlebar angle, or what have you. And certainly it can be frustrating to watch someone with a setup we (think we) know to be detrimental to their comfort or performance. But the way I see it: to interfere with somebody else's bike without their permission - or, worse, despite their protests - is a violation, no matter how well-intentioned.

It's a violation not only in that it's messing with private property, but also in that it's infringing upon another person's sense of agency.

If I see something that looks off about somebody else's bicycle, unless the owner explicitly asks me to alter the thing in question, I wouldn't take it upon myself to adjust their machine. In fact, unless I believe the issue to be a safety hazard (i.e. quick release open, cracked stem, mudguard about to fall off) - I wouldn't even feel compelled to comment on it. I have learned by now to accept a wide variety of setups as "just right" for their owner, no matter how odd or uncomfortable they might look to me.

That said, I do have a bad habit of touching - literally, just touching - people's bikes without always asking for permission. And while I think of this as a harmless form of admiration, it may very well be that some owners find my tactile explorations irksome. So far I've been yelled at only once, but who knows!

Then again, looking at it from a different perspective entirely, a friend has this to say on "helping" people with their bicycles:
Once you touch someone's bike... I don't know, it's like helping them with their computer or website. You run the risk of being held responsible for anything that might go wrong with that bike (or computer, or website) for the rest of its existence, whether it is related to the original problem you helped with, or not! So you better be prepared to take that on...
As someone who has been in this unfortunate role with computers and websites, I am definitely not prepared to take that on when it comes to bikes. So excuse me, while I slowly back away from your machine!




Time Off the Bike: What's Your Damage?



As an optimist, I find it alarmingly easy to get used to a good thing. To embrace it as the default, even if deep down I know it is the exception - that precariously balanced, delicate state of affairs, where fortune chances its smile upon me. This goes for everything: health, domestic contentment, even cycling fitness. The warm summer breeze in my face, I enjoyed my spins up the mountains this summer all too well - conveniently forgetting that the stamina and climbing ability responsible for this enjoyment were hard earned - a product of months and months of putting in miles and pushing my limits.

But it doesn't take much to shake the illusion. 4 weeks off the roadbike, to be precise. Although I tried to be active in other ways, those weeks did their damage. I could tell by the way I felt as soon as I clipped in and pushed off, that we wouldn't just be able to pick up where we left off.

So what's the damage from 4 weeks off the bike? I suspected the first thing to go would be my speed and power to accelerate, as that is my usual pattern. But surprisingly, this time around that remained the most intact. Quick bursts on flats - I could do them, it seemed, just the same as before.

On the other hand, my stamina - which I usually have extra reserves off - was utterly gone. Only 4 miles in, I pretty much felt as if I was done and had to convince myself to keep pedaling.

And then - oh dear god - the climbing began. A fairly innocent hill upon which my bike had not known the small ring all summer, suddenly required my lowest gear ratios. Wow. Not good at all.

By mile 10 I felt utterly spent. I was also more than a little upset that my climbing could go to pot so quickly. But reality demanded to be faced, and I wasn't going to improve by cutting my ride short and sulking on the sofa.

To cheer myself up, I tried a burst of acceleration again on the flat. 15mph to 25mph - boom, still got it! Strange, how that was possible, while eking out each additional mile, even at a reasonable pace, took all of my willpower. And climbing felt as if I'd tied a bag of rocks to the back of my saddle.

I rode a whopping grand total of 23 miles last night. And contemplated after, whether I'd be fit for Lap of the Lough this coming Sunday - a  century ride I'd signed up for at a time when the event looked "easy" ...and for which I now had 3 more days to train. I decided the logical answer was, probably not!

Then this morning, I woke up, got back on the bike, and rode 50 miles. I am still shockingly weak on the climbs. And my average speed is not great as a result. But it seems I am getting my stamina back at least, and that's half the battle.

What is it like for you, when you try to regain your strength after time off the bike? Is it easy come/ easy go, or a slow process in both directions? Are there specific aspects of cycling fitness that atrophy first and others that are more resistant? I've been off the bike before, but this time around the "comeback" is playing out differently from my usual pattern and it's made me curious about others' experiences.


Cycling Through the Past? Fun with Retrograde Confabulation



There is an interesting phenomenon in the study of long term memory for events (i.e. "episodic memory"), whereby our present state of mind influences memories of the past. Take, for example, feelings and moods. When we're in a sad mood, we tend to remember sad memories; when in a happy mood happy memories. Moreover, should a non-mood congruent memory come to mind - For instance, someone might remind us of a happy memory when we are sad, in an attempt to cheer us up - we are likely to retroactively put a twist to the events, that will bring them in line with our current mood ("No-no, I was secretly miserable at that party!")

This phenomenon (called "mood congruence") extends to feelings toward other people. If we presently dislike a person we were once very much fond of, we might remember their actions in a sinister light, even though at the time we thought those same actions were wonderful.

Of course, human feelings and attitudes are so subjective, one might argue we are not so much changing or distorting the past when we do this, as re-interpreting it. In that regard, language presents an opportunity to study the phenomenon more objectively.

A bilingual person is much more likely to recall events that took place in the language they are speaking (or thinking in) at the time of the recollection. Moreover, when recalling events that took place in the other language, they might occasionally "auto-translate" the memory to the language they are presently using. This happens most often with people who grew up speaking one language, then switched to another later in life - usually due to a move abroad. So, for instance a former Romanian speaker for whom English is now the more dominant language, might find themselves remembering events that took place back in Romania, "auto-translated" into English.  In cases like these, it is clearer that we are in fact adjusting, or distorting, memories from the past to fall in line with what is presently more familiar.

Physical appearance can be another example, at least for those whose memories contain an inbuilt awareness of their physical self.  Let's say you used to be a chubby teenager with long brown hair, and you are now a skinny, spiky-haired blond adult. When "picturing" or "feeling" yourself in past memories, it is possible that your current physical sense of self might replace, or at least compete with, the period-correct one.

In memory research, these types of distortions are examples of "confabulation" - which sounds kind of disordered, except that, at least to some extent, it is part of the normal human memory process. Contrary to what some assume, a memory, once made, is not a "fixed" thing, like a mental recording of an event. Memories of the past are more like works in progress. They are porous, malleable. And in subtle ways they are continually tweaked, as we repeatedly retrieve, rehearse, and share them throughout our lives.

To varying degrees, any aspect at all of our present way of being is liable to seep into old memories, ultimately reshaping them. More often than not, we do not even notice when this happens. But sometimes when the anachronism is obvious, we can catch ourselves in the act. As a multi-lingual, I often catch myself remembering events in the "wrong language." And on more than a few occasions, I've also caught myself inserting bicycles into past events where they have no business of being.

I was remembering an incident today, from years and years back, where I sat on a park bench with a friend and we had an argument. My friend walked away, leaving me there by myself. I had a camera around my neck.  It began to rain.

What I remember next is, getting on my bike, putting the camera in the pannier, and starting to pedal home - the pedals feeling heavy under the cumbersome weight of a possible end to a friendship. This progression of the events came to mind so naturally, that only a good way into it I realised there was no way I could have cycled home: I was not able to ride a bike at the time; I did not own a bike.

Even knowing this, I struggled to un-dig the authentic version of this memory from the real-seeming physical sensation of cycling which replaced it.

It was not a big deal, really. Cycling versus walking did not change the crux of that particular memory. But it was such an obvious distortion, and I had implemented it so casually.

It made me aware that cycling, for me, has attained the status of a dominant language, or dominant state of mind. Not only does it colour my present thoughts and future plans, it also encroaches on memories past. Which I suppose should come as no surprise. Just another cog the "pathology of everyday life."



Long Term Review: the Bike Friday Haul-a-Day Takes to the Hills


Despite being a fan of theirs for some time, there were many things I never knew about Bike Friday - until, deep into my two months review process, I chanced to discover them through dialogue with the Oregon-based small wheel bike manufacturer. One such piece of trivia, is that the company's co-founder, Alan Scholz, is also the inventor of the Burley Trailer. In one fell swoop, many of my questions about the Haul-a-Day's origins were answered. A trailer and a folding bike designer! No wonder he saw fit to add a cargo hauling model to Bike Friday's lineup. The development of the Haul-a-Day now seemed not only logical, but inevitable. I only marveled that it had not happened sooner.

But the specifics of this bike coming into existence are a rather interesting "it takes a village" story. In 2014 Bike Friday was approached by Shane MacRhodes, founder of Kidical Mass and local Safe Routes to School Coordinator, with the idea of making a versatile bicycle on which his instructors could lead their Safe Routes classes. The design criteria presented an interesting challenge: In addition to being well-balanced and nimble, the bike needed to be able to haul the instructor's personal gear, plus traffic cones and safety gear, with room to carry a tired child and their bike as well, if need be! Of course the bike also needed to fit a wide range of riders, as the Safe Routes instructors varied in height and weight.



After several iterations and glowing reports from the field, Bike Friday decided to offer this machine as a standard production model. This was funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign in late 2014, and the first bikes were delivered in February of 2015 - named the "Haul-a-Day" by a pun-loving customer.

As for their own role in the whole process, Bike Friday almost demurs from taking any credit at all:

"We were surprised to realise that for many situations the Haul-a-Day was a better solution than a trailer for carrying children and things. [Our founder] has been designing and building trailers for decades starting with the Burley child trailer in the 70's. It took customer request for the bike to help him discover this new insight."

This type of customer-driven evolution has always been part of Bike Friday's modus operandi. Nevertheless, the engineering and design that went into this machine on their end are not to be underestimated. In the course of using this bicycle, to say that it outperfomed my expectations would be more than fair.


As I mentioned in my introduction to the Haul-a-Day  it was loaned to me specifically to test in a different context from the usual use case scenario of their first wave of customers, which has largely involved short distances, an urban or suburban setting, and the transport  of children.

By contrast, my use case scenario involves no heavy-duty or living cargo, but instead long distances, rural settings, challenging terrain and blustery weather conditions. So the focus of this review is not so much the Haul-a-Day's ability to carry impressive amounts of stuff (which has already been well-documented elsewhere), but of its suitability as hilly, long-distance transport.

There is a lot of debate regarding whether a cargo bike - long tail or otherwise - can be a realistic option in such a setting without motor assist. Bike Friday believed their Haul-a-Day model potentially could be. And they wondered whether I would agree.

I had this bicycle on loan for a total of two months (May and June 2016). In the course of this time I used it as I would have used my own cargo bike - riding it whenever its hauling services were required.


Geometry and Specs

To begin with the design and specifications: As some of this has already been covered in my introduction to the Haul-a-Day, if you are interested in the details please read that first, then come back to this post. But to highlight some key points, the Haul-a-Day:

. is a disassemblable, small-wheeled, long-tail cargo bike, with a supplementary frame-mounted front platform
. is rated for loads of 200-250lb
. is adjustable in size (and wheelbase) by means of sliding frame construction
. is designed around 20" wheels with fat tyres
. weighs 33b empty
. can be stored upright in small spaces
. can be taken apart (disassembles into 3 pieces) for travel, shipment, or long term storage
. is suitable for paved and unpaved terrain
. is available with custom paint and components packages
. is priced starting at $1,190 USD

I am sure I'm forgetting something, but that is the gist of it.

The frames are built in-house with a mixture of 4130 cro-moly and DOM tubing, using a combination of brazed and TIG-welded construction.

Some key geometry figures include:

. 73° parallel angles for head tube and seat tube
. 44mm of rake (resulting in 75mm trail)
. bottom bracket height of 268-304mm, depending on sliding frame adjustment

Dimensions of the virtual head tube, seat tube and top tube lengths vary hugely as a result of the bike's adjustability. Depending on setup, the Haul-a-Day is suitable for riders 4'6" - 6'4", which is an uncommonly versatile range.


Hauling: Front Carry

An interesting aspect of the Haul-a-Day's geometry for me is the high-trail front end. As I mentioned in my initial post about this bike, in looking for a suitable basket for the front platform I accidentally overdid it and found this monster of a thing - which, amazingly, not only fit within the space between platform and handlebars, but, filled with all manner of inordinately heavy objects, had no effect on the bicycle's handling what so ever. While it is commonly said that low trail geometry is preferable for carrying front loads, the Haul-a-Day's impreviousness to weight in the front confirms my own experience in this regard - which is that the manner in which the weight is secured, and the height at which the weight sits, play a bigger role in its effect on handling than frame geometry. The Haul-a-Day's frame-mounted front rack design and small front wheel make carrying even significant amounts of weight in the front feel absolutely normal.

In fact, I liked being able to load up that huge front basket so much, that I eventually had to remove it from the front platform, so as to force myself to rely more on rear carry - which is, after all, what this bicycle was designed for. And in response to my question whether Bike Friday would ever consider a front-load bakfiets model? Unfortunately it's not on their list of priorities just yet!


Hauling: Rear Carry 

As mentioned already, my cargo carry requirements are not exactly epic. To quote from an earlier post, the sort of thing I'd normally haul on a cargo bike includes

...everything from groceries - in quantities that would overwhelm an ordinary bicycle - to, perhaps more crucially, things such as bicycle parts, art supplies, hardware store purchases, unusually shaped parcels, light pieces of furniture, and other objects that are not so much heavy as they are long or awkwardly shaped. And while it would not be impossible to secure some of these items to an ordinary bicycle and ride with them gingerly, the cargo bike makes it a much easier and less precarious process, and saves multiple trips...

To start with the large and awkwardly shaped objects, in the course of my testing the Haul-a-Day these have included partially assembled bicycles, large picture frames, pieces of furniture (chair, coffee table), a step-ladder, some long-handled mops, et cetera. While carrying such things on the small-wheeled Haul-a-Day makes for an entertaining spectacle, from the cyclist's standpoint it is a non-event. Such objects fit easily into the long, expandable, hammock-like side bags, and secure tightly with the help of the built-in adjustable straps (no additional bungee cords necessary). And as they're not especially heavy, just bulky, their weight wasn't really enough to make any impact on the Haul-a-Day's handling or speed.

In short, nothing to report here, other than the fact that such objects can be carried with the same easy abandon on the Haul-a-Day as on other long-tail Xtracycle-style systems.


Considerably more noticeable was carrying a bunch of individually unremarkable objets that added up to a lot of weight. I described the experience in detail here, but to summarise: loading the rear with 50kg of weight had a tangible effect on the bicycle's speed and handling.

The bike felt noticeably slower to accelerate on flats (although, once up to speed, it could keep rolling along fairly zippily), and required considerably lower gears to push uphill. I realised soon enough, that when using this bike heavily loaded I needed to factor in for longer travel times.

But the most challenging aspect of riding it up steep gradients in a heavily-loaded state, was that the front end would start to "wander," at times dramatically. This took me some time to get used to! But once I did, it too was manageable.

Starting on a steep hill is not something I often need to do in the course of my commutes (rural area = no stop lights!), unless I deliberately stop the bike for some reason. But on occasion it does happen, and so with the Haul-a-Day I did it deliberately a few times just to see how it would go. Admittedly, getting the heavily loaded bike rolling from a dead stop on a steep gradient took some nerve. The front-end weaving was in full effect, and I just basically had to convince myself to keep pushing until the bike felt stable. Which I did. And it did.

None of this is at all unusual or surprising when it comes to carrying this much weight, all concentrated in the rear of a bike. And the Haul-a-Day is not immune to such effects.


Performance: Distance

Although I often also make shorter trips through the day, my typical commutes are 7-12 miles in distance, each way, over rolling hills, with some fairly steep gradients thrown in.

On my request, the Haul-a-Day I received to test was set up with upright handlebars - to give it the comfort of a casual utility bike, but with a wide 3x8 gear range, including a sub-1:1 gear ratio. In this configuration the Haul-a-Day performed on par with some of the faster, lighter, and more nimble utility bikes I have tried. It wasn't unusually fast compared to a typical upright bike. But, despite its long size and small wheels, it wasn't any slower either. Unless I rode it loaded up with a great deal of weight, I basically would not know I was riding a cargo bike. This, in combination with its smooth and cushy ride quality over rough roads, made for an exceedingly pleasant and relaxing ride through the rural countryside.

And as far as the rate of swallowing miles, I got the distinct feeling, that the limiting factor was not the Haul-a-Day's cargo-bikeness, but its upright position. Had I requested to set this bike up with drop bars, I suspect my experience would have been considerably different.


Performance: Wind

At no time was this feeling stronger than during windy conditions. I have whined about this before, but basically this year has been the windiest year since my move to Ireland, with winds of over 20mph all through the day not being uncommon. Over the winter this became such a frequent occurrence, that I simply wasn't able to commute on an upright bike at all for a couple of months. And even though such days became less frequent by the time I received the bike in May, they still happened occasionally. And, lovely as it was, the Haul-a-Day set up with upright handlebars was not immune to the wind, the ride quickly turning from a pleasant glide to a snail-paced torture session whenever the wind would pick up.

I quickly realised, therefore, that if I wanted a cargo bike I could ride every day no matter what the condition, while continuing to live in the northwest of Ireland (the windiest part of the country!), it would have to be set up with drop bars.

Performance: Hills

My biggest fear of disappointment with the Haul-a-Day was in terms of how it would climb. In practice, however, this proved to be a non-issue. When loaded with the fairly modest amount of weight I would typically carry on the bike, it was almost disappointingly easy to tackle the 14%+ grades I encounter in the course of my transport cycling. The gearing the bicycle came with felt more than sufficient. I never felt the need to stand out of the saddle. And I did not find myself wishing for motor assist.

On the several occasions when I carried a truly heavy load at the rear, the bicycle did lose its momentum much easier at any hint of an incline and required considerably lower gears to propel up long hills comfortably. Even then, however, I never experienced "running out of gears" to the point where I had to walk, stand up, or even feel sufficiently strained to curse at the bike half-heartedly. As mentioned already, the front-end weaving uphill of the heavily loaded bike did take me some getting used to. But get used to it I did, and it eventually just became part of its personality.

As a cyclist already accustomed to long distance, hilly commutes - I found the Bike Friday Haul-a-Day, loaded with up to 50kg of weight, to be quite manageable. It was reassuring to learn that a cargo bike exists that is very much compatible with my requirements without requiring e-assist.  However, should I ever decide to order a Haul-a-Day for myself, I believe it would be a must to set it up with drop bars, owing to the wind factor.


Handling

Aside from the aspects of performance covered above, I enjoyed the way the Haul-a-Day handled in terms of its maneuverability, especially in combination with the way it rolled over unpaved terrain. Despite being a long tail cargo bike, the small wheeled Haul-a-Day rode like a nimble, maneuverable machine, taking tight corners easily and feeing "unfellably" stable, even for someone with comparatively poor balance skills, such as myself.

Ride Quality

Another thing I cannot praise enough, is this bicycle's luxurious ride quality. Having only tried one other Bike Friday before, which was the One Way Tikit, I can say that the Haul-a-Day is a completely different animal. And I don't think this is due to the fat tyres alone. It is likely that the extended frame and the more rearward location of the back wheel, provides additional dampening benefits. Whatever combination of factors is responsible for it, they definitely got the cush factor spot on with this model, which makes it a pleasure to ride over roads of any quality and texture.

Fit

I have covered this in my initial post about the bike, but an important thing I would be remiss not to revisit, is fit. Because the Haul-a-Day's handlebars, seatpost and frame are adjustable, the fit can be dialed in just so. I was able to get very comfortable on this bike without compromise, which is atypical of my usual experience with both cargo bikes and small wheeled bikes (my one complaint about my Brompton is the fit.)

The small-wheel "unitube" construction also means the Haul-a-Day has an exceptionally low stepover, making it convenient to mount and dismount regardless of what I am wearing and how high my cargo sits at the rear. This too was greatly appreciated, adding to the bicycle's overall accessibility.

Frame Flex

There are those who hate sensing any amount of frame flex on a cargo bike, and believe that, ideally, the bike should feel very stiff, even under heavy loads. If you belong to this category, you might find that the Haul-a-Day flexes more than you like when loaded to 50% capacity or more. Me, I'll take a bit of flex rather than ride a bike that feels "overbuilt" or "dead." Basically, I have a high tolerance for frame flex if it does not feel as if it saps my energy. And the Haul-a-Day's flex, when I felt it at all, was well within my range of acceptable.


The Fun Factor!

Finally, it needs to be said that, despite its ability to carry serious cargo, the Haul-a-Day also simply felt like a fun bike to mess around on - whether to race over grassy fields full of rabbit holes, or to steer though the woods. In that respect alone it is certainly the most enjoyable cargo bike I have tried to date. The half or dozen or so others who've tried it while the bike was in my position had a blast riding it as well, commenting on how much "easier" the bike was to ride than they had expected.

Comparisons to the Xtracycle Radish (RIP)

Since this review is ultimately an outcome of my lamenting the discontinuation of the Xtracycle Radish, it seems only fair to comment on how the two compare. The Haul-a-Day in fact feels very similar to the way I remember the Radish: particularly in its speed, rear-carry capacity, "unfellable" stability, and nimble handling. However, the Haul-a-Day also has several additional features that appeal to me. Specifically, these are:

. ultra-low stepover
. greater maneuverability owing to the small wheels
. adjustable fit of the frame
. compact size and comparatively light weight
. frame-mounted front carrier

Were I in the market for a new cargo bike today, I would choose the Haul-a-Day, even if the Radish model was still available.


Criticisms 

The complaints I have managed to accumulate in my two months with this bicycle are mostly minor. But in the interest of fairness, here they are:

This may seem like an odd thing to bring up, but I found the carry platforms too shiny. The polished metal used is highly reflective, especially in direct sunlight, which soon began to irritate my light-sensitive eyes. This became a problem especially with the front platform once I removed the basket - since I had no choice but to look at it as I cycled. Had this been my personal bike, I would have to keep that platform covered with some sort of cloth at all times, or else replace it with a wooden one.

Bike Friday Haul-a-Day

In terms of aesthetics, I am not a fan of the standard selection of colours. The colours, despite their friendly names, are all rather harsh, industrial shades that bring to mind a selection of electrical tape in a hardware store, or road safety signage. Together with the geometrical truss-like construction of the Haul-a-Day's frame, they give the bike an overly technical, utilitarian look. Which is fantastic if you like that sort of thing. But for those of us who prefer bicycles with a softer, cuddlier, more muted aesthetic, the only way to go is custom colour (and twine, lots of twine!) - which is possible, but costs more and involves a longer wait.

While I understand this aesthetic might be a deliberate reference to the Haul-a-Day being a practical work machine, I daresay injecting it with a little romance wouldn't hurt.


But perhaps a more serious point to raise, is that the Haul-a-Day did not strike me as optimised for prolonged outdoor storage in harsh environments. While I kept the bicycle indoors overnight, the nature of my lifestyle and work rhythm means I am often out all day in the elements. And when I'm out all day, the bike is out with me - leaning against a fence here, locked to a gate there, as I go about my day. In short, the Haul-a-Day spent quite a bit of its time with me outdoors, being left for hours at a time in humid, salty air conditions, not infrequently under lashing rain. And after two months of this, hints of surface rust began to creep up here and there. I wonder in retrospect whether I should have treated the Haul-a-Day more like a roadbike than a bullet-proof utility bike.

Aside from these things, it is truly difficult to think of issues that are inherent to the Haul-a-Day model, as opposed to the specific configuration I chose. As mentioned already, the upright handlebars were (rather predictably, to be fair) not ideal for windy conditions, but the bike can be easily configured with drop bars. Likewise, on my personal bike I think I'd prefer v-brakes, compact gearing, and a different style of shifters (not a fan of the twist shifter) - which are easy changes to request, and I believe are available as standard options.

Bike Friday Haul-a-Day

Speaking of options. While the Haul-a-Day is available in several standard colour and build configurations, they can also basically do any custom build you want, within reason. There is so much variety in fact, that I have received a few reader requests to spec this bike as I'd have it built for myself, just to see what that would do to the almost too good to be true "starting at $1,190 USD" price tag. So I asked Bike Friday to indulge me in this exercise, and they graciously complied.

My requested build specs:

. custom colour
. v-brakes
. mudguards
. double-legged kickstand
. drop handlebars
. SRAM Apex drivetrain with compact double and sub 1:1 gearing
. front platform
. rear cargo bags
. rear side supports
. dynohub front wheel
. front and rear dynamo lighting

As of June 2016 the price for this hypothetical build was estimated at $2,340.50.

The estimate assumes custom built wheels with a Shimano Alfine DH-S501 dynamo hub, and B&M Lumotec IQ Fly Senso Plus/ Secula Plus dynamo lighting. It certainly increases the "starting at" standard build pricetag. However, considering what is included, I believe it is quite reasonable for a "performance" cargo bike with quality dynamo lighting.

Typical lead time for a build is currently 6 weeks. On occasion there is also an inventory of stock bikes available which have a turnaround of 2-3 weeks.


Since my move to Ireland, I have managed to survive 3 years without a cargo bike. Nevertheless, when the time came to send the Haul-a-Day back, I began to suddenly panic and wonder how I would  ever make do without it. It's funny, how having a cargo bike around can actually change the way we do stuff - from the way we structure shopping trips, to the extent to which we rely on deliveries vs pick things up ourselves. Now that the Haul-a-Day has been gone for over a month, I am again weaned off cargo-bike-reliance (hah!) and can think with a clear head as to whether, and when, I would like to own one again. It is not realistic this year, but something to consider down the road for sure. And after my experience with the Bike Friday Haul-a-Day, I have no doubt that it would do the job splendidly, no matter the terrain and distance.

The Bike Friday Haul-a-Day is far from a compromise between a cargo bike and a small wheeled bike. It is not even the best of both worlds, but, rather, more than the sum of its parts - with a degree of versatility, accessibility, and performance that goes above and beyond what either category typically offers.

With profuse thanks to Bike Friday for this opportunity (it is a huge pain in the longtail to ship bicycles from the US and back, but they persevered!), I shall bring this lengthy review to a close. Nevertheless, I am sure there is all sorts of crucial information I've missed. If you have specific questions, please ask in the comments - and thank you, as always, for reading!


Electrolytes and Migraine? An Accidental Discovery



I sometimes jokingly say that cycling has cured me of a lot of ailments. But of course that's a nice bit of magical thinking. The logical part of me has always known there was probably a complex chain of cause and effect at play, as well as some spurious correlations going on. But honestly I didn't care what was causing it exactly. It was just really, really nice to be healthy and free from chronic pains for a change. And all I knew was, this unusual state of affairs coincided with cycling entering my life. One thing that cycling has "cured" me of in this manner, has been migraines.

Like many, I began having migraines when I hit puberty. By the time I reached 20, they were debilitating - puking, seeing shapes, ringing in the ears, the whole lot. The pain was largely non-responsive to over-the-counter medication. When attempts at prescription meds ended with adverse reactions, the doctors basically shrugged. "Yup, migraines suck. Unfortunately, some of us just have to live with them. Lie in a dark and quiet room till they go away." So that was what I did for the next decade. And really, I got used to it. So much so, that it took me some time to notice when suddenly, in my early 30s, I was having fewer and fewer of them. The only thing that changed about my lifestyle was that I had started doing some road cycling. Most likely, I thought, the hormonal changes brought about by this high intensity physical activity had something to do with it.

While they are nowhere near as frequent as they used to be, I still get migraines now and again. And one evening, two weeks ago - after three days of being off the bike - I got what felt like the beginning of one. I drank a bottle of water and went to bed in hopes of "sleeping it off." But when I woke - at 5:00am, from the pain! - it was worse than ever, with no signs of subsiding. With one eye half-open and feeling quite Quasimodo-ish, I stumbled into the kitchen and rummaged through our medical kit. Amazingly, we hadn't even ordinary painkillers or headache tablets in the house; it had been a while since anyone's needed them.

In desperation, my hands felt around the countertop for anything that had even the slightest chance of bringing relief. When I came across the jar of electrolyte capsules I normally use on the bike, I thought "might as well" and took 2 with a small glass of water. Within 20 minutes I was feeling great.

Over the past two weeks, this scenario repeated itself a few times. Headache, with all the symptoms of migraine. Two electrolyte tablets with a glass of water. Gone.

It seemed too ridiculously good to be true. But I've since done a bit of research, and there is literature about some strains of migraine being a result of a mineral deficiency, in which case electrolytes can indeed be used as a simple and effective treatment. In hindsight it seems almost too obvious. Nevertheless, in over two decades of popping pills and suffering, no medical professional had ever mentioned it to me as a possibility.

Like most cyclists, I consume electrolyte drinks as part of keeping myself hydrated. In the past these have been in the form of flavoured powders or tablets that dissolve in water. Loathing the taste of those drinks, I eventually switched to plain electrolyte capsules (they are completely unflavoured; just a pinch of salts and minerals in a gelatin shell). But in one form or another, I've been taking electrolyte supplements the entire time I have been road cycling, and apparently for my specific breed of migraine that seems to be an effective remedy. Cycling did not cure my migraines, but it did lead me to this accidental discovery.

Needless to say, this post is not intended as medical advice - I am just sharing a personal experience specific to my condition and circumstance. From previous discussions I know that quite a few readers here suffer from headaches and migraines, and so I thought it worthwhile to share this.

In other news, after what felt like an eternity, I am back on the bike. Wishing for happy and pain-free cycling to all!



Of Rolling and Scrolling



There's been a new surge of talk these days about smartphone zombie-ism. In part it's the Pokemon Go thing raising a new wave of concerns. But really that has just served as a catalyst to bring up the overall ubiquity of smartphone use as a form of escapism from the physical realities of the here and now. We've all seen those bored families out on forced "quality time" excursions, where each family member is so obviously elsewhere - virtually, at least, enjoying a rich private experience on their smart phone or tablet while sitting beside each other. Couples and friends inject interest into tired hangout routines by photographing and sharing their activities on social media. In airport terminals and medical offices, boredom is removed from long wait times. Whether it's a good thing or bad, the smartphone opens escape routes, placing entire other worlds at our fingertips, offering alternative stimuli to that which is physically in front of us.

I am not out and about in cities much these days. So it was a little jolting to walk along the Belfast waterfront this overcast Sunday morning. It seemed that nearly every passer-by held a phone in front of their face. Most did not appear to be playing the Pokemon game. They looked like they were walking while checking social media pages. Walking while reading emails. Walking while scrolling through endless image streams. Clearly this was done to cope with the slow and linear nature of walking from A to B. And on this particular day, I realised just how much I could relate to the urge.

I was between two appointments, one having taken place in the early morning. It was now 10am and I had hours to kill till the next one. This being Sunday, there'd be nothing open until 1 in the afternoon. Normally I'd rejoice and ride my bicycle along the extensive, idyllic network of paths that Belfast has to offer. (In fact, I cherish the opportunity to visit Belfast precisely because it's such a lovely place to explore by bike - highly underrated! A topic for another post.) But at the moment, for the first time in a long, long while, I am off the bike for medical reasons. And I mean completely off the bike; I can't even ride a very upright bicycle, very slowly. A week in, this predicament has me rather at a loss. And makes me realise how much - transportation needs aside - I use the bike as a sort of tool, or even crutch, to both cope with and shape my experience of physical reality.

The acts of pedaling and steering a bicycle create an enhanced, layered experience of moving through space. Moreover, the abilities to exercise selective attention and regulate speed, offer a degree of control (or, perceived control) that is addictive. On the bike, should I find my visual surroundings monotonous, or disliked the area I am in, I can simply speed up - "scrolling past" the bit I don't like, as it were.

Removing these layers and tactics from my movement through long stretches of landscape, in a way,  makes me feel as if I am a substance addict forced to face the world sober for the first time. My senses are used to a higher degree of stimulation, my field of vision to more rapid changes in scenery. The more I think about it, the more I keep coming back to this idea of scrolling. The comparison is flawed, of course, not least for the fact that cycling fosters physical activity whereas getting lost in our phones reduces it. Yet still in some ways, I am not so different from a kid who's had their smartphone taken away.

I remember from previous times off the bike, this withdrawal period. The finding of walking "boring" until the senses re-callibrate to the slower pace, to the slower-to-change scenery. Then there is also the social aspect of things that requires not so much a re-adjustment as a re-learning.

Take, for instance, the Two Lone Pedestrians dilemma. You are walking down a long empty street. And from the opposite direction, another person is walking as well, facing toward you. At a distance, you have already made eye contact, even half-nodded, half-smiled at one another, in acknowledgement. But it's still quite a while from that moment until your paths cross. So you are essentially staring at each other as you walk, not knowing where else to direct your gazes without it seeming as if you're intentionally avoiding staring, each increasingly self-conscious of being studied by the other. Those moments before you finally pass one another seem to stretch and grow increasingly uncomfortable ...But to quicken your gait would be to admit all this overtly, making the situation worse. Surely I am not the only one who experiences this?

Interestingly though, I only feel an awkwardness in these, and other pedestrian social situations, when I am undergoing cycling withdrawal. It is as if, having grown used to riding a bike for transport, I need to be re-introduced into pedestrian society slowly. My mannerisms are off; as is my intuitive situation-reading.

And in that sense, I suppose that being forced to live without cycling for a spell is not a bad thing. It's good to face reality now and again without any manner of filters, crutches, or enhancing substances - be they virtual or physical. Now where are those headphones again? I am off to walk down the road.



Touring Light: Some Initial Thoughts



I used to assume that the bicycle tourists I saw hauling fully loaded setups were going the full monty. That is to say - not only touring, but camping. Sleeping outdoors, preparing their own food. I expected their many pieces of luggage to contain sleeping bags, tents, cookware. It's no small task to haul around a mobile home, after all.

Then one time, I got chatting with a touring couple who had their bikes fully loaded. They were cycling along the west coast of Ireland, staying at hostels and B&Bs. Considering the enormous amount of luggage strapped to their bicycles (2 sets of panniers and a handlebar bag, each), I was surprised to hear they weren't camping, but I did not have the nerve to ask what they were carrying in all those bags. However, from that point on I began to chat more with passing cyclotourists about their setups - and was surprised to learn that, regardless of load size, only a very small portion of them were camping or preparing their own food. In fact, the way we get talking in the first place, is that usually I am asked if I know of a good hostel, or restaurant, nearby. Emboldened, I eventually asked a young couple from Belgium what was in all their bags. They showed me, and it was basically loads of clothes for different weather conditions, bulky hiking boots, cameras, extra food, electronics, a couple of books.



I do not like riding a needlessly heavy bike. And in my head I had already worked out, that everything I would need for a bicycle tour, in a region with easy access to civilization, could easily fit into a single saddlebag. But did these cyclists know something I didn't? Seeing their fully loaded setups made me question my own judgment. But considering I have no interest in loaded touring, finally I just had to do it my way and see how it went.

Luckily, my husband feels the same way. And we agreed to try our longest mini-tour to date (5 days/ 4 nights, around County Kerry) on lightweight bicycles, using rackless setups. For a short tour at least it would hopefully be enough. And it would inform us as to what we would need to do differently on longer trips.


So this is the husband's setup: his lightweight road race bike, loaded with an Apidura 14L saddlepack, and Small road frame bag. The Apidura bags I have on loan for review, but he is mostly the one testing them as even the small framebag is a tad too large for my own bikes (it fits, but renders the water bottles unusable). Setups of this type are becoming increasingly popular, for their lightweight and aerodynamic properties. A saddlebag designed in this manner keeps drag to a minimum, by virtue of retaining its narrow profile no matter how much it expands. Likewise, the frame bag integrates with the bike, creating storage space without adding bulk to the bicycle's silhouette. The drawback to both, of course, is that they are quite narrow - making carrying items such as laptops and other wide objects out of the question. But if that is not an issue, as far as volume in of itself, they can fit quite a lot.


My own setup, while equally lightweight and contemporary, was a bit more traditional: a saddlebag and handlebar bag from Dill Pickle, on a project bike I am riding this summer. The handlebar bag is one I've used for brevets and camera-carry over the past 3 years. It is exceptionally lightweight, compact, and does not require a front rack for support. The saddlebag is actually an extra-wide commuter bag (designed to fit a 13" laptop in a padded case) that is not as light, compact, or aerodynamic as it would have been, were it made for "spirited cycling" specifically. But it is roomy, and likewise does not require a rack for support (and contrary to what the angle of this image suggests, it does clear my rear tyre!).

Although I think the photos and the bags' dark colours make my setup look more compact, in fact of the two of us I was carrying more stuff. Aside from a change of cycling clothes, full rain gear, an extra-warm layer, a week's supply of drink-mix powder, sunscreen, insect repellant, chamois cream, toiletries, various other small miscellaneous items, and my camera, I was carrying two sets of street clothes (wool dresses and tights) and a pair of very bulky, weatherproof, walking/ going out boots. My husband was carrying similar, but with somewhat more compact footwear and minus the second streetwear outfit (I should note that his saddlebag, as shown here, was filled to maybe 75% capacity).


We intended to walk and do non-cycling stuff quite a lot on this trip.  It was nice to arrive at our destinations, leave the bikes in the hostel/ B&B, and go out on the town looking more or less "normal."


 A bloated, red-faced, sweaty-haired version of normal, but nonetheless!

On our last attempt at a mini-tour I thought I was being clever and packed a flimsy little pair of collapsible ballet-flats. But the "summer" weather made mince-meat of them immediately, and I vowed then to always pack sturdy off-the-bike footwear, even if it meant sacrificing space for other stuff. Luckily, what my saddlebag lacked in aero properties, it compensated for in space - swallowing the boots and all my other stuff whole, with room to spare.


So what do two people need for five days, on (and off) the bike, in a region with temperamental weather but relatively easy access to amenities? As it turns out, not much. Even allowing for bulky items, such as our footwear and our cameras, as well as for changes of street clothing, a rackless setup consisting of one large rear bag, and a supplementary smaller one, was sufficient for each of us. In fact, for the length of this little tour we really could have packed less.

But what about for a longer trip? The more I think about it, anticipating various scenarios, the more I come to the conclusion that we really would not need to pack a whole lot more than what we did. A change of clothing means that one set can be washed and dried while the other is worn, and this rotation works just as well on long trips as it does on short ones. The amount of tools and spare parts  we would take wouldn't change. For myself, I would bring my laptop if going away for a week or longer. And for a certain someone who likes his stubble to look just so, a beard trimmer, and charger for it, would join us as well. Assuming that we wouldn't be camping, or preparing our own meals, I really don't see why we would need much more than this.


When I brought this up with experienced tourist Pamela Blalock (carrying conspicuously little at mile 2,000 of her Irish coastal tour!), she readily agreed. It used to be that she and her husband carried panniers and multiple bags on their tours, she said, despite staying at hostels and B&Bs. But this was largely due to two factors. First, electronic maps were not yet available. "One entire pannier used to be filled with paper maps!" she recalls. And second, in remote areas food would often be hard to come by through the day. So another bag would be filled with picnic meals and extra fluids, on which they would stock up every morning before setting off.

Today, a tiny GPS computer or phone, takes the place of maps for most cycle tourists. And Ireland, despite its swathes of bogland and low population density, is so conveniently peppered with amenities these days, it is nearly impossible to find yourself stranded without food or water within reasonable cycling distance. These changes alone eliminate the need for extra pieces of luggage that were once essential.


Bag design has also come a long way. The contemporary fabrics and styles may not be as attractive as the canvas, leather, buckles, and lacing of traditional touring setups. But they are lightweight, easy to use, compact, waterproof, and - perhaps, most importantly - do not require supporting racks. This latter point is significant, as it means being able to use a lightweight performance bike for this type of touring, without having to modify it in any way.

It's important to recognise that everyone is different. There are cyclists who like a sturdier, heavier bike for touring, as well as those who prefer a traditional setup with racks. For me, traveling light makes it easier, as well as more enjoyable, to cover long distances and tackle challenging terrain. For a bicycle tour that did not require camping gear or cookware, we each found the setups we used extremely convenient, and will go with something similar on longer trips in future.

For anyone who hesitates to venture out on their first light tour, I hope it is useful to know that, whichever bags you use to achieve it, it is possible to get by without an elaborate setup. The idea of a bicycle tour can seem daunting, but it is really no different from any other trip: Grab what you need, set off, and go - you will figure out the rest along the way, and make adjustments for next time.


The Constant Cyclist



Last time I visited the Foyle Port in Derry, it was the day the Clipper Ships began to arrive. A sight to behold, these 70-foot vessels race around the world and finish their journey here every summer, strewn with colourful flags and greeted with much fanfare. It seemed only fitting that several weeks later I would greet another monumental arrival: the legendary cyclist Pamela Blalock. Since the start of July she'd been traveling around the coast of Ireland, clockwise, starting in Dublin and aiming for its northernmost point - Malin Head in County Donegal. Two thousand miles and 100,000 feet of climbing later, she had reached this goal ahead of schedule. I had intercepted her in Western Donegal some days prior, before the final stretch. And now I caught her again in Derry just after, as she paused for half a day to admire the walled city and debate between taking the train back to Dublin from Sligo versus continuing along the North Coast and just "doing the whole thing."

"Are you not even a little bit tired?!"

"Nah," she shrugs and giggles. "But I've been taking it pretty easy!"



Few people aside from Pamela Blalock could describe a cycling tour around Ireland (and one designed to maximise elevation gain, at that) as "taking it easy," and genuinely mean it.

Then again, few people have had the sort of time of it that she has, as of late. And if you've not been following her writing, perhaps her out-of-character haircut provides a clue. It was just over a year ago now, that Pamela's iconic long, thick braids fell victim to the necessary, but no less awful, treatment she has undergone for breast cancer ...the diagnosis for which came just as she started to recover from a shattered back, having been hit by a car a year prior.

In comparison to what she must have gone through over that time, I suppose touring around Ireland while feeling strong and healthy (the cancer is gone; the back is mostly healed) really does feel like "taking it easy." Nonetheless, it's a difficult thing to grasp.


I am not going to write about Pamela's illness here. It is her experience and you'd be better off reading her own account of it. But I do want to tell you about the first time we met, back in Boston in late 2011.

As with most interesting women, her reputation preceded her. Earlier in the year, I'd been told (or, more accurately, warned!) by several people, independently, about the infamous creature called Pamela Blalock. The hill climb racer. The randonneur. The tireless rider who cranked out 100K a day at a minimum. The woman whose routes were so hilly, they made hardened cyclists weep. To be drawn into joining her on rides, it seemed, was to risk being eaten alive. "Phew," I thought to myself back then, "good thing I've never come across her!"

I remember distinctly the horror I felt, at the realisation one day that the nice, girlish woman pedaling beside me, with her two long braids and her charming Southern accent, was this very same Pamela! We had met at a local cafe and agreed to go for a ride before we even properly introduced ourselves. It was only mid-ride, mid-pedal stroke, that I put two and two together. And now here we were, heading toward what looked suspicious like a hill ...What ever would become of me?!

Of course, it so happens that Pamela is probably the best cyclist a beginner can hope to encounter. The patience she has, the skill to teach without making you feel like she's teaching, the ability to match her companion's cadence and speed - are unparalleled to anyone else I have ridden with prior or since. And while I do understand where her tremendous reputation comes from (the woman likes hills, that much is true), it is, for the most part, hilariously exaggerated.

Still, as she toured what is now my home turf, I tried to pay her back by routing her on some beautiful (read: nasty) climbs in Donegal. To my utter delight, I finally almost - almost! - succeeded in making her lose her temper, as she climbed up to the Grianan of Aileach ringfort.


It would not be out of line to describe Pamela as single-minded. She identifies as a cyclist so thoroughly, it's impossible to imagine her as a separate entity from the bike. Indeed, whenever I picture her, in my mind's eye she is always on, or at least beside, a bicycle - almost merged with it really, like some magical hybrid creature from Greek mythology. Even when she sits in "civilian" clothes, drinking coffee, indoors, there is something of mermaid out of water about her, so inherently bike-like is her demeanor.

In a culture that values diversification of interests, the idea of single-mindedness has a negative connotation. It's as if the intensity it implies goes one step too far. But in some situations, such intensity can be life-saving. "Too intense" is just the right amount of intense to pull a person out of a black hole.

So, thank goodness for Pamela's single-mindedness. And for her Reputation, as well. Thinking back to that first time we met, I like to imagine any illness or other disaster that tries to besiege her having the exact same reaction: "Oh my god... it's that Pamela?!"{backs away slowly, then runs, runs!}.

That's right, buddy. Off you go. She will eat you alive, and spit you out, and continue on her merry way - straight up the steepest hills of Donegal, and beyond.


Honest Brew: Liquid Picnic by Bike


So, I do not normally review food and drinks items. But when it came to this product from London-based Honest Brew it seemed a pity to deprive you, dear readers ...especially as they allowed me to give the stuff away!

And on that TGIF note, I introduce you to the Howler: a portable tube of craft beers, delivered to your door on request and designed to fit in your bicycle's bottle cage. Is this in jest, you ask? Not at all. This product exists. And you can read about the enthusiastic maker's philosophy here, including their thoughts on the virtues of canning craft beer.



When the sizable parcel arrived and I imagined it as a portion to be consumed on a single bike ride, I was reminded of the awful joke that kids of Irish descent at my 1990s New England school used to tell, not without some measure of pride:

"What's an Irish seven course meal?"
"A six pack and a potato."

Har har.

Well, by those standards, you don't quite get a full meal out of a Honest Brew Howler. But you won't be left starving either. For most, I should think the 3-pack will suffice for a liquid picnic by bike.

If you reside in Great Britain or Northern Ireland, you can order samplers of various hand-picked craft beers from local micro-breweries, and the bicycle-ready Howler shall arrive at your door lickety-split. You can order as many samplers as you like, according to various themes, at the cost of £6.60-£8.50 per pack, and a one-time shipping charge of £3.49. It's not cheap. But it's not expensive either, considering the cost of craft beers. And if you enjoy this sort of thing, it can allow you to sample beers from micro-breweries that may not be otherwise accessible. All in all, I would say it's a fun project.


Now as far as limitations, the main one I can see is fit:  While the container seems compatible with most metal bottle cages, it won't clear small bicycle frames. The husband's 53x54cm machine is basically at the limit of what will accommodate the mighty Howler. Whether that means this beer-transport method is not for you, or that you need to rethink your bicycle frame sizing, is of course up to yourself to decide.

As for evaluating the quality of the beer itself: Well, I have no cause to question its excellence, considering it looks like it comes from some cool micro-breweries. However, I am not a craft beer expert. And in addition, I am off the drink these days, completely. So I will leave it to you, fellow islanders, to take this fine product off me and determine its merit.

This give-away is open to readers from (all-island) Ireland only. If you fit this description and would like the Howler to be sent your way, please leave a comment, briefly outlining your thoughts on one of the following topics (song/poem/grunt form acceptable):

   a. Drinking whilst cycling: does it give you "strengh" or a headache?
   b. The craft beer situation in Ireland, North and South: Discuss

Please do this before the end of this coming Sunday. And make sure I have a way of contacting you.

Looking forward to sending this beer to a good home, and wishing you all a happy weekend!


Of Mind and Gap



As a teenager, I once saw a black and white photograph of a magnificent landscape in a friend’s father’s study. I didn’t know quite what I was looking at. But, transfixed by the silvery squiggles strewn over the jagged mountain, I knew that it was stunning.

“The Stelvio Pass,” said my friend’s father. And I nodded, the exotic image forever fixed in my mind's eye.



It was not until I was a cyclist, nearly two decades later, that I understood what a mountain pass actually was. A route over a mountain range, it aims to facilitate crossing by snaking through a gap between two peaks. It would be a mistake, however, to infer that a route of this sort is flat, or easy. No matter how you spin it, you are still crossing a mountain range after all. And so I soon learned to expect climbing when anything with the words Pass or Gap in the name was involved.

Still, in those parts of the world where I've lived, the passes and gaps have tended to be rather tame, straightforward affairs: some miles up, then down, with a few sweeping bends. That iconic image of dense bundles of switchbacks was something I'd only seen in photos.

I should have known that this was about to change, when I told a friend about our upcoming trip to Kerry. When I mentioned our plans to cycle over the Connor Pass and asked whether he'd done it himself, he responded with: "Ah yes, the Connor Pass is a must! It's a very ...European climb."

I did not know what he meant by that at the time, imagining vaguely a mountainside strewn with outdoor cafes and art galleries. But apparently, "European climb" means hairpins. Plenty of switchbacks and hairpins! But I'll get to that later.


Located in one of the most scenic regions of Ireland, the Connor Pass slices lengthwise through the Dingle Peninsula at the south-western tip of the country, offering sweeping views of surrounding valleys and waterways. It is known as one of the highest paved mountain passes in Ireland and is a Category 2 climb. That said, it does not actually look too bad on paper: a not-quite-4 mile ascent, at 7-7.5% grade average. We headed toward it on the first day of our cycling tour, fresh and innocent. And as we pedaled into a moderate headwind from our starting point near Tralee, it almost felt like we needed the climb to burn off our excess of nervous energy. Had we packed enough things? Had we packed the right things? Would we find places to stay every night? Would it rain on us the whole time? Our minds needed to be quieted.

The usual route toward the Connor Pass is along a fairly flat coastal road that stretches for about 20 miles from Tralee through countryside that is attractive, but not overly dramatic - not counting the distant view of a mountain range that resembles a jagged knife's edge. The road starts out wide and fairly heavy with traffic. But at some point there is a fork, and a sign diverting lorries, buses, and other large vehicles onto a different road (thankfully, they are not allowed on the pass). The road toward the Pass itself grows narrower and quieter then, attaining a slight gradient. Then, after a sweeping bend, the view of the Connor Pass opens up.

I did not notice it at first. That is, I saw the steep face of the mountain when we rounded the bend, but did not see any road going up it. Then my husband shouted excitedly: "Look! There it is right there, you can see the road!"

"What! Where?"


The mountainside was crumply gray rock. My long distance vision is not great, and the hazy light was not helping. But finally I saw it: A narrow, almost path-like road appeared to zigzag straight up the steep face of the mountain. Gray on gray, it lay camouflaged amidst the stone, like some giant malicious snake. I could just make out the tiny specs of several cars slowly rounding one of the hairpin bends, at a seemingly impossible height.

Next thing I knew, a pool of black began to spread over my field of vision - in that slow-motion way that happens just before you faint. I had the good sense to jump off my bike just then. And soon I was sitting at the side of the road, head below knees, my heart pounding, sweat pouring down my face. It took me a moment to gain my composure and understand what was happening. Was I having a heart attack? No, a panic attack. A panic attack at the sight of that road full of switchbacks!

Well, this was an interesting predicament. My mind began to race with solutions that would not ruin our trip, but really there weren't any other than my proceeding with the climb. I had wanted to do it. I had looked forward to it. But now every time I as much as glanced up the road, tears projectile-sprayed from my eyes and my legs trembled. At the same time, I was somehow managing to laugh at myself hysterically. "This is ridiculous! I don't know why I'm acting like this, I'm so sorry!"


"You need blinkers, like for a nervous horse," suggested my husband pragmatically.

We toyed with the idea of tucking leaves into the sides of my cycling cap. But at length, we decided instead that I would simply try and keep my gaze down on the road and take it one bend at a time, without looking up at the landscape that spread out in front of me. And with this plan, and my legs still atremble, we set off to do the climb.


I don't want to downplay the physicality of a Category 2 climb. But if you are bicycle-fit, not in a hurry, and have reasonable gearing, the Connor Pass is not a difficult ascent. Climbing it from the so-called "steep side" as we did, the gradient was nearly always a very steady 7.5% - dipping occasionally to below 4% and spiking up to 11% a couple of times. Never anything worse than that. Now, the road is narrow, and there were occasional cars that required some steady nerves to steer around, especially if you happen to overlap at a bend. But if you can handle that, and can sustain the described gradient over <4 miles, you should have no problems with the physical part of this climb. With my gearing of 50/34t front and 11-29t rear, I flicked back and forth between cogs, just to vary the pace, and felt pretty good ...just as long as I kept my eyes on the road directly in front of me and did not attempt to look around. Because no sooner would I look at the many switchbacks ahead, then my heart would start to pound again, my breathing to get out of control, my hands and knees to shake. "Don't look; take it one bend at a time," became my little chant.

For the final few bends of the climb, the road tightened and competing with cars became quite precarious. Not wanting to hang about in this section too long, I switched into "let's get this over with" mode, quickened my pace and was at the top before I knew it. Well, that wasn't too bad after all! The first thing I did of course, was get out my camera and photograph the husband climbing the final stretch.


Dismounting his bike with a tired smile, he complimented my climbing skillz, then put his arm around me and gestured toward the Romantic View of the climb we'd just conquered.

"Look!"

My knees gave out straight away.

"Oh jayzus. Okay, don't look. Don't look!"


Normally cyclists celebrate at the top of a mountain pass. Me, I had to be propped up, dragged to the nearest secluded patch of grass, smacked and pinched till the blood returned to my face. An elderly couple stared and whispered suspiciously. A crow began to circle me eagerly. It was out of hand.

I was trying to understand what exactly was daunting me. Clearly it wasn't fear of doing the climb that was causing the panic, since the climb was now done and dusted. It was the sheer appearance of the hairpins that was having this effect on me. The view was't so much scary, as overwhelming; there was a "too muchness" about it. The reaction was not unlike a form of agoraphobia.


Seeing as I did have to descend the mountain eventually, I decided to try some DIY exposure therapy. I would look at the view of the hairpin road a little bit at a time. I tried to see it abstractly - to enjoy it as a work of art, as I did all those years ago with the photo of Stelvio. After a while (quite a while!) it seemed to work. Or at least I was calm enough to get back on my bike.

Thankfully, the other side of the Connor Pass was not nearly as twisty. The fairly easy descent did little to tax my handling skills and actually relaxed me. As we floated down to Dingle Town all seemed funny again.

"What is wrong with me?!"


Two days later, we cycled over the Gap of Dunloe (pictured in the first and second photos) and Moll's Gap. Each of these magnificent gaps was a bundle of hairpins so tight, so steep, so narrow, so overall "European" - that the Connor Pass, in retrospect, began to seem like mere practice for the real deal! And somehow in the two days that had passed, I had come to terms with the landscape and no longer had the same reaction to seeing the hairpin roads spread out ahead of me.

The Stelvio Pass? Perhaps not just yet. But my mind is learning to step aside and let the body do its magic.

Of Things Illuminated


Over the weekend I attended a rather wonderful show that a friend was involved with. It's kind of difficult to categorise, but essentially it was a public art installation - an "illuminated sculpture trail," where a series of enormous, imaginatively-shaped lanterns, constructed of willow and papier-mâché, were placed throughout indoor and outdoor spaces, for visitors to wander amidst in the night.

The main part of the show was in a space about a mile out of town, and attendees were encouraged to walk from the town centre to get the full experience. So leaving our bikes behind, we strolled along a completely unlit series of backroads, along with dozens of others.

A few things struck me about this. First, how utterly dark it actually was without the benefit of my bicycle's headlight, or any other source of illumination. It is not often I wander about like this! Considering that, I also found it interesting and somewhat surprising that none of the public were carrying torches (flashlights) or sporting hi-viz attire.

The latter is becoming increasingly common here, not just for cyclists, but also for pedestrians. There are people walking their dogs in luminous vests, runners in reflective gear even in the daytime, schoolchildren wrapped in hi-viz sashes to cross the road. Yet on this occasion, everyone must have decided collectively that to wear reflective garments of any kind would compete with the experience we were about to share. And so we walked, a procession of disembodies voices, until the path in front of us turned aglow with a garden of fanciful shapes. It was truly a beautiful show.

Coming from a background of writing about cycling, it is hard for me to perceive luminosity in a way that is not politicised. Even now I could not help but notice that the sculpture trail was effective precisely because it stood out in contrast to the darkness around it. Had everything else been illuminated as well, the sculptures would not in fact have been highly visible. It is an argument often applied to the role of hi-viz in urban cycling and walking. Not to mention, of course, the countless debates about the choice to wear hi-viz versus the expectation for persons to do so, tied to the larger question of where the focus on road safety should be directed.

While I never much worried about being seen when I lived in cities, the past three years of rural nocturnal commutes have been very different. In the countryside, I never quite feel lit up enough, no matter how brightly I might adorn myself or my bike. Despite being given every indication that drivers who pass me can see me (I am probably given more space at night than in daytime) I still don't feel altogether comfortable on the twisty, pitch black country roads, and tend to avoid travel at night if I can. It is a subjective perception of un-safety rather than one based on facts. But subjective perception is what colours our experiences and overall quality of life. And mine drives me to feel anxious about my visibility on the dark rural roads.

Despite all of this, I am still not fully convinced that it's "good" to be highly visible - at least in the manner that current hi-viz trends encourage us to. Which is to say, in a way that cannot be switched on and off at will.

Walking back from the sculpture trail later that night I saw something quite funny... a luminous teenage couple making out in an alleyway. Unbeknownst to them, their vigorous hand movements over each others' bodies were brilliantly lit up under the headlights of each passing car. They were wearing sporty tops with reflective cuffs, poor things. I had to force myself not to watch this intriguing light show.

There are other scenarios that are not conducive to luminous wear (being pursued by an attacker comes to mind). But at any rate, one problem with reflective stuff is that it does not give us a choice - essentially forcing us to be noticeable at all times. And while this isn't a problem when it comes to items such as vests and sashes, which can be donned and removed easily, perhaps it explains while attempts to integrate hi-viz into more integral pieces of clothing are less popular. Ventures to offer reflective paint for bicycles and bicycle parts tend to get mixed receptions also.

There are instances when we want to be visible. And there are instances when stealth presents an advantage. Being able to flip back and forth according to not just personal, but situational, preference, is key. And an interesting problem for designers of luminous objects to tackle.


The Unintended Road



It was the kind of road that I had seen test tempers and strain friendships. And as we pedaled - upward, endlessly upward, past outstandingly bland scenery - I would sneak sheepish glances at my companion’s face to check for signs of seething. Miraculously, there was none. Only a stunned, almost amused exertion.

“Horrible wee road, this!”

My computer's gradient reading appeared to be stuck at 16%.



It was the end of our mini cycling tour. We had pedaled for four days around the scenic roads of County Kerry, an eventful and memorable trip. Now this last leg was purely for transport, just a short final stretch to where we’d left the car in Tralee. We were well tired by now. And I had mapped the morning’s route aiming for the shortest distance between two points while avoiding the busy main road. When I checked the elevation gain, it did not look too bad. But I must have misread - or misinterpreted. Because this was ugly. And not just the endless climbing - which, under the right circumstances, is quite forgivable. But the utterly featureless backroad along which the climbing took place.

Understand that it takes talent to find such a road in rural Kerry - a county teeming with glens, breathtaking coastal views, and serpentine mountain passes. The road I’d managed to put us on was grayish and scraggly, lined with tall thorny hedges and weathered fencing that blocked whatever hilltop vistas there might have been. It was an upsloping tunnel, with nothing but insect noises and drizzle and the lashings of stinging nettles to reward our efforts.

It was in the midst of this slog that we came to a crossroads. What a relief it was to see it up ahead. It was clearly a village centre - a brightly coloured cluster of buildings, including a pub and provisions shop. Our pedal strokes quickened in anticipation of a happy break.

It was not till we arrived and plopped our bikes against the pub wall that we realised the place was empty. Not empty as in closed, but empty as in deserted. The pub, the shop, and all of the other buildings - of which there were six or seven in total - stood boarded up and disused. We had arrived in a ghost village.



I have mentioned ghost villages before. You can find them all over the backroads of Ireland: clusters of derelict old structures that were once settlements but have since been abandoned, left to slowly decay and crumble. Why is that? Well, the usual. Settlement patterns change. Shopping patterns change. Entertainment patterns change. Ireland today is not the same as it was 50, or even 20 years ago. Scattered rural cottages are giving way to clustered housing developments; country shops to stripmall-style shopping plazas; pub culture to nights in front of the television with bottles of supermarket-bought wine. It is not the image of Ireland most visitors want to have. But in many parts, North and South, it is reality.

In that sense, coming across a ghost village can feel like a form of time travel - offering a glimpse of what life used to be like before these socio-cultural changes took place. And the specific one we now found ourselves in was amazing in how well-preserved it was, and at the same time how dated.



Standing across from the pub, the most prominent building was the Dance Hall. The phenomenon of the (now-extinct) dance halls is something I hear about constantly. Every village used to have one. And every weekend dances were held at them. You could go to your local one, or, if on the lookout for a new "dance partner," head out to one further afield. Most of my friends' parents seem to have met this way, and the stories about the good times once had in these institutions are endless.

It is clear that folks knew how to party back in the day. And looking now at the lace-curtained green structure, I can nearly picture it: Dusk. Summer. 1976. A crowd of bell-bottomed youths smoking and laughing on those concrete steps. Music through the open door. The scent of surrounding rose bushes. Bicycles leaning against the wall.



One interesting detail I had noticed, was this free-standing plinth in front of one of the houses.

"For the milk canisters," my companion explained. "That's an old house that someone has left undisturbed. I can remember these plinths when I was a boy, but they have all been removed now..."

We did not hang about for long in the place. We were low on water, and needed to either finish the trip already, or else find a shop that was actually open. Plus the longer we stayed, the more disconcerting being there began to feel. There was a strange energy - a sort of ringing quiet, combined with a fuzzy, milky light, that made everything feel extra-ghostly. And as my tired brain fired up the imagination, I began to get the district feeling that we were not supposed to be there; that perhaps no one was. Among the tangle of backroads that led to Tralee I had selected this one at random. Now somehow we had slipped through the cracks into this parallel universe.



We can seek out experiences. But we cannot control what parts of those experiences end up being most memorable, and in what order they pop up into our mind's eye. So if you wonder why I am describing some dusty abandoned buildings glimpsed on a dreary day, instead of gushing about the hairpin bends of the Connor Pass or the glorious sweep of Inch Beach, that is the best I can do as far as an explanation.

Day after day we had explored scenic Kerry. So lovely and green and tidily dramatic it was, that at times, truth be told, it had felt nearly like a themepark version of itself. To know that undercurrents of "this" - whatever this was - existed, created a contextual texture that, had we followed the traditional cyclo-tourist routes only, we would have certainly missed.

If I tell you what happened next on this ride, I am sure you will roll your eyes and think it a cheap way to end a story. But truth is stranger than fiction, and so I'll tell you anyway.

As we pushed off and continued uphill, the steep gradient made us giddy with exasperation. Feeling a playful slap on my right hip, I turned toward my companion and said "Hey!" in mock disapproval. And as I looked his way, I saw right away that he was too far from me to have executed the slap. On the opposite side of the road, he was staring firmly ahead, both hands on the handlebars, doing his best to manage his breathing.

"What the..." I started to say, as I looked back over my shoulder. The village had all but faded from view in the hazy drizzle.

Those unintended roads. They can confuse, surprise, and frustrate. And if we let them, they can also, nearly always, enrich us. Even when the climbing is "gratuitous." Later we'd learn that the much flatter main road I had taken pains to avoid featured a wide, bike-pathlike shoulder, all the way to our destination!... But hey, I'll not dwell on the details.



Tripping



Although I generally try to keep the posts on this here weblog regular, everyone needs a break now and again - most certainly you, dear readers, from the bicycle-madness and general nonsense that is spouted on the electronic scrolls you've come to know as Lovely Bicycle. Not to worry though, as both of these features shall return after a brief interlude. And how.

Enjoy the time off, grab all the cycling you can, and thank you, as always, for reading!


What Remains



Maybe it's because I have watched too many Scandi-noir miniseries lately. But thinking of mementos and souvenirs conjures up something sinister - like the "trophies" a serial killer would keep. Then again, maybe that is not entirely inappropriate.

Out of a tattered yellow box I remove the little stash of objects and set them out on a cloth. They are meaningless bits of refuse to anyone but me, and I hide them not so much out of secrecy, as to avoid them accidentally being damaged or thrown into the trash. Still, there is an air of the secretive, of the deeply private and intimate about them. There is a feeling that the objects are a collection, tied together not only by some special theme but by a form of devotion. They are the things I keep from my bicycle rides.

It is hard to say what I am likely to take as a keepsake. I am not drawn to manmade stuff, such as buttons, or jewels, or coins. Even the intricate bits of mysterious metalwork and the dazzling chunks of sea glass that sometimes wash up on beaches I leave alone. As interesting and beautiful some of these objects are, I am not looking for traces of others. It's the landscape itself I want to keep. And to capture it photographically is not enough; I want to capture it physically, to keep it with me beyond my presence in its bounds.

So you see, it is a serial-killery impulse after all, in a way. An urge to absorb. A confusion of boundaries. "I have known this place and now it is part of me."

And so in my jersey pocket it goes. A small thing, usually. An interesting shell, or pebble. A twig with a fascinating pattern to the bark. A scraping of lichen or a clump of heather, to be later left to dry in the sun, or be pressed between a book's pages. One time I even took grains of sand. The sand had an unusual, turquoise-bluish tint to it. I grabbed a handful and poured it directly into my pocket, then later shook it out into one of those transparent 35mm film containers. It really did look somewhat turquoise, in the right light. And when I think of the miles I did that day - up and down the forested coastal roads - there is a grainy, turquoise-tinged feel to those memories.

When it comes to the cycling experience, I am in love with something I cannot define or pinpoint. It is not the speed and it is not the distance. It is not the challenge and it is not the "grace through suffering." When I cycle, it is solely for cycling's sake. I am not preparing for anything greater than what I am already doing. I do not chase epic rides or seek adventure. But I do a lot of ordinary cycling. Every day, and often multiple times a day, I am out on a bicycle. Whether I pedal near or far, fast or slow, it seems I am always discovering new places and experiencing new sensations. The familiar opens up and shows itself in new, surprising ways. And it is this intangible thing that I want to grab a handful of.

Do the keepsakes help? These bits of shells and sticks and dried plants and misshapen rocks? Not really. It's a compulsion to take them, nothing more. And when I look at them, rather than losing myself in memories of past rides, I find they make me impatient to go out on new ones.

And so I sweep it all back in the box and close the lid and put it away. All those miles, sensations, memories... What remains are not the mementos, but the desire to ride again.





Cycling Underpants: a Look at Three Varieties



The phenomenon of cycling-specific underpants - as distinct from performance-oriented cycling shorts - is a fascinating reflection of today's hybrid bicycling culture. Riding a bike for transport is more popular than it has been in some time. But it is also different from what it was in its original heyday, many decades ago. On the whole, commuting distances are longer. The layouts of the roads invite a more aggressive riding technique. And the bicycles that many use for transport these days have morphed to accommodate - from the stately upright steeds they once ubiquitously were, to more sporting machines that encourage "active" postures.

It is an era of post-sport transport, and it blurs boundaries. Boundaries such as those between rural commutes and distance road rides, or between navigating busy city roads and training for criterium races. Consequently, the boundaries between everyday attire and cycling-specific technical garments are likewise blurred.

Do you “need” cycling underpants? The answer depends on a variety of factors, including how much time you spend on the bike for transport, your position on said bike, and the intensity of your pedaling. Suffice to say: If your underpants are letting you down in the comfort department, yet you prefer to cycle in ordinary clothing (or at least what looks like ordinary clothing), it is something to consider. Luckily, this breed of special garment is now available from a number of manufacturers and in multiple varieties. Over the past few months I have tried the following three and present to you my impressions:



Vulpine Merino Boxer

As a fan of Vulpine merino jerseys and socks, I was hoping for something equally simple, lightweight and cozy in the underwear department. I was not disappointed. The padded merino boxer (available in men's and women's versions) is everything the name suggests: It is a boxer-brief, in a merino fabric, with a chamois insert.

Aesthetically, these are very low key shorts. No frills, no doohickeys, no bright colours. But the wow factor is in the feel. The soft, lightweight 150g merino feels amazing against the skin. The form-fitting and stretchy cut contributes to the comfort. The elastic at the waist is wide enough not to cut into tummy fat. And tiny silicone grippers prevent the edges of the legs from bunching up under trousers. The length is pretty short (think "boy shorts" for the women's version), which makes them suitable even for mini skirts, but long enough to prevent inner thigh chafe.


The gray, low-profile CyTech pad (gender-specific) provides coverage suitable for any cycling position, from bolt-upright to racing fit. To me it feels very comfortable for distances for up to 20 miles.

That said, I do not find the manufacturer's claims of the padding being "invisible through outerwear" to be 100% accurate. Under some trousers and skirts that I own, the pad definitely "prints" at the rear. Not the end of the world, and the comfort these shorts give me is worth it - but it does mean I have to choose my wardrobe carefully when I wear them.


Off the bike, the merino fabric feels truly splendid and the cut makes them comfortable to move around in. However, I am aware of the pad and so it definitely doesn't feel quite like wearing normal underpants.

Verdict: While not perfectly stealthy under all garments, for long distance commuting I find the Vulpine Merino Boxers extremely effective. As a fan of fine merino wool, I also find the choice of fabric ideal. Available in black or navy and priced at £49GBP, these shorts are currently on sale for £30.



Ivalieu Pettipants

Not all cycling-specific underpants are about padding. Some are about coverage - particularly underneath skirts and dresses. On that front, the Oregon-based Ivalieu makes a variety of "pettipants" to help be-skirted cyclists avoid not only flashing, but, more importantly, what she so eloquently terms "the ol' sticky thighs issue." Ah yes.

The pettipants are available in several styles and a variety of prints, the most relevant to me being the Sport - which are basically stretchy, unpadded bicycle shorts as I remember them from the late 1980s-early '90s. I had not realised how much I missed them until I took a spin in the updated Ivalieu version.


Like the "bike shorts" we wore in elementary school, the Ivalieu pettipants are great for both pedaling and running about in, as well as for climbing trees and fences. They prevent inner thigh chafing on hot days and minimise up-skirt curiosity.

Unlike the bike shorts of yore though, these have a wide, comfortable waistband, and a nice gusset at the crotch that keeps seams from pressing into privates. The nylon-spandex blend fabric is also quite a bit nicer to the touch than the older stuff was, and the hand-sewn, made to order quality is top notch.


On the bike, I find the Ivalieu shorts pretty great for upright cycling in a skirt, especially on hot sticky days. Off the bike - while the pettipants in of themselves are comfortable I would like some sort of breathable lining over the gusset area to be able to wear them all day - especially in an indoor, sitting in a chair type of situation. Direct spandex-to-crotch contact, for hours at a time, is not a good setup for me. And while not everyone is sensitive in this regard, on the whole I believe a lining would be a beneficial addition to this garment.

Verdict: If you miss those unpadded bike shorts of your pre-teen years, there is now a hand-sewn version of them that is gussetted, silky in feel, and available in a variety of funky prints. Made to order starting at $49.50 USD check them out, along with other cool models, on the Ivalieu website.



Bike Nicks Padded Knickers

There are cycling underpants. And then there is cycling lingerie. That's right. And I'll be honest: when I first started seeing Bike Nicks pop up on social media, I assumed they were a novelty item that would not be of much use to me. But having tried a sample, I was at once reminded of the "don't hate me because I'm beautiful" meme. And beautiful these knickers certainly are. In fact - and I can't decide whether this is funny or sad - they are by far the most attractive and "sexy" pair of underwear I currently own!

Founded by yoga instructor Lili Millar, the Bike Nicks range is designed for cycling and is meant to be as pretty as it is comfortable. And, on the comfortable front, it succeeds more than its aesthetics suggests it should. The fabric - which is a synthetic satin with lace trim - is surprisingly stretchy when worn. It is underwear that looks like lingerie but feels like an athletic garment.



The Bike Nicks are padded for on-the-bike comfort. However, the padding is not a full-on chamois, but a smaller, subtler pad that is about the size and shape of a standard sanitary napkin. And rather than sitting directly against the skin, it is sewn into a cotton lining. As a result, despite the cycling-specific padding, the Nicks feel like ordinary underpants when worn off the bike. I have worn them all day and forgotten they were there.

On the bike, I find the Bike Nicks enhance any ride I would have otherwise done in ordinary underpants. However, being knickers rather than shorts, they inherently do not address the problem of inner thighs chafing under skirts and dresses. And the elasticised leg openings - despite being very stretchy and soft - nonetheless eventually start to rub as the miles add up, especially in a leaned over position. Adding a boy short design to the lineup might be something to consider, for cyclists who have problems with chafing and put in lots of miles.


Verdict: While they haven't quite got the features of full-on chamois cycling shorts, if you are looking to add comfort to your transport cycling and spice up your underwear drawer in one go, Bike Nicks will do exactly that. UK-made and priced at £26.99GBP per pair, they are available in pink or black, and in a knickers or a thong style.

Speaking solely of my own preferences, there are elements of all three products that I love. The merino fabric of the Vulpine shorts feels divine. The length of the Ivalieu Sport shorts is just right for me. If I could combine those, with the minimal, lining-enclosed padding of the Bike Nicks, well that would be my perfect pair of cycling-specific underpants.

Collabo, anyone?...

But on a separate note! As you might recall, the products featured here are being offered as prizes for the winners of the #BikePeeing (yes, I know) photo contest that was recently run here. After 6 finalists were selected, voting for the top two entries took place last week and I thank everyone who took part.



According to the readers' vote, the top two entries were:

2. "No P on Bridge" -  submitted by Fixe Pixie, and
4. "Heartland" - submitted by George Swain

However, I would also like to exercise my power (oooh) as hostess to override the vote and chose a third winner. And that would be:

5. In Plane View - submitted by TrailHound

I shall be in touch with the winners shortly. And I hope these reviews help them decide which of these fine underpants they would like as a prize.

With thanks to Vulpine, Bike Nicks and Ivalieu, for donating their products for this contest! I hope the reviews were helpful for anyone considering cycling-specific underpants. And I would be curious to know what other ones folks out there have tried - and if you've found them useful at all. When we start to add miles and challenging terrain to transport cycling, continuing to ride in ordinary clothing can be tricky. Whether we buy their clothing or not, designers who try to find solutions offer food for thought and new ideas, and their efforts are appreciated.


Donard Cycles: a Cottage Industry



What comes to mind when you think of carbon fibre bicycle frame production? This is not a test. Just think about it for a moment and form a mental image.

Me, I picture something clinical, sterile. Lots of computer modeling. A team of engineers. Sophisticated machinery. Automated processes. A facilities that is more lab than workshop.

What I don’t picture is - oh, I don’t know - a stone cottage in the middle of the Irish countryside? In which an unassuming, youthful-looking man toils alone, in a low-ceilinged attic workshop, sculpting strips of something black and tough and a little gooey into the shape of a bicycle. Yet that is what I get when I visit Owen Byrne at Donard Cycles.  Even having known, roughly, what to expect from our email and phone conversations, I am still taken aback.



To start with, there is the setting. Named after Slieve Donard that looms nearby (Northern Ireland's tallest peak), the builder resides in the picturesque countryside along the Strangford Lough. It took me several modes of transportation and several hours in pouring rain to get there, but the gorgeous views were well worth it.

On top of that, the workshop is part of a resurrected ghost village. There are lots of such places all over Ireland: clusters of derelict stone cottages that were once settlements, usually situated on a cross-roads, around a mill of some sort. Once the mills closed and the crossroads lost their centrality, such places were gradually abandoned. Some were left to slowly decay, out of sight, deep in the coutryside. Ohers were knocked down and turned into new developments.

This particular settlement, however, was fortunate enough to meet an alternative fate: It was rescued by local residents. Most of the derelict buildings have been refurbished and made habitable again. It is now a thriving, yet secluded, little neighborhood that is like something out of a picture book.




Once not much more than a stone shed, the Donard Cycles workshop has somehow been transformed into a two-story structure with a multitude of skylights. Surrounded by a grassy yard dotted with wildflowers, it stands beside a pond that dominates most of the views from the workshop windows.


It is this that the builder gazes at as he works: making one carbon fibre prototype frame after another, in a sharply focused R&D sequence that will culminate soon in a polished product available to the public.


In the dim, yet surprisingly airy interior (best air quality of any framebuilder's workshop I've been in), I am permitted to inspect several early prototypes - some intact, others chopped up and modified, all looking more like papier-mâché sculptures than machines.


There is familiar, steel stuff, as well. As well as a frame jig, vices, and all the tools of the trade I'm familiar with.


As a hobby at first, Owen began building bicycle frames in 2012.


But the metals he started out with were practice for his ultimate goal: to work with carbon fibre. And last year that process finally began.


The carbon stuff is everywhere - finished tubes, and strips, and parts of frames - placed so casually in this quaint workshop setting my mind finds it difficult to accept as real. Overwhelmed but curious, I do not know where to start with my questions. I jump from one topic to the next. I start touching and sniffing everything. How does this work? What does this do? But how? But why? But what for?

"Want to try making a tube yourself?"

Making a tube... I imagine some sort of giant mold is involved. But no, the process is all handwork.

To start with, the carbon comes in strips, sheets, or ribbons of epoxy-impregnated fibres. There are many kinds - that is to say, they come in different thicknesses and types. A strip of carbon fibre that is unidirectional resembles woodgrain and is a truly weird thing to hold and play around with.


Flexible in one direction, it resists flex in the other. The unidirectional fibre alignment makes it possible to control directionality of strength and stiffness to a fine degree, depending on how you place the strips.


Woven, fibre, on the other hand, is - as the name suggests - a weave, offering greater versatility but less directional control. Both types of carbon fibre strips are available in different thicknesses and strengths. And they can be layered in different numbers and combinations depending on what effect the builder wants to achieve.


To make the tubing, the builder begins by wrapping the strips, one at a time, around an appropriately shaped aluminium rod made specifically for this purpose. At Owen's invitation, I tried my hand at this part of the process.


At the start, the carbon fibre strips felt a lot more difficult to control than I expected - an uncooperative combination of stiffness and flexibility that refused to curve and lie flat around the aluminium rod without bunching up horribly. However, I soon realised that both materials were quite responsive to body heat; they needed to be gently warmed up. The more you touch the aluminium, the more inviting the surface becomes to the carbon. And the more you coax the carbon with your hands, the move lively and pliable it becomes.


So the wrapping process basically involves a lot of kneading and smoothing, smoothing and kneading, until you have an evenly wrapped tube. Once wrapping is completed, the tube gets placed in a vacuum bag for compression, and in an oven, where it undergoes a number of heat cycles at varied temperatures.


It is a time-consuming process, both design-wise and production-wise. But the results is a handmade and highly customised tube set, which can then be fitted onto a jig just like steel tubing, for the frame to start being built.


Though I did not watch this part of the process, I understand the frame is built by wrapping more fibre strips around the joints, in leu of brazing or welding. Here again, the builder has complete control over the type of carbon fibre selected, its directionality, as well as the amount of material used. Between designing the geometry, making the tubing from scratch, and then wrapping the joints, the possibilities for playing around with frame characteristics seem infinite.


And my point here was not to attempt to explain the carbon fibre frame production process (which would take at least a couple of book chapters to describe properly!), but to communicate the two things that struck me about it the most from visiting Donard: (1) how utterly hands-on it is, and (2) how much opportunity for customisation it offers. And so before we even got to addressing the question of why Owen was drawn to making carbon bikes in particular, I already knew the answer. Or at least one of the answers.



Because, let's face it - being interested in a material's hands-on and customisable properties isn't enough to work with something as complicated and sensitive as carbon fibre. And so it might clarify matters to know that Owen has a PhD in Physics, with a specialty in high temperature super conductors and a keen interest in composites. And as a cyclist with several decades of experience (distance cycling, commuting, and racing across various disciplines), it was only a matter of time before he felt drawn to applying his skills to the bicycle. After some initial training in framebuilding with Downland Cycles in England and some practice with steel, he set to work with carbon fibre. Back in Ireland, he did not have any teachers, or the presence of a framebuilders' community from which to seek support. But he read a great deal. And then he read some more. And then he began experimenting. Owen sees carbon fibre as a material with greater potential than we yet credit it with, in particular for custom work. And he feels that he understands that math(s) and physics behind carbon fibre's behaviour at a level that can be applied to bicycle frame production, with exciting results. Results he is nearly ready to show.

The cycles which now fill his shop are aesthetically unpolished prototypes. But the first ready-to-view bike, complete with professional paint, will be unveiled at Lap the Lough event - a 100 mile ride around Lough Neagh at the end of August. So look for it there in person, or stay tuned for photos.


In the meanwhile, Owen asked whether I'd like to try the latest prototype. Considering the bike was a good 2 sizes too big for me, equipped with a frighteningly narrow saddle, and sporting clipless pedals incompatible with my shoes, I politely declined. But of course this is Ireland. And so a "go on, g'wan!" situation ensued,  with assurances of "Sure, we'll just lower the seat - you'll be grand!" given. So, long story short, of course I ended up riding the bike. The geometry was all wrong for me and the fit was positively Riverdellian - with bars above saddle and my torso stretched out to the max. But nevertheless, ride it I did, for some miles over gently rolling hills. Alongside, on one of his other prototypes, Owen glanced over now and again, questioningly.

Main impression? Comfortable. In a "can't feel the texture of the ground" sort of way.  Not the typical feedback one expects of a carbon bike, and I guess that is the builder's point: They can be anything you make them. And although the geometry and fit put me in an awkward position, the bicycle appeared to get lighter when going uphill. What can I say? I am certainly intrigued. And would love an opportunity to test a Donard in my size, to form a fairer impression. But of course to make one in my size would not be enough, according to the builder. He would want to know how much a rider weighs, to watch how they ride, to understand the ways in which they stress the bike, and their approach to handling. He will not be making bicycles designed to please the hypothetical average rider. He is interested in pushing limits, in the context of making frames that are as rider-specific as possible. And in making them from scratch - from the tooling, to the tubes, to the finished product... Then ideally, selling them at prices he describes as "accessible for locals."

This admirable approach aside, my visit with Donard Cycles has given me a different perspective on carbon fibre framebuilding, which I hope has been of interest to you as well. I thank Owen for his hospitality and look forward to seeing his Lap the Lough bike in action.


#BikePeeing Finalists Announced - Vote for Your Favourite Capture!


Two weeks ago I proposed a little photo contest to celebrate the beauty, mystery and resourcefulness of the stealthy, cross-disciplinary adventure that is #bikepeeing.

Granted, the subjectmatter is a tricky one to tackle. After all, can the complex and elusive essence of #bikepeeing truly be captured? But I suppose one does not know until one tries. And I applaud those intrepid participants who applied their artistic visions to this difficult question.

Having selected 6 of my favourite entries, I ask you now, dear readers, to vote for the one you like best. Those with the top two votes shall each be rewarded for their efforts with a pair of cycling underpants of their choice (details below). No names with submissions, so as not to bias you immediately. But you can click the link on each photo to view the original entries.


Which is your favourite #BikePeeing photo? Vote away! {voting now closed!}





The polls shall remain open till the end of the work week, and results will be announced on Sunday.

Thank you for voting and stay tuned for the results announcement.

And what, you ask, of the prizes? Winners will each select one of the following:



Vulpine Merino Boxers (UK): "merino cycling underwear for disguised padding under shorts or trousers." Choose between the men's and the women's versions, in black or navy blue.

Bike Nicks: (UK) "luxurious padded cycle lingerie." Choose between the full coverage and the thong(!) versions, in all black or pink with black trim.

Ivalieu Pettipants: (US) unpadded cycling shorts for comfort under skirts, made to order. Choose between the Sport and the Savvy versions, with white on gray bicycle print.

I have at this point tested each of these fine undergarments (not the same pairs that will be given away, don't worry!) and will include a mini-review when the winners are announced to make the decision easier. And lest you notice there are more options for ladies than for the gents, that is to reflect the greater difficulty level of the female's #bikepeeing endeavours.

Thank you, as always, for reading! The finalists and I look forward to your votes.

In the Dark on Women's Bike Fit? Why a Gendered Approach Falls Short



It seems like every now and again discussions flare up on the importance of proper (road)bike fit for women, and on the industry’s failure to cater to female customers in this regard. Speaking very broadly, these discussions tend to polarise around one of two points of view:

A. that female-specific body proportions warrant a distinct approach to bike fit, and that not enough off-the-shelf bicycles are produced with it in mind.

B. that female-specific proportions are a myth. What women need is greater variety in smaller frame sizes, and industry staff that don't talk down to them.

As last week's article in Total Women's Cycling hints at, there is also an inherent bias built into these discussions, depending on who is speaking: Mainstream bicycle manufacturers are motivated to convince women they can fit just fine on the off-the-shelf bicycles already being produced. Custom fitters are motivated to cultivate the idea of problems in this regard, to which they can offer solutions.

So, who are we to believe? Whenever I am asked this question, all I can say is "we can only believe our own bodies!" For no matter what a manufacturer - or a bike fitter - tells us, we must ultimately go with what actually feels right and comfortable. But as far as a more general opinion, my own take on it is this:

While I believe that female-specific proportions are indeed real and not "a myth," I am not convinced that a gendered approach to bike fit is useful.

Let's start with gender differences in human anatomy. Throughout my former career in psychology and neuroscience, I was involved in quite a bit of research relating to this subject, albeit indirectly. And based on everything I know on the topic, there is no question in my mind that there are differences in men's and women's body proportions. Listing only the ones most relevant to bicycle fit, these include:

leg to body ratio
arm to body ratio
hand size
muscle mass
centre of gravity

That is to say: On average, all other factors remaining equal, women tend to have longer legs, shorter arms, and smaller hands than men. Likewise, women tend to have less muscle mass than men. And their centre of gravity tends to be lower.

Now, notice the words I used above. On average. Tend to. All else remaining equal. This is statistical speak about generalised differences in populations. It is a language that deals in hypotheticals, averages, probabilities.

If pressed to translate this into a practical, real-life scenario you could picture, the best I can do would be this: If we were to pick a man and a woman at random from a participant pool where factors such as ethnic background and various developmental factors (including diet and levels of physical activity from birth to present time) were kept as homogenous as possible, and if the pair of them were the same height and weight, chances are the woman would have longer legs, shorter arms, smaller hands, less muscle mass than the man, and that her centre of gravity would be hip-level, whereas his would be chest-level. And notice I am still using words like "chances are." No matter what the statistics say, and no matter how well we control for "all other factors," any given individual's proportions are a wildcard.

For this reason alone, the fact that anatomical differences between men and women exist at a statistical level does not translate into: "women have longer legs and shorter torsos than men; therefore they need bikes with shorter top tubes and higher head tubes." In an ethnically and developmentally diverse society especially, it is difficult to predict what sort of fit the proportions of any individual man or woman will require. The woman-specific philosophy of roadbike fit is well-intentioned. However, when applied in practice, it is just as likely to alienate women for not fitting some hypothetical stereotyped mold, as to offer solutions.

But I am going to go a step further still and suggest that even for a woman with stereotypically female proportions, the so-called woman-specific roadbike fit is not necessarily suitable. Take me as an example. Although I am under 5'7" in height, my legs are so long in proportion to the rest of my body, that when I stand beside my 5'11" husband our pelvic regions nearly line up.

And yet, I can fit just fine on unisex off-the-shelf roadbikes with top tubes in the 52-54cm range, with the help of 9-11cm stems and adjustable saddle setback. Women-specific designs, on the other hand, tend to feel far too upright and poorly balanced for me. I also find the idea of shrinking the top tube on what is already a small frame size, without also going down in wheel size, an inherently problematic approach: It either introduces dramatic amounts of toe overlap, or requires excessive slackening of both headtube and fork rake (assuming the manufacturer wants to keep the front end geometry constant, compared to other frame sizes).

Now, some bicycle industry folks have told me (without ever having seen me ride, I might add- just by looking at my bike!) that my roadbike position looks "aggressive for a woman," and suggested I might be more comfortable with a more upright fit. I assure them, however, that comfort-seeking was exactly how I arrived at my current position, which has been bliss for the past 4 years.

Then again, one fitter I've encountered had a different perspective. "I can see why you like to be forward and low on the bike," he said, looking me up and down with clinical interest. "You are bottom-heavy, but don't have the chest to balance that out like some women; you are trying to counteract the forces pulling you back." Well, whatever words he actually used were much more tactful than these, but I am paraphrasing the gist of it. And the personal theory on bike fit he then launched into was actually quite interesting, resonating with my own experiences more so than any other I'd heard to date. His idea was that we could make no assumptions about a person's fit - male or female - until we see how they move, sit, and balance their weight - things determined not only by their gender and body-mass distribution, but also by posture, spine curvature, and a myriad of other factors that do not come into light until we see the cyclist in action.

Which brings me to my main point in all this: When it comes to human roadbike fit - men's or women's - there is still so much we do not understand. So many factors unaccounted for. More than anything, further research is needed - and that research needs to be less simplistic, more nuanced, and not so rigidly centered on gender.

And then, once some common fit issues are identified and ways to address them developed, perhaps new categories of fit might emerge - with versatile and non-gendered terms used to describe them? That way, if a woman or a man requires a bicycle with, say, short reach, they can walk into a shop and request to see a short-reach model. Without it necessarily being labeled as a gender-specific model, painted fuchsia, or equipped with lower-end components.

On a final note, I would like to offer some food for thought when it comes to men's roadbike fit. In nearly all the articles on women's fit I read, there seems to be an assumption that the overwhelming majority of male cyclists fit standard off-the-shelf roadbikes just fine. However, the anecdotal evidence I continually gather contradicts this. It is possible that men too experience frequent problems with fit, but - due to gender stereotypes and expectations still at play in society - perhaps feel unable to articulate their discomfort, for fear of being perceived as weak, fussy, or overly delicate (after all - sport is about pain, real men are supposed to be able to take it! et cetera). Once again, I believe it is helpful to think of bike fit as an individual and a pan-human issue, not a gendered one. Whether we are old or young, able bodied or injured, female or male, experienced or beginners, everyone will benefit from feeling comfortable on their bicycle. It is not useful to make assumptions on what a person's position on the bike ought to be, based on their gender alone.



It's Not All Doom and Gloom!



So you may have heard some interesting political news from Europe this morning. But take it from someone who lives on the Ireland/UK "frontier" - everything is fine! Absolutely fine, I tell you. The price of imported rapeseed oil has only gone up by 400% so far. They won't be starting to deport the cross-border cattle till next Tuesday. And it will surely be weeks yet before they begin building the wall.

Now, I know that in these confusing times, opportunity for reflection can be difficult to come by. Which is why I'd like to help - with some reflective leopard-print decals from the Swedish manufacturer Bookman (who also make some cool lights).



For readers in Ireland and the UK, I've been entrusted with some black, silver and gold reflective bicycle-stickers to give away. Matte in the daylight, they light up zoologically in the dark in direct light - presumably terrifying other road users into giving you more space.

If you have a black, silver, or golden-yellow bike, you can get tone-on tone stickers so that they're invisible in the daytime and only light up at night. Of course, if you actually want your bike to look like a leopard even in daytime, get a colour that will stand out.

As far as a user's review: I can report that they work as described, and are easy to both stick on and remove, leaving no residue. My only criticism is that one packet is really not enough to cover an entire bicycle frame - so be economical!

In any case - If you'd like some, leave a comment with the colour of your choice, and I will select recipients at random after the weekend. UK and Ireland only please for this one (but remember the #bikepeeing contest is open internationally).

As for the political end of things: Take a break from thinking about it for a bit and ride your bicycle instead? Happy weekend to all, and thank you, as always, for reading.

...

{edited to add} stickers are off to their new homes - thanks everyone!

On Vestigial Gearing and Its Evolutionary Implications



How do you know when you've got gears you don't use or need? It's a tough call. Some might even say there is no such thing as "gears you don't need," especially when it comes to those low-low-low ones. If you can set up your bike with a sub-(sub)-1:1 gear, go for it! And even if you usually don't use them, you never know when they might come in handy, so better save them for a rainy day. I mean, who knows - you might go on a long trip where all the climbing comes at the end, when you are already right and truly exhausted. Or you could be called upon to rescue a cat from a tree.

Anyway, that has been my take on it at least. Which is why, even when I stopped relying on the biggest cogs in my SRAMpagnolo drivetrain on a regular basis, I kept them. Just in case!

...Until one day, I lost use of them completely. I am a little embarrassed to admit this, but hey - I never did claim to be fastidious when it came to bike maintenance. But anyhow, at some point my chain started skipping whenever I would try to get in the big cogs. Adjusting the derailleur didn't fix it, and it was that particular flavour of skipping, where I could tell the cable needed to be replaced. But I procrastinated. And procrastinated. And in the meanwhile I simply didn't use those 3 biggest cogs that were problematic. And hey - it was winter, so I didn't go on any long or overly hilly rides anyway. I would get the drivetrain fixed before spring came.

But spring came, and I procrastinated still. I started doing longer rides, steeper climbs, all with the malfunctioning drivetrain. In short, 4 months went by while I rode without the use of my lowest gears. And I didn't miss them.

Looking at my drivetrain one day, I realised I was essentially lugging around three "vestigial" cogs. And an unnecessarily long-armed derailleur that was installed specifically to accommodate them, into the bargain. Now: If I had managed to make do without them for this long, while doing rides incorporating the steepest climbs around, exactly what was I saving them for?

I examined the SRAM cassette to remind myself what gearing I was in fact using. To my surprise, the biggest three cogs were 36t, 32t and 28t. Whoa. That meant the biggest functional cog in the cassette was a 25t. So really I was using a 7-speed 11-25t cassette to do all those  climbs, except with a lot of extra weight attached to it. I believe the technical term for that is: Jayzus!

So... I don't know. I am not going to go as far as switching to a racing cassette. And I still believe in stashing some "just in case" gears. But I think that the 12-29t cassette I had on my original all-Campagnolo drivetrain will be quite sufficient in that respect.

As mentioned in the previous post, I am dismantling my roadbike to have the frame painted. And when I get the frame back, I am going to re-assemble it slightly differently. Namely, the bladed-spoke wheels (which I have already given away) will be replaced with something more crosswind-friendly. And while I'm at it, I also think I will go back to my original all-Campy (sorry: "Campag") drivetrain, with a standard "rear mech" and "sprockets," if you know what I mean. It's a little sad to have finally achieved a perfectly functional hybrid sub-1:1 drivetrain, only to get rid of it 3 years later. But hey: Use it or lose it. It's evolution, baby. (Now: if anyone local needs an X9 derailleur and a 11-36t cassette, give me a shout.)

Do you ever discover "vestigial" parts on your bicycle? I am curious what they are, and what you do about it!


On Use, Admiration, and Admitting to Wanting a Pretty Bike



As you can see, I have been taking this weight-savings thing quite seriously - to the point that I've now removed all but the most essential parts from my roadbike. Can't you tell that my new wheels are practically light as air?

Okay, I tell a lie. But I am in the process of stripping my bike. As I'll soon be sending the frameset off to get painted. Note that I write painted, not re-painted. My roadbike's titanium frame is nekked as the day it was born, which is the way I wanted it when I ordered my bike over 4 years ago. Or so I thought.

"I still don't get why you didn't get your own bike sprayed," says my husband as he catches me, staring at his sparkly, gorgeous, green and blue paintjob, with mouth slack and eyes full of longing. Again.

"Oh, you know. It was unnecessary. My bike is titanium. They don't need paint, that's the whole point."

He is silent, but in a searching-for-the-right-words-while-suppressing-a-laugh sort of way. I can tell what he's thinking: "Since when has something being 'unnecessary' stopped you?!" Instead, he says diplomatically, "Oh come on. Get the thing painted. You like pretty bikes, it's okay!"

Urban Cycle Path Seven

I do like pretty bikes; that much is obvious enough!  And people who know me find it a little strange that the one I ride most is not my idea of "pretty." Don't get me wrong: I admire the workmanship. And I appreciate the aesthetic. But that ain't the same thing as actually finding it beautiful. It's not gushy-squealy love.

But in a way, I think that gushy-squealy love was a thing I tried to avoid with my roadbike. Being enamoured of a bicycle's aesthetics had let me down in the past; it had proved counterproductive to finding something with the ride quality, performance, and degree of comfort that actually suited me. Thanks to a month-long rental in 2011, I already knew that a Seven would have the magic mix of those ingredients. And as I rode the bare, industrial-looking demo-bike in awe of its speed and comfort, an association between its look and feel formed and perhaps created a false dichotomy: "aesthetics vs function." So, when it came time to spec my own bike, following a twisted sort of logic, I worried perhaps that making it pretty would jinx the ride experience. Safer to keep it plain!


There are benefits to not being obsessed with a bicycle's looks. When I think of my roadbike, I do not picture the machine itself. It is as if the bike is invisible. What I picture are scenes like the one above. I picture the beautiful places it has taken me to, the magical experiences it has given me.

There are other things I've enjoyed about the plain and minimal matte-gray frame. For example, the fact that it matches everything. I could get any colour bartape I wanted, and it would look fantastic. The purple I chose (and have kept the entire time) was a wild infusion of colour that looked unexpected and chic, like a pair of brightly coloured shoes with an impeccable all-gray ensemble.

But am I an impeccable gray ensemble kind of girl? Not really. I am Edwardian florals. Paisley. Filigree. Clashing Donegal tweeds. All of it crumpled and wrinkled and worn till it's threadbare, of course.

There are cyclists I know - vintage enthusiasts, mainly, but also admirers of modern handmade bikes - who make a sharp distinction between the bicycles they love and the bicycles they ride in an everyday context. The latter is usually a machine toward which they feel no attachment and no affection. Similarly, among fountain pen enthusiasts there is a concept of "user pens" - that is, those pens deemed unremarkable enough for daily writing. I do not want to head in that direction. I want to use what I love, and to love what I use.


In our four and a half years together, my roadbike has given me some 20,000 miles of joy, comfort and general cycling pleasure. The fact that I did not fawn over its looks took my focus away from the bicycle as an object and directed it more keenly toward the cycling experience itself. At the time when I got the bike, I believe that I needed that. Now? I'd like to think that I am less confused about what I want. And more capable of a balanced approach.

In short, I'd like for my roadbike to be pretty and I am going to have it painted. Nothing crazy. Nothing overly fancy. No trendy themes that might make me cringe a few years down the road. But it'll be one of my favourite colours. It will have that candy-wrapper sheen that I love. And the rear triangle will be left bare titanium, because the way Seven's signature curved stays and the dropouts are done is my favourite part of the frame construction; I enjoy remembering watching them being welded.

Will the bicycle be any better once it is painted? Not at all (and just think of the extra weight!). But that really isn't the point. The relationship between use and admiration is an interesting one. And an ongoing one. And one that we must each figure out for ourselves. Me? I am still in the process. And I am enjoying the current stage of it very much.


Hercules? I'd Say It's a Hercu-More!

Hercules Folda

One of the wonderful things about vintage bicycles, for me, is the wildcard factor. Because, more so than with off-the-shelf modern bikes, we never really know what to expect. We may think that we are familiar with a particular bicycle's manufacturer and history. Or with what bicycles of its construction style/pedigree/tubing/era are generally like to ride. And then we try the (really quite unremarkable, unassuming looking) thing and Bang! What? This bike is awesome. And I mean like, unusually awesome. That is to say, awesomer than the sum of its parts, or awesomer than it "should" be considering the type of a bike it is.

Now, I am starting to develop a theory (and I know it sounds nuts, but hear me out here) that Ireland - or at least Ulster - is, for some strange and mysterious reason, a dumping ground for such machines. Because I have tried just one too many of these bicycles here to believe it can be pure coincidence. Take for instance, this vintage Hercules Folda - borrowed from a lovely local man called Raymond - whose paintings and restored 1970s Whitcomb I introduced you to earlier.

Hercules Folda

At the start I thought the Folda (heh) would be interesting to show here, if only for its vintage adorableness and resemblance to the Italian Dudebike I test rode a few months back. What I didn't count on, was its fabulous performance.

"Performance?!" you might ask, glancing skeptically at its hefty U-frame and chunky components. And I know, I know. When it comes to vintage small wheelers and folders, I don't think anyone expects much. With the exception of the Moultons and, later, Bromptons, they were generally heavy, clunky, slow-rolling things. And about as handy to fold up and transport as a camp bed. But while the latter holds true for the specimen here, once I unfurled it and took it out for a spin, I was blown away. For it rides like a formidable little rocket.

Hercules Folda

But firstly: What is this little beastie exactly? Those familiar with the history of the Hercules brand might naturally assume it is English. And they will certainly be forgiven for such an assumption. Founded in 1910, the Aston-based Hercules Cycle and Motor Company produced a variety of bicycles and cycle-components, until it was absorbed, in the late 1930s, by Raleigh to become one of its budget sub-brands. But the "Nottingham England" decals are a little deceptive on this particular bike. For a look at its components reveals something surprising: The markings are Italian.

Hercules Folda

Consider the hinges, stamped with "Sicur Brevettato." And the headset, with "Movimenti Thun."

Hercules Folda

Stem clamp: Guizzardi (ignore the Huret cyclo-meter, as that is the owner's addition).

Hercules Folda

Even the grips are not just any ol' platic grips. They are "Pastiche Cassano" (a manufacturer that, apparently, still thrives today!).

Hercules Folda

Taken together with the curved frame construction and integrated rear carrier which resemble other English folders not in the least, it begins to look suspiciously as if we have an Italian stallion on our hands. Well, okay, more like an Italian miniature pony.

Now, to make matters more confusing still, there is also a German bicycle manufacturer called Hercules. Originally the Nurnberg-based Hercules Werke AG and now Hercules Fahrräder und E-Bikes (!) they too made folding bikes through the '60s - '80s. There is no relation between them and the English Hercules whatsoever, though. And the decals on the Folda clearly indicate a Nottingham affiliation.

Hercules Folda

In fact, the Hercules Folda is likely a rebranded Graziella - the iconic Italian folding bike maker which first appeared in the 1960s, the heyday of the small wheel/ folding bike craze. This is also, in my understanding, the origin of the (later, much imitated) U-shape folding bike frame. When they first came out, the Graziella bikes were synonymous with urban glamour. Models and actresses were often photographed riding them. And, rather famously, Salvadore Dali was a fan and owned multiples.

Hercules Folda

By the 1970s, however, the folder/mini obsession (which had extended to cars, as well as bicycles), had waned - enough so, it appears, for the Italian maker to eventually sell off its frames to be rebadged by an English, Raleigh-subsidiary budget brand by the year 1980 - which is when, according to the stamp on its Sturmey Archer hub, this Herules Folda was made.

Hercules Folda

Whether that is a shame, or a fortunate twist of fate, depends on one's perspective I suppose. But regardless, I wanted to draw your attention to another interesting aspect of this bike a  - which is, the sloppy frame construction. When I reviewed the modern production retro-Italian Dudebike a few months back, a couple of readers suggested that the brazing looked messy, in response to which I wondered whether they had ever examined a mass-produced vintage bicycle frame with the same eagle eye. So, dear readers: Case in point.

Hercules Folda

But clearly the messy looking joints don't stand in the way of the bicycle riding fabulously. Nor of its resilience over decades of abuse and neglect.

Hercules Folda

Consider the owner's tale of how the Hercules came into his possession:
This little one was rescued by me from a very miserable end - it was condemned to a skip with all sorts of other scrap metal objects of every kind, and when I said to the site man that it should be saved - by somebody, anybody but me of course!, I really did not want it - the bemused chap said to take it now or its going to be crushed with everything else. I rather reluctantly did and arrived back home with his horrible looking thing, thinking I should take it straight to the skips to dispose of it! It was black with coal dust, dirt, grime, oil, and red with rust, and dangerously cracked tyres. 
After consigning it to the 'we'll see' pile it lay awaiting its fate for six months or so. Then after a quick, basic clean I found it actually quite sound, totally original and became more curious about it. Partly to see what it was like while deciding its fate it was fairly quickly totally stripped down to the last ball bearing, then re-greased, paint work done with T Cut, the chrome work was nearly all covered with light surface rust which polished off, and gradually over a couple of days all the parts were ready for re-building.  

Hercules Folda
... New tyres were bought, wheels trued, Sturmey hub stripped, cleaned, relubed and rebuilt and my old Huret Speedometer from the early-mid 70s, along with the Miller Dynamo which I'd kept from my first bike, was brought out again after nearly 40 years and the whole lot rebuilt to what you see now! 
Whilst it's not Colnago Master with Super Record groupset etc, I suppose it must be among the relatively few very original examples of this bike in such condition that still exist locally at least. I did develop a kind of irrational soft spot for it as you can tell, which for bikes is OK in my books.
Small Wheel Friends: Raleigh Twenty, Puch Pic-Nic, Hercules Folda

Indeed, it is more than "okay," I should think! If anything, the restoration of the Hercules to its original gleaming, champagne-and-crome sheen, is in keeping with its equally sharp ride quality.

The combination of its speed (the speedometer is ever-ready to register 20mph, though I suspect it flatters me quite a bit!) and its cushy 20x1.75" tyres, makes for a ride that - to me - feels leagues above its more iconic rivals - such as the veritable Raleigh Twenty and the adorable Puch Pic-Nic, both which I had ridden in the past without feeling much of a "wow factor," and had the pleasure to briefly try again on a recent vintage small-wheel meet.



There is something about the Hercules Folda (the fit, and the fat tyres perhaps?) that I even prefer over my Brompton, at least for shorter rides over rough farm lanes and grassy fields.



In short, dear readers: When you come across a seemingly unremarkable vintage bike, look closer. Look closer, regardless of pedigree or any obvious signs of "specialness." For you never know what gems might hide beneath the layers of dirt, beneath the rust, beneath the seemingly unremarkable decals and badges.

Hercules Folda

Hercules? Clearly, this bike is a Hercumore. And should you ever get the opportunity to snag the Folda, I hope you go for it - and enjoy the result as much as I enjoyed borrowing Raymond's skip rescue - for the beautiful restoration of which, I congratulate him heartily.



Notes from the Small, Yet Grand, All-Ireland 650B Tyre-Test Party

650B Tyre Test Party

"Hey, how do you like those tyres?"

It is a question we inevitably ask our fellow riders, when we spot them sporting some that are rumored to be good.

And how might they reply? Well, some might reply with unqualified enthusiasm (“Oh, they’re great! They’re the best!”). Others by launching into detailed descriptions of improbably nuanced sensations. Others still will quote the sciencey rhetoric from the latest articles on the subject - as if the technical data trumps personal experience.

650B Tyre Test Party

In the realm of actual tyre reviews, whether professional or amateur, things are not all that different. When it comes to 650B tyres in particular - a size that only grew popular over the past 5 years (if “popular” is even the right word), few riders have the breadth of experience necessary to provide context for a proper review as such. So we see a lot of weird subjective stuff. And a lot of rhetoric. And yes, a lot of unqualified enthusiasm (cue my “review” of the Grand Bois Hetres, circa 2010!)

Although, on closer inspection, I am pleasantly surprised to find that my ramblings were not altogether unqualified!
The ride quality of the Grand Bois Hetre tires is truly superb. Better than Schwalbe Delta Cruisers. Better than the Fat Frank and Big Apple tires. Faster too. It is worth [switching to 650B] just to get these tires.
Six years later, I still love my Hetres, and I still agree with the above. Except to add that there are now even more options worth switching to 650B for, if you are looking for a tyre that is wide, fast and comfortable.


But just how many options, I had not really thought about, until seven(!) pairs of them landed on my doorstep - courtesy of Merry Sales, the international distributor of Panaracer (and Soma) products. "Try these and see what you think?" said they.

650B Tyre Test Party

Naturally, I called for reinforcements. And while I feared that finding 650B riders in Ireland would be no easy task, I was immediately contacted by several such persons from around the island. My idea then was to organise a 650B Meet-up, so that we could get a look at each other's bikes, invite others interested to join, and have a tyre-testing party in the process. Unfortunately, as the tentatively-set date approached, most of the fellows had to cancel due to family commitments and such. So in the end we had a cozy, and no less grand Party of Three.

Damian's Rivendell Saluki

The Guest of Honour, as it were, was a fine Dublin-based fellow named Damian, who'd arrived with his Rivendell Saluki (which he uses for casual road rides, touring, and brevets). I am always curious how riders who live in, say, Ireland, end up with a bicycle like this, so I'm afraid I quizzed and prodded him on this subject considerably - which might result in a separate rider/bike feature at a later date.

Damian's Rivendell Saluki

But in any case, the Saluki was Rivendell's predecessor to what is now the Homer Hillsen model. And Damian ordered his in 2007, which - it is rather shocking to realise - is nearly a decade ago!  A vintage Rivendell? Well, maybe not quite yet. But give it another 5 years.

650B Tyre Test Party

I had also invited Bryan - a.k.a. Elton John, a.k.a. owner of many seemingly plain yet magically-riding old bicycles - whom you've met here before. While Bryan lacks a 650B bike of his own (for now!), he was interested in riding some. And so I handed him my DIY Alice.

650B Tyre Test Party
In the meanwhile, I myself hopped on the Rivendell Clementine that I have on loan for review. A convenient option, in its easy on-off for constant photo taking.

650B Tyre Test Party

Getting back to the topic of 650B tyres. Damian and I are actually a tough couple of customers, in that we've each tried quite a few already and are both extremely pleased with what we currently ride: Me, the aforementioned Grand Bois Hetres and he the Compass Babyshoe Pass (which he claims are "even better").

650B Tyre Test Party

To prime ourselves for the new tyre experience, we first briefly rode our own, then each others' bikes, with their old tyres. Then we proceeded to the difficult task of selecting one pair of new ones each (to do more than that in a day would be overload, we soon realised).

650B Tyre Test Party

The sample tyres we had to choose from were all in the 38-42mm range, but rather varied in other qualities. When handling the tyres we could not help but notice the difference in their weight, as well as in the stiffness/softness of their casings. Was this what accounted for the "supple" ride quality we loved about some of the ones we'd tried already?

Some of the tyres were of the super-smooth and speedy variety, others were touring/commuting-oriented, others still for predominantly off road use. We decided to try one of each.

650B Tyre Test Party

The most drastic change was braved by Damian, whose smooth Babyshoe was swapped for the knobby 42mm Soma Cazaderos.

650B Tyre Test Party

For Alice (formerly shod with Hetres), Bryan chose the 38mm Soma B-lines with terracotta tread.

650B Tyre Test Party

And for the Clementine, which had come to me with nice, all-arounder Panaracer Paselas, I chose the smooth-treaded Pacenti Pari-Moto tyres of the same brand and same 42mm width.

650B Tyre Test Party

And with that, we set off along the country roads, toward the nearest forest.

650B Tyre Test Party

Now, in case you're one of those folks who thinks that Ireland is all dirt roads and thatched cottages (can't imagine who filled your head with that nonsense!), I'm afraid I must dissuade you of such romantic notions. In fact it is pretty difficult to find unpaved stretches of road of any significant distance these days on the Emerald Isle, so super-modern and advanced it's become. But having lived here for nearly 3 years now, I have my arsenal of secret places (can't tell you what they are, for fear they too will get paved!) and it was toward one of these that we headed.

"What do you think of the tyres so far?" I shouted en route.

650B Tyre Test Party

"Ach, sure they're grand!" came the collective reply.

"Less or more grand than the ones on the bike before? Can you quantify the grandness on a Likert scale?"

And then we broke into a chorus of laughter, for surely worse tyre testers than us these country roads had never seen.

650B Tyre Test Party

By the time we arrived in the forest, a great sense of relief came over us, as the day was an unusually hot one, and, while Damian was made of more resilient  stuff, both Bryan and I had turned an alarming shade of beetroot red. The forest, however, with its lush tree canopy and mixed herbal scents, soon cured that, and we were ready for The Mini-Loop.

650B Tyre Test Party

The Mini-Loop is a fantastic place to mess around on bikes. Alternating between rough dirt and loose gravel, it is short but sweet - incorporating both a steep flick of a climb and a screaming descent.

650B Tyre Test Party

Taking turns, we each "raced" (okay, only Damian raced, while "tackled carefully" probably describes Bryan's and mine style more accurately) the loop on all three bikes... with the exception that I only rode the (too-large for me) Saluki a tiny bit, managing to immediately come close to crashing it when I attempted to stop and hit my undercarriage on the top tube!

650B Tyre Test Party
Happily, the boys had no such issues and were able to ride all 3 bikes without incident.

650B Tyre Test Party

It was particularly cool to see them both on the Rivendell Clementine and on my Alice. I can so rarely get other people to try the bikes I have in my possession. (Something about my bikes being "weird"? What!)

650B Tyre Test Party

In the throes of our forestine frolics, we eventually remembered that we were meant to be forming impressions of tyres.  Luckily, by this stage we had actually managed to form some thoughts.

650B Tyre Test Party

The dominant one we all agreed on, was that the Soma Cazaderos did not feel in keeping with how they looked. That is to say, while they looked like knobbies, they rode almost like slicks - including on pavement. Upon closer examination (we deliberately had not read anything about the tyres in advance), this made sense as these tyres have a "slick" ridge that runs along the centre, which is what makes contact with the ground most of the time. On first impression, they seem like a good option for a mainly off-road tyre which you don't want to feel slow and draggy on the in-betwen pavement stretches either.

650B Tyre Test Party

The Soma B-Lines felt "fine," and "on the faster end of commutery," but without anything more punchy or specific that immediately stood out about them. To me, they feel (I still have them on Alice, so it's been a few rides now) remarkably similar to the Panaracer Paselas that were originally fitted on the demo-Clementine - which would make sense, as the tread on the two is nearly identical. (So, if you like Panaracer Paselas, but have always dreamt of them in terracotta, there's at least one reason to go for the Soma B-Lines.) But in any case, while I like these tyres just fine and would have been perfectly pleased with them had I known no other tyres, I have to say that I prefer the smoother, faster-rolling feel of tyres such as my Hetres.


Which is not to say my praises are limited to the Hetres exclusively. The Pacenti Pari-Motos I had tried on the Clementine, I fell in love with immediately. Considering that the bike already felt fast, nimble, comfortable, and great on gravel with the Pasela tyres, I was not sure I would experience a discernible difference with the Pari-Motos, but I did. It is as if all of these positive characteristics became exaggerated. The difference was especially prominent not on the road, as I might have expected, but on the gravel bits of the forest loop. Both climbing the steep bit and descending the winding loose section, the Pari-Motos felt faster and more cnfidence-inspiring than the Paselas. And again, that is not to say that the Paselas did not feel nice (there are those tyres that just feel "dead" and sluggish, but that was not the case with them), but that the Pari-Motos felt nicer still. I definitely prefer them and will leave them on the demo-Clementine.

Damian's Rivendell Saluki

Aside from these 3 pairs of tyres we tried, I had also sent Damian home with a pair of 42mm Soma Grand Randonneurs, which I hoped would be similar enough to the Hetre/Babyshoe Pass ilk, for him to notice subtle differences. He was kind enough to try these tyres for two weeks, on commutes as well as on the Wicklow 200 brevet. He reports as follows:
These tyres are shaped very like the Compass Babyshoe Pass. They are also smooth riding, but perhaps not quite as comfy as the Babyshoe Pass. They sound a bit different, they make a fast swishing noise like 25mm race tyres. I can tell you that they do descend fast like the Babyshoe - I overtook a series of racey types on the descent from the Wicklow Gap towards Hollywood, including a guy on a very zippy carbon thing with very deep rims. At Hollywood we chatted and he said my bike was incredibly fast on the descent. It is, but it's mainly the tyres I think. Still, they're not as comfortable as the Babyshoes but I'm going to let a bit of air out of them and that might change. I got a puncture FWIW but I don't think any conclusions can be drawn from that - loads of other people did too.
A puncture? Bin them immediately! No. But it does go to show that really we need quite a lot of time with a tyre to see whether a thing like that, for instance, is an anomaly or a recurring characteristic. Although, in fairness, this too can be person/terrain/context dependent. For instance, I get flats on my Hetres very  rarely (on two occasions over 5 years of ownership, to be precise, and one of those was a split tube), whereas others describe the very same tyres as "flat-prone." I am hoping to have the same luck with the Pari-Motos, despite their similar reputation.

650B Tyre Test Party

It is amazing to consider just how many options for 650B tyres exist today. And, interestingly, most of them are made by Panaracer.

The originals had of course been made by French companies such as Michelin and Clement, but those have not been produced for some time. When the 650B size was first "rediscovered" (thanks largely to Ebisu, Rivendell and Toei) the Panaracer Col De La Vie and the Mitsubosi Trimline were the main options available on the market. Then came the various Rivendell 650B tyres in increasing widths, and finally the high-performing stuff from Grand Bois and Compass.

Not all modern 650B tyres are Japanese. At some point, the French Confriedes650B group colaborated with Hutchinson to produce some. The Finnish Nokian have been making studded tyres in 650B (you can read about my experience with those here). There is now also a generation of new, mostly mountain bike, 650B tires being produced by WTB (China), Surly (Taiwan), Schwalbe and Continental (Germany) and most recently Clement (not sure where those are made). Still, the usual suspects for the randonneurs and all-terrain roadbike lovers - including Grand Bois, Compass, Rivendell, and Soma - are all produced in the same Panaracer facilities - which is fascinating, considering the dramatic differences in character between some of them.



So, how does one go about reviewing tyres?

Dear readers, I could not tell you. I have considered the topic seriously. I will even admit to making some questionnaires, before scrapping them with a chuckle just before my visitors arrived. For it is one of those things, I fear, where the more systematic and diligent we try to be, the more the essence of the thing gets away from us.

And so perhaps it is the subjective accounts, the seemingly insignificant nuances, the pointless anecdotes - when gathered up from a sufficient number of riders, and over a sufficient length of time, that tell the tale better than even the most controlled and sciencey review.

All I can tell you is: Choose what seems suitable. Stick with what proves enjoyable. Ride, ride, ride. And rejoice at the wealth of 650B options available, should you ever change your mind or want to experiment further.

With thanks to Damian, Bryan, and Merry Sales. Full picture-set can be viewed here and have a Happy Week-End!

Toward an Understanding of Weight Weenie-ism



The other day a friend playfully referred to me as a "weight weenie," in response to my describing a bicycle as "exceptionally lightweight," in a perhaps over-enthusiastic tone. Now, in fairness, as someone who genuinely could not tell you any of her bicycles' exact weights, I think I am pretty safe from that diagnosis. Nevertheless, I do not like the term. Firstly, because - being the visual literalist that I am - I immediately picture a cocktail sausage (or similar) made of carbon fibre, which is not very nice imagery to pollute my mind with. But also, I think the term is becoming increasingly misapplied to the point that it's really just another way of policing each other's choices of gear. And that is a shame.

Wanting one's bicycle to be lightweight is not in itself weight weenie-ism. Nor is it a recent trend associated with the newfangled carbon-loving spandex-wearing racer-wannabe set. Indeed no. It is a reasonable preference that has existed since bicycles entered mainstream circulation. And you can see it in the earliest bicycle advertisements. Even at the turn of the 20th century, manufacturers boasted of their leaden machines being "lightweight" (compared to the competitor). This was not limited to the realm of racing bikes, either. Particularly memorable and funny is a vintage poster I once saw in the garage of a local bicycle collector. It was an ad for an early Tourist-style roadster (made by the likes of Triumph, or Royal Enfield, or Rudge - I forget which) - complete with 28" wheels, rod brakes, mudguards, chaincase, frame pump, carbide lamps, saddlebag, the works. And it was shown being happily pedaled uphill by a deliberately feeble-looking young gentleman. The caption suggested the bicycle was so light, it practically rode itself. I can only imagine!

By the 1920s and '30s however, bicycles began to live up to claims of light-weightness (hence, the Classic Lightweights). If you browse through British manufacturer catalogues from as early as the 1920s, you can usually see the weight figures listed - including for transport bikes and "ladies bikes" - and they are impressive even by today's standards. My 1930s Claud Butler mixte, for instance, weighs "inside 26lb," complete with mudguards and hub gearing. While several diamond frame racing bikes in the same catalogue are quoted as weighing just 18lb.

As author Jan Heine tirelessly documents, weight savings were also of concern to French constructeurs from this era. Sub-20lb randonneuring machines (complete with mudguards, fat tyres, racks, and dynamo lighting) were not uncommon in as early as the 1930s. Needless to say, there was no carbon fibre involved. But great care was taken with the design and production of each component to achieve this.

My point here is, that lighter bicycles have always been seen as desirable, both within racing culture and outside of it. If anything, the bicycle industry today is historically unique in that there exist factions of it which actually downplay weight, or even suggest that heavier is better - mocking competitors for being weight obsessed.

It is not difficult to trace the origins of this backlash. The competition for increasingly lightweight bikes is what eventually led to the introduction of new materials and building methods through the 1990s, culminating in the toothpaste-welded aluminum and the carbon fibre that dominates the current cycling landscape. Performance-wise, there is no arguing that some technological advances of the past decades have been beneficial. But in return, a lean, mean, efficient sort of soul-lessness has come to characterise contemporary mainstream bikes - which for many, is at odds with the spirit of cycling and with the essence of the bicycle itself.

And while in saying this I simplify the situation in the interest of time, I do not think it is out of line to suggest that, somewhere along the way, concern over a bicycle's weight has become confounded with this new plasticky, soul-less aspect of things.

Which is ironic, considering that on the whole bicycles and bicycle parts on the market today are not actually all that lightweight, in the historical scheme of things. And that - if you pay attention to component weights especially - you might be surprised to notice that the carbon fibre stuff is not always the lightest option. Of course, to pay attention to component weights (especially to the point of keeping a record in a spreadsheet or notebook!) to the extent that you would start to see patterns and notice that sort of thing, is the very essence of weight weenie-ism. It's funny. Or a Catch-22. Or whatever you want to call it. More than anything I just think it's interesting, in a social-psychological sort of way.

At the start I gently poked fun at my husband's Special Little Notebook, in which he meticulously scribbled down the weights of all components he considered, then eventually bought, for his vintage Italian build. But I soon came to realise just how interesting and informative his notes were.

For one thing, it really brought home what I already knew, but never quite saw such concrete evidence of: the fact that the weight, in a bicycle build, really does come from everywhere and not from any one area/ component. You save a few seemingly insignificant grams on each part, and when you add them all up the result is a significantly lighter bike. This is precisely why those whom we tease for being weight-weenies, pay attention to even small differences in weight when considering each component.

It was also interesting to notice that the components where weight tends to "hide" are often the ones overlooked by those with only a passing interest in weight savings, myself included. We tend to focus on the obvious suspects - the groupsets - neglecting to notice the weight of seatposts, handlebars, stems, and headsets. The weight differences between those parts, even within the same price range, might surprise you.

It is a thing often said of weight weenies, that they strive for weight savings at the cost of all else, sacrificing durability and sparing no expense. Interestingly though, the most lightweight parts are not always the costliest parts. And neither are they necessarily (judging by reviews and user feedback) the most fragile. We assume these things, because it makes sense to assume them, in a surface logic sort of way. But that does not make it true. It takes a weight weenie mentality to gather enough data to penetrate the assumptions and get to the crux of things.

If you have a good hour or two to spare and are prepared to be thoroughly fascinated, have a read through this post by a gentleman who built up a bicycle, complete with tiny lights and a saddle-wedge, under the UCI weight limit (so < 6.8kg/ 15lb) - without using any carbon parts. And cheaply!

Which brings me to another point about our culturally ingrained misinterpretation of weight weenie-ism. More often than not, those persons pre-occupied with this stuff don't do it because of some pathetic notion that the teeniest weight savings will make them perform like elite racers. No, my friends. They do it for the craic. They do it for the challenge. They do it for a hobby. They do it for to learn more about the history of the bicycle industry even, for it is certainly as good a starting point as any.

Am I a convert to the tribe? you might be starting to wonder, narrowing your eyes and brimming with suspicion. Oh, hardly. I lack the required rigour, the dilligence, the intense focus.

What I don't lack is, what in my view is a completely natural desire for my bicycles to be reasonably lightweight and not unnecessarily heavy - making them easier for my non-elite-racery 60kg self to propel along the road, to ascend hills upon, and to lift and carry should the situation call for it. And while that alone does not a weight weenie make, I also do appreciate those folks who are truly weight conscious. The ones who need to know the exact figures, who whip out their digital scales at the slightest provocation, who make spreadsheets and keep notebooks. For make no mistake: There are things we can learn from the fruits of their labours, information we can glean that may be more useful than we know.



I Said, Goddamn!

80s Italian Modern/Vintage Build

You know that scene from Pulp Fiction? Well my reaction was very much like that. Except, well, without the cocaine. But then who needs cocaine, anyway, when there are bicycles? Glorious, lovely bicycles in their endless iterations, ever-ready to give us a thrilling contact high?

He wheeled out the candy-red, chrome-tipped, white-accented, vintage-modern-sparkly concoction into the flickering mid-afternoon sunlight and what else could I say, but god damn?

80s Italian Modern/Vintage Build

After that, we joked that this was the bicycle’s name. Could that be what the mysterious G stamped into its fork crown and stay caps stood for?

I had also taken to calling the bicycle ol’ G.  For it was certainly a bit Gangster. As well as somewhat of a Geezer (in a good way, of course).

It so happens that G is also its new owner's initial - Gary. It was this that first drew his attention to this frame, with its Pinarello decals but an otherwise suspicious lack of identifiers.

Italian Mystery Frame

On receipt, these suspicions were confirmed. A Pinarello this frameset is not. But it is: Italian, handbuilt, elegantly finished, and made - judging by the stamped birdies and the weight of the frame and fork - of Columbus SL tubing. Not bad.

Italian Mystery Frame

I had delayed writing this post in hopes that we would know more about the frame's identity by now. But alas, research has proven fruitless so far. None of my connections have heard of an Italian builder who'd stamped "G" into their frames in this exact manner. And I can find no other example of identical markings online. And while, in theory, G could have also been the customer's initial,  the "R.T." written on the steerer in blue would seem to contradict that.

In any case, a plausible, I think, scenario is that the frame was a one-off, made (perhaps on the side?) for a friend of the builder. But just who these G. and R.T. were we might never know.

80s Italian Modern/Vintage Build

What we do know is what is what's in front of us. Which is: classic Italian geometry (low bottom bracket, "long and low" proportions, short chainstays, high trail), lugwork indicating mid-80s vintage,  beautiful paint, and some aftermarket Pinarello decals.

Whether it does more justice to the bike to remove the decals, or whether keeping them preserves its history, is something that is still being debated. But for now they stay.

80s Italian Modern/Vintage Build

As I mentioned in the previous post, this is my husband's fledgling attempt at a bicycle build. One day he decided he wanted a vintage steel Italian racing frame. And he wanted to build it up with components himself.

What followed were several feverish weeks during which he went from having only a very basic knowledge of bicycle fit, assembly, frame/component compatibility, and so forth, to that knowledge becoming encyclopedic. All I could do was sit back and observe in awe, answering the occasional question, as he read countless articles and hunted for bargain parts on ebay.

80s Italian Modern/Vintage Build

Finally, this here is the result. He's been riding the bicycle for a month now and has even changed a few parts already (the wheels, tyres, seatpost and bottle cage - if you compare to the first photo). But he reckons at this point it is finished.

The complete bike weighs in at just over 19lb. And, with a 520 x 540mm frame, it is set up to fit him exactly like his modern Honey road bike, to the millimeter. In that sense, he decided to go with a modern road-race fit when choosing the frame size. And also (in case it isn't obvious!) with modern components. He did consider doing it up with period-correct stuff at first, but ultimately decided not to. He reasoning here was that, fitting a vintage racing frame with today's technology is a sign of respect - a way of recognising that the frame was not made to look pretty or quaint, but to perform, and giving it a chance to perform with the latest technological advantages.

80s Italian Modern/Vintage Build

Of course the 13 year old Campagnolo Daytona group is not, strictly speaking "the latest." But he didn't want to spend too much on an experimental build. And in any case it is certainly a decent enough group (Daytona is the old name for Centaur) which he snagged for a song in excellent condition - supplemented by a Record bottom bracket, headset and front derailleur, at that.

A funny aspect of this drivetrain, though, is its massive gearing: This bike is a 53/39t in the front, 13-26t in the rear, whereas his modern roadbike is a 50/34t front, 12-32t rear. Quite a difference, and switching back and forth between them has quickly expanded his climbing technique repertoire.

80s Italian Modern/Vintage Build

The stem is a very elegant looking older 3TTT,

80s Italian Modern/Vintage Build

and the handlebars modern Deda Shallow Drop 215, which have considerably down-sloping shoulders.

80s Italian Modern/Vintage Build

The seatpost is a Deda subzero in black and white, which matches the stem and handlebar setup nicely.

80s Italian Modern/Vintage Build

And the saddle is a carbon Brooks Cambium C13, which is a topic for another time!

80s Italian Modern/Vintage Build

Finally, after first riding on some older Mavic Open Pros, he swapped over to the 4-year old Ksyriums from my Seven - my one contribution to this build (my own bike is getting a little make-over, as the crosswinds have driven me to abandon flat-bladed spokes).

It's funny how the red hub and spoke of the Ksyrium wheel match the red paint of the fork almost exactly, and personally I think it's a little too matchy. But he likes it, and that's the important thing.

With the exception of the French wheels and American pedals, everything on the bike is Italian - right down to the Brooks (made in Italy) saddle.

80s Italian Modern/Vintage Build

Overall, while red bikes are not really my thing (But how can they not be? They're faster!), I like everything about his build in the sense that I think it suits the owner very well. It is punchy and aggressive, yet elegant. And I like it that the - granted, rather unorthodox - modern component medley looks purpose-driven, yet still aesthetically pleasing in its own way.

80s Italian Modern/Vintage Build

And did I mention the lugs and the paint? What is it about paint from this vintage that makes it look so peculiarly delicious? {Edited to add: In fact it is translucent paint over a metallic basecoat, as explained here.} The resulting sheen is of a deeper, glassier quality than anything contemporary I've seen, and Gary is enamoured of it.  It is why he would not want to respray this frame, despite its few nicks here and there. But removing the Pinarello decals (which are not clear-coated over, so it would be simple enough) is another matter, and that's still under consideration.

One idea I suggested is to make his own decals; just make up a new identity entirely for the bike. If the bicycle has no past, perhaps it needs a future.

80s Italian Modern/Vintage Build

And the future, it seems, is already in the making. As I've mentioned, he has been riding this bike for a month and has made lots of interesting observations that have sparked off countless discussions between us on the virtues of different types of tubing, geometries, wheels, tyres, gearing and so on.

One thing that particularly took me aback, is that while riding this bike he independently discovered "planing" -  noting one day that, while not as stiff as his modern Honey, the flex of this frame seems to work with his pedal strokes when he puts in effort or pushes on climbs. He had previously assumed that the stiffer a bicycle was, the better (performance-wise), but now sees it as a more complicated matter.

Comfort-wise, he loves the bicycle's ride feel. And as far as speed - well, he wouldn't take it on a fast club ride instead of his Honey, unless deliberately looking to make things harder on himself. But when he rides with me, it subtly acts as an equaliser, is the way I would put it (so in that sense alone I am glad he has this bike!).

80s Italian Modern/Vintage Build

In describing Gary's return to cycling and initial search for a new bike last year, I had mentioned he went from wanting a carbon frame from a mainstream manufacturer to, in the end, choosing to go with modern lightweight steel from a niche maker. And while I am not entirely blameless there, I honestly never expected for things to go quite this far in the "steel is real" direction. That he grew interested in vintage bikes with such passion and intensity came as a great surprise.

Now here stands the result of all that: The Ol' G.

Mysterious. Italian. Smooth. And dapper as heck, with a new lease on life. True, we don't know what the G stands for. But today I say it stands for "Good job on your first build." And of course - I mean, jeez, just look at it  - G is for Goddamn! 


Share Your #BikePeeing Adventures, Win Some Underpants!



As most of us have long discovered, everything is better when it involves cycling. Touring? At its best when it's bike touring. Camping? Far more fun when it's bike camping. Fishing? Make it bike fishing (as these folks have!), and now we're talking. In keeping with that fine tradition, I draw your attention to a neglected, yet essential part of the life/cycle experience: bike peeing.

You know how it goes. You are out for a long cycle ride, when inevitably Nature Calls. With no facilities in sight, you evaluate your surroundings, eye up a secluded spot, prop your bike against a tree, hide perhaps behind some hedges, or a shed, or the remains of a ruined castle, and surrender to the sense of Sweet Peeing Relief. In the process, you enjoy not only the fresh air, but often, some rather interesting scenery the likes of which you would have never come across outside the bike peeing experience.

In discussing this with a friend of an evening, we discovered that we both had rather fine phone-pic collections of our bike peeing views. I mean, it takes a little while to pee. And some of us like to multi-task. So we snap shots of what's in front of us, often with rather interesting results. For you see, the very essence of the bike peeing experience, is the discovery of places too secluded to see from the road, of vistas from secret angles that cannot be glimpsed otherwise, of obscure, well-preserved objects and rare plantlife than the outside world knows nothing about. One never can tell what fascinating things they will stumble upon whilst bike peeing, and therein lies its beauty.


It is in this spirit that I invite you to take part in a little #bikepeeing photo contest. The premise is simple:

1. Take snaps of your bike peeing views.

2. Put them up on instagram or twitter, and tag them #bikepeeing

3. I will choose my favourite 5. Then readers will vote for the top two.

4. Winners will each choose a pair of lovely cycling-specific underpants, from these fine manufacturers:

Vulpine Merino Boxers (UK): "merino cycling underwear for disguised padding under shorts or trousers." Choose between the men's and the women's versions, in black or navy blue.

Bike Nicks: (UK) "luxurious padded cycle lingerie." Choose between the full coverage and the thong(!) versions, in all black or pink with black trim.

Ivalieu Petipants: (US) unpadded cycling shorts for comfort under skirts, made to order. Choose between the Sport and the Savvy versions, with white on gray bicycle print.




If this sounds like fun and you'd like to take part, here are the rules:

. Contest is open internationally

. Entries are accepted starting now, through Monday the 27th of June

. Entries should be made via instagram or twitter. However, if you absolutely do not use either, email your picture to filigreevelo[at]yahoo, with #bikepeeing in the subject header

. You can take new pictures, or post/tag ones you've taken in the past.

. Multiple entries per person are allowed.

. Pictures do not need to show a bicycle; we'll have to go on the honour system and accept your word that a bicycle was involved and that peeing took place. That said, pictures taken from convincing vantage points or with that certain je ne sais quois hinting at their backstory will doubtlessly be more compelling.

. But remember: Don't Be Dirty!  Pictures must be of your view while #bikepeeing. That is: of scenery, flora, found objects, et cetera. Please do not post or email me photos of yourself peeing, and especially of your peeing equipment. Such entries will be disqualified.

And with that, I wish you the very best in your #bikepeeing adventures, and look forward to seeing your pictures. Remember that you can find me on instagram as @lovelybicycle, and likewise as @lovelybicycle on twitter. Good luck and thank you, as always, for reading!


Of Vintage Mixtes, Friends, and Playing the Bike Cupid



I don’t know whether it is quite as popular in the US these days, but here television is teeming with reruns of house-buying shows. You know, like potential buyers look for a new home and the host helps them decide? There is one, it seems, for every imaginable scenario. First time buyers seeking practical, yet cozy “starter homes.” Families looking to move and choosing between town and country. Retired couples relocating abroad. You name it.

The format is pretty much standard: The hosts of the show will interview prospective buyers with a psychotherapy-esque degree of depth, then find them a selection of (what they believe to be) suitable properties. The pros and cons of each are then rehashed endlessly, until finally the prospective buyer chooses one - or none at all.



Of course in a financial climate where nobody is buying real estate, the content of these shows is pure escapist fantasy. But they are oddly satisfying to follow nonetheless. And every time one plays in the background, I find myself re-imagining the premise around bikes.
Mary is a 42 year old accountant from Portnablagh, and she is looking for her Fist Bicycle! 
"Tell me, Mary, what sort of things are important to you in a bike?” 
[footage of Mary, smiling shyly in a leopard print blouse, as the wind wreaks havoc on her loose blond curls...] 
“Well Kirsty!” [voice muffled by the wind] "I am wanting to cycle 3 miles to work, perhaps to the pub after, without being blown off these here cliffs and falling to my death. Oh and I quite like periwinkle!" 
“Uh-oh! [as a candid aside to viewers] I can already tell we’ve got a picky one here! Now let’s see if we can find Mary a bike in her favourite colour…"
Personally I think it would be a great hit, and why the producers of Location, Location, Location have not yet returned my calls I have no idea. But in the meanwhile, I do what I can. That is to say, I meddle in my friends’ affairs by playing the bike cupid.



The first time I saw this Raleigh Candice I immediately thought of AJ. It was a fast, lightweight mixte with drop bars. She had been looking for just such an alternative to her more stately upright bike, and this one was in her size.

Another interesting thing about this bicycle - and one of the reasons it had been shown to me in the first place - is that, despite being of 1980s vintage, it was entirely New Old Stock.



It had suffered a few cosmetic nicks from being dragged around from one storage place to another. But it was clearly unridden, in all ways preserved just as it came from the factory - right down to the warning sticker wrapped around the left crank!


My favourite detail: the colour-matched lilac bungee cord still attached to the rear carrier, still impeccably clean, stretchy and vibrant.



The Candice - while not high in pedigree within the Raleigh hierarchy - was a decent enough model, combining mixte construction, racy fit and a 6-speed (x2) drivetrain with indexed shifting. Despite being fitted with mudguards, rear carrier, chain guard, pump, two sets of brake levers, and monster-reflectors, it is surprisingly lightweight. And, most importantly, it feels fast and responsive to ride.

With vintage bikes having grown in popularity in recent years, the elusive NOS condition is not a common thing to come by these days. And so, all things considered, I felt that AJ just had to try this bicycle.



...I only hoped she could see past the girly '80s fade paint job - which I knew in advance she'd dislike - and evaluate the bike on its overall merits. Cue dramatic music.



Well then?



Well?!...



Well, as soon as she got on the bike, it was just wow! So exciting to watch her. I mean, sometimes a person just looks righton a bicycle, you know? Like it's so obviously theirs before it is officially theirs.



The fit looked spot on. And the handling seemed to come so naturally to AJ. It was as if she were born astride this particular machine.

In fairness, I even think the overall aesthetic suits her quite nicely. And while it's true the girly/ colour-fade bits are not her style, I think this can be remedied without having to repaint the entire frame.



Specifically, what I would suggest here is to simply use tape to mask off the transitional areas: either white tape - to make the transition look sharper and get rid of the fade effect - or a different colour (or several colours?) entirely, to create the impression of contrasting bands. The latter would have the added effect of giving the bicycle a more sporty, less fluffy look.



As she test rode the bike again and again, AJ considered all this, weighing the excellent ride quality and fit of the Candice against its less than ideal aesthetics. In the end, she decided to get it (Yesss! Erm, I mean, Oh, ok, if that's what you want - sounds good).



In the first instance, she plans to change the handlebar tape. After that she will definitely do something to those colour-faded tips, but she doesn't know what yet. In the meanwhile, it is an interesting challenge to contemplate. And an exciting bike to ride - judging by the fact she's been happily riding it!



Well, it seems that my work here is done ...Although, frankly, is the work of a bike cupid ever done? As I am sure many of you have experienced, there are times you intuit that a friend wants a bicycle. Symptoms include: mentioning bikes, looking at pictures of bikes, browsing local for-sale ads for bikes. In a situation where the person already has a bicycle (or three) you might notice them saying, wistfully, that they love their bike(s) but also wish they could cycle faster/off road/ on something older/ on something newer/ on something with a different style frame, and so on. In short, there are times you just know: they are on the hunt! And if you can help that process along, well why not?

Are you too a bike cupid? Ever eager to "help" if a friend so much as breathes they are in need of a new bike? Unable to look at a bike without thinking that it would be perfect for So-and-So? I shall leave you to ponder this question, as I wish you a Happy Weekend!

'Brifter' Bliss for Sweptback Handlebars



It was not till I unpacked the demo Clementine, that I realised I had never seen a full-on Rivendell bicycle before. I mean, of course I have seen Rivendells. I have even owned one myself, and have ridden half a dozen others besides, maybe more. But none of those had been in-house builds. They had been built up with components from the frame up either at Harris Cyclery in Boston, or by the bicycles' owners. So I never realised till now that Rivendell has their own distinct way of putting the bikes together, with a few somewhat quirky (who would have guessed!) signature touches.



One of these I discovered in a somewhat comical manner, when I finished putting together the mostly-assembled bike (basically just installed the front wheel, mudguard and handlebars) to find that the brake levers and shifters sat the wrong way around. At first I though I had managed to somehow rotate the handlebars incorrectly while installing them, because surely the experienced assembler at Riv couldn’t have made such a mistake. So I sat there, trying to figure it out, feeling like an idiot. But no, there was no way to rotate the bars that would fix this. The brake lever and thumb shifter labeled “L” were on the right handlebar, and the ones labeled “R” were on the left handlebar. As a result, the parts had the look of being upside down: with the brand names hidden on the underside, and the bolts pointing up. I would have to remove the shellacked cork grips, probably cracking them in the process, and redo the whole setup.

Disappointed, and at the same time eager to try the bike, I decided to leave this unpleasant task till the next day and in the meanwhile take the Clementine for a spin as it was. So I attached the saddle and pedals, adjusted the fit, plopped my hands on the bars, and - damn! The placement of the levers and shifters felt remarkably comfortable. I made some little tweaks, moving the thumbies closer to the grips and rotating the brake levers slightly. After that, the setup just felt so much perfecter than any other arrangement I’ve tried on sweptback bars, that I began to wonder - nah, could it be? - whether they’d done it this way deliberately.

So I went on Rivendell's website and looked for closeup shots showing the “cockpit” setups of their complete builds. And sure enough, the upright bikes had the brake levers and thumbies installed upside down! Finally, just to make sure, I sheepishly emailed them to confirm - and received this reply:
The reverse thumbie thing is a quirk of these bikes. We thought they worked better that way ergonomically and the levers get flipped too for a slimmer fit. Having upside down thumbies also allows you to use the handlebar curves for climbing.
Duh! How could I not have known they did this? And to think, that all of this time I have been missing out on what I can only describe as the ultimate 'brifters' setup for sweptback handlebars.



I am not joking or making fun when I write this. If you are seeking an experience similar to the integrated brake/shift levers that you can get on drop bars with the mainstream roadie component groups, this is the closest to that I have tried on upright bars (and before anyone else asks in the comments - yes, I have tried the Shimano MTB trigger shifter - this is far nicer!). But I am not just talking about using thumbies and city levers. The reversed/ upside down installation is key here. When installed in this manner, the reach to the brake lever shortens and the shifter is placed literally under your thumb. Both can be activated (at the same time if you like) without moving your hands from their positions on the grips and without straining your fingers or twisting your wrists uncomfortably. For those accustomed to Campagnolo ergo levers especially (where you use the thumb as well as the forefinger), this system will feel particularly natural. If you live in a hilly area like me where you want to be able to shift gears easily and quickly, having such a smooth and easy to use setup really is bliss.

So, I am thankful to the Rivendell folks for introducing me to this genius bit of eccentricity. But needless to say, you do not need a Rivendell bicycle to set up your handlebars in this manner. Any bike can be outfitted with plain grips, and reversed city levers and thumbies - in fact it's probably one of the cheaper handlebar setups available. All the better that it's so functional and comfy.

And the bolts pointing up? Well, you know you can always twine them...


Music in the Distance: Impressions of a Heavy Commute



I have had a demo Bike Friday Haul-a-Day on loan for the past month and have used it quite a bit over that time. As explained in its introduction, my typical use case scenario for a cargo bike is not so much heavy loads as awkward ones: things such as ladders, tripods, pieces of furniture, large parts of bicycles, oversized canvases, hardware supplies. Carrying some of these things on the long-tail can look cool (the ladder was an especially big hit around the neighbourhood), but it's so easy and has so little impact on the cycling experience as to make it entirely unremarkable. Less visually impressive, but more physically noticeable is carrying a seemingly ordinary load that is actually heavy. Today I managed to accomplish that with a simple trip to the supermarket.

It was one of those days when we were suddenly out of everything, and particularly everything heavy - from laundry detergent and cleaning supplies, to potatoes and grains and various beverages. I think in fluids alone I must have bought 20kg worth of stuff. And then there was the week's worth of groceries. The cargo bags swallow all this so easily, that it really does not look like much. But by the time I emptied the contents of the shopping trolley, the bike was so heavy it was hard to roll up over curbs when navigating my way out of the car park.

Of course, as anyone who's tried a cargo bike knows, it is much easier to ride it loaded than to walk it loaded. So it was with some relief that I set off. I am not sure how much weight I had on the back of the bike exactly, but I am going to guesstimate close to 50kg. At just over half the Haul-a-Day's capacity, that's not even remotely impressive. Nevertheless it is more than what I'd normally carry. And on the 8 mile ride over rolling hills the difference was noticeable.

I did not feel it immediately. Starting and stopping on my way through the town - with its busy main road and myriad of roundabouts - the bike was totally cool with the weight: no hesitations, no wobbling at slow speeds. This made for confident handling in tight traffic. Once out of the town and on rural roads though, I immediately hit a series of hills and that's when the weight made itself known. On rollers where I've gotten used to making it most of the way up from the previous descent's momentum, the bike would run out of steam much sooner than it had with lighter loads, necessitating an immediate switch into low gears pretty much at any hint of an incline. This was fine, as there were plenty of low gears available. It just made the rollers slower-going than usual.

On longer drags at steeper gradients (I have a nice 14% climb as part of my commuter fun), I was also able to - for the first time since riding the Haul-a-Day - feel the weighted long tail "wag" (flex?) behind me and, at the same time, the front end of the bike start to "wander" (lift?) a bit, in a way that was unsettling at first. But after a few seconds I got used to the sensation. I was still in full control of the bike and was not even close to running out of gears to push it up the incline, and being aware of this soon calmed me. The handling and feel of the bike were just different - which, carrying all that weight uphill, perhaps should not have come as a great surprise!

Once the road flattened out, the trip became blissfully normal again. On flats, with the bike going at speed, I could not feel the weight of the long tail at all. I was also using the same gearing as I normally would.

However, before long, I began to notice a strange and entirely novel thing. It was not a sensation of weight, but... what was it, a sound? Yes, a sound. Like chimes, or a soft sort of harpsichord chamber music. I could not tell where it was coming from. It seemed to be floating in from the distance at first, drifting toward me in waves - now muted, now louder. Then suddenly it seemed to surround me. The day was hot and I had spent the morning in direct sunlight, pushing a heavy bike uphill. Could this be a symptom of heat stroke? As if to encourage that notion, the music picked up, humming and chiming hauntingly as the mountain view ahead glazed over with humid milkiness.

Pulling over onto a gravel shoulder, I stopped the bike to wipe my forehead and get a drink of water. A warm breeze blew as I walked around the rear of the long-tail. And bending down over the cargo, I saw, with amazement, where the strange music was coming from.

I had bought six glass bottles of mineral water. As they stood together, snugly, in a wine box, the breeze circled around them, making a magical chiming sound. The breeze also blew through the flat bladed spokes of the wheel I had tied to the top of the cargo rack (I had stopped by the bike shop to get the cassette removed, as I don't have the right tool), making a sound that was not unlike a harpsichord. The two separate noises harmonised together exquisitely, forming such a distinct melody it was difficult to believe the music was accidental. By the side of the road, with the Queen Anne's Lace swaying around me, the effect was uncanny. The bike was making music to lighten our heavy commute.



On Female Anatomy and Saddle Discomfort (5 Year Anniversary Re-Issue)



I am re-publishing a reworked, expanded version of this blog post, which I originally wrote in April 2011. Despite having nothing to do with “lovely bicycles” per se, this remains my most widely read and most frequently referenced post to date. At present, it has been viewed 270,000 times and has accumulated over 200 comments - resulting in a wonderfully helpful discussion that is in of itself worth reading. I continue to receive feedback about this post via email on a regular basis, with hundreds of women having shared their experiences over the years.

To me, such popularity of what was really a very basic, unremarkable article on the topic, indicates a persistent absence of information on women-specific bicycle fit issues - both in the bicycle industry and in cycling culture at large. In the context of bicycling, as elsewhere, the topic of women’s privates remains taboo, an unmentionable. Even my own introduction to the original version of this post strikes me now as over-apologetic:
Male readers: you may want to skip this one. Of course if you feel up to it, you are welcome to keep reading. But don't say I didn't warn you. 
Female readers: I've had email exchanges with so many of you about "women's issues" with bicycle saddles, and it's amazing how much embarrassment there is among us (and I include myself) when it comes to discussing our bodies - especially given how common these problems are. While with men, we can read and hear all about perineal this and genital that, with women it's all hush-hush and seldom addressed in a manner explicit enough to be helpful.
Five years later, I am dismayed to find that things have not changed all that much. A few publications have now broached the topic - most notably, Elly Blue's Our Bodies Our Bikes, Molly Hurford's Saddle Sore, the short lived Cycling Digest blog, and - interestingly enough - the British Cycling Federation (more on that later). Nevertheless, my original post remained a go-to resource on the subject. It was for this reason I felt it important to revisit it.

And so without further ado, I offer this updated version of my notes on female anatomy and saddle discomfort. And the first thing I shall tell you, is this:

Women's saddle discomfort is the norm, not the exception

I get the sense one reason so many women are reluctant to talk about their "down there" problems on the bike is because they fear these are unusual problems to have. They imagine other women, cycling blithely, while they, freaks of nature that they are, writhe in pain and rub themselves raw, perpetually dissatisfied. Some worry that having these problems, must mean they have oddly shaped genitals. Others are embarrassed to raise the topic lest they be perceived as perverts who are keen to talk about their privates. And so it becomes a vicious cycle, where silence begets silence and we are all suffering in polite, isolated embarrassment while the bicycle industry does not think there is a problem worth addressing.

The reality is, saddle discomfort problems are not only common for women, they appear to be the norm. Most women cyclists I know have had them at some stage. More worryingly, many continue to have them, despite years of experience and thousands upon thousands of miles covered.

Consider this recent statement from the British Cycling Federation:

In the lead up to London 2012 [Olympics], with the UK Institute of Sport, we developed a special saddle for Victoria Pendleton, who had been suffering from saddle issues that were having a negative impact on her performance. After the Games, we wondered how big a problem it was and whether we had only uncovered the tip of the iceberg. We put together a team and decided to interview riders as part of a qualitative study. The findings were staggering, 100% of the riders we interviewed were having problems but, with a male doctor, physio and predominately male coaching staff, didn’t feel comfortable in mentioning it.

So, even at the level of professional athletes, we get a version of the same old: "too embarrassed to ask the bike shop guy." But the problems, however hidden, are very much there. And one of the difficulties of addressing them lies in how diverse they are.



Where does it hurt?

We experience pain in areas of intense body-to-saddle contact. These areas will depend on your position on the bike. There is a great deal of variety in the kinds of bicycles we ride - from relaxed transport bikes that position us bolt-upright, to aggressive racing bikes that place us in a deep forward lean. These differences in position are crucial, as they determine what parts of our anatomy will come into contact with the bicycle's saddle.

With the aid of the highly technical drawings I have supplied, picture what happens to your body when you ride a Dutch-style bike with high, swept-back handlebars. You are sitting on the saddle not too differently from the way you would sit in a chair: As you hold the handlebars, your back is nearly straight. In this position - and assuming the saddle is level - the bits that press into the saddle are mainly your buttocks. The rear of your vulva may rest on the saddle as well, but it is tilted slightly up and therefore pushed out of the way as it were.

Now picture what happens as a bicycle’s fit becomes more “active” - with the handlebars set lower and further from you. As you lean forward to reach the bars, your pelvis also tilts forward on the saddle - taking pressure away from your bum and placing it instead on your genitals. The greater your lean, the more extreme this effect. So that, in an ultra-laid back position it’s your bum cheeks pressing into the saddle, in a full-on racing position it is your urethra and clitoris, with different parts of the labia taking the brunt of your weight for positions in between.

The more relaxed your bicycle’s setup, the more likely you will have problems with posterior discomfort. The more aggressive your bicycle’s setup, the more likely you will have problems with genital discomfort.


Posterior Discomfort

Beginner's Bum: Anyone unaccustomed to spending time upon a bicycle saddle, will inevitably experience a sore bum. On an upright bike this will be particularly extreme, as the buttocks take the brunt of the cyclist's weight. The good news about the sore bum issue, is that it is usually a fleeting one. With most saddles, be they hard or soft, leather or synthetic, there is an adjustment period. Your rear end is simply not used to sitting on one of these things. But build up milage gradually and give it some time to adapt. If Beginner's Bum is the only issue, the soreness should go away after a couple of weeks of regular cycling.

Excessive Padding: Somewhat counterintuitively, padded saddles tend to cause discomfort when cycling beyond very short distances. As your buttocks sink into the padding, pressure can build up between the sit-bones and begin to cause pain. And while a hard saddle you can get used to over time, a too-soft saddle that causes this type of bunching and pressure will only get worse. If it feels as if this is happening to you, look for a saddle with minimal to no padding. And no padding does not have to mean rock hard. Saddles that incorporate some means of suspension or flex (for example, leather, or leather-substitute, stretched over rails) create a lovely hammocking effect.

Saddle Too Narrow: If your bum still hurts after a reasonable break-in period, and it feels as if the culprit is the saddle's contours digging-into your sit-bones, then the saddle may be too narrow for your derriere. Consider a wider saddle.

Saddle Too Wide: A too-wide saddle, on the other hand, usually manifests itself in chafing - either on the inside of the thighs, or in the "underbum" areas - where buttock transitions into leg. If this is happening, consider a narrower saddle.

An aside here with regard to women and saddle width: It is an oft-repeated adage that women’s sit-bones tend to be set wider than mens, therefore women typically require wider saddles. And this is absolutely correct. However, it is correct in a statistico-hypothetical, “on average,” “all other factors remaining equal” sort of way. It does not mean that every woman will necessarily have wider sit-bones than every man. Do not automatically assume you need the widest saddle available because you are female. Your individual anatomy could fall anywhere on the spectrum. And remember that your position on the bike matters a great deal as well. If you have wide sit-bones but are rocking an extreme road-racing position, you may require a narrower saddle than a lady with narrow sit-bones who is positioned less aggressively. So let actual sensations of pressure and chafing guide your saddle width decisions, not some hypothetical model.


Genital Discomfort

When a bicycle places the rider in a forward lean, the genital region - in our case, the vulva - is pressed directly into the saddle. Depending on your individual anatomy and cycling position, this can result in very specific regional pain.

Labia: Probably the most common complaint I hear with regard to saddle discomfort, is that of vaginal lips bunching up and pressing painfully into the saddle - so much so, that after a long ride there can be abrasions and bleeding. In many cases, a saddle with a cut-out centre or recessed channel down the middle solve this problem, and there is a good selection available these days. But because every woman's anatomy is different, the cut-out/recessing may not be in the right place for you, so you would have to experiment with this feature. Adjusting your saddle's tilt (in either direction), even very subtly, can also relieve labial pressure. And while it's pretty much impossible to keep loose folds of skin from shifting about while you're pedaling, you can minimise abrasions with generous applications of chamois cream or vaseline before you set off on your ride. Creams that use tea tree oil as a main ingredient seem to be particularly effective. Vaseline works as well, but be aware that it can discolour clothing and saddles.

Urethra and the Clitoral Region: Pressure on the urethra or clitoris can be even more difficult to deal with, both in terms of the immediate sharp pain that sitting on these sensitive bits it causes, and the long-term adverse effects. For some women these parts of the vulva are fortunately angled, so as to sit safely out of harm's way even in the raciest position on the bike. For others they press directly into the hard nose of the saddle and it's a hugely painful problem. In the event of the latter, there are a few things you can try. The main one is saddle tilt: Tilting your saddle ever so slightly forward (but not so far forward that you slide off it - there is a sweet spot and you have to experiment) can do wonders in this regard, and this is my personal preferred technique. Another is to experiment with saddle length. Some find that a longer saddle (where the hard nose section will sit forward of the urethra and clitoris, rather than directly underneath) is helpful. Others find relief in the opposite extreme, in particular "noseless" saddles. Be aware though, that women's saddles marketed as "short" can actually make this problem worse. The short-nosed saddles are designed for cycling in a fairly upright position while wearing a skirt (the short nose is so that your hem doesn't catch when you mount and dismount), not for genital comfort in a road-racing position!

General Numbness: Some women report going numb in the genitals, but are unable to identify a specific area that is affected. This problem is a bit of a mystery, but - based solely on my observations - could be connected to a couple of issues: One, is the saddle being too high. So, try lowering your saddle a tad and see whether that relieves it. The other thing I have noticed, is that the riders experiencing numbness tend to ride dome-shaped saddles (saddles where the centre ridge sits ever so slightly higher, sloping down toward the sides). If you find this to be the case, try switching to a saddle that is completely level.


So... Which saddle is right for me?

Unfortunately, being able to identify and describe the myriad of problems we have with saddle-related pains does not lead to clearcut recommendations. I would love to put together a neat little chart for you, along the lines of "Symptom X? Try Brand Y, Model Z!" but alas I don't think this would be helpful, or even possible. Our individual anatomies - from the width of our sit-bones to the shapes, sizes and locations of our sensitive vulvian bits - are just too darn different for one size fits all recommendations.

In a general sense, factors worth paying attention to include: firmness, width, length, and the availability (and placement) of cutouts. There are a few specific brands that seem to consistently get good feedback from women that are worth looking into as well, these being: Rivet, Berthoud and Selle Anatomica (suspended leather), and Terry and the ISM Adamo (synthetic with slight padding). Personally I have also had very good luck with the new Brooks Cambiums - a cloth/rubber design with and without cutouts.

But just to give you a sense of how impossible the idea of any one saddle being right for every woman is, consider this: The aforementioned British Cycling Federation, having carried out that study which showed that 100% (!!!) of female olympic cyclists experienced genital discomfort, responded by hiring a team of medical experts and designers to create their own saddle addressing the athletes' issues. The result of much R&D was the official UKIS saddle... which only half the riders on the British team actually opted to use, the rest preferring to stick with their personal saddles. The Federation's conclusion: "Finding a saddle that works for you is largely down to trial and error." Tell me about it!

While we cannot blame the industry for failing to cater to the amazing diversity of women's genital anatomies, what surprises me is that there aren't any clever entrepreneurs offering custom saddles. It's a service for which I genuinely believe there would be demand, considering how many women actually suffer from saddle-related problems.

In the meanwhile, if you have the opportunity a good starting point would be to visit a local bicycle fitter, brace yourself for some candid talk, and ask specifically for saddle advice while describing your issues honestly. And if the fitter is a man, give him a chance and don't assume he doesn't know about (or is unwilling to discuss) women-specific issues. I have had some really good conversations about this sort of thing with male fitters and bicycle shop owners; people are people. At the very least, a saddle fit session will get you some width/length recommendations and give you a chance to try different saddles before buying. As you probably know by now, saddle trial and error can get quite expensive.

My saddle used to feel comfortable, now suddenly it doesn't! Why?

As mentioned earlier, your position on the bike is a crucial determinant in how a saddle will feel beneath you. Therefore if you make any changes at all to your position, it can make your "perfect" saddle no longer so perfect. Even something as seemingly minor as changing your saddle height, handlebar height, or stem length even the slightest bit - can makes a difference, as can simply spending more time in the drops.

Another factor to consider, is that saddles deform over time. In different, but equally annoying ways, both synthetic and leather saddles can sag, harden, twist, crack, collapse, warp, and go through various other metamorphoses with time and use - some of them repairable, others not.

In rarer cases, your body might also undergo changes. And I am not just talking about obvious changes such as dramatic weight loss/gain, or childbirth. Changes in core strength, for instance, can lead to changes in how you sit on the bike, even if your numerical fit remains the same. Bottom line is, we cannot count on the same saddle being comfortable forever and in all circumstances.


Padded shorts and chamois creams: Do they help?

In my experience, they help. But they are not a solution to a serious problem. On a roadbike, a good pair of padded cycling shorts can make an already comfortable setup more comfortable. But it will not fix an inherently uncomfortable setup. Likewise, chamois cream provides an extra barrier against chafing and irritation, but it will not make the problem go away. In general, you are better off working on finding the right position and saddle, rather than the right shorts and cream.

An aside here about cycling shorts: I have noticed that an often-overlooked but very common cause of chafing issues, is wearing cycling shorts that are too big. Now, because the skin-tight nature of roadcycling shorts makes them profoundly unflattering for 99% of us non-professional-athlete women, it is tempting to size up and minimise that horrible sausaging effect. But the thing is, cycling shorts are designed to be skin-tight for a reason. If you wear them even a tiny bit loose, the fabric can bunch up in those crevices between inner thigh and labia, causing surprising amounts of damage in even a short amount of time. Over the years I have learned the hard way that it is better to wear cycling shorts slightly too tight and look ridiculous, than to wear them slightly too loose and have the insides of my thighs bleeding by mile 20.


What about hair, down there?..

Although there is some degree of personal preference to this, overwhelmingly the word on the street is: Avoid shaving. Keeping the hair natural and wild provides a soft cushioning buffer, and some extra warmth in winter month. Waxing it all off (actually sugaring is nicer) has the benefit of the area being frictionless. But shaving, or even close-trimming, creates a prickly coarseness that can contribute to skin abrasions when you pedal. If you are sensitive to abrasions especially, be aware of this.



Recurring Infections

Female cyclists can be prone to yeast infections and urinary tract infections (UTIs). The causal factors underlying both are numerous, and contrary to what some believe, they are not necessarily due to poor hygiene. Of course, showering both immediately before and after a strenuous cycle ride will lower the risk of infections, but most women who get them are already doing this.

In some cases, synthetic shorts or underwear could be to blame: bacteria thrives underneath synthetic fabrics, even when the garments are advertised as anti-bacterial. And because each of our body chemistry is unique, some are more susceptible to this than others. So if you get recurring yeast infections or UTIs when you cycle, consider wearing exclusively silk or wool underwear and wool cycling shorts (yes, they exist!). Consider also a suspended leather saddle - which, unlike other saddles, is breathable. Basically: natural fabrics, good ventilation and moisture-wicking are key.

It also helps to use simple soaps (made of actual soap, not perfumed body washes or moisturising soaps) and to avoid artificially perfumed sprays or lotions in or around your vaginal area. Be especially cautious on hot and humid days, as well as on days during which there are drastic weather changes - infections are more likely to occur at these times.

Menstruation

As any form of physical exercise, cycling has the potential to relieve menstrual cramps and counter PMS symptoms. So if you're up to cycling during your period there is no reason not to. But straddling a bicycle saddle for hours while menstruating can present its own set of challenges. Blood flow increases during exercise, so if you are planning on a long trip, it's a good idea to change your tampon or sanitary napkin more frequently than usual. As well as to drink more fluids.

For road cyclists who do not use tampons, there are other options available - most notably menstrual cups. While I have no experience with these myself, they are discussed in great and helpful detail in the comments after this post; if you are interested have a look.

But if you like to keep it old school and prefer to use sanitary napkins, there is the question of how to attach those to cycling shorts: the sticky underside will often not stay in place (and whatever you do, don't wear underpants under your shorts, just so that you can wear a sanitary napkin - they will chafe horrifically!). In this regard, an experienced randonneuring friend gave me some excellent advice, which I at first found disgusting, then exhilarating: Don't wear a sanitary napkin. No tampons, no "maxi pads," nothing. Wear an old pair of (ideally black!) padded cycling shorts, and go ride your bike. Let the blood soak directly into the chamois padding (which is amazingly absorbent - it's a pad after all) and no one will be the wiser. Then wash the shorts when you get home. Freedom! Just watch that, with blood being an irritant, the potential for abrasions and infection increases. For long trips, have a shower right before you set off on the bike, then take wet naps with you and stop every hour or so to clean up. I did this on a 300K brevet a couple of years back, and it was grand. Grand, I tell you!


***

And on that colourful note, I hope this updated post remains helpful. It is not meant to be exhaustive, or prescriptive. These are just my own notes on the issue - gathered from personal experience and from talking to other women. If you have anything to add, please do.

I want to thank all of you who have contributed to the wonderful discussion in the comments section over the past 5 years the original post had been live. And remember, if you would like to talk about these issues in the comments - especially to share your own experiences and remedies - I allow anonymous comments and you don't need to log in under your regular screen name.


Unsupported? On Rescue Missions, Their Politics, Planning, and Etiquette



Sheltering under a bridge in the rain last week, I found myself beside a group of club cyclists on their way back from a training ride. The rain was coming down hard and they were soaked to the bone, wearing only shorts and short-sleeve jerseys. After a brief discussion, they decided to phone their spouses for rescue lifts. The result was an amazing thing to watch. Within minutes, a fleet of cars pulled up to the curb, like a line of taxis at an airport. With the orchestrated precision of a well-practiced military exercise, rear doors were flung open. Front wheels came off. Bikes were slid into the back. Wet cyclists jumped into the passenger seats. And within what seemed like 60 seconds, tops, the entire fleet of cars was gone again. I could just barely catch a glimpse of women's faces in the driver seats, some annoyed, some amused.

I had just witnessed a Rescue Mission Extraordinaire, I realised. But the speed and efficiency of the whole thing also left me wondering: Was this something that happened on a regular basis? And if so, were these women by default "on call" any time their spouses went cycling?..

There is nothing, in theory, wrong with being supported when involved in a sport, or activity, that might require support. But I don't like to think of cycling as such an activity. To me the bicycle means independence, self-reliance, the ability to spontaneously roam and explore. This is at odds with the idea of family waiting on me, centering their entire day on the possibility that I might need a rescue.

I have always liked the term "unsupported" when applied to cycling: Unsupported touring, racing, brevets. Because, strange as it might sound, I actually prefer to feel that, should anything go wrong, I am on my own. That does not mean leaving myself with no way to make it home in the event of an emergency. It means, for instance, planning ahead by learning about the public transport/ taxi/ hostel/ hospital options in the areas I will be traveling through, having enough cash on hand, etc. I am generally all for having a plan - just, ideally, a plan that does not involve disturbing the people in my life.

Then again...

"Disturbing?! You know what's disturbing," my husband says, when I try to walk home in the dark 7 miles last winter after my headlight fails. "Disturbing is to know that you won't ask me for help if something goes wrong!"

And in this I know he is right. I also know that, as far as spousal rescue involvement, I can't take what I dish out. As a glider pilot, my husband specialises in cross-country flights. Every time he does one of these flights, there is a possibility he might need to execute an emergency landing far from the home airfield. Not that this ever happens, but there's a possibility. Which means that when he flies cross-country, a support crew back home needs to be, in theory, prepared to come and tow him - and the aircraft - back. And while it's not expected of me to take part in this, I sure as heck want to if anything does go wrong. Every time he flies I am prepared to come and get him. And it's not a bother; it's a given.

I suppose the truth of the matter is, when there are people who care about us, there is no such thing as "unsupported." We may think that we go off on our bikes and leave our families in peace to do their thing. But chances are, they are thinking of us. Worrying. And yes, even ready to come and rescue us at the drop of a hat, despite our insistence on self-reliance.

What are your thoughts and experiences with regard to rescue missions - when it comes to yours and your loved ones' cycling pursuits?


Summer of Reviews and Projects



As my readership is always somewhat fluid, I imagine not everyone is aware that Lovely Bicycle began primarily as a product review/ industry commentary type of blog, from a then-beginner's perspective. Frustrated by the lack of information on comfortable, attractive, and beginner-friendly transport bicycles available at the time, my intention was to - well, provide some, in the process also raising issues that, while important to those new to the cycling scene, were then very seldom addressed.

A lot has changed since 2009 - both in "cycling culture" and in my own circumstances. For one thing, I am no longer really a beginner cyclist (a status that would have been difficult to maintain over 7 years of constant cycling for transport and sport!). Through continued dialogue with builders and manufacturers, I have also developed a keen interest in the design aspect of things, and have learned quite a bit about bicycle production over the years - to the point that I now freelance as an industry consultant.

More recently though, my personal life has undergone a pretty dramatic upheaval. This led to reviews and design talk taking a back seat on the blog for a while - to the point that whenever I do post a review these days, new readers almost seem to feel it is out of character. So I guess one reason I am writing this, is to remind everyone that product reviews, design discussions, and general industry musings, are really at the root of this blog. It is the reason I try so many bikes and cycling-related products. It is the reason I never tire of examining and gushing about bicycles, new and old, despite being perfectly happy with my own personal ones.

Moving to rural Ireland did present some logistical challenges for continuing in this vein. But now that life here has settled, I am fortunate to be making new connections. I am equally fortunate that manufacturers are actually willing to work around my hermetic lifestyle and send me products to collaborate on, test and review.


All that is to say: This summer the reviews aspect of this blog is coming back in full force. Being a little bit older and (maybe?) wiser now, my aim is for the reviews to be accessible to those for whom they are most relevant, and for the comments area to maintain a welcoming atmosphere. Should you ever feel that either of these falls short, please feel free to drop me a line.

Among the bicycle reviews coming up this summer:

The Bike Friday Haul-a-Day
A small-wheel, fat tyre, disassembleable cargo bike handmade in Oregon, USA. I have already posted an introduction to this very cool machine, and a long term review should be ready by mid-summer.

The Bobbin Birdie
I first reviewed the Bobbin Birdie just after it came out. Since then it has been the upright 3-speed I probably recommend most often to those looking to buy their first new bike. This summer I will be revisiting the Birdie in an interesting two-rider comparative review that will include the impressions of a "real-life" beginner cyclist shopping for her first bike, as well as my own.

The Rivendell Clementine
It has just arrived at my door, and I am speechless. The Clementine defies attempts at a brief summary, except to say that I think Riv has hit the sweet spot with this one. Long term review by the end of summer, but an intro and related posts will start popping up sooner.

Also in the works are a few one-off test rides, including of the Urban Arrow electric cargo bike. Stay tuned!


The biggest product review coming is that of the Brooks Cambium Range. At one point I had mostly stopped using Brooks saddles. The Cambium brought me back to the brand, in a big way. At this stage I have been lucky enough to try nearly all of the Cambium models (including the new carbon saddle). A very detailed long term review is coming in June.

Other product reviews in the works include a sample from Brompton's new luggage rangeTim+Tas Porteur Bag from Holland, Svelte cycling clothes from London, Pelago racks from Finland, Bookman bicycle lights from Sweden, as well as bicycle lights from Lezyne, rain gear from the Irish brand As Bold As, handmade cycling underpants (oh yes!) from Oregon-based IvelieuRustiness grips from Velo Orange, and a multi-rider 650B fat tyre comparison extravaganza.


On the designery front, I am going to talk about the rear rack (in production for two years now!) that I designed for Bella Ciao bicycles and have been stress-testing the heck out of with only minor consequences.

In a somewhat different vein, I am hoping to soon introduce you to Donard Bicycles - an Irish maker of steel and carbon bicycle frames, documenting his process of - and thoughts on - producing carbon fiber tubes from scratch.

Last but not least... and I nearly have to pinch myself as I write this, but I am working on a project with Seven Cycles that has me close to peeing in my pants with excitement. We are considering a collaborative special edition bicycle, based on the Seven 622SLX model, with a ... shall we say very particular geometry designed by me (can you guess what it is?), a special paint scheme, and Lovely Bicycle decals into the bargain. Whether anyone will actually want to buy such a thing is another matter. But in any case, we have a prototype (unpainted), which I am now in the process of testing and will write about very soon.

All that said, I will leave you to process this jumble of an announcements bulletin and enjoy the rest of your (long, in some cases) weekend. Wishing you lots of bicycle rides, and thanking you, as always, for reading Lovely Bicycle - be it stories, reviews, or general two-wheeled nonsense!



Elephant in the City



Meeting up with a friend in Derry for lunch yesterday, I was struck by the number of cyclists out and about. On the path by the river especially, they whizzed past us with merry abandon - a blur of fluttering garments and large wicker baskets... Wait, what! Wicker baskets?

While cycling in Derry has certainly been on the rise for these past few years, it hadn't quite normalised to the point of everyday clothes and full-on wicker basket mode last time I checked. So what bikes exactly were these? When yet another mystery rider went by, I turned to face the path and recognised it immediately: an Elephant Bike!


So excited I was to find out where these bicycles came from, that I took drastic measures... I followed one of them through the streets. And it led me where else, but to the city's Guild Hall. Ooh this conspiracy ran deep!

With some trepidation, I entered the grandiose structure and found myself in an echoey chamber with carved oak walls and stained glass windows.

"Just what is this wicker-basketness all about?" I asked the helpful gentleman at the desk, in hopes he would not think me insane. The answer made my day.

Turns out, the Derry City Council has organised a scheme to get bicycles for their staff, enabling them to run errands by bike during the work day. How wonderful is that? The programme was launched on the 16th of April, so it's a fairly new development. It was lovely to see them in use already.

In addition to a small fleet at the Guild Hall for government employees, more Elephant Bikes are available at the Tourism Office for the general public. They can be rented by the hour or by the day at very reasonable rates. Considering that Derry has no bike share programme, this is most excellent news for anyone who wants to visit the city and travel around by bicycle.


But to backtrack a tad, what are these bicycles exactly?

Elephant Bike (not to be confused with the custom framebuilder Elephant in the US) is a UK charity initiative. It collects decommissioned Royal Mail bicycles, refurbishes them for civilian use, then resells them within the UK. And for every bicycle sold locally, another one is donated to a social enterprise in Malawi through the Krizevac Project. I have a policy of not promoting causes and charities here, and so I mention all this solely in the context of describing the bicycle. But if you are interested to learn more, please do visit the Krizevac Project and have a look for yourself.


Elephant Bikes begin life as postal bicycles for the Royal Mail, handbuilt by Pashley Cycles in Stratford-upon-Avon (I featured one of these here earlier - albeit an older model). After about 10 years in circulation, the postal bikes are taken out of commission. And it is this decommissioned stock that Elephant has collected - some 20,000 units in all.

Those machines that are deemed salvageable are then sent to be worked on by inmates in a local young offenders prison, where they are stripped of parts and paint, as part of a skill-building initiative. The framesets are then powdercoated, and finally re-assembled in-house with a mix of new and refurbished parts.



The bicycle, in its finished state, looks so shiny and new and pretty, it is difficult to see it as refurbished, or decommissioned, or as a charity project. It looks like a gorgeous, heavy-duty transport bike that anyone looking for a capable sturdy machine would be happy to own. And happily own it they can - for the price of £250.


You read that correctly: pay £250 for what is essentially a Pashley Mailstar/ Pronto with custom paint. Oh, and free postage within Great Britain. With the Pashley Pronto model still very much in production, consider that new ones retail at £650. Its charitable function aside, the Elephant Bike is an amazing bargain. And did I mention the pretty colours? They are available in sage (shown), turquoise, or olive. And in a selection of two unisex frame sizes (18" or 22"). You can buy online, and current wait time is 3 weeks.


The build is a fairly simple one: 3-speed hub gearing, trigger shifter, hub brakes, steel cranks, padded saddle with quick release for easy resizing. The wheels are 26" rear and 24" front, with puncture resistant 1¾" tyres.

Accessories included mudguards, a double-legged kickstand, and a bell. There is no dynamo lighting. However, the original fork-mounted headlight bracket remains for affixing a battery light.


The long rear rack is rated for 20kg of weight. The frame-mounted front carrier and basket (available in wicker or as a black plastic crate) are rated for 20kg of weight as well, and can be purchased as an additional accessory for a further £30.


Never having ridden a Pashley Pronto of this era before, I was achingly curious to try the Elephant Bike. Understandably though, the Derry City Council staff were kind of skeptical of me ("Which publication did you say you were with again, Miss?.."). Still, I was allowed to pedal around the square while remaining within eyesight. And, you know what? This thing is delightful. I am serious: Delightful! The thick blocky tubes and welded construction certainly look industrial in comparison to, say, the Pashley Princess. But it is zippy and responsive as heck - so much so, that seeing postmen sprinting up the hills of Letterkenny on these things (An Post used the same machine for their postal bikes) now strikes me as distinctly less implausible. The small front wheel + frame-mounted front carry system is right up my alley, too. As is the low stepover and low bottom bracket. My favourite-handling Pashley of the ones I have tried to date.


Later, I had a chat on the phone with Terry Richards of Elephant Bike (an exceedingly pleasant man to talk to) and learned some interesting things about their future plans. For instance, they hope that the wicker baskets - which are sourced now from a mass production facility - will soon be made in Malawi by hand.  They are also working on an in-house pannier design to fit the long rear racks, and that too shall be made in Malawi.

Finally, and this is only an idea at the moment, but some of the older (read: lugged and vintagey) postal bikes, if enough of them are gathered up in a salvageable state, might eventually get refurbished as well, and sold as a limited edition batch of perhaps 100 bikes maximum (the current production bikes are a limited run of 5,000).  I suspect there might be quite a lot of interest in that!

We also discussed the bikes' availability. For reasons to do with insurance policies, at the moment Elephant Bikes can only be posted within the UK (within GB at no cost, and to Northern Ireland for a small surcharge). But if you live elsewhere and want one, it is not impossible to obtain it - if you know someone with a UK address who'd be willing to forward it to you (remember that shipping to them would be free, so you'd only have to pay the one-time postage). You could even ask a UK bike shop to undertake this task for you, in the process encouraging them to become an Elephant Bike dealer!



In the course of a month, the presence of Elephant Bikes in Derry has changed the city's velo-landscape visibly, and that to me is very exciting. Visitors - whether locals in the city for the day, or tourists from afar - can now cycle about the place easily. And it's nice to see that, when given the opportunity, they do indeed cycle about the place. Derry is fantastic to explore by bike.

I hope to see more of these lovely machines, everywhere, until all the discarded postal bikes are brought back to life and put to good use. With thanks to the Derry City Council for trusting me with this bike, I wish them the best of luck with their employee cycling initiative. And I wish Elephant Bike folks all the best of luck with their charity work. For a complete picture set of the bike I rode, see here. And visit Elephant Bike online to learn more.


The Abandoned Abandon



The plan was fairly modest: to cycle from Derry city to the village of Gortahork in Donegal. On paper the route is not an especially difficult one: less than 60 miles, with 3,000ft of climbing. So what has been holding me back from making the trip all this time, even as I would sigh wistfully at the thought of doing it "soon"?

The region itself is daunting. With mountain-framed swathes of bogland and nowhere to shelter for miles and miles, Western Donegal is a harsh, temperamental place, that makes rural County Derry feel tame and cuddly by comparison. I've cycled lots in the area since moving here and know it fairly well by now. But most of the rides I do are loops, or figure 8s, or various other shapes that keep me close enough to home at any given moment. If only psychologically, a 60 mile trip in a straight line would feel quite different.

Which brings me to another point - the main point, probably - that I am more than a little embarrassed to admit: It has been a while since I've cycled any notable distance on my own. I blame it on having friends and a husband who, increasingly, enjoy keeping me company on two wheels. Because, wonderful as that is, somewhere along the line my sense of independence has dulled. I now get "lonely," when I go out on the bike by myself - an emotion I never used to experience. More worryingly, I've noticed myself questioning my very ability to handle cycle rides on my own (but what if something happens?), putting them off until such a time that someone else could join me.

This weekend, though I'd decided this had to end. The forecast looked decent. The distance was manageable. I had a prototype roadbike on my hands that needed testing and a friend whom I wanted to see on her birthday. That morning I woke up to blue skies and balmy air, got dressed, and set off.

Alas I did not get far. Just outside Derry an outburst of rain, sudden and violent, sent me scrambling off the bike to hide under a bridge, to avoid getting drenched. But I remained optimistic. We've had a few days with short and heavy bursts of rain like this, and I've learned it is best to wait them out and keep dry - they pass quickly enough. So at first, I waited under the bridge sticking my head out now and again to check the sky. But the more I waited, the more it started to look as if the rain was't passing. It seemed to only be getting worse.

I checked my phone for the live weather report in hopes it would contradict what my eyes were seeing. But the former forecast of cloudy/ 12mph winds was now replaced with thunderstorms / 19mph winds. Feeling betrayed by the weather, I wanted to write a strongly worded letter. No, I wanted to shout at it, to shame it, to make it feel guilty. Demand that it keep its promises.

My phone was now buzzing with text messages.

thinking of you and a bit worried...
weather's turned crap!

listen, conditions have changed: 
strong winds, storms; I suggest abandon.

Well, there was my mistake, I thought: telling people my plans! Did I secretly want to be dissuaded from doing this ride? Has it really come to that?

The temperature dropped and my teeth began to chatter - in rhythm, it seemed, with my waves of frustration.

Just then a crowd of club cyclists, dripping wet as if they'd emerged from a swimming pool, ducked under the bridge beside me. Once they had finished swearing and wringing out their jerseys, the mobile phones came out. Spouses were phoned for a rescue.

Somehow seeing them do this was the last straw, and I knew that I too would have to abandon my plans. I decided to make a run for the cafe across the road, have some breakfast, then brace myself for the soaking and make my way back.

The cafe - which I'd never been to before - was fancier inside than I had imagined, with leisurely sit-down service rather than ordering at the till. With nothing to do while waiting for my food I took advantage of the wifi and looked over the weather again on my phone, just to be sure. Derry: severe thunderstorms. Damn it.

But as I poked at my Eggs Benedict and black pudding, I suddenly had a thought which I immediately felt stupid for not having earlier.

What about my destination? And the points along the way? With renewed vigor I scrolled through the latest forecasts.

Gortahork: partly cloudy, chances of showers after 5pm
Dunlewy: cloudy, chances of showers after 5pm
Letterkenny: cloudy, chances of showers after 2 pm.
Newtown Cunningham: showers.

Right. So if I could tolerate cycling in pretty severe rain to start with, chances were it would taper off after mile 10 and end altogether after mile 20.

I gave this some thought. I had nothing to prove, and certainly if I wanted to turn back I could. It was just me after all, not some organised event. On the other hand, if it was only rain - no lightning, hail, or locusts - where was the harm? It wasn't as if I'd never gotten soaked on a bike before. And so, energised by the food and two cups of coffee, I abandoned my decision to abandon.

From the moment I resolved to push on, I tried not to think about it too much. Here's the bike. There's the road. Point it west. Go!

It's true what they say: You get used to cycling in the rain. Even in severe rain. Even with no mudguards. Even without proper rain gear. Sure it feels strange at first, to have streams of water running down your face and to feel yourself drenched to the bone. But after a while it just becomes the new normal. I promise!

As my tyres hissed through running water and a massive headwind assailed me, I relaxed and told myself reassuringly: The stuff that is happening now? It is already happening! Conditions can't get any worse and I'm doing just fine. (This, of course, I knew perfectly well wasn't true: The weather, like life itself, could always get worse in new and inventive ways. But just then I chose to forget this fact for the sake of my sanity.)

To counteract the temperature drop I increased my pedaling cadence, and this worked surprisingly well to keep me reasonably comfortable in my soaked wool/lycra layers along the rolling terrain.

I climbed out of Derry via the backroads toward Newtown Cunningham, immediately crossing the North/South border (identifiable only by the road signs changing from miles to kilometers). I then descended to join the main road to Letterkenny - a dual carriageway with high speed traffic, which was the part of my route I had been most nervous about. However, in weather like this the main road proved rather fabulous: an uninterrupted super-wide shoulder meant that cars were now passing within several feet, rather than several inches of me. Somewhere on my right, I knew, was Lough Swilly - obscured now by all the waterfall action and cloud cover, yet somehow still sensed out there, beyond the flow of multi-lane traffic. The miles flew by as I pedaled alongside its imagined banks. And before I knew it I was nearly in Letterkenny.

Now, as anybody local will tell you, the industrial sprawl nightmare that is the town of Letterkenny - aside from being one of the least scenic places in Donegal - is a horror to navigate in any vehicle. Aclutter with misleadingly signposted roundabouts, logic-defying one way roads, and aggressive drivers grown deranged by circling the place endlessly due to both of the former, a cyclist would do best to avoid Letterkenny like the plague. Unfortunately this is quite difficult, as practically every route through Donegal wants to take you directly through it.

Nevertheless there does exist a "secret" backroad. It skirts Letterkenny coyly, approaching here, retreating there, without ever going directly through it; a tree-lined paradise with exactly zero roundabouts and hardly any car traffic. You do pay for this with a bit (okay, kind of a lot) of climbing. But the height gain also means that you get a surprisingly lovely view of the town from a vantage point that somehow actually manages to make it look nice.

Thus bypassing civilisation entirely, I continued along the back roads through Church Hill, to the Glenveagh National Park. Somewhere along the way the rain had stopped, and I hadn't even noticed. When I finally did notice, it was almost with regret. We had grown to be friends, the rain and I; it had kept me company. Was that a crazy thought? At mile 30 it was really far too early to be raving.

An aside on milage in Ireland: As I have mentioned a few times before, there is something about the roads' surface here that makes them noticeably more effortful to cycle on than, say, paved American roads. One experienced cyclist I know who rides in both New England and Ireland regularly, reckons you have to mentally add 50% to the Irish milage to calculate "equivalent American milage." So in other words, cycling 40 miles in Ireland feels like cycling 60 paved miles in the US. Cycling 60 miles in Ireland feels equivalent to 90 miles in the US. And so on. In my own experience, this is fairly accurate. So, if you are planning a cycle tour here and are trying to get a sense of what kind of distances you'll feel comfortable doing, just be aware of this.

Around this point I began to grow a little tired on the stretch of backroads to the Glenveagh National park - a continuous climb through (the name should have tipped me off) Church Hill. It was then I realised that I hadn't actually paused to rest the entire ride. So finally I stopped and took a little break on the side of the road and sent some texts to let people know I was doing fine. After that I was good as new. The only real discomfort I was having, was that my shorts, having gotten thoroughly wet in the rain, were chafing a bit. But otherwise I was grand. It was all coming back to me now - what it was like, to do this - to go off on my own into uncharted territory, with no one's company for reassurance. It was "me," this kind of trip. More so than the social ride, the club ride, the organised brevet, even the lovely couple rides I had grown so fondly attached to. It was this lone, explorative type of ride that drew me into cycling in the first place.

As you travel west through Donegal, the Glenveagh National Park is where it really begins. It being: the bogs, the mountains, the vastness, the isolation. The general heathery peaty mossyness with zero buildings or even people as far as the eye can see in any direction. The miles upon miles where there is nothing to indicate to the eye that you are actually moving. Once they appear in sight, the two iconic mountains become quite important here - the pointy, quartz-tipped Errigal and the lumpy, flat-top Muckish. They act as orienting markers, and the eye hangs on to them for comfort, for anchoring.

My mind wiped clean by this landscape, I felt in a strange sense renewed as I prepared to climb the Muckish Gap - a stunning, winding backroad along the edge of this steep-sided mountain. This road would take me finally to the coast, to Falcarragh and Gortahork, via what is known as the Bridge of Tears - a place where, in centuries past, emigrants out of Ireland would pause to say their final good-byes to family, before persisting in their long and tedious trek to the nearest seaport. Whenever I pass this bridge, in the reverse direction, and usually on a bicycle, I am always conscious of being the opposite: an immigrant, coming in rather than wanting out.

And just why do I like it here anyway? I don't know, except that I do. I like even the harshness of it. Even the wind and the rain. Even (especially) the bog.

I found it interesting to learn that in Irish the word "bog" means soft. It's a nice word that gives the boggy landscape a positive connotation. Relaxing and gentle, not menacing. Pliable, not tyrannical. Inviting, not dirty.

In the final stretch, I mulled this over, thinking how happy I felt to not have abandoned my plans to do this ride on my own after all. Can every harshness be reframed as a softness, I wondered? Every pain as just a different type of sensation? Maybe not. But sometimes it is worth it, to try.



Ruined



In the company of other cyclists, I am often struck by the words we use to describe our sense of fitness and general state of being on the bike. Because it is really quite seldom that we simply say we are feeling good, or tired, or out of shape, and leave it at that. There is a special vocabulary to describe how we feel on the bike and the words are evocative, even delicious.

When we haven't our usual strength on a given day, the weakness can take many shapes. It can be that our legs are heavy, in which case they feel "like lead" or "dead weight." And this heaviness isn't a metaphor; it is tangible. We pedal as if pushing through something viscous, each turn of the crank like trying to budge a massively heavy stone.

But the weakness can also come in the form of a different sensation entirely - a sort of husk-like emptiness that turns the body into a shell of its former self. On days like this, you ping and we ring hollow. Or maybe our muscles turn to straw. So light on the pedals we are, there is hardly anything there to move the machine forward.

There is also the curse of no energy. This one seems to catch us the most by surprise, as if some other, nameless entity outside of ourselves is at fault. Perhaps someone had come with a hose in the night, syphoned it out of us with sinister stealth. As a consequence we are running on empty. Drained. "Out of fuel."

And what of those strong days? When we are powerful, thriving, light? There are times when that energy blast is like a dangerous buzz. There is an edge to it, and we know deep down that it is like being "on" something - a substance bound to wear off, and with side-effects. Or like a jazzed up high from which we know there will be a painful come-down.

But then there are times when the strength is an even flow. It does not come in screaming waves, but it radiates, mellow and effortless, convincing us almost that it might be a permanent shift in our way of being. Our limbs grow fluid, our rhythm syncs up with the bike. It is some form of advancement. A physical wisdom, gained overnight. A form of enlightenment. A tangible sense of growth.

A good strenuous ride, no matter how it's achieved, can leave us in dire states. It can leave us ruined, useless for any other form of activity - including lucid conversation - for hours to come. It can leave us wrecked, feeling much like a shipwreck, ravaged, busted apart, then left abandoned on a beach at low tide. It can leave us shattered - in brittle small pieces, like shards of glass. Despite their equivalent levels of devastation, these situations are distinctly different, each flooding our senses with various shades of exhaustion and dreamy euphorias.

What motivates such descriptions of what are essentially fairly mundane ups and downs in energy? Perhaps it's the very cyclical nature of them. The wheels go round and round, the body works and rests, and through it we somehow eek out variety. Flavours. Textures. Meaning. And once we find it, we are truly ruined - not so much by miles or pace, as by our tireless, ferocious imaginations.




What Have I Done?

Italian Mystery Frame

I am not sure how to describe what has happened. It progressed so quickly you see. And it came rather out of the blue.

After nearly 3 years you might think that you more or less know someone. And I (thought that I) knew my husband to have a healthily moderate interest in bicycles. He would join me on rides. He would chat to me about bicycle construction and history. But there was a limit to his attention and commitment to the topic. He wasn’t “bicycle-mad,” as they call my type here. And that, I thought, was probably a good thing.

Then a few months back I drag home an old Raleigh Rapide, which I’d spotted in town and thought he might like for an everyday errand type bike.

To my relief, he does like it. He likes it a lot. In fact, the more he rides it, the more he likes it. Eventually, he starts to ride it not just as an errand bike, but, increasingly, as a roadbike. I can already see where this is heading.

“Please, please,” I plead, “don’t put clipless pedals on it and don't remove the mudguards. “That will bring us back to Square One of you not having a bike to ride in street clothes.”

“Aye, fair enough,” he says. “But I think I’d like to build myself up a wee vintage frame as a proper racer and see how it goes. Maybe something Italian?”

“Oh! Seriously? Well that sounds fantastic,” I say, not really thinking he means it.

Some days later, I walk past his open laptop and, from the corner of my eye, catch a glimpse of something quite disturbing. I try not to look. And normally I respect his privacy, really. But morbid curiosity gets the better of me, and I sneak up closer.

And then... oh god.

I mean, oh my god.

He has browser windows open to the bikeforums Classic & Vintage section. To eBay with various listings of Italian racing frames from the ‘80s, used tubular wheels, decade-old Campagnolo component groups. To an instructional video for how to spread rear dropouts from 126mm to 130mm. To an essay on bottom bracket standards and compatibilites.

Well, that escalated quickly.

“Erm, what’cha doing there, sweetheart?” I ask, in my best attempt at a casual tone of voice.

“Oh…” he replies distractedly, his brain still deep in the throes of problem-solving. “I’m just trying to understand this Columbus tubing chart. You reckon SLX is whole lot nicer to ride than SL?”

I have a look at the chart and am surprised to notice that neither type of tubing is as thin-walled as I would have thought it to be (they are both .9/.6/.9). I send him links to discussions of tubing wall thickness. By the following day, he is better informed on the topic than I am.

By the following week, he’s acquired encyclopedic knowledge of tubing hierarchies, component group histories, ways to ID mystery frames. He is aware of the difference between vintage and modern race fit, and of the exact frame dimensions he’d need for one versus the other. He’s been taking notes in a special little notebook he now keeps in a drawer. He’s been “sniping away” on ebay. He has dusted off the digital scale.

Italian Mystery Frame

I am trying very hard not to frame this as a gender thing. As in, women do this, men do that. Women like bikes in pretty colours, men like them taken apart, weighed, and measured, then entered into a spreadsheets. Meh.

Nevertheless…

Nevertheless, I have known exactly zero females and far too many males whose hobby it is to spend feverish evenings on eBay, on forum discussions, or in their “bike cave” - be it in cellar, attic, or shed - cleaning and polishing, cleaning and polishing, then leaned over a digital scale in schoolboy anticipation.

And as much as I enjoy admiring and photographing the fruits of their labours, I have always thought to myself: "What a relief I do not live with them."

And now? Is the joke on me? Watching him concentrating intently on the various facts and figures he comes across, I am filled with affection - mingled, somehow, with horror.

“Just how bad is this going to get, my darling?” I come close to asking, but hold myself back, as the fever shows no sign of subsiding, second week running.

Most of our time together, we discuss bicycles now. The intensity of his focus, the exacting nature of his curiosity, are stunning and a bit overwhelming. Is this what it would be like to live with a hyperactive pre-teen obsessed with trains, or baseball cards, or some such thing? I think this, then mentally smack myself for seeing my husband in that light. Why are we women such no fun when it comes to this stuff?

"But you said we'd watch the Danish movie and you're still looking at bikes!" I hear myself actually saying. Nag, nag. What exactly is happening here?

Further, why does eBay make me nervous and irritated rather than excited, the way it makes him? Am I just a slave to my evolutionary history? A gatherer, needing to feel secure in my acquisitions? I would rather definitely have a pair of handlebars for £30, than maybe have them for a tenner. No fun is what I am, by the sound of it.

But still: I love bicycles. And I am almost afraid to believe - to trust - that he loves them too.  Can it really be true? Is this more than a passing fancy?

Now every day little parcels begin to arrive - from Italy, Hungary, Austria, England. A crankset here. A stem there. A very dirty (but dirt cheap! and Super Record!) front mech. Some rare, special kind of bolt he frets about being the correct length.

And did I mention there is a frame?

Italian Mystery Frame

We spot it simultaneously while browsing search results for Pinarello Montello (his dream frame is either that, or a Colnago Masters, mid-'80s vintage), of which it was pretending to be one - but in all likelihood wasn't. However, it looked to be handmade, Italian, and "good." Certainly good enough to experiment with for his first build ("First?!"). And it was stamped, at the seat stay caps and fork crown, with the letter "G" - for Gary. How could he not?

"Did you know I once had a Francesco Moser that looked exactly like this?" I ask, trying to contain the width of my grin. I show him links to Lovely Bicycle posts from 5 years back.

"That's... amazing," he says, taken back for a moment by the uncanniness of their similarity. "And did you like it?"

"I loved it. The only bike I have ever let go of that I miss and think about regularly."

By this he is encouraged. "Don't you worry darling. Once I get the hang of this, I'll build you up a vintage Italian bike of your own, better than that ole Moser with the buckled headtube."

"You noticed that?" I say, rather impressed.

"Of course."

Until now I have no desire for another vintage roadbike. But his easy-breezy promise makes me wildly, unreasonably giddy.

"Just make sure it's not red," I say. I hate red. He asks which colours are acceptable and indulges me in a rather lengthy discussion of why I like certain shades of blue, but not others. His eyes don't even glaze over. "He is a good man," I think.

Italian Mystery Frame

By the time his mystery "G" frame arrives, he already knows how to build it up from scratch (Headset press? Who needs it!), with components that are mostly all here. We spend some happy hours doing this as the sun slowly, ever so slowly goes about setting.

With the physical bike in front of us, my tactile, visual self is now quite contented. I am crawling around the frame with my camera and my measuring tape, smelling the grease.

"Low bottom bracket, just as I thought! And short chainstays. Plenty of front-center. I think you will love riding this thing."

He nods, busily weighing every component before affixing it to the frame, jotting the figures down in his notebook.

"I would love to know who actually built this thing."

"I will put up detailed photos of it," I say, "Perhaps someone will ID it." And this I will do. Once I recover from the novelty of this whole situation.

Diagnosis: Bicycle Madness. It may not be in the DSM. But it's real. And, apparently, quite contagious.



Staying Upright


We are having a hot spell here. A peculiar hot spell that's accompanied by 15-18mph winds, but a hot spell nonetheless. The sun is blazing tirelessly and the 20C temperature feels more like 40. The wind does not mitigate the heat. It's a hot wind. Hot and dry, like a blast from a hairdryer. I am running about with bare legs, bare arms, bare feet, slathering sun screen, drinking pints of water.

Outside the freshly plowed fields turn dusty. The sea grass begins to look bleached. The whin and apple blossoms release their scents in frantic bursts. It is March and April and May all at once, in the course of a week.

In the slanting afternoon light, the farm yard is littered with snoozing barn cats, their furry bodies slack and trembling with pleasure on the hot concrete. I understand them completely. The sun makes me overly relaxed, sleepy. And the countryside scents are mind-altering. It is difficult to work. The cats have the right idea.

On my own this early evening, I had meant to join the local cycling club for a fast and grueling road ride. I intend to go. I am fit for it. But as I start to gather the things I need - the lycra shorts, the water bottles, the shoes, the socks, the helmet, the glasses - I suddenly have a flash of sensation of what it will be like to be encased in that, in the heat, in a group of other riders, and feel terribly claustrophobic, stifled. Before I even have a chance to think things through, I throw on a linen dress instead, sandals. Then I hop on my upright bike and pedal away.

Along the undulating road, the breeze pushes at me from new and surprising directions after every bend. My dress flutters wildly and the sun scorches my skin. I brace against the push of the wind, tensing this muscle and that, to keep my line of travel. But I do this without noticing, distracted by the views in from of me. When did the fields grow so lush? The forests so thick? The blossoms so pink and yellow? The baby lambs so varied in their colourings and so expressive in facial features?

It has been months, I realise now, since I have ridden an upright bicycle for anything close to this distance. This winter had been plagued by winds so strong and so regular, that I had set up one of my roadbikes as a commuter to help me cope, its drop bars and forward lean making it possible at least,  if still not exactly pleasant, to ride for transportation in 20mph+ headwinds. And I am grateful for this bike, for the benefits of the aerodynamic position it offered. And yet, it is only now I realise how much I miss each time I ride with my back curled over the bike and my head bent low. The vantage point really is so very, radically different.

After 6 or so miles the road straightens and I enjoy a tailwind. It is almost too easy now, and I fly in my top - third - gear, up a hill, effortless, inhaling wild garlic and something else - an unknown plant that is almost shockingly minty - taking in mountain views, eyes widened. All this makes me so high, I have an inkling it should be illegal.

Having cycled this far, I pedal a tad further and visit a friend, who is home and gives me tea in her garden. Then I stop by the river, take photos. Then I stop at the supermarket and buy too much stuff, forgetting I only have the one pannier today.

The bicycle overloaded, I finally cycle the 10 miles back - much of it in a headwind that is now so brutal I manage to hurt my lower back pushing against it. Thankfully, I only notice the pain once I am home, collapsed on the grass with my laptop, shooing away the farm dog (who is attracted like a magnet to any kind of equipment or gadgetry), too lazy to rise and go back inside for some Ibuprofen.

Ironically, I would not, even today, had been able to ride my upright bike in this crazy wind along these exposed roads, had the roadcycling not whipped me into a shape that's made this possible to accomplish without suffering. So I try to be grateful rather than resentful.

Still I laugh at the sense of betrayal I now feel at having missed so much. What did I miss exactly? It is hard to put into words. Certainly there's the openness of vantage point you get when cycling in an upright position. But it's also that casual, easy feeling, that is there even when it's not in fact easy.

There is something about roadcycling that makes it feel, to me, like a trip from which I inevitably return, an activity with a finite beginning and end. Whereas hopping on an upright bike is seamless, integrated. It is not so much cycling as living. On a bike.

Oh I don't know. Or rather, who cares? My head must be baked to be even thinking this.

I had been out for hours. I reek of maritime pines and rape fields and salty-wet linen, out of which I have no intention of changing. It is this sort of thing, these sorts of sensations and memories, that I'm talking about really. It is this sort of thing that keeps me upright.



Any 650B Cyclists in Ireland? No, Seriously!


So... I've received some 650B tyres to test. And by some, I mean like a gazillion. Some knobby, some smooth, all pretty wide. I am a little overwhelmed and would love it if someone helped me out here! Any local (as defined by your willingness to travel to Donegal or Derry) cyclists around who ride 650B and want to party? We can try the tyres, compare our impressions, and then you keep the demo samples.

If this sounds like a fun day out, drop me a line at filigreevelo[at]yahoo[com] - subject line "tyred." Look forward to hearing from you!

---
Edited to add: OMG there are not only 650B cyclists, but Rivendell owners in Ireland - and I'm going to meet them! Thank you, internet. Others, please feel free to contact me still. I will update this once we have too many testers.

Edited again:  I am no longer looking for more testers. However, please stay tuned for an announcement on the blog about an upcoming 650B meetup!


Wheel Sensations


Since I wrote about the Bike Friday Haul-a-Day, one question I've been asked about it privately is whether it "rides like a small wheeled bike." As a some time Brompton owner, this is a question I'm by now accustomed to. The implication here is, that small wheels feel inherently different (and less nice) to ride than what are presumably "standard" wheels. And so the question is whether the bicycle manages to somehow disguise or compensate for its small-wheelness through other design elements so that it rides like a "normal" bike.

Now, the reason this way of conceptualising things is problematic for me, is that I do not really feel small wheels to be a special, less-nice category of wheels to begin with. Further, I realise that I generally do not have a fixed idea of a "standard" bicycle wheel size. For me, it's more like there is a continuum of acceptable sizes - ranging from, say, 16" to 28" - and I honestly cannot say that I have a firm preference along this continuum.

That is not to say that I'm insensitive to wheel size. Only that for me, the whole thing is highly context-specific. It depends on the bike as a whole - on its overall design and purpose.

On a go-fast roadbike, a 700C wheel feels right. And it feels rightest with a fairly narrow (<32mm) tyre. Going wider, the wheels start to feel clumsy beneath me, the bicycle unwieldy. With fat tyres, 650B becomes a much better fit, giving me the feeling of having more control over my line of travel and low-speed maneuvering. I have also tried a few roadbikes with skinny tyres on 650B wheels, and with variously sized tyres on 26" wheels, and interestingly the 700C skinny/ 650B fat remains my preference - despite the fact that I ride fairly small frames. I have yet to try a small-wheeled roadbike.

On an upright city bike, 26" wheels - oddly, regardless of tyre size - are usually my sweet spot, with anything bigger feeling a bit like operating a tractor. The one exception here are the traditional Dutch bikes and English roadsters. Though designed with monstrous 28" (635 ISO) wheels and 38m tyres to boot, their endless fork rakes and mile-long chainstays place the rider in between the wheels rather than over them, resulting in a curiously luxuriant sensation that is more boat-like than tractor-like.

For bikes meant to carry a hefty front load, I am also a huge fan of the 20" or 16" front wheel. Under an oversized crate, basket or box, it doesn't feel "small," it feels normal - whereas bikes with larger front wheels never feel quite right to me with a lot of cargo up front. Regardless of how that cargo is secured and what sort of front end geometry the bike is designed with, it will always sit imperfectly high, whereas over a small front wheel it sits just right. This is exactly why I use my Brompton predominantly as a mini front-load cargo bike, and why the Bike Friday Haul-a-Day appeals to me as a front-loader. In fact, my idea of the perfect urban utility bike is very much like this: a 26" rear wheel, a 20" front wheel, fat tyres all around, and a frame-mounted platform for a monstrous basket or crate. An all-out mini-velo design like so would do nicely as well. When it comes to utility bikes, I do not really see any drawback to smaller wheels to be honest.

When I think about what associations I have with smaller wheel sizes, it occurs to me they are all positive: Maneuverability. Toe clearance. Compactness. And, dare I say, plain old zippy fun! I do not experience the "squirrelyness" some riders report feeling on bikes with 16" and 20" wheels, nor the cornering issues, nor the alleged difficulty in maintaining speed. And I cannot help but wonder to what extent a preference for larger wheels is aesthetic, or psychological. We are adults after all. Small wheels are for children's bikes, right? Bigger is better?

In that vein, I recall my own reaction to a Strida bike I had tried some time ago. Riding it, I had the feeling that I wasn't pedaling a bicycle at all, but rather a folding ladder to which someone, as a sort of practical joke, had affixed a pair of shopping trolley wheels.

"Nonsense!" laughed the owner. "It feels like any normal bike. I ride it everywhere."

I suppose it's all relative. And how wonderful it is that we have so much variety to choose from, of bicycles with wheels large and small.

Do you sense differences in the ways bicycles with different wheel sizes handle and do you have a preference? What is your idea of the "standard" bicycle wheel size?



Rapide Transit

One day several months ago I met a man astride a beautiful vintage roadbike. It was the colour that first made me notice it - similar to Bianchi's celeste, but metallic and with a bit more green in it. But what really piqued my interest was the unusual lugwork. A quick visual survey of the frame revealed a Raleigh headbadge, a Reynolds 531 decal, and Campagnolo downtube shifters. "That is a beautiful bike!" I said to the owner. We chatted and I took some snaps before we parted ways.

Some time later, we ran into each other again and he said he was looking to sell the bike: "It's too small for me you see, and I have lots of others." "It's too big for me," I said. "But I know someone for whom it's just right." The bike, I knew by now, was not exactly valuable. And I could see a small dent in the top tube. But the price was right and I decided to risk it. Notes were exchanged. Then I dragged the bicycle home and waited with bated breath till my loved one returned from work.


I have been in my "new" relationship for nearly 3 years now. In the course of that time - and much to my delight - my partner's interest in cycling has increased steadily. A lapsed roadie, he was by no means a stranger to cycling. However, prior to meeting me, he had been off the bike for over a decade, so getting back into the swing of things took some time and trial-and-error.

In addition, his understanding of cycling had revolved around sport - not transport. But keen to join me on errands and casual rides without having to kit up, he made a good effort to get into the utility side of things as well. Only problem was, he routinely rejected the bikes I'd nominate for the task. Anything with an upright riding position he found uncomfortable. Anything that felt heavy or inefficient he couldn't abide. And he vehemently disliked "clutter." Racks and baskets? No. Handlebar bag? Hell no. No matter what utility-ready gem I pushed his way, he felt most at ease on his road racing bike. Except that it didn't have fenders, or flat pedals, or any way of carrying stuff. What he needed perhaps was a roadbike - fast and responsive, but with just enough accessories to turn it into a bike he could ride in street clothes and carry things on. So I kept on the lookout for something suitable. What exactly, I wasn't sure, but I had a feeling I'd know it when I saw it.


Introduced to the vintage Raleigh, he approached it cautiously - circling it slowly and with animal-like concentration, almost sniffing it.

"I've always wanted a vintage racer."

And I knew then that, at least on aesthetic merits, the bike had been tentatively accepted.

Following that, the first thing he did to the bicycle was clean it. He cleaned it with meditative thoroughness. The frame, the drivetrain, the wheel rims and spokes - It must have taken a couple of hours. Then, and only then, he rode it - declaring finally: "I like it."


"But you'll put mudguards on it, right? And a bag?"

To this he agreed. After a while a few other changes were made to the bike as well.


The vintage handlebars and levers were eventually swapped for my spare set of Nitto Noodles and Tektros. The decrepit tyres and tubes were replaced with his spare modern ones. The metal road pedals were changed to rubber-grippy flat pedals. And the bike got a new plastic bottle cage. Everything else has remained pretty much the same.


The bicycle itself is a Raleigh Rapide Handbuilt from the early 1980s. And the last part of that model name is crucial: Whereas the standard Raleigh Rapide was a fairly low end model, the Handbuild was apparently a special edition and considerably nicer.


Handmade in England (at a time when standard Raleigh production had begun already to move overseas), it was made with racing geometry, Reynolds 531 tubing,


Vitus dropouts, and a drivetrain which included a Campagnolo rear derailleur and downtube shifters.


While it's not a distinguished or coveted model, the Rapide Handbuilt is not all that commonly spotted "in the wild." And the aspect I find particularly lovely is the lugwork. At first glance, the rounded lug points and the eyelet-lace-like cutouts reminded me of a much earlier style of lugs I'd seen on a pre-WWII Carlton bicycle.


This prompted me to do some digging, and on further research it seems that these likely are Carlton lugs - only from a later period (consider, for instance, this 1980 Carlton Corsair).


Can the Rapide Handbuilt in fact be a rebadged Carlton, I wonder? Judging by some photos I've seen, I think it's very possible. Not only the lugs, but the seat stay caps and the fork crowns of the early '80s Corsairs appear identical to this bike. And they were made with the same tubing. 


But whatever this bicycle's background, the important thing is that its owner rides it, and likes it. And that he does - although not for so much for its lugwork, colour or history, as for the fact it lives up to its name. For this Raleigh is indeed quite rapide

Although noting that it isn't as quick to accelerate or climb as his modern roadbike, overall the husband is impressed that he is able to maintain a speed of 16-17mph average easily on the vintage Raleigh - in flat shoes and street clothes, and in a somewhat more upright position.



"But the whole point is that you aren't supposed to go fast on this one!" I say, exasperated that the bicycle's worth is being  measured in this manner. 

"Says who?" he replies with a wink, stroking the downtube shifters lovingly before starting to remove groceries from the saddlebag. 



I think my lesson here is - we can't control what kind of bicycles the people in our lives enjoy riding, and neither can we control what it is they enjoy about the act of cycling. So if it's speed and drop bars he wants - even on a casual bike - good for him, and I won't stand in the way. I am just glad to have found a bicycle he is willing to ride with mudguards, a bag, and flat pedals - keeping me company on errands and transport rides on his own version of Rapid(e) transit. 


A Haul-a-Day in Ireland


A little while ago I wrote a post recalling with fondness the Xtracycle Radish I once owned and noting the many potential uses for cargo bikes. I speculated that in addition to machines optimised for transporting children and super-heavy-duty items in an urban setting, there was also a market for a nimbler, lighter type of cargo bike optimised for distance and terrain. Shortly after this, and to my great amazement, I was contacted by the folks at Bike Friday. They had recently introduced a bicycle designed to do exactly what I was describing. And they wondered how it would perform in the challenging landscape of rural Ireland. With stunning swiftness, they were able to arrange for a demo model to be sent here for a visit. And before I knew what hit me, I found myself face to face with a cargo bike of a most unusual sort.


To understand just how unusual, let me backtrack a tad and tell you about Bike Friday In case you are not already familiar with this cult brand (owned by Green Gear Cycling in Oregon), they make small wheeled and folding bikes. They have been making them by hand, in Eugene, Oregon, since the early 1990s. And without taking themselves too seriously, they make serious claims about their products. The headbadge features a cartoon winged suitcase and promises "bicycles that fly." With a stress on "performance that packs," they offer a staggering variety of models - including road racing, touring, mountain, commuter and tandem - in multiple sizes and with custom options to boot.


The latest model to join Bike Friday's lineup is the Haul-a-Day: a long-tail, small wheeled, disassemblable cargo bike designed for nimble travel with loads of 200-250lb.


Made compact thanks to the small (20") wheels, the Haul-a-Day sports a reasonable wheelbase and weighs 33lb empty, allowing Bike Friday to claim it as "the lightest long-tail cargo bike built today." And while not a folding bike, it disassembles into 3 pieces for packing, which makes it handy for travel.


Thanks to the sliding top tube, and the extendable seat post and stem, the frame adjusts to fit riders 4’6″ to 6’4″, with options for handlebar styles making it possible to dial in fit further. The standard model is rated for a 220lb rider limit, with a heavier-duty upgrade available.


The Haul-a-Day comes standard with disc brakes and wide (44mm) tyres, with different fender options available.


Standard options for gearing are an 8-speed vs 24-speed drivetrain (a SRAM/ Shimano medley),


with easy to operate twist gear shifters.


And as far as aesthetics, there is a range of standard and special-order colour combinations to choose from - the demo bike being in Cream Soda Blue, which I immediately nicknamed "tractor blue."


With a fair amount of standard configuration options and endless custom ones, it is easy to tailor a Bike Friday Haul-a-Day to suit one's preferences. You can equip it for the city or the country. You can make it look technical or quaint. You can fit it with drop bars, set it up with ultra low gears, equip it with dynamo lighting, or have it painted in your favorite colour(s) - lots of possibilities. The versatility this small and flexible manufacturer offers is pretty great.  And I haven't even begun to discuss the carry capacity yet.


But speaking of. As a long-tail, the Haul-a-Day works very similarly (identically, really) to the Xtracycle system. The truss-like, extended rear end of the bike is fitted with a long platform and a pair of specially designed, strong and expandable hammock-like bags/supports. With this system, a variety of long, large, or unusually shaped objects can be secured to the rear of the bike in a variety of ways. Objects that are long but not especially heavy can simply be strapped to the sides. For heavier loads, plug-in support platforms are available. For children, child seats or a "hooptie"-type rail attachment can be installed, and foot rests and platform-cushioners added. And thanks to the small rear wheel, even oversized crates, storage containers and other tall objects can be attached to the platform without sitting too high on the bike and making the rear end top-heavy.


In addition to this, the Haul-a-Day comes with a cycle-truck-style front platform. Affixed to the frame rather than the front wheel and positioned low - thanks once again tot he 20" wheel - the platform can support sizable loads without impacting steering or interfering with visibility.


Curious to try both front and rear load capacities, I attempted to procure a suitable basket... but instead found this monstrously large one. I attached it at first just for fun, certain that it would both feel too awkward and interfere with the handlebars turning... but it turned out to be just right! The basket is made of raffia ribbon, not wicker, so it is actually very lightweight when empty. And of course the front curvature gives it that desirable aero quality. A handful of zip ties and a couple of neighbourood test rides later, and it was clear the basket was destined to stay. I only wish I had read about the 35lb front load capacity before doing this to it!...


Today being my third day with the Bike Friday Haul-a-Day, this is not a review - just an introduction. I am going to have this bike for a month before it goes back to Oregon, after which I will post a detailed review. But as far as first impressions, here is a summary of my notes so far:

+
FIT: This was the first thing I noticed. Usually with cargo bikes I find that I have to compromise on fit quite a bit. On the Haul-a-Day I found it easy to dial in my position so that it felt just the way I like it. The low stepover is much appreciated also.

HANDLING: In normal (non-gale force wind) weather conditions, I find this bicycle fast on the open road and easy up hills (under light weight load only so far). But the more surprising part is its maneuverability. Not only is turning radius not an issue, but the Haul-a-Day seems to excel at going through tight, twisty spaces.

FAT TYRES:The 44mm tyres are fantastically versatile on paved and unpaved surfaces, allowing me to take shortcuts through muddy farm fields and rough forest trails. The ride quality (unlike on the Bike Friday Tikit I reviewed some time ago) is also luxuriously cushy.

REAR CARRY: Works just like the Xtracycle Radish I used to own. Easy and intuitive for my use case scenario (carrying long/oddly shaped, but not overly heavy objects in the rear, and no kids).

FRONT CARRY: Considering it is primarily a long-tail design, I am impressed by the Haul-a-Day's ability to carry weight in the front.

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GOING OFF SCRIPT: My first impression of the Haul-a-Day is so positive, that I'll need to live with it a bit to start finding shortcomings. But the main problem I see so far, is that I like the front end handling so much, it is very tempting to ride this bike as a cycle truck while mostly ignoring the long-tail. Potential problem, as that is not really how this bicycle is designed to be used and it's easy to exceed the recommended front load capacity.


Well, I think that is enough for now! If you have any questions about the Haul-a-Day, feel free to ask. And if you're local and want to test ride this bike while it is in my possession, you are very welcome to pay me a visit - get in touch via email.

The Bike Friday Haul-a-Day retails from $1,190 - an attractive price as far as cargo bikes go in general. When you consider it is handmade in Oregon, highly customisable, and dissassemblable (have you checked on the price of couplers lately?...), the attraction turns serious. With thanks to Bike Friday for the opportunity to review this unique bicycle, I look forward to reporting my impressions in detail this summer.

For a complete and latest picture set of this bicycle, please visit here. And for lots of examples of how  Haul-a-Day owners set up their bikes (including custom long-tail bags), see also #hauladay on instagram.


Cork: For Weight Savings and Performance!



After a lapse of several years, I have recently gone back to using wine corks as bar-end plugs on my roadbikes. Straight away I began to get compliments. What lovely, quaint, old fashioned things those are! Perfect for a vintage racer. But actually, they're perfect for pretty much any bicycle with drop bars. Far more perfect than any other option I've tried so far.

First, consider the performance aspect. The plugs that come included with handlebar tape tend to be flimsy and are notorious for their lack of staying power, often falling out after only several rides. And the seemingly more "pro" plugs that are sold on their own are not always much better. By contrast, once you manage to wrangle a wine cork in there, it is impressively tenacious (so much so that extracting it, should you ever need to, can be tricky... but we'll not dwell on that for now!). While I have eventually lost at least one of every set of bar-ends I have ever used, I have yet to lose a cork.

The feel of the cork is also quite a bit nicer than the alternatives. Plastic bar-ends can feel hard, sticky and, well, plasticky. The metal ones I find unpleasantly cold to the touch. Cork is perfect in temperature, texture and give. Should my hand, or leg, brush against it, I do not even notice.

But the under-appreciated aspect of wine corks that's perhaps most relevant for today's roadie, is the weight savings. Did you know that a set of store-bought bar-end plugs can add 35 grams to your bicycle build?! Pretty scandalous when you consider that a typical wine cork (which can be cut in two and used for both sides of the bars) weighs only 5 grams. In other words, by not choosing corks for plugging up your drop bars, you may be subjecting your so-called lightweight build to a 700% weight gain in the crucial bar-end area! I shudder to think of the effect that has on one's climbing ability.

As if these merits were not sufficient, consider the financial savings. Commercially available bar-end plugs can cost upward of $20. You can purchase a fine bottle of wine to enjoy with a friend for half of that staggering price, then use the cork for your handlebars. Or, if you aren't looking for an excuse to purchase wine, you can get corks for free at your neighbourhood restaurant. Heck, you can even gather them up, then make a clean fortune reselling them as high-end bar plugs - perhaps dying the corks black for the modern roadie who finds the natural look too quaint.

Lovely? Perhaps. But old fashioned? Hardly. If it's weight savings and performance you're after, corks are the bar-ends for you.


Review: Rapha Core Collection



It’s been a while since I have covered Rapha on this blog. But I’ve been wearing bits and pieces of their clothing for a good few years now. And in the course of those years I have arrived at the opinion that Rapha makes excellent cycling clothes. The comfort factor is high. The fabrics are uniquely pleasant to the touch. The styling is flattering (inasmuch as such a word can be used to describe cycling clothes). The fit of the women’s collection - which was quite good to begin with - has improved steadily over the years. And the durability has, for the most part, proved excellent. Some of my oldest cycling clothes still in circulation are Rapha (i.e. my Ride Studio Cafe club kit circa 2010!), still going strong despite frequent wear.

It feels a bit unfair then to add, that I would prefer for all these praiseworthy features to come in a more low-key package. For I am in the category of those who find Rapha’s iconic white armband off-putting, their contrasting logos visually domineering, their themes of epic suffering comically exaggerated. I suppose what I really want from Rapha - whether it's "fair" to want such a thing or not - is their styling, fit and quality, without the overtly Raphaesque iconography. And even though in today’s landscape of boutique cycling apparel brands Rapha’s price tags are not as eyebrow-raising as they once were, of course lower prices wouldn't hurt either.



I am hardly alone in such criticisms. Nearly every review of Rapha ever written describes their garments as excellent, but a bit OTT in the branding department, as well as expensive. 

And so, as if having finally decided to address the situation, this spring Rapha has introduced the Core Collection. Released simultaneously for men and women, the Core shorts and jerseys offer “the basic essentials in performance and functionality" - with subtler branding and a lower pricepoint than Rapha’s traditional lines. Having received a sampling from the range for review, what I am looking at is some handsome cycling kit, plain and simple. 

As far as sizing: I am a size 4 US (38/40 EU, 12 UK) and am wearing the women's Core shorts in Size Small, the jersey in Size Medium (deliberately sized up to fit over a base layer - it's cold here!). My male tester is a size 34 (trousers) and L (tops) in street clothes; he is wearing the men's Core bibs is size Large, the jersey in size XL. 



The short sleeve jerseys are available in black, as well as a range of solid colours, including red, navy, gray, light blue and pink (I am actually quite impressed with the colour selection considering they have just launched the line). The fit is generous enough to be worn over a base layer, but tailored to hug the body's contours - with men-specific and women-specific proportions executed pretty well.



My skin is sensitive to synthetic fabrics, and even in warmer weather I can't wear synthetic jerseys without a merino base layer underneath. Still, one thing I appreciate about lycra is that it is highly stretchy. The Core jersey in particular, I find, allows for a great range of movement without pulling at the shoulders, riding up too much, or bunching uncomfortably. The stretch also makes it somewhat versatile as far as sizing: size down for a tight, racy fit and it won't constrain; size up for a roomier fit and it won't flutter.



Designed to fit optimally when leaning over the handlebars, off the bike both the men's and women's versions of the jersey are quite loose around the lower back - an effect that is exaggerated by the deep rear pockets.



What it lacks in clever extras - key fobs, special compartments for pumps, and such - the basic 3-pocket system makes up for in roominess, swallowing bananas, scrunched up rain jackets and phones unceremoniously. And it still features a zippered compartment for valuables.



And once the rider is on the bike, the looseness at the lower back disappears entirely.



Distinctly devoid of white armbands, neon stripes or contrasting logos, the Core jerseys feature a subtle tonal armband on the left sleeve and two tonal logos: one on the chest and another across the rear pockets. The logos are so subtle, as to be near-invisible, unless hit by direct light. It's a clean and simple look if ever there was one.

While I prefer merino jerseys over synthetic ones, as far as the latter goes the Core jersey is certainly a nice one. I like this jersey for its excellent fit, generous degree of give, roomy pockets, and overall functional simplicity. As a fan of all-black cycling kit, I also appreciate that "even" the women's version comes in black. Not black with a splash of fuchsia just in case, but "pure dark black," to use the local parlance. Seriously Rapha, thank you for that.



Because of the lower pricing, it is tempting to think of the Core Collection as Rapha’s “budget range” and, consequently, to look for signs of this in the look and feel of the products. I was therefore surprised to discover that I actually prefer the women's Core shorts to my trusty Rapha Classic shorts, which I have owned and worn for years.



The women's Core shorts offer the same key features that make the brand’s flagship Clasic shorts so comfortable: namely, the same excellent chamois and the same fold-over front panel construction that makes these the only non-bib shorts I've tried that don't pinch or create muffin-toppage around my mid-section.



I was then delighted to find that, in addition, the Core women’s shorts are made with wide laser-cut leg grippers - a feature that my Classic women’s shorts lack and I’d always wished they had. Apparently the laser-cut style of leg gripper is actually less expensive to produce than the fold-over style of the Classic shorts. If so, all the better, as this is my favourite style of gripper. Holding firmly in place over bare legs and legwarmers alike, it doesn't oversqueeze, saving me from rashes and the unsightly sausaging effect.



Wheareas Rapha's Classic shorts are available in a longer and shorter length version, the Core shorts come in the longer length only. But perhaps the most noticeable difference, is that the fabric of the Core shorts is denser and a bit heavier than the stocking-thin matte nylon of the Classic shorts. While I suspect that in super hot climates this denser fabric might not be as cooling, this is something that I personally am spared from worrying about in Ireland. Wearing the Core shorts on the bike, I appreciate the extra support and compression they offer, preferring this denser fabric to that of my Classic shorts.



The men’s Core bib shorts parallel the women's shorts, with the addition of (black or white) bib straps. With the straps being solid rather than mesh, I again suspect that for very hot climates these bibs might lack cooling properties. That said, the straps are of the fairly minimal variety, and described by my male tester as comfortable with and without a base layer.



The bib shorts are in fact my male tester's favourite part of the Core collection. He raves about them after every ride, saying they fit him better than any of his other cycling shorts and feel considerably more comfortable around the crotch area (both the chamois itself and the fit around it).



Aside from the fit, comfort and laser cut leg grippers (which is his prefered style as well), he also praises Rapha's choice of black for the chamois-cover fabric - clarifying meaningfully: "You don't want a light colour down there, like!"

"Ew. Are you sure you want me to publish that?" I ask.

"Yeah, write it down. Men like to know about that sort of thing."

Noted.



With stitching that is only partly flat-lock, and a sewn-in label along the back seam, the inside of the Core shorts and bibs provides insight into the cost-reduction aspects of their manufacture. But as these details translate into no discernable discomfort, I see no cause for complaint.



I was also amused to notice that the Core Collection's lower pricepoint did not come at the expense of literature: Like many Rapha garments, the Core shorts and bibs are imprinted with cycling-themed stories (in this case, on the underside of the front panels).

So, should you ever want to ...erm, flirt with a Core shorts-wearing rider, just ask for a glimpse of their Marin Headlands/ Lonely Mountain (as applicable).



My overall impression of the Core Collection is that it is basic Rapha, but not "budget Rapha." While we have not worn the garments long enough to comment on durability, as far as fit, comfort and styling I feel that the Core range has much to recommend it. While I like the Core jersey, the item I love best is the women's shorts, and I note that my male tester is mad about the bibs. Additionally, I appreciate the Core's subtler branding and lower cost.

Priced roughly 30% below their flagship Classic line, the Core Collection still isn't exactly cheap: A jersey will set you back £75.00 (men's and women's), the women's shorts £80, and the men's bib's £100. But, whether we like it or not, that pricing is on par with what many other cycling apparel manufacturers are charging today.

Whether you are a fan of Rapha, or secretly wish you could wear Rapha without being a "Rapha Wearer," the Core collection could be for you. I wish their new endeavour well and hope to see the Core range expand in future - in particular, with cold weather offerings, and - a personal request! - pure merino.


Beyond Recognition


If asked what we think defines a bicycle's essence, I believe that most of us - myself included - would say it's the frameset. Certainly the frameset, with other aspects - including components and aesthetics - being of lesser importance. It's amazing then, how much of an impact a makeover makes on a bicycle's perceived essence, as it were.

I'd be curious to know whether anybody even recognised the machine above as one I have already featured here. I probably wouldn't have. In fact, despite knowing they are the same bike, I have a difficult time thinking of them that way. And so, for those who have been following this unusual frame's adventures, I bring you the dramatic yet pragmatic conclusion of the Ralianchi saga.


Earlier I wrote about my neighbour Owen's unique bicycle. At first glance an iconic celeste Bianchi, it was in fact a Team Raleigh 753 frame, repainted in Bianchi regalia for local pro cyclist Joe Barr, who had raced for (Bianchi-sponsored) team Maestro in the 1990s. If you are interested in the full details, see this original post. But long story short, after acquiring the bike Owen decided to turn it back into a Raleigh. So he stripped the frame of components and paint, then refinished it himself and built it up with contemporary parts.

The result was waiting for me in Owen's shed one day, complete with Shimano Dura-Ace groupset and Fulcrum wheels: "Take it out for a spin; it should fit you!"

With renewed interest I examined the bicycle's construction and finish, and it was as if I was seeing it for the first time.

The most striking feature, which had been more subdued under celeste paint and Bianchi decals, was the straight fork.

Painted a glossy dark red, together with the headtube it formed one continuous, aggressive slash -standing out from the muted, clear-coated steel tubes of the rest of the frame.

By comparison, the rest of the frameset was so subtle as to nearly turn invisible - fading into the background while the front end sparkled in the sun, menacingly.

The hand applied paint and lacquer looked quite good, hard candy-like, with no visible brush strokes or bulges - an excellent DIY job. The Raleigh and Reynolds decals had been applied pretty well also, giving the frame a quite natural appearance overall - as if it had never been any other way.

An interesting detail I had not noticed on this bike when it had been a "Bianchi" now stood out: a little tab below the top tube, for attaching one's race number. Possibly, this is a feature Owen will get a chance to actually make use of. Arrrrrgh!

As far as components, Owen prefers Shimano to the Campagnolo the bike had been originally fitted with.

He sourced a new-old-stock 10-speed Dura-Ace groupset with race gearing, a few years old, and is pretty happy with its performance.

It surprised me to discover 28cm tyres on the bike.  I knew Owen to be a skinny-tyre fan, and also would not have thought that a frameset like this would comfortably fit them. But fit them it does, and regarding the width Owen explained that they were temporary - borrowed off of another bike while he decided which to get for racing.

Also temporary are the Wellgo commuter pedals. With one side flat and the other SPD, they allow for pedaling both clipped in and in street shoes.

Overall this bicycle was a long way from the iteration I'd seen last summer! The Selle Italia saddle with titanium rails, and the seatpost it perched upon, were perhaps the only parts carried over from the original build.

Although Owen told me to feel free and ride the bike, I doubted that I actually would  - expecting for the fit to be so completely off as to make any test ride pointless. In fact, the fit was very close. Turns out Owen's saddle height is nearly exactly the same as mine, as is his top tube length. However, he sets his saddle back further and uses a shorter stem. Consequently, the bicycle felt as if it fit me perfectly whilst placing me in someone else's position, if that makes sense - an odd sensation that nevertheless made it quite ridable.

As I use the Crankbrothers clipless system, the SPD sides of Owen's pedals were incompatible with my cycling shoes, so I rode in my ordinary shoes on the flat sides. Considering that my previous experiences with this style of pedals had not been great, I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected. The flat sides of the Wellgos stayed flipped up, provided an adequately sized platform, and were perfectly grippy under my street shoes. The Shimano brake/shift levers are my least favourite of all the component groups, but I find them manageable enough to use if need be. The only aspect of the bike that felt outright uncomfortable was the too-narrow saddle, but in the short run it too I could cope with.

All things considered, I think I did pretty well to take this bike on a 12 mile spin around the countryside. And while I'm not exactly sure what I expected for it to be like, my dominant impression was that in every way it felt like a modern road-racing bike... almost "too much" so, in the sense that it hadn't that quirkiness or interestingness of older machines. It was fast, aggressive, responsive. A bit rough over potholes and bumps under that straight fork, but otherwise pretty smooth. And while riding in somebody else's position made me strain to apply power at times, I got the sense that under its owner's bum this bike was a rocket. Just like an off-the-shelf modern roadracing bike.

Was it the overhaul of components responsible for this impression? Or does the Reynolds 753 tubing (about the controversial properties of which you can read in the comments of this earlier post!) deliver a particularly modern ride feel?

...Or is it the case that the look of the bike influenced my test ride impressions? It could be either, or - more likely - some combination of the three. And, of course, in the end, it hardly matters. As really it is about what the bicycle's owner wants out of the machine.

And what this bicycle's owner wanted, was not a period-perfect Team Raleigh 753. What he wanted was a bike with a lightweight steel frameset and modern components, that fit him well, and was competitive in today's amateur racing scene. With that in mind, I believe it is mission accomplished for Owen. And I look forward to seeing that tab under the top tube occupied with his race number.


Big in Japan

Bridgestone Japan Commuter
If you want to know a sure way to meet owners of unusual or interesting bicycles, it's really quite simple: Be seen with an unusual or interesting bicycle. Wandering through the small seaside town of Dunfanaghy on a pastel green folder, I encountered a woman named Janet. "I have a bike you might like to see," she said. "It's Japanese. Very typical Japanese. And old!"

Oh how easy it was to lure me up the narrow mountain lane that led to Janet's abode. And once there, I was nearly too stunned by the gorgeous house and view, to remember I came there to see about a bicycle. But soon enough it was wheeled out and I remembered!

Bridgestone Japan Commuter
I had not been sure what to expect from the "very typical Japanese" description. Possibly something like this? But the first thing I saw was a sort of rust sculpture on wheels.

"Was the original colour gray?" I asked.

"Black," clarified Janet helpfully. "...I think! It's been so long now."

It took some time for my eye to adjust and make out the form of a step-though frame, then notice the details - one of which jumped out at me soon enough: I was looking at a Bridgestone.

Bridgestone Japan Commuter
But not the Bridgestone that is so loved and fetishised in the US for its Grant Petersen-designed road and mountain bike models produced though the 1980s. This was a Japanese Bridgestone. A city bike, it had no visible markings indicating model or year and felt even heavier to lift than it looked. Straight from Osaka to Dunfanaghy it came when Janet returned from Japan some years ago.

Bridgestone Japan Commuter
Bridgestone Cycles Japan is a company that made - and continues to make - so many bicycles, that it's almost as if no one bothered to document them all. Identifying a specific model can be difficult.  But bicycles like this are very common in Japan. The prototypical utilitarian commuters, they are normal and unremarkable - and that is the whole point, as cycling itself is unremarkable.

Bridgestone Japan Commuter
For some years, Janet had lived in Osaka for work. Everyone cycled there, she explained. It was easy and the best way to get around - less stressful than driving, or navigating public transport in a foreign language.

Bridgestone Japan Commuter
"It was even registered to me," she recalls nostalgically, pointing out the decals which I cannot read.

Using the bike as her daily transportation, Janet had grown so used to it that upon returning to Ireland she brought it back with her. Unfortunately though, cycling is not quite as big in the UK and Ireland, where she has since lived, as it is in Japan. She does not feel comfortable riding the Bridgestone here and only keeps it in her shed for sentimental reasons.

Bridgestone Japan Commuter
Despite being a very ordinary bicycle of its type, Janet's Bridgestone brimmed with interesting details - from its long fork rake, to its unusual rear hub (too rusted for me to discern any markings), and dial-like steering lock.

Bridgestone Japan Commuter
But my favourite detail on this bike is the curved basket stay, routed around the headlight. It's funny, because I have seen this design element show up in a few custom handmade bicycles over the past years, and there are always comments about how exquisite, creative and original it is. Apparently not so much!

Bridgestone Japan Commuter
Also quite interesting is the wide, skinny-tubed rear rack, disassembleable to fold down flat.

Bridgestone Japan Commuter
And the "Shift Eye" internally geared hub shifter, the likes of which I had not seen before.

Bridgestone Japan Commuter
Despite the bicycle's long-neglected state, the components seemed to work when I tried them. The worn tyres and tubes need to be replaced. But with that done, and after a basic tune-up, I believe this bicycle would be quite ridable again.

Bridgestone Japan Commuter
True, cycling is tough here. And not as big as it is in Osaka. Still, I hope to some day be walking along the main street of Dunfanaghy and meet Janet, this time happily astride her old Japanese Bridgestone, rust and all. A bicycle once so loved and cherished surely deserves to enjoy an active retirement - and where better than in Ireland, by the sea?


They Know What You Did Last Summer


In perhaps a premature burst of optimism, I ventured this morning into my long neglected drawer of lightweight cycling clothes. Stuffed with the likes of un-fleecelined shorts, gauzy-fabricked jerseys and teensy-weensy ankle socks, it was a drawer that had sat undisturbed since last September. And, opening it now, I was taken aback by the stale, concentrated smell of... I don't even know what, as it wasn't just one thing I could immediately identify. It was the smell of cycling-last-summerness.

Certain that I'd laundered it all before putting it away, I inspected each garment now, sniffing it critically. Clearly all the clothes had been washed. They were free of body smells and exuded that sheen of cleanliness which disappears as soon as an item is worn. But the fabrics must have retained some trace of specific scents - scents now amplified, having lain together in a small enclosed space for months, undisturbed.

The clothes now in a pile in front of me, I sat on the floor in a semi-meditative state, transported by their collective aura to the long, warm summer days on the bike. Leaning in with my eyes half closed, like a connoisseur at an expensive perfume counter I tried to discern the individual scents. There were notes of Boudreaux's Butt Paste and hints of dried sea grass. Organic midge repellent and rotten banana peel. The sickly sweetness of Shot Bloks, sun-melted into their wrappers. Sun-baked peat moss. And then, a subtle yet lingering undercurrent - metallic, almost like blood or sweat yet somehow devoid of the biological... It took me a moment to figure it out: Coins! The jerseys all reeked of the pocket change they had stored on every ride, warmed by sun and body heat to release their coiny essence deep into the fabric's fibres.

Before the fragments could take the form of memories, I had the overwhelming sensation of re-experiencing, in a bodily, visceral way, all that I had done on the bike the summer prior, and all at once. Impossible to process into a comprehensive sequence, the jumble of sensory information spilled out in front of me, like the pile of clothes itself. Sweaty face, hot sea breeze, sticky tarmac, stretches of bog, emerald water views dotted with islands, endless conversations in the endless gloaming, endless pedaling.

Preparing to throw it in the wash on a refresher cycle, I carried the armfull of clothes downstairs, then double-checked the pockets. Sure enough: washed out receipts I'd forgotten to remove, a packing list of some kind, a scrap of paper with written directions, a faded ice cream wrapper, a 50 euro-cent coin, a 20 pence coin, a hair elastic, salty sand granules flecked with bits of seaweed, a tiny key. Out of a shapeless memory-mass, details began to emerge: dates, faces, place names, plans, spoken phrases.

Coming back to any object after a long absence can feel a bit like re-entering a once-familiar house that had not been lived in for some time. There is an excitement to it. But also a carefulness. Because we are aware, on some level, that the ghosts of past experiences reside there. With bicycle-related objects, I have noticed their power to evoke these ghosts - good and bad - seems to be particularly strong. And perhaps it is the physicality of all things cycling that is the cause of this. If the cycling experience enhances our senses, can it also enhance our memories?

Suspecting the answer is yes, I am almost reluctant to ruin the spooky magic of it by rinsing my warm-weather clothes. On the other hand, the sun is shining. I want to believe it will soon be time for shorts. And time for new summer experiences.

A Bundle of Joy for Drop Bar Commuting: the ILE Racktop Porteur Bag

On my way home from the supermarket last night, a neighbour - in the rural sense of the word, as this was a good few miles from my house - flagged me down as I pedaled past. She was holding a parcel for me, mis-delivered to her address. When she handed it over, I thanked her profusely, while wondering how the heck I would get it home. The bundle might fit into my front bag, just barely, on top of the groceries already in there. But the resultant bulge would surely prevent me from using the brakes on my drop-bars, as they were already quite close to the sides of the bag. Happily, when I stuffed the parcel inside, this proved to be a non-issue: As the bag swallowed the goods, it grew in height but remained just narrow enough in width for the sides to clear my hands when I held the brake levers.

And that sums up what I love about the Inside Line Equipment Racktop Porteur Bag: It's a front bag that is not only handmade, durable and roomy, but - oh joy of joys! - compatible with drop bars.


Inspiring me to set up one of my roadbikes as a "transporteur," this bag has expanded my long-distance commuting possibilities by enabling me to combine the speed of a roadbike with the carry capacity of a utility bike - while allowing me to stick with my preferred front-carry method of hauling weight.

A setup that allows for both drop bars and a large, porteur-style front bag is notoriously tricky to get right. The lower and the narrower the handlebars and the wider the bag, the more potential for interference. And in that sense, I am probably one of the more difficult riders to accommodate: Smallish in stature, I ride bikes with short head tubes and I set my (42cm wide) bars pretty low. While for a taller rider, the bars might be positioned well above any front-carry setup, for me any front bag will sit right in between my hands. For that reason, many porteur-style bags will be too bulky to work with drop bars. But the 14"-wide, collapsible ILE bag is just narrow enough to clear my hands.

Granted, especially when the bag is full, it's close. Lucky for me, I am on the right side of close. But if you ride with bars which are narrower than 42cm and set just as low as mine, be aware that this setup will not work. Various other factors, such as hand size, hand position, and brake lever style could affect the setup as well.


Of course the ILE Racktop Porteur Bag bag can also be fitted on bicycles with upright handlebars, and without any of these issues. The bag does need a wide platform rack for support. And it is compatible with most porteur-style front racks on the market today, including Pass & Stow, Soma, Cetma, Velo Orange and Pelago. The latter two (Velo Orange Porteur Rack and Pelago Commuter Front Rack) are shown with the bag here.


In the case of the VO rack, the bag will even fit with the rail attached, although it's a crumply fit and to attach it without the rail is easier.

With a stiff, padded base for structure, the ILE Porteur bag attaches to the rack with two easy to use straps, which can be adjusted for tightness. The on/off with these straps is pretty quick, especially once my hands developed a memory for where to find the clasps, making it unnecessary to bend over and look under the rack. Once attached to the rack tightly, the bag sits sturdy and does not shift when the bike is in motion.

When off the bike, the bag can be removed and carried as a shoulder bag, via the adjustable strap that otherwise remains stowed tidily within the roll-top fold.

The roll-top, messenger bag-style design with its 42L capacity probably means that you will max out your rack's weight rating before you will run out of space in the bag. Still it can be useful to have the room for bulky, but lightweight items.

And if additional carry capacity is needed, overflow items can be easily secured with the extra tie-down straps, stashed in the over-sleeve when not in use.

Inside, the bag is fully lined with vinyl, making it weatherproof (according to the specs, as well as my own experience of commuting through the winter). I have ridden with this bag in heavy rain for up to an hour at a time, and I have left it attached to my bicycle when parked outdoors all day in bad weather. The interior always remains impeccably dry. 

Overall, in the many months I have used this bag, the waxed cotton canvas exterior (also available in cordura nylon, in a range of colours that you can view here) has proven to be exceptionally durable - resisting scuffs and barely showing any wear or tear despite regular use and utter lack of maintenance. That said, I do have full mudguards on my bicycle. I suspect an absence of a front fender might make a difference in how this bag weathers.

Perhaps my favourite feature of the ILE Porteur bag, aside from its drop bar compatibility, is the presence of large, easy-to-access rear-facing pockets. The flaps close with velcro, making it easy - even for someone as uncoordinated as myself - to extract items from the pockets while the bicycle is in motion.

Each of the two rear-facing pockets is roomy enough to fit items such as a standard size bike lock, a large smartphone, tools, a hat, even a sizable snack such as an apple or a sandwich. As my commutes are often quite long, I find it handy to have quick access to my phone and bits of food via these external compartments. It allows me to retrieve items without having to stop, dismount, unroll the bag and fumble in its vast interior.

Inside Line Bags are handmade in Berkeley, California and are available in the UK and Ireland from VAM Performance, whom I thank for the opportunity to test this bag.  I have been using the ILE bag for 9 months now, on several different bicycles. As you can probably tell by the frequent appearance of this bag in my photos, I like it very much and use it often. It has been particularly useful during the long, windy winter we're just emerging from here in Ireland - allowing me to use my roadbike as a utility bike with ease.

Of course, no bag is perfect, and personally, I would like this one even better if it had a simpler (and more accessible on the go) closure in leu of the roll-top design (the VO Porteur bag comes to mind). I would also appreciate something in the way of (perhaps optional) separators or pockets for the main interior, so that the contents can be kept better organised and items such as laptops and cameras do not bang against each other. Finally, offering a slightly narrower size would be ideal for riders with super low and narrow handlebars.

That said, I think the ILE Racktop Porteur Bag is as good as it gets for those seeking a roomy front bag that is compatible with most porteur-style racks and most drop bar setups. Starting at $160, the cost is in line with other US-handmade bags of its type. In addition to the Porteur Bag, a range of other bicycle bags are available from ILE, with custom orders accepted. Check out their collection here, and visit here to find a UK retailer.



How Do I Wash Thee? Let Me Count the Sprays

Here's one from the Monday Mailbox:
The other day I asked my LBS how they got my bike so clean after a tune-up and they told me they use a pressure washer. I was surprised, because everything I have read online suggests a pressure washer can damage your bike. However as the recommended method of "sponge, soap and water" does nothing for my clogged drivetrain, I am wondering what I am doing wrong. Do I need to remove components and clean them separately? Is a pressure washer okay to use after all? 
In high school I had a rather wonderful history teacher. He made events from centuries past come alive with gossipy candor. He kept a small bottle of rum in a locked desk drawer. And whenever anyone asked him for clarification on how to complete an assignment, he would grin, shake his finger at the inquisitive youngster, and reply with a horrible little proverb: "There are more ways than one to skin a cat." These grim words of advice remain with me to this day, and I believe they are applicable to the bike washing situation: Yes, people use pressure washers. Yes, people remove components and soak (or boil) them. Yes, soap and water can also work. You can do it any which way.

That said, I am lucky enough to live next to a farm, and, consequently, to have firsthand experience with an industrial pressure washer. I can tell you it is a thing of formidable power that could probably snap a carbon fibre derailleur pulley were you to aim it directly at it and from a close enough distance. The bigger concern though is that pressurised water can penetrate sealed bearings and cause damage.

Still, mechanics at bike shops and cyclocross races use pressure washers all the time. I have watched them in action and they wield the things skillfully; they know from what distance and angle to aim the beasts so as to wash bicycles quickly without causing damage. So if the idea of a pressure washer appeals to you and you have access to one, my advice would be to ask a bicycle mechanic who has experience with them to teach you how to use it.

Alternatively, you can go low-tech: After spraying your bicycle gently with water from a garden hose to get the surface grime off,  go to town on the components with an old toothbrush. OR... if you're short on time or patience, you can always use my fabulous/dubious on-the-go BWF (baby wipe flossing) method.

I "developed" this technique after moving to Ireland, where the road conditions are such that even with mudguards attached, debris attacks my roadbike relentlessly, jamming itself into every nook and cranny of every component. After what seems like only every few rides, I examine my bike to find gritty, hard packed dirt lodged in between all the cogs in the cassette and in the derailleur pulleys. Even the carved-out brake calipers become storage containers for compressed debris. Sitting there and cleaning it all out with a toothbrush after every few rides would drive me nuts. The baby wipe flossing achieves more or less the same goal, but quicker.

The key here is to use the non-flushable type of baby wipes, which are durable as heck, and economical: a single wipe should be enough to clean your entire drivetrain. You see, the neat thing about this method, is that the wipe has a built in degreaser, so it is both cleaning fluid and cleaning tool in one.

When my bicycle looks like it needs it, I use the wipe to clean the chain links, then floss in between the cogs, derailleur pulley crevices, etc., and in minutes my drivetrain, if not exactly sparkling, is at least sufficiently de-gunked to ensure a quiet and functional ride. Just don't forget to oil the chain after.

Much like human hygiene and beauty regimens, I find that bicycle cleaning practices are highly individual and only partly reflect what is actually necessary to keep one's bicycle functionally clean. Some people are simply more fastidious than others. Others enjoy the ritualistic, or tinkering aspects of the process. I have a friend who finds few things more relaxing than removing all of his bicycle's components and soaking them in a home-brewed solution, before re-assemblng the machine from the frame up. He does this at least once a year to every bicycle which he owns and rides regularly, which keeps him in soak-happy paradise on a semi-permanent basis! It is a method that fills me with as much dread as my wipe-flossing technique - or the pressure wash, for that matter - probably fills him. After all: there are more ways than one to skin a cat, so are there more ways than one of cleaning a bicycle. What is yours?


Dudebike: The Vintage Folder Resurrected


We spotted them through the window of the Narosa surf shop in Dunfanaghy. "Oh look," said my friend AJ, "they have a couple of vintage folding bikes in there. Can you tell what make they are?" Cupping my hands and peering inside, I scrutinised the pastel-coloured frames but could not identify their make. And as the shop was closed for the winter, we could not get in to have a closer look. But through the storefront AJ took a snap with her phone, zoomed in to read the writing on the unfamiliar-looking badge, and set off to investigate - with surprising results!


They were Italian folding bikes. And they were current production, not vintage. Hand-made in Millan since 2013, by the rather unexpectedly named manufacturer Dudebike (cue "Dude, where's my bike?" jokes) and priced at €385. At current conversion rates, that is less than $450 USD, and just over £300.


Intrigued, we eagerly awaited a bout of good weather when the Narosa shop would be open. By the time such a day came, word spread, and a small crowd of bicycle-loving women descended upon the shop from the surrounding towns and counties, followed by me, with camera in tow. Amusing the Narosa staff with our frenzied enthusiasm, finally we wrangled two bicycles out the door and onto the mean streets of Dunfanaghy.


When the lovely Lisa and Clare graciously agreed to model the Dudebikes in motion, one feature that immediately became apparent is how widely adjustable they are for size.


Both the seatpost and the stem can be pulled out considerably, allowing shorter and taller riders alike to ride these bicycles after some quick tweaks. With the two bikes adjusted to close to opposite extremes, they did not even look like the same bike, someone in our group pointed out -  the vastly different amounts of seatpost and stem giving them the appearance of different "body types" despite the identical frames.


Of course the easy adjustability also accommodates riders with different handlebar heigh preferences regardless of height. So whether you want a slammed stem with lots of seatpost showing, or a sit-up-and-beg position with saddle low and bars high, the Dudebike accommodates.


It was good to see such adaptability. And fun to see the two bikes ridden side by side - a whirl of small wheels, pastel frames, and shiny chrome bits glistening in the mid-day sun. It was equally fun watching the riders discover the joys of the coaster brake ("oh my god, it brakes when I pedal backwards?"). Ah yes, that it does. It's been a while for me as well.


But getting back to the, erm... Dudebike itself. What exactly do we have here? If I had to guess (and I sort of do, as I can't reach the manufacturer for comment), I would say these aren't so much "retro" bikes - in the sense of modern bikes being made to aesthetically resemble vintage ones - as actual "vintage" bikes, whose production in whatever small factory used to make them back in the day has simply been re-started after a break of several decades.

In construction and geometry the bicycles look indistinguishable from older continental European folders. And the ride feel too, I must say (I test rode the green one on a spin around Dunfanaghy centre), is very similar to an actual vintage bike of this type. While of course the wheels, components, and frame tubing are modern, I believe the construction method and geometry are the very same as would have been used to make such folders in the 1970s.


The all-steel machine, with its hefty main tubes, curved cast-crown fork,


and integrated rear rack, makes for a 12kg (26.5lb) bicycle, according to the manufacturer's spec - which isn't exactly lightweight, but is certainly reasonable (for comparison, the Brompton is in the 20-25lb range, depending on configuration). And it is certainly lighter than the folders produced in decades past.


The single speed drivetrain with coaster brake (rear hand brake available instead on request), is of course limited, but in line with a bicycle that's designed for scooting around towns and beachfront areas without much in the way of hills or long distance involved. The 41/18t gearing is easy to push on flats and not too bad on reasonable inclines.


It is also quite nice that this bike comes fully equipped for commuting, with full, colour-matched mudguards, wide (20"x 1.75") tyres, a chain guard, rear rack,


front and rear lights (battery powered),


a sprung leather-ish saddle,


and a Dudebike-embossed bell.


The fold itself is a simple, middle-hinge kind of deal. Undo the bolt and swing it around, folding the frame in half, then collapse the handlebar stem and seatpost using similar bolts.


You would think I would have photos of the bike folded, but alas I do not. My bad, but here is a pic from the manufacturer's website to see what it looks like in its fully collapsed state.  To be sure, it's a hefty bundle compared to most modern folders. Nonetheless, it can be stuffed into a car, stored in a cramped indoor space, or taken onto public transport.


When all is said and done, the Dudebike is a traditional Euro-folder: an uncomplicated, compact, fully equipped and easy-to-ride bicycle ideal for errands, short distance commuting, and plain old cruising. It is handmade in Italy. And it costs under $500. How can I find fault?

It does concern me that the manufacturer has been quiet on social media for some time, so who knows what is in store for this brand in future. It would also have been nice to get some additional details from them about the manufacturing process and the history of the brand. Did they breathe new life into a disused factory? Hire a framebuilding outfit whose staff never thought they'd have to make another one of these things after the mid-1980s and had to dust off the crumpled, yellowed drawings retrieved from the bottom of a back drawer? If I ever find out, I will certainly post an update.


But for now, all I can tell say is that it does appear that you can purchase these bicycles direct from the manufacturer and get them shipped all over the world at reasonable prices. And, of course, if in doubt, you can always come to Donegal and buy a Dudebike from Narosa. I believe they have 4 in stock at the moment: in sage green, cream, periwinkle and gray.

My thanks to Jude, Oscar and Lee for the opportunity to test ride these bicycles! And should you ever find yourself longing to surf in Ireland, Narosa in Dunfanaghy is certainly worth a visit.

A Fine Day for a Bike-and-Hike


There are times when I feel an incredible pull for the forest. It is more than a desire for a stroll through the woods; it's an almost a physical longing - like a craving for a special kind of comfort food. On hot days and on days with stormy weather alike, the forest offers shelter. On days when I'm not feeling great, or can't focus, it promises quiet, a place to gather my thoughts. All I need do is grab my bike and I'll be transported there.

The bike-and-hike is a pretty low-key, low-commitment activity. It requires little special equipment or preparation. A bicycle lock, something to drink, and perhaps a change of footwear is really all that I bring. For walks up rocky, twisty mountain trails I take hiking boots. For meanders through boggy ground I prefer wellies. On a utility bike, I throw this into a pannier or basket. If riding a roadbike with clipless pedals, I tie my walking boots to the saddle rails. It does not need to be any more complicated than that.


The forest, for me, is a place of great medicinal value. It isn't just that the peace and quite help me relax. The effect is physical, visceral, and seems to be most connected to smell.


It is as if whatever unique combination of herbs, mosses and resins that resides in these particular woods, releases some chemical into the air that possesses healing properties.


If I have a headache, it is often cured if I plop myself on a bed of moss and inhale. Mysterious body aches and muscle fatigue are reduced as I grab handfuls of ferns, wading through mud.


In the forest I like to climb trees. Not the tall, branchy ones, but the ones with dramatically bent and twisted trunks that grow almost parallel to the ground. I climb onto them and then crawl along, stopping now and again to simply lie there, face down against the bark, limbs dangling, thinking of nothing, breathing. Sometimes I take a book along and lounge right there in the tree, reading.


In the parts of the forest I love there are not really paths as such. But I know my way through it by feel. I navigate through tangles of thorns and nettles, cross streams, duck my head below low-hanging branches. On occasion, I trip on a twisted root that decides to grab hold of my ankle and fall to the spongy forest floor, so soft it is like a foam safety mat at a children's playground.


I don't transverse this thicket by bike not only because it is dense. A good mountain biker could probably zip through even some of the more tangled parts of it. But to my ear, the forest calls for slower movement. It begs for direct contact: for contact between feet and earth, between hands and branches, between face and moss. The bicycle, while so right in most places, feels like a distracting presence in here.


But the bicycle understands. And it waits outside, tactfully - prepared to take me home once I emerge, rejuvinated and ready for the miles of open road between forest and home.


About My Next Project



On the road I met a cyclist
pedaling with all his might
But as the road was wet and muddy
so was his poor behind.

The village children saw him
and broke out in laughter
You need a pair of mudguards,
they shouted loudly after.

He answered through teeth gritted
while sniffling into tissues:
Oh I've had mudguards fitted
but there were clearance issues.
Plus installation and removal
and all that added weight!
Such fuss I greet with disapproval.
The mudguards simply weren't great.
I need a product far more clever.
If only there was some endeavour...

And at this lamentation
He had my keen attention.
For I had toiled in secret
to bring a product out
that, clearly this cyclist
could not make do without.

Hello! I said, Dear fella,
what you need is a Bumbrella.

With aero canopy
and carbon fibre pole
you cannot get much finer
if lightweight is your goal.

No matter what your frame spec
there's ever so much clearance.
Installing is a dream.
With moving parts no interference.

Your bicycle is elegant
your nether region dry,
with April showers kept at bay
your cycling spirits shall soar high.

So reject those pesky mudguards,
this season cycle smarter.

Support my fine invention:
SUPPORT BUMBRELLA ON KICKSTARTER!






The Mysterious Swiss Miss

SKS Swiss Mystery Bicycle
I suspect it was my exposure to Lindt Easter eggs over the weekend, with their shimmery red foil wrappers, that reminded me of her just now. But I don't believe I have ever told you about the Swiss Miss. A most beautiful - and, of course, most unusual - bicycle from the collection of Nick at Curious Velo.

Even beyond the Swiss connection, the Lindt comparison seems apt: When I first saw this bicycle it had the look, I thought, of an oversized confectionary product freshly plucked from within some giant gilded gift box, where perhaps several of such things had lain side by side in transparent tissue paper. It wasn't just red, but candy wrapper-red, with golden lettering and fanciful flourishes. And it looked utterly delicious.

SKS Swiss Mystery Bicycle
"What is it?" I immediately asked, from a distance unable even to guess its provenance. Despite the vaguely-Italian frame construction, the bike had an otherwise German look to it and the combination confused me.

"I don't know!" replied Nick, infusing that statement with the sort of urgent meaningfulness only he is capable of expressing. "But have a closer look..."

SKS Swiss Mystery Bicycle
The first thing I noticed was the incredibly elaborate lugwork, of the sort not usually "wasted" on step-through frames in the mid-20th century era I had guessed this bicycle to be from. I then noticed the SKS headbadge. A German manufacturer of bicycle accessories best known for their pumps and mudguards (in the '80s they took over the British brand Bluemels), I was not aware SKS had ever made complete bikes. Most likely this was a one-off - a handmade display model made to exhibit their components?

SKS Swiss Mystery Bicycle
However, on closer inspection I began to notice a different theme. Many of the components - in fact nearly all of them - seemed to be Swiss. From the Weinmann rims, brakes and mudguards,

SKS Swiss Mystery Bicycle
to the Pletscher rack and kickstand, and the Lucifer dynamo lighting, it seemed that Swiss parts dominated the build.

SKS Swiss Mystery Bicycle
The un-branded bell was embellished with a Swiss flag. In fact, I realised, even the bicycle's coulour scheme - the red frame, the white tyres, and the red grips - reflected the Swiss national colours.

"And the hub," Nick whispered, having noticed my awareness of this, "Even the hub, I think, is Swiss! Scintilla - a Sturney Archer clone."

SKS Swiss Mystery Bicycle
So what exactly was this bicycle and why was it so elabrately made? The Reynolds tubing, the Nervex lugs, the double-butted seat stays and the intricate paint job were above and beyond what one would normally see on a machine of this type.

SKS Swiss Mystery Bicycle
The only clue I could personally find was in a small seat tube decal:

SKS
Fahrradhaus
F. Küng
Luzern

I am deducing that Fahrradhaus (bicycle house) F. Küng was a bike shop, or importer, in Lucerne Switzerland, which must had been the Swiss rep for SKS components. This bicycle might have been made to celebrate either the start of this relationship or its anniversary. It could also have been given to F. Küng by SKS as a reward for excellence in sales performance. I am going to make the sexist, but historically probable, assumption that the owner of the Swiss enterprise was male, but that perhaps his wife or daughter loved beautiful bicycles and that knowing this SKS created this as a gift for her.

SKS Swiss Mystery Bicycle
It's a plausible story I think. But unfortunately, the real story we simply do not know. There is no mention of SKS-branded bikes or of a Swiss "Fahrradhaus F. Küng" online. Neither is it clear how the bike made its way from Europe to Paramount Bicycle in Somerville, Massachusetts, from whence Nick eventually acquired it.

Based on the style of the hub (like all of the other components, it's undated, so precise production year is unknown) we can say the bicycle is of 1950's vintage. But that is pretty much it.

SKS Swiss Mystery Bicycle
Why such excitement about a "mystery" that lacks significance, one might ask? After all, this bicycle has not won any races. It was likely not owned by a famous person. Its construction, while lovely, is not an example of anything that had been either novel or innovative in its time.

True enough. But for me it is about the lost dynamic of whatever had brought about this unusual "collabo." Clearly this bicycle had been an important gesture for whoever made it. There is such an optimistic and celebratory look to it, such an energy, I could almost feel the buzz that had gone into its creation through the fabric of time. I regret to think that whatever was being celebrated in the act of making it, has now been lost.

SKS Swiss Mystery Bicycle
I have nearly forgotten to mention, that I've ridden the Swiss Miss. It was over a year ago now. We pedaled along the scenic, leafy cycle path around Fresh Pond and it handled beautifully. It is the kind of bicycle that passers-by point at, compliment, ask questions about - even if they aren't into bikes at all. And as we rolled along, I was reminded that this too has value. The value of making people curious, of making them fall in love with the idea of cycling even if they don't understand what exactly they are falling in love with. Whatever the notion, event or occasion that led to the making of the Swiss Miss, perhaps this was its true purpose.

If you are in the Boston area, the "Swiss Miss" is available to test ride at no cost (or to rent, for longer-term use) from the bicycle library at Curious Velo. With thanks to Nick once again for his endless supply of fascinating machines, the complete photo set can be viewed here.


Some Days the Flowers Sleep

Around here, Easter is not so much churchy, as outdoorsy. For the duration of the long weekend - which starts on Good Friday and stretches through "Easter Monday" it seems as if the entire population of Ulster spills outdoors, until every hillside, forest, meadow and stretch of shoreline is peppered with colorful anoraks, like so many vibrant Easter frocks.

If I were to put a religious cast on it, perhaps there is an atmosphere of pilgrimage to the whole thing. People who look as if they have not been outside a building or vehicle in months emerge to convene with nature, to smell and to touch, to use their limbs to the point of exhaustion, to fling themselves, squinting, onto whatever sunlit expanse of fragrant earth they select to tramp.

In everyone's memory, these Easter weekends are endless and always - or nearly always - sunny, encouraging the mass-frolic and enhancing its picturesqueness. It seems that this year, however, is one of the exceptions - to be forgotten in the long run, to be shunned by later-day nostalgia and buried in that "or nearly always" clause.

But in the now, it is happening: weather so bad, so rough, so thoroughly "rotten," that the hillsides and forests and shorelines stand bare, conspicuously bleak in their lack of colourful anoraks, that the wind howls in place of giggling children's voices.

My head bent low over the handlebars, I brave a trip to the shop before it closes. In the brutal headwind, the mile-long ride requires a great deal more time and energy than seems probable.

Outside the shop the customers are few: a woman and three young children. They appear to  have come from a nearby house - she on foot and her offspring on tiny trikes, each one of them looking exhausted now, cold, and dangerously close to a tantrum. The trikes upturned, they shuffle and squirm now beside the windswept flowerbed, the mother pleading with each to keep still while she zips up their coats. At that point the youngest - a daughter - wriggles out of her grip and, with a tragic wail, runs to the flowerbed, pointing at a row of tattered tulips, felled by the wind.

"Oh no! Mommy, mommy look - are the flowers hurt? The flowers are lying down!"

And without missing a beat the mother scoops her back up and replies: "Ach no. The flowers are asleep, pet. Flowers need to rest."

Disaster averted, the group heads inside the shop for whatever last minute provisions they need before everything shuts through Sunday. And so do I, before pedaling back. I observe the muddy skies and the empty fields and hillsides, and the battered flowers in the neighbors' gardens. Before they reflected my own frustration at a "pointless" long weekend devoid of long bicycle rides. But now I shake my head and laugh at myself, arriving home to clean and write and knit and sit in other people's houses by the fire, talking.

Gravel, Dirt, or Pavement... the Song Remains the Same

On reading Jan Heine's useful recent post about bicycles for gravel riding, I was reminded once again that the industry still lacks a standard, shorthand term for the sort of bicycles he describes. For while gravel riding is part of what such a bicycle is suited for, so is dirt. And mud. And sand. And, for what it's worth, smooth pavement! For this reason some describe such machines as "mixed terrain roadbikes." Or "all roads" bikes. Yet somehow even these more inclusive labels are not quite right - or, rather, not quite sufficient, to communicate the full extent of what these machines are all about. For, in addition to handling paved and unpaved terrain, they are also performance-oriented: Designed with speed and agility in mind,  they "offer a spirited ride and encourage you to go faster and further" [Heine]. So for instance, a touring bike, mountain bike, or transport bike with all-terrain capacity, would not fall into this particular category. On the other hand, a cyclocross bike would. As would a traditional randonneur. Or a standard road-racing frame fitted with wider tyres.

Communicating this concept in one snappy phrase has proved challenging for lovers of such machines - myself included. Nevertheless, as I ride my own bike of this un-named type, I realise just how crucial of a role the whole concept has played in my own cycling experience over the years.


In the late 2000's, both the Rivendell and the Bicycle Quarterly folks introduced (their own takes on) the idea of the 650B fat tyre roadbike. And in 2009, as a fledgeling cyclist who had only recently mastered riding an upright city bike without veering into traffic, I was immediately attracted.

At the time, all the chatter about tubing and geometry was pure gibberish to me. What attracted me was how accessible and friendly such a bicycle seemed. I wanted to try road cycling and dreamt of flying along country roads on a speedy bike with drop bars. But the roadbikes then-available in shops, with their racing-oriented fit and razor-thin tyres felt impossibly scary. The fat tyres, I thought, would help me with balance, enabling me to master the drop bar position. I also liked the idea of fenders, light luggage, and dynamo lighting that went hand in hand with such bicycles. And so when Rivendell introduced its reasonably priced Sam Hillborne model, I snapped one up - in the beautiful metallic pea-green colour.

The 2-year saga of my Sam Hillborne ownership played out on this blog in a way that, in hindsight, I feel had been rather indelicate on my part - reflecting my then-lack of experience in writing for an online audience. What I will say about it now, though, is that this bicycle played an invaluable role in my development as a cyclist. At the time I got it, my balance problems were so severe that without the Sam Hillborne, I don't believe I would have learned how to ride with drop bars. This bicycle felt so stable, safe, predictable, and cushy, that with each ride my confidence grew exponentially. I started out riding it on paved roads, then gradually began to venture out on packed dirt, and finally gravel and even sand - which I had previously been terrified of.  As my cycling skills developed with the Sam's help (I even rode this bike on my first paceline ride with the local racing club!), it also helped me learn about my preferences - from the fit and position I felt most comfortable with, to which components and accessories I actually needed for my use case scenario, and which I did not.

In the course of owning and constantly riding this bicycle, I made some unexpected discoveries: For example, that I liked modern drivetrain components, that I disliked loaded touring, and, finally, that the more I cycled the more I came to prefer a fairly aggressive position, feeling compelled to set my handlebars lower and lower, until finally they "wouldn't go any lower" considering the frame size. It was this that led to my decision to sell the Rivendell. It was an excellent bicycle for the purpose it had been designed for. But with its 57cm virtual top tube, the frame was simply too big for the fit I had ultimately settled on (I now ride 53cm frames). And its relaxed, load-optimised geometry and tubing were wasted on me, since I seldom loaded it with anything heavier than a change of clothes, a camera, a snack, and a book.

In deciding what bike to get next for all-terrain riding, I tried a few cyclocross machines. But what I actually wanted was very similar to the Rivendell Sam Hillborne: a bike built around wide 650B tyres and equipped with fenders, dynamo lighting and a handlebar bag - only with a smaller, lighterweight frame.

At this time I was still living in Boston and was friendly with Mike Flanigan of ANT, who had just started offering framebuilding classes. A fan of the fat tyre roadbike concept, Mike encouraged me to replace my Rivendell with a bike I would build myself. And that was exactly what I decided to do. However, as I had an inkling that this process might, from start to finish, take a bit longer than planned, in the interim I replaced the Rivendell with the Rawland Nordavinden - an exciting new model with lightweight tubing and low-trail geometry that had just come out at that time.

When I started riding the Nordavinden, I felt it was really everything that I had wanted - except still a bit too big for me (they did not offer sizes any smaller). In fact I liked that bike so much, that I basically built my own frame to be its replica - only half a size smaller and with a few modifications, such as a slightly lower bottom bracket and shorter chainstays. To the extent of my ability, I also tried a few tricks to reduce the overall weight of the frameset, such as thinning out the dropouts and lugs.

As I had predicted, it was quite some time before the frame I built under Mike Flanigan's instruction was actually fitted with components and ride-ready - two years to be exact! What a relief that, in the course of that time, my riding position and other  preferences had not changed much. In addition to the all-terrain Rawland, I now owned an "ordinary" skinny-tyre roadbike for cycling on pavement. My ideal would be, for the fat tyre bike to be just as fast, nimble and lightweight, accounting for its extra accoutrements. The Rawland had come close to that ideal, and I was hoping that my DIY bike might come closer still.

And that it did. It was rewarding to discover that whatever subtle tweaks I'd made in sizing and geometry translated into (equally subtle, but nonetheless noticeable) improvements in performance and comfort. I brought the DIY bicycle ("Alice") with me to Ireland and it is now my second year of riding it here.

And I'll be honest: Even with my "optimised" design and best attempts at lightweightness - I cannot eek out quite the same performance out of this bike as I can out of my skinny-tyre roadbike with titanium frame, carbon fork and racing wheels. Were it my intent to take part in competitive unpaved rides, I might opt for a pared-down machine made with more contemporary materials. Happily, I have no such plans at the moment and use this bicycle for what I would describe as "spirited sight-seeing": Long-ish distance rides over paved and unpaved terrain, with my camera in tow. And for that purpose it is pretty much perfect - transporting me, and my camera equipment, wherever we might wish to go speedily and comfortably.

I have been riding a gravel bike, all-roads bike, mixed terrain roadbike, or whatever we might want to call it, for exactly 6 years now. And while the machine has changed twice, in a sense it really hasn't. When I ride the bike whose frame I built with my own hands to my own spec, I still see and feel the "ghost" of the Rivendell Sam Hillborne, and the tremendous influence it had on my development as a cyclist. It is a kindly ghost, neighing and smiling in the knowledge that I've found my own path.


A Call for a Radish Redux (Some Thoughts on Cargo Bikes and Their Uses)

Over the weekend someone asked me - quite innocently - whether I've ever owned a cargo bike. They were a little taken aback when my eyes nearly filled with tears in response. Because you see, for a few blissful months in 2013 I did own a cargo bike. It was an Xtracycle Radish and it was a useful, comfortable, gorgeous, glorious machine. A display model from Interbike in a lovely shade of saffron, it could haul - and it could also "haul ass" as it were!

Unfortunately for the poor bicycle, it came to me at a time when my life was about to go topsy-turvy, so that I never featured it here properly. Still, in the time I owned it I loved the Radish. I would own it still, had transporting it to Ireland not been prohibitively costly. But costly it was, and so I sold it to a nice lady in Boston once it became apparent that my move overseas was permanent.


It was around this time that Xtracycle introduced their newest cargo bike model, the EdgeRunner. And the plan had been at first, as far as I understood it, to offer both models in parallel: the EdgeRunner for heavy-duty haulage, and the Radish for less extreme cargo. However, somewhere along the way the plans must have changed and the new model replaced the Radish altogether.

On subsequent trips back to Boston, I test-rode the EdgeRunner several times (it is available to try from Bicycle Belle and Harris Cyclery), with intent to at some point review it. And I liked it a lot. But I had to admit that, for my own use case scenario, I had liked the Radish better. The EdgeRunner was designed to be a stiffer, heavier-duty cargo bike. It is optimised for carrying heavier loads and multiple (3!) squirming children, while remaining impeccably stable and well-balanced. However, it hadn't quite the same degree of lively-ness and... for lack of a better word, "personality," that I had so loved about the Radish.

When I shared these impressions informally with some industry folks and Edgerunner owners, the feedback I got was almost unanimous:

"Oh, well that wasn't a fair test ride of the Edgerunner! You should have carried a fridge on it. Or a sofa. Oh and borrowed some neighbourhood children. Now that would have been a fair test ride."

And at first I figured, they were right, and so I never reviewed the bike. But the more I mulled it over in hindsight, the more I thought, "Why should I have to devise a scenario completely unnatural to me in order to test ride a bicycle?..." After all, I do not have children. And neither is transporting fridges and sofas part of my everyday utility cycling experience. Despite this, I had benefitted from cargo bike ownership in the past.

On my Radish I had carried everything from groceries - in quantities that would have overwhelmed an ordinary bicycle - to, perhaps more crucially, things such as art supplies, hardware store purchases, unusually shaped parcels, light pieces of furniture, and other objects that were not so much heavy as very long or awkwardly shaped. And while it would not have been impossible to secure some of those items to an ordinary bicycle and ride with them gingerly, the cargo bike made it a much easier and less precarious process, and saved me multiple trips.

So clearly I am within the target market for cargo bike ownership. Just perhaps not the EdgeRunner per se. Which is fine. And it does offer some food for thought about the many potential uses of cargo bikes, and, consequently, about what features we might value in them.

To be clear, this is not a review-in-hindsight of the Xtracycles EdgeRunner. Neither is it a criticism of that fine machine. Far from it. I think the EdgeRunner is a fantastic bike for the purpose it was designed for, and a necessary bike in today's world. In the age of the "people carrier" it is great to have velo-alternatives that can cope with not just one but multiple children while remaining easy to handle. So I'm all for the EdgeRunner and other heavy-duty cargo bikes. It's just that, in addition, I wish that the lovely, nimble, adorable Radish were still available for the likes of me and other childless, non-fridge-carrying cargo bike enthusiasts. Speaking more generally, I wish there were more options for cargo-lite, as it were, cargo bike models.

By this, however, I do not mean "mid-tail" versions of the rear load cargo bike, and "small bucket" versions of the bakfiets. The size of the container/extension must remain the same. But the bicycle itself would be optimised for performance (distance, hills, nimble handling) rather than for hauling maximum weight.

Who would benefit from such a bike? People who travel with musical instruments. Artists who carry large canvasses. Chimney sweepers. Fishermen. But, without resorting to such picturesque extremes, a bike of the sort I describe would benefit pretty much anyone who needs to carry oversized objects or piles of equipment with ease, perhaps over challenging terrain, yet does not require ultra-heavy-duty hauling capacity.

It would be interesting to conduct a survey of what portion of cargo bike owners (or would-be owners) use their machines in this manner, as opposed to for sofa/fridge/child portage. I suspect the numbers would not be entirely insignificant.

I miss the saffron Radish and hope that its current owner is as delighted with this bicycle as I was. I hope also that Xtracycle might consider bringing back a version of this model someday... and that other manufacturers might consider the question of a cargo bike's many potential uses, with interesting results.

For trips through the harsh Irish landscape, for instance, I envision a sort of Bakfiets-lite contraption with lighter tubing, responsive handling, good strong brakes, and a large, lightweight box in the front. It would be a flagship model of (the fictional) Pancóg Cycles for sure, along with the Farm Bike - a concept on which I shall expand at a later time!


Pedal and Purl

Lisa's Wooltastic Commute
I met Lisa shortly after she opened her knitting shop in the small market town of Limavady. Despite the clever name Row by Roe (the river Roe runs through the town centre), I didn't realise at first that the shop sold yarn and knitting supplies. It was purely by chance that I stopped in. But once I did, the rest was history. The shop itself is knitter's paradise. But moreover, Lisa turned out to be one of those people with whom I had instant rapport. I told her of my plans to open an online handknits shop, and soon we were taking trips to South Donegal together to research local wool production.


When visiting Lisa's shop I would leave my bike leaning against the glass storefront, so that I could keep an eye on it from within. And seeing it there, on occasion she would ask me about cycling - mentioning that it looked like fun and she'd like to give it a try. So I gave her some feedback, but, to be honest did not expect her to actually start bicycle commuting: Lots of people ask me about cycling, but in the end most decide it isn't practical and never manage to give it a try. So it came as a delightful  surprise when one morning, Lisa sent me a text announcing she had cycled to work that morning. As it happened, I was in the area that day and so I hurried to pay her a visit.

Lisa's Wooltastic Commute
"I inherited it with the house," said Lisa by way of a greeting, seeing me kneeling in front of the gray and purple machine that now graced her storefront.

A Huffy Valencia Trekking model this was. Aluminium step-through frame, upright handlebars, v-brakes, wide tyres, mudguards, a low-geared drivetrain with a triple chainring, and a touring-style rear rack. It looked like a suitable bike for plain-clothed commutes over hilly terrain - and considering what she'd paid for it... well, how could she go wrong!

Lisa's Wooltastic Commute
This had actually been her third attempt to cycle to work, explained Lisa. On the first try, she discovered a flat tyre - and not an ordinary flat, but something gone wrong with the valve. Happily, Limavady boasts an excellent bike shop (Roe Valley Cycles), where, despite its mainly racing-oriented culture, the staff are happy to work on utility bikes. They replaced the damaged tubes and the following day Lisa set off again. Alas, this time the chain came off and wouldn't stay on. So it was off to the shop again, where the bicycle got a full fledged tune-up and also a new mesh basket - equipped with which both rider and bicycle made it to work without further incident.

Lisa's Wooltastic Commute
Although Lisa lives about a mile and a half from her shop, bicycle commuting is not an altogether easy-breezy affair in Limavady. It is the only town around for miles and it is packed with businesses, which means the narrow streets are often dense with car, lorry and tractor traffic. And it's completely lacking in cycling infrastructure. A certain degree of competence and courage is required to brave such conditions. As it turns out, this lady is not lacking in either, and upon her first successful work commute she is radiant with good cheer.

Lisa's Wooltastic Commute
To be fair though, Lisa is nearly always radiant with good cheer - which, no doubt, is one reason Row by Roe has grown so popular over the past year and a half, despite its remote location. People come from Derry, Belfast, Donegal, and even points further South, not only for her well-stocked shelves but also for the experience of merely being in the shop.

Generally knitting shops tend to occupy cramped and cavernous spaces. But Row by Roe is airy and awash in natural light. The glass storefront offers open views of the heart of Limavady's business centre, making it one of the best places in town for people-watching. In good weather, the little square out front is peppered with outdoor seating from the cafe next door, making the atmosphere downright Parisian (well, almost!).


Nearly every day of the week at the shop there are classes and knitting circles. There are also private lessons, free advice galore, and in general a club house atmosphere that just makes you want to stay and hang out - which many do, for hours.

It is one thing to run a shop selling such niche goods as yarn and knitting supplies. It is another thing to turn that shop into what is essentially a community centre, at one's own expense. For both of these things, Lisa has my admiration.

Lisa's Wooltastic Commute
But getting back to the topic at hand, what does Lisa think of her "inherited" bicycle? Well, frankly she is not entirely in love with it. For one thing, she finds the gearing unnecessarily confusing for the kind of cycling she wants to do. "Can't there be just one, NORMAL, gear? This is nuts!"

"Actually yeeeessss, yes there can be just one gear," I say, stroking my own single speed bike. Although in Lisa's case, I think a hub-geared 3-speed would be ideal. Something from Bobbin would be up her alley I should think - especially since another complaint about the Huffy is that the fit is not quite right (the ultra-compact "comfort bike" geometry is both cramped and overly-upright, with a high bottom bracket to boot, which makes it tricky to adjust seat height for beginners).

The one thing I'll say in this Huffy's favour though, is that it is surprisingly light. When it comes to lower-end aluminium hybrid/comfort bikes, it's been my experience that once all the components and accessories are fitted they are not even remotely lightweight. This bike, however, kind of is! If Huffy could manage to retain the construction methods they used to make this bike while revamping its geometry, I really think such a bicycle could be a hit. Sadly, judging by the fact that the Valencia Trekking model is no longer available and that very little evidence of it ever having been available exists, I surmise it was never wildly popular.

Lisa's Wooltastic Commute
No matter, for I think the Huffy is serving its purpose nicely - that purpose being, to give Lisa a taste of what bicycle commuting is all about. And, if she keeps at it, she can eventually buy a bike that suits her better. The question is, will she keep at it? Maybe! But maybe not. There is no way to tell.

Having said that, today I was in Limavady again and passed Lisa's shop. Unlike the glorious sunny day last week when I took these photos, today it was drizzling rain, the skies a yucky gray-brown. Yet, there was her bicycle, leaning against the storefront. Ladies and gentleman, I believe we have a resilient one here! Good luck to Lisa as she pedals and coasts, knits and purls.


A Non-Cycling Day


Neighbour:  You out on the bike today?

Me:  Oh no, not today.

Neighbour:  [looks at me quizzically] Sure you are!

Me:   Nah. Working from home today. And doing some spring cleaning.

Neighbour:  But... you're on your bicycle right now!

Me:  Hm?... [glancing down at my feet, which are rotating the pedals in slow motion as I hover to chat with him.] Oh! No, I just needed to post a letter.

For all of us there are bound to be days off the bike. For me these are days when I work entirely from home, and also take a break from sporty or leisure rides. That is not to say, though, that I don't touch a bicycle at all - I mean let's not get carried away here. At some point I might nip out to the shop down the road, or to check on something at the other end of the field if I'm too lazy to walk. But the distances are negligible. And while I don't keep a milage diary, even if I did I would not bother recording such trips.

In a way I guess that kind of thinking makes sense mathematically, if you think of it as rounding down distances under 1 mile to zero. So if, say, to the post office is 0.8 miles each way, that makes it really zero miles each way. And then of course, zero plus zero is once again zero. Ergo, nipping down to the post office is "not cycling."

But of course, that's a funny kind of logic. And my neighbour's reaction made me suddenly aware of its absurdity. It also made me curious what my "non-cycling" milage might be had I actually tallied it up. After all, that run to the post office was my 4th time out that day!

So, just for kicks, I counted. Let's see...There was the posting of the letter. Before that I'd run out of carpet shampoo. At some point earlier I'd gone to buy eggs form the farmer next door. Then later in the day I took a break to photograph a fallen tree in a nearby field...  And after that...

When I counted each fragmentary spin without negating it, all in all, the distance added up to 8.4 miles. Sure, that's not a lot in the course of a day. And the individual trips were so low-key as to be nearly effortless. Still, not bad for a day off the bike!

Mulling over these "non-cycling" rides, my eye fell on some left-over scraps of cloth from a sewing project and I could not help but observe a similarity. A pile of fabric scraps is not the same as one intact piece of cloth of equal measure. The scrap heap hasn't the same structure, or function, or, one might even say, usefulness. Nevertheless each scrap is a solid and real thing, no matter how tiny. And though when gathered the scraps lack the properties of the intact cloth, they form a character of their own - accumulating an undeniable heft and forming a colourful, unique mosaic. The scraps are not zero. They exist, each interesting in its own right, each a remnant of that day's experience.


Rise and Ride


I do not mind admitting that finding itself on a roadbike first thing in the morning is not a circumstance which my body finds natural, or agreeable. That is not to say I am not a morning person. I wake up early and am often at my most industrious in those hours. But that industriousness is mostly mental. When it comes to physical activity my body is slow to wake up. There is a long warm-up process, accompanied by copious coffee-drinking and low-level shuffling before I am ready for anything intense. The earliest I would feel naturally inclined to set off on a spirited bicycle ride is probably 11am or so. But better still would be to wait till the afternoon, when I feel most energetic of all.

Unfortunately, that kind of timing breaks up the day into pieces and isn't great for productivity. It's also difficult to find cycling buddies who can ride at such random hours. So even though I work freelance and in theory have a flexible schedule, more often than not practical concerns over-ride bio-rhythmic preferences. I have been known to set off at 6am with friends who could only ride before going to work - feeling sluggish, stiff and half-awake through the whole thing despite my best pedaling efforts and attempts at good cheer. And I have joined 6pm club rides, growing unbearably hungry for dinner by the second half of the hilly 30 mile route, to the point of visualising roasted chicken rumps in the place of the pace-lining girls in front of me.

Don't get me wrong, I am not complaining. Cycling at a time of day that isn't my favourite time of day is of course far better than not cycling at all. It's just interesting to observe that the body does have its preferences. We may think of ourselves as a morning/ night person and that could generally be true. But what we are on the bicycle might not correspond.

One case in point is a cyclist I know who's a well known night owl. Because he was so used to staying up all night, he assumed he'd be great at overnight brevets but was surprised to discover he could not do them. He may be able to sit at his laptop and go out drinking till the wee hours, put pedaling from dusk to dawn proved somehow different and his body could not cope. A sense of utter exhaustion set in, he explained, when the clock approached midnight and it sunk in he was heading further and further from home with no prospect of rest. Funny, because in me that same realisation instills a sense of calm and relaxation. Pedaling in the pitch black dark I often feel as if my legs are lighter and the tiredness drains out of me. There is an overall sensation of weightlessness that helps me along on the journey as night transitions to morning.

Alas there was no sensation of weightlessness this morning, as I heaved my groggy body onto the bike and pushed off. "You have a busy day ahead, so it is now or not at all," I told myself. And then I pedaled, pedaled, pedaled as if to shake the cobwebs off.

I find it interesting that around here roadies describe their rides in hours rather than miles. "I went out on the bike for an hour and a half this morning," one might say - whereas in the US it would be "I did 30 miles this morning." Oddly, this is the exact opposite from the way people describe driving distances - whereby in the US it would be common to say that a place is "20 minutes away" by car, whereas here they will give the actual distance in miles (or "k"s!).

Because I need to be back at specific times these days, I too have begun to measure my morning rides in hours. As a result, I have noticed I've grown more economical - stopping almost not at all, and pedaling quicker than I feel inclined to, as if attempting to squeeze out milage value. "How much will an hour and a half buy me this time?" I wondered, as the sun warmed me weakly and the pedals began to feel less leaden. It may not be my thing, to rise and ride. But there are worse ways to start the morning!


Why Your Friends Need Beautiful Bicycles

What a strange start to Spring we are having this year. The air is colder than it had been all winter. But the bursts of brilliant sunshine give the landscape a glamourous summer holiday feel. And so we ride, multilayered, woolly-hatted and thermally gloved, feeling oddly tropical under these perfect azure skies.

Cycling behind my husband in this clear and sharp arctic sunlight, I have caught myself fixating on his beautiful new roadbike. The metallic greens and blues of the "Donegal" paintjob shimmer alluringly, accentuated by the outward flicks of the seat and chain stays. As the sunlight catches one curve, then another, I see bursts of olive, turquoise, emerald, sapphire, sage. With a playful randomness, they light up like fireflies or bits of scattered seaglass.

As I pedal and stare at his bicycle frame, mesmerised, I become aware of a feeling I do not want to have but can't suppress: I am envious! Genuinely, childishly envious of another person's bicycle. Because it's prettier than my own. More colourful. Sparklier... Ack!

Of all the emotions on the spectrum, I very seldom experience jealousy or envy. And so in those rare times that I do, I find it disturbing and feel the need to confess it immediately.

"I'm jealous of your bike!" I say, with a wistfulness he cannot help but laugh at.

"Oh yeah?"

"It is so beautiful!"

I proceed to tell him about the colours, to describe the way it catches the light. He is grinning, enjoying such ludicrously poetic appreciation of his new machine.

"That is lovely," he says, "tell me more! I have no idea what this bicycle looks like beneath me, you know - it's you who gets to stare at it and enjoy that custom paintjob. I only ride it!"

When the truth of this hits, I almost feel sorry for him. And my envy at once disappears. It is true that we seldom look at our own bicycles. When we ride, our view is really limited to the handlebars and a few other bits of the "cockpit." Instead, we spend much more time looking at the bikes of our cycling companions as they pedal beside or in front of us.

Ergo... instead of fretting over what our own bicycle looks like, it makes more sense - for our aesthetic quality of life, as it were - to ensure that our friends ride beautiful bikes.

And should you meet a cyclist whose fanciful machine eclipses the beauty of your own, don't be envious. Instead join them on a long bike ride on a clear day - and enjoy the view!



Fountain of Youth?


In the course of speaking to the artist whom I featured in the previous post, it occurred to me that we might have some friends in common, whom I gauged to be around the same age as himself. As it turned out though, I was off by a decade. That is, the fellow was 10 years older than the age I guessed him to be. "Cycling," we joked. "Must be the fountain of youth!"

It is not uncommon for me to meet cyclists who look a fair bit younger than their actual age, even remarkably so. But is this disproportionately the case compared to, say, other outdoorsy or athletic people I know? Thinking of it purely anecdotally, I would say possibly yes. And several friends I've consulted agree. But then of course we are biased, being cyclists ourselves! And to be fair, I have also met cyclists who look older than their age - skin withered from overexposure to sun without protective measures.

In the absence of any evidence, perhaps it is enough to say that cycling makes us feel younger - a sentiment with which, almost surely, anyone who has pedaled agrees. After all, "I feel like a kid again" is a phrase we often hear from those who rediscover cycling as adults. And that is hardly a surprise, if the last time they pedaled a bicycle had indeed been in childhood. That association could very well bring out the cyclist's younger self, with interesting implication for their future personality development, should they persists in cycling as adults. In that sense, cycling can "un-jade" us and make us see the world in a different light again. Some report rediscovering a sense of wonder, the ability to get excited about things again, which they may had once feared they lost. Others feel more youthful in the sense of being more energetic, sprightlier, fitter.

Whether the effects are mental, emotional or physical, they are nearly always beneficial. And of course it is not a far stretch to think the people around us might notice their effects on us.

As a teenager and young adult, I had always looked older than my age. I was the first kid in my neighborhood who could walk into the Quiki-mart in the part of town where no one knew us and buy cigarettes, then a couple of years later, alcohol. In my early 20s, I was always put in charge of things at work because I had an air of maturity about me.

But when I hit my 30s something weird happened: It was as if I started to go backwards. At the university where I lectured I'd get mistaken for an undergraduate. I began to get carded in restaurants and liquor stores. Persons in administrative and authoritative positions would speak to me in parental tones. Whether this was flattering or insulting I could not quite decide. But either way, such treatment was distinctly new to me. It was as if in my 20s I'd been mistaken for someone in their 30s, and now it was the other way around. Is it coincidence that I began cycling in my third decade?

"It is the same with me exactly," said a cycling peer, when I shared these impression with her. Just two weeks earlier a 19-year old (at a bicycle shop, incidentally) had asked her out on a date and was shocked to learn her age.

"Damn girl!" said the young man allegedly, "Sure I thought you were a couple of years older... but you're, like, MILF-age!" Aw. How sweet indeed.

But lest we give ourselves too much credit for looking genuinely youthful, here is another take on things:  In situations where we are unsure of a person's age (or don't want to offend by guessing in the wrong direction), we might look for clues. And the bicycle, in our society, is still considered a toy, or at least a youthful preoccupation, more often than not. Which in this case, might work in our favour. All else remaining equal, if we are seen with a bike, a stranger might judge as as younger than otherwise.

Is cycling the fountain of youth? Perhaps. Or perhaps not exactly. Still, it's good to feel like a kid again and "fly" with the breeze in our face, knowing spring is just around the corner.


Portrait of the Artist as a Cycling Man

Raymond's Witcomb
We had agreed in the event of rain to bring the bicycle indoors - a plan to which the staff of the white-walled, spotlessly-carpeted gallery had proved surprisingly amenable. However, that morning the weather was good - miraculously, amazingly good. And as I cycled to the Flowerfield Centre - along idyllic, tree-lined cycle paths with views of verdant hills and sparkling azure waters - I hardly knew it was a steady 4 mile climb from the train station.

It isn't often that I venture out to Portstewart these days. But on this occasion it was worth it. For having heard of Raymond Kennedy's show, I was intrigued. A painter and a cyclist. And his subjectmatter struck a cord. Now we would meet, and I would see his work as well as one of his bikes. With the gallery light so stunning, we brought the bicycle inside despite the sunny outdoors. And now we marveled as it stood in light and shadow, surrounded by rows of paintings.

Raymond's Witcomb
Perhaps it was the name - Raymond. And the magnitude of his painterly opus. But I had expected a somber, somewhat formal, perhaps even aloof individual. Instead the Coleraine man I met was boyish in appearance, easygoing in demeanor, and light on his feet - with an air of someone who spends lots of time outdoors and perhaps does carpentry in his spare time (which he does, as it turns out).

He had not ridden his bicycle much over this winter, Raymond explains, following a leg injury in November. Today was his first day back in the saddle and he looks forward to more. But the silver lining to having been stuck in the house all that time was the finished body of work that was now on display all around us.

Raymond's Witcomb
To say that Raymond Kennedy is a landscape painter may be technically true, and yet it is somehow inaccurate. Closer to the mark might be to say that he paints particular types of things within the landscape, and he paints them in a particular way. His approach is unique, yet lacking in the sort of gimmicky stylisation that is encouraged in the artworld these days as a means of setting one's work apart.

In the series above, the same tree is depicted from 7 different vantage points, resulting in a thought-provoking examination of viewpoint and familiarity. These works especially appeal to me, because the type of crooked, permanently wind-swept tree they depict has fascinated me since I moved here (see: Taming Trees), and I myself am forever photographing and sketching them from various angles.

Raymond's Witcomb
One thing I find compelling about Raymond's paintings is that, while they look nearly photo-realistic from a distance, up close they are a mess of improbable squiggles, textures, and colours which do not look like they could possible form a recognisable, let alone natural-looking image.

Raymond's Witcomb
In a series of paintings depicting a tree-shaded river past which I have cycled many times, the water is laced with suspicious shades of lilac. It is a colour I myself remember observing when gazing into that water - then thinking I had imagined it. Where would such lilacs come from in a river that runs through a forest, all moss and sage and umber?

Raymond's Witcomb
Perhaps the lilac question occupied Raymond as much as it did me, because the bicycle he had arrived on was of this same delicate shade. He had consulted me as to which of his bikes to bring, and when he started listing them I stopped him at the Witcomb. I had never seen one in person. Yet, I'd heard much about the brand and thought that it would be of interest to others.

Raymond's Witcomb
An English builder of production and bespoke bicycle frames, Witcomb Cycles was in business from 1949 till 2009 and thrived best in the era of British Lightweights. But the company is doubly interesting for its US framebuilding connection: Some of the best-known and most influential American builders got their start at Witcomb - namely, Richard Sachs, Peter Weigle, Chris Chance and Ben Serotta. Richard Sachs in particular writes about his time at Witcomb quite a lot. If you are interested in some detailed and entertaining personal accounts of the history of this connection I recommend browsing through his online diaries.

Raymond's Witcomb
Raymond's Witcomb bicycle is of 1978 vintage. Having dreamed of a lovely lightweight for several years prior, he had finally saved up for one and was deciding between Witcomb and Mercian. Just then an article appeared about Witcomb in one of the cycling magazines of the time - it was one of those full spread deals, with stunning, evocative photographs. And thus, Raymond's mind was made up. At the time, Dave Kane Cycles had just opened in Belfast and they were a Witcomb dealer. He was able to pick up his completed Reynolds 531 frame there, then get it built up with worthy components.

Raymond's Witcomb
Originally, the bicycle had been white, with red accents. For a couple of seasons Raymond raced it. He then used it as a commuter, all-arounder, and tourer - including on a "very memorable 6 week trip" with a friend who later documented it for an Irish newspaper.  Touring through continental Europe in 1984, they cycled through "such glamorous locations as Flanders, SW Germany, Alps, Dolomites, Venice, Florence, the Cote D'Azure, Monaco, Provence and up as far as Macon in France."  For this trip, the Witcomb was set up with different gears and wheels, and with Carradice panniers.

Later still Raymond drifted away from cycling and let the Witcomb languish, neglected. But thankfully, this state of affairs did not last. When Raymond rediscovered cycling with a new vigor, the Witcomb was not only retrieved from storage but treated to a makeover.

Raymond's Witcomb
By that point the bicycle was in rough shape, cosmetically, and so Raymond decided to get it repainted from scratch. Being - well, a painter - he undertook this process himself, using "2-pack paints and lacquer, and an awful lot of patience." He chose the lilac colour as a nod to the 1970s Witcomb racing team colour scheme (you can see what the original looked like here, and even buy this 57cm beauty from yr'man in Boston!), though chose a shade that was not exactly the same.

Personally, I think this bicycle looks so well in lilac and cream, I cannot imagine it in any other colour scheme. Beautiful job, and I regretted not having arrived on my own lilac Mercian to compare.

Raymond's Witcomb
The parts on Raymond's bike are originals, including the wheels he'd built himself. Painstakingly cleaned and polished, they components include:

Raymond's Witcomb
"a mid-'70s vintage Campagnolo Record group with Nuovo Record rear dérailleur stamped Pat. 77, 3ttt Gimondi bars and stem, Record hub wheels with Nisi 28 spoke rims, Vittoria tubular tyres, Maillard 5-speed block, quite rare Renold (not Reynolds!) chain, and a Brooks Team Pro saddle."

Raymond's Witcomb
The pedals and cable clips are original Campagnolo as well.

Raymond's Witcomb
Amazingly, even the original TA water bottles remain, well preserved.

Raymond's Witcomb
Raymond's life is different now than it was when the Witcomb had been first in use. He is married now and often cycles together with his wife (on individual bikes, as well as on tandem). And for the first time in his life has recently been able to work as a painter full-time, the exhibition we were now viewing a testament to how beneficial that has been for him. Most of the paintings on display are marked as sold, and I am tremendously pleased on his behalf.

Raymond's Witcomb
Discussing his work and his bikes, at length we left the hushed space of the gallery and coasted downhill as Raymond accompanied me to the train station. "My wife likes old French bikes," he mentions in passing. In turn, I reveal that "I know a guy," then proceed to corrupt him with information on where to acquire said type of bicycle for a bargain. And with this, I know that I will see Raymond again, if only to catch a glimpse of his paintings, and his other bicycles... including, some day - why not! - that gorgeous 1940s Frech mixte he will have restored for his wife, a work of art of another kind.



Front vs Rear Carry: Notes on One User's Experience

Saddlebag vs Handlebar Bag
Most of us who've cycled for utility, travel, commuting, leisure - anything other than all-out fitness really - have partaken in the convenience of carrying things on our bicycles. Whether it's a camera, a picnic lunch, a laptop computer, a sack of potatoes, or a stack of firewood, carrying it on the bicycle as opposed to on our backs tends to be more comfortable. Ah, but where on the bicycle? Because you see, our two-wheeled contraption presents us with a dazzling, confusing array of choices: front or rear.

Chuckle if you will, my friends. But the front vs rear carry question can lead to surprisingly impassioned debates. Now in my 7th year of cycling, I have experimented with both, in a variety of configurations. In the process I have developed a pretty strong preference for front carry, to the extent that nearly all of my bicycles are now thus equipped. Whether it's a small handlebar bag on a roadbike or an enormous utility crate on a transport bike, I prefer to have my things in the front.


I suspect the reason for this is to some extent cultural, having been raised as a female in large crowded cities. But without tying this to gender and geography necessarily, I will say simply that I was brought up to keep my belongings "where I can see them" at all times and this mentality is very difficult to shake. Whether it's just a small handbag that contains my housekeys, bank card, money and phone (the pockets on women's apparel often won't fit even these small items), or a work bag containing laptop, camera equipment, and potentially sensitive documents - if I'm traveling with it, then I want to have it my field of vision. And I am always somewhat uneasy if I don't.

Mercian Transporteur
Unlike some, I do not find that a specific front-end geometry is necessary on a bicycle to enjoy a front-carry system. I have ridden with heavily laden baskets on high-trail Dutch bikes, with hefty porteur bags on mid-trail English roadbikes, and all manner of other setups. In all cases, I have found the handling perfectly fine - provided that the system was (1) set up sufficiently low and (2) properly secured.

And therein lies the rub! Because ensuring that these criteria are met can be difficult, time consuming and expensive - especially on bikes where the frame and fork are not designed for front carry. It is certainly more difficult than affixing a large saddlebag to the back of the bike via 3 straps and calling it a day. Although even installing a rear carrier to support panniers or a crate is usually an easier business, with lower-cost options available, than doing the same to the front.

And so, my personal preference for front carry notwithstanding, I think of it as a trade-off:

A front carry system is more convenient to use, but more difficult to set up properly.
A rear carry system is easier to set up properly, but less convenient to use.

Because weight, when carried in the front, has the potential to affect steering, it is imperative to secure it well with a supporting rack or other specialised system (like the proprietary "front block" on the Brompton). Most effective of all, in my experience, is a support that secures to the bicycle's frame, rather than to the fork - although securing a rack to the fork is, in turn, better than the weight hanging off of the handlebars and swaying side-to-side. In addition, care must be taken to install the supporting structure low enough on the bike so as not to make the machine too top-heavy. And finally the bicycle's fork must be taken into consideration as well: Is it rated for the weight we intend to carry?

The rear of the bicycle is far less sensitive. If a rear load sways, is set up too high, or is inordinately heavy, chances are the effects will not be as noticeable in action.

Brompton Blur
For me personally, the benefits of carrying my things on the front of the bicycle outweigh the potential complexities of ensuring a proper front-carry setup. In my use case scenario, accessibility and easy reach are particularly important, because a good deal of my work centers on photography.

One particular job I was working on several months ago, for a movie studio, involved cycling around a vast, abandoned airbase and stopping to scout various locations, taking myriads of test shots while the light was still good. Being able to pop my camera in and out of my front bag while remaining standing over the bike, then take the shots and move on to the next location quickly, was imperative and I thanked my lucky stars for my perfectly-dialed-in front bag setup. But of course that's just one example. In the course of everyday cycling the convenience of being able to reach for a snack, or stash a jacket, without dismounting the bike is something I greatly appreciate. As is the peace of mind I get from having my personal possessions in sight.

But I can certainly understand that not everyone finds such things necessary, or even particularly important. And if that is the case, then I don't really see a reason to go with a front-carry setup, if a rear-carry one can be achieved with less fuss. Preferences are exactly that for a reason: It's about what you prefer in the context of your cycling experience, your use case scenario.

An Post Bicycle, Letterkenny
Of course there is nothing to stop us from sporting both front and rear carry systems on a bicycle. And on a bike that is pure utility, or touring-oriented, I indeed prefer to have both - in which case I like to use panniers for the heavier, less valuable things, while keeping the difficult-to-replace or sensitive items in the front where I can keep an eye on them.

It isn't that I don't trust the hardware on my rear panniers or saddlebag to keep my belongings secure. It's just that some part of me still hears my mother's, aunties' and grandmothers' voices - scolding the wild-running, scatterbrained, 11-year-old me to keep my things where I can see them!

Now... where the heck is my bag again?



Getting Lost in Yourself

It had once been the case that on long, strenuous rides - those rides when my body would all but give up on the final stretch home - I would comfort myself with the Nearly There game. "Only X miles to go" was a thought that would bring some relief to aching muscles and depleted stamina. And, with that aim, I counted down. Now the familiar mountain view. Now the river crossing. The railroad tracks. The village shop. The neighbouring fields...

Passing familiar landmarks ever closer to home, I could almost taste the finish, the final unclipping, the sensation of stepping indoors, the cold (or hot) drink whilst sprawled on the sofa, the peeling back of salt-encrusted layers, the strange delicious mixture of relief and euphoria that is the post-ride resting state.

And then one day it ended.

For as I called out the places we passed and uttered assurances as to their homeward proximity, a friend laughed and said to me: "You are making it harder on yourself."

"When the body starts to expect what it senses is near," he said, "the yearnings only grow more unbearable."

I thought about it for a moment and put it less poetically: So you think it's like when you kinda sorta have to pee, but can totally hold it in for a while, until suddenly you are in the house, and you know the toilet is nearby, and then all at once it becomes completely unbearable and maybe you even pee in your pants a little before you reach the toilet?

"Um. Yes." (Steers bike away from me a little.)

"What I mean to say is... Don't look for the finish line. Instead settle in within yourself."

Settle in...

"Get lost in yourself."

Oh. That.

I can do that. If anything, getting lost in myself, trapped in my thoughts and imaginings, has always been all too easy. Had I strived for years to find my way out, now only to be told to settle back in?

Some things hit you straight away with their profundity. Others you chuckle at. At first. But then somehow, over time, they not so much sink in as trickle in - slowly, but surely, changing you, causing a shift in thought or sensation or point of view.

And on subsequent rides of that sort, in that difficult, painful home stretch, I became aware that I was no longer counting, anticipating. I was settling in, getting lost.

The final miles home - once represented in my mind as a straight-shooting arrow - became a labyrinth. And yet wandering within it, neither seeking nor anticipating an endpoint, I felt better. Calmer. My aches and exhaustion grew more muted, distant, unimportant. And reaching home became a surprise, like being jolted out of a trance.

These things, we might say, are just metaphors. Coping strategies in moments of difficulty.

Like the "pain cave." Or "Shut up, legs." Or whatever else might be coined into a memorable phrase or motto.

And why not? It's about whatever resonates. Whatever helps us make sense of the tangled sensations we experience in these challenging moments of cycling.

And so I settle in. And I get lost. And as those final painful miles expand and contract in their own devious ways, it troubles me not at all.



Restoring to What Never Was


It seems that whether I live in the densest of towns or in the remotest parts of the countryside, I am fortunate to have neighbours who are bicycle-mad. So much so that, wandering past their houses of an evening, I might spot them in the act of polishing a set of wheels, or perhaps restoring a frame in their shed.

"When did you get that one?" I asked Owen, peering over his fence. He was holding up a vintage Raleigh frameset, waving to me with it as I made my way through the field behind his garden.

"Don't you recognise it?"

I did not recognise it in fact.

The frame was silver with a sort of dark maroon headtube. A model I had seen, no doubt, before, just not in Owen's collection. My gaze traveled along the tubes for clues to something out of the ordinary, but I could spot nothing - until my eye was drawn to the seat cluster. Those seat stay endcaps, they reminded me of something...

And then all at once it hit me what this bicycle was.

"You didn't!"

"I did."

"Oh wow."

Over the summer I wrote about a rather unusual bicycle (here) that had made its way into Owen's stable. At first glance an iconic celeste Bianchi, it was actually a Team Raleigh 753 in disguise. To recap the history of this bike, it was initially owned by a local cyclist who had raced for the Belgian team Maestro in the '90s, which was sponsored by Bianchi and required its riders to ride Bianchi-branded bikes (apparently what lay beneath the paint did not matter, as long at the bike appeared thus branded!).

Having acquired this local legend of a machine, Owen decided to re-build it with newer components. And, while he was at it, to de-Bianchify it. Why? Because the falseness of it felt wrong I suppose. The bike even "looked wrong" to the eye somehow, its proportions and details un-Italian even if the decals said otherwise.

Interestingly, Owen decided not to chase whatever look the machine originally had as a Raleigh Team 753, but to go with his own colourscheme. After stripping and sandblasting the frame, he treated it with a rust-proofing agent and then simply clear-lacquered. And indeed on closer inspection I saw that the tubes were "raw" rather than silver. The headtube he painted maroon for a pop of colour, then sourced the relevant decals, and hand-lacquered clear again over the entire frame - employing a technique not dissimilar to the one he uses when repainting vintage aircraft.

As darkness fell upon the small back garden strewn with tools and components, I decided to postpone a photoshoot until the frameset was fully finished and the bicycle assembled. And I could not help but feel a tinge of regret that the "Ralianchi" was no more. Granted it had been an "incorrect" bicycle. But it had also served as evidence of the much-mythologised practice of re-branding bicycles for promotional purposes in racing. This, I thought had made it a historically interesting specimen.

The repainted frame looked friendlier, less aggressive, more homey. It was not so much a restoration as yet another re-invention of a frame that had already lived two lives and had many adventures.


Meanwhile, no sooner was the celestial glow scrubbed off the Ralianchi, another creature, similarly hued, appeared in our 'hood.

A Bianchi? Nope. It's a Raleigh. And not a repainted one either, but an all-original 1980s Raleigh Rapide Handbuilt, with Reynolds 531 tubing and rather attractive art-deco style lugwork. But that is a story for another time.


Review: Phew Windster Cycling Gloves. Could Be the Holy Grail!

Phew Windster Cycling Gloves
In the frenzied wind, the bits of hail fell at an angle optimised for battering my face. And the sky was an alarming, brownish shade of gray. A penetrating damp attacked the very core of my being as I stepped out of the shop and walked toward my bike. It was one of those afternoons when the elements seemed to conspire against me and none of my clothes felt quite right for the particular brand of nastiness unleashed just then by the weather gods. It was only when I thrust my trembling fingers into the warm, stretchy depths of my gloves that I finally felt some relief. Funny enough, the word that escaped my lips was the very same word written upon my wrist in a neat and pretty cursive:

Phew! 
Ah. Now I get it.

Phew Windster Cycling Gloves
There is nothing especially unique about a winter cycling glove that is warm, wind-proof and water-resistant. But there is one thing that distinguishes the Phew Windster gloves  from their cold season brethren: In addition to their fluffy coziness and their technical features, my fingers can actually move in them. As a result, this fairly modest looking product from a small, Bristol-based manufacturer started by a Lovely Bicycle reader and her spouse, has served my household for these past two mean Irish winters (yes, this is a looong term review!).

Phew Windster Cycling Gloves
In the past I had not been able to use winter gloves any thicker than my go-to woolen Defeets on a roadbike. Anything fluffier and involving padding/stuffing of any kind would interfere with my ability to work the ergo shifters and dampen my braking finesse. So while I've tried a variety of both "lobster" style and 5-fingered gloves that were warmer and better shielded against the elements, in the end I would rather that my hands be less cozy but able to use the controls on my bike. The Phew gloves were the first ones I've tried that did not make me choose between warmth and dexterity.

Phew gloves do not have a touch-screen sensor feature for phones. But purely as far as digital mobility - from modulating levers, to undoing bag buckles, working zippers, buttoning buttons, unscrewing valves, and anything else I've had occasion to try and do in them in the bitter cold, I cannot praise them highly enough.

Phew Windster Cycling Gloves
Additional features worth noting include extended cuff length, ensuring the wrists are covered even if your jacket sleeves ride up, lightweight fabric, padded palms, silicone grippers, and a generous fleecy "nosewipe" patch on the underthumb.

The fit of the gloves is unisex, with sizing ranging from Small to XL and instructions for how to measure your hand in cm displayed on the product page. Having found myself between Small and Medium, I opted for the larger size as I have long fingers. The resulting fit is a bit roomy in the palm, but otherwise spot on. The male model pictured finds the L true to size.

Phew Windster Cycling Gloves
While Phew rates their Windster gloves for a 3-12°C (37-53°F) temperature range, I have personally found this to be overly conservative - having worn them in considerably lower temperatures than that quite happily (most notably, while visiting Boston last winter), but of course YMMV. Either way, I think it's fair to describe them as ideal for the start and the tail end of winter in super cold climates, or as winter-round gloves in milder ones.

While I always prefer to wear garments made of natural fabrics, with weather-resistant cycling clothes that is not always an option. Likewise, these gloves are synthetic, and so the one thing I can think of which would endear them to me more, is had they incorporated wool into the mix.

Nevertheless, with their offer of serious warmth without loss to dexterity, the Phew Windster gloves could be the holy grail of winter cycling gloves for those who've struggled to find this combination of features. And it doesn't hurt that they are priced affordably - something the manufacturer deliberately strives for. At £24.99 ($35 USD) per pair I am not sure it gets any better. Phew products are available online and can be ordered internationally. I thank the folks at Phew for the opportunity to review their first line of products and look forward to more to come from this thoughtful, inventive, no-nonsense manufacturer.

Size, It's Only Just a Number!

So I am working on a project for a bicycle manufacturer, where I'm suggesting geometry specs across 4 different sizes of the same model. It's a city bike. Or, more accurately, an upright town/country sort of bicycle. And it's got me thinking about how sizing has historically been treated by manufacturers of this type of machine. And how has it been treated, you ask? Badly!

You know how clothing sizing is not quite the same across brands? According to some American labels I am a size 2 and according to others a size 8. In the UK I might fit anything from an 8 to a 14. And in the EU, where I'll fall between 38 and 44 is anyone's guess. In my youth I thought this was an evil uniquely inflicted on women to drive them insane with body image issues. But subsequent shopping trips with men revealed it as a unisex problem.


When it comes to bicycles - and namely bikes of the utility, plainclothes, hop on and go, or whatever you want to call it variety, matters stand similarly. For while bicycle sizing makes it seem as if it's based on concrete numerical measurements (a bike can be described as a Size 54cm, or 57cm, for example), what those measurements refer to - and, perhaps more importantly, what they omit - can essentially render them useless.

Take, for instance, the lovely BSA above, of 1970s vintage. Never having had occasion to measure it before, I finally did so last night to get a sense of the proportions an "average sized" diamond frame might have around 26" wheels. But with the measurements I ended up with, I would not even know how to describe this bicycle's size! While the seat tube is 570mm (if measured center-to-center; or 582mm if measured center to top - but that distinction is another topic!), the top tube is a shockingly short 545mm across.

Now I suspect that BSA, back in the day, would have described this puppy as a "size 23" referring to the (c-t) seat tube figure in inches. And I also suspect that all of their sizes for this model would have shared the same identical top tube length, as would have often been the case with English 3-speeds - ensuring that most riders would feel either inordinately stretched out or uncomfortably cramped on their bikes.

Getting back to the BSA, its 570mm x 540mm dimensions explain why my husband - who is 5'11" with a long torso - finds this machine simultaneously too big and too small: He can hardly straddle the top tube, but once astride the bike the "cockpit" feels too small.

For this reason precisely, the French have traditionally described their bicycles by the top tube (or virtual top tube) length. And today, most roadbike manufacturers do the same, believing this figure to be more informative when it comes to fit. But describing a bike like the BSA as a Size 54cm would be problematic, as (1) most people short enough to be attracted to that size would likely not be able to stand over this bike, and (2) it would mean that all of BSA's sizes for that model could be described as 54s!

The existence of these different sizing methods can be confusing. Which of the bicycles above, for instance, both built around the same wheel size, would you say is "bigger"? Some would say the small-looking one of the right, as its top tube measures 56cm. Others would say the one on the left, with its 57cm seat tube. It is good to keep this in mind, whether buying 2nd hand, or ordering a new bicycle without test riding, and without the benefit of a complete geometry chart!

But the truth of the matter is, that in order for either the seat tube measurement or the top tube measurement to be informative as to a bicycle's true size, the frame as a whole has to use "proportional geometry" - meaning, that as the sizes go up, the seat and the top tube (or virtual top tube) expand in unison. And while this is not an especially radical notion, you would be surprised how few bicycles designed for an upright position even today take care for their geometry specs to be proportional across sizes. It is almost as if, on an upright bike, the rider is not meant to care about  positioning. The fact that most upright bicycle manufacturers do not release their geometry charts contributes to that impression.

While some in the bicycle industry insist a meticulous "dialing-in" is crucial even for casual upright cycling, others shrug and say that a bicycle "fits" if you can manage to hoist bum on saddle, or stand over the top tube without your privates catching. My own views, I guess, fall somewhere in the middle. Certainly, compared to a roadbike - where the difference between pleasure and pain can be measured in milimiters or halves of a degree - upright bikes are  more forgiving. But it does not follow that fit is altogether unimportant. One can be uncomfortable on a "comfortable" upright bike. You can spot the riders who are over-stretching awkwardly, reaching up as if their bars were ape-hangers,  or hunched over painfully. You can also spot the ones with the waaaay-too-tall stems (or seatposts) trying to compensate for inappropriate frame proportions.

An informative, cyclist-oriented model of upright bicycle sizing must consider overall fit and not seat tube length or standover height alone. Otherwise, what is size, but just a number?


Auto Neurotic

"Second gear, now?

"No. Far too early."

"Now?!"

"No! Wait till you approach the markings... Okay, now! Brake. Clutch. Second gear. Look right. Is it clear? Keep going."

As we proceeded through the roundabout on our bicycles, mine possessing no gears what so ever, the humour of the situation was not lost on me.

I had wanted a lesson in slowing. In the car, which I’d only driven on the open road a total of 3 times at that point, under heavy supervision, I was downshifting far too early, anxious that if I left it late I'd “forget” how to operate the manual transmission under pressure, plow straight through an intersection. Now every bike ride turned into a driving lesson.

“What speed would you be doing on that horrible wee bend coming up?”

“30, maybe 35?”

“Ok. So you’re going to prepare for it by…”

“Braking …now. Third  gear…now?”

“Right. I think you'll have better control next time.”

We roll on in the cold morning air.

You should never, ever attempt to teach - or learn from - your spouse how to drive, we are told. Generally speaking this is probably true. But it's always been a pastime of sorts for us to share skill sets. We fall into the roles of teacher/pupil willingly and reverse them with ease. Now it was me who wished to acquire a skill, in which he happened to excel.

Oh to drive a car with manual transmission!

Okay, but… why?! Well, firstly - because outside of North America, it is a useful skill to have. The majority of cars are “stick.” Over the past two years in rural Ireland I’ve been in situations that had made me feel helpless and useless, unable to be self-reliant or to help others in need, unable to take charge in emergency situations - all because I could not drive a manual motor vehicle. It did not sit well with me. If I elected not to drive, I wanted it to be out of choice and not lack of ability.

And also...  What the heck, I am just going to say it: Manual transmission is a lot of fun.

I discovered this two years ago, when I first gave it a try on the beach. There was something about changing the gears, feeling the engine… I had never enjoyed driving until that moment. But this, I had to admit, was intoxicating. Of course it was also the car owner's company.

But shortly after that day, his lovely old Saab conked. And he replaced it  - "for my sake!”  - with an automatic one he managed to find in the local used car ads. I would borrow it on occasion, but never experienced the same enthusiasm as I did that day on the beach. And so two years passed and I never learned the skill of manual driving.

Luckily, the man's approach to purchasing cars is to buy them well-used, then drive them into the ground. So recently it was time again for a replacement. Or, actually two replacements: for he now had a work vehicle and a second car, the latter of which I was welcome to use… as soon as I learned how to drive manual. I would need to for the driver's test I would soon have to take anyway (you must take the test in a manual car for a full operator's license). This would be good motivation.

The learning curve was steeper than I had expected. It had been one thing to drive on an empty beach. Taking the car out on the road was another matter. The problem for most learners is that they stall the engine when starting and stopping. This part I never had trouble with. Even uphill starts (which is to say, most starts around here) proved surprisingly intuitive once the process was explained to me. But the problem I did have was more dangerous, in that once I would get up to speed I could panic and "forget" how to change gears or use the clutch, reverting to my automatic-driving reflexes. Have you ever experienced going from 5th gear straight into 2nd (instead of 4th) while doing around 40mph? It's a displeasure I recommend avoiding, if at all possible!

Naturally, when something is scary we do not want to keep doing it. But it's only through repetition that the nervousness can be driven out of us. And so we repeated the maneuvers that made me anxious until they simply lost that effect.

I am making it seem like this took ages. But it all came together in the course of several intense lessons. In about 2 weeks I was pronounced road-safe. And was welcomed to borrow The Car if I needed it.

And I have to admit, I loved The Car... an older Alfa Romeo, far too sporty for me and in a horrid shade of electric blue that somehow only contributed to its charm. The door handles stuck and the low leather seats managed to smell of the '70s, though the car was considerably younger. But it ran well. Too well. In fact, "well" is not even the right word. It ran beautifully. It handled beautifully. It was an instrument of precision and the sounds it made were music. It was not a car for the neurotic and so, to do it justice, I could not be neurotic in it, half-reclined and holding the stick with a loose, gentle grip. I could drive it. I could truly, calmly, safely drive a manual vehicle.

"Perhaps you can truly, calmly, safely drive it to the mechanic tomorrow then? It needs a dust cover for one of the hubcaps and the man has spares."

"Ok no problem. I'll get it tomorrow."

And that I did, traveling to the mechanic's place 12 miles in the rain, then back over the misty mountain, feeling free and capable.

"Hey, I stopped at home mid-day and saw the car in the driveway. Did you not go out to get the dust cap?"

"I did," I said, and handed it over.

Shiny and colorful with its ludicrous mystical symbols, the dust cover glistened with raindrops. Naturally, I had cycled over to get it.





The Incomplete and Inconcise English-English Dictionary of Bicycle Terms

Some like to tease about my inconsistent use of UK/US spelling and terminology, especially when it comes to cycling jargon. In my defense, I have a reasonable explanation. When I first learned English as a child, it was British English - which I then spent my teenage years in the US school system trying to unlearn in a hopeless struggle to speak Americun damn it!

Following that I went to England for university, and afterward worked in both the US and continental Europe through my early thirties - at which point, just to make matters more confusing still, I moved to Ireland. So... My use of UK vs US spelling, terms, and phraseology mostly depends on when a particular word or turn of phrase was introduced into my life, or where I've had more experience using it. When it comes to cycling jargon, I learned most of that in Boston - which accounts for inconsistencies such as "I did not realise my tire was flat," "What colour are your fenders?", et cetera. So please don't be too hard on me if my hybrid English drives you up the wall. For, in my opinion, this flaw of mine is much less interesting than the fact there are essentially two separate sets of velo-vocabulaires in the English language.


I had not realised (heh) the extent of this until I did move to Ireland and befriended the local cycling folk. But linguistically and historically it makes sense. By the time the bicycle entered into widespread use, the US and the "Atlantic Isles" had long been separate entities. Also, there was no internet. So when each side of the pond began to invent words for various bicycle components and aspects of the cycling experience, two separate sets of jargon developed. There is, of course, much overlap. But if you're an American who's ever tried to converse with a UK/IRL framebuilder or bike mechanic - or vise versa - you will soon know there are quite a few differences. In an attempt to document them, I present to you...


The Incomplete and Inconcise English-English Dictionary of Bicycle Terms

Components, Parts
(US > UK/IRL)

aluminum > aluminium
bike > push-bike; cycle (this is changing now, but until recently "bike" would imply motorcycle)
"Campy" > Campag
carbon fiber > carbon fibre
cassette > block
cog > sprocket
crankset > chainset
derailleur > mech (i.e. front mech, rear mech)
drops > bends
fenders > mudguards
fixed gear > fixed wheel
flat tire > puncture; flat wheel (this one drives me nuts, as it's inaccurate!)
fork > forks (plural!)
headlight > headlamp
rack > carrier (i.e. front carrier, rear carrier)
roadbike > racer (can refer to any aggressive bike with drop bars, not just a racing bike)
saddle > seat
seat post > seat stem; seat pin; seat pillar
side pull brakes > allen key brakes
SRAM > pronounced "Shram"
steerer > fork column
tail light > rear light
tire > tyre
threadless (headset/steerer) > a-head
top tube > cross bar
U-Lock > D-Lock


Activities, Actions
(US > UK/IRL)

biking > cycling
brevet > audax
bonking > blowing the box
club ride > club run
crash (verb) > to come off
cycling clothes > kit
cycling vest > gillet (a "vest" is a sleeveless undershirt)
cycling knickers > 3/4 tights ("knickers" are underpants)
going for a ride > going out for a run
organized ride/ charity event > sportif (pronounced "SPORTiv")
paceline > bunch (i.e. "cycling in a bunch")
passing > overtaking
putting the hammer down > putting the power down (or "purr" if you're in Northern Ireland)
riding > cycling
shifting  > changing gears
signaling > indicating


---

What am I missing? I am sure there is lots. Help me make this incomplete dictionary less incomplete with your linguistic expertise, kind readers, and perhaps this document might one day be useful as a resource for English-speaking cyclists who venture across the pond in either direction. As for Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, and other English speakers in far flung lands... well, I'm afraid I can't help them at all! But would be interested to know where their linguistic habits fall.



Quality Myles! The Slí na gCopaleen Mini-Tour Ride Report

Slí na gCopaleen Ride
It was to be my first time leading an organised bicycle ride. And the evening before it, I became plagued with doubts about the route. I mean, six miles - really? What was I thinking! Even with all the talking I'd be doing as part of the guided "literary tour" (the ride was part of the Flann O'Brien, aka Myles na Gopaleen, festival in Donegal mentioned here earlier) it would be over in minutes surely. People would be disappointed, angered; they would pelt me with rotten vegetables.

Slí na gCopaleen Ride
Keen to avoid that scenario, I set off on my own before sunset to do a dry run, perhaps tweak and lengthen the route a bit. And in so doing I immediately remembered why I had kept the distance so short. It was basically a hill climb we'd be tackling. An uphill slog through remote Donegal bogscapes at a relentless gradient, followed by a winding, brakepad-burning descent.

"This ride is suitable for cyclists of all abilities," I had penned in the route description to a trusting audience. "We will pedal at a social, parade-like pace, with lots of chatting and stopping along the way."

Yeah. Six miles might seem like an awfully short distance, but these six miles would be plenty. For the miles in the hills of Gortahork are of the finest quality, presenting the cyclist with hardships and torment of the purest sort and thus inspiring Flann O'Brien's extraordinary novels. And to boot this was the middle of February, with chances of rain and gael-force winds at nearly 100%. Listening to the sounds they made against the slate roof of my cottage that night, I fell asleep with a clear conscience.

Slí na gCopaleen Ride
The following day, the Slí na gCopaleen Festival was in full swing in the village of Gortahork, with morning talks of a scholarly nature putting me into a civilised frame of mind - so much so, I was even inspired to wash my face and clean the mud off my boots before arriving at the designated meeting place.

Slí na gCopaleen Ride
With the time of year being what it was, I was hoping that 8, perhaps 10 hardy souls might join me that day. But in truth I feared that it would really be just me, and a couple of local friends, come out of politeness.

Slí na gCopaleen Ride
To my surprise, however, the bicycles - and riders - kept multiplying, until the number exceeded a dozen, then doubled again, and kept growing beyond that still. What's more, the crowd was positively brimming with celebrities - including painter Michael O'Nolan (Flann O'Brien's brother and only surviving family member), actor, writer and publisher Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhríde, comedian Hughie Mac Ó Duibheannaightravel journalist Sean Hillen, members of the Cosan Glas artist collective, and a certain glamorous Irish soap star whose identity shan't be disclosed. At the start I believe we had 32 riders in all, half a dozen or so canines (unleashed and amazingly well behaved), and god only knows how many bicycles.

I was thus presented with a challenge I had not anticipated: How to talk, outdoors, in 0° temps, and having just barely recovered from laryngitis, to an audience of that size who were scattered on bicycles. I proposed we should pedal in thoughtful silence, then stop in front of each landmark and wait for all to catch up - at which point I would gather the crowd close and whisper the interesting things I had planned to impart upon them.

Slí na gCopaleen Ride
Amazingly, this format worked pretty well. Before long we were all intimate friends, whispering conspiringly in front of our destinations after all had caught their breath to reach them. In this manner, I told of the House Where Flann O'Brien Stayed, of the spooky but really quite lovely Whalebone Gate, of the so-called Gortahork Volcano, and the fabled Hunger Stack Mountain with its hidden stashes of gold and artisanal whiskey. Finally we reached the abandoned railway station of the defunct Londonderry and Lough Swilly narrow gauge railroad, where we allowed ourselves an imaginary summertime picnic in front of its shambles premises, while discussing its history and expounding on the need for Donegal to turn the dis-used railway beds into rail trails.

Slí na gCopaleen Ride
In front of all of these places, I made hoarsely whispered speeches about their role in Flann O'Brien's writing. My audience, panting from exertion and shivering from cold, leaned in close for warmth, which flattered me in its resemblance to attention and interest.

Slí na gCopaleen Ride
Meanwhile, the glamour was oozing from our stately procession,

Slí na gCopaleen Ride
as we dazzled the local sheep and rock formations with our swathes of tweed,

Slí na gCopaleen Ride
all manner of colourful haberdashery,

Slí na gCopaleen Ride
and picturesque suffering in the low winter sun.

Slí na gCopaleen Ride
True, the weather disappointed us that day with its lack of Gaeltacht authenticity - depriving us of rain, or even wind of any strength worth mentioning.

Slí na gCopaleen Ride
I could only hope that the endless uphill trek on heavy upright bicycles made up for this in some small way, and the crowd was not too put out.

Slí na gCopaleen Ride
As we descended and reached at last the end point of our route, Teach Ruairi's pub, I heard more than a few riders exclaim to one another: "The likes of that ascent I have never pedaled and do not wish to again!" and "That damn near finished me!" in deeply satisfied tones. Only one rider within my earshot complained of the route having been "reasonable" and "nice." But really, you can't please everyone.

Slí na gCopaleen Ride
That afternoon's remainder was a blur as we warmed in the pub, the riders plying one another with buckets of hot ports and whiskeys. Our six mile route had taken us a good two hours to complete. It is a well-known fact that time flies when the miles are of high quality. And finer quality you won't find than in the steep, winding, crumpling, boggy back roads of Gortahork, in County Donegal. Whether you are fans of Flann O'Brien or not, perhaps next time you will join us!


My Gear, My One and Only

It used to be that when I climbed my thoughts were occupied with making it to the top, with worry over stalling out and toppling over, with whether I would outbrave the burn in my legs. Now when I climb, when I am on my own, I mostly daydream.

Even today, when I am weak and have what feels like the beginnings of pneumonia. My lungs aren't good; my legs have lost their summer muscle tone. And still I daydream and I don't suffer. And before long, I am at the top. I am not fast, but I am there, my breathing even, my face warmed by the sun.

These things I've learned since living in a place where every direction is up: Familiarity reduces gradients. As does muscle memory. As does the sheer repetition of it.

The hills which seem so formidable in their permanence when you first lay eyes upon them are really full of subjectivity. The hills are open to interpretation, negotiable. Who would have thought?

Certainly not I, three years ago, panting while ascending in my many-geared bicycle's granniest of granny gears.

"You need a sub-1:1 to ride here comfortably," I'd say to anyone who'd visit, asking me for gearing advice. And it was true. It was true two years ago, one year ago. It was true until - quite suddenly, it seemed - it wasn't.

It was just over a month ago now that I converted my fixed gear Mercian roadbike into a transportation bicycle with hefty front rack, flat pedals, a free-wheel single speed. My intention was to use it for my mostly flat, but very windy commutes, 7-13 miles each way. My intention had not been to take it up over the mountains. I'd never even meant to try; I'm not a masochist.

And then one day I went to visit an acquaintance. I had never been to the house before, and, based on the directions I was given, I misjudged its location - thinking it to be just outside the town, at the base of the mountain, or close enough to the base. I kept cycling and looking at the house numbers, checking the map on my phone in their absence, and still was nowhere near it.

The road began to rise. The address kept showing as further on ahead on my map. And so I pedaled on, the bicycle moving willingly enough beneath me although at a lower cadence. It was as if the pedals were taking their time, as I was, ensuring we did not miss the house, disguised perhaps by shrubbery.

Observantly and almost meditatively we pedaled as the road continued rising, until, after some time, the rising stopped. Before me, views of snaking rivers and the seashore and the neighboring counties spread in all directions. Snapping out of my vigilantly house-seeking state, it took me a moment to understand what was happening.

I had reached the top. Of the mountain. On a single speed bicycle.

In the first instance I felt alarm. That feeling, when a place you have come to think of as deeply familiar is suddenly not. It is disorienting. A panic sets in, a sinking sensation in the pit of the stomach, like falling. What's happened to this mountain? Did someone shrink it? Was it the wrong mountain? What I'd just done should not have been possible for me to accomplish.

The address I'd been looking for was indeed at the base of the mountain, only on the other side of it. Realising my mistake finally, I descended toward it and, after my visit, repeated the climb backwards.

That day, and for many days after, I felt as if I had attained a secret superpower. The superpower of not needing gears. With renewed wonder I studied the simplicity of my bicycle's drivetrain, with its taut chain, its single cog, its lack of pulleys and bolt-ons, its unadorned open dropouts. Can it be that, when push comes to shove, this is really all I need now?

It's you and me, my gear, as long as my lungs and legs will carry me.

The 'Death Farm': Some Thoughts on Obstacle Blindness

The country roads in County Derry are notoriously bendy. But one bend near the town of Limavady has an especially bad reputation. Although neither as sharp nor as awkwardly cambered as some of the others, it is said to have claimed the most lives. And so continuing on the theme of the senses from the previous post, let me tell you about the Death Farm.

In fairness this farm is a lush, picturesque enterprise, set amidst much Queens Lace and soothing mountain views. But it is situated on a bend. And the tall, curved stone wall of the farm's main structure sits in such a way as to turn invisible when perceived from certain angles.

I first experienced this phenomenon just shortly after having moved to the area. I was cycling to my then-home nearby and approached the bend from the west for the very first time. The green roof blended so perfectly with the trees and the mountain behind it, and the gray stone wall with the road in front, that I felt myself compelled to cycle straight ahead - along the "road" and toward the "trees" instead of turning into the bend. The illusion was remarkable. My mind knew there was a bend, not least because of the prominent warning arrows. And yet my eyes saw a straight road ahead. It was like that early X-Files episode about mind control, where the guy keeps saying "cerulean blue" in a soothing tone of voice until the driver of the police car crashes into a truck, convinced it's an expanse of sky he is heading toward.

I've been told this farm has a history of vehicles smashing into it - every year or two, like clockwork. Whether this is truth or local lore I cannot say for certain (an attempted search for evidence of traffic deaths on this road has proved unsuccessful). But my own experience certainly makes it seem plausible - I can especially see how drivers passing through and unfamiliar with this road might fall victim. Even today, with the trees standing bare and the green of the mountain reduced in the dead of winter, the illusion was strong.

It made me think of visibility. And namely, of other instances of "obstacle blindness." How many times have we watched someone walk into a door or a window right in front of them, or done it ourselves? Tripped over a large and obvious object right under our nose? Bumped into the person next to us, whether on foot or two wheels?

Along a woodsy cycle path in Belfast, they've recently installed these waist-high poles straight through the centre of the lane - presumably to prevent cars from entering. Seeing shots of this on twitter made me wince for the people of that fine city. Because, you see, similar contraptions can be found along the Minuteman Bikeway in Boston. And, despite being painted bright yellow, they're often cited as culprits by cyclists visiting the ER.

The human brain is an economical instrument. It lets us see what it "thinks" we need to see, often discarding in the process the information it deems extraneous. Most of the time this type of economy is useful. But sometimes it proves erroneous, making us blind to what is literally right in front of us.

As cyclists we focus on making ourselves visible. But are there measures we can take, I wonder, to train ourselves to notice obstacles?


Sound Decisions


That morning we woke to a most unnatural circumstance. So strange and utterly different it was to the state of affairs we had known previously, that at first our senses could not work out what exactly was happening. As we walked through the house, every room was filled with the same eerie sensation. And when we stepped outdoors it persisted.

Not one to give into panic before breakfast, I gathered my powers of concentration and tried to determine, first and foremost, which of the five senses this thing which was happening around us fell under the auspices of. Was it a new quality to the light that disturbed me? Or perhaps a strange smell in the air? I decided at length it was most similar to a sound. It was then the situation revealed itself finally: It wasn't so much sound we were perceiving, as the lack of it.

Absent was the low, loud hum of wind against windowpanes and its high-pitched whistle through wire fencing. Lacking was the knock and crackle of tree branches against the roof. Utterly gone was the rattling of metal drums dragged and flung against the concrete surface of the farmyard, the hysterical mooing of cows, the hissing of grass in the fields as its blades collectively swelled and fell like sea waves. At the start, these sounds - mixed and mashed into a mad howling song - had alarmed us. But over the week of continuous storm weather they had become a normal soundtrack to our lives, morphing into a familiar and not unpleasant background noise - so much so that the sudden and total removal of it now came as a shock to the system. Our environment was completely, disconcertingly empty of auditory input. And that emptiness, in its novelty, was itself a sort of heavy presence.

Mesmerised by its spell, it took us a good hour to grasp the practical implications of this situation. We could go out on our bicycles without fear of being lifted from the ground and deposited into a field in a neighbouring county!

No further encouragement was needed. Down went the coffee. On went the jackets, the gloves and hats. We grabbed a pair of flat-pedaled bikes and set off.

The trip down the lane was idyllic. In comparison to the previous days' weather, the 20mph headwind felt downright mild and playful, slapping our faces in jest and pushing the bikes about half-heartedly, while still allowing us to make forward progress. And the sun - while not, in the strictest sense of the word, out - was making its presence known by illuminating the gray thicket of cloud from within in irregular, flickering bursts. The puddles beneath our wheels reflected the swaying trees, the dilapidated homesteads, and the changes of light with remarkable clarity, and in it all there was a cheerful, fresh morning energy of the sort you can only get after a bad storm.

Turning onto the main road we continued to pedal, observing fields strewn with wind-blown debris, snapped tree trunks and crumbled stone walls. Grateful for the chance to finally get out and cycle in each other's company, we were full of positive feeling and hardiness. When the sky began to spit moisture, we ignored it entirely. When the spitting turned into weeping and the wind picked up, we pulled up the hoods of our jackets and kept going, rejoicing at our resilience against the elements. Only when the waterworks were such that our view of the road ahead grew obscured, did we finally relent and give each other a look acknowledging it. "Shall we keep going or turn?"

Some quarter of a mile ahead was a forest entrance. We decided to pull into it and ponder this question under the shelter of evergreen canopies. Leading the way, I cycled across the empty lot toward the nearest cluster of trees. And just as I came to a stop, the ground jolted beneath me and my ears rang with the sound of a terrific explosion.

It was a bang so deafening and powerful, that for a moment I froze in place as if the pause button had been pressed in a film. I then dropped my bike and ran back toward my companion, while recalling, with a sick feeling, the stories of WWII-era mines still buried in fields and forests exactly like this one.

Of course the sound was not that of an exploding mine, but of a burst bicycle tyre. And my companion was fine. But the devastation to his machine was remarkable. The rear tyre was in shreds. The wheel rim was bent. The mudguard had blown clean off its bracket and stays, and buckled in half, at an almost perfect 90° angle, from the force of the blow-back. Wiping the streaming rainwater from my face, I could discern that bits of mudguard were missing - jagged holes in the alloy where it was once connected to the installation hardware. A good thing I was not cycling behind him, I thought. And made a mental note to always wear eye protection.

As the wind began to howl and the rain to pour in one continuous frigid stream, we leaned against the pleasantly spongy pine trunks and contemplated our predicament. This contemplation did not prove time consuming, as there was really only one solution. I would cycle home, then return in the car to scoop up the mangled velo-victim and its shivering rider.

Excited by the prospect of my first rescue mission, I rode in the lashing rain and gusting wind with surprising deftness, using the cuff of my left sleeve as a perpetual windscreen wiper for my glasses, and pushing the pedals with all my might whilst counter-steering jauntily to achieve an overall forward direction in spite of erratic wind patterns. I arrived breaking no speed records, but also, thankfully, no parts of bicycle or body. And then, with surprising calmness, I got into the enclosed motorised contraption whose manual transmission I had only recently been deemed as competent enough to handle unsupervised, and propelled it, successfully, toward the woodsy spot of the explosive incident.

Much of the rest of that day was spent by the fire, the sky outside black and the whine of the wind competing with the volume of our voices, as we revived the morning's events with colourful retellings and speculated on the cause of the treacherous tyre failure.

The following day I awoke again to an eerie calm with hints of jagged sunlight. But I remained suspicious and kept my travel radius small, braving only a trip to the shop and back. And so this time, when once again the storm returned to sweep away both bike and human, I sheltered in an abandoned cottage and listened to the sounds of hailstones pelting its roof. When the storm took a breather, I high-tailed it the rest of the way home, the thunder roaring rabidly behind me all the way.


The Rental Market

Earlier this week on twitter, the Flying Pigeon bike shop in Los Angeles has mentioned they’d be renting Brompton folding bikes come spring 2016. In Boston and Portland Oregon Bromptons can already be rented at Broadway Bicycles and Clever Cycles, respectively. And of course in the UK, an entire network of bike hire docks has been set up by the manufacturer directly, which, rumor has it, might spread to cities in Ireland soon.

But while these folder rental announcements have perhaps been the most newsworthy, a rental market for bicycles of all types has been quietly thriving across the US and Europe. From shops throughout many cities you can now rent vintage bicycles, cargo bikes, utility bicycles, even high-end roadbikes. You can rent them for a day, for a weekend, sometimes even for a month or longer. While some bike shops promote their rental services, others offer them upon request but do not advertise. In fact, a lot of it, quite frankly, is informal and known about through local word of mouth. If you are looking for a bicycle to rent, it never hurts to ask around, even if it may not seem that a culture of it exists in your neck of the woods.

But why rent a bicycle to begin with?

One obvious reason is if you are a visitor. While many major cities now offer bike-share programmes, these can be awkward for non-residents to use or expensive to use beyond one short trip at a time. The bike-share bikes may also lack features that the visitor might want while they are in town - for instance, extra storage capacity for shopping, low gears for hills, compactness for use in public transport, etc. And while private companies that specialise in bike rentals exist as well, experienced cyclists tend to be less than ecstatic about the quality and condition of their offerings. Many would much prefer to explore their new surroundings on the type of bicycle they are used to riding at home, and the idea of renting one in well-maintained condition, from a friendly, knowledgeable, flexible bike shop appeals.

Renting can also be a valuable resource for those in the market for a new bicycle, providing opportunity to test ride long term before deciding whether a particular make and model is right for them. As you might have noticed, nice bicycles can be quite expensive. And for potential customers, the lack of sufficient opportunity to try a bike before buying is frustrating. Even in the US, where it is customary for bike shops to allow for test rides, these test rides are usually limited - both in the milage considered acceptable, and in the terrain to which the bike shop's location restricts the tester. In other countries (Northern Ireland, for instance, based on my experience), test rides can be out of the question altogether. You can stand over a bike, lift it, examine it - but the tyres mustn't roll off the shop floor!

In both the limited test ride and the no test ride scenarios, shop owners are (understandably) concerned over their bicycles losing retail value once ridden, since they'd no longer be "new." Not every shop can afford a fleet of demo models, destined to be scuffed and sold at clearance prices at the season's end. Offering the floor models for rent would solve this problem for the shop owners, bringing in revenue that would certainly make up for the machines' devaluation, while at the same time offering a valuable service to their customers.

I myself have used bike rental services twice, with pleasing results. In Vienna, I rented "with option to buy" a vintage Waffenrad from Heavy Pedals. This unique, just-right-for-me bicycle improved the quality of my work commute gazillion-fold and satisfied my love of vintage bikes, without committing me to ownership in a country I only lived in part-time. And before I bought my Seven roadbike, I rented one for a month from the Ride Studio Cafe in Boston - which, no doubt, was largely responsible for why, once I did order my own Seven, the fit and feel came out so perfectly.

Potentially beneficial for all parties involved, I believe the rental market is something bike shop owners should consider. How nice would it be, if rentals were promoted openly, with a guide to where to rent what kind of bike, by country and city, available as an "app"?  It could happen!


The Gathering

Grass Routes Kalkhoff E-Bike
When I owned and drove my first car, I began to observe a funny phenomenon. Often I would park beside whatever other cars would happen to be there, only to return and find my vehicle in the company of a "cousin" - a car of the same (somewhat unusual) make and similar vintage. On a few exciting occasions it would even be a "twin" of the same colour. And on rarer occasions still, it would be an entire gathering of several "related" vehicles. It was as if, given the option, like would gravitate to like, the machines compelling their drivers to gather them into a flock. When the mood was right and my parking skills up to the task, I too would play along.

Having all but forgotten this game a decade later, I was delighted to emerge from a municipal building in Vienna one evening to find not one, but, seemingly, three exemplars of my bicycle locked up to the fence where I'd left it. The two extra bikes were deliberately "posed" in a similar manner to my own machine; the rhythm and symmetry of the three of them, casting long shadows in the setting sun against the chainlink fence, was breath-taking. As I approached from a distance, I could not even tell which was mine, and it was only when I drew closer that its broken, duct-taped headlamp mount gave it away. With a silly smile on my face I looked for a sign of the owners. Had it been a couple of friends who had arrived together? Or, more improbably still, two entirely unconnected persons who happened to own beat-up old Waffenrads similar to mine, each with the good humour to collaborate in staging this tableaux?

Later in Boston, I would play this game with vintage English 3-speeds and with mixtes, with Dutch bikes and - for the brief, glorious 2 months that I owned one - with Xtracycles. Sometimes - if a coincidence was especially uncanny - other cyclists would leave notes on my bike or I on theirs. But most of the time, it was a matter of returning to where I'd locked up my bike and discovering a lookalike, tethered meaningfully to the same pole despite the availability of other spaces. It was a silly game, but it always made me grin.

In the town of Coleraine which I sometimes visit, an old Viking mixte stands locked up beside the bank, always in the same spot. Once, I locked up my own Viking beside it. I had no idea whether the owner noticed, as when I came back for my bike the Coleraine Viking was still there. So, probably not, I thought. Some time later I did it again, with the same result. Then on a third occasion, I must have arrived on the lunch hour, because the other bicycle was absent. I locked my own bike to a different rack this time. When I returned, its Viking cousin was nestled beside it, instead of at its usual rack. I'd be lying if I did not admit that this little "victory" brought a tear or two to my eye (though of course it could have been the 30mph wind).

In the Glenveagh National Park, we once rented electric(!) bikes and rode them all over the lovely hilly trails. Then, taking a tea break, we left them in a secluded clearing (instead of the usual spot designated for bike parking), as we'd forgotten to take locks and did not want them to attract attention. Three quarters of an hour later, we returned to behold an amazing scene: The entire clearing was now teeming with rental bicycles. Having spotted ours, others must have decided that this was the place to leave one's rental bike if you did not bring a lock - and duly followed suit. After that, the more of them were gathered, the more legitimate and inviting the spot began to look until the bikes were over a dozen in number.

For some inexplicable reason, the sight of the green, shaded clearing, with a flock of bicycles gathered upon it, made me stupidly, disproportionately happy. I would have nearly left notes on them all - saying what, I don't exactly know.

Why Order a Custom Bicycle?

New England Builders Ball 2014
With opportunities to ride diminished in winter, there is more time to devote to thinking, perhaps a tad obsessively, about bicycling - from planning cycling routes for summer adventures, to browsing internet "bike p0rn.” For some this includes considering a custom bicycle, made from scratch by one of a growing number of specialist builders, who now exist in nearly every region.

From the start of this blog, I have been passionate about handmade bicycles and independent framebuilders. I own several custom bicycles myself (from ANT, Royal H., Seven Cycles and Mercian), and have even tried my hand at making one. Some interpret my enthusiasm to mean that I consider custom handmade bikes to be altogether superior products to mass produced ones. For that reason I receive lots of questions about the benefits of going custom. And I think my attitude in that regard surprises readers...

Because, for most of us, I believe there is no practical benefit to ordering a custom made bicycle.

By no means is this sentiment meant to discourage anyone from ordering a custom frame and supporting a talented framebuilder. It's just that I think it is important to understand what is, and is not, reasonable to expect from the experience.

When I hear people discuss why they want a custom bicycle, the themes that come up most are comfort, fit and quality. But in reality, there are now more off-the-shelf options than ever that will satisfy most of us in regard to all three of these features.

These days, production bikes by most of the mainstream manufacturers are offered in a myriad of sizes. Assuming your body's proportions are within the range of normal and that you do not have any quirky fit preferences, a production frameset in the appropriate size for your dimensions and riding style can be easily set up to fit “perfectly.”

To be sure, extremely short and extremely tall riders will benefit from custom fit and geometry, as will riders with genuinely unusual proportions. Likewise, extremely lightweight riders may benefit from an independent framebuilder's ability to select tubing that a mainstream manufacturer could not, due to safety regulations (see my review of the Soma Grand Randonneur, and accompanying comments, for an explanation of this). And on the other end of the spectrum, riders who weigh beyond what production bicycles are rated for, can turn to a custom builder for a specially reinforced frame. But again, even taking these groups together, the riders who need to go custom for reasons of fit are in the minority.

And, while comfort is to some extent subjective, comfortable mass-produced bicycles do exist (and I say this as someone for whom comfort is crucial). You will have to shop around. And, importantly, not assume that once you've tried one bicycle of a particular style or material, they all feel the same. Because they really do not. Within each genre of bike, there are specific makes and models that are known for feeling "harsh," and likewise specific makes and models that are known for their comfort characteristics. For example, if you want a comfortable carbon fibre roadbike, the Specialized Roubaix/Ruby series is the obvious recommendation, and it is available in a range of price points. So even if you experience serious pain from going over bumps or from road buzz, know that there are off-the-shelf options especially designed to address this. Unless your discomfort issues are of a truly unusual nature, strictly speaking there is no need to go custom.

Now as far as quality... I think that firstly, we ought to compare like with like. Certainly, a low-end or entry level production bike will likely be of worse quality than a custom handmade one. But that is hardly a fair or logical comparison. Once we get into mid-range territory or higher, mass produced bicycles have a pretty good quality record. In fact, unlike the one-off custom frames, production bikes are tested thoroughly before they are available to the consumer and, as mentioned earlier, they must abide by stringent safety regulations. Of course some materials are by their very nature more fragile than others. But then, a custom framebuilder working with those materials will face these same challenges. A factory-produced frame may lack the "heirloom" factor of a handmade one. But chances are, you will grow tired of it before it breaks on you.

New England Builders Ball 2014
So if not for reasons of fit, comfort or quality - why go custom? I do not have a prescriptive answer to that question. All I can do is answer it for myself.

I choose to order handmade custom bicycles...

Because all things being equivalent, I prefer to support individual craftspersons and small, independent manufacturers.

Because I enjoy the process of interacting with a framebuilder to create a bicycle from scratch.

Because I like unusual materials, such as titanium and ultra-lightweight steels, which are not commonly available off the shelf.

Because I have quirky geometry preferences.

Because I like having input into aesthetics and paint.

Because a handmade custom bicycle feels more "soulful" and personal.

Because the cost is typically no greater than that of a production bike of similar spec and quality.

As you can see, some of these reasons have elements of practicality. But others are entirely subjective, emotional, personal - having more to do with my general interest in craft, handmade objects, and the people who create them than with bicycle-specific factors per se.

New England Builders Ball 2014
There are plenty of comfortable, well built, high-performing mass-produced bikes on offer whose fit can be dialed in perfectly for most riders. I do not tend to cover these bicycle here, because my personal passion lies in the handmade, the niche, the small-scale - and really we can only write about the things we are passionate about. But that does not mean I don't think there are good off-the-shelf bikes.

As for the question of why order a custom bicycle? I suspect that everyone who has done so, or is considering doing it, will have a different answer. Because really, underneath all the pros and cons, the framebuilder reviews, the personal anecdotes, the lists of specs, and the photos of frame joints, it is a highly personal and subjective process. Do you want it? Do you need it? And will it suit your needs better than a production bike? In leu of personal experience, the best guide is perhaps your own intuition.


In a World of Our Own Making

{drawing by pixelgraphix}

Having spent the past two years in "recovery ride" mode, at the start of 2016 I finally feel... well, more or less recovered! Creatively I am on surer footing and have a better sense of direction. It has also, I think, only now truly sunk in that my move to Ireland is permanent and real, rather than some bizarre dream I am about to wake up from. As a result I've been less tentative in making connections, less reluctant to plan. And in the coming months I look forward to several new projects that I'm either starting myself, or am taking part in.

One of these is the Slí na gCopaleen festival, which I feel exceptionally lucky to be helping to organise. Translatable roughly as "na gCopaleen's way," the festival's name is a reference to one of the pseudonyms of the Irish writer Brian O'Nolan, aka Flann O'Brien - author of that bicycling metaphysics bible, The Third Policeman. It was just over two years ago now that I read this book (see: Is This About a Bicycle?) and fell in love. I fell in love not only with the author's writing, but also with his unique ability to shape language to accommodate his ideas, rather than allowing for the more usual, reverse, relationship between the two. Well, I won't get too deep and analytical in this wee bicycling blog, but anyway: There is a Flann O'Brian festival in Donegal coming up, and it will be lovely, and free to attend, and will feature dinner talks and live music and a themed bicycle ride, and if you would like to join us check the website for info and updates.


Among the things I have enjoyed while involved with this event, has been working with the excellent Berlin-based illustrator Manuela Hoffmann - aka pixelgraphix. I "met" Manuela through instagram, where we connected over our mutual love of bicycles and fountain pens. For years I had followed her snaps, and watched her develop as an illustrator. So when several of my own projects required graphics (I draw and paint myself, but illustration is quite different!), I turned to Manuela for her striking pen-and-ink style, as well as for her cyclist's perspective.

Having cycled in central Berlin for years ("messy and cramped infrastructure, but you can get almost anywhere by bike!") Manuela now lives to the south of the city. From there, she often rides to the forest and the Havel lakes - either alone on her Stevens touring bike, or with her family on their PedalPower tandem. The imagery found in her work is much inspired by these trips.

"A lot of my ideas and projects stem from long bike rides where my thoughts are free to ramble about," Manuela tells me. And somehow, looking even at the work where the subjectmatter is seemingly not cycling-related at all, I can sense that.

For the Slí na gCopaleen festival image, I sent Manuela some photos I'd taken and described the look and feel I was going for. I wanted to combine a vast Donegal bogscape, I explained, with a more intimate scene of a bicycle "crouching in wait, expectantly." Undeterred by such a description, Manuela set to work. And after some back and forth feedback, and some closeup shots of "Katy" for reference, the scene I had visualised was brought into existence, as if by magic - complete with expectant crouching.

One interesting thing about the end result illustration, is that the landscape it depicts is ultimately fictional - combining a mountain road in western Donegal with elements of rural County Derry. Even the bicycle is a fiction - the otherwise meticulously replicated Lady's Record anatomically altered into a diamond frame model.

We did these things initially, because we thought it would make for a stronger image. But on reflection, this collaging of geography and objects also serves to reinforce the Flann O'Brien tribute: referencing his life on both sides of the border, and his tendency to morph ideas, concepts, things, before the reader fully grasps what is being done.

The magic of drawing and writing, is the magic of imagination: we can create entire worlds of our own making, willing things into existence that might, strictly speaking, not exist in the exact form or configuration we would like them to.

And in a way I am finding difficult to articulate, there is an element of this same creativity to the act of cycling in itself. The combination of the bicyclist's pace, vantage point, and heightened senses has the effect of loosening the imagination. The winding road ahead becomes our canvas, our blank piece of writing paper. And so we cycle through a world of our own making - in equal measure beautiful and dissonant.

Winter Training

"It's normally much better behaved than this!" I heard myself say to the train conductor, in a frazzled, parental voice, as my bicycle buckled and slid away from the space I'd been trying to shove it into with one hand, whilst paying the faire with the other.

"No worries," he said, looking in fact slightly worried for me.

"Sometimes they'll not do as they're told," added a man behind me, as if in my defense.

"Happens to the best of them," chimed in another at the other end of the car helpfully.

A parcel-laden woman in a yellow beret chuckled.


Despite the early hour, the muddy sky, and the sideways wind blowing sleet straight through the train car, the collective mood began to lift. For a moment, I nearly expected for a 7-string guitar and a bottle of home-brewed spirits to materialise, as in a 1960s Eastern European movie (train journeys can be exciting, you know). For a fleeting, blinding moment, the sun even came out, illuminating the storm with a brilliant flash before disappearing again.

I wish I can claim credit for the cleverness of the "winter training" pun. But I owe it to Mr. lazylegscycling for cheering me up with this phrase.

Having lived through two winters in Ireland, I have hardened up quite a bit. Nonetheless, when the wind grows so strong I topple over, and the hail so sharp my face starts to bleed (actually happened yesterday), I know it is time to train. I still cycle to and from the train and bus stations, and some days, frankly, that feels adventurous enough.

Leaving the station, I cycled two miles uphill to get my lower wisdom teeth removed. I walked into the clinic, folded bicycle in one hand, handbag in the other, checked in and took a seat in the waiting area. A short time after, two nurses came out to usher me into the dental suite. In the next instant, each of them swiftly reached for my bike as if the move had been planned out beforehand.

"What a lovely wee bike. We'll just store it for you, till a family member comes to take you home."

"Sorry, what?" I attempt to retain the grip on my folded bundle of metal and leather, as a firm hand on my shoulder guides me into the x-ray room.

"Someone needs to come lift you, love. You'll not be fit to cycle after the procedure."

Having cycled home quite happily after the removal of my upper wisdom teeth in Boston (encouraged by Pamela Blalock's story of - I believe - completing a 400K brevet after hers were pulled),  I really don't see the problem. "I'll mostly be on the train," I explain, "it's only 4 miles of actual cycling."

"Four miles?! Train? I don't think you understand how you are going to feel after this." Then, pointing at an x-ray showing monstrous, twisted roots: "Your lower teeth are complicated; you'll need sedation."

A minor struggle ensues, its outcome now fuzzy.

An hour and a half later, I am trembling from shock and wisdom-toothlessness. My bike and I are pushed into a car and whisked away home.

"I could have taken the train you know," I try to say. But as my mouth is frozen stiff and stuffed with gauze it comes out sounding like sulky mooing.

The human body is a delicate, treacherous thing. You never know what is going to fell you. I have cycled big miles with various things wrong with me - with burning fevers and nasty throat infections, with a twisted ankle and cracked ribs. My face was not even swollen after the wisdom teeth were pulled, and the sockets are heeling nicely. But whatever was done... the energy it took out of me has put me out of commission for days. Feebly, I can manage, just barely, to pedal far enough to do some winter training.


Steering Your Loved Ones' Bicycle Purchase Decisions


I did not meet my spouse through cycling. He was a pilot instructor at a small airfield I happened to be photographing one day (a meeting I unwittingly documented here!). It was only some time after, perhaps as an attempt at wooing, that he mentioned he too rode a bike. Turned out he had been a rather strong club cyclist some years ago ("back before everyone was doing it"). But by the time we met he'd been off the bike for nearly a decade, focusing instead on running and weight training. His machine, circa the early 2000's, had since been wilting in a shed: a battered aluminium road frame with a worn Ultegra drivetrain, 21mm tyres, a thin wedge of a racing saddle, and decomposing Look pedals. He remembered the bike as being fast, albeit uncomfortable - which he saw as a logical, and tolerable, trade-off. When he tried it after the long absence, however, the discomfort proved too much while the speed he remembered was no longer there to compensate. He rode with me a few times, but it clearly did not feel nice. I proposed he buy a more comfortable bike and made some suggestions. But he was skeptical a new bike would make a difference. It was him that needed work, he said, not the bike. Well, these things are not mutually exclusive, I ventured - but decided not to push the subject further. Perhaps this was for the best, as cycling as a couple is not always a good idea!

To Ardara
Fast forward to the following year. We were now sharing a household, and that household soon began to fill with all manner of bicycles. One of the bikes I eventually brought over from Boston was my Honey Cyclocross: an aggressive racing bike, with an ultra-lightweight steel frame, carbon fork and clearance for wide tyres. I had already lent this bike to a few male friends in Ireland - who had enjoyed it tremendously and commented on how comfortable and fast it was. So when I noticed Gary eying me wistfully when I would set off on road rides, I suggested he take the Honey and join me.

The lilac Honey CX is pretty small, and the gentleman in question is 4" taller than I am. But after fiddling with the saddle height and setback, and replacing the stem, he was able to get the fit surprisingly close to his ideal. Although most of the components and accessories on this bike were alien to him, he immediately loved the SRAM brake levers, the 50/34 by 11-32 gearing, the Crankbrothers pedals and the Selle Anatomica saddle - preferring them to the components he had hitherto used, and declaring after the first ride than any bike he buys himself in future will be fitted with same.

The bicycle itself he found "extremely comfortable" and "eager to accelerate." However, being steel, he speculated, was certainly a handicap compared to a carbon fibre or even an aluminium bike from the same era. "Not necessarily," I said, trying to stay calm and not go into Preacher Mode, instead gently pointing him toward information on contemporary lightweight steels, oversized tubing, custom builders, et cetera. He was interested, but remained skeptical. He would ride my comfy bike to get himself back into shape, then shop for a "proper" road racer once ready. Sounds good, I said. On request, I described my impressions of a dozen or so carbon fibre bicycles I've tested over the years (Parlee still being my favourite). Truth be told, I actually began to look forward to having a full-on carbon fibre bike from a mainstream manufacturer in the house. It was not something I would ever get for myself, but variety is a good thing. I was not uncurious about the Pinarellos and Scotts he was eying up.

Glenveagh Mountain Trail
Fast forward another year. It took my now-husband some time to get back to his former cycling shape, but eventually he did it - maintaining a 20mph pace on flats with ease and scaling 20% grades nonchalantly. In the process, we rode together a lot and got on surprisingly well despite our radically different approaches to cycling - but that is a topic for another time! More to the point, he began shopping for a bicycle of his own.

As planned, he started off looking at carbon fibre frames. Happily, I accompanied him to local bike shops, spending hours browsing rows of Giants, Kuotas, Focus bikes, Cervelos. At one point I fully expected us to come home with a Pinarello Dogma, but that too was dismissed. Generally he was not wowed by any of the bikes he looked at, compared to the bike he was borrowing from me. After spending some time on internet forums and talking to some local club cyclists, he also grew alarmed at reports of the carbon bikes being easily damaged in crashes (during one infamous Sunday morning club ride a few months ago, a crash resulted in something like 6 riders snapping their frames in half!). Finally, having done some research on pricing, he was perplexed to find that custom and semi-custom bikes made by builders specialising in lightweight steel performance frames were not more (in fact, often less!) expensive than the mass-produced options. Did I think a steel bike might suit him better after all? It's possible, I said, but reiterated that there are different kinds of steel, and different kinds of carbon, so it's not as simple as a linear hierarchy of materials - adding that, moreover, geometry matters a great deal as well. So which bikes did I think might suit him? I then gently pointed him toward the likes of Dario Pegoretti, to the Velocipede Salon, and waited for the magic to take effect.

A month later: "You know the wee Honey bike I'm riding?"
Yes, I think I recall the one.
"They do a road racing model like."
Yup.
"What size do you think I should get?..."


Oh victory, victory, sweet ideological victory!

Erm... I mean, it's nice he came to his own conclusions. Heck, when the flooding and hurricane winds subside, he might even actually get to ride his brand-new beauty and let me know how he likes it!

Lady Huck Under New Ownership
This is not to say that all my gentle steerings have been successful. The beautiful BSA roadster we "inherited" from my friend Clive, which I thought would suit him perfectly as a "dress in regular clothing" beater, was categorically rejected after several tries ("too heavy, too slow, and uncomfortable" - what!). On the other hand, the long and low Dawes I'd thought would be too decrepit for his liking, was embraced with enthusiasm (minus the PowerGrips and front rack).


To my initial delight, but subsequent regret, he loves my Mercian single speed - to the point I had to pry it away before he modified it so much I wasn't able to ride it myself! On the other hand, I am trying not to be offended that he dislikes my DIY 650B bike. For what it's worth, he dislikes any low trail bicycle he tries, with surprising consistency, and without knowing they are low trail.

Rather mystifyingly, he loves racing my loopiest, frilliest "ladies bikes" to the shop, yet finds the unisex Brompton embarrassingly "girly" to be seen astride. And, despite many attempts to show him The Light, he hates, and I mean hates any sort of rack or bag attached to a bike other than the teensiest saddle wedge, preferring instead to carry a backpack (can you imagine?) if needed.

Being passionate about bicycles can make it difficult to remain neutral as we watch our friends or family make their own choices. But while we can certainly make suggestions and offer advice when asked, ultimately we cannot control other persons' preferences, tastes or desires. It is good to know when to lay off. Better, I find, to sit back and let them enjoy their own journey - including making their own mistakes, if it comes to that. In the end, they will accumulate their own experiences, good and bad - which will make their decision better informed than any advice we can offer.

Mixed Signals


Cycling up a long, steep stretch of the main road, I noticed a car emerge from a narrow side road ahead. The driver was just about to turn across traffic, when he spotted me and stopped, mid-maneuver. He was now positioned awkwardly, both the main and the side roads being steep and meeting at a strange angle. At the rate of my huffing and puffing, there was plenty of time for him to turn before I would reach the intersection; he would not be cutting me off. So, after checking traffic was clear, I gestured, waving him through. He promptly raised his hand in acknowledgement and made the turn, while I proceeded uphill past the now-empty intersection.

Shortly after, I heard the unmistakable swoosh of knobby tyres behind me. And sure enough - a gentleman on a mountain bike pulled up beside. We chatted for a couple of minutes about this and that, quite pleasantly. And then, just before peeling off, he said "You shouldn't do what you did back there you know, waving that fellow through when you've the right of way. It only confuses things. Be safe!"

And with that he was gone - before I could even feel amused (he had clearly been building up courage to say this to me at the last moment!) or defensive. Before I could explain that ordinarily I do not do that, but that in my judgment, in this particular situation, given the road conditions and yada yada, it made sense.

Still it's hard to argue with a point that I myself agree with. More often than not, these situations have a similar feel to them, as when someone holds open the door when you are too far away to take advantage of this gallantry gracefully - and are forced instead into an ungainly jog, arriving to accept the favour you had no need for with a forced, breathless "thank you."

As a cyclist I particularly dislike it when drivers attempt to yield to me or wave me through when it is their right of way. First, I do not quite trust them not to change their minds should I take them up on the offer. After all, who hasn't taken part in that silly dance, where a driver seems to signal for you to proceed, only to proceed themselves once you start to move. And then, once you stop, they too stop. Repeat ad nauseam!

But even should the driver wave me though very clearly, experience tells me it is not necessarily safe to proceed on their command. There can be hazards present the well-meaning yielder is not aware of - for example, a car in the adjacent lane driving on, not realising why the other driver has stopped. So whenever a driver yields to me out of turn, I have to conduct an analysis for things like that, rather than blindly accepting their offer - which makes the whole ordeal longer and more awkward than had the driver just taken their turn and, subsequently, cleared the way for me to take mine!

In short, I find it easier, safer and less stressful to stick with the rules of traffic, than to enter into ambiguous negotiations. Which of course, still does not mean there can never be exceptions. In the end, it is our judgment call, and it is context dependent. As a road user, I try to be predictable and consistent. Mixed signals are to be avoided.

A Fitting Transporteur

Mercian Transporteur
Want to know the surest way to improve the weather? Buy your bicycle mudguards! As I pedaled home, my new Zefals gleaming in the unfamiliar sunlight, I could almost hear the dry roads laughing at my formerly sleek and minimalist fixed gear steed, now looking more like an overburdened pack mule.

Mercian Transporteur
Earlier I have written about a Dawes touring frame that fell into my hands, with exaggerated "long and low" dimensions. We set it up as a "transporteur," then passed it around so that a few riders could try it on for size. When my turn came to use it, it was clear that the bicycle was too long for me. It was also clear, however, that I loved the setup in itself, having found the drop bars + porteur rack + mudguards + flat pedals combo very handy for commuting this relentlessly windy season. So while I didn't keep the Dawes, I decided to reconfigure one of my own bicycles with an identical setup.

Mercian Transporteur
For the job I decided to use my Mercian single speed. On the surface, it may seem that my DIY 650B bicycle - low trail and already fitted with lights, mudguards, and small front rack - would have been a more obvious candidate. But I like to keep that bike sporty and light for hilly mixed terrain adventures, and would rather not overwhelm it with a pizza-sized rack. That, plus I used super-thinwall blades for the fork, which are not rated for a heavy front load. The Mercian, on the other hand, has continued to go under-utilised this year. And so finally, I think I am ready to admit that I am just not able to ride a fixed gear bicycle in the same manner (i.e. as aggressively and over the same terrain) as I do a geared roadbike. Therefore, to keep the Mercian set up as a minimalist, lightweight, recreational-use roadbike began to seem pointless. Better to experiment with turning it into a "transporteur!" The Reynolds 631 frame and fork should be hardy enough to carry some weight in the front and rear, I figured. The single speed setup would be sufficient for the elevation gain I encounter during commutes. And it even has eyelets for mudguards. My only concern was, how it would handle with lots of weight in the front. Well, there was only one way to find out.

Mercian Transporteur
In moving the Pelago commuter rack (review soon) from the Dawes, I quickly realised it was not a straightforward swap. The Mercian's wheels are a bit smaller, so the rack as shown sits slightly too high and is secured at the rear with a cord rather than properly with a bracket (which will need to be adjusted). Mainly I am lazy wanted to get a sense of whether it was worth installing the rack, before doing all that work, so think of this as a functional mock-up. The enormous ILE Porteur bag is a perfect match for this rack and behaves as if it was glued in place once attached. Although it looks empty-ish here, as shown it actually contains a laptop, DSLR camera, some knitting paraphernalia, and two books. Later in the day it would also contain groceries.

Mercian Transporteur
In the rear, I fitted my Carradice Barley for extra storage.

Mercian Transporteur
Then headed to my local bike shop, where they happened to have a pair of lovely lightweight Zefals lounging about.

Mercian TransporteurWhat I like about these mudguards is that, aside from providing good coverage, they are subtle and unobtrusive - neither oversportifying nor overFrenchifying the bike. That, and the adorable tiny mudflaps.

Mercian Transporteur
I also "flip-flopped" the bike's rear wheel from fixed to free mode, not wanting to make things overly difficult for myself while testing the front load setup. If I like it, and once I get used to it, I will change it back to fixed.

Mercian Transporteur
Finally, after testing this setup once with the bicycle's usual clipless pedals, I decided to switch to flat ones, so that I could ride in ordinary shoes.

Mercian Transporteur
The overall look is, I think, quite nice and not overly clunky. But more importantly, I knew from the first ride this setup is a keeper. While stuffing the front bag full of groceries does make the bike noticeably more flexy, as far as handling the utility-sized front load feels just fine over the Mercian's mid-trail front end. I am aware of its presence, and it does dull down, or at least "de-sportify" the handling somewhat. But the front end remains stable on turns, and neither "wanders" nor threatens to topple over when I stand out of the saddle on hills. So,  as far as safety, and for the purpose of commuting, it is absolutely fine in my book. The only problem really is the usual wheel flop, when the bicycle is being "walked" or parked; the front end wants to turn in on itself and, in the absence of one of those springs, I just have to watch it doesn't buckle when, say, leaned against a pole.

On a day like today it was hard to believe that the past months have made transportation cycling hell with constant gale-force winds and lashing rain. I hope this bicycle - its sport geometry and aggressive road position now supplemented with the ability to carry work equipment, and provisions for riding it in ordinary clothing, will help me cope with these conditions better. The Dawes, while I had it, did a splendid job. But the Mercian's size and geo make for a much better fit. When I bought this bike 4 years ago, I had deliberately chose it to be versatile. My idea was to ride it as a minimalist, sporty fixed gear "while young," then fit it with racks and mudguards, possibly even a geared hub, in old age. Well, it looks like this came a bit sooner than anticipated - but not a moment too soon nonetheless. For no sooner than I snapped these photos, the sky turned black and the wind picked up again, making for an epic push home along exposed country roads on a happy, befendered bicycle.

Wet Lands

Forest Cyclists
By way of a New Year's greeting, I received a text from a friend containing the following joke:

US tourist to Irish child: Does it ever stop raining here?
Child replies: I don't know, I am only 8.

Okay, so it hasn't quite been eight years. But for the past several weeks it has been raining here continuously, the water stopping only once in a while and for no more than a couple of hours at a time, as if to catch its breath before proceeding with renewed vigor. In the beginning I would try to time my rides to correspond with these drier windows of opportunity. But eventually this proved futile, and so eventually I adjusted my notions of "decent weather" to the present reality.

Gone is the luxury of merely describing the roads as wet vs dry, the weather as good vs bad. Wet is the new normal. Gray is the new normal. And by now I have grown attuned to differences not only between infinite shades of gray, but also between infinite degrees of wetness.

Have you ever cycled upon a seemingly paved road and felt the water wrung out of it, as if from a porous sponge, under the weight of your bicycle's tyres? The land is boggy here. It retains water like a cotton rag. And the roads, more chipseal than asphalt, do not altogether disable this feature. After multiple days of rain, I can feel the road heave beneath me, like some gritty dough my tyres are kneading. After many "quality miles" on squishy, soggy tarmac my understanding of what could constitute "wet roads" had grown infinitely more nuanced.

We have not gotten the floods that other parts of the Isles have suffered from. But roads do get submerged with some regularity and cycling along them has been an adventure. Generally speaking, it is a bad idea to cycle through standing water. However, it is less risky if you are sufficiently familiar with the road to know what lies underneath. You can then proceed slowly (but not so slowly as to lose momentum) and cautiously, coasting with pedals held horizontal through stretches deep enough to swallow your toe on the downstroke.

One time - ironically, in the suburbs of Boston, and not in rural Ireland - I was caught in a flash flood and ended up cycling through water so deep the bike got submerged past the bottom bracket. As it happened, this wasn't my own bicycle, but an unfamiliar carbon fiber test bike I was riding to return. To my relief, it steered safely through the flood waters, maneuvering past the cacophonous mile-long traffic jam without incident. Later it was placed upside-down to dry and seemed not much worse for wear.

Though I don't recommend it unless absolutely necessary, when all is said in done it is infinitely less unpleasant to cross standing water by bicycle than to walk through it - especially in the cold!

While a road that is only marginally wet might seem least problematic, in the winter it is actually quite dangerous. Under heavily overcast skies it is hard to distinguish the sheen of wet tarmac from black ice. Better to see the water running across the road in thin streams; that way at least it's clear that it has not frozen.

Snow Day, Showerspass Rogue Hoodie
When exchanging advice for how to cycle in the rain - what to wear, how to outfit our bikes, how to carry stuff, etc. - there is an assumption that the rain is an occurrence that is both finite and occasional. But what about when it is frequent? constant? Clothing, shoes and bags that are merely water-resisant no longer do the job. Even things such as lights and the functionality of our brakes might need to be reconsidered, should we find ourselves in the situation of the proverbial 8-year-old Irish child.

For the most part though, for me it is about mood and energy. I am quite accustomed to riding in bad weather. And, for a delicate neurotic, I am surprisingly hardy when faced with tricky road conditions. And yet, cycling in the rain, day in and day out without respite, has been more draining than I would have expected. The relentless wetness is un-cozy, the grayness and un-lifting fog unsettling. I am battling it by consuming copious amounts of soup, constantly drying things by the fire, and mixing it up with bright clothing. And reminding myself that I'm lucky to be able to ride my bike at all in the middle of winter! For those who live in wet lands, what are your coping strategies?

Sharing the Magic

Mmm Yummy Cycling Ham
Like any other "cycling couple," over time we have developed a slew of little rituals and traditions that punctate our rides. One of these is that, along a popular "endlessly climbing" route, we stop at the tiny village shop at the top of the hill, catch our breath, then buy a packet of cold cuts and eat them at the side of the road before continuing onward.

We have noticed the universe smiles upon this ritual. Somehow, no matter the weather and time of day, the sun always comes out just as we sit on the crumbling stone wall and peel back the plastic wrapper of our purchase. It is a low, northern sun that bathes everything in rose-tinted gold. The ham, the grass-covered castle ruins, the steep winding road we have just climbed, the tattered sectarian flags billowing in the breeze, the stained wall of the rundown pub and shop, and our bicycles leaning against it - all of these things acquire a charmed, magical sheen, making us drowsy with aesthetic overload and relaxed appreciation.

Every so often, a person enters or exits the shop, and looks at the pair of us, delirious ham-eaters, with a mixture of amusement and curiosity. Mostly they nod as they walk past. Some will strike up a conversation.

Quare day for a cycle theday.

Oh aye. It's cold getting.

And where are yees from yourselves?

On one occasion, a shopper too young for such an exchange broke free of her grandmother's grasp and ran toward us, arms outstretched, cooing and smiling giddily at the sight of our roadside meal. A moment later she was beside us, twirling around coyly and eying the slices of ham with a meaningful seriousness. "Coo?"

Out of breath and embarrassed, the grandmother caught up to her charge, uttering apologies and attempting to gently drag the toddler away. "Come away love; granny will buy you some ham in the shop!" But clearly granny could not see the unique merits of this particular ham and the girl writhed and gurgled in attempts to explain them to her. "Coo!" she whimpered plaintively, hand straining toward the wafer thin slices, glowing and transparent in the sunlight. "Coo..."

Casting a "may I?" glance at the grownup and receiving an exasperated nod of approval, we took turns reaching our visitor bits of ham. To our surprise, she did not grab, but took and ate them slowly, luxuriating, apparently, in the exchange itself more than in the eating. In grasping the ham her fingers brushed against the terrycloth palms of our cycling gloves, and this seemed to cause particular delight.

Ham!
When the packet was empty, we expected our companion to lose interest in us abruptly. But instead, she tugged at our sleeves excitedly, as if to direct us to rise. When we failed to heed these instructions, she ran off and, glancing over her shoulder at us impatiently, headed for our bicycles. She commenced immediately to tug at my front wheel, so that at once I shot up and ran toward the bike to prevent it from falling on top of her.

"Coo!" she said, smacking her lips. Then, "Coo!" pointing eagerly at the bicycles. I could only interpret this to mean "I have eaten the tasty ham. Now I am ready to cycle."

Long after the flustered grandmother had managed to wrangle the child into the shop and we had set off on our way, I continued to marvel over this exchange. That little creature, not much older than two by the looks of her, had managed to deduce that we were eating a magical food that enabled us to ride those two wheeled contraptions. But how had she formed that connection? Was it an obvious one, according to the logic of toddlers, or was our interaction guided by that strange sort of magic specific to cycling encounters? Perhaps a little bit of both.

The Auld and the Virtual

It was a horrible day for motoring, let alone cycling. But having wandered around the sheltered side of the mountain till the wind grew too strong to stay upright, I returned home sufficiently spent to  dedicate the day's remainder to sipping hot port by the fire, pen in hand. I was poised to write a letter - an actual letter - to a friend I hadn't seen in two years. And as the nib began its familiar trek across paper, it nearly felt as if the physicality of this act could compensate for how abstracted relations become after such prolonged absences.

It occurred to me then that most of the people I consider friends, I have not physically met with in quite a long time now. And yet, when I think back to each of our partings, I am struck by the marked absence of regret - as if at the time we failed to grasp the permanence of these separations. Raised in the age of technology, perhaps we all cheerfully believed that email, phone and text would shorten distance; that there would be no real absence as such. And what do we believe now? That is a question from which I would rather distract myself.

Later that night I slept deeply and dreamt of a winter's evening in a city covered in