Monthly Archives: June 2012
We’ve all been there – those times when you’ve been distracted while tinkering with your bike and then you step back – ta-da! – and discover that while you’ve been humming along to the radio or sorting out the world’s ills or rehashing the brilliantly clever bit of repartee you should have said the other day but didn’t, you’ve managed to do something stunningly dunderheaded like re-installing your cranks so that they are now both pointing in the same direction. You feel like getting angry and busting someone in the nose, imagining a grinning leering puckish fate having a hearty laugh at your expense, but there’s no point, because you know damn well that you have only your own absent-minded self to blame and there is absolutely no satisfaction in self-recrimination.
My own favourite fettling comedy was one time a couple of years ago when I heard a lot of unpleasant crackling, grating noises coming from my front hub. And so I dragged out the tool box and the work stand, rolled up my shelves, spat on my hands and got stuck into the job of overhauling the hub. Hubs, I should add, are really not very hard to overhaul, particularly front hubs, and it wasn’t long before I had everything apart.
In looking over the bearings and races I couldn’t see anything wrong, certainly nothing that would account for all the rasping – but no matter. I cleaned out the races, repacked them with grease and some nice new stainless bearings, then reassembled the hub. An important part of overhauling a hub is making sure you have put the right tension, or load, on the bearings. It is something best done with a couple of cone wrenches. It’s a fiddly process, or it can be, if you don’t do it often. It took me about twenty minutes or so before I felt that I had the bearings running sweetly.
Rather pleased with myself for my forthright handling of this maintenance issue, I put the front wheel back on the bike and gave it a spin – only to be rewarded with an unpleasant yet familiar rasping sound. I removed the wheel and when to work once more with the cone wrenches, not quite understanding why the wheel should be running so roughly when it had turned so nicely in my hands but quite ready to believe that I had somehow missed something. I fiddled with it a while, and once again happy with the result, slipped the axle back into the drop-out, took the bike off the stand and when for a spin. I didn’t go ten yards before the rasping was back. A little alarmed now, I put the bike back on the stand an had yet another go with the cone wrenches – this time with the aid of Leonard Zinn’s handy maintenance guide Zinn and The Art of Road Bike Maintenance. I was now no longer quite so confident that I knew what I was doing. More fiddling, yet still no joy. The rasping was as bad as ever. Now I was getting a little worried. I’d followed Leonard Zinn’s illustrated guide to overhauling a hub and reloading the bearings to the letter and still I had this unpleasant noise.
Frowning, hands on hips and looking stern, I gave the whole front of the bike a thorough going over – the kind of going over I should have given it, say, an hour earlier before I started taking apart the hub. And in doing so I discovered a leathery dried leaf that had become caught up in a rivet on the underside of my mudguards. Red of face, I removed it then replaced the wheel, looking furtively around, grateful that no eyes were upon me. Sweet silence returned. I put away the tools a wiser man, recalling a hilarious riff on bicycle maintenance I’d read in Jerome K. Jerome’s cycling classic Three Men on The Bummel, published in 1900. That too had involved overhauling a hub that required no repair. It was one of the funniest ‘set pieces’ of cycling writing I’ve ever encountered.
For those who’ve never read the book I’ve excerpted the chapter here. I hope you enjoy it.
I have had experience of this “overhauling.” There was a man at Folkestone; I used to meet him on the Lees. He proposed one evening we should go for a long bicycle ride together on the following day, and I agreed. I got up early, for me; I made an effort, and was pleased with myself. He came half an hour late: I was waiting for him in the garden. It was a lovely day. He said:-
“That’s a good-looking machine of yours. How does it run?”
“Oh, like most of them!” I answered; “easily enough in the morning; goes a little stiffly after lunch.”
He caught hold of it by the front wheel and the fork and shook it violently.
I said: “Don’t do that; you’ll hurt it.”
I did not see why he should shake it; it had not done anything to him. Besides, if it wanted shaking, I was the proper person to shake it. I felt much as I should had he started whacking my dog.
He said: “This front wheel wobbles.”
I said: “It doesn’t if you don’t wobble it.” It didn’t wobble, as a matter of fact-nothing worth calling a wobble.
He said: “This is dangerous; have you got a screw-hammer?”
I ought to have been firm, but I thought that perhaps he really did know something about the business. I went to the tool shed to see what I could find. When I came back he was sitting on the ground with the front wheel between his legs. He was playing with it, twiddling it round between his fingers; the remnant of the machine was lying on the gravel path beside him.
He said: “Something has happened to this front wheel of yours.”
“It looks like it, doesn’t it?” I answered. But he was the sort of man that never understands satire.
He said: “It looks to me as if the bearings were all wrong.”
I said: “Don’t you trouble about it any more; you will make yourself tired. Let us put it back and get off.”
He said: “We may as well see what is the matter with it, now it is out.” He talked as though it had dropped out by accident.
Before I could stop him he had unscrewed something somewhere, and out rolled all over the path some dozen or so little balls.
“Catch ‘em!” he shouted; “catch ‘em! We mustn’t lose any of them.” He was quite excited about them.
We grovelled round for half an hour, and found sixteen. He said he hoped we had got them all, because, if not, it would make a serious difference to the machine. He said there was nothing you should be more careful about in taking a bicycle to pieces than seeing you did not lose any of the balls. He explained that you ought to count them as you took them out, and see that exactly the same number went back in each place. I promised, if ever I took a bicycle to pieces I would remember his advice.
I put the balls for safety in my hat, and I put my hat upon the doorstep. It was not a sensible thing to do, I admit. As a matter of fact, it was a silly thing to do. I am not as a rule addle-headed; his influence must have affected me.
He then said that while he was about it he would see to the chain for me, and at once began taking off the gear-case. I did try to persuade him from that. I told him what an experienced friend of mine once said to me solemnly:-
“If anything goes wrong with your gear-case, sell the machine and buy a new one; it comes cheaper.”
He said: “People talk like that who understand nothing about machines. Nothing is easier than taking off a gear-case.”
I had to confess he was right. In less than five minutes he had the gear-case in two pieces, lying on the path, and was grovelling for screws. He said it was always a mystery to him the way screws disappeared.
We were still looking for the screws when Ethelbertha came out. She seemed surprised to find us there; she said she thought we had started hours ago.
He said: “We shan’t be long now. I’m just helping your husband to overhaul this machine of his. It’s a good machine; but they all want going over occasionally.”
Ethelbertha said: “If you want to wash yourselves when you have done you might go into the back kitchen, if you don’t mind; the girls have just finished the bedrooms.”
She told me that if she met Kate they would probably go for a sail; but that in any case she would be back to lunch. I would have given a sovereign to be going with her. I was getting heartily sick of standing about watching this fool breaking up my bicycle.
Common sense continued to whisper to me: “Stop him, before he does any more mischief. You have a right to protect your own property from the ravages of a lunatic. Take him by the scruff of the neck, and kick him out of the gate!”
But I am weak when it comes to hurting other people’s feelings, and I let him muddle on.
He gave up looking for the rest of the screws. He said screws had a knack of turning up when you least expected them; and that now he would see to the chain. He tightened it till it would not move; next he loosened it until it was twice as loose as it was before. Then he said we had better think about getting the front wheel back into its place again.
I held the fork open, and he worried with the wheel. At the end of ten minutes I suggested he should hold the forks, and that I should handle the wheel; and we changed places. At the end of his first minute he dropped the machine, and took a short walk round the croquet lawn, with his hands pressed together between his thighs. He explained as he walked that the thing to be careful about was to avoid getting your fingers pinched between the forks and the spokes of the wheel. I replied I was convinced, from my own experience, that there was much truth in what he said. He wrapped himself up in a couple of dusters, and we commenced again. At length we did get the thing into position; and the moment it was in position he burst out laughing.
I said: “What’s the joke?”
He said: “Well, I am an ass!”
It was the first thing he had said that made me respect him. I asked him what had led him to the discovery.
He said: “We’ve forgotten the balls!”
I looked for my hat; it was lying topsy-turvy in the middle of the path, and Ethelbertha’s favourite hound was swallowing the balls as fast as he could pick them up.
“He will kill himself,” said Ebbson-I have never met him since that day, thank the Lord; but I think his name was Ebbson-”they are solid steel.”
I said: “I am not troubling about the dog. He has had a bootlace and a packet of needles already this week. Nature’s the best guide; puppies seem to require this kind of stimulant. What I am thinking about is my bicycle.”
He was of a cheerful disposition. He said: “Well, we must put back all we can find, and trust to Providence.”
We found eleven. We fixed six on one side and five on the other, and half an hour later the wheel was in its place again. It need hardly be added that it really did wobble now; a child might have noticed it. Ebbson said it would do for the present. He appeared to be getting a bit tired himself. If I had let him, he would, I believe, at this point have gone home. I was determined now, however, that he should stop and finish; I had abandoned all thoughts of a ride. My pride in the machine he had killed. My only interest lay now in seeing him scratch and bump and pinch himself. I revived his drooping spirits with a glass of beer and some judicious praise. I said:
“Watching you do this is of real use to me. It is not only your skill and dexterity that fascinates me, it is your cheery confidence in yourself, your inexplicable hopefulness, that does me good.”
Thus encouraged, he set to work to refix the gear-case. He stood the bicycle against the house, and worked from the off side. Then he stood it against a tree, and worked from the near side. Then I held it for him, while he lay on the ground with his head between the wheels, and worked at it from below, and dropped oil upon himself. Then he took it away from me, and doubled himself across it like a pack-saddle, till he lost his balance and slid over on to his head. Three times he said:
“Thank Heaven, that’s right at last!”
And twice he said:
“No, I’m damned if it is after all!”
What he said the third time I try to forget.
Then he lost his temper and tried bullying the thing. The bicycle, I was glad to see, showed spirit; and the subsequent proceedings degenerated into little else than a rough-and-tumble fight between him and the machine. One moment the bicycle would be on the gravel path, and he on top of it; the next, the position would be reversed-he on the gravel path, the bicycle on him. Now he would be standing flushed with victory, the bicycle firmly fixed between his legs. But his triumph would be short-lived. By a sudden, quick movement it would free itself, and, turning upon him, hit him sharply over the head with one of its handles.
At a quarter to one, dirty and dishevelled, cut and breeding, he said: “I think that will do;” and rose and wiped his brow.
The bicycle looked as if it also had had enough of it. Which had received most punishment it would have been difficult to say. I took him into the back kitchen, where, so far as was possible without soda and proper tools, he cleaned himself, and sent him home.
The bicycle I put into a cab and took round to the nearest repairing shop. The foreman of the works came up and looked at it.
“What do you want me to do with that?” said he.
“I want you,” I said, “so far as is possible, to restore it.”
“It’s a bit far gone,” said he; “but I’ll do my best.”
He did his best, which came to two pounds ten. But it was never the same machine again; and at the end of the season I left it in an agent’s hands to sell. I wished to deceive nobody; I instructed the man to advertise it as a last year’s machine. The agent advised me not to mention any date. He said:
“In this business it isn’t a question of what is true and what isn’t; it’s a question of what you can get people to believe. Now, between you and me, it don’t look like a last year’s machine; so far as looks are concerned, it might be a ten-year old. We’ll say nothing about date; we’ll just get what we can.”
I left the matter to him, and he got me five pounds, which he said was more than he had expected.
My apologies to those who have been following this blog – or trying to – over the past ten days. Although I like to try to post daily (and ride daily, too!), my travel schedule this month has been such that I have not been able to. Yesterday was another such day – a day full of airports and airplanes, much waiting and long transfers, and after last week’s heat wave over the Ohio River valley, this week I am waking up beneath cool grey skies, high above the Arctic Circle in a place that looks as though it would be delightful to explore by bicycle. Alas, I have no bicycle at my disposal. I do have work-related responsibilities, though, some of which will take me to sea for a couple of days in a small boat, possibly starting this afternoon. I doubt very much – in fact I know – there will be no WIFI. I will try to post where and when I can while I am up here and in any event should be home again, and back in the saddle, from the 5th of July.
Today’s post is going to be about romancing the trail and by that I don’t mean the lure of the open road; I mean the trail on your bicycle. Trail, if you haven’t heard the term before, is an aspect of bicycle frame geometry and refers specifically to the horizontal distance between the steering axis and the point where the front wheel touches the ground (see the diagram inside).
A bicycle’s ‘trail’ is one of the determining factors in how a bicycle handles. More trail means statelier handling while less trail means twitchier handling. The vast majority of bicycles nowadays, be they racers or tourers or hybrids, have what is called mid-trail – typically between 55 and 60mm – a happy compromise between stability and sporty handling.
But this wasn’t always so. There was a time back in the 1940s and 50s when frame-builders, particularly the builders of high-end French touring bicycles, designed their frames with low-trail geometry, typically less than 50mm of trail and often much less, in part because post-war roads were in very poor condition, and the twitchier handling qualities of low-trail geometry were deemed better suited to dodging potholes, especially if you were carrying luggage on the front rack or handlebars of your bike. As time passed and roads became smoother and bicycles sleeker and faster, low-trail geometry pretty much faded from the scene.
Lately though it has been enjoying something of a renaissance, mainly in America, where the old-style French randonneuring bicycle and the sunny post-war romance associated with them has been making a fashionable comeback amongst certain artisan frame builders and self-proclaimed cyclist cognoscenti. Proponents of this newly revived old-school geometry claim the post-war French were sounding the right gong all along and that the handling qualities of classic low-trail bicycles are far, far superior to the supposedly bland mid-trail varieties being turned out for the untutored masses today. Indeed in some quarters of the American blogosphere the miracle of low-trail geometry is spruiked with an almost evangelical zeal, being credited with everything from better handling in crosswinds to promoting world peace and improving the overall quality of life as we know it – okay, well, maybe not quite that far, but you get the idea; low trail is nine ways to the jack better than anything you’ve ever seen, felt or imagined as far as bicycle handling goes.
Now, I am something of a romantic too when it comes to cycling and bicycles and the good old days – after all here I am riding around on lugged-steel, with old-style toeclip pedals, and classic French touring cranks but there is something about all this starry-eyed proselytizing passion about ‘low trail geometry’ that gets my journalistic hackles, doubts and suspicions up.
I suppose you could say that in some degree I have an interest here since all of my bicycles have 57mm of trail and could therefore be placed firmly in the ‘stodgy’ or as one blog commentator I read put it, ‘failed’, mid-trail geometry. How odd it is though that all of my bicycles handle beautifully – and all of them were built by frame-builders famous (and in one case world famous) for the sweet handling of their bicycles.
Having grown curious about all this ‘low trail’ business, I pedalled over to Pevensey to see Mark Reilly, the highly respected master frame builder at Enigma who built my new tourer, and I asked him about it. Was there anything to this American fascination for low-trail and the old-style French school of building? Is it really better? Why did he build my bicycle – which handles beautifully as I said earlier – with 57mm of trail?
He shrugged. “Trail is merely a product of head tube angle and fork rake. It is what it is. Trying to make the number come out a certain way is kind of a waste of time, really. When I build a frame I know how I want it to handle, and that will mean a certain head-tube angle and fork rake – what the resulting figure for trail is doesn’t really concern me. The handling does. There is a reason a lot of bicycles have trail figures in the mid-50s to low-60s – it works, and it works well. Builders have been experimenting with geometry for a long time and we just keep coming back to this nice sweet spot which gives you about 57m of trail.”
I had pretty much the same response from Dario Pegoretti when I contacted him and asked about the 57mm of trail on the sweet handling Luigino he’d built for me. He was well aware of the recent American interest in low trail geometry and while he conceded he was no expert on the old-school French-style frame geometry, he doubted very much you would ever see a low-trail bicycle being ridden in a modern Tour de France – an area in which he does have a lot of expertise, having built for most of the world’s top Tour riders back in the 1990s (and, if the rumour mill is to be believed, built the bicycles used by Miguel Indurain for all five of his Tour de France victories)
“Probably this kind of (low trail) geometry may work well for a certain type of exercise such as Randonneur or if there is weight on the handlebar, like bags,” he replied in an e-mail note. “I believe that it is not suitable for a use as a road bike, all that we have learn from the past and the handling and balancing theory of the frame lead us in other directions.”
“I believe that this kind of geometry is simply impractical and does not have any chance racing in a Tour de France. Probably if you use the bike to move at 15 to 20 km per hour, can work well, at those speeds maybe better than a classic road bike, but it is not the correct instrument to use in a serious modern road race.”
My thoughts and suspicions exactly, but all the same I am intrigued by the notion of these old-school designs and will explore it further. I suspect though that Dario Pegoretti hit the nail on the head when he concluded in his e-mail: “Maybe that kind of (old-school, low-trail) bicycle is more romantic and charming than a modern bike. Also, to read a novel by candlelight is romantic, but after three pages you may be tired and want to turn on the electric light.”
Today marks the June solstice, that day when the Earth has tilted far enough forward on its axis so that the sun’s noon rays fall vertically on the Tropic of Cancer. For those of us in the northern hemisphere it is the longest day of the year and for those of us of the cycling persuasion there can be no better way to mark the occasion than to go for a long, landmark bike ride; make use of all that lovely early morning or late evening daylight.
Alas, I am in no position to do so this year, being nearly five thousand miles away from my beloved bicycles and on the outskirts of Cincinnati, Ohio where I am spending several dawn-to-dusk days this week working on what is said to be the most elaborate single-picture photo-shoot in National Geographic’s long and colourful history (I’ll leave you to ponder that one; it has nothing to do with the solstice).
As much fun as all this has been, and continues to be, there is a part of me that aches to be in the saddle and spinning down country roads on such long summer days as this, notwithstanding the sultry 90F heat that is prevailing over the Ohio River Valley this week. The hazy blue skies and hard summer greens on the trees and in the meadows, and even more, the fireflies coming out in the warm, heat-lightning dusk reminds me of long-ago summer holidays and the boyhood freedoms that went with them – freedoms that found their truest expression in being aboard a bicycle and going somewhere, or nowhere at all, just riding.
Long bicycle rides are not nearly as hard as they are often made out to be, or as difficult and challenging as we build them up in our minds. Fifty miles, or sixty-two (the metric century) or even the magic hundred, the full Imperial century, are really just a matter of time in the saddle – that is, if what you are after is simply to roam the countryside and find yourself a bit of open-road freedom.
To be sure, racing, training, trying to distinguish yourself on Strava, or riding in the company of others whose pace may not suit your own changes the dynamic somewhat, but if all you have in mind is the idea that you would like to log such a landmark ride (either in your own company and at least at your own leisured pace) it is very doable. For this you really don’t need to train, other than to accustom your rear-end to being on a bicycle saddle for x-number of hours. If you can ride thirty, you can ride sixty or a hundred; just be willing to take your time and treat the outing as a tour of the countryside rather than a physical endeavour. Forget the imagined rules of the game and the censorious looks of others; its no sin to stop and rest and admire the view, have a cappuccino or a beer, or take a stroll along the beach en route. It’s your ride, nobody else’s. Enjoy yourself. The miles will take care of themselves. And you can come home pleasantly weary and sunburnt with your first fifty or century under your belt, revelling in your newly won freedom and toying with the idea of where you might ride next.
One of the things I like about air travel these days – just about the only thing I like, I might say – is that it does give you a few undisturbed guilt-free hours during which you can catch up on your reading. Indeed there’s not much else to do while you’re hanging all that air time, unless of course you fancy watching the Adam Sandler movie marathon the airlines is putting on for edification and enjoyment. I don’t, and so on the long hop across the Atlantic I amused myself with The Hour, a delightfully written book about one man’s attempt to break what is arguably the toughest endurance record in world sport – The Hour cycling record.
The man – and the author of the book – is Michael Hutchinson, a witty and literate cyclist who is also a stalwart of the secretive early-morning world of British open-road time trialling. From the publicist’s description of the book, which emphasised the humorous and self-deprecating style of the writing, I formed the idea that Hutchinson was a bit of an Everyman, taking a light-hearted tilt at the Hour. But this isn’t so, far from it. As the pages flew by it became apparent, for all his self-deprecating wit, that this very modest and very gifted man had very real grounds for believing he could do it.
The challenge itself is fairly straightforward: how far can you ride a bicycle in one hour? The feat itself is far, far harder. Eddie Merckx, who held the record for 12 years (at 30.882 miles) described it later as the toughest ride of his life. And he is a man who knows a thing or two about hanging tough and riding hard. To have a crack at it you need to be more than supremely fit. You also need to design and create for yourself a particularly speedy track bicycle, be willing to spend all your savings on the quest and then be able to exercise an almost Zen-like patience in dealing with the bureaucratic and interfering officialdom of the Union Cycliste Internationale (the UCI) which oversees these attempts.
Hutchinson possesses all of these things and a delightful narrative style to boot, skilfully weaving his owns personal trials and tribulations in pursuit of The Hour with the history of the record itself, the greats who have attempted it and those who shied away, a technical yet highly accessible discussion of bicycle design and deals humorously with those officious Inspector Clouseus of the UCI. This is a fun read, and it would be a fun read whether or not you are into cycling, or racing or sporting records. I couldn’t care less about racing, but Hutchinson’s urbane and witty account certainly made the empty hours in seat 25-D speed by