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It turns out that riding the Bakfiets in all weathers as a family car/removal van/pickup truck/farm tractor, on and off-road in some very hilly places does make an occasional bit of maintenance necessary. Last week the brakes began to protest at my callous lack of attention to their needs by making a high-pitched squeal that caused dogs to howl, horses to bolt and cows to go off milking every time we tried to slow the bike down.

Not having any real experience with roller brakes I sent off an email to the nice people at Workcycles, who as usual responded extremely fast with the advice that the brakes need greasing now and again, preferably about every six months: the Bakfiets is nearly five years old so it was probably a good time to start, once I’d worked out how.

A quick search with the mighty Internet returned lots of advice, mostly with pictures of people dismantling entire hubs and rebuilding them, which was a bit beyond my capabilities, but the Shimano website helpfully showed an exploded diagram of the hub with two little holes which were apparently there for the purpose of adding the grease, but not just any grease, oh, no: this job called for the super-duper Shimano wonder goo which costs the same as molten gold but obviously absolutely essential as with a normal inferior grease the whole brake system would be destroyed. If I hadn’t managed this already.

I rode the Bakfiets over to my friendly bike shop for advice, and after the owners’ ears had finished bleeding from the noise he confirmed that grease was needed. I asked tentatively how much the whole operation would cost, given that the brakes were badly abused in the first place, possible removal and replacement of the hub, and the liquid gold that would be needed to avoid disaster.

He got out a syringe and squirted normal gearbox grease into the two holes. Sorted.

I showered his tips jar with gold, bought two brake levers for the Xtracycle (another story I’ll bore you with sometime) and cycled home. Not a squeak from the brakes.

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Eldest Son goes to a school some distance away, which is a perfectly normal here: schools tend to be far enough away that children are sent off on their bikes or public transport to get there. This is a great thing, of course, because they gain independence and experience navigating the real world without parents (except when they are brought to school in Mummy’s SUV, of course, but there’s always one).

During school hours, there is a direct tram from the next town to a stop just across the road from the school. Unfortunately this useful service goes off to bed at about six, because grownup people don’t need public transport, obviously. So if there is a parent’s evening at the school, we need to get on a tram into the city, change to another tram back out of the city, change again, go one stop, and change a final time for the last bit of the journey to the stop for eldest son’s school. This seemed a little pointless, especially as the last change involved waiting for ten minutes for a tram journey that lasted exactly fifty-seven seconds, so this time I took my bike.

Whereupon the clouds above delivered rain in large quantities.

Thankfully the bike storage at the school is covered, so the saddle didn’t get wet*, and I met another cycling parent who showed me a way through the black hole of fast roads and contraflows in one of the lesser suburbs of Stuttgart, so we got home quicker than I’d have managed by tram. I used the extra time drying off clothes, but never mind. It’ll be dry next time. Hopefully.

*The main concern of a Brooks user when it rains: ‘Must keep the saddle dry.’ The madness is catching, I tell you…

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I always find the whole business of Christmas presents rather stressful. Finding the ‘right’ present for people is fraught with difficulties and seems to be missing the point in any case.

A few years back Beautiful Wife and I decided it was much simpler to tell each other exactly what we’d like for Christmas and then leave it at that, and this year she requested a Cajon bass tube to annoy the neighbours with, while I asked for two new woodworking chisels. My parents have also adopted this system and very kindly bought me a  brass bell from Lionworks in the UK, photographed (badly) above.

Presents for three boys are less stressful: lots of Lego. Of course I had to spend the afternoon building things with them.

It’s a tough life.

How was your Christmas?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABakfietsen are very solid things. They are, however built to trundle around nice flat bike lanes in places like Amsterdam carrying the shopping and kids, with lots of bike shops and nice mechanics who know how to deal with their complex innards. Ours spends a lot of time being a pickup/tractor on dodgy farm lanes with potholes a medium-sized dog could hide in, and ‘cycle ways’ which resemble a competitive mountain biking route. Add in snow and ice and glom of nit, regular use carrying oversized things like pallets, and a lack of bike shops that have even seen a Bakfiets, and things can go wrong, like eighth gear vanishing.

This isn’t a massive problem on its own as there are two kinds of route locally, ‘up’ and ‘down’, and eighth gear is not much use on either, but the others aren’t much better. First gear is fine, but second and third come and go according to the phase of the moon and position of butterflies in the Amazon, fourth only turns up so it can cut out at a crucial moment like when I have a truck behind me, while 5,6,and 7 operate a sort of lottery.

There’s a limit to how far you can ride in first gear, and the whole bike started making a foul noise, although that was traced to the pedals which are complaining about being used in all kinds of foul weather.

Owning a complex bike in a car culture is one long engineering project. I keep telling myself it builds character. Or something.

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Here’s some of the family transport out in the sun being washed for spring. I really should have done this a lot earlier: not only was there the remains of rust from road salt, but some bikes had autumn leaves stuck in the mudguards.

Cleaning bikes, of course, is a pretty sure-fire way of making sure it will rain for the next day or so. While I was washing the bikes the weather went from bright sunshine to heavy rain in the space of an hour and it carried on all night, so all the jobs I had lined up for the weekend in the Very Smallholding, like finish digging over the awkward veggie bed, get the scythe sharpened and cut the Almost Hayfield while I still could see over the top of the grass, and prepare some kind of space ready to stack the wood from the monster tree when I finally get someone to cut it, etc, probably aren’t going to happen.

This is frustrating, specially as I was already getting behind with everything. So much for this being a way to drop out of the rat race and relax.

On the other hand, I can still plant a fair number of seeds in my home-made starter pots, and the boys are all growing things in containers on the balcony, so we can make a start on that as well.

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Having cleaned the Xtracycle I finally got around to replacing the brake blocks. The last ones are were cheap no-name parts and made a noise like fingernails being pulled down a blackboard whenever I used them. They were also nearly through to the metal. This time I got slightly more expensive versions in the hope they last a bit longer: the blurb claimed they are made of all kinds of high-tech compounds so they work better over time instead of squeaking.

They have orange bits and mysterious letters on the side which will of course improve their performance dramatically.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe plan this weekend was to get another load of digging completed so that the garden would look more like a carefully tended vegetable garden and less like a patch of wilderness or the set for a low budget horror movie.

Naturally it snowed heavily on Friday night.

The garden is pretty well inaccessible when it snows, and even if I could get there, I wasn’t about to spend half an hour raking snow back to find where to dig, so we rescheduled the day and worked on the Bakfiets instead.

The Bakfiets is a low maintenance machine but when something goes wrong it is a pain to get at the bit that needs work, in this case the back tyre, which has been flat as a pancake for weeks.

We do have a stand at the bike shop, but this is built for regular mountain bikes, not thirty kilos of wood and steel, so this is the best was I’ve found to get the wheels off the ground. The side of the box is resting on a cardboard cushion.

Fortunately the hub is fairly well designed. There are a lot of fiddly bits to disconnect but most can be unclipped which saves me rebuilding all the brake and gear connections.

Most of the repair went quite well: We found a large hole in the inner tube, but nothing in the tyre that could have made it. I replaced the whole inner tube with one that has a sensible presta valve rather than the silly Dunlop valve that came with the bike. The main problem was that the chain decided to fall off the front cog, so when it came to putting things back together I first had to take the chain guard to bits and retrieve it.

Oh, and the discovery that the axle bearings have worked lose. Of course, I noticed this after putting everything back together, which means I’ll now have to do it all again in a couple of weeks.

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Winter has kicked in with a vengeance, and for the last few weeks I’ve been leaving home before dawn and arriving after dusk on weekdays. Once out of the village it is pitch dark, and the wonderfully retro bodged halogen light I fitted on the commuter bike hasn’t got enough oomph to break through the dark and fog that are a feature of the ride, especially on the section where the local council has thoughtfully closed the pedestrian/cycleway to accommodate building work* and I have to navigate over the fields and around some trees largely by memory. When I’m riding in traffic I’m fine while I keep moving but as soon as I stop I become invisible.

I reckon I’ve got at least eight more weeks of this, so I’ve finally got a modern light, which actually lights up the road, and stays on for a few minutes when I’m not riding. It’s a bit of a risk having a better quality light on a bike I’ll leave in a public space most of the day, but the bike parking space seems pretty safe, and weighed against crashing into a tree or being run over, it makes sense.

If I muster up a lot more self discipline than usual, I may even fit it to the bike and take photos before next March.

*Because it isn’t a road, so it’s not like anyone important will be using it.

If I’m honest, it’s about five minutes after I wrote my last post: I’m going to let this go online automatically so I have a bit of time to get settled in and sort out my internet connection in a castle in the middle of a field.

Here’s the bike that I’ve been working on, and if all goes to plan, the one which will have transported me some of the way to Schloss Daschow and the Nee-Naw training school. The finished result isn’t going to win any beauty competitions but that’s not the point. The point was to make something reliable but not likely to be stolen. (and as it used to look like this, I couldn’t make it any worse anyway)

Stuttgart is filled to the place denoting filled-ness with cars. This is means the bike infrastructure is pretty awful (a point I will probably labour next month when commuting in the city) but on the other hand, it means that the chances of your bike getting nicked isn’t high. This is because hardly anyone wants a bike, because everyone else drives a car.

Now, I’min a region known for cycling*, and thus a place where bikes get nicked more often. Fortunately Stuttgart helped here as well because people chuck all manner of useful stuff away for the diligent scrounger to collect, so I didn’t have to spend too much to get this bike working nicely, fortunately for you I can’t remember what came from where so you’ll be spared the details. so you’re spared the details, although I know the mudguards came free from a pile of ‘rubbish’ I was able to get at before the council picked it up and the luggage rack came from another bike a customer brought into the shop last year to “get rid of it”. I just knew I’d use it one day. The tyres are reused as well, but that doesn’t count because they were mine and I bought them about fifteen years ago in the UK, which makes me feel old. The Boss at the bike shop is convinced they will end their days in a formula-1 style blow-out with bits flying in all directions and throw me into a ditch somewhere.

But then if I’m going to have an accident, a school full of wannabe ambulance drivers is the place to do it…

*Which of course, I’m not, yet, but you get the idea.

I’m less than excited about taking the Xtracycle of to central Stuttgart or to the Ambulance school as: 1: I don’t know where I’ll be able to store it, and 2: It takes up the entire width of the trams into the city and I don’t want to be beaten up by a righteous citizenry after the third morning. In the usual unfair manner of the universe, Bromptons are failing to drop out of the sky, so Bike N+1 is currently being allied to this nice bag of parts to turn it from ugly mountainbike into a slightly less ugly touring/commuting bike so I have some transport in the next month away from home.

Now that the situation re: jobs and training is resolving a bit, I can get on with other projects, like fitting up Bike N+1 so I can use it in the UK later this year. It is also intended as a bike for the ‘yoof’ who want to come on the odd tour but don’t happen to have a bike of their own*, so the bike has to be ridable for fairly long distances, but it should also have a fairly low nickability rating, because I’ll be using the bike in a couple of British cities known for making bikes disappear, so it can’t have too many new parts. It also needs to be pretty cheap, so I went down into the depths of the cellar (or at least those bits of the cellar I can get into) to see what I could find, and fell over these:

This got me thinking: what are the pros and cons of drop handlebars? You hardly see them here in Germany except on super lightweight racing bikes: I may have occasionally seen a touring bike with them. Last time I was on a train I noticed the drop bars take up less space and poke people less than flat bars, which would be a consideration in the UK. I also wonder if they are good for riding longer distances: I may have a rather hilly 20km commute soon so that’s a consideration.

On the other hand I think that something unfamiliar like drop bars and un-indexed gears with handles way down there on the main bar, may put a couple of potential cyclists off, (although several of my companions are still the age where they’re invincible: ah, the joys of youth) and which brake handles work with V-brakes?

Any drop-bar touring cyclists out there with thoughts? How quickly does it take to get used to drops? And aren’t they just a development of old-school swept handlebars anyway?

*But who can, from nothing, ride 80km faster than me and still walk the next day. I’m not envious.

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