Festive Cycling Hiatus and other business

I’ve been fearsomely quiet over the last few weeks so I thought I’d better poke my head out of the den and give the blog a wee update.

The reasons for my silence are manifold. First, and with wonderful comic timing, I got bad flu two weeks before Christmas, which put paid to any cycling in the run up to the festivities. As I began to recover, the snow and ice came with a vengence, rendering the local roads pretty unrideable. So, as a result, the bike has been sitting, forlorn, beneath the stairs, wondering if it’s ever going to spin its wheels again. My legs are no doubt wondering the same thing.

Good news is that the recent thaw has cleared the roads, so a cheeky evening spin may be on the cards this very night. This will also be a great excuse to road-test my recently acquired (thanks Tom and Sam) Fenix E21 light.

Initial off bike impressions are very good. The torch is beautifully made and fearsomely bright, even on low power mode. Looking forward to pointing the bike somewhere dark and seeing how it performs. The beam pattern looks excellent, with nice bright centre spot and a very even halo of light surrounding it.

I’ll keep you posted.

9 Speed Friction Shifting Update

After negotiating the wide open seas of THE HELMET DEBATE in my last post, I’ve returned to my usual sheltered backwater of cycling lore, to further discuss the joys of non-indexed shifting and my latest experiences:

A while ago I blogged about issues I has having shifting friction with nine-speed. However, these problems have disappeared completely following a proper cable service, revealing a truly wonderful new/old shifting system that combines the best of up to the minute and ‘outmoded’ systems. I felt it was necessary to update the last blog because I don’t want to put off any folks who are running nine-speed and would like to try friction. Plus, a little repetition doesn’t do any harm.

A QUICK FRICTION/INDEXING PRIMER: For those of you who don’t know what friction shifting is, it’s the system of derailleur gearing that existed before modern gearing systems that click from gear to gear. Friction systems don’t have those ‘click’ positions, meaning that you have to manually feel the chain move from sprocket to sprocket and make minor adjustments to get rid of any chain noise or ‘dithering’ between gears.

OK, back to the thread: Since I gave my cables and rear mechanism a thorough overhaul, the need to adjust, or ‘trim’ the gears has almost disappeared. Ironically, I think this is due partially to the many refinements that Shimano and other companies have made to their indexed systems. Let me explain…

Back in the waning years of friction shifting, five-speed rear freewheels were the norm for ordinary folks. This meant big gaps between each gear position, therefore less likelihood of hitting the gear perfectly on your first throw of the lever. Contrast this with a nine-speed system with narrow gaps between each sprocket – you move your gear shifter and you’re far more likely to find a gear than find a gap.

Allied to this are the shifting ramps and specially lowered teeth that Shimano et al have engineered into their sprockets to make shifting easier and quieter, even under load. These features are designed to make indexed (click) shifting slicker; however, it has an even more profound effect on friction shifts, making for almost completely silent, seamless gear changes, even under considerable load.

Another ‘engineered for indexing’ feature has big benefits for friction users. And this time it’s a feature of the rear derailleur. The top jockey wheel of a modern rear derailleur is floating – i.e. it has a slight but significant amount of side to side play, straight out of the box. This isn’t sloppy manufacturing – this is a design feature to facilitate easier indexing. Essentially, the side-to-side float in the top jockey wheel allows for slight maladjustment of the indexing, a degree of excess friction in the cables or slight twisting in the derailleur itself. However this feature makes friction shifting even slicker. Nine times out of ten, this float negates the need to trim, certainly on a nine-speed setup – the floating top jockey wheel obligingly takes up the misalignment for you.

It’s rare when old and new technologies are complimentary in this way. I’m running a modern Deore LX mech, cassette and chain with Dura Ace bar ends set in friction mode- the best of both worlds – like shooting with a DSLR on manual mode. You regain control of the mechanism and therefore an understanding of its function, whilst reaping the benefits of genuinely useful technological advances.

A great feature of the Dura Ace bar-ends is that you can choose indexed or friction, to suit your mood. However, like yesterday, when freezing conditions and road salt rendered my indexing useless, I just switched to ‘outmoded’ friction and immediately, my full gear range was back. It’s good to have choices.

The advantages of friction shifting:

  • Never worry about adjusting your indexing again
  • Quieter shifts
  • A better understanding of how derailleur shifting works
  • The ability to swap in a different wheel without readjusting (good for Time Triallists, according to one of my TT friends)
  • The ability for the gears to work in poor conditions
  • A certain esoteric smugness gained from using something different
  • And more besides.

Further reading:

Grant Petersen on Friction Shifting

… and in the interests of balance:

Sheldon Brown’s Bicycle Glossary (ironically Sheldon was a big click-click fan)

Helmet or Cap?

Thus far on this little blog of mine I’ve managed to dodge THE HELMET ISSUE. My main source of reluctance is that so many people have said so much about helmet wearing already that I probably have little to contribute to the morass of opinion and misinformation already clogging up the Internet.

However, some days the issue just rears its head (unintended). Today started with another cold, icy morning with slippery pavements and minor roads making the going, on foot, difficult. My wife Su was understandably concerned about my welfare and suggested that I wear my little used bike helmet rather than my now customary tweed cycling cap. This simple, well-meant suggestion sent me into a tailspin of rhetoric, contrary opinions, flawed reasoning and political posturing.

“There’s a greater statistical argument for wearing a helmet while driving or walking”, I spouted (one of those ‘facts’ may be true). I tried my sadly neglected Giro Hex helmet on (it is a nice helmet) and reacted like Huck Finn when Aunt Polly shoehorned him into church clothes. “It’s itchy and uncomfortable, only fits where it touches”, I moaned.

“My head will be too cold in a helmet this morning. I need my cap”, I protested, in an increasingly child-like way. Su cocked her head on one side, took a deep breath and said nothing (she didn’t need to, I was having a conversation all by myself).

“The whole thing is just a cooked-up conspiracy to sell stuff that people don’t need” – this was my wildest proclamation yet. Su’s left eyebrow raised, just slightly.

“Well you’re an adult, I’m sure you’ll make an informed decision,” she said. And with that, I put my uncomfortable, bulbous helmet down, donned my warm, cosy and minimalist tweed cap, gave Su a kiss and pedalled off to the station, promising to text here when I reached the station.

As I rode to work, I ruminated on a whole lot of questions. Did I make the right choice? Do I expose myself to unnecessary risk by not wearing a helmet? Am I irresponsible? Would I have enjoyed my ride less wearing a helmet? If I don’t wear a helmet, am I a bad role model to my children?

Your opinions, readers, would be appreciated.

Alternative Bike Lighting

The Fenix E21 LED torch

Regular readers of my blog will have noted that I’m not the type of person who blindly buys ‘bicycle specific’. Be it clothing, luggage or lighting, ‘cycle specific’ can often be used as an excuse to charge more for less. Don’t get me wrong, there are some fantastic bike specific products out there, but I urge you to have an open mind when seeking out solutions to cycling problems, such as keeping warm, dry and visible at night.

In this vein, I’ve been experimenting with alternatives to the cycle specific front light. I’ve bought new front lights each winter and they have all failed, fallen to pieces or fallen down the road. It seems that the basic truth is, unless you pay mega-bucks for a high-end lighting system (whether it be dynamo or Li-Ion/LED) affordable bike lights are generally disappointing. However, in contrast, there are some superbly made, full waterproof LED torches out there, which more than rival equally priced ‘bike’ lights in terms of output and knock them out of the park in terms of build quality and weatherproofing.

After a good deal of research, probing some pretty obscure forums, I’m pleased to announce that soon to be joining The Everyday Cyclist’s lighting arsenal will be a Fenix E21 LED torch. This diminutive torch is the same size (more or less) to a Mini Maglite (the one that takes 2xAA batteries) yet kicks out a massive 150 lumens on full power. Encased in a hard anodised CNC aluminium waterproof case, at £30 it looks, on paper, to be massively better than a comparably priced front bike light from Cateye, Nightrider or other popular ‘bike brands’.

The light will run for 2.5 hours on full power (enough power for off-road night riding) or over 11 hours on its low power setting, which is still more than powerful enough to see by on unlit country lanes.

But how to fit it to the bike? A quick Google for ‘maglite bike mount’ resulted in a neat, simple rubber block and Velcro mount arriving through the post (via a popular auction site). This will securely hold any AA sized torch. The cost? £3.50.

This cunningly simple item attaches the torch to the bars, allows it to be released in a thrice and isolates the light from road shock. Perfect.

So, for £33.50, I’ll soon have a high-powered, compact, lightweight front light system that will far outlast cheaply made, plastic lights from bike specific manufacturers.

When the Fenix torch arrives, I’ll subject it to some real world testing and get back to you with the results. In the meantime, I’m trialling the system with my modified LED Maglite. Although not in the same league of brightness, this is a great ‘be seen’ front light, with long, long battery life. It’s also (rather unsurprisingly) a great torch for roadside repairs.

45 Minute Escape

Croxteth Country Park is my favourite destination for a quick escape

A few days ago I had one of those sublime, snatched-from-nowhere rides. I had an hour to spare before the children returned from school and college and the evening ritual of food, TV, baths and chores began. Time for a ride.

The day had been cold (1 degree Celsius) and magically dry and clear so I head out towards Croxteth Country Park to see how the woodland trails were. I had a hunch that the season and the weather conditions would work some magic. And I was right.

My favourite local trails are usually difficult to ride for most of the year. In the summer, they’re usually overgrown with brambles, nettles and suchlike. During the autumn and winter, they’re usually too muddy to ride without having to clean the bike for an hour after every ride (which sort of defeats the purpose of a quick ride).

However, today was perfect. The ground in most parts was frozen solid and the vegetation had died back for the winter. So wrapped up in three layers and thick gloves, I swept around the trails as if it were a dry dusty summer’s day, only taking care for glassy areas of sheet ice. It’s been a year since I rode some of these paths, but it’s amazing how their every root, dip, rise and sketchy section gets imprinted in the memory.

Late afternoon, winter sun, not a soul about.

I came home refreshed and later on, read Chris ‘Pondero’ Johnson’s wonderfully inspiring piece on the Micro Tour – a chance to snatch some of the pleasures of touring in just a few hours (like an S240 but without the sleepover!). I think next time I escape, with a little more time to spare, I’ll pack the coffee flask (or maybe the Esbit stove and Billy-can) and a snack, find a stump and brew up.

Snow Day #2 and Ponderings on Civilised Modes of Travel

“Should we talk about the weather? Should we talk about the government?” REM, Pop Song ’89

Freezing temperatures overnight meant that yesterday’s snow stuck tight this morning. On the news last night, tales of traffic chaos, gridlock on the M25, school closures, the usual UK winter headline grabbers. For the next few days it would seem entirely excusable that this blog should become a rant about the weather and our collective inability to cope with its more extreme moods. However, today’s experience has been, thus far, strangely sweet.

Just as yesterday, the bicycle proved to be the only way to get into town, with bad weather, road-works and just too many damned cars making it a sad procession. Resurrectio sailed resolutely past them all, her fat, gripsome tyres tenacious on the tarmac, her full-length mudguards keeping me clean and dry.  I sailed down to the railway station, using the main roads to avoid the really slippery stuff. Once at the station, a fair amount of chaos ensued. The arrival and departures board flashed maniacally with words like ‘cancelled’ and ‘delayed’, written in angry orange letters. However, my usual train was running and on time, a veritable ‘Little Train That Could’, today full of poor folk whose trains were cancelled. I got to the train first, just as the inbound passengers were pouring onto the platform. I stowed the bike and found a table seat, plugged in the earphones and listened to Fleet Foxes as the wintry landscape slipped by the window.

Around me, people chatted, sharing their ‘we’re going her; where are you going?’ stories, thrown together on this packed train by a combination of fate and meteorological circumstance. Some were off to lectures, others weddings, others visiting relatives. I was happy to sit back and be a spectator to the scene. Funny how complaining about the weather and bad transport planning gives people such pleasure. At this point it struck me how much more social and convivial my travelling arrangements are than the auto-traveller. A stretch of my regular rail journey passes close to the M602 motorway into Manchester. The contrast between the tense, miserable faces behind the wheel and the relaxed folk on the train could not be more extreme than today. My fellow travellers are talking, reading, sleeping, working. Me? I’m  listening to music, sipping a coffee, writing this blog piece, watching the fields pass, surrounded by the gentle murmur of strangers’ conversations.