29 December 2006

After the indulgence of Xmas time, part I

My son, age 5
Today is my only day at work between 22nd Dec 06 and the 3rd Jan 07. I had been looking forward to my cycling to work. The Xmas indulgence has added 2Kg to my waistline! Days of drinking alcohol - moderate amounts... several times a day - eating croissants, cheese, olives, gammon, pork pies, pork crackling, pork pathe, turkey, sausages, roast potatoes, bruz sprouts, chocolate, mince pies, brandy butter, Xmas pud with rum sauce, etc, etc...

Despite hopes of an early start didn't leave home till 0845. A strong wind was blowing, with very nasty gusts that seemed to freeze me on the spot. A sharp shower here and there. All in all it was very hard going - at least there was very little traffic!.

The building receptionist greeted me on arrival with an update on the weather forecast, along the lines of "they say it's gonna be strong gales in the late afternoon". If it's a tail wind, I will not mind so much.

21 December 2006

Sheldon Brown, cycling guru

Right. He's not the world's best web designer. Nor has he got the best dress-sense. Nor is he -by his own admission - the only Sheldon Brown on the web. But for the aspiring cyclist who is looking for good technical advice written in a tone that is understanding without being condescending, Sheldon Brown is definitely worth a look. Two years since I started commuting by bike, I have found him enormously useful.

Ok, he's a Yank - but, having lived in France for a year in the late 80s, he's got just enough of an international outlook (admittedly, of the slightly Francophile kind - nobody is perfect). And he's a leftie and an atheist - but in this world of lies and half-truths I'll always have time for an honest, open-minded man. This chap seems to be just that.

Reading his diary as he battles a debilitating illness is - I mean this - a source of quiet inspiration.

19 December 2006


Tonight I was going up hill, standing on the pedals, both hands on the handlebars - and took a left turn. A white-van man revs the engine, follows me round the corner, catches up, lowers the window and shouts "do your hand signals you twat!". Nice one. Here's to you, fat, pathetic red-neck bastard!. I sincerely hope you grow painful blisters beneath your eyelids.

16 December 2006

My bikes

I got my 1st bike from the tip. I went to sling some garden debris and there it was, propped up against the wall.

I had been thinking about getting a 2nd hand bike, one I could leave outside the tram station without feeling I risked a cherished asset. One I could keep out in the patio overnight, rusting away.

This bike met all the criteria. It was rusty indeed, but looked otherwise OK - brakepads needed changing, sure, but everything else was in place. It was a cheap mountain bike with nobbly tyres and all. I took it home, cleaned it, oiled it, bought new pads and a lock. I started riding it to the tram station. The first day, the leather of the saddle was ripped off - and left by the side, just for fun. I didn't bother then with a new saddle - just put an Asda bag over the exposed foam of the seat. The 10' journey to/from the tram didn't seem worth the bother. When, in June 2005, I started cycling to work, I bought a new saddle.

At work, I had the option of leaving the bike in the building yard... but believe it or not, to save myself a 50-yard walk, I chose to leave it out on Whitworth Street. I was convinced that nobody would want to nick my rusty old bike.

Wrong. One night, only two weeks into my new life, I found they had taken... the rear wheel. I should have known. When I tried to find a 2nd hand rear wheel, I discovered that it was all a lot more complicated than I had ever thought. And expensive. So, old bike went back to tip, and I went to eBay to look for another cheap, expendable bike.

What I found was advertised as a hybrid - but turned out to be a mongrel of a bike. On a sunny July evening, I paid £46 cash to a taciturn, almost unfriendly bloke somewhere in the middle of the Cheshire countryside. He seemed to earn a living out of eBay, if ever anyone did - his patio and garage were full of stuff (I later checked and he had 400+ items on sale on eBay at that time - shame I didn't keep the details!). The bike was just big enough for me, blue with a purple handlebar that seemed slightly out of place. It had 10 gears, needed new brakes (again!) and new tyres - which I was slow to get, to my cost.

Things were OK during the summer, but in the rather wet autumn of 2005 things began to go wrong. Nothing that would have been beyond repair, but psychologically I began to lose confidence in my bike. One snowy evening in February 2006 my front tyre blew up, loudly. I had pumped up the tyre in the morning, and the old thing had given up, the inner tube eventually pushing its way out of the rim. I was left to chain the bike and, in the coldest night of the year, wait for the bus in defeat. But I still tried to give it a go. In the end, it was the rear wheel that did it. It seemed always to be off centre - eventually I realised it was slightly bent, and it just got worse. I gave up.

Disillusioned with my ability to get a decent bike 2nd hand off eBay, I resolved to take a loan from my employer (interest free, 1 year payback!) to buy a new bike. I cleared enough stuff from the garden shed to ensure I'd be able to store the bike. Then I went out looking.

What I got is a Dawes Tourismo 20Four . I bought it from the Biking Factory Shop in Prestwich (424, Bury New Rd). It's a cheaper hybrid/commuting bike. It sells on some websites for £160, I paid £136 incl. the rack. It's comfortable, though initially the gears were prone to jam and on one occasion the derailer, as a result of a jam, got entagled into the spokes of the rear wheel and caused severe damage. The chap in the shop dealt with it satisfactorily and at no cost to me, and I have not had any problems since (but I wonder if this is because I now keep to a reduced, 'safe' range of gears, which is probably no good for my knees in the long run).

14 December 2006


A nordic goddess overtook me today. I was coming to Strangeways when she darted past me at incredible speed - blonde, blue-eyed, with a slight (natural) tan, her hair tied into a thick plat like that of a viking maiden. Clad in tight black and red lycra covering her from neck to ankles, she was an apparition, half Venus, half Minerva. Robust but shapely at the same time. A dream. Poetry on wheels. The stuff of songs.

I considered giving chase but my knees told me in no uncertain terms that that wasn't a possibility. I saw her disappear in traffic as I approached town.

12 December 2006



Clothing or array; apparel.

To the relief of my friends and family, I'm not into Lycra. Lycra is for proper, real cyclists - the ones who train and compete, who time themselves, go out onto country lanes on weekends and take on challenges like the coast to coast. I've nothing against them - ok, a bit of envy as they whizz past me, but on the whole I am well disposed towards them, especially the ones who are polite (eg say 'good morning' at traffic lights), sensible (warn you when overtaking) and considerate (don't automatically jump red lights). One even stopped to assist me, once when I got a flat tyre in heavy rain. I thanked and explained I'd already rang my wife who was going to pick me up and drive me into work - I felt a bit like a Sancho Panza whose old mule has just died - and refuses help from Quixote in favour of the more practical sort.

But if lycra and with it the demenour of a serious cyclist are not for me, nor is the studied, fastidious carelessness of the 'blokes on bikes'. You know who I mean: hoodies and chavs who can't yet afford the spiced-up Ford Escort and have to make do with an expensive mountain bike or a rather impractical - but fashionable - stunt bike. Cycles for them are toys-plus; they prefer the pavement to the road, perhaps because they can't really believe 'cycles are vehicles too'. They may wear a reflective jacket (esp if they must also use one for work) but apart from that, it's hoods up, baseball caps on, dark clothing and strictly no lights. In the summer, of course, it's a lot easier to spot them, what with the white-to-pink bare torsos. Before you mark me down as a hopeless snob, let me stress I do distinguish the many who are simply using the bike, like me, to get to work - they just aren't bothered by health pretensions and seem to be in no rush. Why, I've even seen one or to light up on the move, which is not without skill.
There are, for sure, variations between these two extremes, which I suspect I'll discuss later: mountain bikers, eco-warriors, city centre couriers, frumpy academics, unwittingly suicidal yobs. Let me just state where I personally stand in terms of cycling culture, through its material reflection: clothing.

The basic principles I follow are: comfort, value for money and serendipitous adaptation. The first criteria is straightforward enough - though it took me a while to realise that jogging trainers are not good for cycling - esp. as their soft, foamy top soak all the water from rain and muddy puddles.

Value for money is about prioritising function over form, then making sensible, rational, function-based, fit-for-purpose choices. Why buy an Altura reflective jacket when a builders' vest will do just as nicely, at a tenth of the price? Why, combined with that old kagool it does the job just as well. Last year's casual but sturdy shoes are the ideal cycling shoes for the commuter - they may look the part for work any more, so why not give them a new lease of life?

Serendipitous adaptation (and there are those who call me pompous!). This refers to the process by which things become something they weren't initially intended for (or not entirely, at least). eg. the freebie conference briefcase/rucksack that has become my trusty cycling companion, where I carry valuables and as an overspill to my panier bag. Or the elasticated strap with end-hooks for my old car roofrack, which is now attached on my bike rack, ready to take on any unexpected package that won't fit in the bag.

07 December 2006

How it all started

It was 14 June 2005, and I'd been promised a free cooked breakfast. Welcome to 'cycle to work day'. For years I had thought about doing it, but had always come against an obstacle big enough to put me off (ie not that big) - until the next year, and the next, and the next...

For a start, I didn't have a bike. And I didn't want to buy a new one because I didn't have anywhere to store it - under cover at least. So, one day, I went to dump some garden debris to the local tip and saw this rusty old bike. It needed new brake pads, but was otherwise serviceable.

Still, now I had a bike but the June day came and the weather was awful. I did start to use the bike to cycle to and from the tram (Whitefield) - a 7' ride as opposed to a 15' walk. The first time I did it I got the mock leather of the saddle ripped off by vandals, but no incidents after that (I replaced the lost saddle cover with an Asda bag, and carried a supply of spares as, every now and then, some young git was bound to rip that too).

Then June 2005 came. The weather was glorious. I had been putting on weight steadily over the years and stood at 105kg. OK, I'd given up sugar in my coffee but clearly something more radical was needed.

So, on the morning of Tuesday 14 June 2005, having bought a helmet and a new saddle, I set off at 0700, fully expecting a 90' journey.

It only took 45' - some ups and downs but on the whole it is downhill Bury to Mcr. When I got to the office the canteen was closed so I had to wait a further 45', drinking lots water, famished and shattered. In the evening the return journey took 75' - it was rather hot, I had to stop a couple of times to get a drink and catch my breath. When I finally got home I felt I was walking on wooden legs and despite drinking gallons of water I was chronically thirsty for days. But I was hooked. I tried it again - w/out the cooked breakfast - and again and again.

Eighteen months later I cycle to work almost everyday. I'm down to 90kg with only a small change to my diet (namely: eat loads but avoid fat!). I do the 7.5 miles in an avg of 45' downhill (best time 39') and 55' uphill (45' best). I've done it throughout all four seasons, in rain, hail and snow. I've had one minor fall, 3 bikes (more on that later) and my share of small mishaps.

I should explain I do not see myself as a 'cyclist'. Nor am I a 'bloke on a bike'. I think I am something in between, a two-wheeled commuter. What the difference is, the joys and pitfalls on my 'journey' is what I hope to discuss in these postings. We'll see...

The route

Like in so many other things, this was a case of trial n error.

The way from Whitefield into Manchester was straightforward enough. The A56 goes South to the city centre in pretty much a straight line. On the whole, it is downhill - you do have to climb from Strangeways prison to Lower Broughton, but this done it is the most direct way to get into the city centre from where I live.

Much of my early attempts were guided by my car driving days. The problem of course is ontologic: the car mediates our perception and our knowledge of the road and its attributes.


In plain English: following your favourite car route on a bike will reveal to you how many rather slopes the road has that you were not fully aware of. In the car all you have to do is put your foot down and gear down if it gets a bit steep. You do it without thinking, without sensing... on the bike, on the other hand, any incline of the terrain is noticed immediately. One minute you can be riding fast, effortlessly. And suddenly you struggle to move uphill.

This was the problem with the A56 going back home. It was all uphill up to Prestwich. Then you have to cross the M60 roundabout (J17), in the dark during winter. Also, the junction of Higher Lane and Bury New Rd in Besses O'th'Barn is somewhat unforgiving, as traffic is heavy and much off it turns left on Higher Lane - where I needed to go straight across. I often found that when I got to Higher Lane I wasted lots of time negotiating traffic lights and pedestrian crossings after being forced to take an unwanted left turn. The last thing when you are shattered.

After the first couple of weeks I settle on a different return route, along Cheetham Hill Rd. This way has the advantage of sloping more gradually towards Whitefield. After Polefield you reach the cusp, after which there is a downhill stretch across the M60 (no roundabout here). This point is the beginning of the 'home run'. Here, I know I am 10' to 15' away from home - and save for a couple of short slopes it is reasonably level roads.

Getting into and out of the city centre is a pain whichever way you play it. There are too many traffic lights, designed mostly (it seems) for the benefit of those pesky pedestrians.... who don't take any notice of them anyway. It can sometimes take me 15' to get from Manchester Cathedral to the office (barely 1.5m) where the previous 5.5m took me only 30'. One day, I'll campaign to 'bicyclecise' some streets. More on that later.