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The mist is gathering in the valleys, a gentle reminder that it’s going to get somewhat chilly very soon, but for a few weeks before the cold really starts to kick in, I get to commute across the fields sun rise es over the hills in the distance.

Grandma’s purple Pashley bike being pressed into service for a shopping run in York. Notice Big Red Lock, damp weather, saddle set to silly height and pannier bag on the ground. After wrestling this bag off and on the bike I saved a total of zero minutes compared to walking on the same journey.

There are many reasons our neighbours think we are strange. One is that occasionally when they bring their car out for a clean, we are lining up our bikes.* I’m not sure if the looks are because of the unusual nature of the bikes we ride or just because, they’re bikes, as in, Not Cars. And that’s just weird.

I’m a bit obsessive about cleaning my bike, probably he result of dealing with mud encrusted machines at the bike shop. I’m especially fussy about the front forks or the main bar, where mud collects easily. Fortunately the mudguards take care of most of the mud, cow poo, horse poo and assorted other semi-liquid matter that covers the cycleways around here, and the long frame of the Xtracycle makes cleaning much more pleasant as the area around the front gears doesn’t get spattered all the time, and you can get at it to clean much easier with the back wheel out of the way.

My goodness but I’m boring. As it is now spring there’s a slightly higher chance that the roads will be dry most of the time, and that I can relax on the cleaning. The bike still gets some dirt, of course, but it’s a grey-brown patina of fine road dust which makes it clear that this is a working bike, and is therefore very cool, whereas mud just looks mucky.

I think I should get out more.

Of course the real advantage of cleaning a bike is that even after I’ve taken the deck off the back, unfastened and removed the luggage carriers, cleaned the frame down, replaced the luggage carriers, removed the three kilos of rubbish I’ve been carrying about for weeks and wheeled the shiny bike into the garage, my neighbours are probably only half way through cleaning their car.

*Currently seven bikes, for a five-member family. And your point is?

I’m back home. This was not part of the plan.

The plan (skip this if you’re read it before) was to go off to north Germany for just under a month and learn how to be an ambulance driver, come home in June, get eight weeks experience and go back for exams in the beginning of August. The plan worked, despite certain practical problems, right up to arriving at the school. Unfortunately that’s where things began to unravel.

The problem was not the many-headed monster, the language or any of the other stuff I was concerned about. It was decibels, specifically coming from our teacher.

He started shouting in the first lesson: this school wasn’t going to be ‘average’; it would be the best; we were going to be pushed to the limit; he’d make us stressed as far as we could bear and then some; his students scored an average of 1.2* and he would make sure we did the same, apparently by shouting. Everything taught each day would have to be learned in its entirety by the next morning. It would be tested by pulling people up to the front and grilling them, and woe betide any student that was not Good Enough.

Quite what this was meant to achieve I don’t know: all it did for me was stop my brain working.

I held out until Monday: the teacher did deal with some of us more carefully than others, but in the end it dawned on me that to stay I’d have to spend the next three weeks trying to make myself fit into the ethos of the school, and that wasn’t the sort of person I am or want to be, and wouldn’t have made me a better ambulance driver either. My identity didn’t need to be wrapped up in being Good Enough for this particular teacher, nor in becoming an ambulance driver by August, so after watching five people get shouted at for an entire lesson I packed my bags and came home.

When I wasn’t avoiding the teacher I was having a great time and enjoying the work, so I’m trying to find another way to get to the same place, maybe by working with the local Red Cross and then applying to a school nearby with more relaxed lessons and less decibles; we’ll see.

In the meantime it’s planting season, and I still want to ride a century this year, I’ve a carpentry apprenticeship to start in September, something fell off Middle Son’s bike, (It is a mystery to me how the boys manage to lose obscure fittings on their bikes, but they do) so I need to get fixing it, and I’ve just realised it’s mothers day in Germany tomorrow.

More normal (ie: Bike and garden related) posts from next week.

*Exams in Germany are typically graded from 1.0 (perfection) down to 4.9 or 5. Britain as usual has to be different so my grades are all in letters, which causes no end of confusion.

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.

Xtracycles can pull more than people think.

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.

Disgruntled has advanced the theory that the ideal number of bikes is N+1, where N is the number of bikes you currently own. I like that idea.

Especially as I bought this a while ago.

Honestly, there are reasons apart from ‘Ooo, shiny new bike’. Partly as it wasn’t: it’s quite an old bike with cantilever brakes, 21 gears and a chromoloy steel frame which is why the previous owner traded it in for an aluminium bike.

So why have I bought it?

I’ve been looking for a bike for some time to use as a spare: the Xtracycle is in use every day so any ‘down time’ is a major problem at the moment, and the last brake adjustment was made while siting next to a lamppost in Stuttgart. Okay, we have the Bakfiets, but that’s a bit of a tank and a real beast if I need to climb any real hills. Bike N+1 is for emergencies so I have a backup if I have an appointment somewhere and the Xracycle isn’t working so well. On top of this it’s tatty old bike so I’ve noithing to lose by trying stuff out on it…

 I can’t take the Xtracycle to the UK in August because British train operating companies grasp any excuse to avoid carrying bikes and the extra length will probably be taken as a sign of the coming apocalypse by some railway official who will refuse to countenance taking the thing on his nice clean train. I can’t afford a folding bike, so a normal sized bike will attract less attention.

I work with young people a lot, and many of them like to come cycling, sometimes on longer tours. Not all have serviceable bikes and it would be great to be able to invite someone who doesn’t own a bike and say “Don’t wory about a bike, you can use mine”.

It gives us a breather when Eldest Son outgrows his current bike, and it means that I have at least one chromoloy frame in reserve*, so in the absolute worst case scenario, if the Raleigh frame on the Xtracycle gives out, we won’t have to prune the money tree too drastically for a replacement.

If you read those fast enough, it almost sounds reasonable. All the bike needs is a clean and it’ll work something lovely. Well, when it’s got new tyres. And a shorter headset; a V-brakes; and that saddle needs replacing, and so do the handlebar grips, and…

*Just after I bought this, someone gave me an elderly Giant with a Chromoly frame for free, but there we go…

For some strange reason Beautiful Wife wasn’t convinced by my cunning plan for cycling to Japan. Instead she has wrestled the internet into submission and found a flight that was relatively inexpensive, allows us to stay in Japan for a reasonable amount of time, and fly with an airline which we’re fairly confident will have the seats properly bolted to the floor. Normally we hope for two out of the three.
It’s important to get there this year because my father in law is seriously ill, and getting worse, by all accounts, so we really want to get some time with him while we still can. I’m not sure what either of us will do without him: some people leave a big gap even when they’re a long way away, and with his wisdom and humour he’ll be one of those people.
I’ll have plenty to be getting on with while I’m in Japan, and we’ll be travelling about, but in an effort to keep my readers happy (i.e. keep my google statistics stats up), I will of course keep blogging. Japan is a whole new world in terms of blogging subjects, but I was wondering what you lot would like me to write about -bearing in mind we’ll be a long way from the touristy places. Here’s a few of my thoughts, add your ideas or questions in the comments.

  1. Cycling in Japan tips.
  2. The local bike shop (which is so eccentric it deserves its own post).
  3. The neighbourhood.
  4. The other Japan (The one without skyscrapers or concrete).
  5. Pictures of interesting places and things seen on bike rides/walks.
  6. Riding the single speed granny bike which I’ll hopefully be able to use. (Or a series of posts about me trying to get hold of a bike)
  7. All manner of random entries about life in Japan in general and cycling, particular.

Over to you.

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