Friday, February 14, 2014

Give Me Shelter

Passing through a University of Ulster campus the other day, I saw a couple of these neat bicycle parking structures. A transparent plexiglass shelter has been put up around an ordinary 6-slot bike rack. Likely in tribute to the campus's seaside location, the enclosure is abstractly sail-shaped. There is an intriguing quality to the way it catches and reflects light even in overcast conditions, and I was not the only passer-by inspired to snap a photo. Others ducked beneath to hide from a sudden burst of rain. One student even actually used it to lock up his bike. He then lingered inside while making a phone call before reluctantly moving on.

Despite its resemblance to contemporary sculpture, the university's enclosed bike rack is basically a modified bus shelter, of the kind commonly scattered through the local countryside - light-catching properties included. These too will sometimes function as makeshift refuges for pedestrians and cyclists - locals who aren't waiting for a bus, but want some cover from rain or wind. It seems this kind of structure makes for a useful multi-purpose design.

My picture of the sheltered campus bike rack received some positive feedback from cyclists, which makes me wonder to what extent a feature like this is valued. For those who must leave their bikes outdoors for 8-hour work days, sheltered racks would offer some protection from the elements. On the other hand, they would not really do much to deter theft compared to ordinary bike racks. Still, they could be an option worth considering for employers who cannot provide indoor bicycle parking - particularly in areas where weather damage is a bigger concern than theft. It might also be nice if the sheltered bus stops could be combined with bike racks of the same design, which could, in turn, encourage multi-modal commuting - particularly in winter. With storms hitting both sides of the pond pretty hard at the moment, rain and snow are playing starring roles in our lives, but we pedal on when possible and take shelter where we can!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Triumph in a Winter Hour

The sunny, clear morning that gave way to this strange day seems like a distant memory now. But at the time, it lulled me into a springtime mood. With the sky a rich blue that matched perfectly the crocuses in the garden, the day seemed ideal to put some air in the tires of my new 60-year-old Triumph and take it out for a maiden spin. The weather forecast was iffy, but then it almost always is. What could possibly happen in the course of a 2 mile ride up and down the winding farm lane?

Proper snowfall is so unusual here, that even when the first flakes began to float, landing on my coat and hat playfully, I did not think much of it and kept pedaling the eagerly creaking machine. These flurries would not last long.

But it did not take long for the stray flakes to turn into a full blown snow storm. Tentative, sparse and watery at first, the snow grew drier, chunkier and denser by the second. Soon it fell like a veil, covering the grass, hedges and trees with a gauzy whiteness in the course of minutes. In the time it took me to put my camera away, the accumulation was dramatic.

And by the time I came to terms with the seriousness of the situation and turned around to return home, visibility was almost nonexistent. Surrounding mountains disappeared into porridge-like fog. The vast fields, bleached white, blended with the horizon. One by one, trees and other markers of distance disappeared, until, for the final mile back, the furthest I could see in front of my tantalisingly non-functional headlight was a few feet.

The weathered cement lane, with its occasional outbursts of moss, became now a soft swooshy path, pristinely white. With my tire being the first to disturb it in this state, I felt a twinge of regret over ruining such unspoiled beauty. But this regret was short lived, as the bicycle took to the snowy surface as if they were meant for each other. The expression "like a ton of bricks" comes to mind. In a good way. Heavy and slow to react, the beast pushed onward persistently, its tattered tires gliding on fresh snow with an air of even-tempered striving. A complete unknown to me, this machine could have let me down, and I'd been fully prepared to walk it home. Instead, it almost seemed to savour the harsh weather conditions, enjoying the opportunity to show its mettle. "I am no novelty bike. Just look at what I can do!"

An hour later, the snowfall ended, the fog dissipated and the temperature rose. The snowdrops began to peek out again. The sun made a tentative re-appearance. Only the white caps of the mountains showed evidence of what had gone on. Soon, they too will melt, like the thin crust of snow now sliding off of the Triumph's spokes and chaincase, liquifying into puddles in the shed. A short, but intense winter burst that leaves me curious to ride this old bike in good weather.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

A Little Mystery

Perhaps to mark my own transition into vintage territory this weekend, I finally managed to retrieve the vintage Triumph mentioned here earlier. But more on that bicycle later. Because, unexpectedly, it came with a little something extra worth showing here ...And when I say little, I mean that literally! I have come across vintage children's roadster bicycles before, but I don't think I've seen one quite this small in person.

What is immediately striking about this children's loop frame, is how well it replicates the proportions of the adult equivalent - from the look of the frame itself right down to the handlebars and rod brakes. Nearly every detail resembles a shrunk version of the adult sized machine, so much so that in pictures it's hard to tell quite how teeny this bicycle really is.

But to give you a sense of scale, here is the baby loop frame next to the adult 26" wheel Triumph. The wheels on the child's bike are not marked with a size, but they measure similarly to modern 20" wheels. The overall sizing looks about right for a 5-7 year old.

As far as origin, this bicycle is a thing of mystery - completely devoid of branding. As for age I am guessing '50s by the look of it. Neither the frame, nor the components are stamped with markings of any kind.

An unmarked fixed gear(!) drivertain with miniature cottered cranks and pedals.

A generic miniature headlamp bracket. There is no headbadge or traces of one having been affixed. There are no decals. No markings on the fork crown or on the bottom bracket as far as I can see.

For the most part the baby loop frame is in functional and cosmetically good condition, with the exception of some chrome parts having been spray-painted silver. Sadly, there is a small split in the rear rim, and a replacement rod brake rim in this size might not be easy to source. I took the bike mainly to rescue it and have no plans for it beyond that. But I'd like to show it to a collector like Chris Sharp and see what they can make of its provenance.

Could it have been a one-off, made to order for some spunky little girl with a penchant for fixed gear? Or is it more likely that manufacturers made mass produced children's bikes without bothering to brand them? Whatever its story may be, it is a curious and adorable piece of two-wheel history.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Transportation Cycling in Rural Areas: Some Food for Thought

The present-day culture of transportation cycling is predominantly associated with urban living. This makes sense, considering the realities of life in cities and their immediate vicinities. When commuting distances are short, motor vehicle traffic horrendous, and public transportation either overcrowded, unreliable or both, riding a bike can become an attractive option for getting around. Throw in some cycling infrastructure and perhaps a bike share system, as many cities are currently doing, and the appeal becomes greater still – especially as rising numbers of others take to the streets on two wheels, making it seem increasingly more normal and realistic.

But the desire to cycle for transportation is not limited to urbanophiles. Some rural residents may be commuting by bike already. Others may be considering it. Others still may be cyclists who currently live in a city, but are contemplating a move to the countryside. For the latter two groups a slew of questions and concerns might arise, with not a whole lot of resources out there to address them. This has become especially apparent to me since my own move to the countryside some months ago - in the course of which my email inbox has filled with questions from a surprising number of would-be rural bicycle commuters. Now that I’m feeling a bit more settled, I would like to start sharing some thoughts on the topic.

To state the obvious, there is a great deal of regional variation between rural areas. Differences in climate, terrain, distances and the availability of safe cycling routes will play a huge role in how realistic commuting by bike will be. Perhaps less obvious is that these differences can exist even within the same locale: pockets dense in amenities and pockets that are not, pockets that are hilly and pockets that are flat, pockets that offer safe routes for cycling and pockets that do not. As an example: My current house, while situated in what is generally a remote and shockingly hilly part of Northern Ireland, happens to be in a pocket that is unusually convenient and bicycle-friendly. I am just over a mile from a sort of farming hub, with several small shops selling basic provisions and local produce, and 7 bike-friendly miles from the nearest small town. Being at the base of a mountain but not on it, I have easy access to flat routes and enjoy mostly ice-free roads in winter due to warmer temperatures than neighbours who are even slightly uphill. In a pinch, I am also only a mile from a bus stop and two miles from a train station. Other parts of this very same region are far less handy for getting around by bike. This is all to say that it is essential to get to know an area thoroughly before forming an impression of what commuting by bike will be like there. Even to assume regional homogeneity would be a mistake. 

But speaking more generally, rural transportation cycling, as I see it, is not just about locations, distances and terrain. It is a categorically different kettle of fish from urban cycling. Why? Because it is fueled by a different set of motivations. Whereas in the city, cycling might be the faster, more convenient transportation option, in the countryside that is extremely unlikely to be the case. With long miles to cover, little in the way of traffic congestion and parking easy to come by, the car is clearly the more convenient choice here. So in devising ways to commute by bike in rural areas, we are doing so because we value cycling in of itself more than we value convenience. For some, this could boil down to physical fitness. Commuting by bike make take longer, but it is in fact two activities in one - commuting and keeping fit, saving time that would otherwise be spent at the gym. For others the real issue is financial. The bike costs next to nothing to run compared to the costs of a car, and for that some loss in convenience could be seen as worth it (or simply, necessary). There could be other underlying factors. Environmentalism. Or the inability, be it for legal or physical reasons, to operate a motor vehicle. But all that considered, I would venture to say - and this is just a guess really, a hunch, an intuition - that for a great portion of dedicated rural bicycle commuters in the developed world, the love of cycling for its own sake is the dominant motivating factor. It may be an irrational love. A love that goes against what's reasonable or practical. But it's a love strong enough to, however creatively, turn it into reality. Otherwise, it is just too easy to opt for other forms of transportation. And people generally do what's easy, unless they love the other option that much more. 

In the coming months, I hope to continue sharing thoughts and ideas on different aspects of rural transportation cycling. I would also like to compile a list of rural cycling blogs and post it here. My collection of links to those is pretty small so far, so if you know of any - or write one yourself - please do share!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Two Wheel Affinity

As a cyclist I've never felt much of a connection to motorbikes. Yes, they have two wheels, they lack an enclosure, and they are kinda sorta bike shaped. But so much of the cycling experience is about pedal power, which is not part of the motorbike experience. They are motor vehicles. For me, this put them in a category closer to cars than bicycles.

It's been interesting to learn that in Northern Ireland many see it differently. There is a lot of overlap here between cyclists and motorcyclists, both in racing and in recreational riding cultures. One friend did short circuit motorbike racing in parallel to bicycle road racing through the '80s and '90s. Several others spent their youth involved in motocross or trials. Others collect vintage motorcycles along with vintage bikes. And others simply enjoy riding motorcycles for pleasure or touring much like they enjoy these activities on a bicycle. To explain the connection, they describe the similarities: The feel of being out in the elements, the handling skills, the sensation of wind on one's face. It's similar, with enough of a difference to make switching back and forth interesting in its own right. "You should try it!" Oh of course, ha ha.

Two big-deal motorcycle races are held on the open roads of Northern Ireland: the North West 200 and the Ulster Grand Prix. Unwittingly I became a spectator of the former when I visited in Spring 2012. The course passed nearby and one day I sat on the grass watching the machines fly past at incredible speeds (top speeds of over 200mph, I later learned). Even for someone with no interest in the sport, it was an exciting thing to see. The following summer I was staying with friends and they watched the Ulster Grand Prix on television. This was around the time I was starting to get a feel for cornering and other bicycle handling skills. And watching the racers go around the bends of roads that looked just like the roads I cycled on - leaning their motorbikes this way and that at dramatic angles - I grew absolutely absorbed in their movements and could almost feel the road from their perspective. For the first time, I felt the connection.

From the fields behind my house, I can sometimes hear a distant buzzing sound. I know there's a motocross practice track somewhere there and plan to have a look one of these days. When I finally do, the Magilligan Motocross Track is grander and more beautiful than anything I expected. An expanse of tall sand dunes on the shore of Lough Foyle, topped with windswept silver-green grass. With a crazed buzz and violent sprays of soil, dirt bikes race through these hilly muddy sandy loops, whirlwinds of colour. The impression is that of a naturally occurring landscape that happens to be perfect for their mad purpose.

Seen up close they are viscerally stunning. It is like being near enormous wild animals and watching their antics whilst keeping out of the way for the sake of self-preservation. Filthy bike and rider are one creature as they take to the air, twisting, roaring, spraying dirt, a controlled wildness to them.

Seen from a distance they are surreal. Bikes flying over dunes, over water, over the mountains of Donegal. Bikes in the sky, bikes in the clouds. In their flight they trace a perfect arc and there is an illusion of slow motion. In this scene there is overwhelming serenity.

Motocross is likely the most popular form of motorcycling here. Kids ask for "scramblers" for birthdays and special occasions. They can start riding (on kiddie tracks) as early as age 5.

Motocross bikes are made to race off road. They are sporty-clunky, vaguely MTB-esque looking things, with wide knobby tires and lots of front suspension. They are made to accelerate quickly and can go from zero to "whoa" at the blink of an eye. You can tell the manufacturer by the colour. And aside from that, I don't know much - other than that a mad sparkle glistens in the eyes of friends who used to be into the sport whenever they talk about it. Most of them quit before they entered their 40s, not wanting to risk injury once the responsibilities of family or steady employment set in. Safer to stick to cycling.

Though I've yet to even ride on the back of motorbike, I do feel more of an affinity with them than I used to. How do other cyclists feel about this?

If you're a fan of motocross, you can see some more photos of this beautiful track here.