About chestercycling

After a number of years in Manchester, writing the blog MCRcycling a new job has brought me to the historic and picturesque city of Chester. Much as before I will be writing about my experiences cycling in Chester along with general cycle advocacy and technical information and how-to guides related to the cycling components I indulge in.

The Cargo Cult of Cycling Culture

Cycling culture is a term which is nebulous enough that it can mean significantly different things to different people.

To some, it will bring to mind images of hipsters and the fixed gear scene, or the likes of the counter-cultural Critical Mass movement. To others, it will invoke the BMX scene, or road cycling clubs, or people who live and breathe mountain biking. The one thing linking all of these ideas of cycling culture is that their members all take the bicycle and make it a significant part of their identities.

Because of this, I find it weird when “cycling culture” is discussed as a cause of cycling being a mainstream mode of transport in The Netherlands. The implication is that Dutch people are not choosing how to travel primarily based on their experience of their environment, but because of some sort of unique “cycling culture” which is a part of being Dutch. This implies that this ill-defined “cycling culture” would need to be somehow replicated in the UK in order to allow cycling to become a mainstream mode of transport here. Some people may make the further inference that replication of this Dutch “cycling culture” is sufficient in itself to allow cycling to become a mainstream mode of transport.

Also worth noting is that just because driving is the dominant mode of transport in the UK, it does not follow that the UK has an equivalent “car culture” which is a part of being British. Certainly there are car and motorsport enthusiasts who make the car part of their identities, but this is hardly typical of the average person in the UK. I also occasionally see arguments that the use of cars as status symbols in the UK produces a culture of driving and works against the cause of cycling as a mode of transport. Whilst there are also people who spend a lot of money on cars which they see as status symbols, these are also the kind of people who will spend money on other conspicuously expensive items in exactly the same way. It is the display of having the means to buy the car which is important, not the car itself (or the watch, clothes, house, boat, etc.). Again, I don’t see this being a major factor in the dominance of driving as a mode of transport in the UK. This kind of behaviour can also be seen in The Netherlands. Just owning a car is not in itself much of an indicator of socio-economic status nowadays.

The truth is that The Netherlands has no cycling culture and the UK has no car culture. What both countries have is people who choose how to get around by picking the path of least resistance, based on their own experience. Whereas for British people choosing the car is usually the path of least resistance, for Dutch people choosing the bike is often the path of least resistance. This is not due to a difference of culture, but an result of the differences in the built environment.

Certainly, there are also additional non-infrastructural factors increasing the attractiveness of cycling in The Netherlands, such as the provisions organisations and businesses make for people travelling by bicycle, but these are a reaction to the transport choices people make, not the main reason they make them. This reaction serves to reinforce the effect of the built environment on transport choice, as it does in the UK.

The argument that The Netherlands has a particular cycling culture which we would need to somehow replicate here for cycling to become a mainstream mode of transport is at its best cargo cult thinking, and at its worst, acts as an excuse for inaction and a quiet acceptance of the status quo.

Infrastructure is the foundation of cycling as a mainstream mode of transport. Nothing else will stand up if that foundation is not there first.

Leatherman Surge multi-tool review

It is hard to know what tools might be needed in an unexpected situation when you are out and about, whether on or off the bike. Multi-tools can be a useful way to stay prepared without the impracticality of carrying a selection of individual tools around with you.

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The Leatherman Surge has the following tools accessible from the folded position:

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A plain blade.

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A serrated blade.

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Spring-action scissors.

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A T-shank adaptor compatible with either the file or saw provided, or any other blade with a common T-shank end.

When unfolded, additional tools are accessible:

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Pliers including replaceable wire cutting/stripping blades and two crimping cut-outs below the pivot.

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An awl, large and small flat-head screwdrivers.

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A bottle/can opener and a bit-driver which is compatible with proprietary Leatherman bits (available separately) or regular hex bits with the use of an adapter (available separately)

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Proprietary Leatherman bits (not necessarily included with every Surge)

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In addition to this, my Surge came with a leather pouch which can be worn on the belt. This is useful as the weight of the Surge is a bit too much to be comfortable in trouser pockets.

The build quality is really quite impressive. There is no play in the pliers or any of the other tools, the tools are made from an appropriate grade of steel for their intended purposes and the blades are designed in such a way that their edges do not strike or sit in contact with the housing when folded away.

Sadly, in the UK at least, the Leatherman Surge is not a legal carry item for most people because it features two locking knife blades. Whilst there are exceptions for those with a “good reason” for carrying one, such as profession, the vagueness of that clause could lead you to think that you’re safe whilst actually falling foul of the law. Because of this, and the absence of an adjustable spanner, I would not recommend the Surge as a multi-tool for cycling purposes. However, I would recommend it for anyone who would benefit from having a really good general purpose multi-tool.

Spending Tips

Last week the deputy prime minister announced something like £1.10 for every individual in the UK is to be spent on cycling per year for the next three years. I imagine that planners in Whitehall and the various local authority offices around the country are thinking how best to use this money to make the bicycle into accessible transportation for all. I thought I would compile some suggestions.

1. More car parking spaces

One of the major things which puts people off cycling is the fact that people on bikes have to mix with people in cars, which makes most people feel unsafe when using a bicycle. Spending money on providing more free car parking spaces will give people somewhere to put their cars, helping to reduce the numbers on the roads

2. Motivational advertising

People usually choose the path of least resistance when it comes to travel, both in the mode they choose and the route they take. A handful of advertisements on bus stops, television and radio should be sufficient to overcome this basic core component of human psychology.

3. Showers

When cycling amongst motor vehicles, people tend to want to minimise the speed differential between themselves and other types of vehicle. The fact that this can lead to sweating is a well known factor keeping people off bikes and the logical solution to this is earmark some cash for a fund which will enable employers, schools, pubs, restaurants, post offices, banks and retailers to provide shower facilities for those cycling to their premises.

4. Maintenance

Poorly maintained bikes are a big barrier to cycling, with many new bikes being used only a handful of times before before their owners, mindful of the wear and tear caused to bikes by actually using them consign their bikes to the shed, for no other reason than this.

5. Safety

Safety is a big concern for would-be bicycle users. Unfortunately the roads and the motor vehicles which use them are an unchangeable part of the environment, which we are as powerless to change as the tides or the natural processes leading to the continuous warming of the Earth’s climate. Thankfully we have two powerful solutions at our disposal, polystyrene hats and fluorescent waistcoats. When used together they completely solve al problems relating to safety.

6. Spread it around

Should significant sums of money be spent to significantly improve the experience of people travelling by bicycle on a single major route, or would the same resources be better spread much more evenly across the land? Whilst improving a single route to Dutch standards would significantly increase cycling participation and the safety of those on bikes in one area, it is far better to use the money for thousands of ASLs, sharrows and training places to help people cope with roads whose designs disregard their needs. Spread the money around so everyone benefits, much like pouring a bottle of Ribena into a reservoir.

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.