Monthly Archives: February 2012

I Am Just Stepping Out…

In the words of Captain Oates: I am just stepping out; I may be some time. Unlike the gallant Englishman, I do expect to return, however, in about a week – on the 6th of March. I am heading overseas on an assignment, not an unusual thing, but in this case the spot I am going to is rather distant and remote and I am not so certain of having internet access there. It may be that I will have it, in which case I will try to file at least a couple of pieces while I am on the road. If not, I will resume next Wednesday.

Packaged Dreams

Something that never fails to amaze me, and saddens me a little, is the curious laziness of imagination and blinkered outlook so many people seem to have when it comes to envisioning their dream bicycle. You see this on cycling forums all the time: somebody will be planning on buying their dream bicycle to mark their 40th or 50th birthday and are casting about for inspiration and ideas, or else they just feel like posing (for the umpteenth time) the favourite old daydreamy question of what would be your ultimate, dream bike if money were no object.

It’s a grand question, rich in possibility, for cyclists, unlike car buffs for example, can have whatever they fancy custom built for relatively little money – a world of individualism and self expression awaits. Yet as you scroll down through these threads you see that the overwhelming majority of respondents simply point like setters to some pricey top-tier model of a mass-produced racing bike – Colnago, Storck, Parlee, De Rosa, Trek, Specialised, Cannondale, you name it.

With stunning herd mentality they cite make and model number, specify which of the factory’s range of paint options, liveries and finishes they most crave, and more often than not there will be plenty of fellow posters chiming behind them in with hearty ‘plus-ones’ to signify their agreement; they aspire to one of those too, although perhaps in a different colour and maybe Di2 instead of Campagnolo Record, or vice versa.

Not that I am suggesting there is anything intrinsically wrong with having, say, a Colnago C59 or a Parlee Z4 be your ultimate aspirational ‘dream’ bike. Far from it. They are very, very fine bicycles. And what’s nice, too, about them I suppose, from a daydream point of view, is that these bikes are also readily visualised and imagined – there’s no blank page, so to speak; all the creativity has been done for you already, by experts, and you can see the results in the ad or the review or on the TV screen, perhaps being ridden by a pro up the Col du Galibier with the glorious backdrop of the Alps behind it. Nor is it especially hard to imagine the act of obtaining one, for they are tantalisingly accessible, if you’re daring enough, and your better half is understanding enough, and your credit card can take the hit. All you’d have to do is go on-line, place your order and a few days later – presto! – your dream bicycle will appear on your doorstep, fully specced out in the size and colour you ordered and looking just like the image you coveted in the magazine reviews.

But truly now, would this really be your dream bike? The platonic ideal that encapsulates all that you love about cycling, bicycles and the open road, sums up the miles you’ve ridden thus far in your career and those you hope to ride in the future? I wonder. I can well accept that the R&D engineers, designers and marketing departments of the world’s great bicycle manufacturing companies are sufficiently attuned to the cycling zeitgeist to turn out some enviable high-performance eye-candy, but I find it hard to believe that their creations, however finely made and well-thought-out, could be so flawlessly in sync with the hopes, experiences and aspirations of their clientele at large as to be someone’s dream bike, or indeed, anybody’s dream bike, right out of the box. How could they? Perhaps this is the root of the old mathematical formula for the optimum number of bikes: n+1. Unfulfilled, we continue our search.

I’d love to read a thread sometime where people really did think through and describe their dream bikes, confront the blank canvas before them, explore what it is they love about bicycles and cycling, and at least put these ideas and inspirations into words, if not into actual carbon or titanium or steel.

Pouring Oil on Troubled Flames

Whoever came up with the term ‘traffic calming’ to describe the gauntlet of chicanes, pedestrian islands and speed bumps British street planners put in place to modulate the flow of traffic was clearly an ironist of the first order. The theory, of course, is that the presence of such obstacles in the road and the need to steer accurately around them will cause motorists to slow down, take a more thoughtful approach to their driving and proceed in a calm and stately manner.

One forms a vision of brightly coloured putt-putt cars being driven slowly and oh-so-carefully around a figure-of-eight course by earnest young children at a fairground, and perhaps that’s the way it plays out in the computer modelling. If so, it is yet another example – if one were needed – of the triumph of ivory tower rationalisation over reality and common sense, for as anyone who has ever pedalled a bicycle down such modified streets can tell you, nothing is more likely to inflame passions, raise blood-pressure and bring out the worst in human nature than a bit of ‘traffic calming’.

I have to run a few of these ‘becalmed’ stretches every day on the homeward leg of my rides, just when the morning rush is starting to build, and I feel the tension starting to build a full half mile before I get there. There is nothing calming about these stretches at all, certainly not among the motorists who are jockeying for position. Courtesy, decency, patience, the Golden Rule and respect for others go out the window like cigarette butts. It’s ‘me first’ all the way. Behaviour that would get a toddler sent home from pre-school with a note pinned to his jacket becomes the norm, except the toys that are being played with here are real cars and real trucks being driven by grown-ups at a very real thirty-five miles an hour, or better.

For the sake of a few meaningless fractions of a second, decent people who would probably, in other circumstances, risk their lives to rescue you from a fire or a pounding surf, will blithely take a chance on killing or crippling you in their unthinking haste to be first through the troublesome, irritating chicane. Cocooned in their two-tonnes of steel and glass, with the radio on and in mid-text, already made tetchy by all the other erratic traffic around them, they do not see your humanity, nor would they be interested.

All they want is to get clear and speed up, and as a slow-poke cyclist you are just another thing in the way, a nuisance, a rolling speed-hump as it were, and so they elbow past, frighteningly close, if you haven’t grabbed your share of the lane, or loom up close behind you, horns tooting peremptorily if you have, maybe shouting something about road tax as they swerve violently past you and accelerate away. No, there is nothing calm or calming about traffic calming measures; they are merely pouring oil on troubled flames.

Ships in The Night

No place amongst the many places that I ride do I feel more assured of finding perfect contemplative solitude than I do when I am pedaling along the lonely old road across the Pevensey marshes at quarter to five in the morning. It’s a world that’s mine and mine alone. So I could hardly believe my senses this morning when all of a sudden in the midst of a reverie I heard a whirr of another bicycle coming up briskly beside me. I glanced around, startled out of my dolly-daydream, to see a preternaturally early-bird commuter with backpack and helmet sweep by me on a road bike in a kind of stately rush, without so much as a glance or a nod in my direction.

I sat up, marveling and watching his blinking tail light and reflective vest bobbling along in the darkened mists a few metres ahead of me, receding slightly with every turn of the cranks, wondering where on Earth this guy had come from and where he might be going. This was certainly a first. Occasionally, not terribly often, and usually on weekends, I’ve encountered cyclists out here on my homeward leg, when it is an hour or so later; keen riders out for what probably seemed to them an early morning spin. But never before had I encountered anyone heading out into the lonely emptiness of the marshes at the same ungodly hour as myself, let alone been passed by such a rider.

While I don’t mind anybody passing me, they’re welcome to it, his having done so like this, when I was off with the pixies and dawdling along, set up a socially awkward situation from my point of view. A matter of etiquette, face, and not wanting to appear ridiculous. You see, now that I was fully with it again, alert and snapped-out-of-it, my natural inclination was to resume my customary ground-covering cadence and rhythm – one that was somewhat faster than the pace I had been setting and which, unless I missed my guess, would bring me level with him within a few hundred yards, maybe passing him, s-l-o-w-l-y, or maybe, even worse, hovering on his wheel. In neither way was that going to be very classy. Who wants to come across as a pathetic Mr Bean-like character who couldn’t stand to be passed, but had to fire back, even on such a lonely road as this? How toe-curlingly awful would that be? What’s more he didn’t strike me, when he swooshed by, as a man who craved puppyish company any more than I wished to provide it. And so I felt obliged to throttle back and dawdle, consciously now, unlike before – and that’s something that’s easy to do – until at last his red tail light eventually faded from view around a distant bend, and I could breath again and feel free to ride.

The Art of Bicycle Chain Maintenance

What an unsung marvel of engineering a bicycle chain is: 456 pieces of finely crafted alloy steel joined together to form the central part of a clean, green drive train that physicists and mechanical engineers tell us is the most efficient mankind has ever devised.

According to one study, and depending on the gear ratios being used, a bicycle chain is able to deliver as much as 98.6 per cent of the initial energy applied to the pedals back to the cogs which turn the rear wheel – in other words, the chain loses less than 2 per cent of your energy in transmission, compared with the well over 60 per cent energy loss sustained by an internal combustion (automobile) engine.

What’s all the more remarkable is that the humble roller-style bicycle chain has changed very little since it was invented about 125 years ago: it arrived on the scene fully formed and nearly perfect. Although bicycle chains have been made thinner over the years – having been pared down to a svelte 5.5mm for an 11-speed drivetrain – the overall design and mechanical efficiency has never really been bettered, although plenty of inventors have tried. Here is one design that came out right the first time. Just imagine if Alexander Graham Bell had emerged from his lab in 1876 with an iPhone in his hand.

Given all this it seems to me we ought to be more respectful of our bicycle chains than we are and take better care of them than we do. Obviously we can’t help their getting wet and muddy – after all, they are there to be used, and most of us ride our bicycles in all winds and weathers – but it doesn’t take much to keep them looking good and flowing sweetly, even in winter. A simple wiping down after a wet ride, followed by a fresh application of lubricant, is generally enough to do the trick although some cyclists have evolved very elaborate maintenance regimes for their chains – with a few die-hards even going so far as removing their chains once a month, soaking them in solvent overnight and then replacing them in a reverse orientation so they won’t be pulled for too long a period of time in one direction. Others do nothing at all.

Indeed, there are probably as many schools of though on bicycle chain cleaning and maintenance as there are bits and pieces in a chain, with plenty of anecdotal evidence to back up just about everybody’s pet theory and favourite method. Although the laboratory tests on bicycle chain efficiency – like the John Hopkins University study cited above – tended to show that lubrication had little effect on a chain’s overall mechanical performance, the scientists did note that their tests were conducted in sterile lab conditions and guessed that in real life a shot of lube now and then was likely to be a good thing, both for mechanical efficiency and the chain’s overall longevity.

That said, chains do come well-lubed from the factory, with the manufacturer’s own lubricant having been applied under heat and pressure and reaching into the deep recesses of the rollers, places a home mechanic could never reach drop-by-drop out of the lube bottle. It is presumably for this reason the folks at KMC – an old, well-established and very fine maker of bicycle chains – urge owners not to soak or clean their chains in solvent, lest they scour out this factory applied, and impossible to replace, lubricant.

A cynic, of course, might see a certain potential conflict of interest here in a maker of bicycle chains telling buyers not to clean their chains as thoroughly as they might, advice which according to some schools of thought might cause said chains to be worn out quicker and replaced them more often – but not even my deep-seated journalistic scepticism has quite that sour a view of human nature; I think there is something in what they have to say, enough so that I have stopped using my old Park Tools Cyclone chain cleaner (which made a mess on the floor anyway). On the other hand, I haven’t quite given up using solvent either, despite the KMC advice. Instead you could say I go halfway.

What I do with my chains nowadays – and which works for me – is spray some de-greaser – Muc-Off is a favourite – on a towel and use this solvent-dampened cloth to wipe down the outside of the chain, cleaning away the old congealed oil and road gunk that has gathered on it over the miles. In this way little or no liquid solvent actually gets into the rollers, but what solvent there is on the dampened cloth can loosen up and clean away quickly and easily the sticky goo adhering to the plates.

Next I use a clean part of the towel to wipe away any residual solvent, and then drop-by-drop apply my lube of choice, typically Purple Extreme on my winter/expedition bike and a dry wax-based lube (White Lightning) on the chain of my Pegoretti, which never goes out in the wet anyway, and whatever seems appropriate at the time for my fancy touring bike. I apply the oil on the lower run of the chain, so as not to get any drops on the rims, and go around all 114 links (116 links on my expedition bike’s chains) at least twice. Finally I give the cleaned brightened chain a final wipe down to clear away any excess oil and I am ready to go.

At Last! It’s Getting Lighter in the Mornings

A fine crescent moon hanging low over a millpond sea and a sky full of stars when I went out this morning at a quarter to five. The air was sharp with frost and the puddles from the showers that fell around midnight were frozen over and crinkled noisily when I rode through them on my way across the marshes. In all, it looked and felt like another brisk and bitter winter dawn – but with a subtle and pleasing difference. For today, and for the first time this year, I really began to notice how much more light there was in the sky on the homeward leg of my ride.

By the time I was spinning along the Hastings seafront it was half past six and where that would have been just lamp-lit darkness at that hour only a couple of weeks ago, this morning there was nice rich ambient light to see by and a bright pink glow gathering in the eastern sky. I see by the almanac that the sun is now rising at three minutes past seven here at fifty-one degrees north latitude and is rising earlier each day by another two minutes or so, as the onset of spring gathers pace. It can’t come any too soon for me. For some unaccountable reason this winter has felt considerably darker than usual, which made the surprise brightness in the sky this morning as welcome to me as the first crocus of spring.

Race Around the World – The Armchair View

Map of the world in 1886

One of my favourite books when I was a kid was Around the World in Eighty Days. I don’t know how many times I read it, but it was lots. My favourite parts were those opening chapters, when the scene is set, the wager made, and Fogg strolls home early from his club and coolly instructs his startled manservant to pack a bag for each of them, and be quick about it; they hadn’t a moment to lose; they were to set off on a tour of the world that very same evening, and twenty-thousand pounds sterling was riding on whether or not they could complete the journey in eighty days.

And a few minutes later they were off, just like that, with the crack of a hansom driver’s whip, careening through the streets of gaslit London, with a copy of Bradshaw’s Continental rail and steamship timetables and the great wide Victorian world stretching out before them, all brass and mahogany and steam. None of the hairbreadth escapes and exotic locales that followed ever piqued my imagination as much as that cavalier departure, for it made adventure on this sort of grand operatic scale seem possible.

In all the other adventure stories and explorer’s tales I read in those days the action was invariably predicated on some glamorous circumstance that I could never reasonably aspire to. I mean, nobody was ever really going to send me abroad on a clandestine mission to save the British Empire, or call upon me to shoot man-eating lions along the Ugandan Railway, or solve great geographical mysteries, all of which had been satisfactorily solved by the time I was born.

But here was a fellow just getting up from the card table and striding out the door, a host in himself, off to trot the globe on a whim and a bet – that was something I could at least imagine and relate to, even if I didn’t, like Phileas Fogg, have a fortune in sterling in the bank.

What I did have though was something nearly as liberating: a Schwinn Varsity ten-speed, my very own, and which I knew from first-hand experience could transport me anywhere I liked along the backroads of Carroll County, New Hampshire and could fill the miles with adventure. You didn’t need to be a poet to sense the difference between a trip down to the village in the back seat of the car, and pedaling there yourself on your bike: one was twenty minutes of dead time, life in suspension, and swiftly forgotten but the other cold fill and entire morning with colour and event and imaginings you might be mulling over days or even weeks later.

And to think – if even the five miles between our house and the village could be so rich and involving, imagine what five hundred such miles would be like, or five thousand, or making a trip around the world? It took but a small hop in my imagination to go from skipping school and riding over to the lake on a fine spring morning to picturing myself setting out one day on a grand globe-trotting quest, off to where there were real tigers and jungles, palm trees, deserts and high mountain passes. I couldn’t wait to go someday. More than anything I wanted to travel and see the world, and it pleased me to think that in my trusty Schwinn, propped up hopefully against the shelves of old paint tins in the garden shed, I had my ticket already.

I’ve been lucky. I’ve done a lot of travelling in my adult life, writing for newspapers and magazines and such, and in between assignments I’ve done quite a bit of expedition cycling too – I’ve ridden across America, the length and breadth of Britain, went from London to Istanbul, through Zanzibar and the Swahili Coast and in 1996-97 did a solo 10,000-mile trek through the Australian outback. I never did find the time to circle the globe though. The nearest I ever came to that was a whimsical bike ride around the South Pole a few years ago when I was down there on an assignment for National Geographic – riding a tight little circle around the pole itself and crossing, in a few cheeky seconds, every line of longitude along the way and therefore, technically and in an irritatingly strict geographic sense, riding around the world. If mine wasn’t exactly the most arduous and dramatic circumnavigation on record, I liked to think of it as it least as the fastest.

But alas it isn’t, not officially anyway. My time of perhaps eight seconds or so is not one the good folks at Guinness recognize, and fair enough too I suppose. They expect a bit more effort than that, eighteen thousand miles more effort to be precise and have set a number of other technical conditions for would-be record-setters to fill as well (for Rules see here). (If you care to read the tale of my cheeky and totally never-to-be ratified circumnavigation in eight seconds and minus-72 windchill, you can do so here)

When I ‘rode around the world’, back in the year 2000, the idea of lapping the globe as quickly as possible on a bicycle was rather an alien one. As a general rule cyclists who set off to circumnavigate the world pretty much did like Marco Polo, disappearing for a couple of years and resurfacing many thousands of miles later, lean and fit and nut-brown, and as storied as mediaeval pilgrims, with their bicycles saggy from hard use and their dog-eared passports crammed with visas and inky stamps.

Victorian-era steamship map of the world

But then, almost exactly four years ago, on 14 February 2008, a Scottish adventurer named Mark Beaumont captured the endurance-cycling-world’s imagination when he completed a circumnavigation of the globe in a record 194 days 17 hours – shattering the previous mark of 276 days and 19 hours set by Steve Strange in 2005, and which was the first record set and ratified under the Guinness Book of World Records strict set of rules for a circumnavigation.

Beaumont’s feat drew challengers out of the woodwork – James Bowthorpe did it in 175 days the following year and in 2010 the record was broken twice more – by Julian Sayarer in June (at 169 days) and by Vincent Cox in August, with a Guinness-ratified time of 163 days, 6 hours and 58 minutes, for cycling 18,225.7 miles.

The record was shattered once again in August 2011 by Alan Bate, albeit with the assistance of a support crew, and now stands at 106 days, 10 hours and 33 minutes. It was formally ratified by the Guinness Book of World Records just last month, although in the eyes of many round-the-world adventurers Vincent Cox’s record for a solo, unsupported circumnavigation remains the more prestigious mark and the time to beat.

One or perhaps even both of these records might not be around for much longer, for at nine o’clock this morning a group of ten intrepid cyclists pedalled away from Greenwich Park and, using the Prime Meridian as their starting line, set off on the first ever round-the-world bicycle race. It’s a race Jules Verne would have loved. Run under strict Guinness Book of World Records rules, the World Cycle Racing Grand Tour competitors – all of them riding solo and unsupported – will race each other around the globe with the winner hoping to break, at the very least, the solo-and-unsupported record for a circumnavigation by bicycle – and possibly even arriving back in London in time for the opening ceremony of the Olympics, which starts exactly 160 days after the racers set out.

Like a specter at the feast Alan Bate’s 106-day official world record is also dangling out there as a tempting carrot, although pedalling a fully laden touring bike the 170 miles or so per day needed to break it is a mighty formidable ask. And then of course there is the ultimate fantasy, breaking, by bicycle, Phileas Fogg’s (fictional) Eighty Days – a romantic benchmark one of the Grand Tour competitors described as being like the four minute mile for endurance cyclists.

The travel romantic in me loves it that there should be such a race. With its old-fashioned air of derring-do and gallant young men in jaunty jalopies, exotic locales and the weeks of hardy travel involved, it is the perfect restorative to a 21st century world made small and mean and over-familiar by cheap air travel and a gazillion frequent flier miles. As I followed the nine o’clock start from the Greenwich Meridian and monitored the satellite-tracked progress of the competitors on the Grand Tour website (follow them here) as they snaked their way through the tangle of inner city streets and out into the countryside, and pictured in my mind their coming adventures through central Asia, and the Australian outback, and the American west, the world around me seemed to become wide again, fanciful, rich in detail and ripe for discovery, the way it used to feel back when I was a kid reading Around the World in Eighty Days and rehearsing these favourite someday-daydreams on my old Schwinn Varsity. And just as I did back then, when I was sighing over the adventures of Phileas Fogg and Passepartout and Inspector Fix, I found myself feeling a bit like a kid left out of a circus and wishing I could have gone too.

Banjo Paterson & Mulga Bill’s Bicycle

Light the candles, break out the tinnies. Today is Banjo Paterson’s birthday – born on this date in 1864, at ‘Narrambla’, near Orange, in rural New South Wales. For those of you who are not Australian, or haven’t had the pleasure of living down there, and don’t immediately recognise the name, Andrew Barton ‘Banjo’ Paterson is Australia’s national poet, the man who gave the world Waltzing Matilda, and a rich swag of iconic Australian ballads such as The Man from Snowy River and Clancy of the Overflow, and, for those of us of the cycling persuasion, Mulga Bill’s Bicycle.

That latter tells the tale of Mulga Bill, a proud and haughty outback stockman who, fancying his skill at being able to ride anything that moves, buys himself one of the new-fangled safety bicycles everybody is talking about, and, all dressed up in a natty new cycling suit, sets off down the sloping street, away from the shop and out of town, disdaining all help or advice – only to have the skittish bicycle break away from him like a rodeo colt, giving the unsuspecting wrangler a short, swift, terrifying downhill ride that ends with his being launched off a twenty-foot cliff and splashing (harmlessly) into in a deep pool in Dead Man’s Creek.

Mulga Bill’s Bicycle appeared in the Sydney Mail on 25 July, 1896, at the height of the great cycling craze that was sweeping Australia and much of the rest of the world. The ballad was an immediate hit and has never really been out of print ever since. It has appeared in anthologies, been put to music, illustrated by countless Australian artists – including the great Pro Hart – and caused there to be many a ‘Mulga Bill’s’ bicycle shop dotted around Australia.

It also casts a revealing light on the poet himself, his values and the colourful, fast-changing times in which he found himself living.

Banjo’s romanticised bush was very much a world of the horse, and he guarded it jealously. In real life, for example, camels and their Afghan handlers played a huge role in settling the outback, being the lifelines that supplied the lonely settlements on the waterless plains and hauled the year’s wool clip to market from the outlying stations, but you’d never know it by reading Banjo Paterson’s poetry.

Nor would you guess, by reading Banjo, that the rivers in southeastern Australia, the very heart of the mythical bush that Paterson made his own, had a boisterous Mississippi-style steamboat culture with its brawling river ports and colourful steamboat captains that rivalled anything in Mark Twain. Again, nary a word of it in Banjo’s poetry. It was all the horse.

But the bicycle was something even Banjo couldn’t ignore.

A Sunday ride in Melbourne in 1895

The bicycle transformed the bush – far more than the horse ever did, or could, for it was the vehicle of the common man. Everyone could afford a bicycle. With the invention of the ‘safety’ bicycle in the mid-1880s – the sort of bicycle we know today, as opposed to the pennyfarthing – anyone who needed to travel the vast empty distances in the outback suddenly had access to a cheap, reliable form of transport which could carry them a hundred miles or more in a day, and, unlike the horse, didn’t require grass or water and could be repaired by anyone with a bit of wire and ingenuity. Australians took to cycling like nobody else on earth – shearers, prospectors, miners, land agents, stockmen, bush preachers, commercial travellers, the very people Paterson loved and wrote about and who figured so prominently in his ballads and poetry, were all taking to the bicycle in droves.

Learning to ride in rural Victoria in 1896 - the year Mulga Bill's Bicycle appeared

“It is extraordinary what unlikely places one found those tyre tracks,” wrote the veteran Australian newspaper correspondent Charles Edward Woodrow Bean in his classic turn-of-the-century outback travelogue On The Wool Track. “They straggled across the very centre of Australia. We crossed them in paddocks as lonely and bare as the Sahara. Bicycles were ridden or driven or ploughed or dragged wherever men could go, and not infrequently where men could not go with safety. But the bicycle got through, if the man did.”

Bush prospector heading into the outback on his bicycle - c1896

A sure sign that the shearing season had begun, he wrote, was the number of bicycles heading into the bush. “The shearer set out on these trips exactly as if he was going from Sydney to Parramatta. He asked the way, lit his pipe, put his leg over his bicycle and shoved off…If he was city breed, as were many shearers, the chances were that he started in a black coat and bowler hat, exactly as if he were going to tea at his aunt’s.”

As the nation’s most popular and best-selling bush poet Banjo felt unable to ignore the bicycle, and so he chose to lampoon it instead:

“‘Twas Mulga Bill from Eaglehawk that caught the cycling craze

He turned away the good old horse that served him many days

He dressed himself in cycling clothes, resplendent to be seen

And hurried off to town and bought a shining new machine…”

Confident of his ability to master anything, the dude-y Mulga Bill sets off on a meteoric course down the main street and out of town, bouncing, veering and gathering pace until the out-of-control bicycle – a lovely metaphor for all the irreversible new-fangled changes – finally bounds off a twenty-foot ledge and dumps its badly shaken rider smack in the middle of Dead Man’s Creek. Of the bicycle, Paterson concludes:

“…It’s safe at rest in Dead Man’s creek, we’ll leave it lying still

A horse’s back is good enough, henceforth for Mulga Bill.”

So there you have it: game, set and match to the horse. And Banjo made it stick too, in his world anyway, never revisiting the cycling theme in his poetry but, like Mulga Bill, sticking to the good old horse thereafter.

For those who’d like to know more about Banjo Paterson here’s a link to an award-winning feature I wrote about him that appeared in the August 2004 issue of National Geographic. Perhaps not quite as intrepid as those early bushmen, I’ve cycled a fair bit through the bush myself – about 10,000 miles worth in a solo trek around the continent in 1996. Some of that story here. If you are considering cycling through the Australian outback yourself – a wonderful experience and a great thing to do – you might find this post here useful.

Or if you just want to read a rollicking good poem, here Mulga Bill’s Bicycle in its entirety:

‘Twas Mulga Bill, from Eaglehawk, that caught the cycling craze;

He turned away the good old horse that served him many days;

He dressed himself in cycling clothes, resplendent to be seen;

He hurried off to town and bought a shining new machine;

And as he wheeled it through the door, with air of lordly pride,

The grinning shop assistant said, “Excuse me, can you ride?”

“See here, young man,” said Mulga Bill, “from Walgett to the sea,

From Conroy’s Gap to Castlereagh, there’s none can ride like me.

I’m good all round at everything as everybody knows,

Although I’m not the one to talk – I hate a man that blows.

But riding is my special gift, my chiefest, sole delight;

Just ask a wild duck can it swim, a wildcat can it fight.

There’s nothing clothed in hair or hide, or built of flesh or steel,

There’s nothing walks or jumps, or runs, on axle, hoof, or wheel,

But what I’ll sit, while hide will hold and girths and straps are tight:

I’ll ride this here two-wheeled concern right straight away at sight.”

‘Twas Mulga Bill, from Eaglehawk, that sought his own abode,

That perched above Dead Man’s Creek, beside the mountain road.

He turned the cycle down the hill and mounted for the fray,

But ‘ere he’d gone a dozen yards it bolted clean away.

It left the track, and through the trees, just like a silver streak,

It whistled down the awful slope towards the Dead Man’s Creek.

It shaved a stump by half an inch, it dodged a big white-box:

The very wallaroos in fright went scrambling up the rocks,

The wombats hiding in their caves dug deeper underground,

As Mulga Bill, as white as chalk, sat tight to every bound.

It struck a stone and gave a spring that cleared a fallen tree,

It raced beside a precipice as close as close could be;

And then as Mulga Bill let out one last despairing shriek

It made a leap of twenty feet into the Dead Man’s Creek.

‘Twas Mulga Bill, from Eaglehawk, that slowly swam ashore:

He said, “I’ve had some narrer shaves and lively rides before;

I’ve rode a wild bull round a yard to win a five-pound bet,

But this was the most awful ride that I’ve encountered yet.

I’ll give that two-wheeled outlaw best; it’s shaken all my nerve

To feel it whistle through the air and plunge and buck and swerve.

It’s safe at rest in Dead Man’s Creek, we’ll leave it lying still;

A horse’s back is good enough henceforth for Mulga Bill.”

(For those hyper-critical sorts who notice the dateline on this post reads the 16th of February, and who happen to know that Banjo’s birthday is actually the 17th, bear with me please: while I may be writing my blog from Sussex, putting finger to keyboard here on the afternoon of the 16th, it is already the 17th Down Under and a happy excuse for me to post early since I have been given to understand from our local electricity provider that we will not be having any power all day tomorrow due to ‘essential works’ being carried out on the grid – so it was post today or miss the event completely.)

Life’s Bumps in The Road

Occasionally, in my more lyrical moments, when things are going well and I feel the master of my fate, I find myself thinking almost fondly of some of the jackasses I have encountered over the years, and how they have ended up – unwittingly and unintentionally, to be sure – being catalysts for good things.

One such bozo that springs to mind, is, or rather was, the editor of a newspaper for which I used to write many years ago. Having recently been elevated to the purple of high office, the man became such an insufferable self-loving prat that even in the midst of a deep recession and high unemployment that was prevailing in Australia at the time I chose to quit rather than spend another day rowing in his metaphorical galley while he water-skied and mugged for the cameras. (Think Gilderoy Lockhart if you’re a Harry Potter fan.)

And so I left. And lo, I discovered that contrary to his threats and warnings, and even contrary to my own expectations, there was in fact a world of opportunity out there just waiting to be seen and seized. I’d just needed to shake my inertia and get out there, burn a few bridges, even, something I mightn’t have done had His Nibs’ insecurities and megalomania not prodded me into action. Within a day or so I’d landed a wonderful job at Time Magazine, and from that happy move sprang all sorts of other golden opportunities and open doors, so that when I look back now, from a perspective of nearly twenty very good years later, I can see that in a kind of backhanded way I owe a debt of gratitude to the smarmy SOB wherever he is these days.

Likewise in my cycling life I feel a certain, well, a certain something, for the ham-fisted knuckle-dragging mechanic at a certain upscale London cycle shop whose ‘deluxe service’ on my Thorn eXp tourer three years ago left it in an un-rideable state.

Surly, morose, dumb as a bag full of hammers and dangerously incompetent, his ineptitude turned out to be a catalyst for good things. Ironically, for such a cack-handed mechanic who couldn’t set up and adjust a pair cantilever brakes to save his life, or make a front derailleur function properly, or even put the handlebars on straight, this guy managed, Forrest Gump-like, to set into motion an complex chain of thoughts and happenings that for sheer intricacy would have done credit to a Swiss watchmaker.

What happened was this:

I’d decided to put a new headset on my old, high-mileage Thorn expedition bike ahead of a picturesque cycling trip I’d been planning for myself in Wales. I’d been daydreaming for sometime about riding the Lôn Las Cymru, a particularly beautiful and challenging bicycle route that runs 250 miles from Chepstow to Holyhead, and finally as autumn was approaching that year it looked as though I might be able to get away for a few days and do it.

It was in this mood of jaunty anticipation that I decided to give my old tourer an overhaul and replace the tourer’s worn-out FSA headset with a brand new Chris King Sotto Voce one – your Chris King being the crème de la crème of bicycle headsets, beautifully engineered, buttery smooth, and designed to last pretty much forever.

A headset, by the way, if you are new to cycling, is the set of cups and bearings that governs the steering on a bicycle. They are not difficult to install. It’s merely a matter of pressing the opposing cups firmly and evenly onto the top and bottom of the head tube. Backyard mechanics frequently use a block of wood and a hammer to do this, but this is crude and risky since if you don’t seat the headset properly you can end up doing a lot of damage both to your bearings and to your frame. It will also void the warranty.

The done thing is to use a headset press and to prepare the surfaces beforehand with a specialised tool called a ‘head tube facer and reamer’ to make certain that both ends of the head tube are smooth, dead level and absolutely parallel to each other. The tools you need to do all this can cost several hundred pounds and unless you are running a bike shop and have to do this kind of thing all the time are not really worth buying.

And so ten days before I was due to set off for the Welsh mountains I phoned up the aforementioned London bicycle shop – just for fun we’ll call them Hammer, Wedge & Thump – and booked my bike in to have a brand new Chris King Sotto Voce headset installed and have the deluxe overall and service.

I should add here that Hammer, Wedge and Thump was hardly a name I’d plucked out of the phone book, but are widely known as a very on-trend, urban-chic, race-oriented independent shop in a fashionable quarter of London, and in whose intimate showroom can be seen some of the finest and costliest hand-made bicycles on the planet and in whose workshop toiled, so the shop’s boast went, former pro race team mechanics. They seemed a safe bet.

Not only would my bicycle have a new headset, but it would have be completed stripped down to the frame, the hubs re-greased and reassembled, the parts inspected for wear, and the wheels checked for trueness, plus the usual tweaking of brakes and derailleurs and the re-built bike given a thorough clean and polish that, the shop promised, would have it looking showroom new.

I returned home on the train that evening having dropped off my bike confident and well pleased with myself. Now I could focus on work, getting everything done before I left, knowing my ride was in good hands. On Friday I could come back up to town and pick up the bike, all ready to head to Chepstow bright and early Saturday morning.

But that’s not what happened. Instead when I arrived at the shop on the Friday afternoon the bicycle they wheeled out to me was practically a stranger, a sagging down-and-out covered with greasy fingerprints and broken in spirit. A nasty grating, rasping sound was now coming from the bottom bracket area where all had been sweet silence and smooth running before. The misaligned chainrings scraped unpleasantly on a maladjusted derailleur cage that had only a few days earlier shifted crisply.

The brakes no longer functioned as brakes. You could draw the levers back all you liked, until they touched the handlebars and could go no further, but no braking power was applied to the wheels. They continued to spin freely. The action on the levers was so loose and floppy and ineffective that at first I thought the guy had forgotten to attach the cables. But no, the cables were there, just so ropey as to be useless.

The tyres were under-inflated to the point of being nearly flat, the taillight was broken. As a final insult the handlebars were crooked.

An ugly scene ensued – over which we’ll draw the curtain of charity, for this isn’t a cautionary tale about lousy bike shop mechanics or a recounting of a bad experience with a buccaneering London bicycle shop, but rather about the curious way life’s bozos can sometimes nudge you in unexpected new directions, open new doors, and alter the course of things in positive ways you don’t appreciate until long afterwards.

With my tourer rendered un-rideable I was obliged to postpone my much-anticipated Wales trip and instead spent the weekend in my shed repairing my bike, seething with resentment and muttering obscenities under my breath the whole while – and cursing myself too while I was about it, for I am quite a decent bicycle mechanic, with City & Guilds qualifications, and my whole rationale for letting anyone else but me overhaul my bike had been to save time and bother so I could focus on work and go to Wales with a clean slate. Some time-saver that turned out to be. What worried me more than the maladjustments and sloppy rebuild, which I could fix, was the thought of what damage this bozo might have inflicted the frame itself – bearing in mind that he had been active with facer and reamer on the bottom bracket and head tube. Scary thoughts. And so before things went any further I wanted a frame builder to examine it and (hopefully!) tell me all was okay.

The obvious thing would have been to take it back to Thorn, and have them look it over, but their shop was several hundred miles away, in Somerset, and I was hoping to find somebody – somebody good – who was closer. In casting about for possibilities I discovered that Enigma – a boutique high-end hand-crafted bicycle maker about whom I had read many good things – had not long earlier relocated to an industrial park near Pevensey, not fifteen miles away. In fact, I’d practically been riding past their workshop every day all summer. I called them up, explained what happened and asked if they could take a look at my frame. They said sure: to bring it on over.

I did, feeling a little bashful bringing a heavy, hard-bitten expedition bike to a firm famed for building elite, sleek lightweight road machines out of exotic metals, but when their master frame builder, Mark Reilly, came out and saw my old Thorn eXp tourer standing there his eyes lit up and his face broke out in a smile. “I don’t believe it,” he laughed, shaking his head. “I built this frame!”

It turned out that years ago, back in ’99, when Thorn’s designer Andy Blance first conceived the eXp – what was then and for years afterwards the company’s ultimate expedition bike – he’d commissioned Mark Reilly to do the initial builds. I’d known all along that mine was one of the very first ones made, and over the years, funnily enough, had had several people comment that my particular frame seemed exceptionally well built, but I’d never known any of the back story, let alone expected one day to bump into the craftsman who’d made it.

What made me happier yet was word that the fine old touring frame was still sound. Later, as Mark and I talked about the strange coincidence of my happening to bring the bike here, of all places, we fell to talking about frame building and design and lugs and silver brazing. It was the first time I had ever met a frame builder or been in a frame-building workshop. I was intrigued, and perhaps a bit envious too for I am a frustrated artist at heart as well as a lover of bicycles and what is a fine lugged frame anyway but a sculpture in silver and steel?

When I let I heard myself asking, in an offhand sort of way: say, do you guys ever build touring bikes? Mark just shrugged and said sure; he was happy to build anything a client wanted. As I drove home that afternoon a tiny germ of an idea that had been floating around in the back of my mind for the past few years took root and began to grow – that of commissioning my perfect bicycle, the platonic ideal that would represent everything I loved about cycling and the myths of the open road: it would be a hand-built, classic tourer from the golden era of touring. I’d sketched it out in my mind’s eye scores of times, knew just how it would be, and had even gone so far as buying a few bits and pieces – a pair of classic French touring cranks, for example, and rare French touring pedals – for this someday bicycle of mine.

But until this chain of circumstances came along, started by that cack-handed mechanic in London, that led me to that workshop, my mind had never made that big, all-important leap from the abstract to the genuine possibility of my doing such a thing. Now it had. Suddenly this thing became conceivable, as real as the amiable flesh-and-blood master frame-builder I’d met and spoken with and whose workshop was just over in Pevensey.

It was another few months yet before I finally took the plunge, and rode over there with my deposit money (that story here) – but I hate to think how long the beautiful retro-randonneur that resulted from that might have remained just another of those vague hoped-for things I was going to pursue someday, had it not been for the catalyst provided by that clown of a mechanic (and who, I hear, no longer works at that shop).

And so in an odd sort of way I feel kind of grateful to him, wherever he is today, maybe not grateful in a way that would make me clasp him on the shoulders, hail him as a brother and buy him a beer if I ever meet him in a pub, but I think I can say now that if I were to come upon him stuck halfway down a well with night falling, and I wasn’t in too much of a hurry, I think I’d probably pull him out.

The Ultra Marathon Man

Neither rain nor snow nor dark of night kept Tommy Godwin off the bike in his record shattering year of 75,065 miles in 1939

With so much bitter weather around and treacherous black ice on the roads, especially in the pre-dawn hours in which I do my riding, I decided to stay off my bicycle this week. Why risk a broken wrist, hip or collarbone, surgery and three months or so on the sidelines for the sake of what, in the long run, a few (probably forgettable) outings?

And so I stayed at home instead, drank leisurely mugs of hot coffee of a morning and thought grand thoughts in admiration of an heroic English cyclist named Tommy Godwin, born 100 years ago this year, and who, in 1939, managed to log an incredible 75,065 miles, from January to December, riding prodigious distances every day, in all winds and weathers, setting a one-year record that will almost surely never be broken.

The mind boggles. Especially when you consider that Godwin didn’t accomplish this feat in some nice flat sunny locale, like South Australia, where he’d have stood a chance at having pleasant, or at least ride-able, weather every day. Au contraire, he did it here, in cold blustery Britain, roaming the hilly countryside from Land’s End to John O’Groats and everywhere in between, and riding into a winter (1939-40) that was one of the coldest, snowiest and iciest in the 20th century. And yet somehow the 27 year-old racer and former grocer’s delivery boy managed to average – average – more than 205 miles a day.

What’s more, he kept right on riding at the same killing pace right through that ferocious winter and up to the following May, to clock up a cool 100,000 miles in 500 days – another record that seems pretty well untouchable.

And he did it on a 30-pound steel-framed Raleigh, with a 4-speed Sturmey-Archer hub, riding up to eighteen hours a day on poor roads and in bad weather and lighting his way at night with an energy sapping dynamo lamp – which itself had to be taped over during the latter stages of his grand ride since by then, the winter of ’39-40, the war had started and their were blackout rules in force. He was out there riding every day but one – when he stopped off a Buckingham Palace in October to meet the Prince of Wales, having by then already broken the Year Record for cycling. His shortest ride during his big year was 59 miles, on Christmas Day; his longest was 361 miles on the 21st of June. And when a fall caused him to break his collarbone, he rode on regardless, steering with one hand, his other arm in a sling. The bone never set properly and by some good opinions left him with circulatory complications that may have contributed to the heart attack that ultimately killed him at the premature age of 63 as he came home from a ride with his mates.

How do you put a record like Godwin’s into perspective? Well, you can’t really. It’s unique, out here on its own. But to try: next Saturday a group of ten intrepid, road-hardened cyclo-tourists will set off from Greenwich on the inaugural World Cyclo Racing Grand Tour – a sporting but every-man-for himself, devil-take-the-hindmost Phileas Fogg-style race around the world, in which the winner will be hoping to claim the world record for circumnavigating the globe by bicycle.

Presently that stands at 106 days, according to the folks at Guinness. Given the minimum of 18,000 miles a competitor must ride in order to set an official record, that’s an average of just over 170 miles a day – well under Tommy Godwin’s daily mileage and for a much shorter period of time. To be sure, the globe-trotting competitors in the Grand Tour will be facing their own formidable challenges and obstacles – after all, the world at large is a pretty big and daunting and hostile place these days, and these guys will be carrying their own gear, unlike Tommy Godwin who could call on friends and fellow wheelmen throughout the kingdom for places to stay at night.

And too, the Round-the-World racers have a nightmare of logistics to consider: visas, language difficulties, war zones to skirt around and long-haul flights over oceans to arrange, to say nothing of vastly more (and more dangerous) traffic on the roads. It won’t be easy. Whoever wins and breaks the round-the-world record – if indeed the record is broken – will be a talking point and inspiration for globe-trotting adventurers everywhere, and the target to beat. Be that as it may, there will always be a special place in the pantheon of marathon cycling for Tommy Godwin and the amazing one year record of 75,065 miles he clocked up on a heavy Raleigh 4-speed back in 1939 – a record category the folks at Guinness will apparently no longer list, not wanting to encourage anyone to give it a go, on the grounds that it would simply be too dangerous to attempt.

As for me, I know when I’m outclassed. And so I’ll just see here at my laptop, with a cup of hot coffee at my elbow, waiting for the black ice to clear…