Monday, November 18, 2013

A New Context

Misty Mountain
The transportation choices we make tend to be context specific. This goes for the "big" choices such as bike versus car versus train versus bus versus spaceship versus horse and carriage. It also goes for specifics such as what kind of car or what kind of bike we choose, as well as the ways in which we use them. 

It should come as no surprise that my own preferences and viewpoints have been largely shaped by cycling in and around Boston for the past four and a half years. At the beginning there were stretches of Vienna mixed in as well, and later Ireland. I've cycled in NYC a bit, as well as in various smaller East Coast towns. I've cycled some through the New England countryside. But mostly my experience as both cyclist and bicycle lover (and these are separate things) is undeniably Boston-specific. And as far as Lovely Bicycle - Had I been living elsewhere I doubt that I would have started the blog, or developed it in the way I have. 

As I explained a few posts ago, I am now living in Northern Ireland - in a rural area on the North Coast. I have no idea how long I am here for, but for the time being this is home. And of course being here has changed - and will continue to change - the context and content of my writing here. 

At various points over the years, I've mentioned that I see myself eventually living in the countryside, and wondered how feasible cycling for transportation would be in a rural environment. Well, it looks like I am in the process of finding out. And the one thing I'm sure of so far, is that context matters here a great deal as well. Not all rural areas are alike. Specifics of topography, road layout, proximity to various amenities, weather-related nuances, even cultural factors, can make all the difference in how feasible commuting by bike is. 

When I first visited Northern Ireland last year, I stayed in a tiny coastal town in County Antrim called Ballycastle. It was a beautiful area to visit, but as a cyclist I would not want to live there. Ballycastle itself has all the basic amenities one would need, but it is best navigated on foot, not by bike. And once you get out of town, the nearest signs of life in any direction are both far and uphill, as Ballycastle is situated in a valley. This makes going anywhere by bike a major project. When I stayed there I was highly motivated by sightseeing and photography, so I did cycle a lot. But for everyday living, I would find cycling for transportation there daunting.

By contrast, the Roe Valley area in Country Derry, where I stayed earlier this summer, is cycling paradise. Not only are there fantastic roadcycling routes in all directions, but getting around for transportation - either to neighbouring rural destinations or to the nearest town Limavady - is very manageable on a bike. Limavady is only 30 miles west of Ballycastle and in photos the scenery appears similar - all glens, sheep, mountains and sea views. But the layouts and the general "vibes" of these areas are very different - and this isn't something you can know unless you've stayed in both places. 

Even areas situated close together can feel like different worlds to a cyclist. Bouncing around between informal living arrangements with friends, most recently I had moved from the village of Aghanloo (pronounced "Anna-Lou") in the Roe Valley to the village of Castlerock just beyond it. I thought I knew what to expect from life in Castlerock, as it was only 6 miles away. But the specifics of the way this place is situated make it feel somehow extra-bleak and uncozy, to the point that it really bothers me. So despite Castlerock's stunning scenery and the availability of a fantastic cycling highway that serves as a direct route to a major town, I would not choose to settle down here - preferring the area where I stayed earlier.

As I'm about to finally move to a place of my own, in a location just right for me, I feel that I have a good grasp of what I need from a rural environment to combine my love of the countryside with my love of cycling for transportation. After some consideration, I will not be getting a car. And while I can't make any sweeping statements about the direction of this blog, I suspect my feelings on the loveliness of bicycles and the romance of cycling will endure.

41 comments:

  1. we'll miss you in Boston, but it sounds like you've set up a great new adventure for yourself!

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  2. Context is so important in the choice of a bike. When I ordered my custom-made "Urban Bike," Ikuo Tsuchiya, the owner of Cycles Grand Bois, called it the "model Jan" and joked that nobody in Japan would ride a bike like that. But here in Seattle with its many hills and long distances, a classic city bike would not serve me well, and even a porteur would be limited. So my urban bike has drop handlebars and a porteur rack. That way, I can cover significant distances quickly and comfortably and still carry a lot.

    If I lived in Paris, my bike would look quite different. Paris is relatively flat and not that huge, so a classic porteur, perhaps as a single-speed to cut down on maintenance, would be a good choice there.

    And if I lived in Copenhagen, where cycling congestion makes it impossible to go fast by bike, maybe I'd even ride an upright city bike...

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  3. It will be interesting to follow how your bicycle lifestyle evolves.

    Spoken only from the perspective of a tourist, it seems there are many areas in rural West Europe, England and Ireland where a person could live bike only. Once you figure out the apparently random opening hours access to decent food, drink and other amenities is usually not too far afield.


    With the exception of a few scattered artist communities (most of which are on the East and West Coasts - but there are a gems such as one finds in Southwestern Wisconsin) one can ride 100 miles in the rural U.S. only to find the sole source of provisions is the county Walmart.

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  4. I read your blog occasionally and I am always glad I did. It's a sweet corner of the internet. Thank you.

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  5. Good to see that you are discovering Ireland, even a small corner. From what I see of the countryside outside Dublin anyway, it looks very very daunting to cycle these days as people drive far too fast. I can't imagine doing the touring that I used to do years ago.

    It does seem possible to live without a car in Dublin. I barely use it once a week. Even doing the shopping mostly by bike over last few months. Living within the canals or just outside as I do, makes choosing the bike for journies under 5 k just so convenient. In cities like Cork and Limerick,cyclists are far rarer as is the infrastructure too. These small cities also have more limited public transport, so a car is more of a necessity.

    As happens the only place that I was in the US was Boston twice and I could see why people might cycle there. It had a European feel to it in its layout. Much more of a continental climate than Ireland though.

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    1. I stayed in Dun Laoghaire last year, and could not get comfortable cycling either within it or to Dublin. However I do know cyclists manage to ride there, so it could be there are routes locals know about that I didn't. I have not been anywhere else in ROI other than Donegal.

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    2. I should add that cycling in Dublin itself (I took my bike on the train) was pleasant enough, but I never ventured outside the city center.

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    3. Yes, cities can be daunting if unfamiliar. I tend to plan journey if going accross town to somewhere I don't know too well or only as a pedestrian/driver. Apps and sites such as BBBike make this much easier even if you have lived somewhere most of your life. Discovering the world of quite backstreets never ceases to amaze me, especially somewhere like Dublin that has a wide variety of architecture, some remaining due to neglect.

      BTW I discovered your inspiring/helpful blog a couple of months ago while trying to get my bicycles back on the road to counteract an impending bus strike. One being a neglected Brompton L5. Over the last I have had so much fun with the sheer convenience of that little bike.

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  6. Yes, context. It's such a powerful element. My adult cycling life was re-awakened while living in Boston. The environment reinforced the choice to ride on multiple levels.

    Then we moved to rural Vermont and faced a similar change of context as you describe. Although in some respects Vermont is a cyclist's paradise, it can be a challenging environment to maintain one's sense of commitment. The topography is challenging, the winter season is cold, long and snowy, and there are very few fellow cyclists on the road. I take all of this in stride and continue to enjoy riding as much as ever, but the context is not one that would suggest to a new or uncertain rider to get out and go.

    Most of the committed riders I know in our area had experience riding in other parts of the country that they brought with them when they moved here. In a sense they brought the internalized experience of another cycling environment with them, as did I.

    I'll be fascinated to see how things play out for you. I think it may be impossible to "unknow" the beauty of riding a bike, even in the face of changed circumstances.

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    1. I am curious, where in Vermont? I would find an area like Burke extremely challenging if not forbidding for everyday cycling, even in good weather. On the other hand, I hear that Burlington is quite feasible for year-round commuting - assuming a "fat bike" in the winter of course.

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    2. We live in Waitsfield, in the heart of the Green Mountains, where it is reasonably easy to travel north-south along the river valleys, while going east-west often requires crossing one of the mountain gaps.

      You are right, Burlington is a pretty feasible area to ride in, but pretty distinct from the rest of the state in both climate and terrain. Burke, yup, I guess those hills are why it's such a mecca for the mountain biking crowd. Geologically, the Northeast Kingdom, where Burke is, is part of the White Mountains and has a different feel from the Green Mountains.

      I suppose the flip side of the context discussion is that my time in Vermont has given me a deep sense of appreciation for the terrain, beauty, and undeveloped nature of where I ride now in comparison to other parts of the country.

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  7. It will be interesting to hear of your continuing adaptation to Ireland, particularly how your choice of bicycles changes with the setting. Please provide many photos.

    As to context: type of riding indeed influences bike choice. I ride in rolling terrain in windy weather for short distances, and I like to mash. Fixed gear or small range, close ratio drivetrains are a natural choice.

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  8. Yes, I've always adapted the motto to do what the locals do which has widened my eyes and mellowed my views about biking. Whatever works.

    And yes, this blog now makes little sense in it's current state though documenting one's life and adventures with a bike always make for a good read.

    As one in a transitional stage myself I wonder whether I should leave the city for the countryside but also wonder what would I do with myself if I couldn't walk to the coffee shop or museum or restaurant with friends....Others have done it an blogged about it replacing old passions with new ones...Interesting.

    I hope you'll soon share what, exactly, your new adventures are...You've posted photos of an empty house, is that you're new home?

    best to you.

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  9. After your recent post on driving, I was certain you would buy a car. I will be following along with interest to see how you get on through the winter.

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    1. I am warned that winters here are "bleak" and "difficult to get through," but not sure how to interpret that. I know the winds are bad. But with some exceptions, it hardly snows. And they salt the heck out of the main roads, so there should not be too many issues with ice. I think the warnings I'm getting are mostly about the psychological aspects of being here in the winter, which I can understand. But then I've spent winters in rural New Hampshire and Maine, so I don't think much here will surprise me.

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    2. "Bleak" and "difficult to get through" may have a lot to do with the short days of winter with very little sunshine sometimes. But it could also be the type of cold we get. It's a damp cold rather than a dry cold. It can be quite energy sapping at times. Outside the Dublin and some the east coast, which have a climate not unlike Copenhagen/Amsterdam and gets a lot less rain than much of the rest of the island. I know when I step out the car in rural Limerick, it always feels much colder than Dublin. In winter we usually pack thermals, fleece blankets and hot water bottles to be on the safe side.

      If get any dry day during the winters, get out on your bike. It will make up for the unusable days in between. December can have some great sunshine in the middle of the day.

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    3. It sounds like the pacific northwest, The British Isles has a very similar climate. Here the road crews salt the roads like crazy even though there is rarely ice. It eats away at bike parts. At this point I'd almost rather have winter with snow with sunshine than endless grey and rain for months and months.

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  10. Your blog has always been about your experience in context with application to other geographical areas without context. A vast majority of the comments in the early years too.

    I occasionally wonder how many of those are still riding, if they enjoy it, is their perspective different. Context changes even from day to day, after all.

    Lovely bikes? It's all be codified here, with some permutations.

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  11. Bicycling for transportation has it's limitations and it's usually about context, isn't it? Appreciating bikes requires little and can happen in all contexts. Earlier parts on this blog seemed more about your giddiness than anything else. Losing something and re-finding it in another form/context is the great challenge and has it's ups and downs. It's a new experience but also a shared experience.

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  12. Boston to rural Ireland must be a huge change, but there is always something to write about when riding bikes. There may not be the lively artisanal bike market where you live now, but there will be other things. I started my blog because I could see my city in a state of transition and bikes could become a big part of the emerging city. I don't think they will be as huge a part as I'd like them to be, but they will play some part and that will make the city a better place to live.

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  13. I've been reading your blog for a year or so and I've come to the conclusion that it has become too abstract for me to continue to follow. I have enjoyed the interesting bicycles that you have featured and I do hope that you continue to enjoy a large readership.

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  14. Moving to a rural area as a cyclist can be very good, or very bad depending where you go. People should consider this, and find areas that are more cycling friendly. Just because you see saturday roadies out in their gear, does not necessarily mean it is a good place for transportation/daily cycling. I long wanted to live in the country and had many a fantasy about cute rural lanes and horses in fields, silence, no cars, doable distances to villages and towns and a great diversity of routes.
    Blogs and cycling forums can help with that, but I moved to an area in 2003 without consider cycling at all. I always biked, how hard could it be? Well.... I had gotten a car as I moved to a very remote area with scary hills, so I hardly biked at all. I later realized that I could have done it, just needed to work on the hills and distance. I later moved closer to villages and towns so got back on the bike, ditched the car. Due to the lack of safe quiet roads and transit services outside the main area, we have to stick to living in a more populated area than we would like.
    My area is a ferry ride outside of Vancouver a city with amazing cycling infrastructure. The distances between services here are not far, mild weather year round(if not rainy much of the time), the hills can be steep but you just have to train and they become easy in time. The area should be ideal for cycling. Except that it is not. The mindset is very anti cycling, the few bike 'lanes' are poorly designed and used as parking. I stand out, people think it's odd and eccentric to bike around. I get yelled at, honked at, forced off the road, hit once, and stuff tossed at me. Alternatively, people come up to me and tell me how great it is that I bike, but they are too scared to. I am a mythical celebrity for many people. "Your the girl who is always biking around!" People move here from the city that swear up and down that they commuted by bike everyday for years, but are afraid to bike out here! They take up mountain biking instead. One problem is that there is only one main road, a narrow highway up the coastline. So if you want to get from A to B to C, you have to follow the highway. It is narrow, the shoulder is terrible and rude rude rude drivers. Despite the relative short distances, everyone is in a huff, driving super fast. There are residential areas and side roads which I use to get to the nearest town, but even then people speed exceedingly fast for the low speed limit and are aggressive. Cyclists use these side roads as riding routes, but you always have to get back on the highway to go further.
    I am used to it, but increased traffic and aggression makes me avoid going further up the coast, even my 'take the lane!' husband is now afraid.
    I would like to be in an area with many cyclists, where it is cool and acceptable to get around by bicycle. I so wish I had moved to the Victoria area instead. Even Tofino has plenty of cyclists.
    I've lived in some big cities, some cycling friendly others not. My years in the prairie taught me that living in the countryside there would require being able to out ride big scary dogs all the time, so that might not work.
    What to aim for are nice safe routes to the nearest services, job, socializing. What are the shoulders like? Are there many ways to get around, a network of roads? Is there a transit service that has bike racks for bad weather? Diversity is your friend, you want to have alternative routes and places to ride if you are into long distance cycling. Are the locals likely to try run you off the road or be friendly? Do they appear to know the rules of the road and understand bicycles are considered vehicles under the law and treat you with respect? Or do they revve their engines and narrowly miss hitting you? I loathe those big massive V8 engine trucks.
    How many bikes do you see around in the nearest town? Ultimately it is about your personal threshold.

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  15. I forgot to say, that I often thought of having a cycling blog as I've been at it for years, but living where I do. I fear it might be boring, or whiney or a daily survival report. My love for all things bicycle has been hindered by lack of finances, so it would be a cheap themed riding in poverty type blog instead of what I'd like: here is my splendid lugged rando machine, I love it so, I rode up the 3 kings of the north shore, tada! and here is my other dream bike, so pretty and fast. etc.. No, it would be, how to fix a flat with duct tape, or making do with that free bicycle you found, or how not to waste money on cheap rims. Or, I walked for an hour with my bike because I had a flat and left my kit at home. I am a princess at heart, so I'd rather not remind myself of these things. :) As cyclists we all know how wonderful cycling can be, how I love when on a quiet stretch of road I am in absolute heaven. Even with the bad drivers and daily rants, I am still happier on my bike than resigning to the all mighty car.
    Another thing to look for in an potential home are the local bike shops. Do they have a mix of mountain biking, commuting and road bikes and knowledgable about all forms of cycling? Or are they all a bunch of ahem- young aggressive downhill boys? The 2 bike shops in my area cater to downhill and some cross country. They might have a few road bikes, but no staff road riders, one or two commuting bikes, and a smatter of kids bikes. Their attitude is horrible, the distain towards commuter cyclists and the mish mash of bikes we ride is very clear. One guy says that he will not work on "old sh...." Thanks! So, we order bike stuff online before setting foot in such shops and luckily my husband is a bike mechanic or days of yore.

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  16. I guess I haven't been paying attention. I hadn't realised you moved to Northern Ireland. I suppose in some obscure way there may be similarities to Boston, considering what happens there on St. Patrick's Day. (In Boston that is, where it's much more widely celebrated than in Ireland)
    I found riding in Vienna to be more of a challenge than I'd care to admit. I started out all gung-ho, but soon got wary of the traffic on Mariahilfer. My wife and I both missed the Netherlands when it came to riding our bikes. She *tried* in Vienna, but was too timid. Our "bike infrastructure" here in Burlington (Ontario, Canada) is a bit of a joke I'm afraid.

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    1. I don't think I've ever been outside on St Patrick's Day in Boston, or maybe I just always happen to be out of town on that day - because I honestly have no idea what it's like.

      Have to say I loved cycling in Vienna. I avoided Mariahilfer Str. itself on a bike, but that neighbourhood in general felt very doable.

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  17. The bicycle occupies quite an important place in the Irish consciousness. For many years, it was the only means of transport available to the majority of the population. People would cycle miles to dances and other social events, and Raleigh had a large factory in Dublin for a long time, where they manufactured bicycles (mainly black) for the clergy and the Garda Siochana. The author Flann O'Brien (aka Brian O'Nolan, aka Myles na gCopaleen) wrote a novel called The Third Policeman, in which he suggested that a bicycle and a person could exchange atoms, so that one could come to resemble the other. O'Nolan was born in the North of Ireland, but spent the most creative part of his life in Dublin, where he wrote part time while working as a civil servant. It's odd that, now, we remember him as a literary genius, while his work for the Civil Service is completely forgotten. As an Irishman, I've never set foot in the North, and probably never will, although I know people who assert that it's a wonderful place. Give me dear old dirty Dublin any time. A desperate place to ride a bicycle, but at least we have the DART and the Luas. Good luck up there in Terra Incognita.

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    1. The bicycle has a similar history here, but only the older generations (50s+) seem aware of it. I still haven't read The Third Policeman, looks like the matter is becoming urgent.

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    2. Funny reading this. A realive who grew up in rural Cork, used to speak of cycling to dances at night. There used to lots of bikes outside unlocked. They used to have cardide lamps w high I think had to be lit somehow. She also spoke of travelling into Cork city for shopping. When going to the dances she must have been a teenager. Imagine that now, out all hours but there was no alcohol involved.

      Sound nostalgic but it shows the place the bike used to have. The Third Policeman on my reading list too. These tales of bicycle culture are important to understand the crucial place the bike held as transport. They may also help in selling that idea today.

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    3. The site royalirishconstabulary.com has some old Raleigh Ireland advertisements from the police magazine Garda Review, viewable by clicking the link "Garda Siochana" on the left of the home page. It used to be possible to click these advertisements and view each of them full screen, but sadly this no longer works, at least for me. The advertisements show a Garda (an Irish policeman, post-independence) with his official bicycle, provided as his usual means of going about his rural beat. One of these is a conventional frame, but two of the pictures clearly show a cross-frame, of the type known as pastoorsfiets in Holland, where you can still buy them. Official Garda bicycles were, of course, black, and all the parts normally chromium-plated on civilian machines were enamelled black instead. Presumably to counter suspicions of frivolity or luxury in the austere country that Ireland was in those days. A school pal of mine many years ago got his hands on a new police bicycle, and it was superbly made, if not exactly fancy. I'd just been bought a new Moulton Deluxe, but I envied his police bike. I bet it's still going somewhere.

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    4. I met someone who lives in Dublin and rides a bike. He said that in Ireland, the drinking/driving laws have gotten so strict that you can even get ticketed for cycling under the influence. I am not sure what the limit is, but it seems a bit extreme unless they had troubles with drunken cyclists?
      I am not a drinker, but on rare occasions if I go out and have a drink or two, I am always happy to be able to bike home. The legal limit for driving where I live is very low so people either have to not drink at all if they go out for dinner or take the bus or taxi for fear of having their car seized for 90 days. Reading about biking to dances and parties in the past makes me imagine a group of slightly tipsy people happily pedalling in the night.

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    5. In Ireland of old, these dances involved no alcohol. The local priest was often involved in their organisation as well, so soft drinks were the order of the day. Back then temperance was also widely promoted by the catholic church as well. Many might find that hard to believe nowadays, especially it being Ireland we are talking about.

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    6. Tipsy? Trust me on this, attending a dance in Ireland in the forties and fifties, the only way you were going to get tipsy was by smuggling in some of the rare old mountain dew in a medicine bottle. The beverage of choice was a "mineral," such as lemonade. The proceedings were invariably overseen by the parish priest, who knew everybody, and their parents. Young men lined up on one side of the hall, and girls on the other. Decorum was strictly observed. The idea of sin and the fear of purgatory were very real. It's almost impossible to convey this to someone brought up in a different time and place. Thankfully, Ireland has moved on, but I fear we've exchanged one god for a lot of other, false, ones.

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  18. good luck with discovering what's right for you - context is one thing, experience another - I'm sure this kind of free association will help, I'm relocating to France in a few years and have explored it this way - go to places, preferably with people one can be open with and experience it - there's no other way - my only absolute criteria (and objection to Ireland, or the UK) is that I - positively - cant stand the cold and wet anymore.

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  19. Hey Velouria,

    I've got an idea now that you are back in Northern Ireland. It would be really great if you and some of your Northern Ireland readers could meet up for a cycle round Castlerock or some other coastal location. It could be fun! I'm up for it.

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    1. I'm not really into formal organised rides, but if you are local drop me a line over email - filigreevelo at yahoo.

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  20. It looks like you are riding through a series of Frank Patterson drawings. Why not get the Frank Patterson bike? Here it's a bit of an affectation, there it's just an old simple black bike. I'm thinking road/path, pencil stays, long slim round forks, 42" of comfortable wheelbase. Throw in a wheel with a Sturmey FW or FM if it's a hilly ride. Parts, service, accessories should all be at hand. Put modern guts in a Lucas King of the Road shell. Nothing else modern needed.

    A bike that's fast but potters about well. Something at home with those three policemen.

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  21. Would a conducted tour of Belfast's ghost bikes be appreciated?

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    1. Are you offering, or asking me to conduct it?

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  22. In the time I've been cycling, I've changed contexts three times - from the San Francisco Bay Area, to Dallas, TX, to Austin - they've ALL been different in terms of topography, a couple climate changes, and I've used a different bike as my primary ride in each place. I love my Surly and it suits me wonderfully everywhere I've thrown it so for the moment that's my main squeeze. Best wishes with your new home!

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