Monthly Archives: January 2012

Chasing the Myth of Breathable and Waterproof

I was twenty years old in the summer of ’78 and working at a mountaineering and rock climbing shop on Main Street in North Conway, New Hampshire when this glitzy new ultra-sophisticated fabric called Gore-Tex arrived on the scene. I remember when that first shipment of garments landed at the shop and how we all marvelled at such advances in technology that could give you a fully waterproof yet breathable outer shell. I just had to have one. So did we all. And our friends, too. Looking back now, I am not sure how many of that initial shipment of parkas actually made it onto the racks in the front half of the shop.

Sure, the material felt rather stiff and plasticky, nowhere near as nice to the touch as my old, much-loved, much-worn Camp-7 parka which was made of a water resistant, tightly woven cotton-Dacron combination. But then this stuff was the future, scientifically engineered so that the molecular water vapour given off by your body heat could escape through billions of infinitesimally tiny pores in the fabric that were themselves much too small to allow any rainwater to through the other way. Ingenious. I couldn’t wait for it to rain so I could test it out. And when it did, a few days later, I shrugged into my new blue Gore-Tex parka and set off on a long leisurely rainy-day bike ride over to Sandwich Notch.

All these years later I can still hear the sound of the raindrops spattering noisily yet harmlessly on the stiff plasticky hood as I pedalled down the road in that soft summer rain, smell the pines and damp earth, and recall the warm inner glow of satisfaction I felt at being cocooned like that in such high-tech, state-of-the-art and rather pricey (even with my shop discount) rainwear. Not too many miles had passed, though, before that initial inner glow had developed into something rather hotter and stuffier, and I found myself progressively unzipping my new ‘breathable’ jacket to invite a bit of cooler, fresher air inside. Along with the fresh air came the rain, so that soon my shirtfront was cold and wet – not at all the kind of thing I had been expecting when I stepped out the door that morning dressed in my fancy new high-end rain gear.

Naturally I tried to make excuses for the thing. Having invested my money and no small bit of faith (and face) into the new-fangled wonders of Gore-Tex, I was keen for it to succeed. But as the miles wore on, and I raised and lowered the zipper again and again, there was just no getting around the fact that while this thing might have been fine for, say, keeping dry a fisherman who was strolling along a riverbank with a fly rod on a soft cool rainy afternoon, anyone who went for a bike ride wearing it could plan on sweating off ten pounds.

Once bitten, twice shy, as the old saying goes – but not in my case, or at least not as far as Gore-Tex and the myth of the breathable waterproof was concerned. Over the years I have spent I hate to think how much money on succeeding generations of Gore-Tex (or similar) parkas and rain jackets, each time believing that this time around, by golly, the R&D folks had finally nailed it – and each time being left disappointed and disillusioned, to say nothing of hot and sweaty and out of pocket.

When it came to buying rainwear I began to feel a bit like the cartoon character Charlie Brown who is forever being tricked by Lucy into trying to place-kick a football, only to have her whisk the ball away at the last second so that he misses and falls flat on his back. The poor guy knows even as he begins his run up that Lucy is probably going to snatch it away and he’s going to come a cropper, but he just can’t help himself – he just has to give it a try, just as over the years I’ve just had to keep trying newer and newer generations of supposedly ‘breathable’ waterproof jackets, parkas, softshells, you name it. I tried them all. Faith is a hard thing to shake and I wanted so much to believe.

Now at last, in middle age, it looks as though I may have found the very thing I thought I had bought all though years ago when I was a stripling youth of twenty: a genuinely breathable waterproof rain parka that works even when you are pedalling hard on a bicycle. It is a Gore Fusion rain jacket, made by Gore Bike Wear. I bought it three winters ago and, after three years of hard use over many thousands of miles, I am now ready to concede that this one actually seems to do what it says on the tin. This is no review written in haste, or with the flush of enthusiasm over a jaunty new acquisition; this jacket has done the time.

It’s success in juggling breathability and waterproofness seems to stem as much from mapping and design as from the fabric itself. According to Gore Bike Wear’s description of the jacket, different grades of Gore-Tex were used in different segments of the jacket, with the heaviest gauge, so to speak, and therefore most waterproof fabrics used on the portions of the body where a figure seated on a bicycle would be in most direct contact with rain, and more breathable, water resistant fabrics used elsewhere. It also has long pit zips which you can leave open so you can get a worthwhile and very cooling air flow as you ride, but without letting in any rain. It works a treat. To say that I have been pleasantly surprised would be an understatement. In the three years I have had this jacket I have used it in some truly atrocious weather and for long periods of time while riding and remained comfortably dry inside all the while: no rain coming in, and no sweat to heat me up. Its toughest test came a couple of years ago when I was riding Hadrian’s Wall in November – perhaps not exactly the best time of year to go bicycle touring in Northumbria – and put in a hilly, ninety-mile day in unceasing torrential rain, and while my face streamed with water all day and my Endura Deluge gloves amply demonstrated what useless pieces of kit they were, that jacket was superb.

The Fusion jacket is cut along MBT lines rather than road, meaning it is rather bulkier and looser fitting than something that is race-cut which is again something I think helps with its breathability; whatever perspiration you form as a result of pedalling has a better chance of evaporating in the pocket of air around you, and in vapour form can either be flushed out by the air flow through the pit zips or pass through billions of pores in the (much improved over the decades) Gore-Tex membrane.

Given its cut and lines, then, this is not a jacket you can fold up and slip in a jersey pocket, to pluck out later if the weather gets foul. By the same token, it is not unwieldy either. It is perfect for commuting, long pleasure rides in any weather and most of all, touring – and after all, it those of us of the cyclo-touring persuasion who are most in need of the breathable-waterproof combination, since we are the ones out there all day in whatever the weather has to throw at us, and with possibly nothing more inviting than a tent and a sleeping bag (no hot shower!) at the end of the day’s ride.

During the past three years I have come to rely on it this jacket. I think the most telling thing I can say about it is that if the weather looks at all dubious when I go out, I will put it on, just in case, confident that if the clouds disperse and the sun pops out I can still have an enjoyable sweat-free ride. Can’t say better than that. I have ridden with this in temperatures up to about 20C and while that was a tad warmish, a tad was all it was – so long as I left the pit-zips un-done and the zipper unzipped. It didn’t ruin the ride. I gather from all I read that ‘they’ have made big strides lately in breathable fabrics – still later generation and more sophisticated versions of Gore-Tex and eVent – so maybe I’ll have more pleasant surprises in store further down the track, but for now, and until my trusty old Gore Fusion jacket finally wears out, I am quite happy with what I have.


Pluck & Dash and Dealing with Ruffians

I spotted them as I spun along Grand Parade this morning: a knot of hard-eyed loiterers, break-and-enter all over their faces, slouching on a wall beside a bus stop and watching my approach behind furtively cupped cigarettes. I could feel their eyes on me as I swept by. A bronze statue of Queen Victoria frowned at them from the other side of the street. I didn’t dare. Hastings can be kind of a chancy town these days, not at all the genteel seaside holiday spot it used to be back in her day.

You want to watch your step here now, especially if you keep the hours I do, pedaling through the town’s deserted centre in the smallish hours of the morning, when the drunks and rowdies are wending their way home after their big nights out, awash with cheap beer and adolescent hormones and just aching for vicious amusements.

And there you are, pedaling along these darkened lonely and virtually un-policed streets, all by yourself, on an obviously expensive lightweight bicycle – with no witnesses anywhere, or at least no one who is likely to want to get involved. Weekend mornings are the chanciest, especially during the summer months when the nights have been hot and sultry, but given the exceptionally mild temperatures we’ve enjoyed thus far this winter the lowlifes have remained active far later into the season than they normally do – kind of like the way the camellias at the bottom of our garden have continued to bloom despite it’s being January.

So far, knock on wood, I’ve never been robbed or assaulted on my pre-dawn swings through town, although over the years I’ve been subjected to enough drunken threats and abuse, seen enough ugliness, and had enough rocks and half-empty beer cans hurled my way to make me leery of coming through here too early on weekend mornings. Experience has taught me to leave the gritty urban segment of my loop to the latter part of the ride, when it’s later and there’s a bit more light and life about, and even then I keep a canny look out, ride well out towards the middle of the street and slow down rather than stop at red lights.

I always move right along, too, purposefully and aloof. As a result, the one time (so far) that anyone genuinely and aggressively had a go at me in town I was able to outrun them pretty handily. But on that occasion I’d ridden up behind this particular group of drunken yobs as they strode along the gutter, and so, by the time their booze-addled brains had registered that an opportunity to commit aggravated assault and robbery had just passed them by, I was a good twenty metres or so further up the road and moving away at a lively rate of knots. They stood no chance whatever of catching me and even the rocks they hurled in frustration clattered far short.

That was good luck on my part, bad luck on theirs, I guess. Which leads me to wonder what might have happened if they happened to have been coming the other way, down the street, facing me, and, sensing opportunity, had fanned out as I approached. Or what if, in making my escape, I had unshipped my chain at the crucial moment á la Andy Schleck on the Port de Balés. What would have happened then? It doesn’t bear thinking about. But I think about it anyway and often and although I don’t like to borrow trouble, I find myself rehearsing in my mind various potential stratagems so as to be ready to act swiftly and surely should the need arise.

Which is all very well of course but the sad truth is that none of the tactics that I can dream up on my own hold much appeal, at least not in the heroic sense, leaving only ignominious flight and hoping for the best as my safest and most likely option. The other day though, I came across a slender volume of self-defense tricks, written back in 1899, that at least put a smile on my face. It was called the Manly Art of Bartitsu and was written by one E.W. Barton-Wright, a globe-trotting Victorian gentleman and man of the world who’d spent a bit of time in Japan, studied ju-jitsu whilst there and adapted these Oriental techniques for use by Englishmen back home, with pointers on how best to employ one’s umbrella and stout walking stick when confronted by troublemakers. The resulting book, with its chapters on ‘How to Deal with Undesirables’ and ‘The Use of the Short Stick or Umbrella’, and photographs of gentlemen in straw boaters adopting parry-and-riposte poses with their canes, was an immediate best seller, with Bartitsu schools and clubs springing up everywhere. Indeed a working knowledge of Bartitsu was credited with saving at least one famous life at the time: that of Sherlock Holmes who, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle later revealed, used his skills at Bartitsu to throw Professor Moriarty over Reichenbach Falls.

It was Chapter Eight, though, in this delightful reprint, that caught my eye: Self Defense from a Bicycle. Seeing as how this book was written during the height of the Victorian cycling craze, it was only natural, I suppose, for the author to include cyclists in his brief. “A cyclist is potentially easy prey for a highway robber,” Barton-Wright warns, “His conveyance may be upset quite easily – a stick in the spokes of his wheel, a sudden jerk to the handlebars, and he is thrown inevitably. However the cyclist who is a skilful rider, who possesses pluck and dash, and who is armed with a knowledge of how to use his machine to the best advantage as a weapon, may rest content that he is able to defend himself perfectly when attacked under the majority of likely conditions.”

Naturally, being a proud possessor or pluck and dash myself, I read on and in the succeeding pages learned how best to use my bicycle as a shield when “challenged by a ruffian at close quarters’ and how to counter-attack with my bicycle “when accosted by a ruffian at close quarters”, this latter bit involving springing backwards off your machine while raising the handlebars and charging into the startled ruffian who, we are assured, will almost certainly jump back from sheer surprise and lose his balance. Whereupon you can make good your escape or, as the gung-ho Barton-Wright puts it: “offer him whatever physical punishment seems appropriate.”

My favourite though – to read about, that is, not necessarily to do – was the “direct method of defense when a narrow path is blocked by a ruffian”. In this you spring forward like a tiger, leaping off the pedals, over the handlebars and tackle your would-be assailant at head height and at speed, letting your bicycle go where it will and relying on the ruffian’s body to cushion your own fall. Aside from enjoying the element of surprise – nay, shock – the author points out: “You will come upon him with a irresistible momentum, as though you had dropped from the sky, and if you have not sufficiently damaged him when he strikes the ground, you have the advantage of now being on top, which advantage you may press home in any way you please.”

Egad!   All good grist for the thought mill, I daresay, and images of such ‘damaged’ ruffians warm me down to my ankles, but I think if the occasion ever arises I’ll choose dash over pluck and put on a turn of speed in the opposite direction that will make Mark Cavendish shake his head in wonder, and leave the ruffians to die of pneumonia from the breeze.

A Diet for Your Bike?

Now that the festive season and all the feasting is well and truly over, and with (pretty much) the last of the fruitcake, marzipan and deluxe Yuletide Belgian chocolates gone, the cookie tins empty and no more champagne, I find myself looking in the mirror, taking stock and grudgingly acknowledging that I would indeed do well to shed half a stone or so in 2012 – and that’s putting it rather mildly. A harsher critic would probably double that figure and tell me I was getting off lightly. Be that as it may, I can at least be grateful that it is I and not my bicycle that needs to lose weight. I couldn’t afford a diet for my bike.

At least not according to a study by the Environmental Transport Association, which was released last week. It shows that each kilo of weight reduction on a top-end bicycle cost you as much as £2483! For example, according to a survey of prices and published bicycle weights, a top-of-the-range ten-kilogram mountain bike will cost, on average, £2483 more than eleven-kilogram model, prices being based on a broad survey of what various on-line retailers are offering at the moment. To put that into a more bite sized perspective, that’s £2.48 per gram – roughly five times the spot price of silver bullion these days and creeping up towards the £4 or so asking price for a gram of beluga caviar. That’s some diet.

Things are little better in the world of road bikes, it seems, with the people at Bike Radar doing their own quick round-robin survey of on-line retailers and coming up with an average cost increase of £1701 per kilo as you move from a sub-nine-kilogram road bike to a sub-eight-kilogram one, and an average further price increase of £1265 if you want an even leaner, meaner sub-seven-kilogram machine.

God knows it’s nice to have a light, quick, responsive bicycle, and I certainly don’t begrudge anybody’s spending whatever they like on whatever they fancy, but it does make you wonder why all the heavy emphasis (pardon the deliberate pun) on weight and this curious willingness to spend fancy money trimming grams of ‘fat’ from our bicycles while the vast majority of us pedal unconcernedly around with half a stone’s worth of love handles on our waists.

How easy and pleasant it is to forget that when it comes to a cyclists’ speed, performance or climbing ability it is the weight of the package as a whole – rider plus bicycle – that matters, not merely the weight of the bicycle. The weight of the engine counts too. And dare I say it few riders outside the pro ranks are so whippet lean and racing-fit they cannot profitably shed a couple of kilos – or even a couple of stone – and thereby enjoy a far greater improvement in speed and climbing ability than if they were to sink a few hundred quid in a featherweight titanium sprocket or a carbon-fibre rear derailleur. To be sure, cutting back on your major food groups – your French cheeses, your Belgian chocolates and your Australian shirazes – might not be as much fun, or as instantly gratifying, as buying yourself a newer lighter wheelset but it’ll make a bigger difference to how you ride – and it’ll save you a fortune.

Windy Nights

One of my favourite poems when I was a child was Windy Nights by Robert Louis Stevenson, better known for being the author of Treasure Island. In the poem, a little boy – probably Stevenson himself as a child – is laying snug in his bed when he is awakened late on a wild and stormy night by the galloping hooves of a mysterious rider who passes beneath his window bound on some urgent mission or other – a spy, a smuggler, a soldier-of-fortune, we don’t know for sure, but we can imagine him: a dark figure on horseback in dripping oilskins and tri-corner hat, his flintlock pistols kept dry and at the ready beneath his cloak.

All these years later I still know by heart the opening lines, and indeed most of the rest of the poem, which seems to have been written to a rhyme and meter calculated to bring to mind the galloping of a horse:

Whenever the moon and stars are set;

Whenever the wind is high;

All night long in the dark and wet;

A man goes riding by….

I loved to imagine myself ias that mysterious rider, abroad on a wild and windy night, on urgent business of my own, and I longed for the day in the vague ungraspable future when I could be out there having such adventures for real. As the wise old saying goes, be careful what you wish for. Now that I’ve grown to a man’s estate, and go out for thirty-mile rides through the Sussex marshes each morning, I find that I have abundant opportunities to live out my old Windy Nights fantasies – far more often than I’d like, in fact, most recently this morning as I lay in bed at half-past four listening to the gales tossing the tree tops outside and the rain lashing the window.

Alas there was no midnight rider to marvel at. That was left to me to provide. I did so a few minutes later, reluctantly, setting out into the storm and down the street aboard my doughty old black-and-cream tourer, all rugged up in my Goretex waterproofs against the wind-driven rain. I don’t mind rain so much, as I mentioned in a post the other day. In fact, I rather enjoy, and can even look forward to, a long ride in an atmospheric drizzle. But gale force winds are something else again. Those I can do without. However romantic a windy night might have sounded in that old poem, when you are actually out there in the dark and wet being buffeted around by a stiff sea breeze or wrestling a crosswind, all the derring-do and poetry goes right out of it. I’ll always answer the call, I guess, but frankly, in my considered opinion windy nights are nights best spent snug in bed, listening to the wind and lashing rain, imagining some other poor sod out there playing the midnight rider.

Good old TA quill pedals

You know how it is when you’re tempted to buy something that you really, really like and really want to have but pass it up on the grounds of economy – it would be too much of a self-indulgent splurge – only to kick yourself later for not grabbing whatever it was at the time, because by then the opportunity to have it has gone for good.

That is how I feel every time I think of the six – count ‘em, six – pairs of beautiful new-old-stock T.A. Specialities quill pedals that I came across in a shop a few years ago, and I let five of them go by. I did buy one pair, and was oh-so-tempted to buy another, but having lashed out on the one set, I just couldn’t bring myself to splurge on a second, let alone the third pair that my inner devil was urging me on to buy. And oh how I wish now that I had yielded to temptation. I’ve looked many a time since but just cannot find those grand old French-made pedals anywhere anymore, and I suspect that if by some great good luck I did find a pair, the price now would be well beyond my grasp.

Such a pity they don’t make them any more. They were superb pedals, arguably the finest flat pedals ever made, with their elegant quill shape and buttery smooth needle bearings and grease ports so you could keep them running smoothly virtually forever. I love them. I so much prefer the old-style flat pedals with their toe-clips and straps to the new-fangled clipless ones.

Oh yes, I am well aware of the fact that clipless pedals offer a significant boost in pedalling efficiency and that virtually every modern bicycle these days has them; they are de rigueur if you want to be French about it. But I don’t care for them. I never have. And it’s not for the reason you might think: unlike a lot of riders who are hesitant to go clipless, I am not in the least bit scared or distrustful of them, worried about getting my feet stuck on the pedals and embarrassing myself by toppling over helplessly at red lights. I grew up on skis and I am not unfamiliar with the general principle behind these ski-binding-style pedals.

I also grew up using toe clips. Which means I am accustomed to the idea of my foot’s being attached to a pedal and having to remember to do some subtle ankle work to extricate myself before I dismount; I learned to do all this automatically, subconsciously, and have no doubt that were I to ‘go clipless’ I would swiftly acquire these broadly similar skills – a different twist of the foot and ankle is all. And not at all hard to learn. I never once fell while learning to ride with toe clips; I doubt I would with clipless either. And in fact during my (very) brief and out-of-curiosity experiment with such pedals a couple of years ago I found it easy and reflexive to click in and click out again. But I still didn’t like them. Lots of reasons, none of them terribly compelling I suppose, but mainly it came down to aesthetics. When it comes to bicycles, I am a classicist, pure and simple. It’s lugged steel frames and classical geometry all the way for me, and when it comes to pedals… well… I like mine to look like pedals, not eggbeaters or modern sculpture or kneading paddles from somebody’s bread-making machine. And I’ll bet I’m not the only one out there who likes these things, in case anyone from T.A. Specialities is reading. God, I wish I’d bought the other five pair…

What Colour is Your Parachute?

When I read that Oscar-winner actor Gene Hackman took a tumble off his bicycle while riding helmet-less through the streets of a Florida city I knew it would only be a matter of time – hours in these days of instant communication – before his bare-headed state became a focal point in the wearying and never-ending debate of whether or not one should wear a helmet whilst riding a bicycle.

And by golly, when I finally got my internet to work this morning, I read in an American blog called Lovely Bicycle! a post titled: Did Not Wearing A Helmet Save Gene Hackman’s Life? The argument here – apparently – was that since it would be absurd to suggest that not wearing a helmet could save your life, it is equally absurd to draw the reciprocal conclusion that wearing one could save a life or avert injury, and that, what’s more, accounts of cyclists who have crashed badly and later credit their helmets with having saved their lives are uttering just so much emotive twaddle – well-meaning and sincere twaddle, to be sure, but twaddle nonetheless, anecdote and real-life experience being apparently no substitute for academia’s graphs, pie-charts, figures and statistics.

Hmmm.

Regardless of any philosophical stance I might or might not have on the subject of helmet wearing, there is something so irritatingly glib and loopy with this argument that I just cannot resist following it to its absurdist extreme.

So here goes: on 3 January 1943, an American airman named Alan Eugene Magee was serving as a tail gunner aboard a B-17 on a daylight bombing raid some 22,000 feet over Saint-Nazaire, France when German fighters shot the right wing off the plane, setting it on fire and causing it to go into a deadly spin.

Wounded in the attack, Magee couldn’t get to his parachute and, making a snap decision that dying in a fall would be preferable to dying in a fire, he jumped free of the doomed plane. He fell over twenty thousand feet and crashed through the glass roof of the Saint-Nazaire train station, whose glass and ironwork framing apparently mitigated the fall. And while the 23 year-old sergeant wasn’t exactly in fighting trim when German soldiers found him on the floor, with broken bones, contusions, lacerations and damage to his kidneys and lungs, he survived, resumed flying again after the war and lived on to the ripe old age of 84 – and age Gene Hackman may yet attain if the Florida motorists leave him alone on his bike.

So, does this mean that not wearing a parachute saved Sergeant Magee’s life? Obviously this is as absurd as the conjecture about whether not wearing a helmet saved Gene Hackman’s life. Yet if we dismiss this parachute suggestion for the patent absurdity that it is, are we then obliged to say, with Lovely Bicycle’s doughty conviction, that the converse is true? That it is equally absurd to suggest that wearing a ‘chute would have made any difference, and that airmen who have leapt from burning airplanes, survived and later credited their ‘chutes with having saved their lives are talking (concededly heartfelt) nonsense? Me thinks not.

Yes, I realize that I have reduced the argument to an absurdity; that was the point. But – get this – the logic in both cases is consistent, if abstracted from reality. Indeed if you wanted to persist with this parachute comparison you could illustrate your arguments with numerous examples of skydivers and ejecting pilots who’ve become tangled in their chutes in mid air and died, or drowned as a result of being attached to them after landing in rough water, or been dragged mercilessly through beds of prickly pear cactus.

I remember when I was in Antarctica a few years ago a skydiver plummeted to his death at the South Pole while wearing a perfectly functional parachute – one that did him no good whatsoever because, as I recall, he’d neglected to adjust the barometer on his automatic ripcord to account for the South Pole’s 9301-foot elevation. Then there is the story about Lt Colonel William Rankin who baled out of an F-8 fighter in 1959 at 47,000 feet right smack over a North Carolina thunderstorm, and how the storm’s powerful updrafts kept sucking his chute (and of course him) upwards into the giant nimbostratus clouds, then letting him drop and whisking him back up again and again like some plaything. It took him nearly an hour to descend to the ground, by which time he was suffering frostbite, decompression and severe battering by large hailstones.

So then, are parachutes of debateable use if you have to step out of an airplane in an emergency? You first.

My point here isn’t to take the mickey out of a blog writer whom I generally respect, nor is it to preach helmet wearing, or present any argument for wearing them, whatever my own choice on the matter may be. I have never in my life felt a need or desire to tell others what they ought to do. It’s up to them. I couldn’t care less whether anyone chooses to wear helmets or not. It so happens that I do, and that’s my decision. But I certainly respect yours or anyone else’s decision not to wear one. What I dislike about the rabidly anti-helmet crowd is that so few of them seem to have the courage of their convictions, but feel obliged instead to come up with all kinds of weird and convoluted rationalisations and justifications for their points of view which not only don’t hold water but make them look a little uneasy in their own positions – as though they were protesting too much, trying to convince themselves as much as others of the soundness of their view, and not doing such a great job. Why can’t they just say they’ve evaluated the risk, chosen not to wear a helmet and leave it at that? Leave the denial of risk, the dodgy research, made-up science, contorted logic and massaged statistics alone. Just tell anyone who doesn’t like your choice to buzz off. If there must be a debate, for political or law-making purposes, present the helmet-free case on libertarian grounds – you’d get a far greater consensus among cyclists.

And perhaps instead of jumping up when they read about 81 year-old Gene Hackman getting knocked off his bike, and seeing it as an opportunity to serve up such a weird piece of logic on the so-called helmet debate, they could join the rest of us and forget the headgear (or lack of it) and think, gee, 81 years old and the guy’s out on his bike? Good on him!

Rites of Passage

I was spinning along the street this morning, down towards the seafront, when I heard from behind me the deep growl of a big truck engine changing gears, shifting down. Naturally, this had to be just when I’d come upon one of those stretches in the road where it really isn’t pleasant or safe to be passed even by a car, let alone a heavy goods vehicle – a two hundred yard-long gauntlet of hazards that included a couple of traffic islands, potholes and a pronounced narrowing of the road as it went over a railway bridge in a tight blind S-bend.

Expecting – as I usually do – that this guy, like most motorists I meet along here, would attempt to nudge past me no matter how obviously dangerous (to me) this stretch of road was, I braced myself to hold my line through what I expected to be either a very tight squeeze or an aggressive bit of tail-gating. Surprisingly the guy held back, the model of patience and restraint. I shot a quick glance over my shoulder to let him know that I was aware of his presence, then shifted to a loftier gear and put on a yard or two of pace so as not to inconvenience him any more than necessary.

When I spun through the final traffic island and the road widened up, and I had a clear view of the way ahead, I signalled to him that it was safe to overtake and that I was quite prepared for him to do so. He rumbled past me and flicked his lights in friendly acknowledgment. I waved back. These were simple acts of courtesy – on both our parts – yet they are all too rare on the road these days, both from cyclists and motorists alike. It takes so little effort and cooperation to make the roads friendly and safe for all, and what a mood lifting thing it can be when that effort is put in. A little courtesy can go a long way. I went on my way feeling upbeat and positive, and have remained so all day.

To A Cyclist

O would some power the gift to give us;
to see ourselves as others see us;
It would from many a blunder free us…

So goes an oft-quoted stanza from a Robert Burns poem – addressed to a louse, in point of fact, one that he saw crawling on a fine lady’s bonnet in church one Sunday in 1786. While the comparison with cyclists might be a little invidious, I nevertheless couldn’t help but think of that poem and its final stanza the other night when I was driving home from picking up my wife from the train station over in Battle – and there up ahead in the blustery dark, was an oh-so-feeble glow of a bicycle taillight bobbing along in the gutter, nothing more, just this faint insignificant flicker, easily lost in the glare of oncoming headlights and the steady stream of cars, of which ours was one, whooshing past this rider’s elbow.

I was about to make a cutting remark about the idiocy of anyone who wears dark clothes and expect to survive a rush-hour ride in the wintry dark down Battle Road when I happened to notice, as we sped by, that the guy was actually wearing an ostensibly bright, lemon-lime green windcheater – the sort of thing one might reasonably expect to be visible to a car headlamp, but in fact was not visible at all, on a rainy night and in a rush of oncoming cars.

All there was to telegraph his presence along the roadside was the feeble taillight.

I had little chance to notice anything else about him as we swept by, other than a fleeting impression he was on a decent road bike and wearing a helmet, and that he had a rather more powerful blinker on his handlebars flashing hot white light.

It occurred to me as I watched his blinking front light recede in my rearview mirror that this guy was probably a fairly experienced rider, a regular commuter who more than likely just come off the same train down from Charing Cross my wife had been on, and that he probably considered himself well visible to traffic as he made his way home along busy but familiar Battle Road.

His scary near-invisibility made me think of my own red-and-orange Goretex softshell – and how tempted I am to rely on its bold design and bright colours, which surely anyone can see (Ha!), and forego the detested, garish, plastic-and-nylon Hi-Vis vest I bought to go over it. And in re-thinking too my nip-cheesy way of draining every last bit of charge from a set of double-A batteries before replacing them, so that my theoretically dazzling Cateye 1100 taillight runs down to a dull flicker before I put finally spring for a fresh set of Duracells. And I was grateful for this brief gift of seeing myself as others might see me – or not.

Finding the Right Saddle

Behold my venerable old Brooks saddle on which I have ridden many thousands of happy miles and which I hope to ride many thousands more in the future – hence my breaking out the Proofhide this morning and giving the saddles on my bikes their mid-winter buff and polish. Such regular treatment and looking-after keeps the leather well fed and nourished, prolongs the life of the saddle and makes even this one, with many years and miles on it, on a couple of different bicycles to boot, still look fairly new.

I love Brooks leather saddles; I have ridden on nothing else for more than thirty years since I first discovered them way back in the early Eighties. They’ve been around for ages, having been made individually in the same small factory here in England since the days of penny-farthings. Their flagship B-17 model, which I have on all my bikes, has been in their catalogue since 1898 and is said to be the oldest bicycle component still in production and in frequent, regular use by thousands of cyclists.

It is easy to see why. They are beautifully crafted and they last forever, and in an age of soulless mass production and exotic lightweight man-made materials, they evoke in my mind an era of old-fashioned simplicity, innocence and individualism that dovetails precisely with the values I associate with bicycles and cycling.

No component on a bicycle is more personal than the saddle, and no saddle could be more personal than an old-fashioned leather one which, although hard and unyielding at first, moulds itself over time to the precise shape of your sit bones. In doing so it becomes uniquely yours, for life, as comfortable as a cozy old armchair – something you never give a second thought to when you hop aboard and go for a ride.

And to me the old reliable well-broken-in Brooks B-17 is just that, supremely comfortable. It wouldn’t be for everybody, of course. No make or model of saddle is. We’re all built differently, with different sizes and shapes of pelvic bones and different styles of sitting astride a bicycle. A saddle that I find wonderfully comfortable might be an instrument of torture for you. Which is why asking anyone to advise you on which saddle to buy is pretty much a waste of breath, not that the question isn’t posed all the time on internet forums, and answered with an almost evangelical zeal by well-intentioned riders keen to share the saddle discovery that works really, really well for them. And who can blame them? Finding the right saddle is a cyclists’ Holy Grail and having found theirs they are naturally eager to spread the word. Kindly meant though all their advice may be, in the end, it’s down to a matter of trial and error. There are no shortcuts. Nobody can help. This is one you have to sort out for yourself.

Riding By Rote

As I came around the roundabout at the bottom of Elphinstone Road and Alexandra Park this morning, half-lost in a reverie, I smiled to find myself reflexively swinging a bit wider here than the line I might normally hew through a roundabout so as to avoid the deep and potentially jarring gouge in the bitumen that I knew to be lurking about three-quarters of the way around this particular one.

I carved my turn easily, precisely, yet almost absent-mindedly too, cleared the offending gouge by a predictable margin, continuing my way around the roundabout and up the night-lit street at a becoming rate of knots. No big deal, really – just another of the scores of subliminal corrections and adjustments I make over the course of a thirty-mile loop that I’ve come to know by heart, but it set me off on another reverie, thinking of how remarkably well a cyclist comes to know his (or her) local streets and roads and byways, and what a difference this intimacy and detail can make to a ride, not just in terms of safety – no small consideration when you ride on darkened streets and unlit country lanes – but in the overall smoothness and flow of the ride itself.

I remembered reading an interview with Lance Armstrong in which he credited much of his success in the Tour de France with getting out and training on the route early and often, months before the race, and making certain he knew the curves and hills of the crucial stages as a local would know them, every bump and rut and the feel of each rising bend. He said he hardly ever saw any of his competitors doing this, and claimed that this hard-won, even tedious, familiarity he’d acquired with local road conditions gave him a useful advantage in a grueling event where victory can be decided by the slimmest of margins – physicists once calculated, for example, that if two-time Tour winner Laurent Fignon had cut off his ponytail before the 1989 Tour, the reduced drag would have won him his third yellow jersey; instead he lost the three-week-long race by eight seconds, the closest margin in Tour de France history.

I do not race, nor do I ever trouble to time myself on my morning rides; but I do know as fact that when I change tacks, and go out on a course I haven’t ridden in a while, my average speed will drop, and that if I go out on that same course again the next day I will come home in a noticeably swifter time. The third day out I will be more efficient still, and so forth and so on until a sort of personal equilibrium is reached, my own peak efficiency for those particular roads, beyond which additional reductions of time would only come with dedicated effort.

I seldom make that effort, but I use this work-a-day familiarity to my advantage all the same. This intimate knowledge of the bitumen is why I hew to the same course every day through the winter months – over the past several years and thousands of miles I’ve come to know all the tricks and heaves and potholes of my preferred winter route, have worked out every likely bug, where sudden gusts wind can catch you, where the frost hollows are, where to wary for black ice on the bitterest of mornings. It is a liberating sort of predictability, one that frees my mind and imagination for better things.