Another ‘Essential Cycling Toolkit’ Article

Click the image to play the video (link to Vimeo)

Getting around by bike is all about fresh air, freedom and a feeling of getting from A to B under your own steam. However, the utopian dream of free-spirited, low-impact travel can die a death very quickly when you hear that dreaded hissing sound from your tyres. The sinking feeling of a flat half way from home, half way to work, can be a real pain – unless you come equipped. With this in mind here’s what I carry on my bike at all times – and, without sounding too preachy, it’s what I’d suggest you carry too.

  1. Spare Tube – make sure it’s the right size and check it regularly for air-tightness
  2. Pump – make sure it fits the tubes on your bike
  3. Tyre Levers – Three of them will remove even the most stubborn tyres. Plastic ones are best.
  4. Multitool – with flat-head and cross-head screwdriver plus 2-8mm Allen Keys
  5. Chain tool (if you know how to use it)
  6. Pliers – handy for pulling nails/chunks of glass from tyres plus a whole raft of other uses
  7. Puncture Kit – to be used as a last resort if your inner tube fails
  8. Mobile Phone – the ultimate get you home accessory (store the numbers of a few local taxi firms)
  9. Cash – If all else fails – for taxi fare home.
  10. Pair of latex gloves or a small pack of wipes – to keep your hands clean when doing repairs
  11. Lock – even if you don’t plan to leave the bike

All of this (with the possible exception of the lock) will fit in a small bag which should be permanently attached to the bike, so you never leave home without it. Everyone has their own variation on this ‘essential’ list so feel free to chime in with your suggestions, or to point out any frightful omissions!

Happy cycling!

More Mixte Emotions

The Friday Cyclotouriste - an SF based comrade in the 'ride beautiful bicycles slowly' struggle

It seems I’m not alone with my distate for velo-gender-prejudice. Nathan at the achingly well-shot The Friday Cyclotouriste rides his Nishiki mixte (avec basket) with pride. He also stated his case far more eloquently and succinctly than I could ever hope to:

“People sometimes tease me for riding a girl’s bike, but I could care less if it’s a girl’s bike. This is not just a case of a well developed Jungian anima at work. The step-through frame is downright practical for city riding and for things like getting on and off at red lights.”

Check out the full blog entry and more here:

Bring Back the Humble 10-Speed

Our friend above is right to look proud of his Schwinn 10 speed - it's probably still knocking around today.

Some might say that the mountain bike revitalised the bike industry when it arrived in the late eighties. And if you look at the sales figures, it’s probably true. The MTB was a huge shot in the arm for an ailing bike industry. However, at the same time as stimulating bike sales, it put the final nail in the coffin of a bike style that dominated for over a decade – in the US, it was termed the Ten Speed – in the UK is was just called a Racer.

The genus of bike we’re talking about here is the lugged steel, drop handlebar bike, with clearance for reasonable tyres (28-32mm) and provision for mudguards and a rack. It wasn’t made of exotic materials (usually hi-ten steel) and basic models came with steel wheels and low end components – however, the bikes themselves were robust, cheap, and unlike the entry level MTB and hybrid of today – efficient, fast and fun to ride. Tour de France winners they weren’t, but as everyday bikes, they excelled. So much so that many survive to this day – hand-me-down machines serving out life sentences in the hands of students looking for a cheap and funky way of getting around.

Since the death of the ten speed, a process of velo-diversification as occurred – the MTB arrived in the bicycle-gene pool and eventually mutated into various different sub-species – cross country, downhill, freeride to name but three. The hybrid bike was a further mutation of the MTB and a nod back to the big-wheeled efficiency of the ten speed – but the ‘beige slacks and sensible shoes’ image of the hybrid has been hard to shake. Road racing bikes have undergone a renaissance since the MTB era but the template of the rugged 10 speed racer has been lost and forgotten.

However, a few manufacturers remembered the 10 speed/Racer with fondness and have recreated neo-ten speeds, or at least something close. Minneapolis based Surly Bikes have created a range of rugged steel road bikes, the Pacer, Cross-Check and Long-Haul-Trucker, ranging from lightweight road bike thru to expedition tourer. But these bikes aren’t cheap. Sure they’re great value, quality cromo-framed machines, but they’re not the cheap-as-chips, lock-and-leave everyday bikes that the old ten speeds were. Similarly, Rivendell Cycles’ range of practical road bikes, the Sam Hillbourne, A Homer Hilsen, Ramboiullet and the Bleriot have all rekindled the spirit of the ten speed, but in a boutique, high-end format. What we need is a rugged, no-nonesense ten speed for a new generation.

Modern day fixed wheel bikes are perhaps the closest modern day approximation of the 10 speed ideal – tough, low key steel frames, yet light and nimble enough to be a fun ride in the city. I wish that just one of the multitude of fixed gear producers would just slap a derailleur hanger and some gears on one of their low end steel fixie frames and reinvent the ten speed – I’m convinced they’d sell in container loads, to a huge swathe of riders, from baby boomers to jaded fixie riders whose knees are crying out for some lower gears for the hills.

Ideal Spec: Neo-Ten Speed

So what’s the blueprint for a modern day ten speed? Here’s my stab at an ideal spec:

Frame – lugged steel (and I mean plain old hi-tensile steel) – skinny, round tubes, horizontal top tube, clearance for 32 mm tyres, braze ons for rack, guards and brake bridges positioned for deep drop brakes calliper brakes.

Fork – lugged crown steel with a classic curve

Wheels – tough 36 hole rims (wide enough for 32mm tyres) on sealed freehubs – nothing fancy.

Brakes: Tektro deep drop callipers with separate (i.e. no STIs) brake levers

Gears: Bar end/down tube shifters (with friction option)

Bars: Traditional round bend (i.e. not anatomic)

Stem: traditional quill

Tyres: 32mm Panacer Pasela or similar

Saddle: Brooks B17

The whole bike would weigh in at around 30 lbs and combine ruggedness and speed in a way that modern bikes just can’t match.

Examples of the breed:

Raleigh Winner: early 1980s

Image by rodcorp on Flickr:

Object of desire for 70s kids like me – available everywhere from bike shops to mail order catalogues – remember putting an ambitious felt-tip ‘x’ by it in the leadup to Christmas. Steel frame, steel wheels, Weinmann brakes, Simplex gears – drop bars, suicide levers and a bottle and cage thrown in. A winner in every sense

Falcon ‘Team Banana’

image at

Lugged steel bike in the classic ‘team replica mode’. Fast, fun and hugely robust for a bike with skinny tyres. Got me to and from my first job twice as fast as an MTB – cruelly stolen from me one summer day…

Falcon Eddy Merckx – 1970s

Inspired by the great Belgian Cannibal, made in Brigg, Lincolnshire - image from here:

Lugged steel, Rigida Supercromix rims, Simplex gears, Weinmann Brakes – orange and blue team replica colours – tough as nails, my first ‘racer’ – ignited a lifelong love affair with the bike.

But enough from me – let us know your ten-speed memories. Would you like to bring back the ten speed? Share your dream ten speed spec (remember, nothing expensive or exotic).

MM (Multi Modal) Commuting

Combine the romance and practicality of rail travel with the romance and practicality of cycling and you've got yourself a winning combination.

Multi Modal travelling makes up the lion’s share of my cycling, usually combining the bicycle and train to get me to work. I live in Liverpool and work in Manchester – a car commute of anything between 1 to 2 hours on one of the busiest motorways in the UK, the M62. During rush hour, there’s usually a hold up of around 30 minutes at the halfway point and another slow moving queue near journey’s end. Every day there are accidents or near misses – it’s a game of Russian roulette – with ever decreasing odds. It’s a game I try to opt out of as often as possible.

By contrast, my bicycle/train commute is serene, civilised and predictable. I ride to the railway station – a leisurely journey of around 20 minutes – grab a ticket and a coffee, stow the bike in the cycle area aboard the train, then find a seat for my rail journey of around 45 minutes. In this time I can do anything I like – listen to the radio, read, blog, stare vacantly out of the window, write my to-do-list for work or make some phone calls. There’s none of the constant stress and anxiety one gets when driving to work.

Right now, I’m sitting on the train bound for a video editing training course in Nottingham. I’ve driven to Nottingham from Liverpool a couple of times before and each time, R.E.M’s song “Can’t Get There from Here” springs to mind. It’s a difficult, stressful journey combining the aforementioned M62, the busiest section of the M6 heading south from Cheshire toward the West Midlands and a nasty selection of A-roads taking you east towards Nottinghamshire.  Compound these facts with today’s wet, windy, unseasonal weather and you’ve got a recipe for suffering.

So instead, today I opted to travel by train, first riding into the city in the light early morning traffic (it’s 6:59am as I write this) to find a practically empty train with two available bike spaces. I’ve got the luxury of owning a Brompton, which is great for rail travel but today I’ve chosen the full sized bicycle – because I knew in advance that the trains I’d be travelling on have good dedicated bike spaces.

In terms of clothing, today’s wet weather throws up some serious challenges. I need to be comfortable on the bike, yet look normal on the train and during my training day. There’s nothing worse than being the sweaty, Lycra-clad sore thumb, especially in a situation where you’re meeting new people and just trying to blend in. So I’ve opted for a pair of jeans, a merino wool base layer and a merino wool t shirt. This gives me an entirely normal, everyday look but with the wicking properties of wool. On the bike journey, I rode through persistent drizzle, so I wore a thin breathable and waterproof jacket, with pit zips open. I rode SLOW, always resisting the urge to push hard on the ‘false flat into a headwind’ section of the route, coasting on the downhill sections and regulating my temperature with my front zipper. As soon as I reached the shelter of the station I took the jacket off, allowing my body to cool down, while I got my tickets and my latte – by which time my body temperature had returned to normal, I was sweat-free and busy finding the (empty) bike space on the Norwich bound train.

Luggage and how to carry it – today I’ve got my usual commuting gear (lock, pump, tools and waterproof) plus lunch and a 13inch laptop. All of this sits snug and dry in my Carradice Camper Longflap saddlebag. This ancient wonder, born in a small factory in Nelson, Lancashire (and made by a lady called Priscilla – as evidenced by the handwritten signature on the label) is the best way I’ve found to carry commuting-sized loads. It mounts behind the saddle, either using the saddle loops on a Brooks saddle or, as I do, using a quick release SQR block attached to the seatpost. This neat device allows me to attach and detach the bag in seconds. The waxed cotton duck fabric is hard as nails and completely waterproof. As an added waterproofing measure, the bag itself sits behind the rider, sheltered from the worst of the rain and out of the way of road spatter (unlike a pannier bag). When I boarded the train and stowed the bike, I detached the bag in seconds and now it sits beside me on the seat where I can keep an eye on all of my gear.

Sure enough today, the MM Commuting Gods have smiled upon me (thus far) and not all MM days are this slick. I’ve had days when I’ve had to cleave a way into a standing-room-only train on a hot, rainy summer evening and stand swaying and losing my balance with every jerk of the train – all the while trying not to sully my fellow passengers with chain oil and road grime. Other days, my train has been cancelled, late or simply so full that the conductor has shaken his head and not allowed me on. However, for the most part, MM Commutes have been a calm, relaxed and very human way to get to work, and today is no exception.

Gender Inequalities in Bicycle Procurement and Accessorisation – A Rant

Anything wrong with this (dubiously procured from Google Images) picture - apart from the knotted tartan scalf that is?

It’s a sad fact that notions of gender appropriateness manifest themselves in the bikes we ride and the accessories we add or shun. I’ve been using a front mounted basket on my bike for a few weeks now and I’m astounded at how useful it is and pleased with myself for having the necessary thickness of skin to disregard the jibes and odd looks that I get from ‘serious cyclists’, significant others and chavs in the street. In our (UK) cycling psyche, there is a powerful, sport-focussed machismo that abounds, based on the premise that lean, stripped down bikes are essentially ‘male’ and bikes rigged for practicality and everyday use, with baskets, bells, bags, mudguards and suchlike truck are in some way ‘feminine’.

Double Standards

As a man, it’s hard to swim against that tide. As in fashion, there’s a cruel double standard in operation here, which allows women to ride men’s or women’s bicycles without fear of public humiliation at the hands of small children. But if a man rides a basket-adorned bike, or step-through frame, alarm bells sound deep within the phallus-shaped bastion of male-cycling aesthetics. This is a real shame, because various supposedly feminine cycle accoutrements (and indeed bike styles) are usually insanely practical – catalysts for changing public perceptions of the bicycle from toy/exercise machine into useful vehicle.

Too Butch for Baskets?

A slight on your manhood or just a really good idea?

Let’s take baskets for example. Peruse the aisles of most bike shops I guarantee that no ‘gents’ bikes (even supposed ‘commuter’ models) will ever have a basket installed, and will be in the most part stripped-down ‘stealth commuters’ –  usually in dark, matte colours – the entire aesthetic inspired by some sad, ironic, post-Cold-War militaristic mode. Some will have rear racks and pannier bags, which are, of course acceptable to the male psyche, with their connotations of world travel, adventure, expedition and knife-wielding, whiskery-chinned ruggedness. But no self-respecting macho cyclist would countenance a basket attached to the ‘bars. However, fitting a basket to your ‘gents’ bike will make it hugely practical – you can just throw in your rucksack and go – you can pop to the shops for manly goods like beer and cigarettes and watch them safely home in your front mounted basket. Go to a place where everyday cycling is pervasive, such as Copenhagen, Cambridge or Amsterdam and you’ll see blokes trundling around the streets on basket-equipped bikes, carrying home their work gear, gym gear, shopping – whatever, without their masculinity being compromised in the slightest.

Ring my bell?

Friendly warning device or machismo crusher?

The humble bell is another accessory which has become laden with gender associations. The ting-ting of a bell to warn fellow path users is surely one of humankind’s most civilised warning sounds. However, one could argue that the gentle ‘ahem’ of the bicycle bell is as effete as shouting ‘Cooey, coming through!’ in one’s best John Inman falsetto.  I’d advise a guttural, phlegm-heavy clearing of the throat if you wish to keep your square-jawed masculinity intact; much more acceptable to the self respecting cycling man than the light, airy and inoffensive signature of the cycle bell.

Gender Lockout?

Male Nurse?

Even locks aren’t safe from gender prescription. There’s a type of lock freely available on the market, which attaches to the frame and allows the rider to quickly immobilise the bike by locking the rear wheel. It’s permanently attached to the bike – you never forget it and it takes literally a second to deploy and unlock. Surely a device invaluable to both male and female cyclists the world-over? But what’s the common name for this miracle of convenience? The Nurse’s Lock – I mean, I ask you – The Nurse’s Lock. And yes, I know, as any self respecting institutional sexist will tell you, “There are plenty of male nurses” but let’s face it – the term ‘male nurse’ has enough psycho-sexual baggage for an essay of its own.

Getting Dirty Maketh the Man

Riding around with your jeans tucked into your socks will defend your butch status far more than this elegant device.

No self respecting macho-bike would be complete (?) without the firm absence of a chainguard. I mean, how could a device that keeps one’s trews safe from the slings and arrows of outrageous chain oil be of any use to a man? Far better, surely to keep your man-bike lean, mean, stripped-down and utterly useless for daily travel in normal clothes? Perhaps I’m being too simplistic here. The chainguard equipped bike isn’t just the preserve of women’s utility bikes. They feature on plenty of ‘grandad bikes too’ but we’re entering into a whole new sphere of prejudice here, and I don’t want to dilute my argument.

Getting the leg over

Can a bike with no top tube seriously damage your manhood? - the unisex Kona Africa Bike - simultaneously eroding velo-gender stereotypes and purging first world guilt.

How about step-thru frames? Ride a bike without a ‘cross bar’ in the UK and you’re heading for a whole raft of gender jibes. Ironically, it would appear that a bike without that potentially manhood-wrecking top tube is a potent advertisement for latent homosexuality. However, mixte frames (mixte being a French term defining bikes for both men and women…) are insanely practical. You can get on and off without swinging your leg high over the seat – a real boon when you’ve got a childseat on the back or when you’re stabilising a heavily loaded bike. Also, as you get older, you’ll find that one day, you just can’t get your leg over that saddle anymore. So, whaddayado? Give up riding or ride a mixte? Think about it, would you buy a car that you had to climb into, rather than step into gracefully, just because you were told that it was a ‘gents’ version.

In the interests of balance (a nod to the Sheilas)

And it’s not just guys who find themselves stymied by the cycling gender divide. Women suffer too at the hands of the marketeers. Over the last decade, the spectre of ‘women’s specific’ bicycles and accessories has reared its ugly pastel coloured head. Whilst a greater choice of mass market bikes with shorter cranks, narrower bars, shorter top tubes and stems is a gold-plated GOOD THING, charging a premium for them and rendering them in hideous kindergarten colours is a cruel twist of the bike designer’s knife.

An end to the Gender Divide?

There are some bikes which have managed to straddle the gender divide – the recent rise of folding bikes, with their low stepover height and ‘unisex’ marketing has gone a long way to erode gender-based top-tube preferences. Similarly, one hopes that the new fleet of 6000 London Hire bikes, with their step-thru frames and baskets, will also help to break down some barriers. Perhaps broader seismic changes in society will come to the rescue of the practical gents bike? Ironically it may be that broader locker-room acceptance of man-bags, male grooming, hair ‘product’ and (ach) metrosexuality will bathe the utility bike in a more acceptable light? Until that halcyon day, I’ll ride my mudguard, bag and basket-equipped bike with pride – revelling in its everyday practicality, ting-tinging my bell like a country-doctor from the inter war years, caring not a jot for the maelstrom of gender-warping undercurrents eddying in my wake.

Footnote and shameless plug

Mixte emotions - Rivendell's Yves Gomez - a mixte bike for men, if that's not a contradiction in terms.

As ever, it would seem, Rivendell Cycles’ founder Grant Petersen has some words of wisdom on this very topic (which convinced me to ignore the gender divide and get with the basket programme). Not altogether coincidentally, Rivendell also produce a ‘mens Mixte’ the Yves Gomez –a beautifully made, lugged steel, step-thru all-rounder bike, which is brother to their Betty Foy ‘women’s Mixte’. You can read more about such things, and whole lot more good sense here:

No Ride is Too Short (or too late)

Have you ever had an ‘itchy feet’ bike ride? You know the one – when you’ve been stuck in the house all day – perhaps you’ve been busy from dawn till dusk, perhaps it’s been raining all day and come 11pm, the rain stops and the streets are empty?

Take last night for instance. I’d been flat out all day at work and all the while, the rain had pelted the roof and beaded the windows. ‘No chance of a ride today’ was my by subconscious refrain. The day ground on, dinnertime came and went, then a bit more work afterwards. The rain had stopped now but it was dark. It got to 11pm. I’d done all the work I could do. I opened the front door and stepped out for some air. Then an idea hit me. I looked back into the hallway and the bike was there as usual, ready to go, leaning against the stairs, glinting in the sodium light.

“Back in a minute” I said over my shoulder, as I grabbed my keys and wheeled the bike out of the door. The evening was warm, around 18 degrees, the air was still and the rain was gone, leaving clean, clear glistening streets. I was wearing a t shirt, 3/4s and sandals. I didn’t even grab by ‘paranoia bag’ (containing pump, multitools, etc). I just left, without a clue where I was going.

Equipped thusly, I cruised around the neighbourhood, negotiating the grid-iron of streets, never straying more than half a mile from my house, relishing the lack of cars, the warm, still air and the fizz of my tyres on the damp tarmac. It was one of those sublime, snatched-from-nowhere rides, no longer than 15 minutes, where everything seems effortless and you’re in tune with the bike and your environment.

I kept on riding, LEDs flashing against the parked cars and street signs,  an imagined soundtrack playing in my head (don’t tell me that never happens to you when you’re riding) until my wheel  tracks had knitted an intricate cat’s cradle across my neighbourhood. Then something told me it was time to return home. The itch had been scratched. I was refreshed and retuned.

Remember, no ride is too short or too late. Those snatched-from-the-nick-of-time, late-night bike rides are the best.

That night, I slept like a baby, dreaming of spinning wheels.