The Bicycle as ‘Soulcraft’

Bike? Check. Beautiful evening? Check. Happy Rider? O yes...
The Bicycle - the ultimate Soulcraft?

A recent-ish blog post by Chris ‘Pondero’ Johnson (whose blog I urge you to visit) has really grabbed my attention. The post in question recommends Matthew B. Crawford’s book “Shop Class as Soulcraft” – an inquiry into the value of manual work. I took the time to root out and read the original essay, upon which the book is based, and it’s an enlightening read, academic and humorous in turns, which discusses the way in which ‘craft’ – i.e. skilled manual work, has been systematically undermined and decimated by process-driven production-line reorganisation of labour. Crawford also asserts that so-called ‘white-collar’ work appears to have suffered a similar fate. The essay is an eloquent call to arms, which has made me (working in the distinctly non-tactile world of web publishing) refocus, perhaps pretentiously, on the virtual ‘craft’ in my occupation. Crawford’s essay, published in 2006 should be of interest to anyone, irrespective of their occupation. The following excerpt from ‘Shop Class as Soulcraft’ perhaps exemplifies its main argument as good as most:

“The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. Boasting is what a boy does, who has no real effect in the world. But craftsmanship must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away.”

More specific to this blog however, one could argue that Crawford’s notion of skilled manual work as ‘soulcraft’ is analogous with the act of cycling. Chris’ posting of the link on his largely cycling-based blog implies this connection, however I’d like to develop the idea of ‘Bicycle as Soulcraft.’

The act of riding a bicycle is, to forge Crawford’s phrase anew, a veritable symphony of ‘manual competence’. The synchronous acts of balance, steering, forward propulsion, braking and gear changing takes a high level of manual competence, gained in praxis, to master. Yet a child can acquire the basics of this tour-de-force of multi-tasking in an afternoon. And once, learned, as the saying goes, it is never forgotten. Just like the practice of a skilled craft, the act of piloting a bicycle from A to B is an involving, tactile and multi-faceted experience. The cyclist, once unconscious competence in reached, performs countless mathematical and spatial calculations, judging speed, distance, gradient, terrain and environmental conditions. More than any other form of transport, riding a bicycle smoothly and confidently through city traffic is a craft amongst vehicular modes. And like any well crafted item, there’s a pride to be gained from getting it right. The act of cycling involves an intimate connection between bike, rider and environment.

There is also a parallel to be drawn between craft and the whole bicycle ownership experience. It is possible, even with advances in cycle technology, for an average mechanic with a modest toolkit, to completely disassemble and reassemble a bicycle and therefore to tend to its continued maintenance. Furthermore, due to the broad universality and large degree of compatibility of parts, a rider can, with some mechanical competence, upgrade and renovate his or her bike and, with care and prudent choice, make it last a lifetime, in the ‘Caesar’s Axe’ sense at least. The same used to be true with automobiles and motorcycles. However, those latter modes have grown in complexity to such an extent that the average motorist or motorcyclist no longer has the self-sufficiency of travel that cyclists can still enjoy. Just as the craftsman has true end-to-end ownership of his workpiece, so the cyclist can travel from place to place autonomously, proud in the knowledge that they can deal with practically any mechanical problem along the way.

These tenets hold even more truth for the owner of the simple, classic bicycle; a bicycle which champions durability and adaptability over the high-tech or the cutting edge. Features like steel frames, braze ons, clearance for mudguards, non-integrated shifters – are the features of the ultimate soulcraft. But let’s not be too prescriptive here. Any bike can give you back that feeling of competence, independence and tactile connection that other more passive activities and forms of transport deny us.

Schwalbe Delta Cruiser update, glass and superglue

Velouria, curator of Lovely Bicycle has recently posted on the subject of cream tyres, a subject dear to my heart, which has given me cause to give you a quick update on my recently acquired cream Delta Cruisers. This post was also inspired by a recent glass/tyre interface, which happened on the way to work.


The Cruisers in all their glory a few days after purchase - showing a little canal towpath beausage - A month on and with more miles they look even better - think vintage trainer soles....

There I was, Monday morning, cycling towards the office on the cycle lane that runs past Manchester City Stadium, in that blissful, serene state that cycling alone can give you. Clearly I was a little too blissful, because, in my reverie, I failed to notice the jagged broken bottle top placed strategically by the glass elves, front dead centre in the cycle lane.

My attention was however, eventually pricked by the loud hissing noise issuing from my back tyre. I cussed, stopped and assessed the damage, fearing the worst.

I unloaded the bike (which as stacked with a camera equipment after my jaunt to the Cycle Show), removed the wheel and took a look. Close inspection showed two big slashes in the tyre, cutting through the tread and the red coloured puncture protection strip. Don’t think for one minute that this counts as a ‘fail’ for the Delta Cruisers. I’m certain that this bottle top chunk would have sliced my Panaracer Pasela Tourguards clean in two.  With this philosophical thought in mind, I replaced the tube and carried on to work.

Add this to your 'at home' bike tool kit and fix cuts in your tyre tread.


Later on when I got home, I cleaned the cut area of the tyre and allowed it to dry, before repairing the cut tread with superglue (that’s a TOP TIP right there folks).  So I’m pleased to say that barring this potentially tyre-ending encounter, the DCs have coped with glass strewn streets and paths with aplomb. They also grip really well on most surfaces apart from deep mud, where no non-knobbly tyre can find real grip.

I’m also happy to report that they look better with every ride. I was worried that they’d look horrible covered in daily grime, but if anything, daily usage and normal cleaning = tyre beausage. They have a real antique/veteran look – and they now have the veteran’s battle scars to match!

Everyday Chic at Cycle Show 2010

Cycle 2010 returned to Earl’s Court from the 8th to 10th October, showcasing a cycling culture bursting at the seams with ambition and creativity.

After three years at Earls Court, the event seems now a firmly established season’s end affair, a fixture in the calendar for all kinds of cyclists to come together check out the 2011 products, mingle, eat pizza, drink coffee and maybe spot the odd cycling celeb or two. The wares on show exemplified British cycling culture’s currently diverse gene pool, with an intoxicating array of shiny and new from manufacturers large and small, new and long established.

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Although ‘bikes for sport’ were well represented, it was the ‘everyday cycling’ category which claimed the lion’s share of the floor-space; an encouraging sign (if the market is an accurate barometer) that cycling is once again heading into the mainstream. It would seem that the combined effects of infrastructural improvements such as Cycling Superhighways and London Bike Hire, combined with the inspirational effects of Team Sky and GB’s heroics, plus the have-a-go camaraderie of Sky Ride has once more positioned the bicycle on the national psyche’s cool wall. A decade ago cycling was largely divided into three camps; Lycra and Oakleys for the road, Baggies and Body Armour off-road, and Socks and Sandals for everyday riders. However, it would seem that from the explosion of ‘lifestyle’ bikes and accoutrements that dominated at Cycle 2010, riding a bike is now officially the dapper way to get around.

Few could have missed Cooper Bikes’ range of tasteful, nicely finished retro road bikes. Lending the name and 1960s kudos of motor racing’s guru John Cooper. The range included single speeds, fixed gear bikes and bikes featuring Sturmey Archer’s re-invigorated internal hub gears, controls and repro chainsets. Cool Brittania bikes for a great British renaissance in cycling?

The homegrown theme continued on Pashley Cycles stand. And rather than the brand engineered ‘heritage’ of Cooper’s undoubtedly nice offerings, Pashley’s ‘handmade in Stratford-upon- Avon since 1926′ range had the image and the DNA to go with it. Highlights on their stand were the Clubman models, fine everyday road bikes using lugged 531 and beautiful repro components. These machines were showed last year in prototype form – it’s gladdening that they’ve made it into full production. Also on show on the Pashley stand was a Guv’nor (Pashley’s faithful ‘path bike’ replica) sporting narrower semi drop bars and Sturmey Archer’s new bar end controls. But could anything sum up the great British cycling renaissance better than Pashley’s Brittania range of step through town bikes, available in any colour you like, as long as it’s Red, White or Blue.

It wasn’t just the smaller niche manufacturers who’ve tuned into this everyday biking revival. The big guns were at it too. Specialized’s Globe sub-brand, which has been around for a few years, has spawned a whole range of stylish but highly practical load hauling bikes, with either big front loading racks (like porteur bikes of old) or extended rear stays (in the modern cargo bike mode).

Akin to this revival in cool bikes for urbanites was a big emphasis on the bespoke. New to the UK, German manufacturer Patria’s range of town and touring bikes was infinitely customisable, featuring only the best components from the likes of Tubus, Rolhoff and Magura, all hung around high quality, durable lugged steel frames. Similarly Brompton are it seems a permanent fixture at the show and have long been wise to the allure of the ‘build your perfect bike’ concept. And to embellish your bespoke British folding bike, what better than one of Brompton’s new leather attaché cases?

Paligap (importer of Kona cycles) also showcased their BREV range of components for the still buoyant fixie market, which majored on powder-coated and anodised bars, hubs, chainrings and other trinkets. Again, manufacturers seem keen to fulfil a hungry market’s appetite to express themselves through their bikes.

Now, cynics might view the sudden emergence of this iPad generation of cyclists as a worrying trend; style over substance; a dearth of expensive designer bikes that don’t follow the race-replica sag-wagon. However, one might argue that the beautiful to use and own everyday bicycles on show at Cycle 2010 are a sign that the cycling landscape is changing, and mainstream buyers are placing real value on beautiful, practical, long lasting bikes that are a pleasure to own, covet and use.

Note: This feature first appeared on

Whether to sit or stand; nine-speed; broken chains…

Let me recount a recent scary moment on the way to work that has given me cause to ponder pedalling technique, mechanical sympathy and the often dubious merits of ‘upgrading’.

Tuesday morning: The bike and I alight from the train in Manchester and I’m looking forward to a nice 15 minute spin from Manchester Victoria into the office in Newton Heath. A fine, dry morning greets me in Manchester and all seems well.

I turn from the station approach onto Corporation St, cross the tram tracks and head out of the city centre towards the road that runs parallel to the River Irk. I approach a set of lights just as they turn to green, so I stand up on the pedals and get up some speed to try and keep pace with the traffic.

Zoom to macro level – unknown to me, one of the hundred or so pins in my nearly new KMC X-9 nine speed chain has been worming its way insignificantly, yet fatefully, out of its corresponding link plate. Dodgy installation (by me), dodgy manufacture? Who knows?. Nano seconds after I stand on the pedals it happens – a noise like I’ve been shot, then I plummet forwards on the bike. Suddenly there’s no resistance to my pedalling power. The bike lunges from side to side as I attempt to regain control. Luckily there’s no one behind and I come to a halt and look down. My chain has disappeared – I look back and 10 yards behind, on the tarmac, there it is, coiled like a metallic serpent.

As fate would have it, two days before I had ‘rationalised’ my toolkit, foolishly removing my little-used chain tool. What motivated me to do this, I cannot say. I mean, you wouldn’t remove the spare wheel from your car just because you don’t use it very often…

So I was left with a 35 minute walk to work (which was not unpleasant) to rue my foolishness, thank my lucky stars that I didn’t fall off when the chain snapped, and ponder the strength of nine speed chains. Having only ever ridden 8 speed (or less) chains prior to a few weeks ago and, having only suffered chain breakage as a result of a dodgy chain tool, I immediately began to appropriate blame on the new nine speed offering. But surely nine speed chains should be hardy enough for pampered machine like Resurrectio. Rob, my friend, colleague, and bicycle guru swears by 8 speed chains, claiming he runs them without glitches on all of his 9 speed equipped bikes. Can a chain that’s only fractionally narrower that an 8 speed be so much more fragile?

Whilst I walked and fumed, I also pondered the words of Sheldon Brown, who, amongst other things, extolled the virtues of pedalling seated as much as possible, using the gears to maintain an easy spinning cadence, to minimise strain on the bike and also help prevent accidents due to chain skipping and breakage.

I got to work in philosophical mood, and before I left at the end of the day, had managed to secure the use of a chain tool (thanks Chester) to fix the bike. I pedalled home, with Sheldon’s words, Kenobi-like, echoing in my mind:

“If you find yourself standing to accelerate, on level ground, it is a sign that your gear is too high or that your saddle is too low.”

I got home and, before I did anything else, I repacked the chaintool in my saddlebag, along with the Leatherman tool and second spare tube…

More than a double, better than a triple?

Create your own theeverydaycyclist approved ‘Double/Triple Everyday Chainset’

Here’s my dilemma. I don’t need the duplication and complication of a triple chainset. However, the range of an MTB or touring triple makes for super-versatility. However, I also want the plug and play, wear-your-normal-trouserage compatibility of a chainguard, without suffering the aesthetic indignity of an afterthought plastic chainguard disc. They look ugly when brand new and get even uglier once they get beaten up with daily use.

After years of using compromised chainsets I decided to make my own killer chainset for everyday all round riding. And here’s how to do it:

  • Take one used road triple chainset (with 130mm bolt circle diameter – BCD) – it doesn’t matter what state the rings are in, because you’re going to lose them.
  • Remove the existing rings and dispose of ethically
  • Buy a 42t and a 24t ring (yes, believe it – a 24t ring will fit on the 74BCD small spider of a road triple!)
  • Also buy a 130BCD aluminium chainring guard, available, amongst other places, here (link to SJS cycles)
  • The chainring guard replaces the outer (52t ring) and the other rings slot into place.
  • Operate the front rings with an MTB front derailleur

The result? When teamed with an appropriate cassette, you get practically the same gear range as an MTB, with all the high and all the low that you need.

What you don’t get is the overlap and duplication of gears that comes as standard with most triple setups. Old school soldiers with scorn the lack of ‘crossover gearing’ found on closely spaced front chainring setups. But, we’re not racing here and today’s 8 and 9 speed cassettes have ratios spaced closely enough to render crossover setups (eg 38/44) obsolete.

Worried about the big jump between the 24 and 42 tooth rings? Don’t be, it works just fine (with a ‘trimmable’ front shifter – like a downtube or bar end lever. (Sorry folks I can’t vouch for STIs triggers/Gripshift etc).

Think of it as an extension of the compact chainset idea, but with more appropriate gears for everyday riding, and the unbridled luxury of a trouser guard.

What kind of riding is this for? Commuting, loaded touring, recreational cyclo cross, trail riding, real world road riding (I’ve ridden sportives on this setup and never missed the dinner plate ring once). Anyone who isn’t racing who thinks that a 52/11 top gear combination is necessary is living in dreamland. I use an 11-32t nine speed cassette – the 11 is rarely used but useful for fast, tailwind-enhanced flat roads. Another fringe benefit of this setup is that your big ring is effectively in the ‘middle ring position’, which means you can use the full range of rear gears in the 42t without chain crossover problems, saving your 24t crawler for the really steep or heavily laden stuff.

FOOTNOTE: You can also achieve a similar setup with a 110 BCD triple chainset (e.g. the Sugino XD/Stronglight Impact/Spa Cycles own brand)

Friction Shifting – is 9 speed a cog too far?

Dura Ace bar end shifters have the luxury of an indexed or friction option - but is friction shifting a viable option with 9 speed?

A while back I posted an article on the benefits of friction shifting as opposed to indexed (SIS in Shimano’s parlance) – however, a recent ‘upgrade’ has forced me to reconsider a full time, no-looking back commitment to ‘no-clicks’ shifting.

There’s a generation out there who probably don’t know what friction shifting is – indeed, I’m on the very cusp of that generation. However, I’m old enough to have ridden friction shifting 10 speed racers as a kid, before indexed shifters efficiently clicked their way onto the field of play.

Basically on modern bikes, to shift, you click a lever, press a button, twist a twistgrip, etc and the gear notches into place. Friction shifting removes those notches, meaning that you, the rider, have to use judgement and finesse to move the chain smoothly from one sprocket to the next. It’s called friction shifting because it’s just the friction in the mechanism that holds the gear mechanism in alignment.

The benefits of this seemingly archaic arrangement are manifold. Master friction shifting and you’ll never have to worry about gear cable adjustment again. You’ll also be freed from having to worry about shifter/transmission compatibility. You’ll develop a real understanding of how derailleur gears work (and the logic of adjusting cable slack on indexed systems). Perhaps to most satisfying aspect of friction shifting is mastering the skill, rather than relying upon the mechanism to judge the shift. It’s akin to judging a perfect putt in golf, catching a peanut in your mouth, or taking a perfectly lit shot on a manual camera. You don’t always get it right, but when you do, it’s magic.

For the past couple of years I’ve been enjoying the experience of judging my shifts ‘by hand’, using an 8 speed drivetrain with Ultegra bar end shifters. These Shimano shifters have the option of switching from indexed to friction on the fly, meaning that users can give friction a try without component swapping.

However, a few weeks ago, I wore through another chain and cassette and decided to upgrade to 9 speed. I already had a shiny set of 9 speed Dura Ace bar end shifters (which also have the indexed/friction option) so a new 9 speed block and chain was ordered, delivered and fitted. Problem is, since going from 8 to 9 speed, I’ve found that friction shifting and I are no longer the happy bedfellows that we used to be.

Theoretically, it should be easier to hit a gear with more cogs on the cluster, but in practice it isn’t the case. Because the sprockets on a 9 speed cassette are so close together, you don’t get that positive ‘clunk’ that you get on a 5, 6, 7 or indeed an 8 speed cassette when the chain finds its niche. Sometimes the chain will kid you that it’s snug on a sprocket, only to jump up or down when you get out of the saddle and put the power down.

The upshot of this is I’ve gone back to the future; clicking between gears. Don’t get me wrong; it’s no hardship; the changes are beautifully crisp (I’m running Dura Ace bar ends, Deore LX mechs and a Deore 11-32 cassette). Sadly though, I feel I’m missing out on the satisfaction of catching that metaphorical peanut or watching my perfect putt drop into the hole.

So the question is; is 9 speed a cog too far for friction, or should I just persevere and accept that the game just got a little harder?

I’d be interested to hear from other friction shifters out there who are running a nine speed set-up, particularly those who are using Dura Ace, like me, and from those using the Rivendell Silver/Dia-Compe friction-only  ratcheting shifter.