Monthly Archives: June 2012

Great Fettling Foul Ups

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.

The Morality of Cycling

I see BBC 4 Radio aired a program earlier this week called Thinking Allowed in which the ‘morality of cycling’ was given a thorough going over by the panel. At the heart of the discussion was a recent paper by sociologist Judith Green who explores the question of whether cyclists believe they are, by their actions, inherently morally superior to motorists. Her premise is that by choosing to ride bicycles instead of cars or public transport cyclists are making philosophical, ecological and political statements and that by their growing weight of numbers cyclists have turned the act of driving a car into, as one listener put it, ‘the new smoking’.

And here I’ve been thinking all along that I was going out on the roads each morning because I liked riding my bike. I never considered the moral dimensions. Certainly, a splendid case can be made that cycling is good for the environment, reduces our carbon footprint, liberates us from the clutches of Big Oil, and fights the Western world’s growing traffic and obesity problems, but to be honest that is not why I – and I’ll bet many others – are out there riding our bicycles. We ride because it’s fun. Our bicycles take us places: to work, to the shops, to places in our imaginations we can’t otherwise access by sitting still.

Sure, we’re happy to accept the physical, financial and eco benefits that come with it – and why not? – but the truth is those are merely corollaries to the main event: the sheer giddy thrill of spin ing along a city street or country lane under your own steam, setting your own speed, steering your own course, free, clear and beholden to no one. To the extent that this heady stew of emotions can be poured into a political mould, I suppose I’d say they fit the libertarian model as well as any. As a libertarian I’m inclined to a live-and-let-live philosophy; laissez faire. I do not view my bicycle saddle as a judgement seat, nor do I claim any moral superiority by virtue of being a cyclist or feel the least desire to proselytize. No doubt there is a class of cyclists out there who do – it takes all kinds to make a world – but I suspect the vast majority of us are out on our bikes for the sheer glorious hell of it. As simple as that. Morality has nothing to do with it.

Green does make a valid point about the perceptions of cyclists, though. Environmentalism is the religion of the 21st century, and it is very High Church. Politicians might not be willing to set aside much hard cash for cycling initiatives, but they will generally give such notions plenty of lip service and air play as a not too inconvenient way of establishing their green credentials Motorists, on the other hand, are an easy target, a beleaguered majority, treated as eco-pariahs and cash cows and wheedled out of huge annual sums in much the same way the mediaeval Catholic church used to wring penance money out of sinners – in this case as a sort of plenary indulgence for their ‘dirty’ yet perfectly legal gasoline habit. Smokers would certainly understand.

And as smokers can attest, having been banished to purdahs outside their office buildings, this sort of thing isn’t good for anyone’s self image. What must make it all the more galling for motorists is the collective memory  that the automobile was supposed to be the vehicle of glorious independence. Perhaps it was back in the halcyon days of the 1950s, when families went on long Sunday afternoon drives and took their holidays by the seaside, but not any more. Not for a long time. Nowadays a car has become a kind of costly headache, a burdensome necessity in an over-crowded, harried, gridlocked age. The fun has long gone, the open-road freedom undelivered. Anyone who bought into that illusion is bound to feel a bit of a mug, as though they’d been sold a bill of goods.

In that context what could be more natural than to resent the sight of a cyclist spinning up the gridlocked streets, threading his (or her) way through the jams, easy as you please, enjoying the sweet summery freedoms of youth and not paying a red cent for the privilege. How easy it must be to imagine a smug smile and an odour of sanctimony. Indeed, it would be hard not to, especially when, as a counterpoint, media discussions of cycling as transport are all too often centred around it’s being the clean, green, eco-worthy alternative – the thing right-thinking people ought to be doing. As we all know there are few phrases in the English language better able to get people’s backs up than ‘you should’ and ‘you ought’.

Small wonder we’re all at sixes and sevens. It would be nice to clear the air; to end all this idle chattering about moral superiority and ethical high ground, and for those who wish to promote cycling to do so on the grounds that is a hell of a lot of fun and joyously liberating, rather than focussing on its eco-worthiness and religiosity.

Freedoms and Responsibilities

There was a time when we were kids, back in 1960s America, when my brother and I both passionately wanted speedometers to put on our Stingray bicycles. Our mother was highly resistant to the idea, worried that we would become too preoccupied with going fast and hitting new speed records to pay full attention to where we were going and what else was on the road. After much wheedling, though, we managed to convince her that we would use our speedometers responsibly and so we were allowed to have them.

And we did use them responsibly – or at least responsibly enough. We never crashed because of them, or became overly fixated on trying to best our previous bests, but simply enjoyed them for what they were. In fact, as I recall, after the initial novelty of seeing how fast we could go wore off, we became more interested in the odometer function on the gadget, and seeing how many miles we could rack up.

I found myself recalling our old speedometers and our mother’s concerns this past week when I read that Strava, the on-line GPS tracking service used by many runners and cyclists, is being sued (in America) by the family of a cyclist who was killed while hurtling down a hill and in pursuit of a new best time on his route. While this is a tragedy for the cyclist, and those who loved him, for the life of me I cannot fathom how it could possibly be Strava’s fault.

Strava, if you’re not familiar with the service, allows registered users (it’s free) to post their GPS-tracked times over their favourite route or course, whether it’s their morning commute or a favourite Sunday morning loop. These posted times then become a kind of open invitation to other users to try to beat the poster over the same course. Apparently the deceased in this instance had recently had his time bested by another rider and was so keen to regain top-billing he ran into a car at the bottom of a long, fast descent.

Lawyers for the deceased’s family claim that Strava had a duty of care and noted that company representatives had done been out there putting out cones on the road (they actually said this) and making certain this man’s route was as safe as possible – although how Strava was supposed to be doing all this for each of their many thousands of registered users around the globe remains unclear and unspecified. It seems ludicrous even to suggest it, as it would be to suggest that the Schwinn Company, makers of our old speedometers, should have been out there surveying the streets around our house. Despite the obviousness of this, I’m sure a long and costly legal tussle will ensue and, given the peculiarities of the American legal system, Strava will probably eventually have to cough up some money to make all this go away. It will raise insurance premiums all around and ensure that yet another layer of ludicrous precaution will lard our everyday lives. To my cycling is all about freedom – to set your own speed, to steer your own course. But with that freedom comes responsibility. And that’s a good thing. That responsibility is what gives the freedom its meaning and savour.

Out of Office

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.

Romancing The Trail

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.”

The Value of Smiles

An Air France Route Map from 1947

A while ago I wrote a post about the merits of greeting fellow cyclists (and others!) on the road, saying hello in passing, and remarked on how such simple open-handed acts of courtesy and friendliness can set the tone for a ride, whether you are the giver or the recipient. One of my fondest memories of cycling along the River Canche, in northern France, from Montreuil-sur-Mer to Hesdin, many years ago and passing through all these little villages and hamlets and how everybody – cyclist or pedestrian – all seemed to be saying Bonjour! to each other in a light-hearted sing-song manner. It not only set a tone for the day, but my very memories of cycling in France. To this day, twelve years later, whenever I hear anyone saying Bonjour I still think of that cool grey summery morning along the Canche and smile.

And so it may be with Cincinnati, although in this case I was not on my bicycle but coming through the security cordon in the Cincinnati airport. Usually I loathe going through security; it is perhaps the single worst aspect of flying in my book, and I can feel myself getting tense and irritated even on my way to the airport, my blood pressure already rising to resentful-over-seething at the thought of the various indignities one is subjected to in order to be able to catch a plane these days.

Unlike other airports I have travelled through, however, the security folks at Cincinnati were friendly – not merely courteous, which frankly you have a right to expect, but actually friendly, in a kind of down-home fashion. This is not to say they were slack; far from it. Like all forms of security in the United States, security here was strict and rigorous – as thorough as anywhere I have ever been, in fact. But it was delivered in a much different and far more palatable manner, with greetings, hellos and smiles – so strikingly unlike the security cordon at Heathrow where the personnel seem to feel that aggression and running a tight ship are the same thing.

Funnily enough, In terms of creating a sense of security, I felt far more secure going through the amiable barriers in Cincinnati than anyplace else I’ve been; these guys (and women) were clearly comfortable enough in their professionalism not to feel a need to be all jumped up and aggressive. They knew what they were doing, and you knew they knew it, but they weren’t rubbing anyone’s nose in it. You felt quite willing to do what they asked, and do it with a smile, simply because they asked so politely and with such good humour – you would have to be a complete dill to get cross or angry with them. This sort of thing makes a big difference. I know it did in my case because, as things panned out I had to go through their security barrier twice – my United flight ended up being cancelled and I had to spend an extra night in Cincinnati, and come back and try again the next morning. And for the first time in a long time I found myself regarding the airport security rigmaroles with good-natured tolerance. Their amiability was infectious.

Indeed in this instance security turned out to be the nicest part of the flight home. United re-routed me through Chicago where I caught an American Airlines flight to Heathrow, riding on an old pterodactyl of a 767 which must have been one of the first off the production line. It was well-used to say the least, had one functioning toilet for the whole economy section, and for in-flight entertainment showed a single movie for the whole cabin on big televisions, just like the good/bad old days before seatback screens and seventy channels; I guess we were supposed to feel grateful they were at least showing us Talkies. And eight hours later, late at night, descending into the surly, grubby Third World chaos of Heathrow Terminal Three.

Long Days, Long Rides

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.

The Hour

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

Innocence Abroad

In the interests of earning a living I’ve had to set aside my bicycle for a week and hop over to the other side of the Atlantic. So now here I am, late at night (my time) watching a ball game in a nice hotel room in Washington DC, marvelling that I should be back in the United States again after so many years – seven, I think, since I was here last. I was born in the US and grew up here, but I left when I was twenty-three, more than thirty years ago, and have only come ‘home’ so to speak at sporadic intervals ever since.

A long-time expatriate like me is kind of like a time traveller when he returns to his homeland – everything is familiar, but in a way that makes me think of looking through the wrong end of a telescope. My memories of living here, actually living here as opposed to dropping in for a few days, are mainly from the Seventies or earlier. I left around the time Ronald Reagan was just settling into the White House. That’s a lot of water under the bridge.

I long ago became an Australian citizen, but I never gave up my US citizenship and so I am obliged to travel here on the shiny US passport that I have maintained over the years but never use. The last, and indeed only other, stamps in it are from 2005, not long after I last renewed it. As I flipped through its crisp blank pages, one after the other, while I shuffled forward in the US Citizens’ queue at Dulles Airport immigration, I couldn’t help but feel in a way in some way as though I were travelling under false colours.

It took me a long time to reconcile myself to living abroad. I was fifteen years in Australia before it finally became ‘home’ and then only after I deliberately set out to try to make it so by heading out bush on my bicycle. Nine months and 10,000 miles later, after an immersion in the landscape that only a bicycle can give you (see here),  I finally came to love and understand a country that had somehow remained aloof to me in the bland suburban existence I had been living.

Funnily enough it was while I was travelling around Australia, in Perth, in fact, that I met the English girl who would become my wife, and the reason that I moved away and now find myself living here in Sussex. Here too it has been my bicycle that has helped to make the new place feel homey. Maybe not in quite such dramatic fashion as the Australian odyssey, but all the same I’ve logged many thousands of miles of roaming the leafy country lanes of Sussex and Kent, tooled along many a faded old English seaside promenade, done the odd lyrical tour through Wales, along Hadrian’s Wall, around Yorkshire, and Orkney and once rode the whole length of Britain, from Land’s End to John O’Groats. It has all added up to a kind of intimacy with the land and landscape that has made England a comfortably familiar place to live – if not quite home in the Australian sense or that of America, whatever that might be to me these days.

Whatever it is, I like being here. I like watching the ball game, Yankees versus the Braves, hearing the sportscasters’ American accents. While I am here I will do all the old familiar things I’ve always done over the years whenever I come back, touching base with some of my favourite old American touchstones, stuff I can never really do anywhere else without it’s being out of that raffish American context.

I’ll buy myself up-to-date newsstand copies of The New Yorker, Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly; I’ll have French toast for breakfast with real Vermont maple syrup, drink a root beer float – a Black Cow we used to call them – and look over the once-familiar candy shelves, absorbing those old American confectionary brand names and all the memories they revive, buy myself a few rolls of Neccos and a Hershey’s bar or three, enjoy the spending of the familiar-yet-strange American greenbacks (for they’ve changed the designs since I moved away. I am hopeless out of date here and I know it. A part of me would love to come back some day and go for a long American bicycle journey – rediscover the old homeland, and a part of my is rather intimidated by the prospect. Do I really want to tinker with the old memories that way? Would I find something I lost, or lose something pleasant I’ve carried around inside my head for thirty-odd years?

Other People’s Bicycles

I like looking at other people’s bicycles. It’s the writer in me. Like all writers I have an abiding curiosity about the world around me and the people in it and being a cyclist as well as a writer I suppose it’s only natural that I should take a heightened interest in their bicycles as well..

All their bicycles. They don’t have to be high-end carbon or bespoke steel to draw my eye. Sure, such a bicycle might be intriguing to look at, and revealing of its owner, but so is, say, an obviously much-used folding bike of a commuter stepping on the train amongst the evening crowds at London Bridge station, or the battered old Peugeot ten-speed I saw the other day with down-tube shifters and toe-clip pedals being pushed along the railway platform at Charing Cross by a middle-aged lady who had a bag of groceries dangling off the handlebars and an empty threadbare saddlebag hanging limply from the rear rack.

Our bicycles tell stories. As an inveterate people-watcher, and one with a better than average knowledge of bicycles, brands and components, I find myself seeking out the telling details of the bicycles and riders I see and then building up my own picture of who they are and their relationship with their bicycles. As with all forms of people watching, though, you seldom really find out how close (or not) you are to the truth, but the other day when I was feeling very Sherlock Holmes and spied a tall blond man standing beside a Trek hybrid with butterfly bars, a map holder, and a pair very worn nylon panniers front and back, together with a few other assorted details that spoke to me, I couldn’t resist testing out my hypothesis. “You’re from Holland aren’t you?” I asked.

His face brightened. “How could you tell?”

“Your bike.”

Puzzled, he cast his eyes over his machine. “But it’s not a Dutch bike.”

“No, but it is set up the way the way a Dutch person would have it.”

He laughed at that and we talked bicycles and touring for the next few minutes before he pushed on. It might have been a lucky guess on my part – it probably was – but making that guess and getting it right sure put a smile on my face.