Wednesday, 15 September 2010

City Slicks(ters)

Just heard about this new British brand, Slicks.  They've launched what looks like a neat little backpack for cycle commuters.  Not cheap, even by Rapha standards, but might be worth a look for hardcore commuting types. 

Apparently the design includes separate suit and shirt holders, plus shoe pockets etc.  Everything except hot and cold running power-shower, basically.  Clearly designed for long-distance commuters with proper jobs, rather than spoilt PR types who can commute in their scruffy work clothes. 

Early reviews seem pretty positive - not sure it will ever displace my beloved Patagonia - but a brand worth watching. 

More info here:

Monday, 16 August 2010

Junk Miles

A couple of years ago, back when I was dabbling in the murky world of triathlons (I know, I know...), I used to hear a lot about the concept of 'junk miles'.  For the uninitiated, this term relates to mileage that might feel like training, but in reality is not of sufficient intensity to help you actually improve.  A waste of time and energy, in other words - time that would be much better spent doing something more fashionable/painful like interval sprints or hill reps. 

Let me provide an example.  Yesterday, I went on my now-customary 'long' weekend ride, down to the cycling mecca of Box Hill near Dorking.  Around 20 miles of pretty charmless A-Road to get down there, couple of laps of the hill itself, quick stop for some (brilliant) cake at the National Trust's summit cafe, then 20 slogtastic miles back up to town, almost all of it into a relentless headwind.  Totalled just over 50 miles (80-ish km) in around 3.5 hours.

Nothing to be particularly ashamed about, then - indeed, probably further than the vast majority of humans will ever cycle in one go, if we're honest.  And I was actually quite pleased to do two circuits of Box Hill this time - not a very difficult hill, but iconic in its own way, and that consistent sort of gradient reminiscent of a very miniature Alpine col.

Thing is, though, was what felt at the time like a half-decent effort actually little more than the dreaded junk miles?  I can feel a definite improvement in my fitness and physique since I started this whole cycling journey - my jeans are literally falling off me, which is a nice feeling.  A positive gut feeling, in fact.  But without hiring a professional trainer and going for those hideous VO2 max tests, how can this improvement be quantified?  I know, for instance, that I did the whole of yesterday's ride pretty much within my abilities.  At no stage, save that last slog home, did I feel anywhere near exhaustion.  Which shows how far I've come in one sense, yet also raises issues.  Surely, to maintain improvement, we should regularly push ourselves beyond what our bodies find comfortable, rather than sticking to the same old training routes? 

There are two schools of thought here, I think.  One which says you need to apply scientific training principles, regularly ride with people faster than you, actively hurt yourself quite often, in order to see real improvement.  The other, more zen-like approach just tells you to relax, be patient, enjoy your riding - improvement will creep up without you noticing at first.  I call this second view the Field of Dreams philosophy - if you build it, they will come.  AKA: I'm sure Fausto Coppi didn't worry about junk miles - he just rode as far as he could, as quickly as he could. 

The simple fact is that, whilst I can feel slow improvement, too often I still default to  pace that feels comfortable, rather than a pace that challenges me.  And I know I'd be dropped off the back mercilessly if I tried riding with any of the faster guys in my club.  And I definitely don't want to be that person who bimbles around sportive courses at touring pace for their whole lives.  I have ambitions - not to race per se, but at least to do the Etape one day without the broomwagon catching me. 

What I guess I'm trying to say is that I need some tips to break through my current plateau.  Answers on a postcard to the usual address...

Friday, 30 July 2010

London Calling

So, it probably hasn't escaped your attention that today marked something of a quantum leap in London's evolution towards becoming a more two-wheeled city.  Finally, after years of political wrangling, first under Red Ken and latterly Blue Boris, the UK capital's municipal bike hire scheme finally went live.

Barclays Cycle Hire, as it is rather clunkily branded, aims to do for London what the iconic Velib scheme has done for Paris - basically, providing an automated fleet of hire bikes that enable people to get around the centre of town on two wheels, without resorting to polluting taxi journeys or increasingly-overstretched rail services. Eventually, the bikes will be available for hire by the hour, simply in exchange for your credit/debit card details at the docking station - in the meantime, customers must register online via the Transport for London website (, to receive an Oyster-style 'smart key' that enables bikes to be released from their docks and deposited at the other end of the journey.  I won't go into the vagaries of the tariff system here as it's quite dull, but suffice to say that once registered, journeys of less than 30 minutes are free of charge, so that's quite nice.  Nor will I list the multitude of dock locations but on today's evidence they are everywhere.  Well, everywhere within Zone 1 at least, but we all know that the known world ends just outside there anyway. 

Being a bike geek, a professional greenie and a London resident, of course, I've been following the progress of this scheme for years.  It was therefore with no little excitement that I witnessed the docking stations being installed across town over the past few weeks, let alone the serried ranks of shiny new bikes greeting me on this morning's commute.

This excitement manifested itself in two test rides on day one alone - a quick jaunt around the block near my Fitzrovia office before work, followed by a full-on commute from the West End back to Vauxhall tonight, via Hyde Park - I think I'm as well-placed as anyone to pass first judgement on the machines themselves and the prospects for the wider scheme.

Firstly, the bikes themselves:  not entirely dissimilar to the aforementioned Velibs, the main first impression is that they are reassuring solid but seriously heavy.  I'm sure part of this is a deliberate anti-theft measure - believe me, would-be thieves will not get far - but after being spoilt rotten by my race bike, they feel like cast iron by comparison.  On the plus side, they have three-speed Shimano twist-grip gears, dynamo-powered lighting for the darker months, kick-stands, quick-release saddle adjustment and a cute little luggage rack on the front, perfect for that baguette.  Or indeed one's briefcase.  Oh, and all the oily bits are very well concealed - I know because I selflessly/stupidly wore chinos for these test rides, without the merest hint of a stain.  No need for cycle clips at all. 

On the move, the 'Boris Bikes', as they will inevitably be known henceforth (bad luck, Ken), betray their obesity problem with pretty cumbersome handling.  Again, perhaps this is a safety measure - there'll be very little danger of losing control in a city centre as flat as London's as speed is not really an option.  The riding position is classic sit-up-and-beg but when one has to be alert to so many urban hazards, this too is no bad thing.  What I did find more troubling is the gearing.  Again, I am spoilt by top-end kit on my regular bike, and it could just take a while for the Shimano hub gears to bed-in on the hire bikes, but I found the gearing a bit strange for London roads.  First gear is almost too low, fine for pulling away from the lights but little else.  Second and third, on the other hand, seem a bit too high for bikes of this character - indeed, I reckon Cav would struggle to use third gear on the flat. Well, not quite, but you get my point.  I might not be Cancellara but I've been cycling semi-seriously for a while and if I found the gearing a bit of a struggle, what will the average punter think? Combined with the fat (flat?) tyres, the whole effect was pretty exhausting it must be said.  Certainly makes you appreciate just how fast and energy-efficient our space age carbon thoroughbreds are.  All those irritating commuters on clunky old Trek hybrids, the same ones I normally take such secret delight in blowing past, were suddenly cruising past me imperiously.  Galling.

What else?  Ah yes, the thorny issue of helmets.  Believe me when I say that you won't meet a more passionate advocate of lids.  The consequences of a bad crash without one are unthinkable, as in you will literally not be thinking any more.  So the prospect of inexperienced cyclists riding busy London streets without lids does worry me, but on the flip side you would have to be seriously unlucky/unobservant or riding really stupidly to get in serious trouble on these bikes.  They're just too slow to be properly dangerous and it's not like your feet are clipped into the pedals or anything.  Of course, this doesn't remove the risk of taxi drivers pulling out without checking mirrors or idiots opening their car doors without warning, but these are risks we all face. So the jury's out on the helmet thing but such is life.  In the meantime, I have to (really hypocritically) admit that the feeling of riding tonight without a lid, probably for the first time in about 25 years, was brilliant.  And obviously the fundamentally unregulated nature of cycling is one of its big appeals to many riders.  Tricky one. 

As for the scheme itself, it is bound to have its detractors, as progressive things always do.  Yes, there will inevitably be technical glitches to start with. Yes, a few bikes probably will be stolen by the usual pond life.  The rest will probably be vandalised by their cretinous mates - I can't see the bungee luggage straps lasting more than a week.  So too, the corporate branding still grates - but experience teaches that Barclays' brand will become invisible before too long, and the powers that be had to finance the bloody things somehow.  Frankly, if you're the sort of person who'd happily go through the massive ball-ache of changing bank accounts just because you've seen the a particular bank's brand on a hire bike or cycle super-highway, good luck to you.  The less impressionable amongst us realise that advertising's days are increasingly numbered, so the branding thing doesn't bother me too much really. 

At the end of the day, I was able to enjoy a really relaxing journey home from work, with minimal technical issues, picking up a bike yards from my office and depositing it a short walk from my front door.  I followed well-marked cycle routes virtually door-to-door, particularly in Hyde Park with its billiard-smooth cycle lanes.  The banter with Brompton riders at traffic lights and curious questions from commuters really made Londoners come out of their famously introspective shells.

For this idealist at least, there was a real feeling of civic progress in the air today - a feeling that all is not lost, that London is maybe - just maybe - starting to wean itself off its fossil-fuelled traffic jam habit at last. The Boris Bikes won't be perfect immediately, and London certainly isn't going to turn into Amsterdam or Copenhagen or Portland overnight, but make no mistake - this is an important step in getting more people onto two wheels and making this a better place to live in general.  Hopefully, it will make a few more cities sit up and think, too.  As one out-of-town cycling friend put it earlier: 'Chapeau, London!'

Monday, 7 June 2010

Bike Porn du Jour

Introducing the 'Oltre', the latest high-end Hors Category machine from some little Italian firm you might have heard of called Bianchi?

Monocoque aero-frame, carbon nano-tube technology, yadda-yadda, etc, etc.

More importantly, it looks beautiful and goes like the proverbial excrement off a shovel if this preview ride is anything to go by:

Apparently, Oltre means 'beyond limits' in Italian, which is nice. Not going to make the dream bike fantasy league any easier, though.


Monday, 24 May 2010

What if it's all a big hoax?

I was reminded today of this brilliant cartoon, which did the rounds during COP15 last December but is still entirely relevant.
Still one of the best ripostes to the climate change deniers that I have yet to come across.

Thursday, 20 May 2010


Bealach na Ba (Gaelic: Pass of the Cattle) near Applecross - reputed to be Britain's toughest hill climb. Definitely on the to-do list. Enough said, really.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Old McDonald's has a farm...

When I started this blog, I didn't really intend for every single post to be about cycling. I meant to focus on all sorts of subjects that interest me - it just so happens that I'm in a bit of a cycling phase right now, as you may have noticed.

My day job has little to do with cycling, alas, barring occasional involvement with our client BSkyB's cycling programme as part of its CSR campaign, 'The Bigger Picture'.

To clarify, I work for a big PR agency but as a sustainability consultant. I do still work with the media, like any good PR person, but increasingly I also advise big business on its environmental and social commitments - what should they be doing, when do they need to do it by, and what might happen if they don't? I'm a lucky chap - it's a fascinating job that treads the line between marketing, comms and, as sustainability climbs the corporate agenda, genuine management consultancy at times.

What has this got to do with my blog? Only that I hope to write on sustainability issues occasionally, which will hopefully provide some respite from all the cycling issues for both of us.

One story that has caught my eye this week concerns McDonald's plans to leverage (hate that word) its sponsorship of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. The Golden Arches plans to use its involvement with London 2012 to promote the role of British suppliers and its commitment to responsible business. McDonald's British suppliers will provide meals for athletes and event staff, whilst certain farms will even throw their doors open to the public in an explicit display of eco-credentials.

The market niche McDonald's has carved for itself is a sticky one from a sustainability perspective but by drawing parallels between corporate responsibility, transparency of supply chain and nutrition on this most high-profile of sporting stages, the Golden Arches could be onto a winner. Critics argue that the link with sport is tenuous and I can see their point, but if McDonald's reckons it can make a credible link, all power to its elbow I say.

More info here, courtest of Marketing Week: