Wednesday, 30 April 2014

The free bike: or, The Ballad of the Inferno

Riding a bike often feels amazing. After all, who would  not be seduced by racing though a forest, being whipped across the face by tree branches, on something which looks like it might have been built in a secondary school CDT class? Or leaning your bike over so far in a fast corner that your pedal bounces of the tarmac?

There's another side to cycling that I love and that is the bizarre economics of it. Riding a bike can be incredibly expensive. Bike firms like Specialized will happily let you hand over a massive dump truck full of money in exchange for a bike a bit like Mark Cavendish's. Who buys these things? Chaps who wax their legs, that's who. This approach to cycling is built on a massive surplus of cash and a willingness to indulge certain well known bike firms in their experiment to see what kind of price tag they can attach to a bike before someone claps them on the back in a manly way and congratulates them on the scale and ambition of the joke. Turned one of the simplest and most useful machines ever invented by man into a weird plaything for the super rich? Well done!

There's another way to approach cycling, which is essentially to try not to spend much money on it. Bikes - some bikes - essentially last for ever. While other pieces of machinery expire around them, bikes can keep rolling along, sustained by their extreme simplicity and the surprising expertise that often went into making even basic bikes. My Claud Butler is like this. I bought it from its first owner, whose mum and dad had got it for him as a present for getting a grammar school place back at the end of the 1960's. Every major component is the one that the bike left the factory with, and none of them show any signs of wearing out. You might not think that extreme tight fistedness is a sound way to enjoy something. But the Claud is a little tangerine miracle, full of soul and warmth. As you can see, I invest a fair bit of emotional attachment in the bike. But the bike pays me back. It is game for whatever, and when I catch sight of it, it always makes me smile. There it is, orange paint glowing slightly, looking fast even when it is standing still. Saddle up, handlebars down, fewer spokes on the front wheel than on the back.

The Claud taught me that dramatic improvements in athletic performance can come with practice. I kind of knew that already. But the Claud doled out an actual three dimensional lesson, so that I really know that now. What happened was this: I did a charity bike ride through the night to the coast. It was only 54 miles, and the gradient profile was beautiful; all the climbing was in the first third of the route, and the remainder was gently downhill to the sea. It nearly killed me, and my legs felt so weird - massive and useless - at the end of the ride. Watching the black sky fade to grey behind Blackpool Tower, I promised myself I would never participate in this kind of self inflicted pain-a-thon again.

Luckily the ride was not repeated for a year, which was exactly the amount of time for me to doubt the horribleness of the experience and sign up again. It also allowed me to get a bit of practice in. Well, a lot of practice in, actually. I changed bikes too, dropping the heavy, uncomfortable bike for the Claud. The Claud is, according to the scales, only a kilo lighter. But is has magic and alchemy powering its moving parts as well as me, so it feels a lot lighter. The ride out of Manchester was completely different. I kept wanting to overtake and going for it. I told myself to calm down a bit, and started looking around for someone who was going at a pace which seemed quick but not exhausting. I didn't have anyway of seeing how fast I was going, and I knew it would help me pace myself if I had someone else for reference. Eventually, I found two lads who were making good speed on an Enigma and a Specialized. I tucked in behind them, and drafted them up the long, steady climb towards the summit in Blackrod.

It felt much quicker, and it was: when I reached the finish in Blackpool, it was still definitely Saturday night rather than Sunday morning, with scenes of drunken carnage being acted out one street back from the seafront. I checked my times when I got home, and was pleasantly surprised to find I'd knocked an hour off my time from the year before.

Then there's the money side of things. Because the Claud was built with components that apparently never wear out, all I have to do to is ride it instead of driving the car and my bank balance automatically starts to look healthier. I keep expecting this trick to stop working, but it will be four years next month since I bought the Claud and so far it never has.

A word of caution though: Bicycle economics works on slightly different rules to normal economics. So you can't assume that all bikes will work in the same, miraculous way that the Claud does. This piece is really about The Free Bike. The Free Bike is a British Eagle Inferno, a not-quite-mountain bike from the dawn of the 1990's, afflicted with a Global Hypercolour / Jamaican flag themed fade paintjob and a name which slightly sounds like the name of far right political party's journal. I got The Free Bike when Mrs L was having one of her periodic sessions of throwing away anything not part of the fabric of the house. I was cheerily throwing the latest load into the tip when I noticed a gentlemen unloading a couple of bikes from his car. I hailed him, and enquired whether the bikes would be going into the tip. He confirmed that they would. I immediately found a place in my heart for The Free Bike (though sadly not for the pink and silver Emmelle that was its companion) and took it home. If I hadn't been steering, I would have been doing some Fagan style rubbing my hands with glee. I made the mistake, you see, of assuming that because The Free Bike charged me nothing for the privilege of coming to live with me, it was - like the Claud - going to cost me nothing for the duration of its stay.

In fact, The Free Bike quickly revealed a massive appetite for components. It snapped a brake cable, exploded a tyre, massacred a seatpost bolt and bent a saddle. It shattered a chain, ate the bearings in the pedals, destroyed a cassette and snapped another brake cable. I loved it though, and treated it as though it was a reliable way of getting to work even though it clearly wasn't.

The Langsetts went on holiday to Pembrokeshire last week, and The Free Bike came with us. That's where the picture at the head of this piece was taken, half way through brilliant blast along some forest tracks, watching the sun sparkle on the rain drops. But this was the ride where The Free Bike's appetite for destruction finally caught up with it.

Coming back up the hill, there was an innocuous "Twang!" noise from somewhere down in the engine room. The back wheel abruptly stopped turning, so I got off to see what the problem was. In fact, there were about four or five separate problems, each one of which had caused another failure to follow it until the back end of the bike looked like this:

The back wheel that has slipped out of alignment, the derailleur caught in the back wheel, the chain down the back of the cassette - all these things are fixable. But if you look closely, you'll see that the drop out - the little yellow 'C' shaped bit of metal that holds the back axle - has peeled open. You might want to amuse yourself by zooming in on the earlier photo to see whether you can spot any evidence of the whole back end falling apart; I know I have.

The drop out's going to need replacing, and I'm not sure what The Langsett Guide to Frugal Bicycling says about damage to frames which would cost more to repair than a replacement frame would cost to buy. The Free Bike is up on the repair stand at the moment waiting for me to work out how to deal with the fact that it suddenly is not free at all.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Pendle Witches - the trial

Outside the pub, Sean's immaculate TI-Raleigh was leaning against a wall, gleaming red, yellow and black in the watery sunshine. Someone had kindly pinned a gradient profile for the route up on the door - it looked like a particularly vicious set of shark's teeth. There was a massive point somewhere near the middle - Waddington Fell. This had utterly humbled me two years before. I ended up walking up the thing in the rain and the fog, thinking I'd reached the top three times but each time finding more hill beyond the false summit. Still, at least I could see why my legs had thrown the towel in.

Inside the pub, there was a fire going, vintage bikes on display and free brews getting handed out. But it was nearly time for the off, so I went outside and lined up the Aerospace with a pride of beautiful vintage bikes. There was Mark's Daccordi, a spotless Hetchins in black and red, and a couple of burgundy Carltons. Lightweight British bikes are often covered in the heraldry and gothic detailing of the middle ages, so we looked a little like a bunch of knights getting ready for a cavalry charge.

Not all of the townsfolk of Rawtenstall were pleased to see this beautiful collection of classic machinery. While we were lining up, a Nissan Micra pulled to a halt. The window rolled down, and a visible fog of Lynx Africa wafted out. One spark would have seen the whole lot engulfed in a massive fireball.

"Is there a bike race today?" asked the panicked, but extremely well deodorised lad driving. I said that there was. "Are they closing the roads? Only I'm moving house!" I assured the gentlemen that the highway would remain open, and returned to my pre-ride prep of noting everyone else's sensibly sized chainrings.

There was a lad on the PA system giving a blow by blow account of the route; the only words that lodged were "tailwind to help you up the last hill..." I'll have that! I thought, losing myself in a sunny daydream of being gently wafted up the last hill before the finish. Then it was time to go.

The cruel, energy sapping evil of the route comes from that gradient profile. Even while you're steaming up the first hill out of Rawtenstall, feeling a hundred feet tall and like you have literally had all of your Weetabix, the gradient is taxing your muscles and stealing calories which you will need later on. I got a bit carried away and tried a bit of a break away, getting wound in about ten seconds later by a group lead by Daniel and Zena on the Hetchins and a lovely blue Roberts. We summited - and there was a miniature Burnley and Padiham down at the bottom of the valley, backed by green and brown hills.

(Childzy's picture of Burnley from Wikipedia)

This is the good bit: I got my head down and shoved the gear lever forward, listening to the "...clatter bang! clatter bang!" of the chain jumping all the way over to the fast cog. I booted the Viscount up to 35 - 40 mph and screamed down the hill. It was still early, and the roads were totally clear. We raced through Padiham and climbed out of the valley. This was steeper than the first climb, and I had the Viscount in the lowest gear all the way up.

Cresting the top of the hill gives you your first view of the Nick O'Pendle. This brutal hill climb looks like a grey stripe painted up a green wall. Looking at it from across the valley, there is no indication that it is anything other than vertical. The sun was out, and it all looked glorious. Hard on the brakes, all the way down the hill into the tiny village of Sabden, a place presumably entirely inhabited by people who enjoy witnessing human suffering close up.

Chris Boardman has an absurd course record for climbing the Nick O'Pendle in about ten seconds flat. And that included a short break near the top to plan his excellent, world conquering range of bikes. I gave it my best shot. I hammered across the bridge at Sabden at full chat, and then starting to work down through the gears, ending up on the big ring at the back frighteningly quickly. Steve Ransom steamed past, winding his Thorn up the hill as if gravity did not apply. "Fair play pushing those gears." he said, giving me a good wide berth in case the insanity was contagious.

I realised I was actually slightly scared of the Nick. It was demanding a level of physical effort which I just wasn't comfortable giving. It looked more massive this year in the sun than it had a couple of years previously, when the mist had at least hidden the top. Jonathan passed me on his sparkling red, turquoise and chrome Eddy Merckx  He'd said a little while earlier that he'd put some effort into training this year, and it looked like it had paid off handsomely.

The hill won. I got off before the cattle grid and walked for a couple of hundred yards. Last time, I'd taken my time over eating a Boost, as though the middle of this vertical incline had just struck me as being the best place to enjoy a bit of glucose. I hopped back on and gave the pedal an exploratory push. It turned! Magically, my legs both reported for duty and I got the Viscount moving again. Photographic evidence suggests that I managed a ghastly, re-animated corpse style smile as I passed Rick Robson, the event photographer, towards the top of the climb.

Once you've wrestled the Nick into submission, you really do have a day pass into heaven. The middle bit of this ride is just beautiful, treating you to brief views of perfect villages, church bells ringing, the smell of bacon frying. The sun was sticking with us, and the leaves on the conker trees were the most incredible green colour. Coming up Waddington Fell, there was even some cowbell. The halfway point is at Dunsop Bridge, where there is a very good chance that HRH the Queen is the postmistress. Here there were tables creaking under the weight of homemade cakes, boxes of bananas and gallons of water to refuel us all.

For me, the ride back down was tough going. There is a long, steady climb out of Whalley, but my legs had started to cramp before we even got that far. Rain came on as I started the climb, and the wind got up too. I was waiting, of course, for it to turn into the tailwind that we'd been promised at the start, but it kept on stubbornly boxing me in the face and around the ears as I rode through Blackburn and tried to get some steam up for the last big climb, up to Haslingden. This was sheer torture. It felt like I would have been faster if I'd got off and walked, and I had to have an argument with myself before committing the effort required for each pedal stroke. My speed readout on Strava is a crazy little zig zag, dependent entirely on what the wind was doing and how steep the hill was. I had the Arctic Monkeys on my walkman and tried keeping time to the music. And then, almost before I realised it, the last descent into Rawtenstall was in front of me, and I'd done it. Paul and Sarah - who'd just done the short route on their Carlton Corsair and Raleigh Candice - gave me a finish line interview before I staggered into the warmth of the pub to tuck into the pie and peas.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Pendle Witches

Of course, if you read the last post, you'll know that I am a bit in love with the Pendle Witches Vintage Velo. Last year it took place a couple of weeks after my youngest daughter was born, so I skipped it. I was late getting my entrance form in this year, even though I very much wanted to do it again. So I had a few weeks of fretting before I got a phone call from the incredibly modest and down to earth organiser, Sean McAdam, to let me know that I had forgotten to sign my cheque, but not to worry, because he does that sort of thing all the time too. Sean works in a bike shop a few miles from me, so I called in when I was doing my Christmas shopping to turn the cheque into a valid means of paying the entrance fee. Between then and race day, I spent a lot of time anticipating. And when I say anticipating, I mean either:

- Making plans to modify my bike to give me a hope of hell in getting up the hills; or

- Making plans to implement an epic, pro standard training regime, to give me a hope in hell of getting up the hills; or

- Imagining myself sprinting across the finishing line to the cheers of thousands and immediately having a massive bottle of champagne thrust into my hands. Possibly some sort of complimentary "sports massage" might happen shortly afterwards.

(Ken Johnson's picture of Eddy Merckx doing his thing in Montreal - 1974 - hosted on Flickr)

None of these things actually happened, but although all three turned out to be wild fantasies which I definitely should not be publishing on the internet, they weren't entirely without merit. For instance, that first idea of doing the ride on a bike which is fit for the job: Modern bikes are welcome on the ride, but vintage bikes and the people who are prepared to try and ride them up some of the fiercest gradients in the North of England are part of what makes the Pendle Witches special. Which suits me just fine, as I have three bikes in the cellar that are older than me. Of those three bikes, one of them has only five gears. On a bike, gears work a lot like they do in a car: the lowest gear is the one where the engine turns over the most umber of times during one turn of the road wheels. It is the gear where the engine is strongest, the one that you use for starting and for climbing massive hills. My first bike is extremely flattering to ride - it always feels lighter than it is, and it is always egging you on and telling you to go a bit faster or ride a bit further. It is also an astounding, lit-from-within orange colour:

But the Pendle Witches is a serious morning's work, and none of the five gears on my first bike are low enough to get me up the hills.

My second bike has more gears - 12 of them in fact - but I am half way through trying to build a new rear wheel for it at the moment. Also, it is heavy and incredibly uncomfortable to ride. Going over a pothole on it is similar to what I imagine being set about by some sort of Chuck Norris style martial arts expert with a nasty glint in his eye might feel like. So that was my second bike ruled out.

My third bike is the Aerospace Pro. I knew without thinking about it very hard that this was the bike to ride the Pendle Witches on. It is a working class hero for one thing: built in Birmingham and sold for peanuts, it was in its day a featherweight miracle, as light and as fast as bikes costing many times more. It is comfortable and fluid to ride, regardless of what the road surface is like. And like all heroes, it has one fatal flaw: the front fork - that's the bit that holds the front wheel and connects it to the frame and handlebars - is made of an aluminium casting joined to a steel tube. The rumour that has followed the Aerospace almost since it was born is that the casting and tube have a habit of separating from each other.

However, I must have ridden hundreds of miles on the Aerospace since I finished putting it back together, and over that time I have come to trust the bike in a way which demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding on my part of the way that metal fatigue occurs. So, the Aerospace got the job - again.

There was just one problem. While the Aerospace's designers created a fine, beautifully engineered bike, they sort of did so on the assumption that anyone wishing to ride it up hills would first go out and get some legs like Sir Chris Hoy's. On a geared bike, the bigger the biggest cog attached to the back wheel is, the easier going up hills will be. The smaller the smallest cog attached to the pedals is, the easier going up hills will be. On the Aerospace, the smallest cog at the front has 42 teeth, and the biggest at the back has 25. What this adds up to in practical terms is an invitation from the designers to get involved in some Spartan style training or suffer. Although I did spend an hour the day before the race trying to find a bigger cog to go on the back, ultimately I chose the latter option.

I couldn't sleep the night before the ride. I tinkered with the bike before bed time, and I was up and away early. The Pendle Witches starts from the Craven Heifer in Rawtenstall, and I got there before the weather had decided whether it was going yo be cruel or kind.

To be continued.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Cycling: it's time to come clean

And there's a lot to confess. It's going to take some time. So I'll start off with a picture:

That's my bike! It's a 1974 Viscount Aerospace Pro, a beautiful thing which shares its creation myth with the Advanced Passenger Train and the TSR-2 - talented aerospace engineers put energy into doomed later flowering of British industrial prowess, since forgotten by nearly everyone. Actually, I think I might have made up the Viscount's inclusion in that myth myself. But it kind of fits.

We have done some amazing things together. That bike gave me my first, genuine, entirely-cycling-fuelled
moment of euphoria.  I was half an hour into the Pendle Witches Vintage Velo ride a couple of years ago, and along with a couple of hundred other riders, I'd climbed out of the Irwell Valley to the hills above Padiham and Burnley. The sun came out, and half of Lancashire was spread out in front of me, with the road down into the valley twisting and turning nicely. "Oh yes!" I thought, instantly ruling myself out from any future competition to find the next Poet Laureate.

An amount of acceptance of the effects of gravity was required, along with a high degree of faith in the forty year old bike I was sitting on. A bike which had until 12 months previously, been in bits in a box in a Brummie bloke's garage. I stuck my head down, tucked my elbows in and dialled in some more speed as gravity took over. Smashing down  the hill with a sonic boom rattling the windows of the houses is probably one of the finest things I have ever experienced, or ever will experience. There is something magical about how little stuff there is on a bike. It heightens the illusion that it's just you that is racing down a hill at forty five miles per hour; that you have been endowed with modestly superhuman powers for a short while.

That picture above was taken on January 1st 2013, and I can vividly remember the screaming red wine hangover which I had at the time. It's a measure of how much I love being on the bike that when I rolled out of bed that morning, I somehow landed in the saddle.

Pride and Prejudice

The Langsett family had Radio 4's Pride and Prejudice adaptation on, on the way to the seaside a few weeks back. I was being a bit grumpy about it, but in all honesty I love Pride and Prejudice as much as everyone else does, and it was a genuine pleasure to have another version of it to enjoy. Particularly as I could do so even though I was in the fast lane on the A64 at the time. Also, it reminded me pleasantly about my Christmas time Austen overdose. Let me explain...

The Langsett spent three exceptionally happy evenings over the Christmas period experimenting with my new Martini fixation, surrounded by mince pie crumbs and most importantly, watching the superb Death Comes To Pemberley on the Beeb. I had unknowingly been setting myself up for this thrilling and totally unexpected three day Austen themed treat for months, starting in the autumn when Mrs Langsett met Jo Baker, the author of Longbourn, at a bookshop signing evening. It's been a few years since I last read any Austen books, so I steamed through this lovingly crafted retelling of Pride and Prejudice from the servants' perspective.

Then, I looked around for some more slightly oblique ways of enjoying Austen, and -courtesy of the surprisingly large band of Spanish Colin Firth fans willing to take the time to post chunks of it on Youtube - managed to watch the whole of the Beeb's 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. The picture quality was awful, but of course it didn't matter a bit - I could still hear the words, and they were brilliant. I loved it all, but there were a few bits that I particularly enjoyed. If you can spare me a minute, I'll just mention one:

That's Lizzie of course, taking a turn about the garden with her fantastically caddish and rascally brother in law who, in spite of having been lately discovered living in sin in London, is still having a go at spinning the hard luck story that Darcy deprived him of a living as a clergyman.

Lizzie responds by deftly warning Wickham off, suggesting Darcy's younger sister will turn out well as she is "...over the most trying age." She's referring to Wickham having tried to talk Georgiana into eloping, and also to how young her own sister - Wickham's wife - is. But that's not quite enough to get Wickham back in line, so she gives him both barrels, conversationally speaking: letting him say how much he wanted to be a clergyman and then setting out what actually happened. And then, while Wickham is still flapping about and wondering what has just happened, sweetly extending her hand for him to kiss and popping inside.

There is a real beauty to the way in which the two characters interact. Wickham, unable to stop himself from lying in order to make himself look wholesome, and Elizabeth meeting his behaviour with an incremental, exquisitely measured reveal: she knows it all, and he can't pull the wool over her eyes any longer. It's a tiny, brief scene, but the emotional payback that comes from reading or watching it is enormous. That's something to do, I think, with how measured and intelligent Elizabeth's response is. The fact that it's a private exchange between the two of them is important too. It's a reminder that no audience is required for the nature of a relationship to completely change.

The best thing of all though is that this is pretty much how it happens in the book. Two hundred years ago, Austen put together this beautiful little scene. There is no exposition, so you can just get on with enjoying these two characters jump off the page - or screen.