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As this post still manages to be one of the most popular on the blog, it’s only fair to say my Brooks Flyer is now, finally, comfortable. It took about 1000 km to achieve this and I’m still not sure which of us was actually broken in, but I can at least stop carrying a spare saddle around with me.

The foliage in the springs isn’t a permanent feature, I had an appointment in our local ‘sustainable town‘ and whilst cars had a large underground garage, the only parking space for the Xtracycle  was in a bush. Probably the planners would argue that having to lock your bike to a tree is the ultimate sustainable parking solution…

This is our local bike shop in Japan. There is a door in there somewhere. We managed to get about a metre inside but we couldn’t get the bikes in because it was even more messy inside. (click the picture for a bigger version)

This is how the shop has looked for the last ten years I’ve known it. I suspect some of the bikes were there all the time. It’s still open and selling and repairing bicycles so they must be doing something right. I suspect it’s to do with relationships in their community.

It may also be good service: they made a full checkup on two bikes and replaced two inner tubes and one tyre in a couple of hours. I guess this is normal when people use bikes for transport: it’s only places where most of the population use them for fun that we can get away with taking a day or three to make repairs.

I muttered last week about the project to make the Xtracycle’s hub dynamo actually produce some light for the extra weight it provided. Unfortunately this would involve working with electric circuits, which are populated by gremlins, which hate me.

When the front light worked first time it was, therefore, rather a surprise.

After soldering the switch on and making a complete rat’s nest of wires in the deluxe switch housing unit, I spun the wheel, and the headlight worked again. Much euphoria. I wired the rear LED light to the system directly to test it.

The back light worked too.

I wound the wire through the Xtracycle frame and connected the rear light again.

Nothing.

The back light was dead, and now the front was sulking too.

This was electronics as I remembered it. I poked at wires, checked what was connected to what, and put them back again exactly as they were before.

Suddenly both lights worked: I had a working dynamo light system and I hadn’t blown anything up. Medals all around, celebratory lap of the village, waited for sunset so I could test the lights out. Lights visible from space, started to think about about fitting capacitor so front light has continual beam at stop signs.

I’ll keep the battery lights to hand in case the Gremlins decide to get stroppy later.

The all-new, or at least slightly less used, shifters. I’m realising the old ones were a lot more worn than I thought: the gear and brakes work far better than before, which is handy with our local geography.

Notice also that the shifter now matches the bell. These things are important.

About six months ago I fitted an elderly headlight onto the Xtracycle, to be connected in due course to the Dynamo I’d already built into the wheel and the new light fitted on the back. I only needed to add a switch, so it was an easy job.

I got the switch last week.

The problem -apart from a chronic lack of confidence- was where to put the switch. I’d been searching for most of the winter for a small box of some sort to fit the switch in, preferably with a removable, waterproof lid. It appears that this is an under-served area of the consumer market.

I could have bought a new front light of course, with everything in one casing and probably better optics, but come on.

Eventually I came across these tins for cough tablets. They’re a bit bigger than I wanted but they’re made of aluminium, and they have a lid so I can get at the internal gubbins easily when something goes wrong or in some wild moment I decide to install a capacitor for the front light.

Cutting the lid was easy enough with a normal craft knife, the hole is not quite as round as the screw thread, but it’s hidden by the switch and I trust you not to tell anyone. While working in the shop I drilled a hole in the base of the tin and fitted it to the back of the forks. Unfortunately the tin didn’t fit under the crossbar. The system worked fine as long as I only wanted to ride in a big circle.


More drilling and fitting the tin a bit lower down produced the deluxe version* above. I’ve been riding with it for a couple of days and it doesn’t get in the way although it does look a bit strange, so now it’s time for a trip to the paint shop.

To be continued…

*’Deluxe’ defined as ‘usable in a straight line’.

Oh dear, barely two weeks after my fulsome praise for the Xtracycle’s elderly gear shifters and the rear shifters decided to expire. It’d been threatening this for some time now, but I’d perfected the method of “press with thumb, change back into second and press again” which for some reason appeased its internal gremlins into letting it change into first gear. Now said Gremlins seem to have gone thoroughly grumpy and the lever is slipping from steadily higher gears. As our local geography means I need reliable use of the lowest gears on a fairly regular basis, this is a problem, so it looks like the 15 year old levers will have to be replaced and sharpish, not least because  youngest son brought some kind of bugs home from the Kindergarten and shared them around on a democratic basis so everyone bar your correspondent is snuffling and feeling groggy, so guess who ends up transporting everything.

All this ‘cycling keeping you healthy’ stuff has its drawbacks, it seems.

Fortunately I have a backup set of fairly new and actually slightly better shifters, hoarded several months ago when a customer brought in a bike to be disposed of.  I also have most of the tools I need, so naturally I’m now going to put off the job for as long as possible by using the Bakfiets for local rides and then change the shifters in a mad rush just before I have to go on a longer journey.

Meanwhile Youngest Son has managed to get a puncture on his Laufrad and Middle Son is beginning to clamour for me to finish repairing his brother’s old bike so he can use it.

Which twit said the advantage of bicycles is the empowerment from being able to fix your own?

Oh, yeah: me.

Still, it’s nice to be worrying about normal things and not wondering where Beautiful wife’s Japanese family are.

My Xtracycle is built onto a Raleigh bike, and not just any old Raleigh either. If you click on the picture you will see the  words ‘Nottingham, England’ in gold on a black background.

For some reason I’m irrationally proud of this, even though the gears are Japanese and made in Indonesia, the tyres are German and the Xtracycle frame was made in Taiwan.

The bike is an ‘M-Trax 80’ and was built in the last years before production in Nottingham ceased and frame building moved overseas. I bought it in 1997 from Shepherd’s cycles in Wellington, Somerset, UK, and the shop badge is on the main bar with their address and telephone number. It cost three hundred pounds*.

My previous bike had been a second hand not-quite-supermarket-special which had come with its own tribe of gremlins and gave me trouble pretty well all the time. I’m still convinced parts would work loose just sitting in the garage. The back brake was somewhere down near the bottom bracket, convenient for catching mud but useless for adjusting, and was made of plastic. The wheels, I seem to recall, were steel. If bikes were airline seats, changing from the old bike to the M-Trax was like upgrading from Ryanair to Singapore Business Premium.

For about a week after I got the M-Trax I was the worst customer imaginable and kept going into the shop because of some imagined rattle or something not quite as I wanted it to be. I was nineteen and three hundred pounds was the most I’d ever paid for any single object, but the fact remains that Mr. Shepherd was most patient when dealing with this arrogant teenager.

For all my complaining, some of those parts are still on the bike now. I replaced the saddle within a week on the basis I needed to walk straight at work, but the brake levers and shifters are the ones upgraded (free) by Mr. Shepherd all those years ago, and several other components are still doing well despite hitting the road frequently in the first month when I wasn’t used to commuter cages on my pedals and failed to put my feet down fast enough at traffic lights**. The frame is even still under guarantee until next year. In fact, considering it has since been used under a very heavy and often well loaded Xtracycle, in all weathers and with sometimes indifferent maintenance, the three hundred pound bike Mr. Shepherd advised me to buy is still doing very well fourteen years later.

Made in England, you see. Except the bits that aren’t.

*The bike, not the badge.
** I’m not saying this happened a lot, but I believe the newsagent in town was running a book.

Call me traditional, but I like to be able to stop my bike on demand, as it were, especially when going down the 11% hills which are generally unavoidable here. Last week I was riding down one such hill on the Xtracycle* when I realised that the rear brake lever was responding with all the efficiency of a damp sponge.

Mindful that I’ll be in Freiburg on the permaculture course this weekend and I don’t want the bike to disgrace me in a genuine bike culture, on arrival back home I retrieved a hexagonal key and prepared to do the job I dislike above almost all others.

I long since got rid of the ‘Problem solver‘ on the brakes and now run them straight, and this job has gone from an hour of impossibility and cut fingers before giving up to about twenty minutes of near impossibility and the choice of having the brake blocks clear of the wheels, and a spongy brake lever, or reasonably responsive brakes and blocks just stroking the wheels, very, very slightly.  Apparently this is to do with the slightly longer cable to the back brake allowing more play and stretch. I tend to go for the second option: you can ignore an occasionally clicking brake block but a lack of brakes on a loaded bike generally absorbs all of your attention, if briefly.

To add to the above I have an unbelievable ability to do something silly like align everything perfectly but not tighten the cable clamp on the brake quite enough so when I pull the lever the cable pulls through and the brakes spring open again.

So I’m really, really, hoping that the fact it took ten minutes including realigning the brake blocks is because all this practice working in the bike shop is somehow paying off, instead of being a fluke.

*I rode down a hill on the bakfiets: once. It took nearly an hour to get back up.

Now that my Brooks saddle has finally broken me in and feels reasonably comfortable, I’m determined to keep it that way. Apparently an important part of this is keeping the thing dry, so a saddle cover was called for. In my usual classy way I used a plastic bag but they have a tendency to  disappear in high winds, low winds, or when someone sneezed within twenty metres , so a friend took pity on me and gave me a garish red saddle cover he picked up as a freebie from the city of Stuttgart.

Unfortunately the cover worked well in light summer showers but turned out to be less than useful in winter. This is very much like the infrastructure in Stuttgart since the green party decided they wouldn’t clean or salt cycleways in winter for ‘environmental reasons’*. Anyway, after one rather soggy ride I realised that the cover was not only leaking, it was also spreading the water around the saddle, so I forked out for a ‘genuine’ Brooks cover. Just as the ‘Stuttgart’ cover reflects the attitude of its makers, the Brooks one does the same, being thick canvas and very solid. It also just covers the saddle itself, if you pull hard and force it around.

I am now paranoid about getting the saddle wet again, so I cover the saddle in all weathers and even in the garage. This causes much mirth from other cyclists, but I just know that the one day I forget will be the day the bike isn’t under cover and it rains. This may be overkill but at least the saddle stays dry.

I may be eccentric, but I’m comfortable.

*I did not make that up.

Even car free tree-huggers have to go shopping in the next town occasionally, and Ostfildern doesn’t bother to clear most bike lanes or most residential streets, come to that. This means that shopping trips need to be planned with all the care of an expedition to the South Pole, to take advantage of that short time window when the last load of snow and ice has melted, but before the Weather dumps a fresh 10 cm of snow on us. It also gives me a fair bit of experience each year in different road conditions, which I always vow to be ready for and promptly forget about in spring.

Residential roads get cleared by the cars that use them: sort of. Usually the snow is gradually compacted down until there are two narrow strips of tarmac in an expense of ice, which makes life interesting on the Bakfiets where you can’t see the front wheel. Wherever the cars don’t all follow the same line this becomes an expanse of half-frozen sludge where the only way to move forward is get off and push. I learn this every year, and the next year I still try and ride over it again as if somehow it may be different. Away from the cars the trails cultivate harmless looking sheets of lumpy ice which are just waiting to send the back wheel skittering off in random directions.

It looks like I need to rethink my policy on winter tyres, as in, actually get some. For about eleven years I used Michelin Wildgripper City tyres on the Xtracycle which handled packed snow and ice surprisingly well, but they were falling to bits so I replaced them with Schwalbe Marathon tyres which haven’t got the same bite. Now I’m wondering what is best: Marathon Plus tour tyres, respectably knobbly mountain-bike tyres, or go the whole nine yards and go for mountain-man spikes? And then I’ve seen people using spikes on the front wheel and mountain bike tyres on the back…

Or maybe I’m-over complicating things. I could make a kick-sled instead: if I knew what I was doing. Besides some roads I use are cleared so I’d need a way of fitting wheels…

Push your bike through enough snow and this stuff becomes interesting.

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