Monthly Archives: November 2011

The Wight Stuff

There Be Monsters? Map of the Isle of Wight by the Dutch geographer Herman Moll 1724

“Isle of Fright!” screamed the page-three headlines in the newspaper that morning announcing the discovery of a new species of ‘vicious’ flesh-eating dinosaur that had been found embedded in the 120 million year-old cliffs of England’s fair and gentle Isle of Wight. Believing this walking nightmare to be the long-elusive great-great-grand-daddy of Tyrannosaurus rex, palaeontologists around the world were hailing it as one of the most significant dinosaur finds in recent years. An artist’s rendition showed it striding, fang and claw, through the swampy landscape that characterised the area at the time, in the company of an iguanodon, a brachiosaurus, and an armour-plated polecanthus, other prehistoric beasties that had also once roamed the island.

It all made for a stirring read over the breakfast bacon and eggs. I’d always thought of the Isle of Wight in gentlemanly terms: yachting regattas at Cowes, America’s Cup, Queen Victoria’s summer retreat at Osborne House, and those fashionable 19th century seaside resorts where England’s well-to-do used to go to ‘take the air’.

It never occurred to me that the island might be a dinosaur graveyard as well, let alone that its Cretaceous sandstones were the final resting place for some of those very same prehistoric monsters whose fossils inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write The Lost World in 1912 – a novel that would one day provide the inspiration for Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. But so it apparently was.

And what’s more, thanks to the wettest winter since 1659, landslides along the coast were exposing fresh new rock faces riddled with the bones and teeth of dinosaurs. Anybody could go looking and, according to the newspaper, just about everybody was. Anywhere below the high-tide mark was Crown land and therefore fair game.

This was a few years ago.  I was new in England then.  And as I read all this, beautiful vistas rolled out before me. I used to love reading The Lost World when I was a kid and always fancied myself as the Edward Malone character, the journalist who accompanies Professor Challenger into the prehistoric jungles of South America. And now here I was, in jaded middle age, twenty-some years into a real-life career in journalism, and with a geology degree to boot, and yet to go on a dinosaur hunt. That was about to change. Here was my chance, not just to go a-dinosaur hunting but to do it in the style of my most cherished boyhood daydreams: sling myself aboard my bike and set off down the street, jaunty and cavalier, my cap set for adventure. How many times had I played out that scene in my head. Now I could do it for real.

The Isle of Wight was less than a hundred miles from my doorstep, and waiting out in my garden shed was a doughty old English-built, black-and-cream tourer, propped against a load of rusty paint tins, looking hopeful, ready to go. Like Oscar Wilde I can resist anything but temptation. I threw a few things together and, like a character in a storybook, set off within the hour with a heart for any fate.

Professor Challenger’s party began their adventures with an arduous journey by steamship to a dangerous South American seaport.  I, on the other hand, had a long, wet and windy ride along the coast to Portsmouth, followed by a short but rather bouncy crossing of the Solent on the Wightlink ferry. I didn’t mind the lousy weather, not for the first few miles anyway. The lashing rain and stormy skies gave a nice sense of drama and danger to the undertaking, but by the time I rolled off the ferry and onto the rain-slickened streets of Ryde, I was more in the mood for hot coffee than cold hardship.

I collected my thoughts over a latte in the steamy warmth of one of the cafes along the seafront, watching the rain streak down on the windows and looking over the brochures I’d picked up at the tourism office, across the street. The best thing to do, I gathered would be to head first for Sandown, five miles away, visit The Dinosaur Isle Museum and get my bearings.

I arrived late afternoon, near closing time, under a cold slanting rain. I browsed amongst the glass-cased exhibits and artists’ renditions of what the island might have looked like in the bad old days of the Cretaceous. There were loads of fossil shells, ammonites, sponges, ferns, insects and chunks of petrified wood on display but they weren’t what I, or anyone else there, was interested in. We were all of us gazing at the bones, teeth and claws of the scarier critters, most particularly the newly discovered Eotyrannus lengi.

As dinosaurs go, Eotyrannus wasn’t terribly huge – about fifteen feet long, a mere morsel for T. rex, which could grow to over forty feet, but still more than double the size of those scene-stealing velociraptors in Jurassic Park. It sported rows of two-inch saw-edged teeth and nightmarish Freddy Krueger-style claws with which it could tear other dinosaurs to pieces. It was fast and agile and considered to be the most ferocious of any of the twenty or so species of dinosaur known to have inhabited the island. It had been found mingled with the remains of a plant eater – upon which it may have preyed – and surrounded by a lot of plant debris, leading to speculation that it may have been caught up in a flash flood.

I took this all on board, bought a where-to-find-fossils guide in the museum bookshop, and dropped another two quid on a waterproof geology map of the island. That night I sat up late in my B&B, in Ventnor, listening to the wind rattle the windows, and worked out a plan of campaign. Most of the new dinosaurs, including Eotyrannus, were being found amongst the crumbling sandstones on the cliffs near Brighstone, on the southwest side of the island. That was the place to be and where everybody was heading. There was even a small dinosaur museum that had recently opened up on one of the farms down there, where excavations were continually turning up interesting bones and where a team of palaeontologists had set up a booth to help amateurs identify their finds.

I marked it on the map. Early the next morning, after two-thousand calories of ‘full English breakfast’, I set out in the wind and rain for Brighstone, about fifteen miles away. I arrived just on low tide. Dismounting at a likely looking spot, I wheeled my bicycle down onto the beach, then propped it up against a rock face at the bottom of a cliff and started prospecting.

Everything I remembered about Cretaceous geology you could just about chisel on an aspirin tablet, but as a setting for windswept drama you’d have to give this spot high marks: a romantic old smuggler’s coast, lashed by storms, with the hollow boom of the surf in your ears and the windows of some old brooding manor house gazing down from the wooded heights nearby.

I pecked around for the better part of two hours without finding anything more interesting than a few faint impressions of shells and some squiggles in the rock that could have been anything. By then the weather was closing in and the tide was on the rise. I was daydreaming about lunch and hot coffee when I turned over an oblong lump of rock and realised, with a start, as I was about to put it down again, that it was shaped uncannily like a butcher’s bone – a tibia, to be precise. The hairs on the back of my neck began to tingle. I hastily brushed off the sand and grit. It was unmistakably a fossil, and its resemblance to the top part of a thigh bone was positively unnerving.

It was big, too; not as big as the ones I’d seen in the museum, but plenty big enough to satisfy me. I cast my eyes greedily around to see if there was any more to this skeleton, but it seemed as though the surf must have messed it all up, because this one chunk was all there was. But that was enough. I hoisted it up and, with a furtive look up and down the desolate beach, to be sure that I was alone with my treasure, I lugged it over to my bicycle and lashed it onto the rear rack with a length of shock cord I’d brought along, just in case. Five minutes later I was on my way, wobbling down the road to the farmstead where the palaeontologists awaited, eager to show off my weighty prize. This had to be seen by experts.

The rain was coming down harder now, with raw gusts blowing in from the sea. They skittered the bicycle some on the wet and slippery road, but the cold and wet couldn’t touch the inner me – warmed as I was by the glow of discovery, and of course the effort of lugging a sizeable chunk of Cretaceous-era relic along a hilly coast and into a stiff breeze. As I pedalled along I tried to imagine the fearsome creature whose leg bone I had found. Maybe it was a young Eotyrannus, a new and vital piece in the unfolding evolutionary puzzle. Maybe it was a bit of a completely new and still more vicious predator. Maybe … but who knew. It could be anything.

I found the farm I was looking for. Despite the atrocious weather the yard was filled with cars; I wasn’t the only one scouring the slumped cliffs that morning, looking for fossils. Inside the barn a knot of people in oilskins and gumboots were gathered around a table, waiting to show their finds to the resident palaeontologist. He was busy sorting through the bucket of stony curios brought in by a local woman. I sidled up, listening in, my altogether heftier specimen concealed by my dripping cape.

The woman’s seemingly shapeless lumps turned out to be rather interesting: a piece of vertebrae from an iguanodon, a bit of armour from polecanthus, and a piece of bone from an unidentified, but undoubtedly flesh-eating, monster. She was so pleased. I had mixed emotions, myself. My own find looked so much more impressive and bone-like, and was so much larger and grander that I hated to spoil her moment.

“Yes?” said the palaeontologist, looking up at me through his half-moon spectacles.

I stepped up, smiling apologetically to the woman whose find I was about to trump, and hefted my great fossilised tibia onto the table. “I found this near the bottom of the cliffs a few miles from here,” I began, striking just the right tone of self-important modesty. “…and I was wondering if it might be of interest.”

His eyebrows arched impressively. “My goodness! You brought that all the way here on your bicycle?”

I nodded an affirmative, and flashed a smile around the room. Anything for science, my good man.

“Hmmm.” He groped for words. Then he found them. “I’m afraid that what you’ve got there, young man, is a rather heavy chunk of flint, with a large fossilised sponge at the end of it.”

It took a few seconds before his words sunk in. I had been prepared to hear that this thigh bone might not actually have come from Eotyrannus lengi, and in fact might not even have belonged to anything carnivorous at all, but had instead been the thigh bone of some harmless moss-nibbling thing – but a sponge? What kind of a sick joke was this?

“Yes, indeed,” he continued, as he examined it more closely. “It’s a sponge all right. And rather badly eroded at that.”

“Uh-huh.” I could feel my face flush. Eyes were on me. “Of course it is. I knew that. I was just hoping you could tell me what kind of a sponge, what species. I’m most curious on the point.”

He shook his head. “I’m sorry. That’s not really my area. But there is a palaeontologist here who could probably help you. She’s at tea just now, if you care to wait.”

“Naturally.”

I stepped smilingly aside, nodded knowledgeably to the crowd, easing backwards away from the table then waiting until he (and they) were busy poring through a bucket of someone else’s more interesting specimens before slipping out the door.

I abandoned Spongiferous rex discretely behind a fence post, together with my career as a swashbuckling dinosaur hunter. I saddled up, pushed off and pedalled onward through the rain, sneezing by now, another thirty miles back to Ryde where I caught an afternoon ferry to Portsmouth and the mainland. Conan Doyle could keep his blessed Professor Challenger and Edward Malone and the whole lot of them. The more I thought about it – and I had much time for thinking the next day on the long and dreary ride home – I liked Sherlock Holmes better anyway. Perhaps Dartmoor next time.

A Bike Fitting – The Tale of The Tape

By now I’ve had the opportunity to put a few hundred miles on my new randonneur and having become better acquainted with it, I have to say that the quality that amazes me the most about it and puts a big smile on my face every time I climb aboard, is just how beautifully this bicycle fits. It’s uncanny, almost organic, as though I’d sprouted wings and could glide over the ground

As I cruised along the promenade the other day, marveling at this neat oneness with my bicycle, my thoughts turned to the esoteric art of fitting bicycle to rider, and the thriving bike-fitting business that has sprung up lately on both sides of the Atlantic. It seems like every aspirational bike shop you wander into these days is offering this service – call it a fusion of bio-mechanics and Savile Row – and with price tags to match.

The idea behind it all is to offer the rank-and-file, at least those who can afford it, the kind of tailored fit and fussy attention to detail that pros enjoy as a matter of course. And make no mistake about it, having your bicycle well suited to you can make a big difference not just in your performance, if you’re a racer, but in the overall enjoyableness of going for a long bike ride. After all, it’s is hard to have much fun or enjoy the scenery if you have a crick in your neck, or numb hands, or twanging knees ligaments from pedaling a bicycle whose saddle, handlebars, stem or what have you is adjusted all wrong.

A proper bike fit can alleviate all that and also make a big difference if, like me, you have some old injuries and imbalances you need to work around – in my case, surgery on a ruptured lumbar disc a few years ago, and a bit of a bone spur in my right hip. All in all, then, having an expert do the measuring and making the necessary adjustments to your bicycle can be a very good thing, and on the face of it even at the prices the flashier shops charge, it can represent good value for money if, again, like me, you do a lot of riding. Stop and think: going to see a physiotherapist to sort out a lot of on-going, over-use injuries ain’t cheap either.

Even so the journalist in me – my inner skeptic – can’t help marveling at all the different, competing methods, experts and brands of bike fitting services available on the market, each of whom, on paper at least, seem to be the very last word on the subject. What I wonder is: if the same cyclist went to several similarly qualified and reputable bike-fitters to be fitted to exactly the same bicycle would he or she come away with an identical or even similar fit each time? Who knows? It would be an interesting experiment to make, but not one that such as I can afford, not having the spare grand or so it would take to make such a survey worthwhile.

But I have bought two custom, hand-built bicycles now – an Enigma tourer (2011) and a Pegoretti road bike (2008) – and been fitted twice, by different people and using different methods. And so I feel I am in a position to offer at least a subjective viewpoint from my own small and statistically insignificant sample group.

When I went to order my Pegoretti three years ago I went up to the bicycle shop in Islington that represents him in this part of the world and underwent quite an extensive fitting process – flexibility tests, a questionnaire about my riding background, aspirations, pedaling style and listing any old injuries, then twenty minutes pedaling on a jig as a warm up before the serious business of appraisal and micro-measuring began. I was videotaped as I pedaled, lasers were used to note the degrees of misalignment on my knees and hips on each stroke, even my feet were measured – and not just for shoe size and width but for arch length and flatness as well. The handlebars on the jig were shifted back and forth, millimetres at a time, to achieve the optimum fit for my size, reach and riding style. Nothing seemed too small or insignificant, nothing was left to chance. Every little fact, figure, angle and personal detail was assiduously jotted down on a multi-page form. It was an impressive display that took nearly two hours, and my new Pegoretti, when it ultimately arrived nine months later, fitted me very nicely indeed.

On the other hand, when I went to Enigma’s workshop in Pevensey to be measured for my bespoke tourer, the process took only a few minutes.

This time it was just good, old-fashioned tape-measure stuff, after which their master frame-builder, Mark Reilly, and I returned to the agreeable business of discussing lug design and frame geometry and selecting tube sets. No jigs, no lasers or videos, just the shrewd eye and swift appraisal of a man who makes bicycle frames for a living – and has done so for many years. And the resulting fit was perfect, absolutely spot-on

So what gives?  One process takes two hours, involves a lot of high-tech gear and costs a bundle, while the other takes ten minutes, yet both get similarly good results, but with the edge actually slightly in favour of Enigma’s Mark Reilly  and his ten-minute tape-measure job.

I don’t think this was a fluke, either. Consider this: an acquaintance of mine, who wanted a Pegoretti but happened not to want to order it through that shop in Islington, flew to Italy so he could place his order with Dario personally. He had a swell time out there and I gather from what he told me afterwards that the fitting process in Dario’s work shop was as swift and seemingly perfunctory as I’d experienced at Enigma, with Dario taking a few quick measurements while asking a few conversational questions about my acquaintance’s riding style and cycling aspirations. And as with my experience with Mark Reilly at Enigma, when this guy received his frame, a Marcelo, many months later, the fit was superb.

I’ve since read interviews with the likes of Chas Roberts, Brian Rourke, and Ron Cooper, all of them legends in the frame-building game and who between them have accrued well over a century of experience and built countless thousands of frames. Interestingly, they all seem to eschew these elaborate bike-fitting routines too. And somehow their bikes seem to come out all right.

So what to make of it all?

I dunno. Maybe it’s the romantic in me – the part that favours Campagnolo over Shimano – but I can’t help thinking that when it comes to being measured for a hand-built frame, no matter what you’re always going to do better by going direct to the workshop, talking to your builder, the guy with grit under his nails, than going to a certified shop assistant at a bicycle retailer a hundred, or a thousand, miles away.

When it comes to setting up existing bikes, I guess it all depends. Clearly these high tech fitting protocols are useful for Grand Tour pros and the like. But then again they – and their multi-million-dollar sponsored teams – have flocks of specialists fluttering around them like tick birds on a rhino, constantly adjusting and micro-tuning every aspect of their bicycles – on a daily basis if need be, all season long, just to get things exactly right. They can afford that sort of thing. Indeed, they have to afford it. They’ve got their fortunes and livelihoods riding on their results.

We proles, alas, don’t have anything like that kind of support or those kinds of resources – or, for that matter, those kinds of needs. What we’re buying with our hard-earned is essentially what to the pros would be that first general fitting – it’ll be pretty good, as you’d expect, but only a start. And while the pros would be coming back for fine tuning, as often as it takes to zero it in, we’re pretty much obliged to go with what we’ve got that first time around. At up to £200 a pop, be it for an existing bike or a custom build, there’s no way we’re going to be coming back again and again, have qualified bio-mechanics experiment this way and that, to make certain we get it absolutely perfect in real time, real world riding conditions. We just can’t afford it.

And given those limitations, are those expensive, elaborate two-hour fittings really worthwhile for the vast majority? Granted – fit is important.  No argument there. But do we really need all that science, the lasers, the jigs, the videotaping?  Is having the equivalent of a pro’s ‘introductory fitting’, with no realistic option of the fine-tuning a pro would take for granted,  really going to be that much of an improvement over the old rules of thumb, judiciously applied together with an old-fashioned tape measure and an experienced eye? Or  are we just deluding ourselves and buying into myth?

I wonder.

I suppose you pays your money and you takes your choice. As for me, and my worm’s eye view, I find myself thinking that for not much more money than the bundle that shop in Islington charged me for a fitting for my custom Pegoretti I too could have hopped a train to Caldonazzo, Italy, gone to see Dario personally in his workshop, and been measured up for a classic Luigino by the master himself. Even if all else had been equal, the measurements in Islington and those in Caldonazzo, there’s no prizes for guessing which one would have been the more pleasurable and rewarding.

Scales Before Our Eyes

 

Strolling accordion players and trained poodle acts are but two of the many things in this world that are beyond my peasant comprehension, and to that list I would add those weekend warriors who shell out anything up to a hundred and twenty quid (each!) to put carbon-fibre drink bottle cages on their bicycles.

Now, I’ve nothing personally against carbon fibre, be it on frames or bottle cages or what have you. It’s not a look that I particularly care for, but I can understand its visual appeal to others, along with the hint of aeronautical aggression that is inevitably built into the design of such racy things – hey, no point in having a cutting-edge, lightning-fast road bike if it doesn’t at least look the part.

What surpasses my understanding though, though, is that these über-sleek accoutrements rarely seem to be marketed, or indeed purchased, on their aesthetic qualities but because of their ostensibly performance-enhancing lightness – a feathery 18 grams in the case of the Campagnolo Record monocoque carbon fibre bottle cage that I see being offered for £118.99 a pop by one of the big internet retailers, down from the recommended retail price of £132.99, but with a ‘free’ matching Campagnolo water bottle thrown in as a sweetener. Other, presumably lesser, carbon-fibre bottle cages tend to run in the forty- to seventy-quid bracket and seem to weigh in at anything from a Campagnolo Record-matching 18 grams to a relatively hefty 29 grams, or just over an ounce.

By comparison, and to put this weight thing into perspective, the pair of stainless steel vintage-style bottle cages by Velo Orange with which I have burdened my classic tourer weigh 54 grams each; the single Italian-made Elite Inox Cuissi cage on the frame of my Pegoretti (pictured above) tips the scales at 48 grams. Neither seems heavy, or at least I’ve not noticed their excess weight dragging me down on hills. And both represent what I would consider fairly expensive bottle cages – twelve quid for the VO ones, and nineteen for the Elite, both being nicely made luxuries purchased to set off a certain look and style on a particular bicycle.

Buying them was an indulgence, done for decorative effect, but even for the sake of art I think I would balk at dropping forty quid on a bottle cage, let alone a hundred-plus – and never in a million years would it occur to me that shaving an ounce of bottle-cage-fat off my Pegoretti, or just over two ounces off my tourer, would offer an improvement in performance worth that kind of money, or indeed any kind of money at all. Certainly not with the engine that is powering either bike at present. I am fifty-three, and although I think it is fair to say that I am in reasonably good shape, still holding onto a thirty-two-inch waist, I nevertheless do not look at myself in the mirror and measure the improvements I could make in terms of grams.

I daresay the same can be said for the overwhelming number of other cyclists, right across the cycling spectrum, but particularly in the fifty-to-death age bracket that I now occupy and which my gut sense – so to speak – tells me is probably the main demographic buying £120 carbon Monocoque bottle cages. Who else would have the disposable income and the fountain-of-youth desire to spend it on such an illusory gain?

And how could it ever be more than illusory?  Think about it: what is the point of shaving a few grams off your water bottle cage when you are carrying a few spare kilos – often more than a few – on your waist? And aren’t we all to a greater or lesser extent? How many people, even among the pros, can truthfully say they have honed themselves to such lean physical perfection that replacing their existing water bottle cage with a feathery light carbon Monocoque is only possible place in the entire bicycle-plus-rider package where they can trim fat? It’s like a jockey plucking his eyebrows to make weight.

Of course the really cheeky thing about all this is that if I am a teensy bit sloppy and fill my water bottle only ninety-five per cent full, and the fellow next to me – the one with the carbon Monocoque bottle cage – fills his to the top, our respective cages and bottles will weigh the same. Assuming a 500ml water bottle each, and a £100 disparity in the price of our water bottle cages, that extra 25ml sip of water he’ll enjoy over the course of his ride comes very pricey indeed, by my reckoning a bit more than twice as much as a similar quantity of Dom Perignon ’66.

Perhaps water tastes better out of the bonus free bottle that Campagnolo tosses in with their £120 cage. One would hope so.  That, too, is another one of those many things that I will just never know.

Colours, Colours Everywhere

When I think back on all the hours I spent in pleasurable anticipation of the hand-built touring bicycle I was having made-to-order, I find the most enjoyable – and the most exasperating – were the ones I spent perusing the big, tattered fold-out colour chart I’d borrowed from the frame-makers’ shop, trying to pick put a colour scheme.

One of the great joys of having a frame custom made for you is that you can have everything precisely the way you want it – from your choice of tubing and frame geometry to the carving on the lugwork. Most particularly though, you have your choice of colour scheme, a chance to make a statement, have your own personal livery on your own personal bicycle.

And nothing could be more delightfully perplexing than picking it out.

The options are limitless. For once, you’re not bound by any factory’s production runs, but can take your pick from literally hundreds, nay thousands, of colours, shades, hues and tints right across the visible spectrum. Everything is on the table, and if you can imagine something that you don’t see on the chart – the exact colour of a Jacaranda bloom, say, or a peculiar hue in an evocative old French postage stamp – you just bring in the article and the paint shop can mix up just the right colour for you.

It’s a heady prospect – think kid-in-the-candy-store – and if you’re anything like me you’ll discover lots of colours and combinations you really, really like and before you know it you’ll find yourself sighing and fidgeting, unable to make up your mind and wishing idly that you could afford to build yourself lots of custom bicycles, so you could have one of each of your favourites; a bicycle for every mood and occasion, just so you didn’t have to let any of these potentially beautiful liveries and colour schemes go.

Alas, you can’t have them all, or even very many of them, or at least I can’t, not on my meagre income and with only a small shed in which to park bicycles. Which means you have to pare down all these delicious kid-in-a-candy-shop possibilities and pick one - the one. Here’s where you take your artistic stand, make your statement, and having invested so much time, money, emotion and sense of self into this project, you’re naturally keen to get this highly personal part of it just right.

I sure was at any rate.   I sweated over those colour charts until I had spots before my eyes. I mixed and matched, envisioning all sorts of interesting possibilities in complementary or contrasting shades, and then too to pestering those around me to see what they thought too. I bought boxes of crayons and coloured pencils and sketched bicycle frames on heavyweight drawing paper, to see what these colour squares might look like on a bike. I did the same with a large pan of Winsor Newton watercolours, using lighter and darker washes to try out some of the same tints and combinations I saw on the colour chart and a good many new ones besides. I even got my two artistically minded little girls involved – say, let’s draw/paint pictures of Daddy’s new bicycle, shall we? – and marveled at the surprisingly tasteful and sophisticated colour schemes they came up with.

I trawled the internet looking for inspiration, browsed through heavy coffee-table books full of lovingly photographed vintage tourers and golden-age-of-cycling road bikes, and studied the image galleries on the websites of every artisan frame-builders and lug carver I could find; I bought the illustrated catalogue of an exhibition of hand-built bicycles-as-art held last summer at New York’s Museum of Art and Design, and wrote to artist friends in Australia and America, sending colour samples and seeking advice and guidance and enlightenment.

Two shades fascinated me above all others: a rich greyish mauve called ‘sable’ on the BS-4800 paint chart, paired with a warm and pleasing ‘Parisian pink’ which I envisioned on the panels and head tube. Why I happened to fancy those two colours, I just can’t say, unless perhaps it was because they remind me of the tints I often see in the clouds on my early morning rides. I do know they both caught my imagination very early on in my quest and they simply never went away. Every time I picked up that colour chart, my eye invariably went straight to those two pretty little squares up in the heathery-grey-pink portion of the table and somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that those were my colours – that is, if I dared to make them so.

But did I? I wanted something distinctive, yes, and uniquely mine, but I wasn’t keen on risk, either. I’d never seen a bicycle done up in these colours and I had no idea how they would work. On the one hand, they might ooze Bohemian sophistication. On the other, they might well embarrass me. In fact, if I was really unlucky my dream tourer could end up looking like a little girl’s bike, all violet and Barbie pink.

And so I began playing devil’s advocate, testing my subliminal favourites against all comers; trying hard to sell myself on something ‘safer’ but with just as much flair, and asking leading questions of my artist friends in the hope that one of them would pipe up and say – hey, wow, look at that, have you thought of sable and Parisian pink? That would be brilliant! Or alternatively: Jesus, look at that; imagine anyone picking that ghastly combination – whereupon I could nod my head sententiously in agreement, and quietly drop the suspect colours from further consideration.

But nobody said any such thing.

What I did get back though, from an Australian artist named Richard Baxter whose surrealist oil paintings fetch some pretty fancy money in galleries in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, was a letter containing some useful thoughts that gave me the confidence to stay the course, take the risk and go with the colours I really wanted to go with all along. Here’s what he wrote:

“… I believe the absolute best way for you to choose the colours for your bike is to go with your instinct, and probably your first choice. Then you will be happy, as long as you can not care about what anyone else thinks.

“If a person says that ‘these colours don’t work together’ they are simply expressing a personal opinion which has no validity outside of their own head. Colours are vibrations in the visible electromagnetic spectrum of energy, and other than possibly ‘clashing’ in a mathematical way, I really do believe that there are no such ideals in what works and what doesn’t. Even if one looked at which wavelengths resonated with a kind of dissonance mathematically, this would still be using a human bias to decide what is dissonance and what isn’t.

“This used to be a question in music hundreds of years ago, especially in middle ages Christian music when dissonance was sometimes thought to be the work of the devil. However those theories didn’t hold for too long with too many people, and dissonance came to be embraced and enjoyed. In your love of blues you will often hear a major note and it’s minor note played at the same time. On the one hand this is a kind of ‘clash’ and creates an audible ‘beat’ as the two waves resonate alternately with each other, and you could say the two notes don’t ‘go’ together. On the other hand it sounds great once you are trained to accept it, and today we are exposed to it so much, we rarely even realize it was a question once.

“Having said all that, the way music works on the brain is still a mystery, and why we find a minor third melancholy and a major third happy, is still really open to debate. Is it just what we have learnt through association, or is it something deeper?

“Colour may be the same, and thus colour combinations. It may get very complex, because other factors like your history and memories will alter how you feel about certain colours too. I know I have a love of bright orange, and a certain kind of metallic blue/green, because two of my favourite toys as a child were in those colours. It may also be deeply genetic and related to how we have evolved, as to how we respond to various combinations of colours.

“So if the bike was mine (and by the way I love the idea of a two-toned old style bike) I would by instinct without thinking about it, choose the mellow apricot on your chart and ice-plant green? Why? Just because. So there you go, a long winded way of being no help at all.”

And yet being very helpful indeed.

When the time came I took a deep breath and ticked the boxes for ‘sable’ and ‘Parisian pink’, having made up my mind that if worse came to worst and it all went pear-shaped I’d just stump up the cash for a re-spray and chalk it up to experience. I knew that deep down I’d always regret it if I didn’t at least take the chance.

I am so glad I did.

To be sure, ‘sable’ did in fact come out a bit more violet than the warm greyish-mauve I’d envisioned from the chart. On the other hand the combination of these risqué colours worked beautifully with the mirror-polished fleur-de-lys lugs and the spoked elegance of the wheels, and gave the completed bicycle a glorious art nouveau flavour that I also hadn’t expected but really liked when I saw it.

No, I more than liked. I loved it. I recognized it. This elegant, confectionary-like, fin-de-siecle note was precisely what I’d been wanting all along but without ever quite being able to put my finger on it. I was happier than ever that I had stayed the course.

I may well be the only person out there with these particular colours on his bike, maybe even the only person who will ever have those colours on his bike, but I’ll bet I am not the only one to have their heart secretly set on something a bit risky and off beam, but wonder if they dare. To them I pass on these excerpts from this thoughtful letter.

Living Off The Grid

One thing you’ll never see cluttering up my handlebars is a cycling computer – let alone one of those exotic GPS devices that pinpoints your position on the globe, charts your course, monitors your speed, cadence, distance, elevation gains and counts your heart rate and, while it’s about it, also measures your power output in amps, watts and kilojoules and tells you what you should have had for breakfast. No thanks. Not for me. To me one of the loveliest things about slipping down the road on my bike is that exquisite sense of getting away it all, free, clear and beholden to no one. The last thing I want at such a time is to have some satellite tracking me, prodding me along, trying to instill competitive urges when all I want is to be left alone. If I am concerned about getting lost, I’ll tuck a map into my jersey pocket. That’s what it’s for.

Maybe I’m just getting more curmudgeonly in my middle age, but it seems to me this 21st century of ours is quite Orwellian enough without my inviting even more surveillance into my life – even if it is just me spying on me. Neither am I interested in playing any numbers game, counting miles or kilojoules or amps, or trying to quantify in any other way the value of a bike ride. I don’t need or want downloadable data. I know where I’ve been, what I’ve seen, how I felt along the way, and whether or not I found it an enjoyable spin.

As for this morning’s jaunt, along the sea cliffs east of town and over to Fairlight and Winchelsea, then swinging back home via Brede and Broad Oak, through the autumn leaves, it was particularly nice – and, oh, yeah, I guess it was about thirty miles or so, too, more or less. Something like that anyway.

Give Them The Old Razzle Dazzle

My Lupine Betty on low setting - 600 lumens - just before dawn on the old marsh road near Pevensey

I see that the new season’s bicycle headlamps are now hitting the pre-Christmas stands with manufacturers boasting more dazzling brightness and beam intensity than ever before. We’re up to 3000 lumens now for Niterider’s very brightest, top-of-the-range headlamp – surely overkill for all but the fastest, most dangerous late-night MBT descents and twenty-four-hour mountain bike races. I cannot imagine a circumstance where anyone would need that kind of luminosity on the road, and I speak as a cyclist who not only rides thousands of miles each year down darkened country lanes but who also likes to have plenty of light to see by when he does.

My first serious bicycle headlamp, bought several years ago when I first started riding through the long dark English winters, was a Lupine Edison 4 which threw out a claimed 900 lumens at full beam. It was a dazzling light, by far the brightest on the market at the time and beautifully engineered, too, in Germany, by a small firm that specializes in high-end lights.

I remember my first night ride with it, and how amazed I was to see reflective road signs aglow several hundred yards away – amazed to the point where I would wiggle my handlebars to see if it really was my headlamp that was lighting them up like that; I didn’t think it possible. The lamp itself wasn’t much bigger than a large duck egg, and yet it was throwing out a beam like a car headlamp. And what was really nice about that was that motorists would dip their beams when they saw you coming, on the assumption that you were a motorcycle and not some lowly no-account cyclist; with one of these lamps on your handlebars a cyclist could get some respect on the roads at night.

Alas the burn time for the old Edison 4 on high-beam wasn’t long enough for me to keep it on ‘dazzle’ for the full length of my two-hour rides, so I usually rode with the lower setting of 600 lumens and saved the lighthouse stuff for the darkest stretches or, deeper in winter, when there was likely to be black ice on the roads – slippery, shimmering stuff I wanted to see well in advance.

But while I was off using my super-bright headlamp on the darkened lanes of mid-winter Sussex, the boffins at Lupine and various other companies around the world were evidently working like beavers to make their bicycle headlamps ever brighter and more dazzling, and their burn times even longer. I paid no attention; my headlamp issues were all sorted very nicely, thank you.

Eventually though, the bulb burned out on my trusty headlamp and I was obliged to shop for another. And here I began making some belated discoveries. Technology had made a lot of strides while I’d been off by myself all those winters, riding those darkened country lanes. HID lamps, like my old Edison 4, were yesterday’s news. The world had moved on. Sweeping advances in lighting technology had taken place. It was all super-bright high-tech LED stuff now. Lupine no longer even made replacement bulbs for the Edison. And they hadn’t for some time. They were sympathetic, and offered discounts on their new line of LED lamps for those of us who had been caught out by this sea change in headlamp technology, but the hard truth was if I wanted to keep riding through English winters I was going to have to bite the bullet and buy a whole new lamp. There was no other way. Obsolescence had rendered my old lamp into a costly paperweight.

On the bright side, so to speak, the new generation of lamps were not only pumping out far more lumens, and for far longer burn times, they were also upgradeable and since LED bulbs last for thousands of hours anyway, I was most unlikely ever to be caught out like this again. So I splurged. I stayed with Lupine and bought myself their top-of-the-range Betty-7 with its three programmed settings: 700 lumens, 1100 lumens and a dazzling 1850 lumens, once again, at the time, the brightest lamp on the market. And this time with long enough burn times to keep it on high beam, if I wanted to, for the full length of my rides – and then some.

But I seldom want to. To be honest high beam on the Betty-7 is a bit over the top – handy, I must admit, on certain moonless and misty nights coming through the marshes, mid-winter, but otherwise rarely used. I generally keep to the two lower settings. They provide plenty of light to see by, without the risk of blinding on-coming drivers, or fellow cyclists. The lamp itself isn’t overkill though. The Betty’s seven LED bulbs provide a much nicer and more even spread of light over all of its settings than, say, the company’s similar-generation Wilma lamp whose (then) top-setting of 1100 lumens was provided by just four LEDS. This nicer spread of beam, and the fact that its on-off switch was built into the unit rather than a separate thing to attach to your handlebar, together with the longer burn times, is why I went for the Betty, not for its top-whack 1850 lumens. In fact, had I been able to buy replacement bulbs for my old Edison lamp, I’d have been quite happy to stick with it and its now very pedestrian 900 lumens.

All this was over a year ago. Given the overall build quality of my new lamp, its waterproofing and reliability, the long burn times even on high beam and the fact that LED bulbs practically last forever, I’m well satisfied and, barring accidents, not likely to be shopping around for a new headlamp for a long, long time yet.

In other words I am speaking purely as a disinterested bystander, not a potential purchaser or price-moaner, when I take this broadside at the mad scramble for more and more lumens, as though the ability to blind and dazzle were the only criteria of a decent bike light; the greater the number of lumens the better the light must be. It reminds me of the way camera manufacturers race to cram in more and more megapixels, in what appears to be a (sadly) largely successful bid to sell an undiscriminating public on the idea that quality is something that can be quantified, and that more of something good is always better. It isn’t.

Perhaps though there is light at the end of the tunnel – if you’ll pardon the wholly intentional pun – for I see that even some of the industry spokesmen at the recent Interbike Bicycle Show in Las Vegas are saying now that they are reaching end-game in terms of the number of lumens they can feasibly generate on a bicycle light, and will have to start focusing their competitive energies elsewhere – heat management, perhaps, or battery life, or maybe even, God forbid, affordability.

For now though I am just looking forward to the first time somebody transfixes me in the beam of their dazzling new mega-watt headlamp. Fortunately given their pricetags – £850 for Lupine’s latest, greatest, 2600-lumen version of the Betty – there won’t be many of these out there, otherwise I fear welder’s masks will have to be joining helmets and headlamps as essential safety gear for riding at night.

A Luddite’s Lament

 

This morning at long last I finally replaced the worn-out chain on my old Thorn tourer, which these days serves as my winter bike. It was high time. I’d been giving the incumbent chain the benefit of the doubt for quite a while now but even my most optimistic self could see it was clearly well, well, well past it’s use-by date, that one per cent ‘stretch’ point beyond which it starts appreciably wearing down your cassette and even your chain rings. And in fact I was obliged to change the cassette as well – no big surprise there really, since I’d had that chain on there for ages and had more or less planned to run it into the ground.

The reason for my reluctance to replace the old chain was that it was one of the last of my dwindling stockpile of those doughty German-made Rohloff SLT-99 chains, once the finest you could buy and now, sadly, no longer being made. Sadly, because they’ve been my chain of choice for years. Beautifully made, and oozing old-fashioned quality, they could be counted on to out-last two or three lesser chains, if you looked after them (and why wouldn’t you?) while their MBT version, with 116 links, could handily accommodate the extra long 450mm chainstays on my expedition bike.

When I learned about eighteen months ago that they were not going to be around much longer I stockpiled as many as I could afford – which was not so many, and nowhere near enough, but at upwards of forty quid a throw these finely crafted nickel-plated chains were not the kind of things you bought by the dozen. Or at least not something that I bought by the dozen.

I also wrote a pleading say-it-ain’t-so letter to the company, and received a prompt, friendly and personal response (as you do, I find, when you write to German companies) explaining that they’d had to overhaul the aging machine that had made these wonderful eight- and nine-speed chains over the years and while they were taking this breather in production, it occurred to them that maybe it was time to have a re-think about the market and where they were going.

The demand for eight- and nine-speed chains was on a clear downward spiral, the Rohloff spokesman continued, and given the inherently lighter, thinner, trickier design of a ten-speed chain their engineers didn’t feel that it would be possible to make one good enough to bear the Rohloff name. So they decided to bow out entirely, and instead re-tool their machine to make sturdy single-speed chains, a product that would complement the eponymous 14-speed internal-geared hub that was making their fortunes worldwide.

I was sad to hear it, but I couldn’t fault their logic. Eight and nine speed drive trains are fading fast, whether I like it or not. The quality end of the eight-speed market passed away some time ago, and no doubt over the next few years up-scale nine-speed stuff will go the same way. We’re up to eleven speeds now on road bikes – requiring an incredibly skinny and ephemeral chain barely 5.5mm wide – while the makers of mountain bikes are moving up from nine to ten, and presumably rubbing their hands with glee. While I can accept that elite racers might benefit from these subtle and costly improvements in shifting possibilities, there is nothing at all in this for those of us of the touring and pleasure-riding persuasion, and dare I say it even lower category racers – nothing, that is, except lighter, skinnier and more expensive chains that are trickier to install and wear out much more quickly.

Nevertheless the marketing boffins from the big manufacturers, hand-in-glove with the all-aflutter reviewers from the major cycling magazines, are all doing their level best to sell us on the idea that n+1 is the number of speeds we’ve been wanting all along.

For my part, I have never felt a burning desire, let alone need, for greater numbers of sprockets on my rear hub, not even back in the bad old days of the Seventies when our so-called ‘ten speed’ Schwinns had – gulp! – only five sprockets on back. Not once. It’s just never been something on my wish list. I commuted for years on an early-80s vintage Gemini Randonneur tourer with but five sprockets on the hub and never felt at a loss; my early-90s seven-speed Cannondale took me 10,000 miles around Australia with no problem at all, crossing and re-crossing the Great Dividing Range several times on my way up the east coast, and carrying heavy burdens of water and gear in the desert; my Thorn tourer, bought as an eight-speed in 1999, carried me around Zanzibar and the Swahili Coast just fine and on which, later on and still as an eight speed, I rode London to Istanbul and Land’s End-to-John O’Groats.

At the time I bought that Thorn tourer nine-speeds were just hitting their stride in the market, but I deliberately opted for older-model eight speed simply because I preferred the visibly sturdier chain, particularly on a what was to be an expedition bike. A couple of years ago I grudgingly yielded to the march of time and ‘upgraded’ my old tourer from eight speed to nine, when high quality eight-speed stuff finally became too much of a hassle to source. In fact of the nine sprockets on the rear hub of my tourer right now, I probably use no more than six, and on my long flattish winter rides through the Pevensey marshes and along the coast, I seldom use more than three and often go through a ride without shifting at all.

The ornery libertarian in me resents this having to pay for and carry these extra (thinner) sprockets that I do not want or need, and which are certain to wear out sooner than their heavier gauge antecedents, and all because this is what the big components manufacturers tell us we should have – for our own good, or in pursuit of some elusory improvement in performance.  THe noly certain improvement I can see in all this is the companies sales revenues and bottom lines. I suspect I am not alone in this. But I – we – resent in vain. When it comes to bicycle components, as in so many other things in this disposable culture of ours, the customer is not only seldom right, he/she is rarely even consulted or considered.

For now though I’ve a new Rohloff chain on my old tourer (and one on my new tourer too) which leaves me with two left in the locker – enough for a good many thousand miles at their usual rate of wear,a consoling thought to be sure,  but all the same it looks like I’d best start prowling around for a new favourite nine-speed chain. Any suggestions?

The Beauty of Cream Tyres

I generally take my coffee black, no cream, no sugar, no nonsense, and until a few months ago I’d have said pretty much the same thing about the way I take my bicycle tyres too – straight black, double shot. After forty-seven years of riding the same-old, same-old, it wouldn’t even have occurred to me to put cream-coloured treads on a bicycle. Like Henry Ford and his early Model-Ts, my vision for bike tyres extended only to … black.

But there’s nothing like conjuring up your dream bicycle to put you in touch with your inner cyclist and so now here I am sporting a pair of creamy white Panaracer Paselas on my new tourer and liking the look of them very much. They seem to me to strike just the right note on such a retro-classic as mine, calling to mind an era in the springtime of the last century when life was ‘swell’ and gentlemen wore silky fine Montecristi Panamas and white satin spats when they strolled the Boardwalk.

When I see and admire them on the bike now, it seems as though cream tyres must really have been in the back of my mind all along, an unarticulated vision, but the truth of the matter is that I owe a debt of inspiration to a fellow blog writer (I hate that word ‘blogger’) on the other side of the Atlantic, from whom I not only appropriated the idea of putting cream tyres on my new bicycle but the very notion of writing a blog myself.

Being the reclusive Luddite that I am, a man to whom a laptop is more or less a glorified portable typewriter with a built-in liquid-paper feature, and who has assiduously avoided all forms of social media such as Facebook and Twitter, I’d never even heard of a cycling blog until I started trawling the internet earlier this year looking for inspiration for colour schemes and liveries for my soon-to-become-a-reality dream tourer.

It was while stumbling about in the ether that I chanced upon a blog called Lovely Bicycle! It was, and is, an engaging blog written by a lady in Somerville, Massachusetts who by the sounds of her profile on the site is an artist and academic as well as clearly being an enthusiast of classic lugged-framed bicycles. After perusing one of her posts in which lugwork and paint schemes were thoughtfully discussed and deconstructed, I delved a little deeper into the blog’s back catalogue and came across an intriguing post extolling the beauties of cream tyres on classic bicycles. It was a fairly lengthy entry, liberally illustrated with examples of cream-tyred mixtes and tourers and hoop-framed transport bicycles and helpfully included a list of the various brands and models and sizes of bicycle tyre that came in cream for anyone who cared to take the plunge themselves.

I found myself scrolling up and down, secretly coveting this jaunty whitewall retro look and wondering if I’d dare affect such a thing myself. When I noticed that the Panaracer Pasela, one of my favourite touring tyres, just so happened to be on that cream-as-an-option list – in both 700×23 and 700×28 – I took it as a gentle nudge of fate and filed away this intriguing bit of data for future reference.

I bookmarked the site as well, and popped back a few days later to see what might have been discussed in my absence. And so it went. Over the coming weeks and months I found myself returning to Lovely Bicycle! with increasing regularity, even taking to offering my two cents every now and then. I grew to like this novel (to me) concept of blogging, what I could see of it anyway, and the platform it offered for writing about things you enjoyed writing about regardless of whether they fit in with some magazine’s publishing needs.

As time went by, and I could feel my fingers growing ever more fidgety over the keyboard whenever I dropped in, and ideas forming in the back of my mind, I resolved to launch my own blog one day.

That day has now arrived, and as I sit here writing a post in my own blog about the beauty of cream tyres on classic touring bicycles, I feel I ought to give a wave of acknowledgement across the blogosphere to “Velouria’, the author of Lovely Bicycle!

As for my creamy Panaracer Paselas, well, they’re running fine. The 700x28s I settled on seem a little plush for their stated size – I’m betting they are nearer 30mm – but two hundred (mainly dry) miles down the track they are still looking clean and fresh, with just a faint grey stripe along the contact surface. Later on, after they’ve seen some more serious mileage, I’ll post some ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots for the benefit of anyone else who might be thinking of stepping outside the envelope and giving cream-coloured tyres a go themselves. For now, though, enough of cream; I’m off to build myself a double espresso. I still prefer  my coffee black and there ain’t no way that’s going to change!

Pole Position

Photo by Josh Landis

They call it the sleigh ride: the three-hour flight on a ski-equipped Hercules cargo plane from the U.S. base at McMurdo to that most exotic of Antarctic destinations: the South Pole. Schoolboy keen, I showed up early at the icy airstrip, bundled up, bags packed, eager to go. It was the summer of 2000 and I was in Antarctica on an assignment for National Geographic, bound for Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station where I was supposed do a story on the future of science at the Last Place on Earth, talk with climatologists about such worthy topics as global warming and the ozone hole, and write a side piece about the construction of a new $150 million super-high-tech base the Americans were building there.
Unbeknownst to my editors, I had a hidden agenda as well: to ride a bicycle around the world. I love touring and I’d always wanted to circumnavigate the globe by bicycle, but never could find the spare year or so such a journey would take. At the South Pole, however, not only could I ride around the world on a flat course free of traffic, but I could do it in a time that would make even the space shuttle’s ninety-minute orbits seem pedestrian by comparison.

A few quick turns of the pedals was all it would take, a little circle around the pole itself, and I would have passed through every single line of longitude, both the Prime and Ante Meridians, and geographically speaking, could claim to have ridden round the world.

The stars must have been all in alignment on this one. It turned out I wouldn’t even need to bring my own bicycle. In the course of my research into the goings-on at Pole that summer, I learned that a team of design students from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, working in conjunction with scientists from the U.S. Antarctic Program, had recently come up with a ‘Polar Bicycle’ for use in the South Pole’s extreme conditions.

Given the high cost of getting fuel to Antarctica, the sensitivity of the astronomical instruments at the South Pole Observatory, a half mile away from the base, and in keeping with the general low-impact eco-philosophy of Antarctic research, it was decided to make Amundsen-Scott South Pole base a bicycle friendly zone-or at least take a crack at it. A prototype of the new Polar Bicycle had been built and shipped down to Pole for testing-and yes, sure, I could take it for a spin if I liked. I liked.

The Sleigh Ride to ‘Pole’ was magic, three-hours of high adventure, following at 22,000 feet the route taken by both Scott and Shackleton back in Antarctica’s Heroic Age: across the Ross Ice Shelf, through the towering peaks of the Trans-Antarctic Mountains along the Beardmore Glacier, up to the hauntingly empty vastness of the high polar plateau. Amundsen-Scott base, when I eventually spotted it in the distance, looked almost frighteningly remote, a few scattered specks of colour in an immensity of white that stretched to every horizon.

We circled once and then the big turbo prop touched down, its skis kicking up a blizzard of snow. The hatch opened and we emerged, blinking, into a dazzlingly bright, bitterly cold, alien world, where the air was razor thin with the nearly 10,000-foot altitude, a double halo circled the sun, and home was a great blue Plexiglas dome that belonged more to the realm of science fiction than real life. The outside temperature on that balmy summer day was minus-33, the wind chill minus-61, while in the dimness beneath the dome, where the sun’s rays never reached, the temperature stayed at the Poles constant year-round average of about minus-60.

But all was pleasingly snug and warm inside Sally’s Galley, as the base canteen was affectionately known. Cramped and crowded, with lots of heavyweight red parkas hanging on hooks along the walls, it made me think of a truckstop café on the Alaska Highway, circa 1975. Meals here were hot and hearty – 5000 calories a day was the reckoning for people living and working in the extreme conditions at Pole – and there were always pots of steaming coffee on hand, trays of fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies, and generally plenty of amiable company as well, for this was the social hub of the base.

And it was there, the following day, over mid-morning coffee and biscuits, I met Jeffrey Petersen, an astrophysicist from Carnegie-Mellon University who, it turned out, was Pole’s resident wheelman, commuting back and forth between the dome and the futuristic astronomy complex half a mile away.

He took me around to the Polar Bike. It was quite a piece of work. With its chunky frame and seven-inch-wide steel-mesh tyres it was never going to make me forget my whippet-lean Italian road bike back home, but then Italian road bikes aren’t designed to run in minus-80 temperatures, and be operated by someone wearing huge fur-lined gauntlets and enormous insulated ‘bunny boots’ that are standard South Pole-issue. This one was.

I hopped aboard. Jeffery grabbed his studded-tyre mountain bike which he’d freighted all the way from America and together we pedalled off to trot the globe.
And yes, if you’re wondering, there really is a pole at Pole. There are two of them in fact: the barber-striped ‘Ceremonial Pole’ with all the flags around it, where everyone goes to have their photo taken in Hero mode, and, because the ice cap shifts about thirty feet or so each year, a more portable and more precise Pole a few yards away, its position being recalculated by GPS each January. We looped both. Many, many times.

We pedalled east to west, west to east, racing each other, cracking jokes and playing the location for all the quirky humour we could conjure. We even paused to wind our watches for the different time zones. As far as handling goes, the Polar Bicycle made a Mao-era Flying Pigeon look as light and responsive as a Pegoretti-Jeffrey’s mountain bike performed far better-but it was a fun toy to play with out there on the high polar plateau. Finally when we’d had enough we turned for home and pedalled back to the sheltering warmth of Sally’s Galley.
Our best time, we reckoned, was somewhat under ten seconds, or as I like to think of it now, we lapped the entire world in around the time Usain Bolt can run a hundred metres.

Alas, I’m afraid our record doesn’t stand. I’ve since learned, with all the recent hoopla over round-the-world cycling records, that the nice folks at the Guinness Book of World Records take a picky stance as regards circumnavigations. They expect you to suffer a little more than we did, the morning’s minus-72 windchill and Pole’s razor thin air notwithstanding.

They expect hills, traffic, bandits, war zones, bad food, bad roads, near misses, and hairbreadth escapes. They want visas and stamps in your passport. They want you to have cycled a full eighteen thousand miles, to be precise, like James Bowthorpe did when he set the record of 175 days, not to do it playfully during your tea break as we did on a sparkling summer morning at the South Pole, then trot inside for milk and cookies like a couple of overgrown kids in the world’s biggest winter wonderland.

I dunno. Maybe I should see if they’ll give it to us with an asterisk: done at altitude.

The Fine Art of Framebuilding

It seems to me I read somewhere that Picasso once described the bicycle as humanity’s highest and purest form of sculpture. I can’t remember now where it was I read that quote, or the context, and when I’ve tried looking it up I’ve not been able to find any reference to it or indeed any evidence that the man ever really did say such a thing, although he himself certainly made at least one famous sculpture out of bicycle parts and therefore presumably had been down to his local bike shop once or twice full of artistic intent.

If Picasso didn’t actually utter those words, he should have. On the chance that he didn’t, and left the field open, I’ll grab the line myself: the bicycle is humanity’s highest and purest form of sculpture. Says me.

It’s true, too. Anyone who has ever attended a hand-made bicycle show, and seen the beautifully crafted machines on display, and felt the restless stirrings and childhood longings they impart, knows exactly what I mean. Art is meant to transport us, and what form of sculpture can you think of that accomplishes this better than a bicycle? Literally, emotionally, metaphorically, we are moved, and with an almost effortless grace.

But what you see on display at these shows are merely the end results of an unseen creative process that is itself surprisingly beautiful and involving. I was privileged to be able to watch Mark Reilly, the master frame-builder at Enigma build the frame of my classic touring bicycle – eight lengths of Columbus Spirit tubing, cut and mitred by hand, joined with pretty lugwork and brazed with silver.

I’ve always loved the ideal of a hand-made steel frame, and, like many another aficionado, felt I possessed a deeper understanding and connoisseurship of these things than I really did. It wasn’t until I had this opportunity to watch a master frame-maker hand-craft a frame before my eyes that I came to have any real inkling of the degree of artistry and artisanship all this involves, let alone an idea of the visual beauty of the frame-building process itself.

Mark kindly allowed me to photograph him while he built my bicycle. Here is a selection of those images: