Friday, April 30, 2010

Natural Habitat

English Roadsters were designed for long country rides, and there is nothing quite like experiencing them in this setting. My Raleigh DL-1 in particular seems to thrive on long distances and can pick up speed to an amazing degree if you just give it an open road.

The Co-Habitant is a strong cyclist and he likes to go fast. When we are on equivalent bicycles (for example, both on our Pashleys or both on our Motobecane roadbikes), I have a hard time keeping up with him unless he intentionally controls his speed for my sake. However, when he is on his Pashley and I am on my vintage Raleigh, I can keep up with him perfectly. The Raleigh DL-1 is a powerful and well-designed machine despite its sweet "old timer" appearance.

And the vintage Sturmey Archer AW 3-speed hub is downright magical. First gear is excellent for uphill cycling in mildly hilly areas. Second is my versatile go-to gear for flat terrain when I want to go at a conservative speed. And third gear allows me to pedal downhill, as well to increase speed after maxing out second gear on flat terrain. I have honestly never felt the need for more gears on this bicycle, and don't understand why none of the modern 3, 5, 7, or 8-speed hubs I have tried have the same great feeling.

If my devious plan to install a coaster brake on this bicycle works out, it will be so perfect that I am almost afraid to think about it lest I jinx it. For now, we dream as we watch the sunset.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

David Byrne and 'Urban Revolutions' at MIT

Last night I was at the Urban Revolutions panel at MIT with velo-friend Biking in Heels. This was not something I planned to attend, but she had an extra ticket and I was free - so I came along. The event featured talks by musician David Byrne, director of Boston Bikes Nicole Freedman, director of the LivableStreets Alliance Jacqueline Douglas, and associate director of SENSEable City Lab (inventors of the "Copenhagen Wheel") Assaf Biderman.

In case some might not know, David Byrne was the lead singer of the Talking Heads and has since been involved in a number of artistic and musical projects. Most recently, he has become known for his cycling advocacy and for his book on the subject, Bicycle Diaries. Over the past year Byrne has been on tour giving talks throughout North America on the topic he describes as "Cities, Bicycles, and the Future of Getting Around". Cambridge, MA was his latest stop.

David Byrne came across as thoughtful, knowledgeable and funny. His talk was neither gimmicky nor too heavy on the advocacy; I would put it more into the category of Urban Planning. He summarised the history of how our un-neighborhoodly neighborhoods came to be the way they are and discussed potential solutions, with urban planning initiatives and the return of "everyday cycling" being the primary points of focus.

Jacqueline Douglas and Nicole Freedman (pictured above next to Byrne) discussed similar ideas, but applied them specifically to Boston - stressing activism and grassroot movements as catalysts of change. They noted that Boston's cycling infrastructure has basically been created from scratch over the past 2-3 years, and that the number of cyclists in the Boston area has increased dramatically over this period of time. Douglas and Freedman plan to continue this trend, with a particular emphasis on infrastructure in the form of traffic-segregated bike paths.

The large MIT lecture hall was full for the duration of the event, with the audience listening intently and enthusiastically.

Somewhat to my surprise, the Q&A panel following the individual talks did not result in much debate. Namely, I expected vehicular cyclists to comment on the segregated paths issue, but this did not happen. Perhaps there were not any in the audience? Or else the speakers so clearly allied themselves with the Amsterdam/Copenhagen model, that the vehicular cyclists decided not to bother stirring the pot.

Biking in Heels (the lady in red) got in the queue to ask a question - but alas they stopped right before it would have been her turn.

After the event was over, the most popular panelist was Assaf Biderman of the SENSEable City Lab - demonstrating the "Copenhagen Wheel" to those who wanted to try it.

The Copenhagen Wheel turns any existing bike into an electric bike and "differs from other electric bikes in that all components are elegantly packaged into one hub". The energy spent while pedaling and braking is used to power the motor, and tons of additional features (including route planning and pollution levels detection) are bundled inside the hub.

The Copenhagen Wheel is meant to be a versatile option that will allow more of the population to cycle - including those who are elderly, have trouble handling hills, or do not feel fit enough to ride a bike. While I have no interest in electric bikes myself, I think that this option makes perfect sense for those who need it.

What does not make as much sense to me, is the decision that the prototype bike housing the Copenhagen Wheel should be a sleek, fixie-looking, diamond frame bike with aggressive geometry, narrow tires and "bullhorn" handlebars. It just doesn't seem to fit the population for whom the Copenhagen Wheel was designed. My suggestion to the SENSEable City Lab, is to put the wheel into a bike that is more accessible to the general public.

Also popular after the event was this nice woman from the LivableStreets Alliance, asking people to fill out requests for improvements they would like to see done to the Charles River bridges. Given that I almost get run over by cars 75% of the time I try to cross an intersection at the end of one of these bridges, I gladly filled out a form with my requests.

All in all, Urban Revolutions was an interesting event to attend. If I seem detached in my descriptions, it is because to a large extent I felt that the panel was "preaching to the choir". I suspect that most of the audience had heard and internalised all that was brought up by the speakers long before coming to this event. Furthermore, for all the talk of "equity" and "equal access" that went on, the audience was almost entirely White, and dressed in a way that suggested a very narrow demographic. What exactly, then, was this event meant to achieve? Perhaps a sense of community among existing cyclists and supporters of "livable streets" ideas. At that it was a success. Despite my aversion to "activism", I am genuinely glad that cycling is becoming more commonplace and safer in Boston. And I am thankful to all who play a role in making this happen.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Velo Purgatory

People who have lots of unfinished bike projects lying around must be used to this - but to me there is something sad and anxiety-provoking about having a bike at home that's missing parts, or a frame that has not had a chance to become a bicycle yet. It's as if the non-functional bicycles are in a state of velo-purgatory - crying out to be completed and ridden.

My beautiful Royal H. mixte frame came home today, and it looks like I will be building it up much later than I thought - possibly in the end of the summer, or whenever I manage to save the money. And my attempt to tackle the Sam Hillborne frame on my own over the winter did not end well. In the end I brought the frame back to Harris with the metaphorical tail between my legs, and it is only now being built up - in the very midst of the spring customer rush. Naturally, having a bicycle built at a shop is more expensive than doing it oneself, and so my plans for the Royal H. mixte are on hold until some serious financial recovery time after the Hillborne. In the meantime, I better wrap it in bubble-wrap and put it away. I don't think it's healthy to sit on the bed next to a bicycle frame and stare at it for this long.

My Mercier mixte is now also a "purgatory bike", albeit very temporarily. The large chainring is off getting "de-toothed" by a fine gentleman who is a reader of this blog, as part of my scheme to convert this bicycle to a 5-speed. The chainring will be back soon, and till then I respond to the Mercier's questioning glances by gently stroking its handlebars and assuring it that it is not being disassembled for parts but is being improved.

Ah the joys of obsessiveness, anthropomorphic tendencies and an overly vivid imagination!

Monday, April 26, 2010

No-Bike Town

Owing to a stroke of luck, we now have a new, wonderful photography studio. It belongs to an acquaintance whose partner has just retired - and so we took over the partner's share. The place is fully equipped with a darkroom and a portrait studio, and is located in a coastal town outside Boston - convenient as we often do photoshoots in that area.

The only problem? Well, something about this town just seemed off as soon as we got there.

It was as if the shadows in the town center were extra shadowy.

And the sun-lit rooftops exuded a sinister gleam.

Even the quiet side streets were eerie. What could it be?... Oh yes. There was hardly a bicycle to be seen! Honestly, I cannot remember the last time I saw a town with so few bicycles. Over the past weeks we have been moving our things into the studio and renovating the darkroom, and I've spotted a total of maybe half a dozen bikes in the streets during that entire time period -mostly being ridden on the sidewalks.

The studio is 14 miles from our house, but around the corner from a T-station - so the idea is to commute there by T and keep a bicycle on site as a Studio Bike. Initially I was hoping that I could perhaps cycle to the studio, and distance-wise I could do it. But the route seems to be beyond my current level of skill and bravery, involving busy roads with high speed limits and no shoulders. And given the No-Bike Town situation, I am beginning to question whether I will even be able to cycle near the studio itself, if only just for a coffee.

This singular bicycle stood out in No-Bike Town like a lone cowboy. It is an interesting Burley tandem, and I wonder how its owners feel about cycling in this area. More importantly, I wonder how the drivers in this area feel about cyclists - would they even know what to do if they saw me riding down the street? I guess I will soon find out...

Friday, April 23, 2010

Oh, This Old Thing?

The Co-Habitant teases me for my tendency to love decrepit old bicycles despite having modern options. My Mercier in particular is not only old, but quite crusty - with dulled paint, visible rust, and various other signs of wear. And yet this bicycle is so comfortable and charming, that I have been on an obsessive quest to make it "perfect" in its own unique way.

Pictured here are my latest additions: fenders, front rack, bell, and stem shifters.

For fenders, I chose the inexpensive stainless steel fenders from Velo Orange. The idea (aside from saving money) was that the plain polished fenders would go nicely with all the chrome parts on this bicycle. I think it worked out well.

And this is the tiny, adorable vintage TA front rack, designed to attach to the Mafac brakes on the Mercier. These come up for sale occasionally online and from fellow collectors at reasonable prices.

The rack, while very cute, is so small that I am not sure what I will put on it. A classic touring handlebar bag does not really fit the look of this bike, but I will keep thinking. What did the French put on bicycles with these handlebars?

Finally, we replaced the original Simplex downtube shifters with Suntour stem shifters (this part was done at Harris Cyclery, while the fender and rack installation we did at home). Downtube shifters just did not seem appropriate for this bicycle and reaching all the way down there in traffic did not feel safe. The little stem shifters are perfectly placed and very easy to operate.

In addition, I have begun converting the Mercier to a 5-speed - so the left shifter (leading to the front derailleur) is no longer connected to anything. The left shifter and front derailleur will come off once I get the situation completely sorted, and a vintage French chainguard will be installed. I will explain why and how I am doing this in a separate post - but hopefully it will work out.

All of this does sound like a lot of fuss about an old bike. But in a way, it is the Mercier's decrepitude that liberates me: Had the original paint been in better condition, I would not have dared re-paint the lugs by hand to this nice green-gray from the original black. Had the components been higher-end, I would not have been willing to experiment with a 5-speed conversion. There is a lot of fun to be had with an old bicycle. The main thing, is that you like the ride quality and care enough to gradually improve the rest.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Zimbale vs Carradice

I bought a Zimbale 7L saddlebag a few weeks ago from Harris Cyclery, and have been receiving questions about how it compares to my Carradice Barley.

The bags are indeed very similar, with the Korean Zimbale (left) being intentionally modeled upon the English Carradice (right), in response to the increasingly limited availability of Carradice bags. Because of the similarity of the two designs, it makes more sense to describe how the Zimbale bag differs from Carradice, rather than review it from scratch. A thorough review of the Carradice Barley is available here.

The Zimbale 7L bag is as handsome as the Carradice Barley and seems to be made with the same degree of quality. The stitching is excellent and the leather has a nice feel to it. The colours are slightly more saturated than on the Carradice: the fabric is a deeper and brighter green, and the leather is a darker and redder brown.

Structurally, the Zimbale 7L bag differs from the Carradice Barley in several ways - the first being its folded long flap. The folded flap design allows the bag to expand when over-stuffed. Carradice offers this flap on some of its larger models, but not on the 8L Barley. Another difference is the Zimbale's two "D-rings" (those black plastic clips on the sides), that allow the attachment of a strap, so that the bag can be removed from the bike and worn over the shoulder.

Finally, unlike Carradice, Zimbale has a closure system where the metal buckles are supplemented by an eyelet-and-rivet system (is there an official name for this?) that makes opening and closing the bag faster and easier.

I must admit that the eyelet system is easier to use than the buckles. My only concern is that the leather in that area might fray over time - will see how it holds up in the long run.

The inside of the bag is identical to Carradice, with the exception of the plaid lining of the top flap. The 7L Zimbale is just a tad smaller than the 8L Barley and this is more apparent when loading the bag than when looking at it. The next size up Zimbale offers is 11L, and that is the size I would get for proper touring. For shorter trips though, the 7L is sufficient.

One nice option offered by Zimbale in both the 7L and the 11L size is the camera insert. I often carry one or more of my film cameras on the bicycle, and this usually involves complex swaddling of the cameras in hats and sweaters. I have now ordered the camera insert and am looking forward to trying it. Hopefully, it might also be compatible with our Carradice bags. [edited to add: I have now been told that the camera insert is not available in North America. Very sad, I was looking forward to it!]

One final thing to note about the Zimbale, is that the loop we like to use for tail light attachment is positioned higher than on the Carradice, reducing its suitability for this function. When the longflap is folded under, the tail light placement is okay. But when the flap needs to be expanded, the light points up and can no longer be mounted in that position. This has reminded me that we really need lights that mount on fenders - saddlebags just aren't ideal mounting points.

Overall, I like the Zimbale 7L bag as much as the Carradice Barley. I am at once uneasy about Zimbale's copying Carradice and grateful that more of such bags are being offered. Origin8 is also copying the Carradice design (in black only) with its "Classic Sport Saddle Bag" - so clearly there is a great deal of demand for such bags. For additional reviews of the Zimbale bags, see EcoVelo and Suburban Bike Mama.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Boys and Bicycles

A week or so ago, the Co-Habitant and I met up with Somervillain as part of the Boston Retro Wheelmen project. It has taken me a long time to upload these pictures, because I would start laughing when trying to process them. Behold what happens when you get two obsessive men and their bicycles together...

Somervillain brought his meticulously restored 1984 Shogun 2000, which he built up as a classic randonneur. The Co-Habitant brought his 1976 Motobecane Super Mirage (a lower-end model than the Shogun - but still nicely done up) to compare.

And compare they did.

This went far beyond test riding each other's bikes, and gradually turned into what seemed like a millimeter by millimeter comparison of various measurements.

There was a question of whose top tube was longer and no effort was spared to investigate the matter. I wish I were joking.

My Mercier stood back and stared in amazement. Having no top tube, she could not understand what all the fuss was about.

Having resolved this issue to their satisfaction, a discussion of component choices ensued.

I think the conclusion is clear: Both bicycles are gorgeous, because I helped choose the accessories when they were being built up. Obviously! I will post more about Somervillain's newly built up randonneur soon - it really is something, and I took detailed pictures.

The same morning, Somervillain helped us out by replacing a cotter on the Co-Habitant's 1972 Raleigh DL-1. Yes, that is a cotter press right there on the sidewalk.

Cotter press in action.

Cotter.

Crank.

And voila.

Boys. Bicycles. Boston.

There will be a group meet-up of the Boston Retro Wheelmen this coming Saturday, so come join us if you want to experience the fun for yourself.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Symbolic Cycling in Films

I watched two films over the past week, and it so happens that both not only featured scenes with bicycles, but used these scenes in a similar manner.

Therese and Isabelle is a black and white film c. 1968 based on the novel by Violet Leduc. It is a coming-of-age story about a doomed love affair between two girls at a French boarding school. In the first half of the film, there is a scene where the girls are cycling along an endless tree-lined alley and laughing. (Not that it matters in the context of the film, but they are riding beautiful mixtes with hammered fenders and dynamo lighting.) This is probably the happiest and most idyllic point of the film - where joy, freedom, and limitless possibilities are the dominant themes. Later it all ends badly, but the cycling scene is the antithesis of the tragic ending.

The Sheltering Sky is a 1990 Bertolucci film starring John Malkovich, based on the novel by Paul Bowles. It is about an aristocratic composer and his beautiful wife, who aimlessly travel around North Africa while trying to overcome complex marital difficulties. This film too ends badly. But before things go downhill, there is a bicycle scene - where the husband and wife are traveling through a stretch of the Sahara on his and hers Roadsters, with cream tires and rod brakes. Unlike any of the other trips they take together, this one is infused with positive emotion and hope for a future.

Though the two films could not be more different from one another, the bicycle plays the same symbolic role in both: representing hope, joy, freedom, and simplicity. At the same time, in both films the bicycle is also used as a symbol of the unsustainable. "It is not possible for things to stay this good," the cycling scenes suggest, thereby foreshadowing an eventual tragic ending. In order for these associations to work as cinematic tools - which in both films they do - there has to be a deeply ingrained cultural perception of the bicycle as a symbol of escapism and wishful thinking; the bicycle is something that is incompatible with "real life". And this to me was very interesting to notice. Something to think about, at least.