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I had actually spent money on the commuter bike last week. I don’t generally do anything this rash but the route to college involves a drop of 207 metres (670  ft) in 1.7 kilometres (1 mile), so it seemed sensible to make sure the brakes would work, which meant replacing levers.

The brake levers and gear shifters are one big unit, so I had to replace these too. I cannot understand why you would combine two such complex items, but suspect it was to ensure customers have to spend far more money than really necessary.

In such ways do the powers that be maintain global capitalism.

Having fitted these expensive bits I mentioned to the local bike shop owner that my wrist was hurting when I ride. He suggested a new handlebar, but that was way beyond the budget for this month. On hearing this, he went and dug one out of his scrap pile and gave it me for nothing.

Now the wrist doesn’t hurt and the bike feels far more comfortable to ride.

Take that, Global Capitalists…

I’ve been neglecting the whirry clicky bits of the Xtracycle of late and now it is making its displeasure clear: the chain has been making a noise like a bag of cats for months, despite oiling it regularly, and last week the chain finally wore down to the stage that the wheels wouldn’t turn no matter how much I pedaled, so I started looking around for a replacement before my smug green glow began to fade.

Some time ago I upgraded to eight speed shifters, mostly because my seven speed shifters were considering gear changes to be a request rather than a command (anyone see a pattern here?). I’d not bothered to change the cassette at the time, reasoning that I could do that later in the year. This was in spring 2011.

So this week, I ordered a new rear wheel with an eight speed cassette, two chains and a chain removal tool. This proved cheaper than getting a new cassette and hub mounted on my old wheel, and leaves me with a wheel ready to fit a spike tyre onto for next winter. For once I have actually planned ahead instead of waiting for things to fall to bits.

Any smug glow this may have created promptly vanished without trace when I decided -for reasons that are unclear- that the chain needed to be tensioned while on both the smallest cogs, instead of the largest as I had done the previous seven times, so the first time I tried to change gear I nearly pulled the rear derraileur off its mount. Fortunately the new chain gave way first.

Back to the Commuter Bike for a few more days, then. At least I’ve got plenty of bits for making bike chain chrismas tree ornaments in December.

 

For use in those parts of ‘civilization’ where the Xtracycle may prove just too tempting for thieves and vandals, I have a Commuter Bike, picked up as a very ugly looking mountain bike complete with yellow transfers bearing the name ‘Stampede’.

Wikipedia defines a ‘stampede’ as:

“…uncontrolled concerted running as an act of mass impulse among herd animals or a crowd of people in which the herd (or crowd) collectively begins running, often in an attempt to escape a perceived threat.”

Yes, that sounds just like a bicycle.

Anyway, I bought the bike back in 2012 and did the bare minimum to make it into a basic commuter bike that would present as unattractive a target as possible: I added some scrap mudguards, a stand, V-Brakes, a set of old tyres from the Xtracycle, some elderly lights and the cheapest dynamo I could find.

The bike then got on with its main purpose in life of not being nicked all day at the tram stop while I was at carpentry college. It managed this for two and a half years with no trouble at all, although the front light turned out to be pretty but useless so I changed it before I ran into something, or more likely before something ran into me.

At some point the awful foam handlebars turned back into whatever oil based slime they’d been made of, and needed a replacement quickly, so in desperation I fitted the only handlebar grips I had, which happened to be cork.

Then last week I took it out to see what I’d need to change for the new commute into Stuttgart, and noticed it isn’t looking that ugly anymore.

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And now I’m getting attached to the thing and wondering if I could give it some nice bar ends, or maybe at least get rid of those transfers and upgrade the luggage rack to one that doesn’t rattle… but that would defeat the object of having the bike in the first place. It’s there to be  ugly, dammit, or at least boring, so it doesn’t get nicked when chained to a lamppost in Stuttgart. Next thing you know I’ll be giving it a name…

Still, if anyone has an idea how to remove garish yellow transfers, please let me know…

Having winter tires and then riding on ice with semi-slicks seems silly to the point of irresponsible, so last night I manned up and went down to the garage to fit them before my hands froze up. As with most of my endeavours, this did not go quite as planned.

The first problem was how to get at the wheels, the local bike shop being inexplicably closed at 9pm. Resting the bike on a Brooks saddle on a concrete floor simply isn’t done.  No worries, I thought: remove new tyres from box, use box to cover floor, put bike upside down on the box and change wheels.

All went well until I let go of the upturned bike, whereupon the heaviest unsupported part, the Xtracycle frame, went down and the front wheel flipped up. How did I not expect this to happen? I caught the bike mid pirouette and managed to wrestle the back wheel off it*.

Then came changing the back tyre. Puncture proof Schwalbe Marathon tyres are very convenient to ride on and a pain in the backside to change, but I managed with minimal swearing and a minor injury to one hand.

I took the front wheel off the bike. The bike tipped backwards again. I put the rear wheel in the front forks so the bike would stay still and got on with the front wheel. More swearing and a bruise later and the new tyre was on the front wheel. I braced the bike against my knee, lifted the rear wheel out of the front forks and swapped in the front before I fell over.

With the bike the right way up again, I took the bunged up gear cable out, noting the rust, and squirted lube down the tubes. A shower of water, ice, several chunks of the local forest and one very dead beetle came out of the other end, reducing the weight of the bike by about a third.

Fitted new gear cable. I’ve discovered  that I can -just- use a normal gear cable on an Xtracycle. Some people would suggest that the fact I think this is interesting means I am a Very Boring Person, but those people regularly spend hours discussing mobile phone contracts. I rest my case.

I put the bike back together and took it out for a test run. It worked well enough for me to be confident about riding on the packed ice and snow that is normal here from January to March. returned to apartment feeling smug. Just before going to bed I checked the weather report.

Next weeks forecast: warm, with sunshine.

 
*Of course this meant turning the bike over again because I’d forgotten to release the brake and it is almost impossible to reach when the Xtracycle is upside down, but we’ll skip over that detail.

Just as I got used to riding on snow with slick tires, the Xtracycle developed the same annoying habit as it usually does in winter: The cable to the rear mech froze solid after I’d been riding for five minutes leaving me riding a singlespeed in whatever ratio I happened to be using at the time. The only solution to this is pulling the cable out and spraying with WD40 or similar, and yes I should have remembered to do this earlier as in south Germany it tends to be cold this time of year (-9°c overnight, thanks for asking), and the Xtracycle freezes up like this every time.

In other news, Stuttgart has been ticked off again because the particle pollution is far and above the legal limit in the centre*, so they’re telling people to ride their bikes in and leave the car at home. Of course this would be far more effective if they actually cleared the snow off the cycle lanes, and hadn’t just taken the bicycle trolley off the only tram that carries bikes around the clock “because it is snowing and people don’t ride bikes when it snows.”

Meanwhile, the winter tires have arrived.

*Remember all those reports in the 1990’s about all the pollution in East Germany, and how the west was held as a shining example of how capitalism allowed growth with out environmental damage? Someone didn’t get that memo…

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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.

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