Basket Case

If you put the words ‘basket’ and ‘bike’ in the same sentence, most folk will conjure an image of a straight backed (probably female) Dutch bike equipped rider. Many ‘proper’ cyclists will sneer or shuffle uncomfortably when in the prescence of a basket user.

However, if you’re among the doubters but use a bike for practical reasons and not just ‘sport’, then I urge you to give a front basket a try. For if you do, you will find that a humble basket is the most useful thing that you can strap to your bike.

Why? Put simply, it makes the bike/life union sweeter. If you’re heading out of the door, you can just throw your stuff into the basket and pedal away. If you’re at the market you can wheel your bike around and throw your goods and chattels right in. If you’re riding along and need something on the move – a map, drink, camera, etc. You just lean in and pick it out. A basket converts your normal everyday handbag or manbag into a bike bag. Dang, it can even carry your dog (anything bigger than a Jack Russell Terrier might be pushing the envelope).

I’ve toyed with baskets on ‘serious bikes’ since reading Rivendell’s mind-opening piece on them and like the chaps at Riv, I’ve mounted mine to a Nitto rack, which, before the basket addition was pretty useless (i.e. it was pretty but useless). The basket I’m using right now is an old, broken rusty thing that’s sat in my garden for two years on an old Rodeo Dutch Bike (acting as a home for potted plants). However I needed something that would carry my camera bag and allow quick and easy access to my cameras for a summer of photo assigments at Sky Ride and also a spot of bike camping.It’s just zip tied on, a la Rivendell and it does the job for now.

However, I’ve ordered a smart new Oxford mesh basket which is a little narrower and is mesh, meaning that small items, bag straps etc won’t fall through the rungs and jam in the front wheel. The narrower bit is good because the existing one interferes slightly with my drop position.

Lastly, I think drop bars and a basket looks funky and unexpected and the whole package is devistatingly practical for everything from grocery getting to dog carrying to bike camping.

So come on, let’s start a basket revival!

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Normal Clothes for Riding

I’ve mentioned the whole ‘wear normal clothes when riding’ idea before and, let’s face it, it’s not a wholly revelatory idea (except amongst ‘serious cyclists’ who wouldn’t pop out for a loaf of bread without donning full team kit). However, it’d be easy to interpret this potentially liberating maxim as ‘you can wear anything you like when riding a bike.’ Like many things in this beautiful life, it ain’t that simple.

For instance, long, flowy garments don’t work too well on bikes, especially in the rain. Jeans work up to a point, but in temperate to hot weather, can quickly become uncomfortable. Tight non-stretch items don’t work either, restricting your movement. So those skinny jeans are definitely a no-no.

If you value your cycling time in the morning and evening but also want to wear normal clothes, here are some things that work really well on the bike and look normal off.

Tops

For warmer months, polo shirts – beloved of sporty types everywhere, polo shirts are light and airy, dry quickly (even with a high cotton content) and are as universally accepted and ubiquitous as a Ford Mondeo in an office carpark. Plus they’re available everywhere, from dirty cheap to chic.

For really hot days, seersucker cotton shirts are superb – their tight weave keeps the UVs at bay, plus the puckered texture of the fabric doesn’t lay flat on the skin, keeping you cool and aerated.

For cooler months, thin sweaters are ace, especially with a wicking base layer/T-shirt underneath. Acrylic, cotton, merino, cashmere, wherever you are on the sweater hierarchy, they work well on the bike and look normal off it.

Bottoms

Now for the bottom half. Cargo pants work really well, especially lightweight ones. They’re cut for movement, have loads of pockets for carrying your junk and lightweight ones won’t overheat you or hinder your movements. A top tip is to get them in black – they don’t show chain/brake block sludge and pass muster in many offices. If you want to splash out, Endura’s Humvee full-length trousers are tough, smart, quick drying and well cut for cycling.

Three-quarter pants are the king of cycling attire for summer cycling and workplaces with a relaxed dress code. Short enough to dodge the chain oil, long enough to keep the knees warm and avoid that boy-scout look. For ladies, Capri pants or pedal pushers (who knew?) do the same job.

Feet

OK, so how’s about footwear. The key thing is a good grip on your pedals, so pretty much anything flat with a rubber sole works a treat. Flat rubber soled trainers (e.g. Adidas Sambas, Gazelles, etc) are the kings of grip, and allow you to position your feet easily, unlike heavily cleated soles.

From Habits to High Heels

Go to any cycle-centric city and you’ll see people riding bikes in anything and everything. I’ve photographed a cycling nun in full habit in York, and Muslim women biking in Burqas in Manchester, while Michael Colville Anderson’s Copenhagen Cycle Chic is famed for its almost fetishistic study of the high-heeled, pencil skirted cyclist. I assume that all made it to their destination unscathed. However, if you want to enjoy your ride too, my point is that there’s everyday clothing, and then there’s smart everyday cycling gear.

The Wet Weather Schism

It was raining yesterday morning and I was faced with that common, yet unspoken, schism of the cycle commuter. You know what I mean so don’t try to deny it. For those uninitiated, it goes thusly:

“Bike or car? bike or car? bike or car? bike or car? bike or car? Bike? Car? Bike? Car? Bike?”

Your die-hard ready for anything Bear Grylls side is saying, “Peh, a little bit of rain is no match for me with my Goretex ™ underpants and my fender equipped commuting steed” while your inner wimp is whispering softly in your ear “Mmmmm, heater, radio, McDonalds coffee on the way.” Make no mistake, fair traveller, despite their differences, THIS PAIR WILL CONSPIRE TO EAT YOUR SOUL.

The rain continues as you make a cup of tea and half heartedly resolve to get your bike out of the shed, “Just in case the rain eases off in a bit.” At this point, the devils on your shoulder are joined by another more earnest, worthy spirit, a mercurial Green pixie who points out the GOOD you’d be doing by taking the bike; easing congestion, reducing carbon emissions, making your environment safer, less stressful and more livable.” Your altruistic side is awakened and with renewed heart you fight your way past the lawnmower and barbeque and drag your bike out of the shed.”

As you padlock the door, the rain, which just a few minutes previously, was playing diminuendo, decides that it’s time for a crescendo and pelts you on the back of the neck. Your inner wimp takes a step forward, folds his arms cocks his head to one side, and raises a quizzical eyebrow, shooting a look to the grey heavens (and let me tell you, that’s a lot of body language for an imaginary devil!)

But you obstinately lock the shed and take the bike indoors. It’s only a shower and even so, what the heck, you’ve got all the wet weather gear, you’re not (a dramatic hush descends) A FAIRWEATER CYCLIST are you?

At this point you’re way beyond help and no amount of level-headed, shoot from the hip, let’s weigh up the pros and cons self-talk will help you. And just when you thought that your shoulder couldn’t get any more crowded, another character steps from behind the arras – a sporty, tanned and healthful spirit who lists the many health benefits of cycling, no matter what the weather’s doing.

“Regular cyclists have the general health of someone ten years younger, you are a REGULAR cyclist aren’t you? Riding to work will lower your stress levels and help you arrive at work on time and sharp as a tack. Remember 30 minutes four times a week. You’re not getting any younger are you?”

Sporticus goes on like this for a while longer but you’re now as awash with doubt as a Hamlet soliloquy. Your face is a mask of torment, you massage your temples, hoping to work free a shred of decisiveness. Then you look out of the window, the rain has eased to a trickle and the sky is lightening.

In an instant you snap into action, grab you bike, keys, wallet, phone and head out of the door, closing it firmly behind you. Bear Grylls has won. You swing your leg over the crossbar, look down to check your brakes and squeeze your tyres, then, an ominous arpeggio of drip, drip dripping on the back of your neck. You look up straight into the somehow questioning, knowing face of your car in the driveway. In an instant, ‘nice warm dry heater coffee’ thoughts flood back in. But you push off with one leg and leave the clamouring devils fighting amongst themselves on the step.

Within 30 seconds, you’re off, free, pedalling away, wondering what all the fuss was about.

Towpath Etiquette

I use canal towpaths as an integral part of my daily commute and they’re superb resource of traffic-free transit that we’re lucky to have a right to use. But with rights come responsibilities and it’s clear that there’s an unsaid towpath etiquette out there. Whilst British Waterways have their own, official ‘path rules, I have my own:

If you’re approaching from behind, use the bell: I find that the best range to deploy the old dinger is about 10 yards back. Ghosting-in behind walkers or joggers and dinging from point-blank range is the aural equivalent of shoulder barging them out of the way. When you do pass, pass on the right, like you would overtake on the road. It just makes sense (at least in the UK).

If you’re approaching other towpath users ‘head on’. Slow down, be prepared to stop, smile and pass on the left (again just like the road). In a carefully controlled long term study (OK, it was one evening on the way home from work, but stay with me) I deliberately went for the right, rather than the left and on each occasion, it resulted in the oncoming path user and I doing that timeless ‘side step double dodge’, seen on pavements and in supermarket aisles the world over.

Under bridges, around corners and other blind spots – deploy the bell, and slow down. You can easily erode the good will of other users by barging silently around a blind corner and screeching to a halt, millimetres away from a granddad and grandma pushing their grandchild in a buggy (ask me how I know).

Anglers can present their own peculiar set of challenges, especially those endowed with ultra long perch poles. My favoured technique is to slow down to a walking pace and deliver a ‘good morning/afternoon/evening’ in the style of a country gent. Running over someone’s maggots or knocking the North West perch champion into the canal just isn’t good form.

Other cyclists – if approaching head on, slow down, or you’ll be looking at a closing speed of over 30mph on a path less than 5 feet wide. Go ‘offside to offside’ and give your peer than knowing nod. Most cyclists are anti social types so ‘good morning’ may not do you any favours.

And finally, wildfowl. Herons are no bother, despite their initially alarming dimesions. The iconic, majestic heron will always give you the impression that you’re ready for a close encounter, only to flap away effortlessly at the last moment. Ducks will generally waddle out of the way, apparently nonchalant, but wracked with anxiety underneath the downy feathers and behind those inscrutable eyes. However, the last word must go to the goose, the canal-side creature most likely to get an ASBO. Again, my long term study has found that geese will attack you 80 percent of the time, so give them a wide berth and steel yourself for the inevitable ‘hiss and peck’.

So there you are. Go forth, canal commuter, well-versed in the ways of the water.