Snow Days

The morning commute on the Ashton Canal behind Eastlands Stadium

After holding out for a few days of sub zero temperatures, Liverpool finally succumbed and got its first snow of the winter last night. I awoke at around 6am to see a thin covering of the stuff on the pavement below and the prospect of a slippery and challenging commute ahead.

I went downstairs and cleared the step and the pavement outside while my wife made coffee. I wished I’d been able to continue sweeping the snow all the way down the street to the point where rush hour traffic had already obliterated it to sludge.

However, I didn’t consider driving for a second. After a car crash in last year’s snow, I’ve vowed not to drive in the white stuff unless absolutely necessary, figuring I can do a lot less damage on the bike. Just a simple case getting to the railway station a few miles away…

The Liverpool end of my journey was easy enough, the roads were only thinly dusted with powdery snow and the temperatures were already beginning to rise above freezing. However, at the other end of my rail journey, further inland in Manchester, things were pretty icy once I’d left the city centre, with packed snow and deep, rutted slush on many of the roads. A few slips and slides (but thankfully no falls) and I was in work, feeling rather pleased with myself.

All day in the office, my return journey was on my mind. “The day’s snow, slush and meltwater will turn to ice as soon as darkness falls and temperatures drop”, I thought as I sat in my warm office. And sure enough, that’s exactly what happened. However, I was committed now – the bike and I had to get back to the station.

On the way in, I’d used the canal towpath, which was great fun and blissfully traffic-free. However, now darkness had fallen it was out of the question. In low light, it would be difficult to differentiate between soft, grippy snow and slick compacted stuff. The thought slipping, unnoticed, off the edge of the path, through the ice and into the inky water below was also a pretty big factor in my decision-making process.

So the road it was. The first few hundred yards were challenging; the minor roads and paths hadn’t been gritted or cleared by traffic. However, once I was out onto the well-travelled routes, things were grippy enough and I managed to get to the station in Manchester without a glitch.

Just the final leg of the journey to contend with and I’m home and dry… Once in Liverpool there were just a few miles on mercifully clear roads to contend with. Just a few dodgy icy areas at the mouths of sideroads to keep me on the ball, then home to a well-earned meal and the warmth of the fire. More snow forecast tomorrow and freezing temperatures all week, so a few more snowy commutes ahead…

The frozen canal on Monday's commute, before the snow fell.

Snow Riding Tips

Although riding in the snow is a very inexact science (OK it’s a lottery) there are a few things you can do to maximise your chances of staying rubber-side down.

  • Just accept that you’re going to be riding slowly – don’t fight it
  • Ride big tyres – my bike has 35mm tyres all year around – this gives you a bigger contact patch. If you’ve got a mountain bike, use it.
  • Ride lower pressures – I’ve dropped my tyre pressure to around 45psi – again a bigger contact patch, handles road irregularities better. If you’re running wider tyres you can go lower without risking pinch flats.
  • Don’t touch the front brake. Keep your hand away from it and use the back brake progressively and judiciously. With care, you can test the level of grip by applying the back brake before trying any manoeuvres.
  • Pedal smoothly in a medium gear – fast, erratic pedalling will upset the bike and lose traction – stay seated in a medium gear.
  • Turn slowly and smoothly – no erratic jerks on the handlebars
  • On downhill sections, regulate your speed gently with your back brake – don’t let your bike run away with you.
  • Survey the road far ahead for potential slippery spots
  • Ride out of the slush and in driver’s line of sight – take the lane
  • Soft, untrodden snow can be very grippy but avoid hard-packed snow, it’s extremely slick.
  • Avoid traffic wherever you can – you can control your riding to an extent, but you can’t control the movements of the cars around you. Look for traffic-free options when you can.
  • If you do ride the roads, you’ll find that major routes are often cleared by snowploughs or the action of traffic.
  • Take extra special care when passing junctions, anticipate cars failing to stop at Give Way or Stop lines
  • Above all, try to relax – don’t tense up and keep everything smooth.
  • Enjoy the thrill of riding in the snow!
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Ressurectio at Ladybower

About a week ago, on a top secret work assignment, I was lucky enough to go to Ladybower Reservoir in England’s Peak District. For those who don’t know it, the Peak District is the area of the Pennines between Manchester and the urbanised areas of South and West Yorkshire. I went to the  Upper Derwent Valley section of Ladybower, which comprises three separate expanses of water  held in check by three mighty dams. The area was made famous as the place where WW2’s ‘Dambusters’ practiced with the bouncing bomb.

Nowadays it’s a place of peace, and on the day I went there, the lower reservoirs were shrouded in mist, with only the upper end of the Derwent Valley emerging from the chilly gloom into bright, warm winter sunshine. As you can imagine, I felt duty bound to take a few pictures.

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Merino Musings: Red Ram Merino Tee Review

Trust me, this is no ordinary t-shirt.

I’m a big fan of merino wool layers for cycling, outdoor and general all-round use and have a number of them in my possession. I’ve got a couple of Icebreaker BodyFit 200 long sleeve layers which I’ve worn day in day out for over two years, together with a couple of grey marl long sleeved merino bases from Thermal Shop, which, though designed with the motorcycling market in mind, are excellent cycling base layers.

Latest addition to the cycling wardrobe is RedRam’s Everyday Merino short sleeved tee-shirt. RedRam use Icebreaker’s own 100% merino wool in their tee shirts but undercut Icebreaker on price, with no obvious compromises. The tee-shirt uses the lighter weight wool, (possibly equivalent to Icebreaker’s 150 weight) which makes for a lightweight and highly versatile base layer that will see usage all year round (at least in the UK climate).

The cut of the tee is tailored yet casual – less snug that the Icebreaker Bodyfit. I take an XL in the Icebreaker yet a Large in the RedRam is a great, casual fit. It’s got a raglan sleeve which avoids seams rubbing under the arms and on the shoulders (great for rucksack users) and makes for a sleeker look. My favourite part of the fit is the extra long length. So many clothing manufacturers spec their items too short in the body (and I’ve not got a freakishly long torso). However the Red Ram tee has plenty of length, meaning that you can confidently reach for high stuff in public without displaying the belly and keep your kidneys warm even when down on the drops on the bike.  The tee shirt wicks away sweat well, doesn’t smell, dries quickly and feels ultra soft against the skin.

Since I’ve owned the garment, I’ve washed it three times, on the standard 40 degrees Celsius cycle using normal powder. It washes great and dries overnight hung on the back of a chair. I’ve also accidently dried it in a warm tumble drier with no shrinkage whatsoever.

In all I’m really impressed with this tee. It looks great, feels great and works well as an everyday item of clothing. Sure, at £35, it’s more expensive than a cotton tee or a polyester base layer, but it’s infinitely better than both.

Verdict: Great fitting, great washing, warm, wicking life-compatible tee shirt.

Green Oil White Dry Wax Chain Lube – a review of sorts

It's green, it's white, it's wet, then it's dry. But don't be confused. It's good stuff - really good stuff. It's what most 'ride in normal trousers' cyclists have been waiting for.

A few posts ago I mentioned that I’d just received a sample bottle of Green Oil’s new White dry chain wax to test, and I promised that I’d report back after a few weeks of usage. So here I am, a few weeks later, reporting back.

I’ve been intrigued by chain waxing for a while, ever since reading about it in an old Bridgestone catalogue. In the catalogue, Grant Petersen describes the process of removing the chain, degreasing, melting paraffin wax in a pan on the stove, dropping the chain in, coating, removing and allowing it to dry before refitting it to the bike.

Now I’m a huge Petersen fan and a sucker for quasi-magical processes like that, but I have to admit it seems like a time consuming way to lube your chain. (If you’re hell bent on the old-school method download the 1992 Bridgestone Catalogue and learn all manner of timeless bicycle lore). Secondly, the lingering odour of paraffin wax in the kitchen is unlikely to go down well with my co-habitants and the use of a petroleum based wax just seals the deal.

So the introduction to the market of a plant-based wax dissolved in plant-based ethanol, which goes on wet and dries quickly, without requiring any use of stoves, pots, pans or magical incantations is naturally something for me to get unhealthily excited about.

Before I applied the new lube, I needed to start on a level playing field so I thoroughly degreased my chain using a chain cleaning device and some citrus based degreaser, rinsed and then thoroughly dried the chain with a old rag until it shone like jewellery.

Once the chain was full dry, I methodically dripped a liberal drop of wax lube onto each roller, watching the lube, which is very runny when wet, penetrate deep into each link. I continued this process until I got back to where I started from. The instructions on the side of the reuseable bottle state that you should allow at least seven (not six or eight) minutes to allow the wax to fully dry. Being a belt and braces sort of chap who carries two inner tubes and backup lighting with him at all times, I allowed the wax to dry overnight before testing the bike on the morning commute.

I’m pleased to report that in the morning I was greeted with a dry, still and quiet day, which allowed me to listen out for any chain noise. Indeed, the chain was remarkably silent and upon inspection at the end of the day, the chain had retained its jewel-like appearance.

However, as the saying goes, one dry day’s riding maketh not a full chain lubricant test. So I continued to schlep about for the rest of the week on dry days, wet days and one day plying the muddy lanes and gritty bridleways around Ladybower Reservoir. Good news is that the chain remained silent, even after the mistreatment of getting a through dousing with no post-ride wipe down. It’s still impressively clean too. In fact, this very morning something unplanned occurred which proved just how clean my chain remains –  I accidentally dropped a white t shirt that had been airing on the banister rail above the bike. The t-shirt plummeted in slow motion down into the hallway below, landing, according to the unbending rules of Murphy’s Law, on the upper run of the chain.

I scurried downstairs imagining a ruined t-shirt (which belonged to my wife) and thought I’d have some explaining to do. But when I plucked the garment off the chain, there was not a mark to be seen. Impressive indeed. In fact, when I reapplied the lube this morning, there was no need to degrease the chain at all, just a thorough wipe-down was required before adding more lube; a good thing in my opinion, because too frequent degreasing can strip lube out of the inner surfaces on the rollers, where it’s hard for many lubes to penetrate.

The only compromise I can see here is that dry wax may not offer the same level of rust-protection as a ‘wet’ oil. However, this is easily overcome by wiping down the chain with a rag after a wet ride – a practice that I’d encourage anyway. That aside, I’d wholeheartedly recommend this product to anyone who’s sick and tired of suffering The Greasy Cuff or filthy hands when putting back on an errant chain. The product’s green credentials only add to its merits. Everything is plant-derived and the company prides itself on recycling, re-use, low carbon footprint and all that jazz.

Verdict: Good job Green Oil – Highly recommended.

Here’s Green Oil’s quirky but informative site. It’s a nice place to be.

Birthday Ride

Sometimes even rusty old railway bridges can show beausage

What better way to treat yourself on your birthday, than a long bike ride around your hometown.? Many people would disagree, but that’s exactly what I did the other day on the occasion of thirty-eighth birthday.

My hometown of Liverpool is blessed with many miles of traffic free paths, with diverse and interesting landscapes and waterscapes to explore.

Like all of my favourite rides, it started at my front door (I have problems with the notion of packing the bike into the car and driving out somewhere). My destination was the Liverpool Loopline, a 13 mile former railway track that circumnavigates the city from Aintree in the north to Halewood in the south. The Loopline forms one of the most westerly sections of the Trans Pennine Trail, which stretches all the way from Southport in the west to Hornsea, near Hull, in the east. The Loopline was formerly the Cheshire Lines railway, before Beeching’s axe fell. After a couple of decades of redundancy and decay, the line was cleared and restored by Sustrans and now serves a Liverpool’s primary cycling artery.

One day I'll ride all the way to Leeds. But not today...

I took the Loopline north as far as I could go, on the edge of Aintree’s famous racecourse before a short hop onto the roads to link up with the Leeds and Liverpool canal towpath at Melling Road. From here I followed the canal towards Liverpool City Centre. The towpath had a wide variety of surfaces, from narrow muddy paths at the start, through to recently improved tarmac sections at the end. The scenes along the canal are always equally various, from leafy autumnal colours to old abandoned warehouses.

Even deep in urbanity, you can find moments of autumnal tranquility.

I followed the canal as far as I could, until a diversion took me onto the roads in Bootle. I made a beeline for the docks and the Mersey waterfront, passing the massive brick-built Stanley Warehouse and the equally impressive Waterloo dock. Closer to the Liver Building I stopped to take a look at HMS Argyll,  a modern warship which was docked just north of the isle of Man Steam Packet Company jetty. An impressive sight. From here I cut through the city centre and headed home, calling in to see my Dad in hospital and grabbing a Starbucks along the way.

Resurrectio at the riverside close to Liverpool's famous Pier Head.

All in all, a satisfying ride of around 25-30 miles, during which I was never more than about 6 miles from home.

Waxing Lyrical; Whipping Twine, Chain Lube and the Tale of the Lost Mudguard Eye Nut

It’s funny how things happen in threes. There I was, this morning, sitting, drinking my coffee, wondering what my blog post would be today. Then an hour later, after my commute, three interconnected things come along, all at the same time; handlebar twine, chain lube and a lost mudguard eye nut. But what’s the thread that twines this trio together? Well, it’s wax.

Waxed cotton twine on brown cloth tape with four coats of amber shellac.

Twine

I’ve been experimenting with twine for a while; a few weeks ago I shellac-hemp-twined my handlebar tape ends, but, after living with it for a few days, I wasn’t entirely happy with the results. Hemp twine can be pretty ‘hairy’, meaning that something that’s meant to neatly finish the bar tape ends up looking messy. However, the other day, and quite by accident, a roll of waxed-cotton twine came into my possession. A nice cream colour makes a nice contrast with the dark brown cloth tape. However, the killer feature for me is the waxed finish, which makes the twine adhere to itself and its sub layer. The wax finish also makes the tying-off more secure and will also make the twining water and dirt-proof. Some folks don’t like waxed twine because it doesn’t take shellac well, but I see no need for shellac on the waxy stuff. Its main use is in nautical circles, where it’s used to ‘whip’ rope ends, and also to bundle wiring in electrical installations.

Lube

Late yesterday afternoon I received a package from my friends at Green Oil, who, for some years, have been marketing their excellent range of environmentally friendly lubes and bike cleaning products, which use plant-based (rather than petroleum-based) ingredients. Their latest product is something that’s been missing from the shelves forever – ‘White’ liquid chain wax; a beeswax-based dry chain lube, which claims to protect and lube the chain in all weathers, and doesn’t attract road grime. Now, waxing chains is nothing new. Grant Peterson described the process of paraffin waxing chains in one of his fabulous Bridgestone catalogues and he wasn’t the first; it’s been a popular practice with master-mechanics for generations. However, this is (to my knowledge) the first beeswax-based (and therefore non-petrochemical) wax lube available, which is great news. I’m looking forward to degreasing my drivetrain, White-lubing the chain and seeing how it performs over the coming winter. Expect a full test in a few months – in the meantime I’ll keep you posted.

Nuts

And finally, on the way to the station, I noticed an annoying rattle from the front end of the bike. Before I could locate it, one of my mudguard eye nuts had worked loose and rattled onto the road. They’re special 8mm nuts with an extended ridge at the back which tightens into the ‘eye bolt’ and grips, the mudguard stay, keeping the mudguard properly adjusted. I cussed, shook my head and put up with the annoying rattle all the way to the station (I hate annoying rattles). No biggie though; I’m pretty sure I’ve got a spare in my nuts and bolts tin at home. However, what I plan to do is use a little candle-wax on the threads to stop the new nut rattling loose (another top tip courtesy of that clever Mr Peterson). And let’s face it, there are worse things in the world than rattles (but not many).