Incremental Upgrade

My cycle ride to work this morning was definitely the wettest I’ve had so far this year (though with 11 months to go, I suspect it won’t retain that crown permanently).

This reminds me that I haven’t so far got round to mentioning that I got another new bike just after Easter last year.

My previous new bike had only come along about 15 months earlier but on that occasion I made what in hindsight was the mistake of going for the cheapest one I could find on eBay. It has a very heavy steel frame, needed some fairly major work (such as truing the wheels) to get it roadworthy in the first place and within just over a year it had got quite rusty and the bottom bracket had worn out, with several other components probably not all that far behind.

I’m fairly confident that I can repair the bottom bracket, and indeed I have by now got the replacement part I need although I haven’t got round to fitting it yet (it’s only been 9 months, after all!). This bike could at least still be useful as a backup, but I decided that since I use a bike on a more or less daily basis for my commute to work, and occasional longer rides, it would be better to bite the bullet and invest a little bit more in a slightly better one.

It turned out that “a little bit more” amounted to only around £100 (the first bike had been around £150, and the new one was valued at £300, about the same price as I’d paid for my bike before last about 16 years ago, but I picked it up cheap in a sale at my local branch of Halfords and even managed to get a pannier rack and mudguards out of my £250). So far I’ve only had to do minor routine maintenance (adjusting brake cables etc.) and repair a handful of punctures, but not had to take it off the road for any extended period or do any major repairs.

The new bike is, I think, technically classed as a hybrid. It’s got a nice sturdy (and lightweight) frame, 27″ wheels with relatively fat but not too knobbly tyres, reasonably low gearing (great for the steep hills round here) and no suspension. This latter was a deliberate choice, as I do the vast majority of my cycling on fairly well-surfaced roads, where suspension is not really necessary and is arguably counter-productive since some of the energy that would get transferred to forward motion instead gets eaten up by the up-down motion of the suspension. In other words, the bike is somewhat optimised for road use but can stand moderately heavy handling and at least occasional forays off-road, which is just what I need.

Apart from the slightly better build quality, this bike has two main features that I was particularly keen to get for the first time: disc brakes and trigger shifters.

Disc brakes have been around for a pretty long time but seem to be becoming a bit more common on relatively low-end bikes these days. They work by friction, just like pretty much any other sort of brake I can think of, but instead of pressing rubber pads against the rim of the wheel to obtain this friction (like rim brakes do — the clue is in the name), they have a separate metal disc (again, hence the name!) attached at the hub and rotating parallel to the wheel itself, and the brake pads are applied to this. The major benefit of this is that you get a lot more stopping power than a rim brake; presumably this due to the much smaller thickness involved, since you’re generating considerably less torque that close to the centre of rotation — essentially, if I’ve understood the physics correctly, you need to clamp the braking surface more firmly but that’s much easier to achieve. Another advantage is that the disc is much further away from the water and mud etc. that tend to reduce stopping power in wet weather. Since we get a lot of wet weather round here (and have quite a few steep hills to cycle down), this is a good thing. Mine are mechanically-actuated disc brakes, which means they are operated by steel cables just like on most rim brakes. Many, probably most, disc brakes are hydraulic, which give more stopping power (though the mechanical ones seem to me to give plenty) but tend to be a bit more fiddly to maintain.

Trigger shifters (for the gears) have also been around for quite a while. I’m fairly sure I remember seeing them in bike magazines back in the early 1990s but I’ve never previously had them on any of my bikes. With the twist-grip shifters on my old bike, I was beginning to find that my thumbs would get quite sore when changing gear, although I wasn’t sure whether the pain was caused by the gear shifting or a symptom of some other cause, such as general wear and tear. In any case, when I came to get the new bike I decided to take the opportunity if possible to try out trigger shifters instead and see if they were more comfortable. After a few days getting used to the system and remembering that I have to use the big lever to shift down and the small lever to shift up on the back gears, but the big lever to shift up and the small one to shift down on the front (which actually amounts to increasing the tension with the big lever and decreasing it with the small one in both cases), I have found them to be much easier on my thumbs. Another thing I like about them is the facility (on the back gears) to change down a couple of gears at once by pressing harder on the lever (you could possibly do the same thing to change up both chain rings at the front, but I rarely go down to the granny gear range anyway, and when I do I nearly always need the intermediate range for a bit before I’m ready to go all the way back up to the large chainring); this is particularly handy if you need to change in a hurry, such as one or two places on my regular commute where the gradient suddenly increases quite sharply.

All told, I’m very pleased with my (not so) new bike and look forward to travelling many more miles with it.


Plans afoot!

It’s just over a week since my bike broke down and I’m still without wheeled transport at the moment 😦

I was able to pick up a new cone and axle at the bike shop last Tuesday (the day after the wheel-related fail) but unfortunately it turned out that the hub itself was damaged and needs replacing.  The simplest way to do this is to get a whole new wheel.  I’m making use of the bike’s downtime to do some other maintenance, especially overhauling the bottom bracket which was beginning to get a bit wobbly.

A friend of mine has pointed me towards a charity called Recycle Cycle Cymru, which aims to salvage useable bikes and bike parts that would otherwise end up as landfill and to make them available to people who need them.   As a way of financing the project (and helping to meet the landfill-avoidance goal) they offer bikes and parts to pretty much anyone who wants them for a small donation.  I’ve been in touch with them and established that they have a suitable wheel for me (and the suggested donation is significantly less than a new wheel would cost).   Fortunately they are based in Bethesda, which is only a few miles from where I live, so it will be quite straightforward to go and pick the wheel up (probably by bus, since I’m currently bikeless).  Unfortunately, I can’t get it until the weekend (I assume that’s when the workshop will next be open, since they didn’t offer me the option of going earlier).

I should also be getting my old bike back from the friend who currently has it.  That was an old but serviceable touring bike I was given about 10 years ago and rode for a while before upgrading to my current mountain bike (mainly so that I could go exploring off-road trails).  After it had sat inactive in my shed for a few years, I gave it to a friend and it sat inactive in his shed for a few years before he gave it to a mutual friend, in whose shed it now sits inactive.  I asked him if he was planning to do anything with it and he said I could have it back if I wanted it.  I think it will need a little work to get roadworthy, but it will be useful to have a spare bike for when my other one is down for maintenance.  In fact, it may even be a better choice of bike to use when I’m planning to travel exclusively on the road, since it has bigger wheels.

Flat out

A couple of days ago I had my first flat tyre since starting my regular cycle commute to work several months ago.  In fact, I think my last flat was some time before that, even taking my long breaks from cycling into account.

Fortunately I’m in the habit of carrying a spare inner tube as well as a puncture repair kit, a pump and a small collection of tools whenever I’m out on my bike, so this wasn’t a major disaster.  Although working in the comfort of my office (I spotted the flat while I was at work – I generally bring my bike into the office during the day), I decided to go for the simpler option of swapping to the spare tube rather than trying to patch the old one, which has already been patched a couple of times so is probably due for retirement.  I was planning to fix the old tube later, but I think I may not bother.

The small pump I carry around on my bike is getting quite old and decrepit; it refused to make a solid connection with the valve on the tyre and I had to hold it on with one hand while pumping with the other, so it wasn’t possible to get the tyre pumped up to the pressure I usually aim for (around 60 psi) but I managed to get it inflated enough to cycle home on.  At home, I have a proper track pump which makes it an easy job to get the tyres up to the desired pressure.

On Your Bike

I have finally got rid of my car, after having one for about 10 years and considering doing without one for at least the past couple of years.  The car I have just relinquished, a 20-year old Peugeot 205, was beginning to get a little too flaky for my liking and was not really getting enough use to justify the cost of keeping it.  For the past several months I have been conducting an experiment to see how well I could manage without a car and since I’ve only used it about 3 times since mid-October (none of them absolutely necessary) I’ve decided that in fact I can do quite well indeed without it.  As the road tax was due to expire at the end of this month, this seemed like a good time to put the plan into action.

My preferred mode of transport is a bike (the pedal variety – I never did get round to getting a motorbike, much as I always quite liked the idea).  There are several reasons  I prefer using a bike to a car.  The main ones, conveniently for the purposes of exposition, all begin with the letter ‘E’.  They are:

  • Economic – running a bike is a lot cheaper than running a car, thus saving me plenty of money that I can spend on other things (including, but not limited to, public transport or even hiring a car on the rare occasions I may need one).
  • Engineering (well, mechanics) – I’m quite happy doing pretty much all the maintenance on my own bike and can generally keep it in good working order.  Cars are mechanically a lot more complex than bikes and I’ve always felt a lot less confident about working on my car.
  • Enjoyment – I’ve never been a great fan of driving but I generally quite enjoy cycling (except, perhaps, when it’s very windy and wet; I don’t like driving in those conditions either).
  • Environmental – the environmental impact of running a bike is obviously considerably lower than that of running a car; one less car on the road may not make a huge difference but every little helps.
  • Exercise – my commute to work and back each day is a total of about 5 miles, including a couple of fairly serious hills.  Doing this on the bike (or on foot) rather than in the car is good for my general physical health and fitness.   Given how stressful I tend to find driving, it’s probably quite beneficial for my mental health too.

Obviously there are some drawbacks of a bike compared to a car.  It’s a somewhat slower mode of transport (except during heavy rush hour traffic – I think I would probably take almost as long driving to work as cycling some days, as my bike can get past the long queues of traffic I often meet) and not so good for going very long distances, it leaves you somewhat more exposed to the elements, and has much lower carrying capacity.

Regarding the first of these drawbacks, I find that with a bit of careful timekeeping the slower pace of travel isn’t a problem (and I don’t have to spend lots of time searching for a parking space) and on the fairly rare occasions I’m going further than I could feasibly do on the bike and can’t get a lift, there’s always the aforementioned public transport or car hire options. Getting rained on isn’t so much fun, but I can usually take a change of clothes with me if I need them and in any case, as a friend of mine once remarked, “real men get wet!”.  A pair of panniers (obtained via my local Freegle initiative) give me enough carrying capacity for bringing home shopping or stuff like that; I can walk if I’m not going too far with a bigger item such as a guitar; if I’ve got more to carry or further to go, that’s the time to smile sweetly at one of my friends. 🙂