Monthly Archives: May 2012

What are Bicycle Bells Good For?

P.G. Wodehouse makes delightful use of bicycle bells in the opening chapters of Joy in the Morning, using their musical ting-a-lings to herald a raft of new and hilariously improbable complications into the life of Bertie Wooster as he strolls down the lanes of the pretty, rural village of Steeple Bumpleigh, only to discover, one by one, that an awkward mix of his old friends, acquaintances and former fiancées are staying there also, and are out and about on their bicycles.

It is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. And as a cyclist I’d also have to say it is the only time I can ever recall a bicycle bell’s being put to effective use. Other than as a musical stage setter, or as an adornment to a certain style of classic hoop-frame bicycle, I cannot understand why anyone would have a bell on their bike or indeed what its ultimate purpose is supposed to be.

Ostensibly, of course, they are to warn others of your approach. I suppose if you were riding through a rustic place like Steeple Bumpleigh, or pedalling along a canal path or on a shared footway a bell would accomplish that, although I can’t see why a human voice wouldn’t be far better. How much nicer it is to call out a polite ‘excuse me’ or ‘passing on your right’ than to expect perfect strangers to jump to a peremptory ting of your bell. It just seems so much more civil. And using your voice doesn’t require you to take your hand off the handlebars in order to chirp the bell. After all, if you are closing in on some unsuspecting pedestrians and are near enough to need to chirp your bell, it is probably best to have both hands on the grips; startled pedestrians have a way of jumping in unexpected directions. A polite voice and an indication of which side you are expecting to pass seems a far safer bet all around.

What I really don’t understand is what practical use a bell is supposed to be in traffic. A truck is cutting you up, a delivery van is swerving dangerously close as you round a roundabout, a parked car pulls abruptly away from the curb – and you’re supposed to ting-a-ling your bell? Taking one of your hands off the handlebars to do so at just the time you most desperately need maximum control of your bike? And who is supposed to hear this soft musical tinkle? A motorist sitting in a sealed cocoon of metal and glass with the radio on and the air conditioner full blast and the kids squalling in the back seat? They’d be lucky to hear a fog horn. If they haven’t seen you, they sure won’t hear you. And if they have seen you, and don’t care, your little ting-a-ling bell is never going to become anyone’s voice of conscience, that’s for sure. It’s way too late for that.

And yet there are always these calls for bicycles to have bells…

Another of the many things that mystify me.

Seeing Red

There are probably few things more irritating to motorists than having to stop for red lights. Most of the time these red lights serve no useful purpose, but merely disrupt the flow of traffic, waste time and energy, and add to the overall frustration of driving anywhere these days. And so it naturally follows that the spectacle of seemingly privileged individuals – cyclists – breezing through red, continuing their journey unimpeded, with little fear of fines or prosecution must be intensely aggravating. I can appreciate that, and I do my part to cool passions and set a good example by stopping at red lights – as of course we are all legally obliged to do, even though most of the time I could quite safely proceed through a red-lighted intersection. As could we all frankly, motorists and cyclists alike, with a little caution and goodwill.

What amazes and amuses me about the whole red-light jumping thing though is the depth and intensity of it all, from the overblown rhetoric on the part of the motorists to the moralizing, soul-searching discussions on the subject one reads on cycling forums. It’s a little weird. When was the last time you read any mea culpas in the motoring magazines about amber-gambling or running reds, deploring the heedlessness of a reckless few, or advocating the idea that motorists should adopt a bit of vigilantism and police each other, tooting and yelling and gesticulating at violations of the highway code, shaming offenders into compliance and better behaviour?

Yet you see this on cycling forums all the time. There is almost a religiosity to it. One curmudgeonly poster went so far as to whack a red-light-jumping cyclist with a rolled up newspaper (bad cyclist!) when he caught up with him further along the road. And he was damn proud of his actions, too. More cyclists should do this sort of thing, he argued, in the name of zero tolerance and law-abiding behaviour, although how committing assault adds to an overall sense of law and order on the streets was a question he left unanswered.

And coming from the motorists’ side we have red-light-running by cyclists as a convenient lightning rod for everything that is unpleasant about driving in the overtaxed and overstressed 21st century, with breathless, exaggerated claims of cyclists – all of them! – tearing through red-lights willy-nilly and creating utter chaos on the streets; a sense that if only, if only, cyclists obeyed red lights then the world would be right again, the streets would be calm, traffic would flow in an orderly manner, and motoring would return to the halcyon days of the 1950s when Mom and Pop, the kids and the dog went out for a pleasurable Sunday drive in their big comfortable Packard Clipper.

A little perspective might be worthwhile.

A better thing still would be to get rid of traffic lights altogether, as a good many urban designers advocate. Numerous tests and studies and trials, not to mention a mountain of anecdotal evidence, suggests traffic flows much better without them.

And then we could all have something else to fight over.

Carradice Barley Bag

One of the many things I like about Brooks saddles is the fact that most of their models still come with the old-style saddlebag loops, like those on my B-17. Most saddles these days don’t. Loops are seen as old-fashioned and too cyclo-touristy, not at all in keeping with the mean, keen racing look that is de-rigueur on road bikes these days. The same can be said for the kinds of saddlebags that use these loops, with the market all veering long ago to tight little nylon bundles which you can wrap snugly onto the seatpost or to the saddle rails with Velcro straps.

I like the old saddlebags though, partly because I don’t much care for the post-modern sleekness of those snug little nylon bundles, and because I do very much like the classic outdoorsy appeal of olive-green canvas and tanned harness leather like that on the Carradice Barley bag that lives on the saddle of my expedition/winter bike. And then too I like to have a bit more carrying capacity in my saddlebag than what new-fangled ones allow. Not a lot more, mind you, I am not talking about taking the kitchen sink, but simply enough to carry a couple of extra tools and a flashlight on long winter rides as a precaution against break-downs on lonely country lanes far from home. It is better still if you don’t have to squeeze everything in, packed just so, in order to get the thing closed.

I’ve had mine for several years now but lately, since I’ve started writing and photographing for this blog, this Carradice Barley bag has really come into its own. At seven litres, it is big enough for me to carry all my usual spares and tools, plus my compact camera and mini-tripod etc, and still leave me with room enough to accommodate my iPad if I wished to take it along somewhere, or to allow me to be able to pack hastily if need be – if, say, I want to decamp quickly to catch the light at another location further along the road. The bag is sturdy, and the heavy-duty canvas sufficiently water resistant for me not to worry about anything no matter what the weather (although my camera rides in a Lowe all-weather pouch).

The rear of the bag has a thoughtfully placed reflective patch, and steel loops on which you can attach, say, a cape roll or some such. The side pockets are a useful size and the leather straps are very nicely turned out. The one thing I would like to see Carradice do is use stainless steel buckles on the straps; the plain steel ones they use are quite speckled with rust by now and I expect I will have to replace eventually. Everything else seems wonderfully built to last. They are great around-town bags and are hand made in England, by the same old firm up north that has been turning them out for 80 years now.

Sounds of Silence

You can’t hear the twittering of birds in the hedgerows by looking at this photo, or listen to the soft insistent whirring of insects in the tall grass and amongst the cow parsley that’s flourishing along the side of the road – and that’s the point of this post, a sort of wondering aloud why it is that so many cyclists choose to ride with ear buds in their ears and listening to their iPods. Each to their own, of course, and I can understand the attraction of riding to a soundtrack of your own choosing, something to inspire or soothe and make the miles pass even more agreeably, but all the same it is not something I could ever imagine myself wanting to do.

For one thing it strikes me as dangerous – certainly if you’re pedalling along trafficked roads, or in a city, when you really want to have all of your senses in focussed on what you are doing. Hearing is a big one. I like to know what’s coming up behind me, and in what sort of manner it is coming, and there’s no better way to do that then having your ears attuned to the sounds of traffic, alert for any gathering of tempo behind you, beeping horns, shifting gears, or the quiet rumbling to life of an engine in a parked car just ahead that may just pull out as you’re passing by. Some vehicles, even big ones, can be ominously quiet, busses being a case in point. With their engines in back and their blocky shapes they can sneak up on you unawares quite easily. I like to know about busses. But how can I know about them, or any of the other myriad street sounds, if I am listening to some jazzy Miles Davis number as I am spinning down the street, lost in my own smoky nightclub reverie?

While it is certainly safer to listen to music on the quiet country lanes that I ride, and especially so at the hours I am out there, just think what you miss by plugging yourself into your iPod – the whole dawn chorus of a countryside coming to life. I love it. I can listen to music any old time, but I can hear these sounds only when I am riding my bicycle.

Faithful Landmarks

Nearly every morning, and for quite some time now, I ride past this old coronation clock on the Bexhill seafront. It was put up in honour of King Edward VII back in the days when Bexhill was an elegant seaside resort where luminaries such as Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India came to take the sea air and recuperate from their ills. I like the old clock. It’s friendly and familiar. I notice it whenever I ride past. Since I don’t wear a watch or have a do-it-all cycling computer on my handlebars it gives me some idea of how I am going on my ride, time wise, and how much leisure I have for improvisation if I feel like going off-piste.

I know when I spin past it that if I am heading over to Pevensey, an hour will pass before I swing back this way again – somewhat less if I am riding my Pegoretti. It is the clock by which I set my morning observations, the tides and sunrises and the quality of the light. The earliest I have even ridden past it is 4:22am one very cold and dark winter’s morning – not bad for an early start since it is four miles from home. I’ve tried on a few occasions to beat that time, but I never seem to be able to. Come to think of it, I suppose you could say it is my cycling computer, all bricks and mortar and roman numerals and Edwardian styling. I love it. It suits me down to the ground.

Do you have any faithful landmarks that you always notice, even subliminally, and which always figure on your rides?

Don’t Force It, Get A Bigger Hammer

I’ve always been a reasonably dab hand when it came to looking after my bikes and making them go again when bits stopped working, but a few years ago I decided I needed to learn a whole more. With that in mind I signed up for a two-week residential course in bicycle maintenance at the Bike Inn, up in Lincolnshire, which would lead to my earning a City & Guilds qualification as a bicycle mechanic and wheel builder.

The course was taught by Alf Webb, an old-school bicycle shop owner and mechanic who’d had about fifty years’ experience in the trade and knew all the tricks – the ones that were shrewd and clever and would save you time and possibly money, and he put you wise to the old wives’ tale myths.

It was an excellent course, intensive, intimate and very hands-on. There was only about half a dozen of us taking it, which was as big a class as Alf cared to have, so there was plenty of personal attention. Everything was covered. Days started early, went until evening and afterwards we would all go over to the Red Lion, a pub in nearby Spalding, for a coupe of beers and talk over bicycles a bit more. Alf always bought the first round.

The second week we went into wheel building in a big way. I loved wheel building; that was my favourite part of the course. The last two days were taken up with exams – written, oral and practical. It was surprisingly tough and very thorough. Two people failed, the other four of us passed and got our certificates. In theory that made us qualified mechanics, although in reality, of course, it takes a lot of hard-won practice and shop experience to claim that distinction.

Nevertheless I was pleased to have done it and to have earned the certificate – the inner knowledge that I could look after my bicycle so completely, could undertake any repair, has somehow enhanced the sense of independence I feel when I am spinning down the road on my bicycle. It still does.

Two Englands

There are days when I wonder why I ever moved to England – like when I step out of Sainsburys with two small bags of groceries in the crook of my finger and realise that I’ve just dropped thirty quid; or when I pause to consider the Orwellian implications of the 369 CCTV cameras that the average person in Britain is said to pass beneath each day; or pull my hair out at the neurotic ‘elf and safety regulations or the maddening political correctness; or find myself standing in the customs and immigration queue at Heathrow for three hours waiting to have my passport stamped by one of the (maybe) three officers on duty for the entire terminal, and praying to God one of them doesn’t go off on their tea break; days when I decide this is a crazy place to live: stressful, crowded, expensive, and mindlessly, exuberantly bureaucratic.

But then I slip away down the lanes on my bicycle on fine warm spring mornings such as this, with the last of the season’s bluebells still in flower along the roadside and honeyed sunshine dipping through the branches and suddenly I feel incredibly fortunate to be living here, pedalling through such storybook landscapes, and feeling as though I’d ridden into the pages of some cozy old novel. And then, as I spin along these pretty Sussex lanes, I find myself thinking what a splendid place England is and how I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Lugged Stems

Whenever I take my Pegoretti out for a spin two thoughts always go through my head: a.) how incredibly lucky I am to possess such a bicycle and b.) the notion that I am pedalling down the street on a work of Italian fine art; a kinetic sculpture in Columbus Spirit tubing, a lovely lightweight steel drawn in Milan, joined with ornate lugwork, then brazed with silver in Dario Pegoretti’s workshop in Caldonazzo.

It really is a beautiful bicycle, and beautifully finished too, but of all the exquisite detailing on it, the thing that delights me most when I am spinning along the lanes is this lugged stem. I love fancy lugwork to start with and the stem is where I can see it and admire it even as I ride, a constant pleasing visual reminder of the exquisiteness of the bicycle as a whole.

But there’s something else too that it special. It completes the bike in a way that is all too rare these days. Ever since the threadless stem became the industry standard about ten or fifteen years ago, the stem has been the one feature that (to my mind anyway) consistently lets down overall look and tone of a hand-built bicycle – especially one with such classic styling as the Luigino.

Unlike the old-fashioned quill stem, which had a certain slender elegance, these new-fangled threadless ones just seem so artless and clumsy they way they grip the steerer tube like a fist and are clamped on with four sturdy bolts. Yes, I understand that threadless are meant to be lighter and stiffer than the old quill variety and that they make swapping out handlebars a doddle, but seldom is anything done to lighten this heavy, clenched fist tone at the front of the bike.

You can get away with it with on a modern racing frame, especially a compact frame, which tends to have more muscular and aggressive lines, but on a fine-boned Italian road bike that was designed to evoke an age, it just looks out of place, an anachronism. Pegoretti didn’t overlook this detail on the Luigino, which after all he designed as a tribute to the great Italian frame-builders of the 50s and 60s. The lugged threadless stem render the bicycle complete. It is an all-too-rare fusion of art and function, combining the qualities of a modern stem with the artistry and elegance of a bygone age. I wish there was more of this kind of thing.

The Magic Step

One of the pleasantest things in the world is to set off on a bicycle ride. It doesn’t have to be anywhere special. An early morning turn along the seafront will do, or even just dropping down to the shops to pick up a carton of milk or a newspaper or to run an errand in town. There is a kind of jauntiness to it, a cavalier spontaneity that has appealed to me since I was a child and which I have never outgrown: the way you can just pick up your machine, push off and go, the globe all yours for the trotting.

I particularly love that moment of departure when you sling yourself aboard, press down on the pedals and the landscape begins to shift around you. Balance, poise and self-reliance come together in a miracle of forward motion. You’re away. Moving under your own steam, bound for wherever your fancy takes you, free, clear and beholden to no one. There is almost aerial sense of liberation to it. Every road feels open to you and ripe with possibility. Whatever else may be going on in your life, here you are as in charge and in command as any ship’s captain putting out to sea.

A bicycle pedal is to me a magic step, an open invitation to a nicer, cleaner, simpler world. I can never see a bicycle glide by without wishing in some small way that I was aboard it.

Being Broad Minded on Tyres

As we all tend to do about ourselves, I like to think that I am a broad-minded chap. That may or may not be the case with the general run of things but when it comes to road bike tyres that’s God’s own truth; I am broad-minded. Not for me the super skinny racing tyres pumped to some astronomical rock-hard pressure. I like my road bike tyres broad – or relatively so, at any rate. I’ve got 28mm Panaracer Paselas on my lightweight road tourer and daringly (for me) skinny 25mm Continental GP Four Seasons on my Pegoretti – both of which I keep inflated to around 90-95psi.

I can never understand this fascination with ever-narrower tyres run at ever-more ludicrous pressures for riding on the roads – 23mm and 120psi-plus seems to be quite the norm amongst roadies of all ages and sizes and abilities according to the various treads on tyres and tyre pressures one reads in cycling forums these days. Some of these guys are apparently pretty big blokes too: sixteen, seventeen stone and riding lightweight rims and talking about investing in carbon-fibre seat-posts to dampen road buzz and continually trying out new makes and models of tyres to see if they can find one that wears better and suffers fewer punctures.

I just don’t get it. Easiest thing in the world would be to put on some wider tyres – 25s, or even 28s if they are feeling bold, throttle back a bit on the rocket pressure, and a lot of the road buzz and the puncture troubles will go away immediately. Wide tyres are simply more comfortable and more durable. Ah, yes, but of course comfort and durability aren’t what they are about. That’s for cyclo-tourists and old farts with beards and sandals and lifetime CTC memberships.

It’s performance they are after, or so they say, high performance, better cornering, less rolling resistance. Well, here too, they’d be better off going wide, as counter-intuitive as that might sound. Wider tyres roll faster and with less resistance than their narrower counterparts, while with tyre pressure the law of diminishing returns kicks in once you go above 100psi and anything above 110psi is counter-productive unless you are riding on a glassy smooth velodrome track. It’s true. Research by physicists, engineers, and the R&D departments of the various major tyre manufacturers show this to be so, improbable though it seems. It has to do with various and complex factors like contact area and material deformation within the tyres and the surface friction of the road itself. That hard fast lively sensation you like to imagine you feel when you’re riding on tyres pumped to 140psi is just you being thrown around by the lumps and bumps in the bitumen, sapping your forward momentum.