Sunday, June 30, 2013

Sharing the Road: Notes from Rural Northern Ireland

Traffic is different here. I have shared the country roads with everyone and everything - from cars to oversized trucks, to tractors, horses, cows, other cyclists, runners and pedestrians. Some go very fast, some go very slow, some go somewhere in between. Many of the roads are narrow, winding, with no shoulders - oftentimes with barely room for a full sized lane in each direction. Situations frequently arise when travelers are in each other's way. An old truck putters along below the speed limit. A herd of cows is moved from one pasture to another. A jogger runs wearing earphones. A cyclist takes the lane on a winding descent. A pony and trap race is in progress on a Sunday afternoon. At the same time, the roads are teeming with fast sports cars, long distance lorries, and sedans full of people rushing to and from work in one of the industrial parks or factories nearby. With the limited space, this mix sounds like a recipe for disaster - or at least regular incidents of road rage. But I have seen no signs of that yet. On the contrary, road users across the spectrum are eerily patient and courteous. 

I noticed it at first as a cyclist. Out on my bike every day, and sometimes at peak commuting times, I am never made to feel as if my presence on the roads is inconveniencing anyone - even though technically, sometimes it is. But if I am in the way, drivers will simply pass me, or wait until they can. They genuinely don't seem bothered. Sometimes a driver will wave as they pass - not in a hyper-friendly sort of way, but more like in casual acknowledgement of my presence. 

Riding as a passenger in a car with locals offered a glimpse of the driver's perspective. Whenever we had to slow down for another road user, that was exactly what the driver did - without altering his emotional state or breaking stride in the conversation we were all having inside the car. There was no impatience, no eye-rolling, no "Jeez, what's this guy doing stopped in the middle of the road?" on the driver's or other passengers' part. Put simply, they did not seem to process slower road users as inconveniences or obstacles. 

It would be tempting to explain this attitude as country manners or something specific to "Irishness" - except being here in the midst of it, that doesn't feel like it. The attitude is more matter of fact than friendly or polite. There seems to be a system in place that road users implicitly acknowledge being a part of. Cooperation is necessary for the system to work, and everyone understands that. 

Is this system really so different from what goes on in congested cities and chaotic suburbs? In some ways yes, but in other ways not so much. I am not sure whether planners interested in road sharing dynamics ever look at areas like this one for ideas. But I propose they should; it might yield some unexpected insights.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Speed, Lugs and Jewel Tones: a JRJ Grass Racer

JRJ Grass Track Racer
Still active today, Bob Jackson Cycles are a British builder of classic steel bicycles that is well known around the world. Less commonly known is the name JRJ Cycles that preceded it. Bob (John Robert) Jackson began building bicycle frames in Leeds, England, in 1935, offering track and road racing (time trial) models. Part of Chris Sharp's collection, this particular bike is a 1950s grass track racer that once belonged to Leslie White of the Maryland Wheelers near Belfast. The owner raced it into the late 1960s, achieving numerous victories in Northern Ireland. He then hung it up, and the bike remained untouched for over 4 decades. Today it is preserved in as-raced condition.

JRJ Grass Track Racer
The JRJ name, headbadge and transfers were used exclusively until the 1960s, and still appeared into the 1980s after the switch to "Bob Jackson."

JRJ Grass Track Racer
The transfers included renderings of olympic rings, the full name on the downtube reading "JRJ Olympic Cycles." As with other English "lightweight" manufacturers of that time, there was a strong emphasis on performance and competition, which explains the olympic imagery. "Always first at the finish!" was the JRJ Cycles' slogan on advertisements from the 1950s.

JRJ Grass Track Racer
Traditionally, English racing frames from this era tended to be painted in saturated, jewel-like tones, known as a "flamboyant" finish. Not quite the same as pearlescent paint, the flamboyant colours are foil-like, resembling the look of candy wrappers. Bob Jackson had his favourite signature shades, including the red and blue on this bike. The blue leans toward seafoam, and the red is a raspberry-like crimson. 

JRJ Grass Track Racer
White lining around the lugs and fork crown highlights the elaborate shorelines. 

JRJ Grass Track Racer
The bottom bracket lugs are especially interesting - there appears to be a reinforced lug of sorts connecting the chainstays to the bottom bracket.

JRJ Grass Track Racer
The frame is Reynolds 531 tubing.

JRJ Grass Track Racer
Though it has not been ridden in decades, the large shimmery machine is so marked by care and wear, that it feels alive with the owner's presence and energy. Seeing it leaned against the hedge on a rainy morning, I can't help but imagine the tall, powerful youth Leslie White must have been - his back stretched flat across the 58cm frame, his hands gripping the deep track drops, his legs pushing the monstrous gear in an all-out effort around a grass track.

JRJ Grass Track Racer
Grass track racing is an interesting tradition in the British Isles. In an earlier post, I mentioned how a ban on road racing from the 1890s through the 1950s led to the invention of time trials. The ban also explains the emphasis on track cycling in the UK and Ireland: Races on enclosed courses were the only kind officially permitted during this time. The grass tracks were similar to velodromes in that they were oval. However, the surface was not banked. Often the track was a multi-use field, temporarily set up for the race. Grass track racing is still done in the UK today, its popularity revived in recent years. At a grass-roots/ community level, a race like this can be organised fairly easily, wherever a flat playing field is available.

JRJ Grass Track Racer
The style of races held was similar to those on the velodrome, and the bikes were fixed gear machines with track style fork-ends.

JRJ Grass Track Racer
Typically the fork crown was drilled for a front brake: The rider would remove it upon arrival to the race. The tires were of course tubulars - "sew ups." Too deteriorated to hold air, the ones on this bike are original. 

JRJ Grass Track Racer
Also original are all the other components. Most notable among these are the English-made Chater Lea crankset and hubs, quite rare now. 

JRJ Grass Track Racer
The Chater Lea pedals are fitted with Brooks toe clips and leather straps.

JRJ Grass Track Racer
I can make out a faint Brooks stamp on the side of the saddle, but not which model it is. The saddle is long and very narrow - measuring just over 120mm across at the widest part.

JRJ Grass Track Racer
The stem and handlebars are stamped with what looks like Cinelli; I did not want to disturb the patina by cleaning up the inscription.

JRJ Grass Track Racer
When talking to Chris Sharp about the JRJ, I asked whether he plans to make it ridable. He has many vintage bikes, some of them quite old and storied, and he does not shy away from using them. But Leslie White's grass racer, he wants to preserve the way it is. Having met the bike's original owner, part of it is wanting to honor him. But part of it also is the history. In person, standing near this bike and touching it... There is just something so incredibly alive and exciting about how freshly used everything looks. I can readily imagine it all: a grassy field, a gray sky, a crowd of locals gathered to watch, and the riders - a blur of jewel tones against the overcast country landscape.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

To Know a Mountain

Thatched Cottage, Bellarena
The mountain is impossible to ignore. I see it from my window first thing in the morning and last thing before the light fades - nearly at midnight on a summer's night. I see it when I ride to and from town, and when I ride in loops around the countryside. No matter where I go and what I do, the mountain is always there, an enormous living, breathing thing, looming over the landscape.

Binevenagh from a Distance
At 1,263 feet, Binevenagh (pronounced "be-NEvna") is actually quite small. But it cuts a dashing figure on the Limavady landscape. It stands alone, outlined crisply against the ever-changing sky. Seen from the seashore, it resembles a crumpled old hat (or the snake that ate the elephant drawing from the Little Prince). From other vantage points, a jagged edge protrudes. Steep on all sides, it is topped with a large lumpy plateau, covered with forests and meadows.

Binevenagh from a Distance
Gazing at the mountain everywhere I went, all I could think of was climbing it. I hesitated at first. It felt so special I did not want to rush it. But finally one morning I woke up and knew it was time. The atmosphere was festive.

Binevenagh, Limavady
The road up Binevenagh starts directly from the house. But a friend suggested I take a detour - swinging around the coast, then turning onto another road to give myself a bit of a warmup before the climb. "Even with that frying pan of yours, you'll need it!" He was referring to the 11-36t cassette my bike was decorated with.

Mt Binevenagh
The ascent is relatively short and steep: 1,045 feet of climbing over 3.5miles. It is continuous climbing, much of it at a 10%+ grade, the road steepening, letting up, then steepening again. Right off the bat, the pitch was tough. I went at a good rhythm, but after a mile stopped to take a breather at a crossroads. Most of the mountain continued to tower ahead; I had hardly chipped away at it.

Mt Binevenagh
But when I turned around, the evidence of the mile I'd already done was in plain sight: A sharp dip, and the hills of Donegal spread out behind a shimmering sliver of water. Still narrow from this vantage point, the Lough Foyle is a saltwater inlet that separates the western part of Northern Ireland from the northwestern tip of the Republic. The border between the two nations is rather picturesque here. Climbing Binevenagh, the view becomes more breathtaking with each push of the pedals. And the sheep become more frequent.

Mt Binevenagh
How to describe this climb... The pitch was doable in my low gears. But the continuous steep grade made it tiring. I switched between my 3-4 lowest cogs and stood up occasionally (something I've finally learned to do), and tried not to get overwhelmed. I ignored my legs and focused on the scenery, aiming my eye at the top. As I kept going, the sheep were like loyal spectators. They looked at me with sympathy, understanding, encouragement. I was not miserable on the climb; it was a peaceful and oddly calming experience.

Joe Barr, Mt Binevenagh
For some time, the sheep were my only company. Until, out of nowhere, a man in blue pulled up next to me. Even as I spotted him in my peripheral vision, I knew he was a Cyclist. Slender and agile, he moved so fluidly, it looked like liquid pouring uphill. Riding next to me, he matched my pace effortlessly as we talked. He lived nearby and loved to train on this mountain. He was an endurance cyclist, and rode in the Race Across America last year. Before we parted ways at the top, he introduced himself: Joe Barr.

Joe Barr, Mt Binevenagh
I watched him disappear down the other side of the mountain, as beautifully as he climbed. Later I learned he was a retired Irish pro-racer.

Mt Binevenagh
The top of Binevenagh... The plateau covers a large area, and the highest point is somewhat uneventful. A painted bridge over a stream, a scraggly meadow with Queen Anne's Lace and buttercups, a forest in the background, and lots of sky with very distant views of water. From here on, there are several options for descending. One starts right away and is fairly steep and twisty, consistently throughout. Another is further down the plateau. It is longer and gentler most of the way, until it ends in a sudden, sharply winding vertical drop to the sea at the very end. 

Mt Binevenagh
To start with I chose the first descent. The steep, narrow, winding road pushed my comfort zone. I was in control around the bends, but had to work on myself to keep calm. I did breathing exercises to keep from shaking and destabilising the bike. Descending on the left side of the road felt intuitive; my brain had already switched over.

Mt Binevenagh
This descent was a heavily shaded one, winding its way through a forest.

Mt Binevenagh
But after every bend, a view opened up, each more beautiful than the next. If it is possible to feel both cautious and relaxed at the same time, that is how descending this road felt.

Cows Crossing
Cars passed me up the road occasionally, the drivers waving, friendly  - something I am still getting used to here. Toward the bottom, one driver was trying to communicate something urgently, which I did not understand - until I saw a row of pointy brown ears up ahead. Quickly I stopped, dismounted and clambered up the side of the road to let the herd of cows pass. 

Mt Binevenagh
The final winding stretch dumped me onto the coastal road unceremoniously. Feeling sad it was over, I repeated the loop, then crawled home, spent and drunk on mountain air.

Pink Sheep, Binevenagh
Several days later, I climbed Binevenagh again to try one of the other descents. The road along the plateau offered wide open views of both the Lough Foyle and the North Atlantic.

Pink Sheep, Binevenagh
I rode through a dreamscape of hot-pink sheep grazing upon neon green grass, as the sun came out over the hills of Donegal.

Statue, Top of Mt Binevenagh
At the far end of the plateau stood "the boat man," as the locals refer to him. He is ManannĂ¡n mac Lir, a god of the sea - a new statue the local council has erected just in the past week. Facing Magilligan Point (entrance to the Lough Foyle on the Northern Ireland side) - the mythical wood-carved figure spreads his arms over land and water of the bordering nations. 

Magilligan Point
Standing there, I remembered being at Magilligan Point, at the ground level, and looking up at the mountain from there. Some form of symmetry had been achieved. 

Descent into Castle Rock
The descent was long, tame and idyllic, rolling through farmlands. But at the end came the stretch I had been warned about: This section winds tightly, down a steep grade. I was advised to either walk or ride the brakes once I saw the crumbling rocks sign. Over the course of two loops, I tried both methods. Riding slowly with good brakes is actually a bit easier than walking the bike. 

Descent into Castle Rock
After some S-bends, another sharp bend follows before a vertical drop onto the main road across from the water.

Descent into Castle Rock
The spot is Downhill - defined by the magnificent view of the Mussenden Temple - a round structure at the edge of a cliff, which a nobleman had built for his niece... with whom he may or may not have had an affair with. The niece died before the temple was finished, infusing the story with an extra air of tragic poeticism.

Descent into Castle Rock
I looked back at the road I had come down. I was not as shaken as I thought I'd be by the descent. But with the rush and the beauty of it over, I felt lost - so much emotion can build up along these stretches, and it has nowhere to go. Maybe that is why the cliffs looked especially beautiful in the evening light. And maybe that is why I put all my remaining energy into the 10 miles home along the flat coastal road. Big ring, small cog, setting sun, burning legs, cold air, sprays of water, and Binevenagh towering over it all. Turning the pedals madly as I raced home, I already longed to be up there again.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Sky is a Happening Place

Castle Rock, Cloudy Beach
The thing about the weather on the coast of Northern Ireland, is not that it's good, bad, cold or warm, but that it changes rapidly and constantly. "Four seasons in a day," they say here. 

But it's more than about changes in temperature and precipitation. The real action is in the sky. There is drama there - a celestial theater that I could stand and watch for hours. The cloud formations, like temperamental actors rushing about the stage, appear to feed off of each other's emotions. Plots thicken. Characters develop. Tempers fly. Action builds up toward crescendos. The end of an act can be explosive, or anti-climactic. Curtains close, then open again for the next act.

Here one cloud approaches another, pressingly, entreatingly. The object of its attention demurs. Like characters in a Chekhov play, they engage in a moody, fateful struggle. Tragically but also coyly, they dance over the peak of the mountain - back and forth, back and forth, until finally they collide - turning into a different creature entirely and swooping down to swallow the mountain whole. A roar of applause.

In my winter clothes I stand on the beach of Castle Rock on a June afternoon and watch all this, my bike propped against the stone wall. There are only two colours: beige and blue. There are only two entities: sky and earth. And in the moment, this seems like all there is, or ever was, or ever will be. It is more than enough.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

An Oldie but Goody Brompton

Early Brompton, Limavady
Do older Bromptons qualify as "vintage" bikes? With production dating back to the late 1980s, many would consider them too young for that status. But to me, the vintage vs modern distinction is more about a bike's feel than birth year. Vintage bikes just have that that special something that sets them apart from modern ones - even if the looks are similar. In that vein, I would consider the gem of a bike I am riding in Northern Ireland vintage: A first generation Brompton built in 1993, loaned to me by local collector Chris Sharp. Back home I ride a Brompton as well, so in a way it was a seamless transition. All the more reason the differences are so noticeable.

Early Brompton, Limavady
And one major difference is fit. Early Bromptons were a bit less stretched out (shorter "unitube") than the ones in current production. The change was made in 2004, when an extra 20mm were added to the length. For me, this makes the older bike a better fit than my own. Riding it feels like someone has magically shrunk my bike ever so slightly, putting me in a more natural position.

Early Brompton, Limavady
Another difference is the ride quality: The older bike feels "softer." I wonder whether a change to the tubing was made at some point. The wheels or other components could also be responsible for the difference in feel.

Early Brompton, Limavady
Notice, for instance, the bar across the handlebars. These were added to the early Bromptons as stiffeners: The early production bars were too flexible, known to occasionally warp or break.

Early Brompton, Limavady
The fold of the older bike is the same, with the exception that the rear triangle does not lock in place when fully unfolded (the rear frame clip was introduced in 2007). This makes it more difficult to pick up and carry or even move the bike in an unfolded state; the rear starts folding under as soon as it lifts off the ground.

Early Brompton, Limavady
The components are a bit outdated - with bottle generator, not too strong halogen lights, an older drivetrain, and brakes not as grippy as modern ones. But everything functions smoothly and has held up well after two decades of frequent use.

5-Speed Gearing, Early Brompton
The older drivetrain works excellently and is pretty interesting. The hub is a "Sturmey Archer 5 Star Gear System," controlled via dual shifters. The way this is explained to me, it is actually two hubs in one: a 2-speed, controlled by the left shifter, and a 3-speed, controlled by the right shifter. The resulting gearing is a 5-speed rather than 6, because one gear (neutral) is redundant. 

Stronglight Crankset, Early Brompton
While Brompton did not offer a lowered gearing option in 1993 as it does now, it was possible to achieve this aftermarket by replacing the chainring on the Stronglight crankset, which is what the bike's owner did here. The gear range works nicely on hilly terrain, including on the 10% pitch I encounter on the way home from town.

Early Brompton, Limavady
One surprise to me was that this bike came with a front block: I hadn't realised the first generation Bromptons already had them. The block looks identical to the one on my own bike, so it should be compatible with current production bags and baskets. But the bag on this bike is original.

Early Brompton, Limavady
I have never seen mentions or even pictures of the original front bags before, so I thought this might interest Brompton enthusiasts. Made of a thin lightweight canvas, the bag is about the size of a small rucksack. Zipper closure in the front, with two zip-up pockets in the rear. Blue, with red thread and zippers. Small red logo on the front. Not much structure to it, so there has been some sagging and stretching over the years. But aside from the stuck front zipper, the bag is perfectly intact and functional.

Early Brompton, Limavady
The rear rack is also pretty useful. The integrated bungee cords have remained firm after two decades of use, and hold parcels secure over bumpy roads. I don't have a rear rack on my own bike, but this older one looks the same as the new ones I've seen.

Brompton, Limavady Center
I am staying in a rural area here. When I need to go into town for errands, I get around on the Brompton. It's a 7 mile round trip, with an uphill stretch and a gentle descent in each direction. This bike has been the perfect little vehicle so far: swift, compact and comfortable, with plenty of carry capacity. The handling is pretty much identical to my own Brompton at home, as is the easy ability to throw stuff in the front bag. It's neat how little the basic design of the Brompton has changed over the years. Any tweaks along the way have mostly been been improvements, such as component upgrades and stronger hinges. But I must admit, I will miss the way this older Brompton fits me, as well as its "vintagey" ride quality.

Any owners of early Bromptons out there? Curious what you think of them compared to the newer versions.