Single minded

For the last few months my beloved Raleigh Clubman has been hanging on a hook in the shed. No I haven’t fallen out of love with riding. Rather I’ve fallen in love with the other, much simpler bike in my shed.

Last year a black Raleigh Record Sprint came into my possession. A neighbour of mine spotted it in the local Aladdin’s Cave and procured it on my behalf. It was complete and original but it needed some TLC. It’s wheels were shot, frame was scuffed up and the gears weren’t up to much.

I already had a great geared bike in the shed so I decided to create something different. Something with little functional overlap with the Clubman. So I stripped the mechs, cables and shifters from the bike, along with the worn old chainrings from the stock crank. I replaced the wheels with a pair of freehub wheels I had lying around, added a single speed converter kit and a single front ring and I was set.

I’ve ridden single speed before and loved the low-maintenance and the simplicity of the ride and the first spin on the bike brought back the love for that purity straight away.

Recently I’ve taken up rock climbing and the stealthy single speed is the perfect bike to thread through the city and down to the climbing wall.

It’s a hilly four miles down from Old Swan to the docks, where Awesome Walls is located, dropping down over Everton Brow is always magical with the city and the river spread out in front of me.

And muscling the bike up over Everton Brow after two hours on the climbing wall is a great way to empty the tank.

The bike is a beater and no mistake. It’s scratched up, it’s got odd wheels but it runs like a dream. Silent, thanks to the SS drivetrain and whippy too, courtesy of those skinny Reynolds 501 tubes.

I’m tempted to repaint it but I think it will lose its ‘lock me up anywhere’ charm. There’s no anxiety about catching more dents and dings. It’s ugly. It flies under the radar. But I’m enjoying my riding more on this £25 beater than I have done in years.

33.3 recurring: Rivendell Jack Brown and the mathematics of plush

Two immutable laws were at play today. 1. Buying your own Christmas presents is always best. 2. Spending money on tyres is the most efficient way of transforming your bike.

I squared the power of these two laws recently with the acquisition of a pair of Rivendell Jack Brown Green tyres. Now the thought of opening a pair of tyres wrapped in Christmas paper might not appeal to many. Opening a pair of tyres that you bought yourself is surely more tragic? Nonetheless the childlike joy of anticipation has kept me going since I clicked ‘Buy Now’ on Planet X’s website during their Black Friday Fibonacci sale a month or more ago.

“Math is a wonderful thing”, to quote Jack Black, and Jack Brown also knows a thing or two about the magic of numbers. What we have here is a 700c tyre in a Goldilocks 33.3mm width. Why is 33.3 just right? Because it will fit a huge range of bikes, from 1970s and 80s ‘road bikes’ through hybrids, tourers and cross bikes.

It is also a width that won’t intimidate died in the wool 23mm riders, in spite of high performances tyres being available in motorcycle-like widths for many a moon.

But it’s when fat is combined with thin that the magic really happens. A fat, slick tyre with a thin supple carcass is the apogee of road/cycle interface. Jack Brown ‘Green’ is a fat skin wall with a thin tread, high thread count, Kevlar bead and no puncture resistant belt and as a result, weigh a paltry 350g apiece. Rivendell also produce a ‘Blue’ version with a Kevlar belt for the puncture-anxious.

But enough of the numbers and specs. How does the maths work out on the road?

In short. Oh. My. Levels of plush that one only dreams of. Quick acceleration. Floating over irregularities like a pneumatically-suspended god. A rounded profile that begs for Jan Heine-like angles of lean. Tenacious grip on many surfaces. I rode this very day through water, ice, autumn leaves, puddles, gravel and more and not once did Jack’s chequerboard tread complain.

Then there’s the looks. Simultaneously channeling 70s road bike and Dugast tub, the Panaracer-made Jack Brown is a quality handmade in Japan thing, looking like a snake that’s shed its skin in the packet but on the bike like the bulbous, canvas-sided loveliness that graced Eugene Christophe et al’s Tour de France whips.

But inevitably we must come back to the numbers. What price for this best of all worlds performance? Currently £29.99 from Planet X , Fibonacci sales excepted.

My advice? If you’re fat tyre curious, call Jack. You won’t be disappointed.

The miracle of electricity 

The last few months of dark morning and evening commutes have pushed me to invest in something I’ve wanted for a long time. 

Relying on battery-powered accessory lights has always seemed odd to me, akin to buying a car and having to charge up and strap on lights. I suppose it’s just a symptom of how much bike and ‘accessory’ manufacturers are still in the thrall of racing. 

I’ve long hankered after a dynamo setup and have ridden bikes with bottle dynamos before. But the hub generator has always seemed to me the holy grail of dynamo setups, perfect yet tantalisingly out of reach. 

One can spend a small fortune on top end Schmidt hubs and lights but, ever the cheapskate, I found a way in on the ground floor. 

Some furtive eBay searching found a German seller offering pre-built wheels with a range of Shimano hubs on Exal ZX19 eyeletted rims and DT spokes. 

I opted for the utilitarian DH-3N30 quick release hub, a Union 35lux headlamp with standlight and a mudguard mounted standlight rear light, plus wiring to suit. The whole lot cost an astonishing £60 plus £17 shipping from Germany. 

The wheel arrived well-packaged, nicely tensioned and fitting was a doddle. The light, a UN-4268, has a built in wire and piggyback connectors for the rear light, and incorporates a switch for hub useage. 

At this time of year my commute features a seven-mile completely unlit section which demands a strong, well-focussed beam that doesn’t dazzle oncoming riders. The cheap and cheerful hub and light setup delivers this in spades. It’s already been subjected to horrible conditions and has worked without complaint. 

Sure there are lighter and more efficient systems out there, in Shimano’s range and also from manufacturers like Shutter Precision and Schmidt but for less than the price of a standard front wheel, this is a great way to start. 

The socialising effect of the cycle path

We live an a world of anonymity. We cultivate, curate and nurture our singularity and detachment. We build walls, physical, metaphorical and technological to avoid each other. 

The way we move from place to place is impersonal and alienating. Even when we sit next to one another on the bus, train or tram, we politely ignore each other. We pass in the street like ghosts. Even our social media is fundamentally asocial. 

But I’ve rediscovered a wonderful phenomenon that I observed a few years ago; the socialising effect of the traffic-free path. 

My commute takes me along the Liverpool Loopline for much of the journey, a converted railway path, tree-lined and idyllic, cutting an arc through Liverpool’s suburbs. 

And moving along the path amid the morning birdsong, I make a point to say good morning, smile or otherwise acknowledge every person I pass. I nod to fellow cyclers, thank dog walkers who control their dogs when I pass. I even say hello to those who don’t. Most nod, smile or say morning back. 

I’ve made it my personal challenge to extract a ‘morning’ from the most morose of my regular fellow commuters- an earnest looking young man with glasses who really should be enjoying life’s bounty more than he appears. He rides too fast, too seriously. He hasn’t smiled, nodded or spoke yet but I have faith and pig-headedness on my side. 

I’ve pondered many times why the Loopline and places like it have this fascinating socialising effect. Maybe it’s the semi rural environment that brings out the human in humans, takes us back to a time when we acknowledged one another. Maybe it’s the isolation of this ‘urban lane’ that makes people feel reliant on their temporary linear community. Maybe the human scale, human speed mode reconnects us with each other? 

I thought it was a ‘cyclist thing’ but pedestrians, dog people and cyclists all exhibit the same elevated sense of social connection. Apart from Mr Surly with the glasses and the Strava obsession.  You know who you are. 

Has anyone else noticed this effect on their local cycle trail? 

Saddlebags for commuting: the old-school solution

Getting to work by bike, under my own steam, has an enduring appeal for me. Getting to work with steam coming out of my ears, lathered with perspiration however is lower on my favourites list. 

And it’s for this reason that I’m a big fan of carrying my day-to-day goods on the bike, rather than on my back. I’m a firm believer these days that the bike should carry the load, like the faithful iron horse it is. 

Now, long-term followers of this blog will know I’ve wavered on this issue, flirted with messenger bags and rucksacks and whatnot. But I’ve come right back around to letting the beast take the burden. 

And I’ve found that the best type of bag I’ve used for commute-size loads is the classic saddlebag. 

I’ve owned a number over the years, all made by Carradice of Nelson. First a Pendle in olive green, followed by a giant 20-something litre Camper Longflap in black and now, a ‘just about right’ 13-litre Cadet

Why just about right? The mid-sized Cadet is perfect for my needs, big enough to carry everything I need for the day. This is generally:

  • Tools
  • Spare tube
  • Waterproofs
  • Lock 
  • Work satchel containing work shirt and sweater, iPad, phone, chargers. 

The Cadet is a simple, unfussy single compartment with no side pockets and is small enough to leave on the bike when lightly loaded. 

I keep the saddlebag permanently attached to the bike and take the satchel in and out when I get to my destination, essentially using the saddlebag as a fabric basket. I’ve used an SQR quick release system before to great success but the aesthete in me prefers the look of the bag simply attached to the saddle loops on my Spa Cycles Nidd saddle. I use an old Pletscher Model C rack as a bag support, lifting the bag away from the saddle and holding it at a more pleasing angle. 

Russian bags?

The bag-within-bag (Russian bags?) setup works well for me, allowing me to switch between cycling, driving and public transport commutes without having to decant my daily goods from one bag to t’other. 

I’ve toyed with the idea of a basket but rattles bug me and the Carradice saddlebag gives weather protection to its precious cargo, being made from deluge-proof cotton duck and being tucked behind the rider and out of harm’s way. 

It scores over a single pannier in being a central weight over the wheel, away from road spray, drivetrain dirt and snagging in control gates and undergrowth on the cycle path. 

And of course all forms of bike-borne portage score heavily over rucksacks in the sweat stakes, allowing air to circulate over the rider and through breathable jackets, minimising the dreaded sweaty back in the office syndrome, so beloved of work colleagues. 

What’s your preferred mode of bike portage? Rucksack, pannier, messenger bag, saddlebag or something else? 

*I have no affiliation to Carradice, beyond loving their work.