True Story

When talking with some colleagues in the tea room, the topic of bad driving, and more specifically bad overtakes came up. After hearing a few stories, I shared a few of my own horror stories of close passes on national speed limit roads from a cycling perspective. After this, the topic of cycle helmets came up, so I dutifully explained that the reality of cycle helmets falls short of what the general public often imagines.

From across the room, a chap chimes in with a story from the days when he used to cycle in to work. He told jus that several years ago, he was riding his bicycle without lights, in the dark down an unlit country lane. He collided head-on with another chap on a bike without lights. Both were injured, the other chap quite badly so.

At the end of his story, he turned to us and said, “I bet he wishes he was wearing a helmet that day. I know I do.”

Personally, I’d have gone for lights.

All Quiet

Yesterday, for the first time in almost two years I seriously considered buying another bike. I have yet to decide whether or not I will buy (yet) another bike, but I discovered something about my relationship with cycling in the process.

More astute readers may have noticed that the pace of posts on this site has slowed down somewhat. During this quiet time, cycling has remained my main mode of transport and I cycle approximately 9 miles every weekday as part of my commute, in addition to running errands at the weekend. Despite this, I have not felt the inspiration to post much of anything, or to ride much beyond what I need to do to get around. However, since I started to seriously entertain the possibility of acquiring another bike I have been feeling the call of the pedals and the desire to blog once more.

A scene from this evening’s commute home

It strikes me that a big part of my enthusiasm for cycling (and blogging about cycling) stemmed from a near-constant series of acquisitions of bicycles and bicycle-related stuff in the quest for the ‘perfect’ set-up. Once I had a set-up which worked well for me, the quest was over, or at least it slowed down. Whilst my ideal set-up will naturally change over the course of my life, the significant amount of research, trial and error required to get to what I have now was what kept this blog regularly updated for as long as it was. The problem with having a set-up which works well for your needs is that there is little left to discover, nothing to be researched into meticulously for hours on end. Nothing to blog about.

This realisation led me to notice a pattern. For example, during the time the blog has been quiet, I spent quite a lot of time researching kitchen stand-mixers, intended mainly for the benefit of Ms C’s baking. I wanted to make sure we got the best one that I could also service myself, have good spares availability for years to come at the best price point. Similar to bicycles, there is a surprising amount of information, opinion and even tribalism (Kenwood vs KitchenAid discussions can get just as heated as any obscure bicycle forum thread) surrounding stand mixers. That peculiar world, and many others like it held my attention for much longer than I would have expected them to. Once the stand mixer had been chosen, I ended up learning about bread making, flours grains and a similar series of events occurred all over again.

I suspect that my inspiration to write about bicycles and bicycle-related issues will wax and wane over time as the set-up I have becomes more or less suited to the situations life throws my way. Perhaps the simplest solution would be to turn this blog into one which discusses whatever it is that I’m trying enthusiastically to perfect at any given time.

Carradice Duxback Rain Poncho

Over the years I have tried numerous items of rainwear whilst cycling. In that time I have merely learned that there is no such thing as a ‘breathable’ waterproof fabric. In my experience, rainwear offers a choice between getting soaked with rainwater or getting soaked with sweat; staying dry was never really on the cards.

Because of this, the idea of a rain cape had interested me for a while. Due to the bloody awful noise made when cycling in most waterproof fabrics, I had my eye on a waxed cotton one, but was put off by the price, general lack of information and the fact that the few places which sold it all used the same rather crappy picture from the Carradice website. Eventually I found a good review of the cape on the Smut Peddler blog which has some more useful pictures of the cape as well as more information than the manufacturer was providing.

The Duxback poncho is offered in two sizes and without the ability to try one on in a shop before buying, I decided that the larger option would deb the safest bet. Sadly, at the time the larger model was unavailable from all of the relatively small number of suppliers who stock the item, but I was able to find a second hand one on eBay. Apart from needing some re-proofing at the seams, the second-hand poncho was in very good condition. 
Thankfully, the same blog which had the review of the cape also had an overview of re-proofing the cape 18 months later. After shopping around, I could not find the Carradice re-proofing wax from any supplier who didn’t wish to charge me as much again for delivery, so I decided to buy a larger pot of Barbour Thornproof Dressing which included delivery, totalling about the same amount as the Carradice wax. So far I have not noticed any ill-effects due to going ‘off-brand’ and I have plenty left for re-proofing saddlebags etc.
Usage of rain capes seems to have died out in the UK around the time that the bicycle industry decided to re-designate mudguards from ‘bicycle components’ to ‘bicycle accessories,’ but it is still going strong in parts of the world where bicycles are a mainstream mode of transport. Having finally tried a rain cape for myself I have found it to be the least uncomfortable and most practical bit of rainwear I have used. What makes the rain cape bearable is that the whole bottom of the cape is open to the circulation of air, preventing the awful sauna-suit effect which jackets and over-trousers invariably result in. In combination with mudguards (obviously) it does a good job of keeping the water off of most of you, your saddle and your handlebars, in addition to keeping the windchill off your hands. Compared to riding a Brompton with a bag on the front, the extra drag from wind and air resistance is not that bad, although I have yet to try the cape in strong winds.
Unfortunately, the rain cape does make you look like a it of a tit. This is exacerbated somewhat when combined with a small-wheeled bike like the Brompton, so if being laughed at by groups of Year 7 pupils is not something you are able to stomach, this is probably not the product for you. However, if like me you can live with looking a bit odd and have never previously managed to find a satisfactory bit of rainwear, this might be the thing for you.

Transport and Delusions

Reading Beyond the Kerb’s open letter to the legal system got me thinking about the mass delusion we suffer from in the UK when it comes to driving a car. 

Musical ability is something which some people are blessed with. Some people are extremely accomplished musicians. Some people are competent singers. Some choose not to participate, but within them lies potential which could one day be nurtured. Some people are tone deaf.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with not being musical. Other than not being able to join a choir or an orchestra (or at least, not a good one) being tone deaf will not significantly diminish your life, bar you from a significant number of jobs or cause exceptional hardship to you, or your family.

Our collective delusion is thinking that driving a car in a public space is different.

Some people are extremely proficient and enthusiastic drivers. Plenty more are competent. Some do not drive, but would be able to do so safely with sufficient training. Some people will are not capable of driving in a consistently safe manner.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with falling into the latter category. What is wrong is a system which allows people who are incompetent to drive to gain a licence. A system which allows people who have demonstrated their inability to drive, to continue driving. A system which places the convenience of an individual driver above the safety of innocent third parties. A system which gives no justice to this whose lives are ended, or irrevocably changed, typically through no fault of their own.

It is understandable that when confronted with a list of injustices like those described on Beyond the Kerb, we feel incredibly angry about the sheer injustice of it. I know I do. 

However, I do not feel that imprisoning drivers who kill through incompetence rather than malice achieves a great deal. Drivers who are imprisoned seldom receive permanent driving bans. In fact, driving bans shorter than the term of the prison sentence are depressingly common. When a driver’s incompetence results in a death or maiming, the only just outcome is to stop them from driving, permanently. Naturally it follows that the testing and monitoring of drivers needs to be made fit for purpose as well, to prevent these tragedies before they happen.

Having said this, being banned from driving, or being unable to pass the test in the first place shouldn’t diminish your life. Other than being prevented from working in driving jobs, not being permitted to drive should not bar you from a significant number of jobs or cause exceptional hardship to you or your family.

The difficulty is that with a transport system in which the odds are so heavily stacked in favour of the private motorist, it seems exceptionally easy to weasel out of a driving ban on the grounds of ‘‘exceptional hardship.’ Subsidised car use, bicycle infrastructure which is non-existent and public transport has been left to decay for decades before the remainder was converted to dividend mines for private shareholders means it is easier to pretend that driving is something that all adults can and eventually will do to an adequate standard.

Until we tackle the systemic disadvantage which non-car travel has been placed at for decades in the UK, the delusion will continue and innocent third parties will continue to pay.

Playing Baseball with Aunt Sally

I was prompted to write this piece based on a post by Carlton Reid on his Quickrelease blog, in which the a comparison is attempted between building infrastructure for bicycles as a means of increasing their use and building baseball stadiums as a means of increasing the popularity of baseball in the UK. As an analogy, it doesn’t really work (and I know I’ve strained a few myself on this blog in the past) but it is at least an interesting revisiting of a straw man with whom Carlton has been arguing with on and off for a few years now.

The straw man I refer to is as follows; that of the cycle campaigners advocating replication of The Netherlands’ approach to cycle infrastructure here in the UK, a significant proportion believe that implementing a botched half-measures as seen in Milton Keynes or Stevenage is enough to produce cycling rates in the UK which are comparable to those in The Netherlands. No-one is saying that quality cycle infrastructure is the entire solution to the unpopularity of cycling as a mode of transport in the UK, it is just most of the solution, difficult, an entirely essential component of the solution and the most obviously visible part of the changes required.  It makes sense that people are talking-up infrastructure; it is a very visible part of the changes we need, it is easy to communicate and it is the very foundation of making cycling a viable mode of transport for normal people. Talking down infrastructure, however, helps none of us, and is a particularly odd thing to do if you have previously made the case for the need for cyclists to present a united front to decision makers.

Carlton beats his straw man over the head with examples such as Milton Keynes or Stevenage, neither of which come close to representing what cycle campaigners advocating replication of The Netherlands’ approach to cycle infrastructure here in the UK are proposing. Whilst the treatment of main roads in these places may superficially resemble approaches used in The Netherlands, without the corresponding changes to other classes of road, such as residential streets, and the requisite inconveniencing of short-hop car trips arising from this infrastructure, attempting to use these places to argue that The Netherlands approach to cycle infrastructure would not work in the UK due to unspecified cultural difficulties is dishonest.

Instead, the importance of the built environment on the modes of travel people choose is downplayed, with unspecified cultural reasons suggested to be the real issue. As most of you will know, using the bicycle as a means of transport in most parts of the UK is not a normal thing to do. Using a means of transport which differs from the dominant means of transport; the car, on infrastructure designed entirely around the car, and amongst car users who have little understanding of cycling or cyclists can often make the act of cycling for transport into something of an ordeal. When facing this situation day in, day out, it can be very, very tempting to see the decision of others to drive rather than cycle as a personal failure, or a result of culture, rather than as a result of the environment. “If I can cycle in this, so can they,” you think to yourself, after a close overtake or a multi-lane roundabout, “if only they weren’t so lazy, or stupid, or addicted to their cars.” I find myself thinking along these lines sometimes, after a particularly gruelling ride to work. But really they’re just ordinary people, people who haven’t given much thought to why they chose the mode of transport they have. The cultural argument for why cycling has failed in the UK is so alluring because it allows us to feel morally superior to those who drive. Accepting that those who currently drive in the UK are the same as those who currently cycle in The Netherlands is hard because it means committing to changing the road environment here to more closely resemble that over there, which is a big job. It also means losing the thing which makes us special; being a cyclist, despite the environment, in a place where cycling is marginalised.

Carlton, it’s time to put this old straw man out to pasture.

Inside the Brompton Wide Range (BWR) Hub

It has been quite a while since I have written anything technical about bikes. This is largely a result of the fact that for the first time since I started cycling again as an adult I have been relatively happy with my bikes and their configurations, which has left me free of my usual desire to acquire shiny new bicycle parts. However, this state of relative satisfaction with the bikes does not mean that things don’t occasionally wear out or break. Last week  I noticed a familiar clicking sound coming from the rear hub of the Brompton.

I have written previously in reasonable detail about the Servicing the Sturmey Archer AW hub. The BWR hub used in the six-speed Bromptons is also a three speed hub gear made by Sturmey Archer, so I thought I would show how the BWR compares to the pictures I took of the 1976 AW hub for the aforementioned post.

AWvBWR1

The planet cage differs significantly between the old AW hub and the BWR. The planet cage on the AW sits on top (drive side) of the sun pinion and can be simply lifted off during disassembly. This is also the case with the new AW and S-RF3 hubs without the ‘intermediate gear’ (sometimes referred to as NIG versions). The BWR differs in that the planet cage is split into two pieces, the bottom of which slides on from the bottom (non-drive side) and the top slides on from the top (drive side) and is fixed onto the bottom piece with the 4 M3 cap head screws shown in the picture above. The result of this is that the planet cage is stuck on the sun pinion. I decided not to disassemble to two-part planet cage as the first screw I tried to loosen was very stiff and it didn’t seem worth risking snapping the screw for this job. The low gear pawls seen at the bottom of the planet cage on the BWR are similar to those on the NIG AW and S-RF3 hubs (which are also retained with a circlip). These pawls are what produces the characteristic ‘tick-tick-tick’ of Sturmey Archer three speeds in their second and third gears.

AWvBWR6

The planets of the BWR have 12 teeth and revolve around a 34-tooth sun pinion, which produces wider-spaced gearing than the AW which has 20-tooth planet and 20 tooth sun pinion. These smaller planets require smaller pins than the standard range three-speed hub.

AWvBWR2

The clutch of the BWR differs noticeably from that of the old AW, but is the same as in the NIG AW and S-RF3 hubs. The axle key is fitted in the slot underneath the clutch in this shot (not fitted in the picture of the AW) and is also the same as in the new standard range hubs.

AWvBWR3

The gear ring has 60 teeth in the old AW, new NIG hubs and BWR. The differences between the 1976 AW hub and the BWR shown are largely superficial. The easily lost wire pawl springs are still used in the BWR gear ring. The gear ring pawls are disengaged in first gear, which is why there is no characteristic ‘tick-tick-tick’ sound.

AWvBWR4

The ball ring is another part which has changed little between the old AW and BWR shown. The only major difference appears to be the addition of two extra notches for removing the hub internals using a C-spanner or hammer and punch. The AW ball ring has a metal dust/bearing retaining cap which has been replaced in the more modern hubs with a plastic retaining ring for the ball bearings.

AWvBWR5

Here we can see the difference between the driver of the old AW hub and that of the BWR. Whilst the AW is designed to take a single three-splined sprocket, the BWR is designed to take a pair of Shimano-style nine-splined sprockets. Like the clutch, the internal portion of the driver was changed between the old AW and the new NIG AW, S-RF3 and BWR in order to fix the issue of the ‘intermediate gear.’ Other than being extended and having a different spline pattern for the two-speed cassette, the BWR driver is the same as that used in the NIG AW and S-RF3.

Aside for the problem of water ingress, the driver was where I found the source of the problem I was having with the BWR hub; the bearing surfaces on the driver and cone nut had some pitting on them. This is an issue I have had with every variant of the Sturmey Archer NIG three-speed hub, but oddly never the old AW. This does not seem to be a problem which afflicts other people with the same frequency and may be a result of the way I ride or the conditions my bikes are subjected to.

Thankfully in the past I have been able to order a replacement driver from SJS Cycles (who stock a great range of Sturmey Archer hub spares) but I could not find the BWR driver  (Sturmey Archer part number: HSA800) on their site. I emailed SJS to enquire about this part and was told that Brompton only issue them for service, in order to be supplied with a replacement driver from Brompton you need to send the old one back to them. I was quite surprised by this; as my primary means of transportation I can’t afford to have my Brompton out of action for the sort of time required to perform such an exchange. If I lived somewhere with a Brompton dealer who did Brompton servicing in a meaningful way (i.e. not Chester) perhaps there would be a better way of doing this, but here in Chester I would have to go through The Bike Factory who do not keep Brompton spares in stock.

I am not sure why Brompton has chosen to restrict the supply of BWR replacement parts. Outside of a big city with a selection of Brompton dealers, in order to be able to depend on a bicycle with this hub there needs to be a supply of spare parts available. I doubt that Brompton are selling the BWR driver at a loss, so even if some of them went to tinkerers and enthusiasts (e.g. turning a S-RF5 into a ten-speed on a Brompton) it would not be detrimental to their business. It is a truly baffling move by Brompton which serves only to make the BWR a less viable option for people like me. Whilst decades-old AW hubs still have spare parts readily available, I am not sure that I will be able to fix this BWR hub up as easily as the 36 year-old AW shown in the pictures above, and that leaves me a bit disappointed in Brompton.

Transport Diversity

In the previous post, Transport Security, the link between energy security and transport was discussed along with the implications for the future here in the UK. One of the issues touched upon in that post was the importance of a diverse mixture of transport modes.

In transport as in nature, diversity is important. In agriculture, monoculture is the practice of growing a single, large and genetically (almost) uniform crop. This practice might be expected to provide certain benefits due to economies of scale, but it is not without its problems. A uniform crop has uniform susceptibility to disease, pests, weather conditions.  This makes the whole crop vulnerable to resilience problems when the crop is subjected to unforeseen external stresses. It is uniformly welcoming or unwelcoming to specific animal species, which can have numerous and varied unintended consequences. There are obvious parallels between the practice of agricultural monoculture and the transport monoculture we have allowed to develop in the UK.

In the UK, transport is currently dominated by the private car. It could even be said that this dominance has reached the point that the UK is a transport monoculture. This is compounded further by The Department for Transport’s own predictions that the next two decades’ growth in transport will further increase the total proportion of trips made by car. Cycle use is predicted to stagnate.

Predicted Growth 1As in agriculture, a transport monoculture is vulnerable because of its uniformity; in the case of our car monoculture significant vulnerabilities include uniform reliance on inefficient use of fuel and uniform reliance on inefficient use of space. A good example of when these vulnerabilities have been exposed include the refinery blockades for the former and the few weeks of snowfall the UK has seen in each of the past few years for the latter. Both of these types of events are examples of stresses on the UK transport system.

As in nature, a more diverse mixture of transport modes is more able to cope with stresses such as those discussed above. During a fuel shortage, modes which rely less on inefficient use of fuel such as bicycles, walking and public transport are in a good position to relieve some of the strain. During heavy snow, modes which use space more efficiently such as bicycles, walking and trains can more easily and quickly have sufficient space cleared to allow their safe passage. The same is true of freight. Diversity allows the weaknesses of a particular mode to be complemented by the strengths of another, and builds an element of much needed redundancy into the system.

These other modes are not without their own disadvantages and a transport mix which relies too much on trains or bicycles would be similarly (although perhaps less overall) vulnerable to unforeseen stresses. Whilst it can be tempting, when faced with ridiculous straw-man arguments, to suggest that the UK could manage perfectly well without cars, their continued availability compliments the vulnerability of bicycles to high winds or of trains to staff disputes.

Cars are only a problem at the moment because their near-total dominance of transport in the UK. Our road infrastructure is designed around them at the direct expense of the viability of walking and cycling. The public subsidy of car use leads to perverse economics which make local bus services economically inviable and allow road haulage to uncut rail freight in a manner which simply should not be possible. Increasing the diversity of the UK’s transport mix means directly addressing these problems. Road infrastructure should be designed around cycling, walking and motorised vehicles, not just motorised vehicles. Transport investment should include significant investment in rail rather than just motorised road transport and the external costs arising from motor vehicles should be shouldered directly by their users rather than shared by everyone.

By removing the perverse incentives strongly favouring motorised road transport in the forms of private car and road freight above all other modes we can more evenly spread the UK’s transport needs over a more diverse range of transport modes. This shift will increase the overall energy and space efficiency of transport in this country, currently dominated as it is by the most inefficient modes, as well as strengthening transport as a whole against the predicted and unpredicted stresses encountered the future.