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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.

It doesn’t seem two years since Eldest Son was racing about on a little BMX dirt bike with no mudguards, but he’s now a pretty experienced rider and using a 21 speed hybrid over prodigious distances, and we (that is: ‘he’) decided he should probably have some panniers to add to load carrying capacity. There are real panniers on the market for small bikes, but that’s far too simple (or I’m too cheap) so I decided to use some army surplus canvas bags, much loved by students in the UK. These would cost less than the purpose built version, and would look very cool.

I  would like to pretend I had some bags ‘just lying around’ but sadly I didn’t, and one of the continual problems of emigrating is that you sometimes don’t know the name for the simplest things. I couldn’t find a canvas backpack or even an Army Surplus Store on Google Germany. Funny how countries are different.  There must be something like this locally, but I just don’t know what to search for. Mind you, judging by the amount of British students wearing ex-German Army coats, they may simply export everything.

We solved the problem by ordering four army surplus bags from a shop in the UK, and asking my parents to bring them when they drove over to visit. So much for our eco-credentials.

Fitting them is an ongoing process. Right now they’re fitted using the simplest method that occurred to me: running two straps through the rat-trap on the luggage rack and letting them rest on the frame. This causes the occasional problem with empty bags catching on the spokes, but with a load they rest well. Long term I think I may have to add a back board and some kind of attachment at the bottom of the bag, but that’ll have to wait until I get around to it. At the current rate that may take some time.


I’ll also have to catch Eldest Son first.

I seem to trash one drive chain a year. I don’t know why, but I reckon the fact that I use the bike daily to carry all kinds of stuff, including about fifty kilos of small boys, uphill, in all weathers, probably has something to do with it. These chains were never designed to take that sort of pressure.
That’s my theory, anyway, and I’m sticking to it: it sounds way better than admitting I’m a lazy oaf and I forget to clean the chain.
However, last week things were getting silly with the gears changing at random moments and the bike making the embarrassing ‘clickety-clickety’ sound of a piece of machinery that really, really, needs some maintenance. On top of that both brakes were beginning to feel like a sponge, not a nice thought in this area of steep hills and tight bends. I tried to ignore this by using the Bakfiets, but that needs some work too, of which more anon.
So I finally gave up and took the Xtracycle to the shop, where the chain measuring tool showed the all too familiar ‘way overdue for replacement’, so off came the wheel, and on came a new cassette and two fresh chains. While I was at it, I found that the back gear cable was tensioned like a washing line so we pulled that straight, and fixed both brakes into the bargain.
Today the gears were responsive, the chain hummed and I could stop the bike. So naturally I rode faster.
It doesn’t take much to make me happy.


Eldest son is learning that interesting knots can be useful.

Trucker’s knot with extra half-turn securing backpack to luggage rack, making his kiddy bike into a workbike.

The metal mudguard for the back wheel originally had only one hanger to hold it down. At first I kept the mudguard more or less in place by forcing a rolled up inner tube between it and the spraydeck.

Such is my capacity for ignoring important repairs that fixing this sort of thing normally takes months, but having a bike that noisily pooped an inner tube onto the road every fifteen kilometres gave powerful motivation to fit the second support within a week.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to work out how not to get wet feet when I use the Xtracycle in the rain: I guess that’s one result of not having a television.

I could just go out and get a nice Brooks mud flap, but I figured that if other people can do stuff like make mushing belts from inner tubes I can at least try a mud flap,  so a couple of weeks ago I spent a half hour in the garage and came up with this low- cost version using a mountain-bike sized inner tube, some tyre repair glue, and a couple of odds and ends.

To make it a bit tougher and stop it curling, I used two pieces of inner tube back to back with puncture repair glue: since getting puncture-proof tyres I hardly use this for it’s intended purpose anyway. I’m not sure how well that’ll work long term, but I can always try again with a different glue if it falls to bits. I drew the outline with a pen on the glued-together tubes and cut it out.

So far it’s holding up to the rough treatment I give it. In service it is about 6 cm/2 inches above the road which is low enough to keep me from getting spattered. I didn’t get it quite level and there’s a gap at the top so some water runs down the back. Maybe I’ll do something about that one day.

I seem to destroy mudguards on the Xtracycle. I don’t know how. The first set was traditionally styled and made in black plastic, and kept me dry for a whole three days before dropping onto the road one damp night back in 1997. Generation two, a ‘Crud Catcher’ fishtail, was very effective for ten years but didn’t fit under the Xtracycle, so I fitted generation three with some trepidation, a lot of swearing, and a little help from my friends. These broke on a wet day last October, naturally when I was going to a job interview. Since then the back mudguard has been held on with a mass of gaffer tape. This is of course incredibly cool if it’s an emergency repair out in the bush, but looks pretty awful on a sort-of commuter bike. Especially after six mud-spattered months.

So now I’ve finally got around to fitting Mudguards 4.1: proper metal mudguards with parts scrounged from various scrap bikes including the bike I gave up on for beautiful wife. It took a bit of a wait for the right scrap bike to come in, but hopefully it’ll save more emergency repairs in a rainy night. As can be seen one set of rear stays needed a bit of ‘adjustment’ (clamped in a vice and bent horribly until they fitted) but they’re holding well.

The front end looks a bit strange at the moment after I fitted the scrap light . I’ll be replacing the cantilever brakes soon with Hydraulic or V-Brakes which will tidy that area up. I’ll need a switch for the lights somewhere as well.

New-fangled LED rear light with park light function, because being rear-ended at night wouldn’t be fun.  I left my work shoes in the Xtracycle again. Normally people look at me in a funny way when I take pictures of the bikes, but today they were all watching Germany play football.

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