Bryan's Bicycle Page - Last updated 02/08/2008


I have been unable to update this web site for a number of years as my ISP changed hands and systems changed. They are now pulling the plug on the web sites of long established customers without consultation or remuneration. I have therefore taken the opportunity to move to a different provider. Goodbye Orange and good riddance! (02/08/2008)

This page is dedicated to the humble pedal cycle.

As an engineer, I love its efficiency, simplicity and functionality. It is the most efficient form or transport known to man.

As an environmentalist, I appreciate its minimal impact upon the planet, its quiet progress, and the lack of any harmful emissions.

As an individual I enjoy riding the bicycle, my daily ride to work is amongst the best aspects of my life. The bike's silent approach enables me to see wildlife that would be denied the motorist. Riding a bike throughout the year, you learn to appreciate the seasons, the changing quality of the light, the crisp cold in winter, the warmth of the summer sun. There is a thrill to be had riding alone along an unlit forest path at night, with the silvery beam of your headlight picking out the trees ahead. I love the independence that the bicycle gives me, I go where I want, when I want to. Rather than travel like an automaton within a tin box, I take responsibility for my own propulsion, waving goodbye to gridlock, and getting fitter in the progress.

We can't continue to wastefully burn fossil fuels that have taken centuries to create, and pollute the atmosphere with a combination of greenhouse and other gases. It is now too dangerous in many areas to allow children to walk or cycle to school because of the density of traffic - much of which is engaged in travelling to school or work! Statistics show that children are at a far greater risk from a road accident that the perceived danger of a deliberate attack. The evidence is mounting that a number of respiratory diseases are linked to pollution, with childhood asthma on the increase.

What we need is a non polluting, sustainable, non threatening method of transport that we can continue to use without harming the planet. Enter the bicycle.

You can browse through this site or refer to the Index

If you live in NE England you may wish to join the Washington Cycle Campaign Group

Legal and other stuff

I have picked up ideas for this site from reading, talking to other cyclists, and by a lot of cycling. Information transfer has been as if by osmosis, I don't remember where most of it has come from. I apologise to anyone who feels that I have stolen their ideas without crediting the source - if this has occurred it was un-intentional! If you feel aggrieved please get in touch and I will add a reference or delete the item if appropriate.

I must also stress that the information given on this site is provided in good faith, but that I cannot be held responsible for accidents or misfortunes occurring because of someone following the advice contained therein. You ride at your own risk!

Cycling To Work or School

This page is intended for new cyclists, or those who have not ridden for a while. I would like to persuade you to consider commuting by bike. Some people are in situations where this is either impossible or extremely difficult, and I feel sorry for them; they should ride at weekends. Many could commute by cycle, but don't, they are the people I am trying to convert.

Some facts about cycle commuting: -

1) You get there feeling good - warm as toast in winter, and, if you wear shorts and short sleeves, with a nice tan in the summer.
2) You will be fitter and, statistically, should live longer - by as much as five years.
3) The most difficult thing about cycle commuting is doing it the first time, after that you will want to continue.
4) Distance is important, I would not want to commute more than about 10 miles each way, but some hardy souls do more. Less than a mile and you might as well walk! I do just over six miles each way and that is just great. The quality of the terrain is also important, 6 miles of mud, with a few hills thrown in, must equate to 10 miles, or more, of flat tarmac.
5) You must sort out a safe place to keep the bike. Ideally it should be indoors, or in a secure compound. I would not want to leave my bike chained to a lamppost.
6) Try not to mix it with the cars, you can get an adrenaline rush racing them through the rush hour, but one day your number may be up. Try to find a quiet route, ideally using a cycle path.
7) If cycling enables you to sell your car you will save a lot of money.
8) If you currently travel by public transport, the bike is vastly superior. No queues, no waiting - you travel when you want to, no standing in crowded vehicles, no breathing other people's germs, door to door travel etc. etc. You will also save money.
9) Rain is not a problem if you buy some decent waterproofs. I actually enjoy cycling through the rain.
10) Black Ice is a problem.
11) You need to buy a decent bike .
12) You need to have some suitable clothes
13) Virtually anyone can ride a bike, but here are some tips to help you on your way.
14) You will need to buy some tools.
15) Cycling etiquette.
16) Cycling in traffic
17) After a week's work your bike will need a clean!
18) Want to consider Cycle Touring?
19) Cycle Campaigning Page
20) Cycling Links.



What Should You Look For In a Bike

You have to know what it is you want from a bike. Most people buy a mountain bike (MTB) because they are available, are reasonably priced and everyone else seems to have one, myself included. There are other types of bike however, and you should consider the alternatives.

A Commuting Bike

If you want to commute to work and use tarmac or good quality paths, the ideal bike will not have knobbly MTB tyres, but it will come with mudguards, lights, preferably dynamo powered, and a rack for panniers. If you live in a hilly area you will need a good range of gears. If you have the misfortune to commute along a poorly maintained muddy track that disappears under water for periods of the year as I do, you will be forced to use a MTB. The photo below shows the Coast to Coast (C2C) route as it passes through Sunderland in April 2000 - my commuting route.

C2C Route Sunderland April 2000

Specialized Crossroad Tyre
MTB knobbly tyres are great in the mud, they grip and you don't fall off. On tarmac they are awful, they make a racket and slow you down. Try counting the number of Tour de France riders who use knobbly tyres. There are compromise tyres available. These have a central raised rim that the bike normally rests upon, but knobbles to either side of it. The theory is that, when you get to mud the tyre sinks in and the knobbles begin to grip. The tyre shown in the photograph is a Specialized Crossroad EX, which I have found to be quiet on tarmac, grippy enough, reasonably durable, and not too expensive. You can buy road tyres for MTBs, they are called "slicks" and there is not a knobble to be seen; they would be a better choice for commuting on tarmac. Some bikes, typically the so called hybrids come with sensible commuting tyres.

SKS mudguard safety fitting

Most new bikes do not have mudguards, they appear to be intended for occasional summer use. Mudguards are not sexy, they cost money and don't sell bikes. If you intend to buy a bike without them ensure that they can be fitted. If you want to cycle in the wet, or after it has rained, and don't want to get soaked, you need mudguards. Some people fit small deflector plates rather than mudguards, but they are not very effective, get proper full length guards. I can recommend the products of SKS, their guards incorporate an emergency release device that will detach if you pick up a piece of wood - better than landing on your head! See the photo above.

Unless you prefer your feet wet and your chain covered in crud, you had better buy a mud flap for the front mudguard. Most bicycle mud flaps are hopelessly inadequate, although SKS now make a half decent built one into their front guard. (My SKS mud flap cracked after about a year's use and folded up under the mudguard when placed under stress). If you want a serviceable mud flap that will not blow into your tyre in a strong wind and that will deflect crud away from your chain wheels in all conditions, buy one intended for a motorcycle. Mr Honda supplied that which is currently installed on my MTB, it cost all of £1.50. If you object to advertising the manufacturer, you can always fit it back to front, or spray over with paint. Some people make flaps from washing up liquid containers, pond liner, or damp proof course material, but they are so cheap to buy it's hardly worth the effort.

Honda Mudflap

If you use paths that are shared with pedestrians, you need a bell. In my view it should be a legal requirement that all bikes be supplied with one. In practice your new bike will probably not have one and you will have to buy it separately.

The first rule of cycling is that you carry nothing other than your clothes. The bike carries any luggage. For commuting you need a method of taking things to and fro. You might work at home and have to carry books or possibly a lap-top, you might want to carry a change of clothes, overalls, or your lunch. You will certainly need to carry a puncture repair outfit, a spare inner tube and some tools. For serious portage you need a rear carrier on which you can safely hang panniers. For more modest requirements the old fashioned saddle bag has a lot to commend it, strapped to the rear of the saddle, it does not affect the handling of the bike, and does not require a carrier. You can take all you want for a day ride in a saddlebag. A lot of people use a bar bag, mounted on the handlebars. This is a great accessory for touring, when it will carry a map, your camera and valuables, but it is less useful for commuting, having a very limited capacity and an adverse affect on the steering.

One day you will suffer a puncture. You therefore need an inflator to blow up the tyre after you have mended it. Most MTBs do not have provision for carrying a proper inflator. You can buy small telescopic inflators that fasten to the water bottle cage fixing, but they are pathetic in comparison to a full length inflator. They are better than nothing however, and will pump up your tyre sufficiently to get you home. Make sure that the inflator you buy has a metal body, I have had a plastic bodied telescopic inflator fall apart in my hands!

If you intend to be a committed cycle commuter you will need lights. This important subject deserves a section to itself!

The choice of saddle is a personal thing. For long distance riding I prefer a leather saddle, which is much cooler than the plastic coated padded types. For commuting, a plastic saddle is probably preferable, as you don't have to worry about it getting wet.

What about the type of bike? You can commute on virtually any type of bike, MTB, racer, tourer, folder etc., etc. The trick is to do it! I would look for a package that provides the bits of equipment I have referred to above, as the bike manufacturers can buy the kit at a fraction of what you pay in a shop. This appears to rule out MTBs, which tend to come naked, but if you want an MTB for an odd spot of weekend mountaineering, there is no reason why it could not be set up for commuting. Most of the large builders provide a hybrid in their range, and it is this beast that they will hang all of the necessary kit onto. Few UK bikes have dynamos however, you will probably have to buy one separately. Try to persuade your bike shop to throw one in with the deal, you might get some financial advantage that way.

Types of Bike

Ok, let's do a quick run down on bike types.

1) Mountain Bike (MTB)

Started as a fun bike in the States. Now the number one seller world-wide. Typically equipped with a good range of derailleur gears, strong 26 in wheels with wide tyres, efficient brakes and very little else. MTBs have forced the pace in bike development, all bikes now have better brakes and gears due to the efforts put into MTBs.

Increasingly MTBs are to be found equipped with suspension. At its best this greatly improves the handling and comfort for the rider, and is virtually essential for the crazy sport of downhill racing. At its worst, as fitted to economy models, it adds cost, weight, and complexity and absorbs the energy of the rider. Not to be considered unless you are buying a real quality machine.

In my jaundiced opinion, most MTBs are bought because there is nothing else available, few ever see the side of a mountain. The MTB is not necessarily the best choice for many people, but it may be the only type of bike that your local shop has in stock. Equipped with the necessary accessories, the MTB can be used for commuting.

A word of warning. According to Chris Juden of the CTC, the most recent MTBs are being supplied without the necessary fixing eyes for mudguards and a carrier. It may be possible to bodge something where this is the case, but I would not think of owning a commuting bike that could not be equipped with these vital accessories. Look out for threaded fittings near to the axle cut outs, both front and rear, and high up on the seat stays.

Carrier bottom fixing eye

Carrier fixing eye - Top


Mountain bike used for commuting

My old commuting bike for use in winter mud. Note the front hub dynamo which powers both a front halogen light mounted above the mudguard and an LED rear light. In addition the bike is equipped with a battery LED rear light. The bike is also equipped with full length wide mudguards providing plenty of clearance, and a front mud flap intended for motorcycle use. A double acting mini inflator, a bell, and rear carrier complete the customisation of this standard MTB. The bike currently has derailleur gears, which I would like to replace with a hub unit at some stage.

Ridgeback Nemesis

My new commuting bike also intended for winter mud. Experience with the other bike led to the purchase of this machine with hub brakes, dynamo and 8 speed hub gears. That front mudguard is way too short, although it is now fitted with a (Suzuki) motorbike mud flap. The lights are by Basta, much cheaper than the competition; time will tell if they are any use. The rear light dynamo LED light stays on after the bike has stopped. A chaincase would be an improvement. The baldy puncture prone tyres that came with the bike have now been replaced by Specialized Cross compromise mud/tarmac jobs that are much more resistant to punctures and have the advantage that they do grip in the mud. The lowest gear is a tad high for my liking, but I am beginning to enjoy riding this bike, while I hope to enjoy even more the removal of the need for continual maintenance!

Experience of using the Ridgeback - new 2008

I thought that I might have purchased the ideal commuting bike, but, sadly that has not proven to be the case. Indeed I have gone back to using the old MTB for commuting purposes while the Ridgeback rests in the garage for emergency use only.

First the good things. I found the hub brakes to be effective in all weathers and of course there is no rim wear. The Shimano hub dynamo proved to be reliable, while the hub gear has not given me any trouble - but see later!

Unfortunately I have not been impressed with the chain drive system. There is only very limited fore and aft adjustment of the the chain tension and the chain wore rapidly, without a derailleur system to take up the slack this causes the chain to jump off the sprockets.

There is not a proper locking mechanism to ensure that the rear axle does not slip within the drop outs and it has a tendency to slip if you put any real effort into pedalling.

After replacing the chain I investigated the possibility of buying a new front chain ring only to be told that I would have to buy a complete crankset, costing around £50. That's not expensive for a crankset, but it's a whole lot more than the £7.50 it costs me to replace the middle chain ring on my derailleur bike.

The tyres that were fitted were very puncture prone, and I swiftly discarded them for more robust rubber. Sadly the clearance within the frame is very limited, and given the tendency of the rear axle to rotate within the drop outs, the new larger tyre was soon binding against the frame.

Both of my wheels needed to be rebuilt. At that stage I had lost confidence in the shop who supplied it and I paid my trusted local bicycle mechanic to do the job. They have been fine since.

The gearing as fitted was too high for me. At the first refit I fitted a larger rear sprocket - against the advice of  Shimano - but that has worked OK and the gearing is much more satisfactory. This is a personal thing however and if you prefer to pedal slower and push harder, or live in flattish place, it could be fine for you as is.

Did I mention punctures? No, well that's probably because of the fact that I cycled in fear of a rear tyre puncture and I prefer to forget such things. Getting the rear wheel out with the hub gear connections to contend with is a nightmare. It's difficult enough in the workshop, but on the road in the dark and rain next to impossible. I have a colleague who bought a Ridgeback before me and he once walked home pushing his bike some 10 miles rather than attempt to remove and refit the rear wheel on the road. Again this may or may not be an issue depending upon where you cycle, I traverse glass alley every working day and, despite stopping to clear  broken glass most days, I get quite a few punctures. (It's at times like this when you begin to feel that a re-introduction of flogging and other cruel or unusual punishments would be a good idea!).

That same colleague had also suffered from the rear axle slip problem and he eventually made a couple of screw clamps to hold it in place. This is something that should have been supplied with the bike.

The various socket head screws are parsimoniously made of coated steel, rather than stainless, and mine started to rust after the first winter.

My colleague is a bigger, stronger, individual than I am and he puts more strain upon his bikes. His 7 speed hub packed up. He has now completely rebuilt his bike with a fixed wheel set up and disc brakes!

In my view, with rather more attention to detail by the manufacturers, this could be a very nice bike, but as it is, steer well clear!

2) Racer

Dropped handlebars, light weight and slim 700 mm diameter wheels and tyres. The true racer is, like the MTB, normally sold bare. It is a speed machine, thrilling to ride on smooth tarmac, responsive and fast. It is intended for racing, and, given exceptional circumstances, could be used to commute to work but....

3) Tourer

To the un-initiated it looks like a racer, with 700 mm wheels and dropped bars. This bike will be more strongly built, and heavier than the racer. It will normally come with some accessories, e.g. mudguards, multiple water bottle attachment points, rear carrier, fittings to take a front carrier, and an inflator. It may have a dynamo but this is unlikely if it is British. The geometry of the tourer frame is such that it is less responsive, but more comfortable, than the racer. The tyres will be wider than those on the racer, but not as wide as those on an MTB. A good tourer will cost a lot of money, but could carry you round the world in reasonable comfort. There has been a recent move towards fitting tourers with 26 in MTB wheels, enabling wider tyres to be fitted, and increasing the strength of the wheels a bit. It is also possible to buy tourers fitted with flat MTB style handlebars, thus allowing the fitment of MTB twist grip gear changers and MTB brakes. You can use a tourer both on and off road, provided that you treat it sensibly.

Many designs of tourer, mine included, are based upon Reynold's 531 Super Tourist (ST) frameset. This makes for a strong and light bike, but older models are a tad twitchy when heavily loaded, with low speed shimmy a problem. Some years ago the 531 ST set was redesigned with a larger diameter top tube that counteracts this problem. The 531ST frameset, combined with 700 mm wheels, makes for a comfortable ride. On a section of my commute I share a bridle path with a riding school, and the horses do a great deal of damage to the surface. Along this stretch it is noticeable that the tourer is a good deal smoother to ride than the MTB, which has both a stiffer frame and wheels. It's a pity that the route gets so muddy, because in those conditions the narrow tyres do not grip and the MTB, in the fashion of a tractor, comes into its own.

The tourer makes a good, if expensive, commuting bike. You can buy a tourer for around £400, but most cost more, typically in the £700 range, while some cost in excess of £1000. In the year of our Lord 2001 Dawes were supplying a good range of tourers, including the classic Dawes Galaxy with the smaller, but genuinely British, companies Orbit and Thorn also providing good off the peg tourers. The Edinburgh Bicycle Co-operative offers an entry level tourer at a very reasonable price.

It is possibly worth while digressing at this point to consider the pros and cons of dropped bars. The dropped bar is the traditional choice of the racing and touring fraternity. It provides at least three different positions for the hands allowing some re-distribution of the rider's weight during a long run. Down on the drops, the rider adopts a streamlined, if slightly uncomfortable, position ideal for high speed work, or battling against a head wind. Hands resting on the brake hoods is the normal riding position, with the brake levers immediately to hand and a more relaxed position than using the drops. With the wind in the rear, or if your back starts to hurt, you can put your hands onto the flat top part of the bars, thus sitting more upright. For long distance work, the dropped bars take some beating.

Flat MTB bars are generally a bit wider than drops, giving better control over rough surfaces. The clever twist grip gear controls are available only on flat bars, while the latest low profile cantilever, and other ingenious types of brake, need long travel brake handles that only flat bars seem to accommodate. Many riders buy bar ends or short lengths of bar that stick up at right angles at the ends of the flat bars. They are claimed to be useful when hill climbing, but don't assist when riding into a head wind.

I use both types of handlebar. I like the flat bars when conditions are very bad and I need good control, but I prefer the drops most of the time.

As you get on a bit, bending over the bars becomes progressively less comfortable, causing an aching neck and back - I have recently lifted my bars so that they are level with the top of the saddle. This means that my riding position is slightly less aerodynamic, but I can now cycle all day without any distress.

My touring bike

My touring bike, a bit long in the tooth now, but still going strong. The sealed wheel hubs by Mavic have never been touched in over 10 years of use. Note the generous curve at the bottom of the front forks, making the bike comfortable to ride and easy to steer, even when loaded. You might also spot the bottle dynamo and halogen lamp mounted on a dynashoe. Note also the deep section Alesa wheel rims. I would use this bike for commuting in preference to the MTB if I had a more civilised route to work!

Clennel Street
This is the sort of terrain that a tourer is capable of dealing with, provided that you are reasonably careful and it is not too muddy! Dave Sharpe of Wearside CTC climbs the old drover's road called Clennell Street which crosses the border between England and Scotland.

4) The Hybrid

The hybrid takes some of the characteristics of the MTB, and some of those of the tourer and blends them together. Most hybrids tend to use 700 mm wheels, but with slightly wider tyres than those normally fitted to tourers. A good range of derailleur gears is to be expected.

Many, but not all, hybrids come with a sensible range of accessories. They are intended for a combination of road and light off road usage, fine for ex railway tracks, but not much use for downhill racing. Hybrids generally provide a more upright riding position than the MTB, but probably use similar handlebars. Some have quite exotic handlebars, trying to accommodate some of the advantages of both flat and dropped bars.

Exotic bars on a hybrid

The hybrid is probably a good choice as a commuting bike, particularly if your chosen model comes festooned with appropriate accessories at a reasonable price.

My wife's hybrid bike

My wife's hybrid bike, a much loved lightweight Raleigh Gemini built from Reynolds 531 tubing. Note the dog thinking of making a bid for freedom!

5) Utility or City Bike

The utility bike is a sensible machine intended to carry you back and forwards to work or the shops with a minimum of inconvenience or fuss. You should be able to ride a utility bike dressed in your normal clothing, without the risk of getting your trousers or skirt caught in some part of the mechanism. The bike is probably fitted with a hub gear, a stand, an integral lock, a carrier, a dynamo, full mudguards, a chain guard and a skirt guard. It will weigh heavy and not be suitable for competing in Le Tour, or climbing more than a moderate hill. The riding position is very upright, giving you a clear view ahead. The bike might be fitted with steel wheels which do nothing to improve the responsiveness of ride, but, unlike alloy rims, could last a lifetime. The utility bike is almost extinct in the UK, but not quite, while it is still flourishing across the sea in much of northern Europe.

Unisex Utility Bike in Aix en Provence

A modern, unisex, utility bike with hub gears, hub brakes, stand, dynamo and carrier. The mudguards are too short for my liking while that rigid plastic case looks a bit on the heavy side.

Traditional utility bike in Aix en Provence

A more traditional machine, this time fitted with rim brakes. You can just about make out the skirt guard, dynamo and stand. It is fitted with hub gears. Both of these bikes were seen in Aix en Provence, a trendy university and spa town in south east France, not noted for its flatness!

If you live in a flatish place, it could be the ideal machine for you, but you might have to take the ferry to Amsterdam to buy it. You might have seen MTBs marketed under the Giant label in the UK. This company is a major player in the Dutch market and their NL catalogue contains several mouth wateringly good bikes, e.g. a fully equipped city bike with an aluminium frame, suspension, and 7 speed hub gears. Alternatively consult the British Manufacturer Pashley Cycles' web site or take a look at Cycle Heaven in York, who import very nice Dutch city bikes by Gazelle. There is a review of a Gazelle roadster in the December 2001 issue of the CTC magazine.

If you know of anyone who imports the Giant range of city and touring bikes (not MTBs) please let me know.

6) Folding Bike

If your journey to work involves using the train, or you need to take the bike into the workplace for security reasons, you might want to consider a folding bike. As the name suggests, the bike folds up to enable it to be conveniently carried. It will be a bit heavier and more costly than a non folding bike of the same quality, but it can go where the others cannot.

Many train operating companies will allow you to bring a folder onto their trains, while they will not allow conventional bikes. Trains and bikes can combine wonderfully, I commuted to work that way for a number of years in the days when every train had a good big luggage van and all bikes travelled free.

A folder can travel in the boot of a car. You might be able to drive to the outskirts of the town or city in which you work and then cycle the last few miles. This could save parking fees, and avoid you having to struggle through the worst of the city centre traffic. It might mean a faster journey!

Most folders have small (16-20 ins) wheels, and need some form of suspension to make them comfortable as a result. They are not really intended for off road work, but will handle most paths with care. I would not want to ride round the world on a folding bike, but there are people who have done just that. There is a large range of folders available from crude gas pipe jobs up to state of the art precision machines, you pay your money and .....

We acquired a second hand Brompton bike with a 3 speed Sturmey Archer hub. It is great fun to ride. It is comfortable and has, safe, predictable, handling, while the incredibly long seat post means that either of us can ride it. However for use in hilly Co. Durham the gearing was a bit high for our liking. We therefore had our local bike shop (LBS) fit a larger rear sprocket and a smaller chain wheel and that has improved matters somewhat. The hub gear does minimise potential problems with oily chains and derailleur systems in car boots or crowded trains. Despite the high gearing, we were so impressed by this bike that we have recently bought a second Brompton. Incidentally you can extend the height of the seat by fitting a sprung saddle, fitting a Brooks sprung saddle to one of our Bromptons really transformed the comfort and fit of the bike. The saddle that comes with the bike is a very wide sit up and beg thing, not very good for anything more than low speed trundling.

The Brompton must be very nearly the ideal urban bicycle; the ability to carry it on public transport; the ease and speed of folding; and the pleasure of riding this machine, makes it perfectly suited to usage about town. It is possible to buy a Brompton with a reliable dynamo lighting system, an excellent water proof front mounting roll top bag, and six gears. In the North East of England there is an extensive light rail system, the Metro. Only folding bikes may be carried on the Metro, and the combination of the Brompton and Metro gives car free access throughout the greater part of Tyne and Wear.

Of the different types available some fold very small and do so very quickly, e.g. the Brompton, while others might offer a better riding position, a larger range of gears, or be lighter etc. The CTC conducted a review of folding bikes which was reported in their magazine for February/March 2001. For more information on folding bikes consult the pages of the Folding Society.

Bike Friday Folding Bike

Bike Friday is an up-market folder, imported from the USA, with a three speed hub gear and a seven speed block giving 21 gears in total.

7) Recumbents

On most bikes you adopt an almost vertical riding position, head above feet, although racers seem to spend most of their time with their backsides above their heads. Recumbents allow you to adopt a much more relaxed position, sitting or almost lying prone, with your feet out in front. This position is claimed to be more comfortable than that adopted on a conventional bike, and it certainly looks it. People with back trouble might consider a recumbent. Another advantage of the recumbent is that the exposed frontal area of the rider is reduced, thus lowering the wind resistance of the bike. Rumour has it that, many years ago, a recumbent rider took all of the honours at a major bike race, when the authorities decided to outlaw that configuration for racing. Certainly it is the case that if you look at the record books, recumbents hold the prime spots for speed.

You can buy a recumbent off the peg, but there is not a lot of choice and the machines that are available are quite expensive in the UK. Many, but not all, recumbents place the rider low down, and there is the concern that the recumbent might not be quite as visible in traffic as a normal bike. Climbing very steep hills might also be a problem, with a conventional bike you can stand on the pedals if you have to, that is not an option with a recumbent. If you ride off road, the recumbent might not be easy to manoeuvre through the various stupid barriers that are encountered, while there may be problems on trains and with car roof racks. When it rains I fear that the recumbent rider might not shed water as readily as a conventional cyclist. I would like to see more recumbents, but perhaps the environment is not quite right for them as yet.

There are those people who are completely sold on using a 'bent; if you need some persuasion see Sue Widemark's site

There is a bewildering array of recumbents available, but I guess that there are three main categories. There are trikes, and long and short wheelbase bikes. The longer wheelbase bikes are typically touring machines, while the short wheelbase bikes are more likely to be used for racing. I would certainly like to be able to use a trike when there is ice about! I have included a photograph of a recumbent trike below. This machine has 81 gears, a 21 speed derailleur set-up and a three speed hub unit. The owner told me that it was a bit heavier than a conventional bike and slower up hill, but it flew on the flat and downhill it was really magic!

Recumbent Trike.

Recumbent racing is great fun, go see it if you get the opportunity, they really do fly, while there is a dazzling array of different types!

People do commute to work on a recumbent, I guess it depends upon the circumstances.

8) Special Bikes

There are bikes made for two people (tandems) or exceptionally for three. Tandems allow blind or partially sighted people to enjoy cycling, while they are great for contented couples to ride. (I suspect that a tandem would do little to calm a stormy relationship!) You can buy special child cranks that fit to the the rear seat tube of a tandem. If you have difficulty in balancing, but would still like to ride, then an adult tricycle might be the answer. You can buy single wheel child bikes that attach to the rear of an adult bike - safer than an individual children's bike for road use and a good deal faster.

A special form of recumbent bike is the Human Powered Vehicle or HPV. HPVs are designed for racing or speed trials (racing against the clock), and hold all of the records for maximum speed. A typical HPV is clad in a streamline casing, fine to keep the rain off, but a tad warm in most circumstances. Some of the ideas on streamlining have cascaded down to more conventional recumbents, and you can buy partial fairings that add a bit of weight, but lower the wind resistance of your machine. Interest in HPVs and HPV racing is an international phenomenon, but in the UK those interested should contact the British HPV club

Shown below is a photograph of Nick Green’s latest creation. Nick is currently the competition secretary of the British HPV club.

Nick Green's HPV

9) Junk Bikes

Junk bikes are bought new from supermarkets and similar places at prices around £100. They come in a variety of forms, but they share a common feature, they are all junk.

As with most things, you get what you pay for with cycles, and you need to spend substantially more than £100 to buy reasonable quality. If your budget is limited, buy second-hand. If you buy from your local bike shop, they will be there when you need to buy spares and accessories, and will provide a repair service if necessary. Take them a junk bike to fix and they might refuse. I have tried to adjust assemblies on junk bikes and have had very limited success, the brakes and gears won't stay in adjustment, the parts bend under load, the chain disappears between the chain rings, a pedal falls off etc. A junk bike might put you off cycling for good.

At the other extreme you don't need to pay serious money for a decent pair of wheels. A £2500 all aluminium full suspension MTB, is not required for commuting. Expect to pay between £250-350 for an entry level bike of reasonable quality. If you insist on buying a new budget machine, rather than a second hand quality bike, look for the bottom of the range offerings of the big, long established, companies. My sons have had Raleigh children's bikes and, after doing good service, they have been passed on for others to enjoy.

10) What bikes would I recommend?

Things are moving rapidly in the world of bicycles, with long established names changing hands or disappearing from the scene, while new players emerge to take their places. Unfortunately I am not in a position to give advice on particular bikes or manufacturers. For what it's worth, if I were to buy a replacement bike tomorrow (December 2002), I would consider the following companies: -

Touring Bikes - Dawes, Giant, Orbit, Thorn, Edinburgh Bicycle Co-op (could possibly end up with a Dawes Galaxy, a tad boring but it's a proven formula and good value.)
City Bikes - Gazelle, Giant, Pashley, Orbit, Dawes (Trip to Amsterdam called for maybe, look at Giant's NL web site, better range than UK, or take a look at Cycle Heaven in York).
Fully equipped hybrids - Dawes, Giant, Orbit, Trek.
Folder - For urban use, the Brompton. Not cheap, but well engineered and they do hold their value - check prices on Ebay.
MTBs - Don't know. I use my MTB for muddy commuting rather than mountain climbing, but I do a lot of miles. My MTB is a Univega with a chrome moly alloy frame without suspension. The frame has served me well, but most of the components have worn out and been changed since I bought it in 1997. I would be inclined to look for disc or hub brakes in order to prevent rim wear, I would avoid suspension (heavy and complex), look for carrier and mudguard eyes, and would prefer a 7 speed hub gear and hub dynamo - You're right it probably doesn't exist!

One recently introduced bike that almost meets my commuter specification is the Orbit Orion City - 7. (Photo reproduced courtesy of Orbit Cycles).

Orbit Orion 7

This has an aluminium touring geometry frame, flat bars, Sachs 7 speed hub gears, Shimano hub dynamo, carrier, mudguards, cut down chain guard etc. For street use it looks to be very tasty, but for extremely muddy conditions the 700 mm wheels and thinnish tyres would not be my first choice, while, like most bikes, it is fitted with conventional rim eating brakes. It's not the cheapest pair of wheels around either, at £695, but for city cycling the specification is hard to fault and, assuming that the 7 speed hub works reliably for a number of years, it could work out cheaper in the long term than a derailleur fitted bike with a lower initial price. The pre-production version of this bike got an enthusiastic review in the CTC mag. for February/March 2003.

I have just (September 2005) bought a Ridgeback Nemesis bike. This MTB style bike has an 8 speed Shimano rear hub, Shimano hub brakes and I have had it fitted with a Shimano hub dynamo. Further customisation includes a decent bell, rear carrier, mudguards and mud flap, inflator, better pedals and much better tyres. This is my new commute through mud bike. Hopefully it will require considerably less maintenance than my previous derailleur equipped machine with cantilever brakes. Total cost to date around £580. The only drawback discovered so far is that the lowest gear is a bit high for my liking, so a new larger rear sprocket may well be purchased, while a chaincase would be a useful further addition.

11) Custom Made Bikes

There are many small companies that will build a made to measure bike. These machines are normally quite a bit more expensive than the mass produced item, but you get to specify exactly what you want and the finished bike should be a perfect fit. Allow me to include a plug for our local and rather excellent frame builder, Dave Yates. Dave, and many other bespoke builders, will, in addition to building new bikes, repair or modify or your frame (e.g. braze on a dynamo bracket), make new bits, or revitalise your steed with a brilliant re-spray.

Where Does the Money Go?

What do you get when you pay more? The frame is the heart of the bike. More expensive bikes use stronger frame materials, e.g. alloy rather than carbon steel. This leads to lighter, more springy frames which are fun to ride.

Mavic Rim
Wheels are also critical. Bottom of the range bikes use steel rimmed wheels, which are heavy and have a lot of inertia, making it more difficult to accelerate the bike. In the wet, the brake blocks slip on chromium plated steel rims. Better bikes have aluminium alloy wheels, but there are many different grades of aluminium alloy. The cross section of a cheap aluminium rim is like a shallow letter U, while the best wheels have deep box section rims made from hard alloy and use eyelet's to reinforce the spoke holes. Cheap aluminium wheels are worse than steel wheels, they might be light, but they go out of true too easily and buckle if overloaded. Good makes include Mavic (illustrated), Alesa, and Sun Rhyno.

Good quality chain wheels are made from hard aluminium alloy, and are replaceable. Cheap ones are made from pressed steel and are riveted together. Better quality derailleur mechanisms will be built up from polished aluminium castings, while the cheapest use pressed steel and/or plastic. Top of the range mechanisms have bushed pivots which last longer

Generally speaking the more you pay the less (weight) you get, but there is balance to be struck between lightness, function, and durability. A three speed hub gear, with its wide chain and near perfect alignment between chain wheel and cog, should give a much longer service life than the very best 27 speed set up.

Conventional wisdom has it that you should buy the best frame that you can afford, and compromise on the other bits. They can be upgraded over time.

Frame Tubing

For many years steel was the material that all bicycle frames were constructed from. There are two principal methods of manufacturing tubing. The simplest and cheapest, lending itself to volume production, rolls sheet steel into a tube and welds along the join, so forming a welded seam. The alternative method extrudes a solid cylinder of steel over a mandrel and between dies thus forming a seamless tube. Seamless tubing is stronger and is used in all but the cheapest of bicycles.

The British company Reynolds introduced the concept of butted frame tubes. Rather than use tubing that is the same thickness throughout its length, butted tubes are thicker at one end (single butted) or both ends (double butted). Butted tubes put more material where the loads are higher, so the remainder of the tube can be thinner and lighter. The very best bikes are made with butted tubing throughout, coming down the scale are those with a double butted main triangle only, while lower in the market place are bikes built with non butted or plain gauge tubes.

Cheaper bikes tend to use so called "hi-tensile" steel, normally a medium carbon steel.

Up market bikes are made from better quality alloy steels which typically contain a small proportion of molybdenum and either manganese or chromium. Manganese/molybdenum steels are suitable for low temperature fabrication methods, e.g. brazing and silver soldering, while chromium molybdenum steel can be TIG welded. Alloy steels typically have twice the strength of carbon steels, so bicycles made from them are a good deal lighter.

There are several companies manufacturing high quality bicycle tubing, but being British I will concentrate on the products of the UK based company, Reynolds. Their manganese moly steels are classified 531, 753 and 853 while their chrome moly steels are 500, 525 and 725. Reynolds 500 is only available as plain gauge tubing. For many years classic racing and touring frames were made from Reynolds double butted 531, and this material is still available today. 753 is a stronger steel that is being phased out to be replaced with 853, but both of these steels require greater care by the frame builder than 531.

The traditional method of bicycle construction uses steel tubing that is brazed (using a soft metal based upon brass) or silver soldered into cast steel pipe fittings, called "lugs"; which determine the geometry of the frame. If such a bike suffers an accident it is generally possible to melt the braze, and replace the damaged tube or tubes. This method of construction enables quality frames to be hand built with a minimum of expensive manufacturing hardware. Because the joining process is carried out at a relatively low temperature, the properties of the steel tubes are hardly affected. This means that thin tubes can be safely used leading to a very light but strong frame. There is a variation on this process, where two tubes are joined without a lug, by the use of a fillet of brazing material. This is necessary if suitable lugs are not available for the required geometry. This process requires higher steel temperatures within the attachment zone, so is not quite as good as lugged construction.

More recently lugless all welded frames have become very popular. This method is suited to volume production and requires excellent process control to avoid significantly weakening the tubing . It is probable that thicker walled tubes are required in the vicinity of the welds to compensate for the reduction in the strength of the steel due to welding. Some people prefer the cleaner lines of a lugless frame.

Aluminium alloy has also become very popular as a frame material. While steel is a good deal stronger that aluminium alloy, it is also a good deal more dense, so you can afford to use a greater volume of aluminium and still end up with a lighter bike. Aluminium frames are of necessity more chunky than steel frames, and the resulting bike is probably stiffer than an equivalent steel frame. I guess that this means that fractionally more of your pedalling energy is usefully transferred into forward motion, but that the bike might not be quite as comfortable. Aluminium alloy has the advantage that it is very resistant to corrosion. Most aluminium framed bikes use steel forks.

On the debit side, aluminium is notoriously difficult to weld - it does not change colour when molten - so you may find it difficult, or even impossible, to have an aluminium bike frame repaired. I mention below the hugely superior fatigue properties of steel over aluminium, this is another factor to put into the pot when choosing a frame material. More than one major manufacturer has had to issue public safety warnings over the possibility of failure of some of their aluminium frames - do an Internet search on bicycle frame failure!

Increasingly, however, off the peg bikes are being manufactured with aluminium alloy frames. Steel is being relegated to bottom of the range bikes, or for expensive niche applications, for example the best quality touring bikes. Only time will tell as to whether this move to aluminium alloy has been a step in the right direction!

The most exotic racing bikes use carbon fibre or titanium frames, but these are currently far too expensive for commuters to consider!

Buying Second Hand

You can save yourself a considerable amount by buying second hand, but there are pitfalls. You have to weigh the possible cost of replacement components against the saving on a new bike. It is true to say that you can buy a fully equipped new bicycle for considerably less than the retail price of the individual components. Consider the following: -

Bicycles have, unfortunately in my view, become part of the consumer/fashion culture. The designers of components regularly update their ranges and the new bits may or may not be compatible with past efforts. Most do not continue to manufacture the older designs, making the obtaining of spares difficult. I think in particular of derailleur gear components, but there are also problems with some types of brake. Finally, the UK industry moved some time ago from 27" wheels to the continental 700 mm standard, and 27 inch tyres and tubes are now hard to find.

Bicycle parts wear out, to an old meany such as myself, they wear out far too rapidly. In the days of steel wheel rims, they would last a lifetime. Today's alloy rims do not last so long. Rim brakes wear away the wheel rims with the result that the rims need to be replaced periodically. The problem here is that it is very difficult to tell when the rims need to be replaced, the metal thickness cannot be judged with the tyre in position, and even with the tyre removed it is tricky to measure. If you get new rims, measure the overall width across the rim and monitor that distance with time. Contemplate the consequences of travelling down a hill at 40 mph when your front rim disintegrates - it pays to be safe and that means replacing rims before they become excessively worn.

While cycling with the Wearside CTC group a companion told me how he had been sent flying over his bars when his front rim has failed and caught in the brakes, fortunately he was only doing about 10 mph at the time and he suffered no serious injury. On reaching home I took a good hard look at my MTB front rim, the picture below shows what I saw, complete failure of the rim. Perhaps that conversation saved my life (thanks Alan I owe you a pint!).

It is really very hard to give advice here, perhaps a change should be made every 5,000-10,000 miles, but the distance will vary depending upon the design of your rims, the type of brake blocks used, the nature of the terrain through which you cycle, and your weight and riding style etc. Good quality rims cost between £12 and £30 a shot, then then there is the business of rebuilding the wheel - preferably with new spokes. Grotty machine built wheels with cheapo rims and hubs can be had complete for about £20, but don't expect much heavy service from them. A few rim manufacturers are now building wear indicators into some of their products, e.g. Alesa and Vuelta.. Buy a bike with hub or disc brakes and the problem goes away!

Split Rim

Another set of parts that wear are the derailleur gear components. As the chain wears it becomes longer, and that worn profile is transferred to the sprockets. Eventually the chain begins to jump over the teeth and you have to buy new bits. You will find that a new chain will not run on worn sprockets. The order of wear is normally chain, followed by block, followed by chain wheels. One strategy, that is often suggested, is to keep three chains and regularly change them, thus dividing the wear rate by a factor of three. Eventually you have to replace the whole assembly. Buying second hand you should inspect the sprockets carefully for signs of wear (in bad cases the teeth become hooked) while a badly worn chain will lift off the chain wheel exposing daylight beneath.

Unless the bike is nearly new, or you are sure that the owner has hardly used it, you should legislate for new transmission components - and they can be expensive. Find this a problem - then buy a bike with hub gears! The better crank sets have replaceable chain rings however, e.g. Stronglight, TA and some Shimano. Our ageing tandem was in need of a re-fit, but I was able to renovate the transmission by replacing the middle chain wheel only (£13), in addition to buying a new chain (£4), and a block (£16). The photo shows the Stronglight crankset, with a steel inner wheel, the shiny new middle ring, and the relatively unworn original outer ring.

Tandem crankset

You will probably have heard of the concept of fatigue failure, when a metal part becomes tired and snaps. Steel is a remarkable material in that it possesses what is referred to as an endurance limit, a limiting stress that may be applied to the material an infinite number of times without causing failure. In contrast, aluminium alloy does not have an endurance limit. In theory, if you apply enough stress cycles to it, it will eventually fail, even through the individual applications of stress are of a very low magnitude.

What are the consequences for aluminium bicycle components? Well let's get this into perspective, aeroplanes are made from aluminium alloy and they don't fall out of the sky all that often, but they are subject to regular rigorous inspections. In truth I don't know, the Stronglight cranks on my tourer have done many thousands of miles without any sign of distress, but I would be a tad wary of buying a second hand aluminium bicycle frame. It is perhaps significant that the owner's manual for the Brompton folding bike (steel frame) advises that certain critical aluminium components be replaced at regular intervals, "The hinge clamp plates, handlebar and chainset should be replaced every 5,000 miles..."

Finally look out for obvious signs of damage, particularly to the frame, but also inspect the wheels. Spin each wheel and observe the distance between the rim and brake blocks, if it varies by more than a few millimetres the wheel will need to be trued. If there are kinks in a rim it will need to be replaced. Check for frayed brake and gear cables and haggle if found!

As an alternative, why not look for last season's bargains. If you are prepared to buy last year's model you will often get a substantial discount on the new price. I have seen a £350 bike offered for sale at £250, a genuine reduction. The newest cycling kit is not always the best, don't be fooled by fashion.

Gears

In the early days of cycling, there were no gears, the pedals were attached to the wheel directly. To obtain a higher 'gear' you had to use a larger diameter wheel - hence the penny farthing or "ordinary" bicycle. Now the penny farthing was quite a dangerous machine, going downhill and applying the brakes or hitting an obstacle, there was a very real chance of the rider being thrown forwards over the large wheel, and landing on his head. The expression "Taking a pearler" relates to that particular experience. It did not take too long for the chain drive to come along, and the "safety bicycle" was introduced, remarkably like the machines we ride today. I tell this tale because even now the gearing of bikes is measured as an equivalent penny farthing wheel diameter. Thus we refer to the gearing as an equivalent wheel diameter in inches.

Consider a bike whose largest chain ring (adjacent to the pedals) has 52 teeth, and the smallest cog on the rear has 13. For every turn of the pedals, the rear wheel will rotate 52/13 = 4 times. If that wheel has a diameter of 26 inches, the equivalent penny farthing wheel diameter is 52/13x26 = 104 ins, quite a high gear. Similarly, if the smallest chain wheel has 42 teeth and the largest cog at the rear of the bike has 48 teeth, then assuming a wheel dia.. of 26 ins, the effective gear is 42/48x26 = 22.75 ins. In the case of this bike the "range" of the gearing will be 22.75 to 104 ins., i.e. from the lowest to the highest gear.

The number of gears depends upon the number of chain wheels and cogs, you simply multiply the two numbers together, e.g. three chain wheels and seven cogs gives 21 gears. While this is the theoretical number of gears that are available, in practice you are not able to use all of them because the chain would cross at too great an angle between the chain wheel and cogs. This would occur, for example, when it was on the largest chain wheel and the largest cog. If you try to select such a gear, it is highly probable that the chain would make an unpleasant sound, indicating that all was not well.

While it is nice to have lots of gears, it is the range that is most important, and you can have the same overall range with far fewer gears. More gears are generally achieved by increasing the number of cogs at the rear, making the cog assembly ("block" or "cassette") wider. Increasing the number of gears in this way normally has two consequences. One, the chain is thinner in order to accommodate the number of cogs, and two, the rear wheel is highly asymmetrical or dished, again to accommodate the wide block. Both of these things are bad news, thin chains do not last as long as wide chains, while dished wheels are not as strong as they could be.

In the discussion to date I have assumed that the bike has been fitted with derailleur gears, as the vast majority of adult bikes are so equipped. Derailleur gears are popular because they provide a large number of ratios and a good range at a reasonable price and relatively low weight. They are the first choice of racing cyclists and touring enthusiasts. They do not like being neglected however, the exposed mechanism is subject to the environment, the chain and wheels get dirty and they wear rapidly if not cleaned. I clean the chain on my commuting bike every week, but despite this attention it consumes several chains and a new block every year. Cleaning a chain and block is a dirty, and in the winter, cold job. The photo below shows the wear on a chain jockey wheel after about two year's use commuting to work, probably around 5000 miles. Can you spot the new one?

Shimano Jockey Wheels showing wear.

Derailleur gears are fitted to run of the mill bikes because they are cheap and people expect to see them, part of the fashion accessory culture. They are not the best solution however.

There is an alternative, and that is the epicyclic or hub gear. When I was a lad, most utility bikes were fitted with Sturmey Archer 3 speed hub gears in their rear wheels. The hub gear has the advantage that all of its moving parts are in a sealed hub, away from the elements, while the good wide chain can easily be protected by a chain case - as it does not have to traverse a large number of cogs. This results in a virtually maintenance free set up, where the various elements can be expected to last for many years. A further advantage of hub gears is that you can change gear with the bike stationary, no more being caught in top gear at the traffic lights! You can now buy 3, 5, 7, 8 and 14 speed hub gears and I would suggest that this is by far the most sensible solution for a utility or commuting bike. Buy a commuting bike in Holland, and chances are it will be fitted with a hub gear. Hub gears are more expensive and a bit heavier than derailleur gears, and they do not provide as much range or as many gears, but they last and last and you don't have to waste your time looking after them.

The 14 speed hub gear is made by Rohloff, and while it is no doubt an excellent bit of kit, it is also very expensive. Sachs, now SRAM, and Shimano battle it out with their simpler but more economically priced units, while we wait to see what will happen with Sturmey Archer now that that company's products are produced by Sun-Race.

I shall try to be as objective as possible, here are the some of the pros and cons of hub and derailleur gears.

Derailleur Gears

Large range, large number of gears, high transmission efficiency (when properly adjusted, clean, and used without excessive chain angle!), light weight. Ideally situated for providing that trademark oily gear tooth mark on your legs or best pair of trousers. Need love and attention, with frequent cleaning - perfect for racing cyclists, keen tourists and rich people who can afford to employ a personal bicycle valet!

Hub gears

Available with 3, 5, 7, 8 or 14 gears . Totally enclosed mechanism. Uses a wider chain that can be protected from the elements within a chaincase. Assuming correct setup, the chain always works in perfect alignment. A bit heavier, more expensive, but much longer lasting, and possibly slightly less efficient than derailleur kit kept in good nick. Less convenient if you get a puncture because the wheel is more difficult to remove. Not as wide a range as with derailleur gears. The best solution if you cycle in a place without steep hills, and can't afford the time to mess around with your bike every weekend. Great for city commuting wearing normal clothes.

Stop Press

Recent research has challenged the accepted wisdom that derailleur systems are always more efficient than hub gears. Figures published by a couple of guys active in the field of Human Powered Vehicle design and construction, Chester Kyle and Frank Berto, suggest that the average efficiency of a 3 speed hub is higher than that of a premium quality derailleur mechanism. They measured an average efficiency of about 94.5 % for a 3 speed SRAM hub, 93.5% for the Sturmey Archer 3 speed product, compared to 93% for the Shimano Ultegra 27 speed derailleur. The seven speed SRAM hub was slightly less efficient at around 91.5%. These are average figures, taken over the range of ratios and for a variety of loads. They found that, not surprisingly, the efficiency of the derailleur mechanism is highly dependent upon the chain position. I guess that at certain chain positions the derailleur wins, while the efficiency of the hub gears will vary with ratios, but the moral of the story is that there is not much in it either way!

Blocks and Cassettes

The bunch of sprockets on your back wheel can be either a "block" or a "cassette". Older bikes have a block while newer machines normally use a cassette. The block comprises the freewheel incorporating a ratchet mechanism, as well as the sprocket cluster. Blocks normally screw onto the rear hub assembly. Cassettes comprise only the sprockets, the freewheel remaining on the hub when the cassette is removed. The cassette is normally a slide fit over splines on the freewheel unit, held in place by a special nut. Except for the cheapest kit, most blocks and some cassettes allow the user to dismantle the sprocket cluster so that an individual sprocket can be replaced.

In order to remove a block or cassette you need a chain wrench, basically a metal bar with two pieces of chain attached. The chain engages with the sprockets and allows you to unscrew the fastening without the wheel revolving. You also need a special spanner to unscrew the cassette fixing ring. Neither of these tools is very expensive, and they are worth buying if you intend to do your own maintenance.

Gear Shifters

Before leaving the subject of gears, let me relate my experiences of using various types of gear shifters. The simplest, and most reliable, are those that depend upon a friction drive and are mounted on the down tube. These have the shortest and least convoluted travel for the cable and the minimum number of moving parts. I have fond memories of a pair of Suntour Powershifters, which performed faultlessly over a period of ten years - after which I sold the bike. They are also the ergonomically least satisfactory, requiring the user to reach away from the handlebars and then have to think about the adjustment. Indexing systems that click into the required gear appeared quite a few years ago. These shifters have a spring détente and move by a fixed amount corresponding to the perfect shift. This is great when the shifter and derailleur are new, but not so clever when they start to wear. With friction shifters you automatically compensate for wear as you shift, but index shifters don't allow much leeway.

Perhaps the most convenient type of shifter is the twist grip, there is no need to move your hand away from its position on the bar in order to change gear. Sadly, in my experience, these shifters contain mainly plastic parts, which wear rapidly leading to imprecise shifts, and eventually hardly any shift at all! Fortunately twist grip shifters are relatively cheap so replacement is not a major issue. I use my commuting bike every working day, and in that circumstance current twist grip shifter technology is not a practical proposition, but for casual weekend use I guess that they would be fine. My commuter MTB now has Shimano lever action shifters mounted on the underside of the bars, not cheap nor quite as convenient as the twist grip, but very effective. The only problem I have with them is that the seven speed switcher tends to eat gear cables (an exaggeration, but it is noticeably greedier in this respect than my other bikes). I guess that the cable is routed round a tight radius within the mechanism, and the cables fail in fatigue due to excessive bending.

For road bikes there are, in addition to down tube shifters, bar end shifters and, the ultimate in convenience, combined brake levers and gear shifters. I have down tube shifters on my tourer and bar end shifters on the tandem. These shifters offer friction drive for the front changer and index with friction override on the rear. Both types work reliably enough, and there is not a lot to choose between them in terms of convenience. If I was intent on a serious expedition, i.e. beyond the lands of bike shops, I would want simplicity and reliability and would go for the down tube shifters. I would accept indexing, but only if there was a friction override to get me home.

If you suffer a snapped gear cable (you should really carry a spare), try to select a mid range sprocket and clamp the free end of the cable using a convenient bolt, e.g. the carrier attachment.

Lighting

Only an idiot would contemplate riding a bicycle along a public highway at night without lights. Not only is this against the law, but it is extremely dangerous. You have got to get some lights if you want to commute throughout the year. Unfortunately most bicycles sold in the UK are without lights and without a suitable means of attaching them. The situation is very different in mainland Europe, but you will be feeling that the record is stuck in its groove if I continue with that theme.

While I stress the importance of lights, reflectors are also important. Good designs of bicycle light tend to incorporate a generously sized reflector.

Personally I don't like battery lights as they contravene my views on sustainable transport, and tend to be un-available when you most want them. I make an exception for LED rear lights however. They consume only a tiny amount of power (50 or more hours use is fairly typical) and remain on when you stop. There is now at least one LED rear light design that satisfies the British Standard for bike lights. I strongly recommend the purchase of an LED rear light. They are a bit heavier, but LED lamps that use AA size batteries (rather than the smaller AAA size) will generally be cheaper to run. One thing, LED lights tend to be either on or off, you don't get much warning that the batteries are going flat. One day you have satisfactory light and the next nothing! I keep some spare batteries at work, as well as at home.

I use a dynamo, and have tried bottle, bottom bracket, and hub dynamos. Bicycle generators produce alternating current and should therefore be called alternators, but the term universally used is dynamo. Hub dynamos are the most expensive, but they are the best. My commute to work is quite severe, with muddy conditions. In that situation the bottom bracket type is useless, and the bottle type almost useless, they both slip and you lose the light when you most want it. In contrast, the hub dynamo works. Further, the hub dynamo does its work silently, while you get a whine from bottle dynamos, or at least all that I have tried.

Finally, many bottle dynamos have an appetite for tyre side walls. I used to say on this site that I had never had to discard a tyre because of this, but I spoke too soon, this winter one of my Panaracer Paselas had to be replaced because of an incorrectly set up bottle dynamo. Speaking of tyres, if you do use a bottle dynamo, be sure to buy tyres that incorporate a dynamo track, a serrated band around the tyre wall that improves the drive capacity of the system.

If you travel along more civilised ways, i.e. tarmac, then a bottle should be OK. The bottle type has the advantage over the hub that it can be completely disengaged so that it does not consume any of your energy when not required. Some hub dynamos exert a very small resisting torque even when switched off. There have been recent developments in dynamo technology, with more efficient types coming onto the market, but you have to pay a lot of pennies for the latest creations. I guess that the decision on dynamo type will depend upon your circumstances. If you don't regularly ride at night, and just want a reliable light for those few occasions that you are caught out after dark, then a cheap bottle dynamo should do the job. For fast 24 hour audax riding (crazy but some people like it) a lightweight, high efficiency, bottle might be the answer. For daily commuting in all types of weather the hub dynamo is king.

Once upon a time bikes came with front lamp/bottle dynamo mounting points as standard, but now most bikes sold in the UK do not make provision for fitting a dynamo. If you intend to use a bottle dynamo it is essential that it is firmly fixed in place, as it is placed perilously close to the wheel and a failure in its fitment could result in a serious accident. One safe solution is to use a Dynashoe. This elegant piece of stainless steel kit hails from Germany and uses the brake pivot bolt as a firm fixing, supplemented by a plastic tie around the fork. The right hand photo shows a Dynashoe in place on our tandem, the latest versions come with two plastic ties, for even greater security.

Lamp mounted on Dynashoe

Lamp mounted above wheelThe particular version of the Dynashoe shown includes a bracket for the front lamp, you can buy a Dynashoe with or without the lamp bracket. For road use this lamp placement is acceptable, but for off-road it is better to place the lamp above the mudguard away from muddy spray. However if you use a bar bag it might then get in the way! If you buy a bracket to fit the light above the mudguard, be sure to specify the type of brakes that you use, cantilever, side pull etc., as there are different brackets to suite each type.

Fork mounted lights suffer due to the fact that the beam can impinge upon the dynamo, wheel and mudguard. The over the mudguard location is better in that respect. A good place for a lamp is on the handlebars, but mine are too crowded with more important bits, e.g. brakes; a bell; gear shifters; not to mention somewhere to get a hold of!

Let me explain a little about power and voltage. As I understand it the European standard for bicycle dynamos calls for a generator that produces 3 Watts at 6 Volts. In a conventional set-up the 3W is distributed between the front and rear lights in the proportions of 2.4 and 0.6 respectively. You therefore need to buy a 2.4W 6V bulb for the front light and a 0.6W 6V bulb for the rear. It is well worth paying the extra for a halogen bulb for your front light, these bulbs run hotter than conventional filament types and give a much brighter beam.

Some people prefer to rely exclusively upon a battery LED rear light and then use all of the available 3W in the front light. If you want to do this you should replace the front bulb with a special 3W unit that can handle the power and give you a nice bright light. Being a cautious creature I like to have two rear lights, one dynamo and one LED.  I have recently fitted an LED dynamo light to the rear of my commuting bike, and that is one powerful lamp, far brighter than a standard 0.6W conventional light, or a battery powered LED. This is a fitment that I would recommend for road use, but I also carry a battery LED rear lamp..

If you know anything at all about electricity you will be thinking that 3W is hardly any improvement on a candle! Some people fit lighting systems that cost as much as my bike and they use rechargeable batteries and very powerful lamps. This may be necessary for midnight downhill racing, but for commuting it's way over the top. I cycle to work along a muddy and unlit bridle way, and I find that a 2.4W halogen light is just about good enough for me. One day I might buy and fit a 3W bulb!

There is an increasing amount of clever technology being incorporated into bicycle lamps. Here are some features of recent designs: -

  1. Front dynamo lights that have both conventional bulbs and LEDs with some energy storage capability. The LEDs glow for a while when the bike stops. This is very useful when stopped in the middle of the road to turn right. Look out for the Lumotec Plus front light as shown on the photos above.
  2. Not really new, but most reasonable quality bicycle lamps intended for use with a dynamo now incorporate a voltage regulator to prevent your blowing a bulb if you go too fast.
  3. Lamps that are sensitive to the motion of the bike and the ambient light level, automatically switching on when you start to ride in the dark.

Before leaving the subject of lights, I do recommend that you carry a small torch within your tool bag. Even better is a head band mounted lamp, this directs the light to where you are looking and leaves your hands free, while it will double up as an emergency front light if necessary. This is invaluable if you have to fix a puncture in the dark, or if your front light should fail some distance from home. You will of course have packed a spare bulb so any permanent failure in the front light will not be due to that particular cause.

Trouble Shooting Dynamo Lights

If your dynamo lights fail to work the principal causes are a loose connection, a failed bulb, or bad earthing. Often the failed bulb is due to bad earthing. Other faults include plastic coated wire chafing against metal and shorting out, or wires breaking due to continual flexing.

If you have a problem the first thing to check is that the connectors have not come adrift.

Failure of the dynamo is very rare. I guess neglected kit could rust and seize, or bearings could wear. I have had soldered joints fail within an LED lamp, but not within a dynamo, but I suppose that it could happen. You can easily check that your dynamo is OK using a test bulb connected directly to the dynamo terminals, or to the dynamo terminal and an earthing point on the frame. If you do this it is a good idea to disconnect the other wires as the fault might be a short circuit in your wiring harness.

A very useful tool is a digital multi meter, this allows you to check continuity between different points in the wiring harness, between the frame and other components, and to check to see if a bulb has blown. You can buy a multi meter quite cheaply from places such as Maplin, using mine I determined that the resistance of a healthy Shimano Nexus dynohub is about 4 ohms! Alternatively, a simple circuit comprising a bulb, wires, and a battery, will do much the same job.

Many bicycle dynamo lights and generators rely upon the frame to carry the return current, often by way of wheel and headset bearings. It really is much better to use a separate wire to carry the return current, as you are then sure of a secure and uninterrupted route for the electricity to flow along. The problem with dodgy connections is that, should your front light momentarily go out, all of the power is diverted to the rear bulb, which promptly dies. Most decent modern front lights include over voltage protection by means of a pair of zener diodes, but, in my experience, few rear lights are so equipped.

If your system is designed for transmission through the frame (only one connector on the dynamo or lights), then you have to make the best of a bad job. Liberal use of petroleum jelly (Vaseline) on the contacting surfaces works wonders. Smear some Vaseline on the bits of the bracket that attach to the earthing point on your light, and between the bulb and its contacts - but be careful not to cause a short circuit between the contacts on the bulb. You can always assist the connectors by taking the load off the connection with a piece of insulating tape to hold the wire in place.

If you have a difficult to trace fault, try using a piece of wire to by-pass the frame or existing wiring connections, if the bulbs work using that you do have an earthing fault or broken wire.

Don't be surprised to find several faults. I recently tried to use my lights during a foggy spell in June and found that nothing worked. A few hours detective work later I discovered that the front light was not earthing properly, there was a broken wire, and the rear bulb had blown. The moral of this story is that you should test your lights well in advance of their being required come the dark nights.

Finally, you can achieve moderately tidy cable runs if you weave the wires around your brake or gear cables a few times, while electrician's tape is possibly the best way to keep the wiring out of your spokes.

Clothing For Cycle Commuting

If you buy a utility bike from Holland, you will be able to cycle in your Sunday best, possibly carrying an umbrella. This is quite a common sight in Amsterdam, the Dutch are so sensible!

You can of course ride any bike in any sort of clothing, but the right kit makes life a bit more comfortable.

Shoes

Ideally cycling shoes should have stiff soles so that they will not absorb your energy by compressing as you push down on the pedals. From this point of view trainers are the worst choice. If you have a pair of trainers and you want to cycle to work, don't let me stop you, you will get there, and initially at least, you will not be able to tell the difference.

Your choice of shoes will be dictated to some extent by your pedals. Exotic bikes have pedals that only work with special shoes that click into place. You might have heard of SPD (it stands for Shimano Pedal Dynamics - pretentious nonsense!) normally described as Spud. This, and the various copies of it, are very convenient and efficient systems, used by all sports cyclists, but they are not necessary for cycling to work.

I would recommend the use of toe clips. My wife would not hear of toe clips on her bike until we bought a tandem which had them. The conversion was almost immediate - Get some toe clips fitted to my bike! They enable you to pull as well as push the pedals and considerably enhance your pedalling efficiency. You can clamp your feet into the clips in such a way that you will not be able to get them out, but that would be stupid. Toe clips used with moderate tension save you energy and are not in any way dangerous. Toe clips have the advantage over SPD systems that you can use them with conventional shoes - useful if you use the bike in connection with your job, or to get in the shopping etc.

Once you get used to toe clips, and try to cycle without them, you find your feet slipping from the pedals in a potentially dangerous way.

It is also possible to fit strapless toe clips. These small plastic mouldings fit to the front of the pedal and enclose only your toe, again enabling you to use conventional shoes. We have them on our Brompton bikes and they are very much better than no clips!

Specialist cycling shoes cost from around £35. You can buy shoes which look like trainers, but have stiff soles. Some SPD type shoes are reasonably priced and can be used without the special click on fitting. Traditional touring shoes have soft leather uppers and hard plastic soles, e.g. by Carnac, and they are very comfortable, shower proof, and hard wearing, but expect to pay around £60 or more. Last Saturday we were caught out by heavy rain, the following day my wife's MTB boots were still very wet, but my Carnac leather shoes were completely dry.

One problem to look out for, if you buy MTB boot type cycling shoes, be sure that you can pull on your over trousers with the boots on. Imagine the scenario, a cold dark January evening and you on an unlit muddy path. It starts to rain heavily and you reach into your panniers for your over trousers only to find that you cannot pull them over your boots (yes, it has happened to me!). Football boots, with the studs removed, make good budget cycling shoes.....

Clothing Generally

There have been huge advances in the design and manufacture of fabrics using man made materials. We now have breathable but water-proof fabrics, light weight but wind-proof fabrics, and warm fleeces that are not water-proof, but dry out very quickly. Traditional materials, cotton, wool, etc. are heavy in comparison, and tend to take a long time to dry when they get soaked. Modern thinking dictates that you should wear multiple layers of thin garments, and vary the number of layers as your body heats up or cools down. The downside of all of this is that high tech. clothing tends to cost high tech. prices.

Think safety, wear bright colours. Good quality cycling waterproofs incorporate reflective strips that are very effective at night. Consider buying a reflective belt if you cycle on the road.

Waterproofs

You will need at the very least some waterproofs. Here the choice is between breathable and non breathable. Truly waterproof and breathable jackets, e.g. Goretex, cost an arm and a leg. The alternatives are either a shower proof breathable jacket, or a non breathable water-proof. With non breathable kit the rain is kept off your back, but you get very hot and sweaty. For a short journey the non breathable solution may well be acceptable.

It is possible to buy a non specialist non breathable nylon water-proof anorak for about £12. This will keep the rain at bay very effectively, but, except in the coldest of weather, you will boil inside it. Further, it will not be cut appropriately for cycling. The hood, if it has one, will probably be baggy and will be caught by the wind, while it might prevent you from looking back over your shoulder. It will probably be too short in both the arms and at the rear, while the sleeves might not fasten tightly around your wrists. Given that it rains surprisingly rarely - honest - you may be prepared to put up with these problems.

Cycling jackets should be longer at the rear, to cover your back as you are bending over the bars, and should have a hood that is close fitting and cut out at the sides so as not to impair your vision. The sleeves should be longish and should be capable of being drawn tight at the wrists. The increasing popularity of cycle helmets is making it difficult to buy a jacket with an integral hood. This is a pity, because that is the only design that truly prevents cold water finding its way down your neck!

A good quality specialist, truly breathable and water-proof, jacket costs more than £100. As a committed cycle tourist as well as a cycle commuter, this is what I use. However there is a difference between cycling 80 miles across desolate moorland with little chance of seeing much civilisation, and a 30 minute trip home from work. I could not justify that kind of expenditure for the latter. Many cyclists use breathable shower proof jackets, they are single skin light weight garments that will keep you reasonably dry in all but the heaviest downpour. They are also a good deal cheaper than the Goretex equivalent.

Don't get me wrong I am not knocking Goretex, it's an almost miraculous material. Genuinely waterproof and breathable, you can sling it into the washing machine without fear! Pity it's so expensive.

The traditional cycling cape has some advantages. You can buy a genuinely water-proof, but non breathable, cape quite cheaply, and there is plenty of air circulation from below to keep you cool. Further the cape covers your hands, and can keep your shorts and saddle dry. You can buy a light weight cape very cheaply, for considerably less than the cost of a cycling jacket, and the cape will fold away into a very small space (got one for £9 in Poland!). Capes tend to be a nuisance in the wind, and they restrict your movement more than a jacket. Further, you look rather less outlandish if you have to walk to the shops in a cycling jacket rather than a cape. No solution is perfect, and the cape is well worthy of consideration. They are out of fashion in the UK, but remain the favourite elsewhere in Europe.

Cape or jacket, buy something that will be seen in the dark - wearing dark coloured cycling clothes is a sure sign of lunacy. Fluorescent yellow is possibly best.

I also use water-proof and breathable over trousers, not quite as critical as the jacket perhaps. In the summer, you will be wearing shorts, and skin dries quicker than fabric. For a short commute you might accept the risk of getting your legs wet in the winter. I only use my water-proof leggings when it is both cold and very wet, because they restrict my movement and I don't like wearing them. Things to look out for include an elasticated waist, and legs that are wide enough to pass over your shoes yet can be tied in tightly at the ankles. In my view it is better to use Velcro than zips for this purpose as, sure as eggs, you will get the material caught in a zip one dark stormy night. Expect to pay around £60 for breathable over trousers.

Gloves pose a major problem. I have yet to encounter the warm and truly water-proof glove, perhaps I have not yet paid out enough money. Mitts I have had more success with, though those that I use are not entirely water-proof, and they are not as good as gloves for controlling the bike. What is required is a mitt with a minimum of seams, and those few seams should be taped while they should fasten tightly at the wrist - tell me when you find a pair like that! If you buy modern fabric mitts or gloves, try to get a pair that has a leather, or synthetic equivalent, patch on the place where you rest your hands, this will be wear resistant and will not slip.

You can buy expensive shoe covers to keep your feet warm and dryer than they would have been. I have used those made from nylon sheet, and those made from neoprene. Neither are entirely waterproof, the neoprene covers are more expensive, but significantly warmer. This can be a disadvantage in the summer, but is cosy in the winter. Both types are damaged when you have to get off the bike to negotiate obstructions. One of our club members uses a pair of breathable and waterproof  walking shoes in the winter, and says that they can be used with toe clips and that they keep his feet warm, this is another option to explore. Finally, Wellington boots don't leak, but aren't too clever with toe clips, you might try those!

Other Clothing

You can buy special shorts or trousers with a chamois patch where you sit. Personally, I prefer to use non padded pants, as I don't suffer from saddle sores, and see no reason to wear heavier than necessary kit. It is best to wear shorts whenever the weather allows, as they give maximum freedom of movement. Cotton shorts are reasonably light and comfortable, but they stay wet if they get wet! Skin tight, lycra based fabric became all the rage some years ago, but, thankfully, fashion has now moved on to include matt finish, soft, synthetic materials that are loose cut, shed water, and dry quickly. I recently bought a pair of shorts in Asda for £6, that were made from man made fibre, and looked like they would dry quickly - contrast this with the £25 to £35 that they are asking for specialist cycling shorts.

During the cooler months I use cycling trousers which are shaped to fit close, without being skin tight, so as to avoid material catching in the chain. I would recommend an elasticated waist band, and possibly zips at the ankles. I use RonHill Bikesters (100% Polyester) when the weather is not freezing, and Tudor Sports (70% cotton, 30% Nylon) fleecy long trousers when it is really cold. Ordinary trousers need cycle clips to prevent them from flapping into the chain, or you can always tuck them into your socks.

In the summer I typically wear shorts and a polo shirt. In the cooler weather out comes a light weight fleece. As the temperature falls I start to wear my shirt and jacket without a fleece, then with the fleece. Finally really cold wintry days call for further insulation from a scarf. When it is severely hot I wear a white shirt to reflect the sun.

Exposed hands suffer badly on a bike in cold weather. Good quality insulated gloves, or preferably mitts, are essential. For cool Autumn/Spring days a pair of fleece gloves give just enough protection without being too hot.

Sunglasses help keep the pollen and insects out of your eyes, and are de-rigeur during the summer months. I think that it is worth paying a bit extra to buy glasses whose opacity changes with the light level. That way, when you cycle through a dark midge infested wood, you don't have to take them off to see where you are going.

I hate the appearance of baseball caps, but they are excellent cycling wear, keeping the sun out of your eyes, and preventing sun-burn if you are follically challenged. Pay a bit more to get a decent quality cap, e.g. Nike, with a fitted sweatband, it's a good investment. For winter use I employ a daft woolly or thinsulate hat, but I have been seen riding under a Harris tweed trilby. In essence wear what the heck you like!

Wear a helmet if you wish. This is a vexed question, one about which there are strongly held views. Let me digress a little, if you go to Amsterdam you will see thousands of people cycling. At any one time there are probably more people cycling within a twenty mile radius of that city than throughout the entire UK. What you won't see are people wearing helmets, at least not very many of them. If we want to encourage cycling as a form of every day transport by the majority of the population, rather than by a small group of enthusiasts, we will not succeed by forcing people to wear outlandish clothes.

There are circumstances in which I would wear a helmet, and they would occur when I felt that there was an uncomfortably high chance of my being knocked off the bike. This could be, for example, if I was taking part in a race (particularly that crazy downhill variety!) or riding through heavy traffic in the UK.

On my daily commute to work along very quiet roads and a bridleway I would not think of wearing one as I find them cold in the winter, and too hot in the summer, while you can't wear a hood with a helmet. The British Medical Association recently concluded that it was better that the government did not make the wearing of helmets compulsory, as that would deter cyclists. They reckoned that, on balance, it was more beneficial to the nation's health to encourage cycling than to enforce the wearing of a helmet that would reduce the severity of injuries in certain circumstances. Fall off your bike onto a concrete paving stone and the helmet will do its work. Get crushed by a 40 ton truck at 56 mph and......

What we need are safer road conditions for cyclists (and pedestrians), not compulsion to wear helmets.

Tips for Novice Cyclists

I see many newcomers to cycling riding along the cycle paths in my area. There are a number of things that must make riding harder than necessary: -

1) Most novices have the saddle too low.

Perhaps it is a desire to be able to touch the ground while seated, but many people ride around with their saddle far too low. This results in a cramped riding position, with the knees bent all of the time. Adjust your saddle such that your leg is almost, but not quite, straight when the pedal is at the bottom of its stroke. You should also avoid having the saddle too high, when you will have to rock from side to side to reach the pedals. Correct saddle height makes riding much easier and more comfortable. If you have got used to riding with a low saddle it may take a while to adjust to the new position, believe me, it is worth persevering. The seat post on my MTB gradually creeps down the seat tube with use, and when I reposition it the transformation feels miraculous!

While on this subject, you should pedal using the ball of your foot, not your instep.

Finally, most people find that a horizontal saddle is the most comfortable, check that yours does not point up or down at the front.

2) Rocking and Rolling

The thought of someone riding with a saddle that is too high makes me think of another novice cycling crime, excessive movement. You pedal by moving your legs, not your body. Sit still in the seat and turn the pedals. Many novice riders lurch about in the saddle wasting their energy. If you want to burn energy find a hill to climb, but don't let me see you throwing your weight about on the bike. An exception to this is when you are accelerating away from a rest, particularly if you have been caught in too high a gear, you can then get out of the saddle and power away.

3) Choosing too high a gear

This is related to (2) above. It is not necessary to press hard on the pedals to make progress. Experienced cyclists spin the pedals at speeds up to 100 rev/min, while the novice struggles in a high gear. You can damage your knees by persisting with this mode of cycling; change down a gear or two, make life easy.

4) Carrying luggage

The bike is a wonderful machine for carrying luggage. It has a strong metal frame to support the load, leaving the cyclist unencumbered. Why then do I see so many people carrying heavy bags on their shoulders while cycling? Let the frame carry the load, buy a carrier and some panniers.

5) Tyre Pressures Too Low

The rolling resistance of your wheels will be dramatically increased if you trundle around on under inflated tyres. Tyres normally have a recommended maximum pressure embossed on the side wall, check to see what it is and use it. For chunky MTB tyres it will be around 50 psi, for hybrids possibly 60 psi, and for racers maybe 80+ psi. These pressures are almost impossible to judge, you need to buy a small gauge designed for the purpose. I once went on a ride with a friend who has about the same ability and stamina as I have. Coming back I got a slow puncture and had to stop to pump up the tyre every few miles. I found it almost impossible to keep up with my companion due to the drag of the partially inflated tyre. I have been very careful with tyre pressures since.

One thing to remember however, the rims of your wheels are designed to accommodate a certain maximum tyre pressure, which will be lower for larger width tyres. Don't be tempted to over inflate your tyres or you could end up with damaged rims.

6) No inflator

You will get a puncture. It might not happen today, but, sure as eggs it will happen sometime. You therefore need to carry equipment to fix the puncture - see below.

7) No toe clips

They improve your pedalling efficiency markedly, no bike should be without them or an equivalent system.

8) Saddle Sores

A complicated problem, and one that you tend to grow out of the more you cycle.

If you analyse the situation your weight is taken at  three positions, the saddle, the pedals and the handlebars. By adjusting the geometry between these positions, you can vary the amount of your weight that is carried at each of them. In simple terms, if your saddle is lower than your handlebars, there will be a lot of weight on the saddle, whereas if your saddle is higher than the bars, there will be less as you tend to lean forward onto the bars. Bikes that have the saddle low down typically have very large soft saddles (e.g. Dutch city bikes) while those that position the saddle relatively high provide less support, e.g. racers. A wide comfortable saddle is fine for short distances and low speed work, but it causes a lot of friction between you and it, and is not suitable for prolonged or high performance cycling.

If you ride the bike like you would a horse, and take your weight on your feet when passing over bumpy ground, that should help reduce saddle soreness, whereas if you cycle sat like a sack of potatoes, expect to suffer.

If your saddle is set too high, you will have to rock from side to side as you pedal and that will cause soreness. Correct saddle height is of crucial importance in cycling. As mentioned above, most beginners have their saddles set too low.

There are numerous designs of saddle, but I have found that leather saddles are cooler and more comfortable over longer distances. For an all purpose saddle, the Brooks B17 takes a lot of beating. I recently fitted a new one to my tourer (replaced a 23 year old Brooks Professional), and within about 25 miles it had formed itself to my shape. However, I mention elsewhere that, for commuting, leather saddles might be more trouble than they are worth, as you have to try to keep the worst of the rain off them. We carry plastic shower caps that protect our saddles when we get off the touring bikes.

There are saddles designed to accommodate the different anatomy of males and females, generally shorter and wider for women. Then there are saddles that have huge holes cut out of them, the theory being that they relieve the pressure on sensitive parts. Another variant is the Gel Filled saddle.

You should ensure that your underwear does not have seams that cause abrasion, there are specialist cycling brogs available for both sexes, while you can buy cycling shorts incorporating a padded patch on which you sit.

If you ride a stiff framed bike, or one with small wheels, you may need some suspension to take the sting out of the humps and bumps. You can buy a sprung saddle or a suspension seat post.

Before the days of global warming, and more specifically, before I bought an all terrain bike for commuting through winter mud, I would cycle to work while the nights were light and put the bike away for the winter months. My first two or three rides of the year used to cause a little bit of discomfort, but that would rapidly fade away. Now that I cycle throughout the year I don't have the problem.

When we first started to cycle meaningful distances together, my wife did suffer badly from saddle soreness. We experimented with most of the above parameters but could not seem to find the correct combination, and then, slowly but surely, the problem went away. Now she rides three bikes all with different types of saddle, and geometry, and does not complain. Perhaps she has learned, maybe subconsciously, to distribute her weight differently;  maybe she has developed thicker skin in the problem areas; could be she has learned to suffer in silence;  maybe there has been a combination of things that have led to this happy state of affairs. Take heart, persist, and the problem will probably disappear.

Tools for the cyclist

Tools are heavy. You don't want to spend a lot of money on a lightweight bike and then spoil the effect by carrying a workshop full of tools. On the other hand, you might find yourself stranded with a long walk in prospect if you choose to carry no tools. I guess that you need to consider your own particular commute when making out a tool list. Should you move into cycle touring, then the list becomes longer, but that's another story.

1) Punctures

You can repair a puncture in about ten minutes, I have often repaired a puncture on the way to work, and have never arrived late due to having suffered a puncture. Punctures are entirely unpredictable, I might cycle for months without suffering one and then have three in a week. If you do start to puncture regularly, it might be a sign that you need new tyres. A word of warning, along bridleways, thorns are, in my experience, the principal cause of punctures. If you cycle where they have just trimmed a hedgerow, avoid the clippings!

Along urban cycle tracks broken glass is the worst culprit, I carry a small hand brush to sweep this aside along my regular commuter route. If you come across an unbroken bottle, pick it up and put it into a bin, or, sure as eggs, some foolish youth will smash it across the track. Particularly bad infestations call for an e-mail to the local authority requesting a visit from the cleansing department. Continued severe problems with broken glass can render a cycle track unusable; time to talk to the Police. Try to contact the local beat manager.

Back to fixing punctures. If you are lucky you can spot the problem and fix it without removing the wheel. If you are out in the countryside you might be able to detect the position of the puncture from the sound of the leak, but this is very difficult if there is traffic noise. Often the reason for the puncture is not apparent, and you have to remove the inner tube to find it. Always check that you have removed the source of the puncture, inspect the tyre carefully, using fingers as well as your eyes, to find it.

It is useful to mark the rim and tyre with the chalk that comes in your repair kit, before removing the tyre. That way, when you locate the puncture in your tube, you can work out where the damage occurred in the tyre. The chalk mark will also help to enable you to refit a tyre with directional treads the correct way around.

At the very minimum you should carry a spare inner tube, inflator, tools to remove the wheel and three tyre levers to remove the tyre. I would recommend that you also carry a puncture repair outfit. We have six bikes in our household so I buy sheets of puncture repair material and tubes of adhesive, the sheets are cut to patch size pieces and they are carried in a standard puncture repair kit. Most repair kits do not include the essential piece of sand paper that is used to clean and roughen the tube before applying the patch.

Always try to replace a tyre using your thumbs, rather than the tools, as it is easy to nip the tube and cause another puncture. Some rim/tyre combinations make tyre fitment very difficult. If the rim has a central circumferential depression, you can ease matters by pushing the bulk of the tyre bead into that, while easing the remaining part over the rim. Many rims don't have this feature, and you might have to use the tools in those cases, in which case be very careful. One particularly difficult tyre/rim combination was a variety of Continental Top Touring tyre and Mavic rims - this led to a "Steel Fingers" debate in the UK cycling user newsgroup! Should you be unfortunate enough to have a difficult set up, you will find that plastic tyre levers are just not good enough, you will need steel.

If you do encounter a really difficult tyre/rim combination, you will find that a degree of lubrication eases matters considerably. I struggled to fit a Schwalbe Marathon tyre to a Brompton 16" wheel, and managed to puncture the tube when driven to use steel levers to prise the tyre over the rim. A generous squeeze of washing up liquid into a small quantity of water makes a wonderfully effective rubber/aluminium lubricant. Having applied some of this solution to the inner edge of the Schwalbe tyre I found that it was possible to push the tyre into place using thumb pressure alone.

A good quality reliable and effective inflator has a metal body and is over a foot long, e.g. Zefal. You can buy telescopic plastic inflators, and they will get you home, but are very poor in comparison to the real thing. If you must buy a mini pump, get one with a metal body. For home use you can use a car type foot pump with MTB wheels (normally Schrader valves), but for 700 mm wheels (indeed for all wheels) a track pump (looks like a stirrup pump) is what is required. The track pump really does make it much easier to inflate tyres. With six bikes in the family I sometimes wonder how I managed without one. If you do decide to buy a track pump, get one with a built in pressure gauge.

You can now buy mini track pumps that can be carried with the bike, and four designs were reviewed in the CTC magazine for June/July 2001.

2) Snapped chain

A chain rivet removal tool will enable you to repair a snapped chain. I have never had to repair my own chain in this way, but have used my chain rivet tool several times assisting others. You may or may not want to carry a chain tool; it is a useful piece of kit to have at home, because it enables you to remove the chain for cleaning or replacement. Buy a decent quality chain rivet tool, the cheap ones are programmed to snap when you are in the middle of nowhere.

Whilst on the subject of chains, I might mention the importance of monitoring chain wear. If you run with a badly worn chain it will transfer that worn profile to your rear sprockets and front chain wheels. Chains are cheap but chain wheels are definitely not, so it pays to change you chain before it can do too much damage. For years I struggled with an engineer’s steel rule, trying to find a datum point from which to measure and peering in the gloom of my garage at the tiny graduations. I recently bought a chain wear gauge from Spa Cycles, and now my many chains can be checked quickly, easily, and accurately. At £9 (2003) it was not cheap, but what a wonderful piece of kit!

3) Spanners

I carry a 6" adjustable spanner that will fit most of the nuts on my bike. It is heavy, and I would not use it in the workshop because it can damage the nuts, but it earns its place because of its versatility. I also carry a small Mafac tool kit which contains an assortment of lightweight spanners, including tyre levers. Most bikes make some use of socket head screws, so you will need an appropriate collection of Allen keys to deal with them. If you find that your bike has some odd sized fasteners consider replacing them with stainless steel socket head screws, as Allen keys take up very little room.

4) Other bits and pieces

You might carry a stub screwdriver and/or a Philips head screwdriver, as many accessories are held in place by screws, while gears have screw adjustment.

A length of wire is useful for emergency repairs, e.g. a bolt holding your carrier or mudguard on falls out and is lost. If you have lights, a spare bulb would not come amiss.

Working on the bike you will get dirty. A small quantity of Swarfega, within a used film container, and a small pack of wipes, will get over that problem. I have recently received the suggestion that thin latex disposable surgical gloves enable emergency cycle repairs with clean hands.

Spray your tools with a rust inhibitor, wrap them in a small piece of towelling, and put the lot into a plastic bag.

If I were starting anew, I might be tempted to buy one of these all in one tools, that come with chain rivet remover, spanners and Allen keys etc. combined in a single package, e.g. the Cool Tool. Nothing is perfect however, it is much more convenient to use a separate tool, rather than one encumbered with other bits and pieces - while some jobs demand two separate spanners.

I carry a small head band mounted torch in the winter months, and don't forget some coins for the telephone, or a mobile, should all else fail!

If you are getting on a bit, an old pair of reading glasses within your toolkit will make it that much easier to fix punctures.

I bought a mobile phone following a conversation in a pub with friends, "So you ride along that deserted track in the dark, what would happen if one frosty night you were to fall off and break your leg?" So far I have not had to use it!

Cleaning the Bike

If you commute off road you will have the dubious pleasure of having to clean your bike every week. Good, wide, full length, mudguards, with a mud flap on the front, will help to keep both you and your bike reasonably clean, but flying muddy water gets to many parts of the bike. Further, if you use oil on the chain it will be thrown towards the rear rim etc.

I would not recommend the use of a pressure hose as the water could find its way into the bearings.

You will end up with oily and, in winter, cold hands unless you wear gloves. Washing up gloves are not sufficiently durable, go to your local DIY store and buy a cheap pair of cotton lined industrial rubber gloves.

I use a bucket of warm soapy water and a plastic handled washing up brush that has been retired from the kitchen. Leave the oily bits until last, and don't touch the chain. Having cleaned the cleanable bits, take the bike for a short ride to shake off the surplus water.

You will find it easier to clean the transmission components if you can lift the bike off the ground. It is possible to buy specialist bike workshop stands, but I find that a couple of webbing ties (used to secure a sail board to a roof rack), thrown over the rafters of the garage roof, make a good cheap alternative.

Before starting on the chain, the derailleur jockey wheels are cleaned using a short screwdriver to scrape away the worst of the crud. A supply of paper kitchen towel is useful at this stage. The chain is cleaned in situ with a proprietary chain cleaning bath, containing bio-degradable citrus degreaser. The chain is then dried off using a cloth. More fastidious types take the chain off and clean it by hand - but life is too short and chains relatively cheap.

Every second or third cleaning, the block/cassette is cleaned. You can buy special tools to clear the dirt from between the sprockets, but I use an appropriately dimensioned Allan key. It is easier if you take the wheel out of the bike before doing this. If you intend to clean the block, do so before suspending the bike from the garage roof.

If you own a hub geared bike you will be saved all of this hassle - smirk!!

Once or twice a year it is worth giving the frame a polish using car body wax polish.

Having finished cleaning the bike, you need to lubricate the cleaned components. I have tried dry spray lubricants and various oils and have concluded that, for day rides on-road, the clean dry spray grease lubricants are best, but, for a week long commute through crud, thickish oil is preferable. Incidentally you always lub. the inside of the chain, as the lubricant gets centrifuged out. I spray the derailleur bearings and brake pivots using Teflon impregnated oil, I don't know if this significantly preserves their life, but it makes me feel better. The rear derailleur mechanism is one of the few original parts remaining on my commuting bike, so maybe it has done some good.

You will note that the cleaning and oiling of the transmission parts occupies a good deal of time, were you to buy a bike with hub gears, you could save yourself a lot of time and, in the long term, money.

Finally check and if necessary adjust the gears and brakes. If you have noticed any rattles during the week, (you really should check ASAP and not wait until the weekly clean), check the various nuts and bolts to see if you need to tighten anything up. Sure as eggs, if something is coming loose, the fixing bolt will fall out and be lost at a very inconvenient time.

One thing, if your brakes start to drag, it is highly probable that the rim has worn a ridge on the block and that ridge tends to stick to the rim. (You can avoid this if you set up the blocks so that they rest centrally on the rim, but that isn't always easy with shallow walled rims.) In any event, you can use a sharp knife, e.g. Stanley knife, to trim off the wear ridge and so cure the problem.

If your brakes start to screech you can normally cure this by ensuring that they are set up with some toe in, the blocks being set up so that the leading edge is slightly closer to the rim than the trailing edge. Modern brakes of reasonable quality usually allow you to rotate the blocks slightly, so enabling the toe-in to be varied.

While on the subject of brakes, I have had a small piece of aluminium detach from the rim and embed in the brake block. This caused a terrible thumping sound that had me convinced that the freewheel was about to disintegrate, or the spokes to snap. Norman Fay of Holdsworthy Cycles in South Shields recognised the symptoms almost immediately and brought about a cure with a piece of wet and dry emery paper.

Cycling Etiquette

Increasingly cyclists are having to ride along paths that are shared with pedestrians and, possibly, horse riders. A bike, ridden at speed, is seriously bad news for both of these groups, particularly if they don't know that you are coming. If you see a group of people ahead, slow down and use your bell to warn them of your approach. If necessary get off and walk. Pedestrians do appreciate a warning of your approach, and I have been thanked several times for using the bell - many comment that all bikes should have one. If you don't have a bell, buy one today!

Remember that the pedestrian ahead might be visually impaired or deaf -cycling is about blending with the environment, not making waves, just be patient and take your time.

Horses are easily spooked by a cycle, and you don't want a pair of hooves flailing around your head, or have the rider's injuries on your conscience. I always take great care in passing horses, but, nevertheless have witnessed horses take fright on a few occasions. It is very unpleasant for all concerned. Personally I feel that horses and bikes should be segregated, (bikes spook horses and horses damage the surface of cycle paths) but that is unlikely to happen, and the onus is on the cyclist to be safe. If approaching from behind, ring your bell well in advance to let the rider know that you are coming. In any event slow right down, and get as much space as possible between you and the horse. (There is sad story in today's Times - 29/12/01. A man was killed while riding a tandem with his sister, they passed a horse that reared up and kicked him in the head. Do be very careful when cycling past horses.)

I travel along a little used bridle way to work, and I always give a friendly greeting to the other humans that I meet, whatever their mode of transport. Most people respond favourably, and I have developed a bond with a number of regulars.

Don't annoy people by adopting a "holier than thou" attitude because you are doing the green thing. By all means encourage others to take up cycling, give advice when requested, and vigorously campaign for cyclists' rights, but don't bore your friends and colleagues.

Mentioned elsewhere on this site is the notion that not all motorists are demons, and that courteous behaviour towards them is also appropriate. If someone lets you out, or allows you to make a right turn, or whatever else, you should respond with a friendly wave of acknowledgement. If you are riding with friends, drop back to single file when traffic approaches.

Respect traffic signals. A red light means stop, it does not mean that you should bunny hop onto the pavement and bypass the obstacle. This sort of thing irritates other road users and gives cyclists a bad name.

It's an up-hill struggle to have good facilities installed for cyclists, it is essential that public opinion be on our side. If you are riding a bike you are, in the eyes of the public, "the cyclist", try not to let the side down.

This brings me to the tricky question of cycling on footpaths. I would not think of cycling on a footpath that was crowded with pedestrians. Such paths typically occur in towns where the traffic speed is relatively slow, and cycling on the road reasonably safe. On the other hand, there are some stretches of rural highway that might be narrow yet are crowded with a heavy load of high speed traffic. Alongside might run an empty footpath. In those circumstances I would be inclined to use the path, despite the fact that I could be liable to a £20 spot fine. I reckon my skin is worth more than £20, while it has been my experience that most members of the police force turn a blind eye. Whenever you are driven to the footpath, be extra careful where pedestrians are concerned.

In the UK and, in my experience, France, it is the done thing to wave or shout a greeting to fellow cyclists coming towards you along the road. This pleasant custom does not apply in places where bikes are the principal mode of short distance travel, e.g. Denmark, Germany, Holland etc., as otherwise you would find yourself continually waving and shouting!

If you intend to ride in a group, e.g. CTC weekend rides, buy and fit a rear mud flap, it avoids you throwing muddy water up the nose of the following rider.

Cycling in Traffic

If you decide to mix it with the traffic, you will have to be prepared to fight your corner. The trick is to be assertive but not aggressive, and don't lose your temper. Many motorists have never ridden a bike on the road and are clue less as to what is involved. They pass far too close, and won't give you room to turn right or at roundabouts. It is sometimes necessary to occupy the centre of a lane to ensure safety, for example when approaching a roundabout, otherwise you will get cut up by an overtaking car. On a street with parked cars, it makes sense to stay out away from the side, otherwise somebody will run into you as you pull out. This delays people and makes them angry, C'est la vie! You have to be confident, without being stupid. It takes a while to learn and it can be dangerous.

It is easy to get into a frame of mind where the car is the enemy .......... don't. Most drivers are reasonable people, but just don't appreciate the problems that cyclists have. With a few exceptions, they cause you grief through ignorance rather than design. I occasionally take a route that involves using a pedestrian crossing, and generally don't have to wait for more than a few seconds before somebody stops to let me across. What am I saying here? Well don't antagonise people. Let cars pass if possible; don't deliberately hold up the traffic; give a wave of thanks if somebody lets you out etc. etc.

There is an attitude thing here. Bikes are tolerated on the road, but only just. Cyclists don't pay road tax (at least for the bike they are currently riding) so they don't deserve much space or consideration. On the continent they have savage traffic laws that sentence motorists to public castration by means of a blunt screwdriver if they drive within a foot of a bike. Actually that's not true, but they do have severe penalties for motorists who are involved in an accident with a cyclist or pedestrian. Notice the use of the word "involved". They are assumed guilty in such circumstances, and the onus is on the driver to prove that he is innocent. The result of this is that motorists give cyclists a very wide berth. Further, many more people cycle in Northern mainland Europe than in the UK, including many motorists, so they understand the problems that cyclists face. It all adds up to a different culture on the roads. We need to adopt much of this thinking if we want to make urban roads safe for cyclists in the UK. Need the address of your MP, then get it from your public library?

Speed is a major problem. There is cult of car and speed worship in the UK, something that is stoked up by the advertising campaigns of the motor manufacturers. We have a particular problem due to company car culture, and people who do not have to pay for their fuel. I believe that this is unique to the UK, at least in terms of the scale of the problem. The car is a status symbol, and the bigger and faster the better. We do have a, pretty humble, car, but I find cars boring, -----yawn, -----snooze.

Have you noticed all those fading bunches of flowers tied to railings, or left at the roadside? They each represent another road fatality. Death on the roads is so commonplace that it does not even make the local papers. In contrast the infinitely safer railway system gets the full glare of media attention on the one or two occasions each year when there is a fatal accident. If we applied the same rigorous safety standards to the roads as we insist the railway companies comply with, and carried out a public investigation each time there was a crash, we would have much lower urban speed limits, more car free zones, possibly fewer cars and a dramatic reduction in the number of serious accidents.

Ok I will descend from my soapbox and try to give some practical advice.

People who cycle on the roads at night without lights should be locked up, don't do it!

Perhaps the most important thing is to keep a good lookout, never make any manoeuvre without first checking that it is safe to do so. Some cyclists fit a small rear view mirror to their right hand brake lever, but I prefer to turn my head and look.

Don't be tempted to cringe along in the gutter, ride about a metre away from the edge of the road. That forces traffic to steer around you, rather than attempt to pass dangerously close, while it also avoids all that broken glass and other debris to be found near to the kerb. Further you are much more visible to other road users if you ride away from the kerb. There are some circumstances when it is only common sense to pull in a bit to allow somebody through however. The Highway Code advises drivers to give as much room when passing a cyclist as they would when overtaking a car. In my experience only a minority of motorists attempt to honour this requirement. Oddly enough bus drivers are amongst the worst culprits, perhaps they are used to manoeuvring their large vehicles through tight spaces. Here's a thought, you aren't allowed to take a driving test until you have proved that you can cycle safely in traffic - that might cause a change in attitudes!

While I do advocate riding along quiet roads, be careful not to become complacent at junctions. You might ride through a sleepy housing estate junction 49 times and not see a car, but on the 50th occasion you ride straight out without looking and get knocked off.

Whatever you decide to do, let the world know about it. Give clear, unambiguous signals. Stick your arm out in the direction of your intended movement and keep it there until you are sure it has been seen. Unfortunately many car drivers will ignore cyclists' signals, particularly if you want to turn right and they have to slow down to let you do it. You have to strike a balance here, don't pull out in front of a car if it is clearly unsafe to do so, but there are times when you have to slow the traffic to get to where you want to be. Try to establish eye contact with the driver behind, most people are reasonable when they realise that they are dealing with another human being. Your position on the road is all important, for a right turn it is usually necessary to move over to the centre in advance of the junction, to allow you to make it through a break in the traffic. You should be safe in the middle of the road, with your arm pointing right, but......

I remember one occasion when in a stream of traffic I wanted to make a right turn. The lady driver in the car behind realised my plight and signalled me over, slowing down to let me across. Unfortunately the young buffoon in the car behind her chose to overtake. I lived to tell the tale, but it was a close shave!

Large fast roundabouts are a cyclist's nightmare. Cars enter the roundabout at unreasonably high speeds, while impatient drivers turn across your bows as they leave. I have been knocked off the bike at a roundabout; the driver claimed that he did not see me. I have read advice that suggests that you will be safer if you occupy a lane, rather than creep along in the kerb, as you will be more visible that way. If in doubt get off and walk or find an alternative route. The problem here is twofold; people drive far too fast, while road engineers provide tangential entry and exit points to roundabouts, encouraging a speedy transit. If all urban roundabouts had strictly radial approaches, and the radius of roundabouts reduced, the traffic would be forced to slow down.

Large commercial vehicles can present particular problems. The driver often has a blind spot at his nearside, where you might pull alongside at traffic lights. The safest place to be is in front of the vehicle where you can be seen, and, increasingly, junctions have a cyclists' stop zone ahead of that for the motorised traffic. If there is not such a zone, stay behind any large vehicle that is at the head of a queue.

Another problem occurs because on some commercial vehicles the driver's large rear view mirrors create a blind spot to his immediate right or left. I have first hand experience of this, as once a bus started to pull out of a minor road just as I was passing the junction. I remember thinking "I'm not sure he's seen me" as I approached the junction. Fortunately in that split second I had anticipated the problem and moved out from the kerb, while the driver had good reactions and equally good brakes! On reflection I should have been riding further out from the kerb to begin with, where he would have been expecting to see traffic. Try to see the whites of the driver's eyes, if you don't, expect trouble.

You do learn to read the danger signals with time, but there are occasions when you cannot predict what is about to happen. I have to turn left at a junction on my way home from work. Approaching this junction one evening there was, unusually, a stationary queue of vehicles waiting to turn right. They were all indicating their intention to turn right, and had positioned themselves near to the centre of the road, leaving a path a good metre wide on the left side of the road. I sailed into this space when the rear vehicle suddenly pulled over to the left, actually mounting the kerb in his effort to get around the queue. I hit the side of the (inevitably enough) white van and was knocked sideways onto the footpath. The van stopped immediately and the passenger leapt out, clearly very concerned for my safety. I was convinced that the driver had not deliberately tried to hit me, but he had moved off without looking. Fortunately neither me nor the bike was hurt, but it was a reminder that the road is a potentially dangerous place.

I realise that what I am about to say will upset many cyclists, you have only to read a few of the threads in the uk.cycling newsgroup to understand that there is a general feeling that cyclists have every right to be on the road in all circumstances. This same mind set seems to assume that all cycle paths are a bad thing, actually much more dangerous than the road itself. Well I don't like breathing the fumes of cars and trucks; I have no taste for being scared by 30 tons of metal screaming by with only inches to spare; I am very irritated by people overtaking me and immediately turning left. I could go on and on.......  I count my blessings that I have a traffic free path to take me to work every day, even if it does become a mud bath in the winter months. With political will, we could have the same excellent network of safe cycle paths that are enjoyed by our fellow Europeans in Denmark, Germany, and Holland. I would gladly trade my right to ride on fast dual carriageways and other busy major roads if there was a safe, convenient, and well maintained alternative.

Cycle path


Take a look at the photograph showing a cyclist using a path through a birch wood in Co. Durham, there's no way would I swap that for the A1! OK there are plenty of people who live in a conurbation that don't have that kind of facility open to them, while a lot of the on street cycle path provision is worse than useless; but there is a better way. It is possible to ride out of Amsterdam, Hamburg or Strasbourg on well maintained traffic free paths, so why not London, Birmingham or Newcastle?

I occasionally ride in traffic, and admit to enjoying the cut and thrust it entails, but I feel that if I make a habit of it, one day my luck might run out. The problem is, no matter how good you are, there will be some impatient idiot who is busy using his mobile, or adjusting her radio, who might just take you out. Stick to the off road cycle paths or quiet roads if you can.

Riding On Ice

Riding on ice is very scary, you can almost guarantee a fall. What can I recommend, other than you avoid the practice? Well keep your speed down is an obvious first point, if you are going to fall let it be a low speed event. Try to avoid braking on icy surfaces, brake before you get to the ice, but use the rear rather than the front brake if it is essential to slow down. Avoid radical changes of direction, try to keep the bike upright, do everything as smoothly as possible. If the bike is moving in a steady straight line, momentum will carry you over ice.

If your rear wheel starts to slither you can normally correct the slide by turning into it, but if your front wheel goes you are going to eat dirt! If you fall try to relax, let the bike fall beneath you and crumple on impact. I fall on ice virtually every year, and so far, touch wood, have not suffered any real injury.

At the risk of stating the obvious, black ice is formed when water freezes. There are two likely scenarios. The most frequently encountered is caused when it rains during the day and then the temperature falls below freezing during the night. The following morning roads and tarmac paths are treacherous - time to take a bus! Alternatively it may have rained some while ago, but surface water is still present or running across your path in one or two locations, and that water freezes. You should get to know where those slippery spots are and, if necessary, walk around them. The white ground frost that you see after a dry cold night is nothing like as dangerous. While I suspect that a white frost does reduce the coefficient of friction between tyre and road, I have never fallen off due to a white frost, it is black ice that causes the problems.

Snow is not such a problem, provided that it is not too deep. In my experience the worst condition is black ice over which it has rained, or, possibly even worse, hail stones have gathered. This is like cycling over polished glass strewn with marbles!

The point I am struggling to make here is that it is often quite safe to cycle during the colder months of the year, even on those occasions when the landscape has turned white (great time to be out!). You have to be alert for the danger signs however, know your route, and watch the weather carefully.

Hills are potentially very dangerous places when the temperature drops below freezing. Be aware that north facing slopes may not see any sunshine throughout the day and will remain icy when it has melted elsewhere.

When there is black ice about I would think seriously about finding alternatives to tarmac cycle paths. Free draining aggregate is the best surface, it is more bumpy than tarmac, but does not allow water to collect and so is almost ice free. You might ride alongside the path, grass is normally OK. It may be preferable to find a quiet road which has been gritted, that's probably safer than a tarmac cycle path.

If you have no alternative to the tarmac cycle path - take a bus on the few icy days that make cycling too hazardous to contemplate.

If local authorities are serious about providing cycle paths, they should be prepared to clear compacted snow and grit the paths. This happens in Germany - I have seen the mini tractors in action - but in the UK it seems to be beyond the imagination (or, more likely, budget) of the bureaucrats responsible for cycle provision.

If your local authority does not grit its paths, write to your councillor and complain, one day the penny might drop.

Economics of Cycling

Cars cost an awful lot of money. When my father was made redundant and was forced into premature retirement, he took the immediate and very wise decision to sell his car. He could probably have kept it running, but that would have consumed a large proportion of his income. My parents, although living on modest means, have been able to holiday abroad every year since my father stopped work - largely due to the fact that they do not have to run a car.

If taking up cycling means that you can dispense with the car, you will save lots of cash. Depreciation, road tax and insurance represent the fixed costs of motoring, and they are not insubstantial. Carless life does not mean being entirely without motorised transport - think how many taxi journeys you could afford for the cost of a single year's depreciation on a new car. Hire a car for the weekend if you need to visit friends on the other side of the country - the charges will be much less than those associated with the upkeep of your own vehicle.

If you need to keep the car, despite cycling to work, then the cost equation is not so straightforward. Motorists moan and whinge about the cost of fuel, but I suspect that few of them have ever tried to use public transport. Once the fixed costs have been covered, the mileage costs of running a car are relatively small - cheaper than public transport, particularly if more than one person is travelling. Cycling brings with it its own cost agenda, some of the items are not readily apparent. Firstly you have the depreciation in value of the bike, then there is the cost of the parts that wear out and need to be replaced, and then there is the cost of special cycling clothing.

While most cars will now travel up to 12000 miles between services, derailleur gear fitted bikes wear out their chains and other transmission parts at a fraction of that distance. The rate of wear is heavily dependent upon the terrain through which you ride, with muddy fly ash surfaced ex railway paths being amongst the worst.

I have had my commuting mountain bike for about four years. In that time I have had to replace both wheels (on my third rear wheel), the crankset, the gear shifters, the pedals, the sealed bottom bracket, the mudguards, the carrier, the front derailleur, several sets of tyres and brake blocks, numerous chains and several cassettes. None of this replacement has been due to whim or fashion; it has had to be done because parts wore out or failed. The original bike is represented by the frame, handlebars, saddle and brakes (one of the saddle rails snapped today - new saddle wanted).... I reckon that I have spent a total of around £750 on the bike over that time, not including special clothing. Assuming that I could sell it for say £150, that brings down the spend to £600. Assume further that I have done around 10000 miles, then the cost per mile works out to be about 6p. Now had my way to work been along tarmac cycle paths that were swept of litter and cleared of ice and snow, I could have used a Dutch style city bike with hub gears, steel wheels etc. It would have cost a bit more initially, but I would not have had to keep dipping my hand into my pocket for new bits.

Since writing the above paragraph, the bike has suffered a second saddle rail failure, the photo below shows the broken rails. I am not phenomenally heavy (11.5 stone) so I can only conclude that these saddles are incredibly poorly made!

Broken saddle rails

The saddle in question had done some limited service on our tandem before being fitted to the MTB, it was made by Vetta. I have now replaced this saddle with a 24 year old Brooks Professional, taken from my touring bike (it is now on its third bike!).

One of the few positive things that central government has done to help cyclists of late has been the decision of the Labour Government to increase the tax free allowance for work related cycle journeys to 20p per mile. You can't claim expenses for travelling to and from work, but you can claim for journeys made in the course of your work. You do need your employer to agree to pay the 20 p of course, but if they don't I believe that you can claim the difference in tax relief.

Another recent development has been the provision of internet ordering and delivery services by the supermarket chains. They are currently charging £5 to pick and deliver your groceries (presumably only available to those who live within a restricted radius of their stores). Yet another reason to sell that 4x4, the cost of a year's deliveries will be less than the insurance on one of those beasts, while think of the time saved for cycling! I wonder if there is scope for a reduced delivery charge for those who cycle to the store and pick their own groceries?

In cycling heaven, the local authorities would provide properly surfaced paths that were regularly swept of glass, were cleared of snow and treated with grit in the winter months. The gradients would be slight and few and far between. Such an arrangement would allow cycle commuters to use utility bikes that have hub gears and hub brakes that rarely need servicing. Cycling heaven does in fact exist, not a million miles away, in northern mainland Europe. We are light years behind them in the UK. If you find this unsatisfactory, try writing to your MP.

Do you want to consider cycle touring?

If you do decide to buy a bike for commuting, why not consider using it for longer rides? Once you get used to cycling you will find that it quite easy to average about 10 mph over a number of hours. This means that, over the course of a day and allowing stops for refreshments, sightseeing etc., you should have little difficulty in covering about 60 miles. There are cyclists who do much more than this, but touring is about cycling for pleasure, and the number of miles covered is not a measure of the satisfaction obtained from the process. If you ride 30 miles on a pleasant Sunday afternoon, then fine. It is sometimes difficult to find the time for longer expeditions, and my wife and I often content ourselves with a 24 mile trip on the tandem, invariably stopping somewhere nice for a coffee and cake, or hot soup and a bun in the winter.

If you do decide to venture further afield here are a few tips: -

  1. Gradually build up the distance, try short runs at first. You will need to develop the set of muscles that make cycling so much easier than walking.
  2. Take it easy, you are not in a race, and you need to find a pace that you can sustain throughout the ride. I have the standard three chain wheels on my touring bike, but I never use the big ring when touring. If the speed exceeds 20 mph, I stop pedalling. The tandem is different, you can easily fly along on the flat on that machine - but that's another story.
  3. See hills as a challenge, rather than a problem. Don't try to conquer the hill by pushing extra hard, rather win by more gentle means. Engage a low gear and just take your time. Hill climbing is something of a mental, as well as a physical, battle - you have to believe that you can do it, when you probably will. I normally find it easier to ride up a hill, rather than push the bike, but it sometimes makes sense to stop for a breather.
  4. Always take a water bottle, money/card, tools, inflator, and a water proof.
  5. Have a target in mind, a tea shop, pub, museum, stately home etc. Relax when you get there.
  6. Traditional advice recommends that you should drink before you are thirsty and eat before you are hungry while cycling over a long distance. This avoids the onset of the curiously named "bonk", or being completely and absolutely knackered!
  7. Always take a means of locking your bike - even if it is only of the keep honest people honest type. Presumably you will not choose to cycle to a place where cycle theft is going to be a problem! If possible leave the bike where you can see it.

Warning

Cycle touring can be addictive, once you catch the bug, it’s hard to shake it off!

I guess that the real cycle tour means more than a day ride. It's great to head away for several days, stopping overnight in a new location. The easiest way to do this probably involves bed and breakfast, but there is a range of alternatives. Try hotels, the YHA (cheap and much improved in recent years), and camping. Probably the best way to start is to go for a weekend away. If you enjoy that, try something more ambitious.

The UK is good for cycle touring, but you can take the adventure further afield. Mainland Europe has generally better facilities for cycling than the UK, and cycling is not seen as a fringe activity. Take the ferry across to Holland and experience total bike culture. One of my favourite activities is to sip a beer outside a bar in Amsterdam and watch the world go by. In addition to Holland, Denmark and Germany have extensive networks of safe routes for cyclists, while their traffic laws recognise the relative frailty of the cyclist and put the onus on the motorist to keep out of the way! France is another country where cyclists are very welcome, although there is not the same level of specialist provision as is encountered further north. Try the quiet minor roads in southern France - the weather is almost guaranteed, while the food and wine are legendary. In all of these places you will find more, better stocked, bike shops than in the UK.

If you enjoy cycling abroad, then the world is yours to explore. You might just end up joining the ranks of those who have circumnavigated the globe by bike!

You might want to look over a few tours that I have documented

You can take your bike by train, but the process is a mite uncertain. Some companies take bikes free, others charge, some insist upon pre booking, while others won't take bikes at all. In my experience, the express main line trains will take a bike, provided that you both pre book and pay a small fee. I know of cases where the company policy has been to take bikes, but the train crew has not been aware of this and have refused. It's all a bit muddled, but worth a go. I have used the train successfully numerous times.

I prefer to leave the car at home as much as possible, but there are occasions when it is the only way to take your bike to the start of a ride. The bike can be partially dismantled when it will fit inside most family cars, but the most practical solution is some form of rack. I would recommend a tow bracket fixing rack as the best type, it is strong and it keeps the bike out of the wind. I owned a rear window fitting rack for a day, but witnessed it and three bikes fall off the car, while my brother in law had such a rack punch a hole through his rear window - they aren't safe.

For travel abroad it is possible to take a bike by plane (often at no extra charge) - but wrap up your machine well to ward off the perils of demon baggage handlers, while some ferry companies carry cycles free. A number of coach operators now provide bike trailers, and will take you and your machine to a variety of locations in Europe, e.g. European Bike Express and Simon Hawksley's Yorkshire Bikeliner. While European Bike Express runs a regular schedule to a number of established destinations, you can book the Bikeliner for a one off event.

Ever thought of a tandem?

Not the best choice for commuting (unless you both work at the same place!), but great for day rides and touring, the tandem is the most sociable of bikes. Here are some of the pros and cons.

For

  1. Two riders of dissimilar ability/weight remain together. The physics of cycling mean that a heavier rider normally goes faster down hill and slower up.
  2. It is possible to conduct a conversation on a tandem, without occupying half of the road.
  3. An inexperienced cyclist (child perhaps) is introduced to cycling in a safe manner.
  4. Persons with impaired vision or balance can enjoy a ride whereas a solo bike might be out of the question.
  5. The air resistance of a tandem is less than that of two separate bikes - tandems fly downhill or on the flat!
  6. The "stoker" has a partially impeded view ahead, but can admire the passing countryside without worrying about steering.
  7. The "stoker" can read a map while you are underway, less need to stop for navigational purposes.
  8. The tandem feels quite different to a solo bike, there is a special quality to the handling that has to be experienced to be appreciated. It is at its best on a long shallow descent down a road with sweeping curves.
  9. You are rarely short of somebody new to talk to when you stop, tandems attract attention wherever they go!

Against

  1. The "stoker" has got to trust the "captain", it can be quite scary on the back of a tandem. The captain, therefore, has to gan canny!
  2. Tandems are hard work on hills. Perhaps this is a function of imperfect synchronisation between the riders, but the power output of the two riders is not equal to twice that of the individuals. This is a characteristic of shared physical work, and there exists measured data to prove the point - not merely confined to cycling.
  3. The luggage capacity of a tandem is the same as that of a single bike, i.e. half that of two bikes. This is a problem if your tour involves carrying a tent and sleeping bags, less so if you are staying in hostels or hotels.
  4. A loaded tandem is a singularly unhandy beast to push around and park in towns and cities. You can increase the luggage capacity by towing a trailer, but think of the consequences when pushing the bike across a city. Tandems are also at a disadvantage on UK cycle tracks with their numerous stupid barriers that are almost tandem proof.
  5. Starting off on a tandem takes longer than a solo bike. You can't get your leg over without decapitating the stoker! In practice the captain has to hold the bike steady while the stoker gets into the toe clips. The stoker then rotates the cranks to provide a good starting down stroke for take off. This all takes time. Not a problem on a long run, but irksome when there are numerous stops/starts.
  6. Tandems do not stop as quickly as a single bike. The loaded tandem is almost twice as heavy, yet has the same brakes as a solo bike. (Better tandems are normally fitted with a third brake).
  7. It takes more physical effort to control a tandem than a solo bike; the captain has to be reasonably fit and able.
  8. Only mainline trains will take a tandem.
  9. You get all sorts of inane comments as you pass by, and you will hear the cry "(S)he's not pedalling" once or twice too often! My favourite is “Watch the dog doesn’t throw a bucket of water over you!”

Tandems are great for people who get on well together, and are even better if the two people are of similar ability.

If you decide to buy a tandem, here are some things to consider: -

You need a good range of gears, to take advantage of that reduced air resistance on the flat and to enable you to climb hills. While most new solo bikes have what seem to me a ludicrously large number of gears and an unnecessarily high top, this is just what is required on a tandem. I would recommend a bottom gear of less than 25" and a top in excess of 100".

The wheels are absolutely critical. You need plenty of spokes and really strong rims. Dawes currently market a good range of tandems and they come with 36, 40 or 48 hole rims, depending upon how much you are prepared to pay. Our bike has 40 hole rims and they have been plenty strong enough for the use that we have put them to. Look at the products of Mavic or Rigida/Alesa and Rhino. Schwalbe make good tough tyres to go with your strong wheels.

Brakes are also very important. If budget is not an issue I would consider hydraulically operated brakes, particularly for the rear wheel where there is a long cable run. I would not want a tandem that did not have an additional brake, ideally a front disc, but at the least a rear hub brake. The rear hub brake that is normally fitted to a tandem is really a drag brake, intended to dissipate energy during a long descent. It is NOT an effective stopper.

Try to buy a frame without any major discontinuities or steps in its structure - difficult if the two regular riders are of dissimilar stature.

If I were seeking the perfect tandem, I would want cranks whose lengths were matched to the lengths of the riders' legs. On most tandems both sets are of the same length, which makes it difficult to find a cadence that is most suitable for both cyclists. My wife's solo touring bike Orbit has smaller than standard cranks, a feature she does appreciate. Unfortunately you have to buy top dollar kit in order to benefit from this arrangement on a tandem.

A cheap but useful accessory is a mud flap attached to the bottom of the front mudguard. If you don't have a mud flap you will find that the line of flight of the spray from the front wheel will strike the stoker's legs.

Before investing in some expensive hardware, why not try to borrow a tandem from a friend, or hire, or buy second-hand - just to make sure that the tandem concept is right for you.

The companies that I know that market off the peg tandems in the UK are Dawes, Orbit, Thorn(St. John Street Cycles). Many of the bespoke frame builders will make you a tandem.

As with most things, financial considerations force compromise. My wife and I have used a relatively inexpensive (£1000) Dawes Galaxy tandem for over 10 years. It has carried us across Europe twice and around a lot of the UK. During that time there have been (many) occasions when I would have preferred better brakes, while the strong but tyre eating Mavic rims have burst one tyre and crippled several others. The frame flexes a bit under load, and we have suffered a failed freewheel. Despite all of this, it is a much loved machine that is hanging up in the garage just waiting for some sunshine to tempt us out onto the roads!

Our bike has been modified slightly with a Dave Yates special bracket to lift the stoker's handlebars, while both saddles are now of Brooks leather. The stoker's saddle has springs to provide some cushioning from the inevitable unseen potholes. I guess that you could purchase a suspension seat post if you enjoy emptying your wallet.

Finally, how do you transport a tandem? The mainline trains in the UK will carry a tandem, but the smaller under floor engined trains cannot accommodate such a long bike.

In addition to the train, we use a car top mounted carrier to take the bike by road. I was told about the design by Barry Tingle, a relative and a long time CTC stalwart from the Norfolk area. The bike travels upright with the front wheel removed. The design utilises a 3"x2" length of hardwood supported between a pair of Thule ladder racks. The timber is drilled at the front to take a conventional bike front axle which is used to clamp the forks, while the rear wheel rests in a slot cut in the wood. The front drilling needs to be angled slightly in the horizontal plane to allow the mudguard to clear the beam. Galvanised steel bolts and pairs of drilled plates are used to attach the timber to the racks. A pair of toe straps tie the rear wheel down. Finally, and most importantly, the bike is held secure by means of two webbing ties that go around the front seatpost and around the ends of the front ladder rack. This forms a triangular structure which is naturally stable. We have covered thousands of miles carrying the bike like this. Not counting the ladder rack, it cost less than £30 to make.

You can of course modify the design to accommodate your solo bike as an alternative to the tandem.

Tandem on top of car

Clamp used to attach the beam to the ladder rack

The business end of the support beam

The business end of the support has been strengthened by forming a sandwich using two pieces of plywood glued and bolted to the beam. Note that the axle goes through at an angle to prevent the mudguard from fouling the beam, while it has been necessary to carve the support locally to allow space for the mudguard stay. The axle hole is strengthened using a copper liner made from a piece of copper pipe cut along its length and then formed to shape. Finally, a pair of larger nuts with accompanying washers (clearance fit over the axle thread) is used to accommodate the angle and provide a snug fit for the forks. The nuts and washers are pushed hard up against the beam in use - not shown in that configuration on the photograph.

You can of course buy a Thule tandem rack which will perform faultlessly but costs lots of pennies. Alternatively, if you and your partner are not strong enough to lift the bike onto the top of the car, there are available tandem racks that enable you to load the bike at a lower height, before winching the assembly onto the roof. Finally, I have seen a tandem carried transversely across the rear of the car on a tow bracket mounting bracket. I suspect that you would have to remove both wheels in order to keep the length down in that instance.

Useful Links

Let me selfishly start with the links to my own cycling sites

If you join the Cyclists' Touring Club (CTC) you will receive a number of benefits, including a good magazine, free third party insurance cover, free technical and other (including legal) advice, some discounts on products and services, and access to cycling events throughout the country and abroad. There will probably be a local CTC group near you, who will organise weekend day rides, and possibly cycling holidays. Most local groups will offer graded rides, there might be two Sunday rides organised, one for "easy" riders (maybe 30-40 miles) and another for "hard" riders (60+ miles).

My local, and very friendly, group (Wearside CTC) has an "easy" riders and a "moderate" riders section (80 easily paced miles on my first ride with them!). The Wearside group organises regular cycling holidays in the UK and Europe, with the emphasis on enjoyment, rather than flat out cycling - new members always welcome. The nature of the local groups is a bit variable, many, like the Wearside group, are extremely welcoming to new cyclists, ensuring that nobody ever gets left behind, while others are a bit haughty and tend to ride everywhere at a gallop!

The CTC acts to protect the rights of cyclists by lobbying politicians and campaigning for improved cycle facilities. The CTC has a very broad membership base, including cycle commuters, long distance tourers, leisure riders including off road enthusiasts, and dedicated speed merchants. The club tries to cater for all cycling tastes.

Much of the cycle path network throughout the country is being designed and promoted by the cycling charity Sustrans. One of their current projects is "Safe routes to Schools". While Sustrans has enjoyed "substantial" lottery funding (it would probably be enough to build a couple of miles of motorway!) this can only partially cover the expenses involved. Sustrans does depend upon the donations and the practical help of its members for its continued success. I act as a Sustrans Ranger, reporting defects on my small stretch of the National Cycle Network, and occasionally helping with maintenance. If you have enjoyed riding along a Sustrans path, you really should consider contributing.

If you live in London, the London Cycling Campaign would welcome your support, while you will find it interesting and useful to visit the Cycle Curious web site, intended to help those who are interested in commuting by bicycle in London.

Another pressure group, supported by some high profile names, is Transport 2000 which works for coherent and sustainable transport solutions. Their brief is wider than cycling, including a campaign to move freight from road to rail, and improved public transport, but the bike features as a major part of their strategy.

I have a personal interest in promoting cycling in my own area, if you live in the NE of England you may be interested in joining the washington cycle campaign Washington Cycling Campaign

There is a lively debate on cycling related matters in the uk.rec.cycling newsgroup, if you have a question to ask or an opinion to express, that is a good place to start.

If you want no nonsense technical information on bikes and bike maintenance you can do a lot worse than refer to Sheldon Brown's excellent web site.

For a collection of top class cycling literature look no further than Scott Munn's Bike Reader.

If you would like to read more about bikes and cycling, I would recommend "Richard's Bicycle Book". My own very dog eared copy encouraged me back to two wheels many years ago.

Another good read is "The CTC Book of Cycle Touring" Les Woodland, ISBN 1 85223 925 5

I don't normally link personal web sites, but the work done by Louis Blank of The Rochdale Cycling Club in introducing underprivileged children, many of ethnic origin, to cycling should be an inspiration to all people involved in spreading the word.

Mail Order

While I do believe in supporting your local bike shop whenever possible, there are times when you have to look elsewhere to get what you want. This is increasingly the case if you are into touring and commuting rather than MTB hardware. I have used the following shops by mail order and have received good service from all of them: -

Spa Cycles, 1 Wedderburn Road, Harrogate, HG2 7QH. Phone 01423-887003. Fax 01423-881917. Stocks touring kit in the main including those excellent Alesa rims, Stronglight and TA cranks/rings etc. and lots of other goodies. Trades from a small shop with (presumably) low overheads so prices are normally keen. See their adverts in the CTC magazine.

CTC mail order shop. CTC, 69 Meadrow, Godalming, Surrey, GU7 3HS. Phone 08708730069. A much more ambitious emporium in recent times with a growing range of interesting bits, including Freestyle Gore-tex jackets, Carnac shoes, Carradice and Ortlieb panniers and Schwalbe and Continental Tyres - not to mention dynamos! You used to find others charging a bit less, but prices are competitive these days; all profits go to the CTC.

St John Street Cycles , 91-93 St John Street, Bridgewater, Somerset, TA6 5HX. Phone 01278 441501. Possibly the largest range of kit in the UK, including discontinued lines, and their own highly regarded bicycles. Watch out for the £5 delivery charge on orders less than £50 however, and compare prices before buying....

Edinburgh Bicycle Co-operative , 8 Alvanley Tce., Whitehouse Loan, Edinburgh, EH9 1DU. Phone 0131 228 1368. Don't enter this shop unless you have very strong will power or no money. I spent £100 on accessories last time I went through the doors - they have a great selection of stuff and friendly, helpful, and knowledgeable, staff. They also sell their own range of bikes, while they are happy to trade via the Internet.

Feel free to send me an e-mail if you have any comments or questions on these pages or cycle commuting.