Our Bicycle Lives

I cycle, therefore I think

Category: Parts

Accessories

I am not fond of the one-size-fits-all appellation used for the removable items that belong to a bicycle: accessories. As if they weren’t an essential part of the bike itself! They’re perhaps not necessary to make it roadworthy – they’re not parts – but just try cycling without mudguards on a wet day and you’ll come to realise they are crucial to your enjoyment. Some, such as lights and bells, are even a requirement by law. So they all have their purpose, even if they are often thought of as optional gadgets. If some of the cheap plastic accessories remind me of pound shop purchases, standard features so ubiquitous and ordinary that they are overlooked and not a little dull, overall I like the accessories’ practicality, their down-to-earth, no-nonsense approach. To my eyes, they enhance, rather than encumber, a bicycle. I find a bike kitted out to do a job well, prepared for any contingency and that will do its utmost to protect me from dirt, rain and darkness, a very attractive proposition. Even if I secretly admire the power of dreams in cyclists who put their faith in utterly impractical bikes.

Ladybell

Ladybell

I like the accessories’ blend of simplicity and ingenuity, in the same way that I like that in a bike: it does what it says on the tin but it’s clever too. A kickstand – that ‘discredited bicycle component’, according to BikeReader dictionary – was the first addition to my bicycle and I couldn’t do without it now, its nondescript appearance notwithstanding. So useful, but why are they so few? And what about chain guards? Since mine broke, I regularly come home with grease stains on my trousers. The rolling-up of the right trouser leg seems an unknown custom on the Continent, which makes me wonder whether they have worked out a magic formula to remove oil stains. As for the old-fashioned skirt guards, they bring to mind the vision of cycling in a skirt, so appealing yet so daring. The wonderful world of so-called accessories!

Creativity in daily life gets my vote every time. Mudguards seem to bring to the fore our resourcefulness, and I’ve spotted them under various guises (a bit of cardboard, half of a water bottle, a cut-out length of plastic). But the prettiest accessories would have to be bells, which now come in a range of colourful designs thanks to companies like Pylones that appeal to our inner playful child. I am not including here the powerful, aggressive bells that make passers-by jump: effective but no fun. Ode to my bell: a hand-me-down from its previous owner, a wheelchair user, it comes with its share of scratches and bruises, with a history, a baggage even, and I treasure it for that. It has a mind of its own and rings whenever it feels like it, with a frequency that varies depending on the days and the mood. I play along.

A crossbar and two wheels: cycling according to a seven-year old.

A crossbar and two wheels: cycling according to a seven-year old.

‘I really should get some mudguards’, a friend sighs. My approach is the exact opposite: having a bike (or two!) is the perfect excuse to let loose what creativity I’ve got. Accessories are not extras, they’re integral to the style of a bicycle, be it retro, naff, hipster, Tour de France hopeful or run-of-the-mill commuter. Who ever thought that style was optional? And the devil is in the details: nowhere does the personality of a bike shine through better. It’s the difference between an off-the-peg, mass-produced beauty and one that’s been given that look. I sometimes think accessories are the point of the bike because they tell the story behind it. Now, what does that say about me? Indeed, I do like a good story . . .

Less is more, argue some cyclists who like the pure lines of a stripped-down bicycle. Accessories detract from the essentials: frame, wheels, saddle. Thieves seem to concur: mudguards apparently bring down the resale value of a stolen bike. I love a minimalist look too but I disagree: bike accessories are the essentials. They put a final touch to a beautiful bike and make visible how special my bike is to me, tell of the joy of a cycling way of life that is anti-speed and anti-performance. So here’s to the superfluous, the dispensable, the surplus to requirements, the futile, here’s to all the trimmings and to the cherry on the cake when the cake is too hard to be eaten. To the spice of life.

Advertisements

Transmission

After six years of sharing my life with bicycles, I still can’t get some names right. I point: ‘that thing there’, ‘whatchamacallit’. That’s the transmission for you: a challenge, even when my two bicycles only have eight gears between them, but a good one. I like mechanisms that a lot of thought evidently went into creating. I like the semantic and technical complexity of the parts, chainring, bottom bracket, cassette, sprockets, cogs, jockey wheel. I like the delicate intricacy of it all and the minute adjustments they require, perhaps because, unlike brakes, I don’t even attempt to tackle them! I like that not having yet mastered the definition of high and low gears makes me sound like a newbie. Let’s not leave cycling to the professionals . . .

The transmission brings the whole bicycle together around its centre of gravity, from the gear levers at the front all the way to the rear derailleur. Beautiful name for a beautiful concept. And the sounds! The sharp clicks of a new chain on a well-tuned road bike are music to the ears. They tell you that precision and freedom are not mutually exclusive. And a classic-sounding brand name like Campagnolo adds a touch of class, gives pedigree to a bike as only a well-made piece of craftsmanship can. Chain guards make perfect sense but I couldn’t help finally ripping mine off one day, to get to the core of the bike and let the chain breathe. Less is more, and even the clean, simple lines of a single-speed transmission become an object of desire.

But for the ordinary transmission, day-to-day life is not easy. My bike’s is somewhat approximate but I make do with it. Or without it. For the first two years, I did not once operate the shifters. Instead I plodded on astride my home-made single-speed, a hybrid with the chain perpetually in gear six. Until a kind soul taught me the reason for gears: to keep an even cadence and prevent you from bursting your knee joints when setting off at traffic lights. Then the bike suffered a fall and the derailleur was bent out of line. Years of sluggish gear changes ensued until a young female mechanic miraculously fixed the problem. Cue happy transmission ever after, even if trying to guess what gear I am or should be in remains beyond me. Still, anything is better than fumbling with levers located on the down tube, like on traditional racers: I would say that was part of their charm if I didn’t know any better (hand off handlebars + eyes off road = recipe for disaster).

Amidst the transmission’s sophistication lives the chain which by sheer single-mindedness and brute force gets the job done. A job so tough that little by little, this incredibly resilient piece of metal will stretch, a sure sign of wear. The problem with the chain is that it needs oil, and oil mixed with road dirt becomes gunk and mercilessly stains trouser legs, shoes, hands and anything else that comes too close. I learnt it the hard way when I had to pull a plastic carrier bag out of my chain with my bare hands by the roadside whilst being jeered by a carload of drunk lads. Cleaning a chain caked in grease and mud requires some determination. I sometimes use a chain cleaning tool, but then I need a chain cleaning tool cleaning tool (follow me?). I like the sound of the two chains method, one kept clean in white spirit, the other on the bike and then swap, but I secretly dream of a lubrication-free belt drive.

When all goes smoothly, I am in awe. But when all goes wrong, the bond between us is a heavy one. This ambivalence is the one I experience when faced with raw strength. Or power. Because the transmission, converting vital energy from my leg muscles to the wheels, is power. But while sap flows vertically through a tree, the bike’s lifeblood runs horizontally via the chain: built for speed, it reaches forward. I am fascinated by the harmony found in the circularity, in the continuous rotation of the chain linking all components, each in its rightful place and with its raison d’etre. It’s as if the transmission was the heart of the bicycle, each pedal stroke a heartbeat sending blood flowing through the arteries of a living organism. And bike and rider move as one, transmission on the right and heart on the left, complementing one another and achieving perfect balance.

Pedals

When I say that new pedals changed my bicycle life, others are taken aback: not the saddle? Or the handlebars? Despite being one of only three contact points between bike and rider and creating a connection between the wheels, the ground and our legs which allows us to propel the bicycle with our feet, pedals are at the bottom of the pecking order. Low down, they are exposed to water and mud and bear the marks of occasional scrapes with the kerb. They are hardy and take my full bodyweight and plenty of abuse to become one of the most battered parts there is . . . but no-one notices. They remain truly neglected. Pedals could well be the perfect parts – strong, silent and invisible – but when did you last clean them? Or pay them any attention? They are looked down on: in fact most bicycles are sold with cheap and nasty plastic pedals or even with no pedals at all in the case of road bikes, which goes to show how much they matter.

But I beg to differ: I love my pedals! They are at the heart of my bicycle and of my cycling style. Being BMX ones (flat with short metal studs), they grip my shoes so perfectly that they almost seem glued to them. I rarely have to put a foot down. Sure, some bicycles do away with them, like the no-pedals balance bicycle for toddlers or the Fliz bike, a bizarre contraption, but why would you want to miss out on that lovely coasting position, feet at rest on the pedals? They keep us off the ground and give the humble bicycle its lightness and its appeal. Riding tall, standing on the pedals feels like standing on your dad’s shoulders as a child: on top of the world.

Not much differentiates a cyclist from a motorcyclist, except the pedals and what we do with them, which is unique to a bicycle and makes up for the lack of engine. Pedals supply the power, hence scores of pedal-powered inventions, from sound system to cinema to milkshake, and even a pedal-powered electric chair in Keyhole (Guy Maddin, 2011). Muscles replace fossil fuels so the simple act of pedalling makes us environmentally friendly: we tread lightly, literally and figuratively, on the Earth. Toe-straps and clipless pedals are even more energy efficient than ordinary pedals which only apply power one sixth of the time but I am not overly comfortable with having my feet locked in, so to speak. I like some wiggle room. What if I can’t unclip in time at traffic lights and suffer a fall and the shame of making a fool of myself? But I know for a fact that foxes are fond of leather toe-straps, as a friend discovered to his chagrin!

I am in the habit of looking at the spinning legs and calf muscles of the countless cyclists who drop me to judge how fast they are going. The number of pedal revolutions per minute, or cadence, is a good indication of speed. It is also a measure of competitiveness, as in the cycle sport of Rollapaluza where two participants race against each other by pedalling as fast as they can on stationary bikes. In truth, this is poles apart from my own cycling experience: I like nothing better than a leisurely ride and find frantic pedalling not only near-impossible but also undignified. I fear the ridicule of the cyclist pedalling furiously on a mountain bike in a flat urban environment. He reminds me of what in some parts of Francophone Africa is called a poulet bicyclette, a skinny chicken high on its feet who when running looks like it is pedalling. On the opposite side of the spectrum is what the French prettily name pedaler en danseuse, that sinuous and powerful style of cycling out of the saddle favoured by riders in the mountain stages of the Tour de France.

I wonder why I don’t particularly like braking or changing gears but love pedalling? Is it because it is smoother and puts less stress on the body than walking? Or because I love the fluid sensation of the pedals freely rotating in the air? I imagine spinning the pedals on an exercise bike must bring about a certain light-headedness. ‘I found a rhythm in the spinning pedals. Rhythm is happiness.’ wrote Robert Penn, corroborating my own thinking. A happily meditative mood is addictive. And I hope that the colourful pedals I’ve spotted here and there in the wake of the fixed-gear fashion for flamboyant components is an indication that they will soon move out of the shadows and into the limelight. They deserve it.

Names

Even before I liked bicycles, I liked their name. I enjoyed enunciating the word, starting with the solid ‘b’ sound then pronouncing the soft ‘c’ followed by a hard ‘c’ and ending with a nimble ‘l’. It is an honest word, with a literal, what-you-see-is-what-you-get meaning: ‘two wheels’. Whoever played Name That Thing when the term was coined in the 1860s didn’t look too far: a bit of Greek here (‘kuklos’, wheels) and of Latin there (‘bi’, two) to create one hybrid word which encapsulates the machine’s most notable characteristic, a pair of wheels in line. I am grateful for this imaginative touch, however timid. To think that I could be riding a plain ‘birota’, the 100% pure Latin word for bicycle used in Vatican City today, hasn’t quite got the same ring to it.

Although I commonly use the shortened ‘bike’, it is ambiguous and I am conscious that I could be mistaken for a helmeted, leather-clad motorcyclist. So I prefer bicycle. Its simplicity contrasts with the cumbersome names that preceded or followed it: draisine, velocipede, penny-farthing, boneshaker, ordinary (who would like to own an ordinary?) or the archaic dandy-horse*. I admire the duality of the simple but composite name, with a root, ‘cycle’, which resonates on several levels and provides a wealth of metaphors and wordplays. At the same time, bicycle is such a graphic word that I can visualise its object, the two ‘c’s as the wheels, the descender of the letter ‘y’ as the pedals and the ascender of the ‘l’ as the sit-up-and-beg handlebars. And ‘bi’ as a child seat! Such an enduring name for the first human-powered vehicle that it is now living through its third century.

As we know, names reflect status and language labels stick more surely than post-it notes, and we establish deeper emotional connections with some words than with others. A gearless bike doesn’t sound nearly as desirable as a single-speed. Some languages were in luck – the Spanish ‘bicicleta’, like a lovely laugh bringing up vivid images of summer dresses and radiant green foliage (as in the 1984 Jaime Chavarri film Las Bicicletas Son Para El Verano); the swift ‘vélo’; or the cute ‘la petite reine’ (the little queen), French nickname with regal but sweet connotations and a hint of 1950’s retro-fashion – others less so – ‘jalgratas’ in Estonian. English speakers came up with the perfect fit, a neutral name . . . but not too much. Or is it? The antagonism faced by people on bikes today means that the word ‘cyclist’ has become tainted with negative overtones. I dearly hope the contagion doesn’t spread to the bicycle itself.

What’s in a name? Judging by how much has been written about baby names, a lot. But those of us who are cyclists first and foremost may have different priorities. Naming or not naming, that is the real question. Personally, I name bikes because it makes it easier to address them (If you think that sounds weird, fear not, you have a point). By bestowing names upon them, I personalise them and make them my own but also – and here’s the paradox – claim them as companions rather than possessions. I invest emotionally in a relationship which has me responsible for them. So I become their friend, parent and carer all in one. Interestingly, blogging on the subject of naming bicycles inevitably seems to incur strings of comments from cyclists who feel very strongly one way or the other. Many owners of bikes with no name, in particular, find naming ridiculous, undignified or even unmanly. ‘Naming is indescribably lame’ said one. Others mention anthropomorphism. After reading an enlightening comment on the blog She Rides a Bike, I am leaning towards animism: ‘Innately, we believe that we can have bilateral relationships with inanimate objects. People who name their bikes, on some level, expect the affection to be returned.’ Vehicles used for transportation such as trains and boats are traditionally of the female gender but to their owners, some bikes are obviously female and others male, while for others they remain an anonymous ‘it’: superstition perhaps, or fear of attachment, it is truly a love that dares not speak its name.

*In a striking overview, Robert Penn traces the origin of the bicycle – the mechanical horse – to the shortage of horses following poor harvests and famine caused by a volcanic eruption in 1815 which blocked out solar radiation.

Brakes

My otherwise silent bike sometimes uses its brakes to say hello. They are its voice, its vocal chords. When I come to a stop behind another cyclist, I will release the brake levers abruptly as a way to signal my presence. The woman in front will turn her head a fraction of an inch, glance at me from the corner of her eye and register that I am there. There is, of course, another way that bikes use brakes to talk: it is that pitifully squeaky sound, that high pitch squeal of a voice they have when the brakes are misaligned, or worn out, or dirty. I can almost feel the vibrations coming out of the contact point between brakes and rim and into the open air, and they send a shudder through my spine. More often than not, they’ll belong to a bike that makes its way through traffic with a variety of creaks, screeches and grunts and through life with a catalogue of minor ailments – chain not oiled, saddle and handlebars a bit loose, mudguard rubbing against the tyre etc. In fact, the brakes set the tone. They sort out the serious cyclists from the dilettantes, which is why I can’t bear squeaky brakes on my bike: they put me to shame and lower my cycling status all in one.

It is fitting that brake and break are homophones. So much can go wrong with brakes that my bedside bike manual (the brilliant Complete Bike Book by Mel Allwood) devotes two out of its six troubleshooting pages to brakes. For such a single-minded component – basically, the task of the brake blocks is to make contact with the wheel rim and to stop the bike, and that’s all there is to it! – they are disproportionately troublesome. They come saddled with various names that I may not know how to pronounce (calliper, cantilever, v-brakes, disc brakes) and a whole collection of parts I rarely know what to do with (screws, washers, Allen key nuts, pivots, springs). Adjusting the brakes is a thankless task. They are to be tweaked rather than fixed, which is a fiddly precise job where a quarter of a turn here or a notch there can make all the difference, but I am not a proficient enough mechanic to know where or why. Then a week later, I cannot believe my ears: my brakes are squeaking again! This is a never-ending saga.

I vividly remember one occasion when my brakes literally sprang to life. I was seventeen and on a ten-day cycle tour of the Loire Valley with my sister and two cousins, the youngest of whom was fourteen. At the start of a steep downhill stretch, I lost a bolt and my front brake jumped clean off the rim. I yelled my way to the bottom of the hill, terrified. I am not quite sure a front brake can physically do that, but that’s the vision that has stayed engraved in my mind. Of course things were different back then: it was the late 1980s, bikes had steel rims so brakes didn’t work so well in wet conditions (this I learned to my cost when I crashed into a kerb on a rainy day) and even my over-anxious parents didn’t think anything of sending four teenagers off on their own without so much as a puncture repair kit!

To be fair, brakes actually play a big part for such a small part. They are the sole piece of safety equipment a bike has and they have to be powerful enough to bring it to a complete standstill within a matter of seconds. I rely on them to carry out the constant stops and starts of city cycling. It is odd, then, that I feel comfortable putting my trust in such a tenuous physical connection, two hand levers that operate pads via a thin length of cable. Would I find the wireless brakes on some electric bikes unsettling, or would I not give them a second thought either? Using the power of my strongest muscles – my legs – instead of my hands to stop should meet with the approval of my naturally cautious nature, for example with back-pedal brakes or fixed wheels where the reversing action of the legs counters the forward action of the drivetrain. But yet again, I don’t care one way or the other, as if brakes were an afterthought, as if they didn’t really belong to the core of the bicycle, whose intrinsic purpose is to propel me forward in one uninterrupted movement.

I Am The Battery.

By Rob Scott

The bicycle is a very basic piece of mechanics.

Despite some significant advances – in gearing, wheels and tyres, brakes for example – the essential concept has not changed much at all. Plonk a rider on top, get ’em pedalling, and you have a beautiful example of a direct transfer of energy from the potential to the kinetic.

The beauty of it all is that it doesn’t require coal, or steam or petrol. No men in smeared and dirty uniforms shovelling fuel into the gaping maw of a furnace, feeding the beast; there is no requirement for a network of refuelling or recharging points sprinkled out across the land; the earth doesn’t need to be turned, rock isn’t blown apart, rivers aren’t dammed, forests not cut. It doesn’t belch acridity into the air, doesn’t clog cities with lung-crippling pollution. It needs very little infrastructure, as it lays its own tracks, the two wheels creating a road before them that goes where they are navigated and ends only when they stop turning. It can use motorway, back road, dirt path or mountain track as its conduit. There is no need to build anything for it. It only requires infrastructure when the riders demand comfort, and lack the durability to cycle; to really cycle.

It is nothing when it stops moving. At rest, the cycle is just so much metal, inert, dead weight. In a small London flat, it takes up too much room – hallways, spare rooms and corridors are filled. Shins are scrapped, coats are caught, trousers are streaked with grease as people try to avoid its grasping clutches. In extremes, it may be pushed, even kicked. But eventually it gets taken out again, as it is transformed in perception from a thing taking up space, to a thing of utility.

I am the battery, without which this contraption is powerless. I provide the power, and the motivation, the consciousness, that lends this “thing” its purpose, its direction – both in life, and in navigation.

The cyclist seems often tempted to don the outfit of a professional team rider – Lycra shorts and top, streamlined helmet or retro cap, gloves, clip-on shoes. Whatever happened to bicycle clips or one trouser leg tucked into a sock? I ask myself, as I watch the day-glo hi-viz peloton outside Stockwell station as they strain to restrain themselves from jumping the lights.

I know this addiction to cycling, I know it well. I’ve never belonged to the Lycra and clip-on shoes set, but I know how it is to get on the damn thing and just ride it, push it to its limit. I have to be very careful of myself on my cycle, aware that I can become detached from myself so easily. I don’t know if there is a biological reason for it, but cycling is the only activity where I notice the immediate effect of the endorphins coursing through my veins. A gym workout results in a feeling of general wellbeing that lasts me for the day. Getting on my bike, the endorphins hit me within about 10-15 minutes, and it is not a particularly good effect.

I get crazy.

Safety goes out the window. I yell at other road users. I gesture at them. I race cars, push my way through them when stationary, lean on them, deliberately get in their way. I need only a very slight margin to cut in front. I jump off curbs, and speed down hills, I disrespect, disobey and downright challenge traffic lights. I can’t help but think that sometimes the bike is leading me on, leading me astray. As if it doesn’t quite know what to do with all this freedom.

It is a light-mechanical guerilla force, making brief but effective forays into enemy territory. It uses the bus lane to full advantage, but the minute that becomes unsuitable, jumps the curb to ride the footpath for a moment – but just for a moment, because a gap in the traffic is spotted, so off the curb, across the bus lane, and in front of the cars. Depending on the lights, there can be times when a bike might have the temerity to invade the opposite lane, to taunt the traffic coming towards it. The bicycle neither belongs, nor is welcome in any of these settings. But it persists, difficult to catch because it spends precious little time in any one place – each of these places exploited in an effort to get somewhere else.

The bike is a Scarlet Pimpernel, an Artful Dodger. The bike wants to rule you.

But get off it, put it away in its shed or hallway, hang it on its wall bracket, and it is deflated, undermined, undone. Its hold over its owner is broken again and it is, once more, just a collection of parts, waiting for its next journey. And if the owner is a real cyclist, that journey won’t be too far away. The moment the bike goes up on that wall bracket, the process starts again. The bike will make its presence felt, as its owner passes it every day. And eventually, the desire will get too much, and it will get lifted down, dusted off, and taken out again.

It will lay out a new track for itself, a track made up on-the-fly, never to be repeated, original and agile. The preferred choice of rebels, the poor, of commuters and holiday-makers, the environmentalists and fitness-freaks, the over-crowded and the carefree.

Because on the bike, everything is carefree.

Read more: follow Rob’s blog at http://ilikethewhooshingsound.blogspot.com