Bike Maintenance Achievement Unlocked

November 13, 2018

Pedalling back from Bigtown during today’s temporary cessation of hostilities on the part of the Weather Gods, I stopped to enquire whether the cyclist who had stopped at the side of the road was okay.

“Not exactly,” she said. “I seem to have a flat tyre”.

Now, I always stop and ask if I can help when I see a cyclist by the side of the road, because it just seems wrong not to, but I have to confess, I’m usually relieved when they wave me on. The odds of a stranded cyclist having something wrong with their bike that is so simple that I can fix it, but not so simple that anybody else can’t fix it, AND it requiring the somewhat patchy content of my toolkit (tyre levers, patches, dumbell spanner, cheering-up sweeties, wrong size of allen key and usually no pump due to the iron law that you’ll always have left your pump in your other bike bag), are pretty long. But it turned out today that she had a pump and a spare inner tube, but no tyre levers, and the theory but no actual experience of changing a flat tyre. Between us, then, we made an awesome team. We extracted not one but two Bastard Big Thorns out of her tyre (one of them was so large I suggested she get it stuffed and mounted) and she was back up and running just in time for a man to cycle past, notice the two extremely competent females dealing with the problem, and pedal on with barely a hitch in his cadence. She was happy that she now felt she could deal with a puncture herself (a good thing, as hedge-cutting season is in full swing and nothing is proof against Bastard Big Thorns) and I was delighted to have cancelled out my woeful performance on Saturday, and also made a slight dent in the giant debt I have accrued from all the times someone else has helped me with my bike.

November afternoon

It has also reminded me that I should probably go and put the pump back in my main bike bag and track down the right size of allen key, because if this post isn’t an irresistible temptation to the Puncture Fairy, I don’t know what is.

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On Failing to Keep the Rubber Side Down…

November 10, 2018

I suppose, if I’m honest, the really surprising thing is that – as a notoriously clumsy person with poor bike handling skills who has spent the last 10 years cycling almost daily – it hasn’t actually happened before. And yet, until today, I could honestly say that I hadn’t properly fallen off my bike since I discovered at university that brakes and black ice don’t really go together (this in front of several dozen delighted tourists in Oxford who could tick off ‘watching a student slide gracefully off her bike outside the Radcliffe Camera’ from their must-see list).

Annoyingly, as a cycle campaigner, I didn’t even manage to do it in any useful way: no poorly designed infrastructure, impatient driver or un-gritted cycle path were to blame. Instead, this one was entirely user error: I was not paying enough attention to where I was going, realised I was about to clip the curb and bailed out sideways onto the pavement, leaving me with dented pride and a fashionably ripped knee in the leg of my trousers and a slightly less fashionably ripped knee in the leg of my me (the Brompton, you’ll be relieved to hear, is fine). Just add to the humiliation, I was actually supposed to be the tail-end Charlie on this particular ride, and I had spent the day before on a ride leader training course in which the instructor somehow failed to mention anything about not actually falling off your bike for no very sensible reason, possibly because he felt it went without saying.

View from Stirling Castle

All this put a slight dampener on the end of a sparkling scenic ride around Stirling, after an evening spent stirring up a little light troublemaking. Perhaps, indeed, I was a little hungover and a little dehydrated, having failed to appreciated that ‘scenic’ in Stirling means ‘up a sodding great hill’, and that impaired my concentration. Either way, I am relieved to discover that falling off your bike – at least at the speed I ride – is not really any more hazardous than tripping over while running, something I’ve managed to do multiple times and with more lasting damage. Chalk it up as just one more reason (should reason be needed) to stick to riding at the speed of chat. Although maybe I’ll try and do a bit less chatting and a bit more concentrating from now on…

bridge in stirling


101 Uses for a Brompton: Wool Transport

November 6, 2018

When my cousin announced that he’d found me some potential yarn bombing supplies I thought I’d save him a trip to the post office and pick them up when I was in Edinburgh on my travels this weekend. Wool, after all, is fairly light and squashable so I was sure I could squeeze it into my bag and transport it with me as I ran one workshop and then travelled to Dundee for a little light troublemaking and a conference.

What he hadn’t quite conveyed to me was the scale of his find…

bag of wool

Not quite three bags’ full …

Bromptons don’t really have a huge carrying capacity, at least compared to the big bike, so it took some ingenuity (and a willingness to look a bit like a bag lady, albeit one with impeccable taste in bikes) to work out how to attach the bag of wool to the back of my backpack and cycle along with it hanging behind me. This was made extra exciting by a massive tailwind down Princes Street (it’s always … interesting … when you apply the brakes and put your feet down, only for the bike to continue moving forward of its own volition). It also added a certain something to the ride over the Tay Bridge and definitely something to the climb up to the Tay Bridge, the lift being out for repair.

Dundee has come on a bit since my last visit and now has a shiny new museum you can cycle under, Rijksmuseum-style, meaning the connection between the station and the waterfront is much improved albeit still involving crossing five lanes of traffic. It’s still got a long way to go before it can truly be said to be the livable city its powers-that-be seem to want it to be, but as I found out yesterday evening, it also has a group of campaigners who seem determined to help push those powers-that-be into fulfilling its promise (I also learned last night that Dundee has a great fondness for penguins, something of which I fully approve). Watch, as they say, this space …

V and A sign

Anyway, wool, Brompton and I are now all safely home again along with a bonus potplant from my uncle, because when you’re already transporting large quantities of wool on a small bike, a miniature potplant is neither here nor there. All I have to do now is find some sort of suitable yarnbombing project to make use of my newly acquired loot. Perhaps even penguin-related …

new pot plant


Who’s Afraid of the Dark?

October 28, 2018

Afternoon sunshine

As I ran through the unusually detailed pre-ride briefing for our Halloween ride this afternoon, it did occur to me to wonder why we (I) decided that the best route for an after-dark ride would be one that involved a mad, twisting, endless descent on frankly pretty crappy surfaces, when something flatter would probably be a whole lot safer. I *think* the original logic was that it was a good spot for bats and it’s away from the lights of Bigtown, so a chance to enjoy the stars. Either way, after three years, it doesn’t matter because it is rapidly becoming the traditional start to our winter ride programme and – the odd safety-related qualm aside, I really wouldn’t have it any other way.

cyclists in the dusk

There’s just something about riding in the fading light, with the tail lights of your companions (hey, I’ve been doing a lot of digging and lifting over the last few days, and someone needs to be at the back … besides, I was carrying approximately a kilo of gingerbread as a warming mid-ride treat) twinkling ahead of you like a string of animated fairy lights.

bike lights in the dark

And there’s also something else about navigating that mad, twisting, endless descent with no sense of where you are or how far down you’ve got – just keeping going round each bend, and concentrating on keeping the bike rubber side down.

And then there’s the stars, which were fully out by the time we were on our way home, and just filled the dark sky, a sight which never fails to amaze (best not to look up at them for too long though – the potholes on the road back were something else again, indeed I may need to check my wheels tomorrow to see if they’re still round).

Perhaps best of all is the fact that eight bikes with serious lights on them on a dark country road must look like an alien landing to anyone not expecting them. At least that might explain why the tiny handful of drivers we encountered mostly came to a complete stop to let us pass.

So it was another successful outing, cementing its place in local cycling tradition, and I can only apologise to future ride leaders for foisting the mad venture on them in perpetuity.

wheel shadows in the dark


Pedal, Bus and Train on Parliament

October 24, 2018

One of the unexpected side effects of being a leading* cycle campaigner is that you get invitations out of the blue to attend the Scottish Parliament for a round table discussion on the Transport bill. I wasn’t sure entirely what this entailed, although the invitation pretty much had me at “light buffet beforehand”, but I’ll never turn down an opportunity to bend important people’s ears about cycling, however tangentially. So today saw me getting into my one remaining respectable outfit, dusting off the saddle of my Brompton, setting off down the hill, noticing the front tyre was rather flat, pedalling furiously back up the hill, retrieving my bike pump, filling the tyre, and setting off again for the bus stop and an exemplarily multi-modal trip to Edinburgh.

Brompton on Parliament

I think the Brompton was a little put out to discover that, one day of the year aside, it has to share the route to Parliament with something other than thousands of bikes, but we got there safely enough, and more to the point it was still there safely waiting for me when I came out again having bent as many ears as I could get hold of. However, if it spent the intervening time dreaming of its next visit in April, I have news for it …

#POP2018 (5 of 230)

For, in an exciting development, I can announce that next year, it – and thousands of its colleagues – will not, for once, be pedalling on Parliament. Instead, we’re taking POP local, hopefully right around Scotland, with simultaneous events that take the battle to the local authorities. Theoretically, this is a genius way to spread the load, and widen the message, and bring cycling to every corner of Scotland. In practice, I suspect it will also mean a cubing of the complexity of actually organising it, so watch this space in April when I fully intend to be a nervous wreck…

If nothing else, it will be a chance to get out around Scotland in search of enough fellow nutters to get this mad scheme off the ground. So, although it might not be pedalling on Parliament for a wee while, the Brompton will not be gathering too much dust.

*Although I note that my little sister has just won another award and is ahead of me on points


Squeaky Wheel

October 15, 2018

So, one of my aspirations for this year was to get better at bike maintenance, which – unlike my other aspiration of regularly baking sourdough bread which is going swimmingly – has not progressed markedly beyond some vague and, as it turned out, unfulfilled plans to get some practice at taking my Marathon Pluses on and off my wheels. Today though, which was as fine and still and sunny a day as anyone could hope for in October, I took advantage of a gap in the work schedule and the nice weather to at least clean and re-oil my chain prior to riding down to fetch the paper.* This, I hoped, would sort out the intermittent squeak which had developed when I was pedalling with any sort of determination, and hopefully also the fact that the last time I’ve been out with the other half I’ve been badly dropped on all the hills.

Oiling done, I set off with the the light heart of one who has done a necessary chore and, more importantly Not Ignored a New Noise and who will shortly be enjoying the silkiness of a smoothly running drivetrain on her bike. Whereupon the bike started squeaking again, and now not just when pedalling hard. By the time I’d got to the bottom of the hill, it was now squeaking more or less all the time, so I got off and investigated a bit more thoroughly. Front wheel spinning fine and silently, back wheel spinning fine and silently, brakes clear of the rims, no sticks (or kittens) stuck in any of the spokes. Weird. Back on the bike, squeaking resumes. Eventually, I look again at my back wheel and discover that it is in fact skewiff and almost resting against the chain guard. With the bike unloaded, the wheel was spinning fine, but once I was on it and pedalling it was pressing against the frame, hence the squeaking. This, in retrospect, might go some way to explain my speed wobble the other day, which is also a little reassuring.

Now this is an easy problem to fix, one even I can do – but that’s when I also discovered that I have lost the allen key I need to loosen the wheel and reseat it. After a brief tussle between laziness (top tip: when your bike develops a New Noise, investigate at the top of the descent not the bottom) and common sense (the only thing worse than a New Noise is a Worsening New Noise), I have a stern word with myself and turn around and pedal, squeakily, back up the hill, raid the other half’s allen key collection and straighten the wheel.

sunshine in October

Still – there were worse days to have to add an extra 3 miles or so onto your ride down for the paper. And, in related news, I have discovered that a bike gets one hell of a lot easier to pedal when its back wheel is on straight. More findings from the Department of the Bleeding Obvious as they emerge.

sunny road

* and, er, lunch, as the sourdough bread baking schedule had broken down somewhat after a weekend away in Duns.


Unsafe at One Particular Speed

October 2, 2018

So there I was on Sunday morning, innocently celebrating national Get Outdoors Day by riding down to Aldi for some cycling bargains. The other half had been persuaded that we could just about squeeze into the gap between showers (very satisfyingly, we did) and I was chasing him down the hill just as a car surprised me by turning onto our road (we live on a dead end road that serves just 6 households so this almost never happens). I jammed on the brakes and at that point my bike went from being effectively an extension of my body that seems to think itself around corners rather than needing any actual steering, to behaving like something possessed – shaking from side to side as if it was trying to throw me off its back. For what felt like about 20 minutes, but was only in retrospect probably 20 seconds, I was trying to get the bike back under control, while one part of my brain was planning where best to land when I (inevitably) got flung off. Fortunately, I didn’t have to – I managed to slow down, the bike stopped shaking, and I set off again somewhat shaken myself. (I should also add that thankfully the driver of the car was going very slowly and I was in no danger from them).

It was, as I discovered later, a speed wobble (something I had actually read about a couple of weeks ago for the first time, in this excellent piece by Jasmijn Muller about her recent Land’s End to John O’Groats record attempt). I undoubtedly wasn’t going anything like the speed Jasmijn was going, but it turns out that if you get a wobble that hits the resonant frequency of the bike just right then it can start to oscillate – and that gripping the handlebars tightly (as, indeed, you might do when your bike is apparently trying to unseat you) makes it worse. Instead you need to get your weight out of the saddle (again, easier said than done on a beserking bike) and lean forward with soft hands and eventually the bike will calm down, although whether I actually did either of those things I couldn’t tell you as I was too busy planning where to land.

Interestingly, in most of the descriptions I’ve read of speed wobbles, the rider has, like me and Jasmijn, spent some time contemplating how best to come off – and has in the end managed to bring the bike safely to a halt without needing to put that comfy-looking verge to the test, so – as I said to the other half this morning – perhaps they’re not as dangerous as they feel at the time (his not very reassuring response was ‘or perhaps the people who don’t manage to bring the bike under control don’t survive to write about it on the Internet’) especially as my own bike handling skills aren’t particularly brilliant (did I ever write about the time I managed to fall off my bike while actually stopped at a traffic light in Glasgow?). It has still left me feeling pretty tentative about descending and braking hard – apparently the cure for that is to induce another speed wobble and learn to control it, but yeah, no thanks.

However, today I had to be in town, and the only way was down, so I got back on the bike and everything was fine. I even took it into the bike shop for once over to make sure there wasn’t anything wrong with the wheels or the frame and the owner – bless him, for he has been campaigning to get me to buy a new bike for a couple of years now, and here was his chance – has reassured me that all is well. I also now know how to check a frame for possible weaknesses – as well as learning just how alarmingly a steel frame will bend under load. Of course, this just means that it could happen again, should I manage to find that sweet spot of speed and wobble.

Of course, the alternative could be that my bike genuinely is out to get me, possibly angered by the fact that I’ve taken the Brompton to Aberdeen instead of it, and haven’t bought it any more accessories for ages now. I may just do obeisance to the Angry Bike God and at least clean and oil its chain, by way of a sacrifice…