Tag Archives: accessories

Foxes and Hounds

Being late on the scene, as ever, in the world of fashion and pop culture it should come as no surprise that I discovered this fox-and-hounds photo-shoot magazine advertisement for Brooks saddles only yesterday. It was shot last year by photographer Frank Herholdt in Burnham Beeches in Buckinghamshire, a beautiful piece of ancient woodland where Robin Hood and parts of some of the Harry Potter films were shot. According to a making-of video (here) the shoot took more than a month to plan and involved a team of assistants, stylists, lighting technicians, two models, a smoke machine, a pack of hounds and a three-year-old tamed female fox named Sorrel.

The idea was to convey a sense of Englishness and upper class tradition but with a raffish modern twist, as the two very proper English cyclists (who somehow, and totally illogically, happen to have been pedalling their road bikes through a pathless ancient wood) dismount and (very properly) rescue a fox from a pursuing pack of hounds. It is a whimsical scene and very well photographed, but taken with Brook’s expanding line of incredibly expensive tweedy, shooting-estate style cycling apparel it does leave you kind of wondering what is going on in the minds of the marketing guys there, where they see Brooks in the market these days and who they think the next generation of Brooks saddle users are going to be.

Among their offerings now is the Elder Street cycling jacket made of ‘fine water-repellent Fox Brothers tweed’, created by John Boultbee & Son and named after the street where bespoke tailor Timothy Everest has his atelier. Such a jacket, we are told, is a staple of every British wardrobe, but at nearly £600 I am afraid it will be a while before it becomes a staple in mine (but then again, of course, I am not British so perhaps it doesn’t matter).

Six hundred quid for the blazer though is a mere snip compared with Brook’s Gentleman’s Criterion Cycling Jacket, designed by Timothy Everest himself. This is a trenchcoat style affair, made of fine Ventile cotton and lined with fox tweed, and cut for a cyclist’s use and can be had for a mere £801.20. A ladies version is available for the same price.

For those caught out in a sudden shower there is always the Oxford rain cape, made by John Boultbee & Son and an absolute steal for a throwaway £184.

Throw in the £400 Barbican leather shoulder bag, and a £330 Islington rucksack and a Cornwall handlebar bag at £295 (and which weight 1700 grams!) and you are starting to talk some real money, at least to those of us among the great unwashed. And you begin to wonder if somebody at Brooks isn’t losing sight of the forest for the trees. Who is buying this stuff? Perhaps the astonished look on the fox’s face isn’t purely due to the approach of the hounds.

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The run of pea soup fogs along the coast this week has made me grateful for the powerful German-made headlamp I have on my bicycle – a two-year-old Lupine Betty 7 that can throw out as much as 1850 lumens on its high-beam setting. It was considered an absurdly bright light when I bought it, and for which I paid damned good money. German engineering doesn’t come cheap. And up to a few years ago, if you wanted a headlamp powerful enough to see by on darkened country lanes you had to be prepared to pay.

Since then though, and thanks to some sweeping advances in LED technology, the market has been awash with cheap, insanely bright lights from China and the Far East, some of them throwing out a claimed 3000+ lumens and available by mail order for a fraction of the price I paid for my Lupine Betty. A powerful headlight can be had these days for as little as £30.

I am not really quite sure what to make of all this. I have absolutely no buyer’s remorse over the several hundred pounds I spent on my Lupine headlamp. The build quality, reliability, burn times, light spread and colour are absolutely superb. The lamp itself is small, lightweight and supremely easy to put on and take off the handlebars. How the performance of my costly light would stack up against some of the cheap Far Eastern imports – most particularly the Magicshines, whose name keeps popping up in internet forums – I can only guess, not being inclined to go out and spend the money to see.

My sense is that I would notice the difference straight away, most particularly in build quality and solidity of feel. And probably, over time, at least judging by the reviews I have read, I’d notice a difference in durability and reliability as well. They do seem to have a reputation for failing and fizzling, and requiring replacement every couple of years. As for sheer brightness, well, I suspect both my Lupine and the Magicshine would be able to raise a sparkle on a cat’s eye a thousand metres away whatever their stated lumen output – and both would be handy to have on your handlebars on such mornings as these.

So which is the better deal? Are brightness, cheapness and disposability the ultimate determining factors? I don’t know. I like having nice things. I like being able to keep and use them for years, and I like their pleasing heft in my hand when I pick them up. It is like that solid, reassuring ker-chunk of a door on a well-made automobile. On the other hand I can appreciate a bargain as well as the next man, and like the fact that in 2012 powerful headlamps can be had for a song, unlike the bad old days when I first took to commuting twenty years ago. What’s more, the availability of cheap bright headlamps is vital if the bicycle is ever to fill its potential as a viable year-round means of transport. For my part I have certainly noticed the difference in the past couple of years. Although I bemoan the number of Darwin Award-candidates who go riding around on foggy nights with no lights or reflectives at all, I have equally seen a lot more cyclists with usefully bright headlamps mounted on their bars. And that can only be a good thing.

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A Kind Word For Mudguards

Perhaps it’s just me but I’ve never had the least objection to having mudguards on my bicycle. In fact, I rather like the look of them. Having them there speaks of purpose and preparation and the fact that your bicycle represents to you a genuine vehicle, a means of transportation as opposed to a piece of sporting equipment, ready for use in all winds and weathers, and able to take you wherever you want to go.

I don’t have mudguards on my Pegoretti – that’s true – but then that’s a different case; I’ve never regarded the Pegoretti as transportation but a delightful bit of escapism on fine spring mornings when the hills of the Sussex weald beckon. All my other bicycles, however, going back thirty years at least, have all had mudguards.

Aside from rounding out the open road aesthetics of a tourer, mudguards (or fenders if you’re an American) are an extremely practical accessory and not just for keeping slush and grit off yourself, and anyone else who might be riding behind you. They protect your bicycle. All that yucky puddle water that gets flicked up by your tyres as you roll down a wet street can make a mess of your drive train. It is gritty and dirty, contaminated by salt and diesel. And once it gets flicked onto your chain your pedalling action will ensure that it gets worked right into the bushings and spread around the whole system.

It needn’t happen; a set of mudguards can solve that problem. To be sure, not every bike is designed to take mudguards – the tyre clearances on road bikes can be especially tight if you are trying to fit mudguards in there too, but these days there are plenty of options designed to work around all that. Crud Road Racers (rrp £29.99) are one option that immediately spring to mind. SKS are another. German made and unbreakable, they are the Rolls Royce of mudguards and come in a wide range of fittings to suit all kinds of bikes. I have had a pair of full-length SKS Chromoplastics (their flagship model; rrp £32.99) on my Thorn eXp tourer/winter bike for thirteen years now and although they are badly worn by now and look like hell, they are still functional.

Another option, costlier but more stylish, are the stainless steel mudguards from Gilles Berthoud. These ooze quality (at a price rrp €38.90) and better still can be fitted with an optional Gilles Berthoud oil-impregnated leather flap (rrp €19.20) that is extremely effective in keeping anything out of your drive train (alas, you cannot use these handsome sturdy leather flaps with other brands of mudguards; they fit only Gilles Berthoud mudguards) To be sure, they are a luxury, one I pursued when I specced out my bespoke randonneur. I have not regretted it. For a special bike they are a great fusion of style and functionality. You can get even fancier ones. For carbon fibre aficionados and weight weenies, Gilles Berthoud even make (or at least they did make) a lovely set of carbon fibre mudguards as well. I cannot find them at present appear on Gilles Berthoud’s website, so perhaps they’ve stopped making them, but I still see them listed in America for a princely $US289.

An expensive indulgence, these latter ones perhaps, but if you’re going to ride your bike through the winter, or regularly in the rain, the savings in drive train wear make mudguards a worthwhile investment – and once you learn to see the beauty, you’ll see they add character and style as well.

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Lanterns Rouge

Bexhill seafront at Sunrise. Thorn eXp with Cateye 1100 – its side mounted LEDs give good broadside visibility

Now that October is with us and the hours of daylight are seriously on the wane it pays to be thinking hard about visibility and making certain you’re seen by the motorists whooshing up around and behind you and one great – nay, essential – way of doing that is to fix some sort of hard, bright attention-getting beacon to the rear of your bicycle; your own Lantern Rouge so to speak, maybe even more than one depending on where you ride and how inattentive the drivers seem to be in your neck of the woods.

There are scores of inexpensive-yet-dazzling LED taillights available on the market at the moment, in every size and shape, and the marketing bumf suggests they offer almost talismanic protection from being clipped by a passing vehicle. All of them, I suspect, work reasonably well and any of them would be better than nothing. In this post I am going to take a comparative look at four I have been using, to wit: the Cateye 1100, the Blackburn Mars-3.0, the Blackburn Mars-4.0 and the Smart one-half watt rear flasher.

I’ll start off by saying I have no real complaints about any of them. All are bright and reliable, reasonably economical of batteries and the fact that after thousands of miles of dark and twilight riding I am sitting here writing a review of these lights is circumstantial evidence that they seem to work – at least to the extent that I have not yet been run over.

My oldest and most hard-bitten light is the Cateye 1100 which sits on my Thorn eXp expedition tourer/winter bike. I have had it for several years now and it replaces an earlier Cateye 1000 of similar design but with less slightly less dazzling LEDs. This is one big chunky light, with two rows of four rear-facing LEDs and two additional LEDs, one each to port and starboard, for enhanced side visibility, making a total of ten LEDs in all. It  is seriously bright.

Riding along Bexhill seafront at dawn on Thorn eXp with Cateye 1100

It has four settings: three different flash modes (flashing, random, side-to-side) and constant-beam. What is nice about this light is that each of the rear-facing rows of LEDs has an independent setting; in other words you can have one row of LEDs doing some kind of flashing number, while the row below it stays on solid beam. Or have both doing different clashing and thus eye-catching flash sequences, whatever you like.

It runs on AA batteries with a claimed run time of 50 hours in constant beam and 100 hours in any of the flash sequences, and from my own use, I would say those claimed times are not all that far from real life, not unreasonably so at any rate. The unit is solidly built, although I would have preferred a better made seat-post mount and screws whose heads that are less likely to shear and tear when you are trying to tighten or loosen them. One of the reasons I had to pack in the original and very bright Cateye 1000 and buy the even brighter 1100 is that a jammed and sheared mounting screw rendered it unusable. (The specifics are too complicated to describe here; let’s just say it is now useless, although the LEDs still flash if I wanted an entertaining paperweight)

Shoddy mountings aside, the lamp itself is tough and weatherproof. The toughness I have tested the hard way. Because my using saddlebag on the winter bikes makes mounting taillights on the seatpost impractical I have mine belt-clipped onto either a loop in the saddlebag or a metal plate on my rear rack, which is not the most secure way of mounting a light. As a result several times over the past few years the lamp has popped out when I hit a particularly bad pothole and despite its landing hard on the bitumen each time, it continues to do its thing – which is nice, since at £29.99 it is the most expensive of my taillights. At 116 grams, including batteries, it is also the heaviest.

Next in line are the two Blackburn taillights – the Mars 3.0 and the brighter one-watt Mars 4.0. I have the 3.0 on my Pegoretti road bike and the new 4.0 on my (new) Enigma tourer. Both of these are bright and sharp and snappy – definite attention-getters on lonely misty roads or city streets at twilight. Both have amber side LEDs for side visibility. Both run on AAA batteries and claim run times of 50 hours on constant beam or 150 hours flashing. That run time might be a teensy bit generous, but to be honest that’s just a hazy impression of mine formed over a couple of seasons and sets of batteries; I’ve not really measured it out. A set of batteries certainly lasts a long time; I’ve no complaints.

Blackburn Mars 3.0 on my Pegoretti – Hastings seafront at dawn

Both of these Mars lights mount nicely onto the seatpost (and come with belt clips as well) and both have a solid reassuring feel. They are both narrow, however, as befots a sleek road bike and bright as they are I think that if I were relying on these for a lot of night riding I would prefer to have two of them, whereas the big Cateye 1100 on its own is wide and chunky enough to throw a larger and I suspect more easily noticed pool of light. On the other hand, the chunky Cateye (which screams ‘winter bike’) would look like hell, I think, on a racy lightweight  summer ride (in my case the Pegoretti or Enigma randonneur). The rrp for the Blackburn Mars 3.0 is £19.99 while the newer brighter one-watt 4.0 will set you back £24.99

My newest light of all is the Smart 1/2 Watt Rear Light, which I bought partly out of curiosity as I had heard good things about Smart lights and partly because when I was making an order for something else I was a couple of quid short of what I needed for free shipping; since the light was on sale anyway the math worked out that buying it was a no-brainer. You can never have too many taillights and this seemed a good chance to try out a new one.

It has proven to be a good one too.  The Smart is small, lightweight and dazzlingly bright, not too dissimilar to the Mars 4.0 taillight in size and brightness although without the amber side LEDs. It runs on a pair of AAA batteries (included) and boasts a run time of 30 hours constant beam and 190 hours flashing. I’ve not yet run through a set of batteries so I can’t speak to the accuracy of the run-time claims, but from what I can see so far the light itself seems to justify the high praise I have heard for it. It appears to be well constructed, weatherproof, mounts securely (seatpost mount, belt clip and seat stay mount included) and God knows it’s bright. Dazzlingly so. The regular retail price for this light is £16.99, making it the cheapest of the lights I’ve tried and a real bargain on a bang-for-buck basis.

My sole criticism for it would be the same as for the Mars lights (and a good many of the others I see on the market) and that is that it is very narrow and small – too much so I think for a serious winter bike or commuter where (at least in my opinion) a taillight should be big as well as bright, for a bigger more visible footprint on the road. That said, either of the Smart and Mars lights would be perfect for whippet-lean road bikes and those times when you’re out on grey autumnal mornings or afternoons, or those long rides in summer where time gets away from you and you find yourself heading into the twilight.

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The Knog Gekko – A Handy Little Light

As I dragged my jet-lagged self out the door early this darkened morning to go for my ride I found myself grateful for a nifty piece of kit called a Knog Gekko – a rubbery, gummy little LED light you can snap on your handlebar at a moment’s notice – think rubber band – and thus ensure that you are at least able to be seen by on-coming traffic.

I love these things. They are dazzlingly bright, waterproof, fairly inexpensive and weigh next to nothing – the very thing to tuck in your saddlebag for the odd occasions when you find yourself riding a little later, or a little earlier than you’d expected, or in a gloomy rain shower, or, if you’re like me, you return home from overseas and find the march of the seasons have progressed to the point where you can no longer kid yourself that it is still summer and that it will be light or even greyish when you want to go for your ride.

In all the running around and catching up I have been doing since my return I’ve not gotten around to digging my full-on Lupine headlamp out of the back of my closet and recharged the battery. Three mornings in a row now I’ve been caught out like this and so have been grateful for this little Knog Gekko. It’s blinking row of LEDs won’t illuminate the road in front of me, but as long as I am riding on lamp-lit streets that’s not so big a deal. Between the blinking taillight on my seatpost and the blinking white light in front (not to mention a reflective vest) I feel reasonably confident that motorists can see me. And if I time my rides nicely, going out a bit later than usual, I can hit the lanes at just around the time when there is enough ambient light in the sky to for me see well enough to ride safely without a proper full-on headlamp.

Knog lights are designed in Melbourne Australia and come in an assortment of sizes and colours. There are headlight and taillight versions as well. I have a couple of their smaller Beetle lights (two LEDs) as well as the larger Gekko with its row of three. There are quite a few other variations as well, in varying sizes and brightness, all with the same sort of flexible silicon bodies that can snap on any size handlebars in seconds with no additional fittings.

As small and simple as these things are they nevertheless still have three function settings – two flashing modes and a steady beam and are blindingly bright. The Gekko uses a pair of AAA batteries and weighs 53 grams all up (including batteries); the smaller Frog uses two of those little pill-shaped batteries (CR2032) and weighs in at just 22 grams. All in all, very handy things to have around.

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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.

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