Monday, 6 July 2009

Carrying stuff when you commute

The question should be: do you want a sweaty back, a wonky (unbalanced) bike or bad aerodynamics? Truth be told, it is a pain either way and if we could avoid carrying anything on a bicycle, we would.

Here is a brief précis of the options, their pros and their cons as I have found them:

Two panniers on your back wheels are a pain in the neck. You work so much harder cycling with that amount of drag; it feels like you're dragging a toddler on a skateboard behind you. It's fine on a peachy day when there is no wind but as soon as the slightest breeze starts stirring, you really do feel it. This is, however, the only option for touring. The good ones are also not cheap (£60+ for a pair of Ortlieb panniers). You do get some lovely retro panniers which are beautiful (but heavy and not waterproof).

Single pannier
A single pannier on the left side of your bicycle (the pavement side) is better than two panniers on your back wheels, however it does leave you wonky and lopsided if you overload it. There is less drag but be mindful of the uneven load when you get off or stop at a traffic light. You can buy single panniers in groovy fabric that double up as shopping bags and they're so cute I might try one...

Courier bag
Bags across the chest are not an option for busty dames. So I've never tried a full-sized version. I tried a small version and it kept on sliding forward (so the heavy bit sits on my lap) which is mightily annoying and not very ergonomic.

My personal choice. I have a dirt-cheap backpack and a waterproof cover that I bought from a hiking shop. Total cost? £18. Okay, I get a sweaty back - even in mid winter - but it's easy to carry, my trousers lie flat and don't get creased and there is no drag involved when you're cycling into the wind. That's the main pro!

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Maintenance for new bikes

First service, lubrication, multi tools, degreaser, inner tubes, pumps and bike covers

Okay, so you buy a bicycle and maintenance is the last thing on your mind but it's good to start as you mean to go on.

I know that it sounds strange but once you take delivery of your new bicycle, book your first service. Most bike shops give you a complimentary First Service a few weeks after you buy a bike from their shop so make sure you get them to check that everything is working well. They will set the brakes, adjust the gears and do a few checks. Make sure that you insist on this service (they won't necessarily tell you about it until prompted).

The first thing that you have to do is tell them not to go anywhere near your bike with that horrible, cheap, black grease. If they do (as they did to my bike), any trousers you wear on your bike will be ruined. End of. All the degreaser in the world won't remove it completely. Instead, get yourself a bottle of White Lightning Clean Ride self-cleaning wax lube. Now I'm not a shareholder (I promise) but this stuff is fab. Shake the bottle, apply liberally to everything that moves (chain, pedals etc) but not anywhere near the brakes and let it dry. The idea is that the wax lubricates your bike but flakes off gradually and the dirt flakes off with the wax so you don't have to degrease and clean between applications. If it rains, lubricate more regularly. It really is that simple.

Degreaser isn't completely useless. There is so much grease on the road these days and it's a pain to remove it from your bike with liquid soap on its own. You might want to get some degreaser for bicycles and put that in amongst the suds to really remove that grey, clumpy dirt that is born of oil and dust.

Get yourself a multitool for bicycles like this one. It has the universal allen key that fit most of the adjustable parts of your bike so if your seat suddenly shifts or your brakes slip, you can help yourself on the side of the road - or get some good Samaritan to do it for you if they stop and offer to give you a hand.

One other thing that you just have to have with you at all times is a spare inner tube and a bicycle pump. If you don't want the spare inner tube to take up space in your bag, get a saddle bag and stuff it in there with the multi tool while you ride. You can fix the pump to your bicycle frame so that's no biggie either and the multi tool has those "spoon-like attachments" that enable you to change a tyre. Find out how to do this ASAP! One quick note on pumps - don't buy one that is too small. The smaller they are, the harder you work. Get a basic one about a foot long with interchangeable heads and it will do the job without costing you too much money - or effort.

I have tried keeping my bike covered with a PVC cover but the birds ruined it, it got dirty and the bike still rusted a bit underneath. The jury really is out on whether or not you should cover your bike as some say that condensation still forms under the cover, causing your bike to rust that bit more. So I don't bother anymore and all is still well in my world.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Accommodating your curves

If you are a curvy woman, then don't be afraid of getting on your bike. Queen had it right "Fat bottomed girls you make the rockin' world go round. GET ON YOUR BIKES AND RIDE!"

Most women who commute to work in London (on my route at least) aren't packing a size 20 backside, but don't let that put you off! We don't have to be strutting Lycra and crop tops to be getting our endorphin high first thing in the morning, girls.

I was mortified to find that cycle clothing manufacturers (Endura, be ashamed!) do not make cycling trousers for women in sizes greater than a size 16. Men's XL - XXL trousers are also not cut for female hips and thighs so they gape at the waist and make you look twice your size. Apparently, we curvy cyclists don't exist - if we are to believe the sizing in cycle shops.

So what is a curvy girl to do? If it isn't Lycra, then what trousers do you wear to be both comfortable and to have that extra fabric that skims the bits you'd rather not spray with Lycra?

Here's the trick: get yourself a pair of tracksuit bottoms that you like (not baggy ones, but ones that are a bit generous). Then get yourself a pair or two of these trouser liners. They are the padded shorts that cycle clothing manufacturers put under their non-Lycra shorts and trousers. You can also use the men's XL - XXL ones if you are over a size 16-18.

Our solution: Tracksuit bottoms + padded trouser liners = trousers to both flatter your figure and cushion your tail.

Don't be downhearted! Get on your bikes and ride, sisters :)

Friday, 22 May 2009

Fashionable Cycle Clothing

"What if I think that Neon looks terrible"

Okay, so you've had a few days to think about Neon since I posted the Neon Army post below. Still not keen? You obviously have your reasons. There are no doubt some practical reasons to needing to be able to cycle in "normal" clothes:
  • You're on your way to a meeting and you want a greener (and cheaper) way to zoot around the city without having to change every time you arrive and leave a building. Neon is not very corporate, let's face it. (I arrived for a conference only to be asked for my "badge". Turns out, they thought I was the bicycle courier!)
  • You're off to meet a date and you want to look decent when you arrive - not neon, Lycra and sweat with a bad case of Helmet Hair (complete with Klingon forehead markings)
  • You like to be fashionable and you think that it's really nerdy to be a neon-and-Lycra clone.
Okay, okay I hear you. Some advice to that point? Topshop has created a range of cycle clothes that you can wear on your bicycle. You can feel very catwalk on your lovely bike as you coast leisurely down the streets of what is essentially a very cool city - London. Click here to see the lovely Aggy Dean working it - she's so fashionable and so Camden. No doubt she's not going to break the sound barrier but she looks very good.

If you're looking for some basics in rather neutral colours that you can mix and match with your more regular wardrobe, the cheesily-named "bspoke" clothing range offers trousers that look like jeans that have Velcro ankle grips and their Woman's Angle Jacket looks more Burberry than Izumi. I'm really not keen on the beige women's tops and this range (or the men's terrible anorak) so they have work to do. bspoke could definitely do with becoming a bit more fashionable but they provide some basic neutrals that straddle the gap between "normal" clothes and "cycle" clothes.

One final drool factor for the fashion-conscious cyclist: The Fendi Bicycle. Weep my fashionistas, weep!

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Cycle clothing and the Neon Army

"What should I wear?" Short answer? Anything. My advice? Neon.

I am not a Health & Safety advocate because I think that H&S is utterly paranoid and most of the slips, spills, ragged carpets and overstuffed boxes they point out as hazardous won't hurt a fly unless picked up and thrown by an angry office worker. That said, I have personally experienced what works well on London's roads: if they can see you, they are less likely to hit you.

London is not a cycle-friendly city. Many people cycle but the infrastructure is wholly inadequate, yet the Cycle Campaigns go on. It seems once they get the critical mass, then they will provide the infrastructure. And not one moment before.

Don't get me wrong, I am a strong advocate of cycling to work and cycling in London but we don't have the luxury of cycling in a safe environment with unique cycle paths like our cousins in Amsterdam, Copenhagen or those cycling down the Danube. They can all wear what they like but we have to be visible.

I tested that theory. I wore a light-blue anorak before I bought my neon jacket and I have far fewer near misses than I used to when wearing blue. Imagine what it's like when people wear black on a bike? I did that once in Dublin and some guy - on a bike - ran into me!

So what do cyclists wear in London?

Commuters? It's the Neon Army on bicycles out there. Long-sleeved neon jackets, neon waistcoats in yellow or orange (or both), strips of neon on ankles and wrists, strips of neon on otherwise darkly-coloured helmets, blinking helmet lights, lights flickering on backpacks etc.

I used to think that it was so uncool - that's until I got knocked off my bike by a white van. Now I consider it the Right Thing to Wear for the job. Since I went Neon, I've not had a problem. It's as if motorists look out for us lumo loonies, so why buck the trend?

Other leisure cyclists wear normal clothes - jeans, high heels, stockings, flapping trench coats. Some have helmets, some don't. Some are really eccentric and inventive but people who do the daily grind of commuting, we just do neon and Lycra or tracksuit bottoms with ankle clips and trainers. It seems to be our uniform and there's method in the madness.

Monday, 18 May 2009

The Golden Route

Passion born out of necessity

After commuting on the tube (District and Central lines) from June 2007 to March 2008, I decided that I would cycle to work from Hammersmith to St Pauls, City of London. I had commuted to work and back in Dublin for a few months in the preceding years but decided that since I had "junk in the trunk", I could burn off a few inches, get my fitness up and avoid the unfriendly, hot, crammed, claustrophobic tube by cycling to work.

My work offered me a Ride to Work scheme, allowing me to buy a super bicycle and all the kit at a local dealer and pay it back with a considerable tax savings over a year. What a bargain!

Once I had the bicycle, I needed to find a route that wouldn't scare the Bejaysus out of me. I wanted lots of greenery and parks, safe cycle paths and some lovely views. I tried several routes that included Oxford St (NEVER do this - it's so slow!) and I eventually found everything I wanted in what we call The Golden Route - from West London to the City. (You can get maps for cycling in London here).

Now that I had a route, I needed a cycle partner so we got my husband tooled up for the job and he cycles with me most mornings. It's an amazing way to start the day.

This is our Golden Route:

1) Brook Green then High Street Kensington
- From the quiet of Brook Green, find your way onto Hammersmith Boulevard and up onto High Street Kensington. It's a bit of a jiggle, a squeeze and a maze through the traffic - the worst part of the journey.

2) Kensington Park
- What more can I say? It is beautiful and on mornings below 0 degrees C, the frost is thick and unbroken by footprints on the grass

3) Hyde Park
- A long cycle highway runs through the bottom of this park. Stay to the left to let those in a hurry pass you by as you enjoy the morning air and the view of fairs/events taking place in the park.

4) Wellington Arch
- Always magnificent - day or night.

5) Constitution Hill
- A cycle path runs alongside the road, enabling you to get up quite a speed on the way past Green Park.

6) Buckingham Palace
- At the bottom of Constitution Hill, Buckingham palace looms up to your right. It is so large and so stately...

7) The Mall
- A cycle path runs alongside the road, enabling you to cycle under Plein trees on your way to Trafalgar Square

8) Trafalgar Square
- A bit hairy for the uninitiated but have faith! The traffic light system works really well so get into lane, signal your intentions very early on and go slowly.

9) Northumberland Road
- A quick zip down to the Thames. Watch out for suicidal pedestrians coming out of the train station to your left - use your bell liberally!

10) Victoria Embankment
- This is a very busy but wide road that snakes along the Thames and offers views of the London Eye, Westminster, The Gherkin, The Tate Modern etc. It is a treat to have this as part of my daily commute!

11) Queen Victoria St
- This is a fairly quiet road with an awesome breakfast take-away place on your left. You can smell the peppery sausages cooking on your way past - mmmmmmm.....

12) Godliman St
- Permanently blocked off by builders who are building a new hotel. God knows why I don't get another route in as this entails me getting off my bike and swearing - every morning.

13) Cannon, New Change, Cheapside, Edward and Angel Streets
- This is a quick whizz (it doesn't sound like it, I know!) circumnavigating St Paul's Cathedral and tube station to St Martin's Le Grand St - I work nearby.

I really recommend the route and cycling to work. Give it a try!

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Reflections on Two Wheels

In addition to my Twitter addiction, I'm going to blog about cycling in London: reflections on two wheels.

Watch this space!