Wednesday, 25 September 2013

There She Rides discovers the secret of cycling at 50mph

A boyfriend once took me to see a rally for owners of Honda Goldwing motorcycles. We went our separate ways soon afterwards, it having become readily apparent that there was a yawning chasm between our respective notions of what constituted a good time.
As I looked around that gathering of vast, plush, sofas on wheels, I remember wondering what would possess someone to buy one of these machines when they so clearly would have preferred a saloon car. There was even - I kid you not - a Goldwing pulling a caravan.
I've always felt a bit like that about electric bikes. Why would you buy a bicycle, if what you really want is a taxi? I'm terrible on hill climbs. Really dreadful. I can be overtaken by pedestrians. But when I reach the top, I know that it was my stubby little legs that powered me and when I fly down the other side, I've earned the free ride.
An electric bike seems to take all the challenge out of cycling. The whole point of bicycling is to be self-propelling. It's the ultimate in sustainable transport, as long as you carry sufficient inner tubes and energy bars.
But then I saw this video.
And now I really...really...want an electric bike. But it has to do 50mph. And the engine has to be cunningly concealed.
Isn't that brilliant?
Throughout my childhood we had a Morris Minor Traveller (the ones with the wooden frame). At that stage they hadn't attained the status of cherished icon of motor engineering. They were just old. Ours produced its own crop of mushrooms along the rear windowsill and was covered in so much moss that it was effectively camouflaged.  My dad nursed a secret ambition to remove the engine in our Moggie and replace it with something with a fuel injection. His plan was to don the obligatory tweed hat and pootle along a stretch of dual carriageway towards a hill. Then, just as the boy racer behind him prepared to speed past in his hot hatchback, the aged motorist would press Hush Puppy to the floor and leave the lad standing.  
My father never got to pimp his Morris Minor but if I added an engine like that to my bicycle, I think I'd make him smile.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Gone fishing - a Sky Ride following the Izaak Walton Route

Today was one of those idyllic Indian summer days, so perfect and precious for cycling. Warm sunshine, a hint of autumn in the air and one of the last Sky Rides of the year to enjoy.
This was a 17-mile ride named after Izaak Walton. My hometown hasn't produced very many famous people. Poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy grew up here. Fran Healy, the lead singer of Travis was born in Stafford. I wonder if he thinks of us when he sings Why Does It Always Rain On Me? It's something that I ask myself often enough.
David Cameron fought and lost an election here (possibly our proudest moment) and Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned nearby. Go back as far as the restoration and you'll find playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan living in grand style in the town centre. When he turned to politics he paid the voters of Stafford five guineas each in 'thanks' for their support. If David Cameron had read his history books he might have been more successful in Stafford. 
"But this is a cycling blog, why are you befuddling us with Stafford's tenuous association with celebrity?"
Ah, well, that's because Izaak Walton is a bona fide, locally-grown success story. Born in 1594, Walton spent his childhood in the Swan Inn, in Stafford and spent some years living at Halfhead Farm, in the village of Shallowford. Like my dad, he devoted much of his life to fishing. In 1653, Walton published the first edition of the famous The Compleat Angler. More than four centuries later, a well-thumbed copy of this book would be at my father's bedside.
Today, with the sun on our backs and a breeze in our faces we set off to explore ountry lanes and villages that would have been familiar to the angler-author on the Sky Ride Izaak Walton Route. Admittedly, the start of the route would probably have come as a surprise to him. But you can certainly find trout in Sainsbury's.
Our route today took us through the postcard-pretty villages of Chebsey and Ellenhall, their country churchyards unchanged for centuries. We pedalled through traffic-free lanes bounded by high hedges heavy with sloes and cobnuts and passed a field full of sunflowers, their heads nodding towards the warmth. It came as a surprise to see that we were at the halfway point in our ride - time to stop at a garden centre for tea and cake.
I thought a lot about my dad as I rode, today. He was a cyclist and would have loved this adventure. We even went to the ford, at Seighford. He used to take me walking there as a child. We'd park by the ford and go to pick mushrooms for breakfast. Once we were lucky enough to meet a family of fox cubs in a nearby wood, fearless and full of curiosity.
Someone else was pretty fearless at Seighford today. One of our ride leaders sought to encourage us to try riding through the ford. With everyone else looking dubiously at the depth indicator he pedalled at full speed and to our surprise, made it to the other side. We used the bridge and then followed a trail of drips from his soaking feet.
A view from the bridge 
Too soon the Sky Ride was back in Stafford, leaving the country lanes and turning back towards the town centre.
A good-sized bunch of Sky Riders took part in this ride, perhaps fifteen of us snaked along the lanes in our high-viz bibs. As ever, there was a companionable atmosphere with plenty of laughter and conversation.
This was the first year that Sky Rides were offered in this area and until confirmation comes from the local council, we won't know for sure whether they will resume in the spring. I certainly hope that we take to the trails again next year. The Sky Rides have encouraged people to get bikes out of the shed and onto the road. New rides, new friends and a new confidence in traffic have been just a few of the benefits of taking part.
The end of the road today - let's hope the Sky Rides pedal back onto the local calendar next year.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Scaling the heights on another Sky Ride

Last weekend I tackled my second Sky Ride. The forecast was for torrential rain and 50mph winds. What could possibly go wrong?
Not for a second did I consider that those 50mph winds might be behind me. In my experience a strong breeze will always be in the face of the peddler - whichever direction you ride.
Communication is very good from the Sky Ride team, with a number of emails in the days and weeks before each ride reminding the cyclist of where she is supposed to be. Frankly, I wish that the Sky Ride people could organise the rest of my life with equal efficiency. With forecasts verging on the apocalyptic the night before the ride, I kept checking my phone for news that the event had been cancelled. None came and I decided that if the ride leaders were prepared to ride, then I was too.
I will admit that it took some effort to haul my sorry ass out of bed on Sunday morning. The predicted rain had arrived, the sky was slate grey and the duvet really was very cosy. Fortunately I had packed my bag and laid out my clothes the night before. A final encouraging kick from my husband was all it took to get me up and ready to ride.
The Sky Ride was called Sights Around Stone. It was categorised as Steady and would take in a 16-mile route around Stone, Barlaston, Moddershall and the National Trust-owned woodland of Downs Banks. When I arrived at the meeting-point I recognised one of the ride leaders from the Cannock Chase Criss-Cross Challenge ( A few changes had taken place since he'd seen me last and I was hoping we'd both notice a difference.
In my previous Sky Ride I spent about as much time pushing my bike as I did riding it. Try as I might, I couldn't pedal the blessed thing up the succession of vertiginous hills included in the ride. I returned home shattered and a little crestfallen. In the following days I asked brilliant bike mechanic Ben Platt if there was anything he could do to help.
Ben changed my rear cartridge to give me a bigger ratio. I moved from an 11-26t to an 11-32 and added a long cage derailleur to cope with the extra slack in the chain. Vitally (as far as I was concerned, at least) Ben had also removed the mudguards. My ride had been pimped.   
Our hardy band of cyclists set off and in what I now realise is traditional for Sky Rides, we began with a climb. And I was OK. In fact, I was more than OK. I was at the front!
The route soon left the highway for a network of country lanes. Almost all of them included hefty climbs but I found that I could keep spinning fairly easily, enjoying testing my limits and enjoying the fabulous views at the top. Alastair, the ride leader who had watched me trudge around Cannock Chase, was encouraging: "It's partly your fitness and partly the different gears," he said. I knew it wasn't. It was the mudguards that had been holding me back.
The great thing about Sky Rides is that you meet other people who are also loving life on two wheels. Everyone is incredibly friendly, perfectly illustrated on this ride, when we made an unscheduled stop at the home of one of the ride participants. His unflappable wife provided refreshments for us all, while their energetic dogs pointed out that if we really wanted exercise, we should be chasing a tennis ball.

Some of the Sky Riders on our impromptu stop. The dogs are out of this picture, chasing tennis balls but if you look closely, another pet is welcoming the unexpected visitors.

As well as a very pleasant half an hour in a fellow cyclists's garden, the ride provided me with my first chance to cycle across a level crossing and through a ford. We rode past through the beautiful village of Moddershall, almost at eye-level with the village pond, where ducks laughed noisily as we passed. In this birthplace of the pottery industry, we went past the stunning home once occupied by Josiah Wedgewood before riding past the factory on which his wealth was built.

The house formerly occupied by Josiah Wedgewood - one of the Sights of Stone.

And do you know what?
It didn't rain until the moment I put the bike in the back of the car and set off for home.  

Saturday, 7 September 2013

CyFy WristView mirror review **

I got my hands on the CyFy WristView mirror for cyclists via Amazon's US site.
The wrist-mounted, rear-view mirror for cyclists is a crowd-funded project. The designers used Kickstarter to get their business off the ground and took on board some of the suggestions they received from backers. For instance there is space on the wrist band on which you can use a marker pen to add emergency contact details, allowing the product to double as an ID bracelet. 
The triangular pack, ready to unfold
The CyFy WristView mirror arrives in a clever, origami-style box. Open it up and nestling in there is a little round mirror, sitting snugly on a tightly-coiled 'snap band'. Nothing else. The mirror is durable enough to survive the journey without additional packaging material and it's so simple that an instruction leaflet would be very brief indeed: Wear on wrist. Look in mirror.  
The snap-band bracelet means that it's a fit-all product. It also makes it quick and fuss-free to wear. You just snap and ride. The only adjustment needed is to twist it round a bit so that the mirror is pretty much in line with your thumb, to provide best rear view. I have tried it on my right wrist and on my left, as shown on the packaging illustration. Both seem to work equally well but for me, it is more comfortable to wear on the right simply because my watch is on the left. 

To view the mirror, you need to lift your hand and bend your elbow until your thumb is at head-level.  The time I most need to see what is behind is when I want to pull out to the right. It seems to make more sense to wear the mirror on that side so that the extended arm movement needed to check the mirror, doesn't suggest to following traffic that I am about to turn left.  
Getting maximum safety out of the product, the snap-band is made out of high-visibility, super-reflective material. The makers claim that it makes me 200 times more visible as I wobble along the road in low-light conditions, adding ominously, that I will be visible at 400 feet. Great for life expectancy but in all honesty, I'm not sure I want to be that easy to pick out in a crowd. The band wipes clean after a muddy ride and springs straight back into that neat little coil which fits handily into my rack bag. 
The mirror is circular, about two inches in diameter (radius? circumference? Gosh those maths lessons seem so long ago...the crossways measurement. Nothing to do with p. Come to think of it, my whole life has been nothing to do with p, despite what those despairing teachers would have had me believe).  
I digress.
The mirror is set in a plastic casing and it's the casing that is fixed to the band by dint of what looks like a pretty sturdy rivet. I've not had it long enough to give it an extended test and I was initially a bit worried because the natural - though incorrect - motion is to detach the snap-band by pulling the mirror. So far, my mirror is not budging.
This picture gives an idea of the product size
When riding with the mirror, it's been comfortable and hasn't got in the way when I've needed to change gear or brake. As it is so light, I pretty much forget I am wearing it.
This isn't a mirror into which you glance while riding naturally. To get a good view you have got to make that salute movement. 

In fairness, following traffic will almost certainly have their attention grabbed by your peculiar arm motion. While they think back to their cycling proficiency days in an attempt to recall what on earth that hand signal means, you have a little more time to pull round the pothole.
The makers emphasise that the mirror isn't a replacement for turning your head to see for yourself exactly what is bearing down on you. It certainly isn't. No mirror is going to remove the need for that shoulder check. It is, though, a valuable aid. It's a bit like having a passenger in the car, giving you a heads-up when it is clear to pull out. You still look before you leap but you've had help avoiding the obviously unsafe times to manoeuvre.

Advantages of the CyFy WristView Mirror
* It is easy to put on and remove. No tools required.
* It is small and easy to carry.
* The snap-band doubles as a high-viz reflector.
* You can use it to apply make-up on arrival if you are so inclined.

Disadvantages of the CyFy WristView Mirror
* It is currently quite difficult to get hold of one in the UK
* You need to take your hand off the handlebar whenever you want to check the mirror.
* It doesn't come with a draw-string bag of the kind you sometimes get with sunglasses. That would be really useful to prevent the mirror getting scratched when it is in your bag. I'm currently carrying the box in my rack bag but it is taking-up more space than it needs.

The CyFy WristView Mirror