Monday, June 30, 2014

Meditations on Early Ruin

Doing errands in the city today, I spotted a woman rolling what I took to be a pre-1960s loop frame roadster. From my vantage point across the street, the bike had a look about it, suggesting it had known better days: a wobble to the front wheel, a crimp to the rear fender, a lumpiness to the saddle, an orangey aura around the black silhouette suggesting a generous coating of rust, and a general ramshackleness that marked it as a tired, creaky, longsuffering thing. The rod brakes and generator bottle corroborated my impression of its age. By the time I reached the bike, the woman had locked it up to a pole and disappeared into a building. Carefully I approached to examine the decals - or what remained visible of them, as most of the frame's surface was caked in dirt and blighted with all manner of exotic fungal growths. When I finally could make it out, the writing surprised me: Gazelle Toer Populair. At first I thought the owner might have plastered new decals onto an old frame. But identifying features in its construction confirmed that I was looking at a retro, not a vintage bicycle, made, at the earliest, in 2009.

What could account for such exuberant decay in a machine only 5 years of age? I imagined the bike being tossed, as a prank, off the Peace Bridge into the Lough Foyle, where it served as a playground for aquatic life before being fished out by local boys and sold at a car boot sale. I imagined other scenarios, too. But even as I played them out in my mind, I knew the bicycle's real history was nowhere near that exotic. Though this specimen was one of the worst so far, I have met others here with prematurely aged bikes, with bikes in horrendous condition for which they have no particular explanation.

Ireland is a strange, damp place. Vegetation flourishes. Man-made things fall apart. Both can happen with breathtaking speed.

I am slowly renovating the house I live in, which, judging by its condition when I moved in, I had at first thought lay empty for decades. It was in fact last occupied just 3 years ago. In this time span, rot and mold had crept in with methodical determination, while on the outside weeds and stinging nettles the size of trees smothered the once-manicured garden, their roots cracking brick walkways and stone walls. The plastic on the decade-old kitchen counters had softened and browned in the manner of pre-war cellulose nitrate. In the upstairs bedrooms I peeled off decomposing wallpaper I was certain had been put up in the 1950s, to discover children's scribbles behind it with the date 2007. Even the overall age of the house is not what I had first assumed from its look and feel. It was built not in the century before last, but in the 1940s. I wonder now how many other lovely old houses I spot in the area are really fairly new constructions.

On a cliffside 4 miles down the road stands a North Coast landmark, the enormous skeletal remain of Downhill House. When new to the area and not yet familiar with this structure, I heard locals refer to it as "ancient" as if it were some excavated archaeological site or an early medieval castle. Considering that even from a distance I could spot obvious neoclassical elements, this struck me as unlikely. Still, when I looked it up I did not expect the dates to be as recent as they were: The latest version of the house was built in the 1870s and remained inhabited until after World War II, its trajectory toward disrepair beginning mid-20th century. To think that within that time, the sturdy-looking giant, built no doubt with the finest materials available in its day, became this roofless maze of crumbling stonework - so thoroughly dilapidated that locals (some of whom must surely still remember it intact!), prefer to playfully re-imagine it as an ancient ruin.

There is a trend in some circles of cyclists to celebrate - and even try to hasten - signs of aging on their modern machines. From tattered grips to chipped paint, even spots of rust and tiny dents, such things are cherished as evidence that the bike is authentic and "well loved." This trend can be observed all over contemporary culture, from distressed jeans to the "shabby chic" style of decorating. To a critical theorist, this hunger for decay is symptom of a desire for history in an ahistorical era. But I wonder also whether it is specific to areas where things tend to preserve well - decay requiring either many years or special effort. Here in Ireland, if I want "history" to happen to a modern bike all I need to do is leave it in the garden for a week, then watch it succumb to stunningly early ruin.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Black and White

Two Very Different Takes on Step-Throughs!
42 centimeters, or nearly 17 inches! Any guesses what that figure refers to? Go on, think about it before I tell you. Anyone? 

Over the past few weeks I've had under my guardianship two step-through bicycles that could not be more different from one another: a vintage Claud Butler Lady Lightweight that belongs to a friend, and a modern Mosi Carolina that was sent to me for review by the manufacturer. The former was essentially designed as a time trial bike (according to 1930s notions of what that entails) with all-arounder capability; the latter as a Dutch-style urban commuter. Switching back and forth between these machines has been an interesting experience - especially considering that 42cm is the difference in their handlebar heights! In fact I don't think I've ever ridden a bicycle that's quite as upright as the Mosi or quite as low-leaning as the Claud Butler. And to think that both of them can be described as step-throughs or "lady's bikes" - evoking a similar image while in reality being so different.

And yet, despite these differences what I found most striking about the two bikes was an attribute they had in common, aside from the low step-over: Both felt absolutely amazing to ride. Amazing in an entirely different way form one another, but amazing nonetheless, with each machine's handling feeling "just right" in the context of what that bike was meant to be. This is something not many people think about unless they are involved with product design or product reviews. But it is a core criterion based on which a product can be judged as successful. 

Recently, I was talking to a Belgian acquaintance who owns a shop selling European utility bikes, and who is also a former amateur road and track racer. In his opinion, if a Dutch-style bike feels "too upright" (and size/weight/fit are eliminated as the culprit), it is because there is a flaw in that model's design. A well-designed bicycle of its kind should feel as if it's supposed to be that upright, evoking an "Ooh, this is very different but very nice" type of reaction from even the roadiest of roadies, as opposed to a request to slam the stem. Similarly, a well designed utility bike of this type should not feel slow-rolling in action; subjectively it should feel as if its speed is just right for how fast you want to go while riding in that position. And he applies the same principle to what they refer to in continental Europe as "sports bikes" - that is, road-racing or touring bikes with drop bars. In theory, even to a rider new to the sporty side of cycling, a well designed roadbike should feel intuitive and safe after a minimal initiation period. If it doesn't, something is off. 

For the most part, I think I agree with this way of putting things. Though my own cycling experience so far is limited to just over 5 years, I've crammed a lot of pedaling time and a great number of bikes into those years. I have ridden bikes that did not feel "just right" to start with and so I'd try to wrangle them into being just right with mixed (usually not entirely successful!) results. I have also been lucky enough to ride bikes that have felt exactly right from the get-go. And the thing is, once you've had that experience you know it's possible. You know that not all bikes of the same category, even if they look similar and are similarly priced, are in fact the same in how well they perform the function they were designed to perform. Whether it is a city bike or a racing bike, or something in another category entirely, when a bike feels just right we tend to know it. Sometimes it really is black and white.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Made with Pedal Power! The Velo Bagworks Tool Roll and Give-Away

Velo Bagworks Tool Roll
Aside from its miniature striped adorableness, what drew me to this Velo Bagworks tool roll was its maker Robert Anderson's claim to produce it "on a 1922 Singer sewing machine that doesn't even have a plug." Oh hello! Just minutes earlier I'd been sitting in front of my Singer Model 115 Sphynx of 1919 vintage, rocking the iron pedal in pursuit of finishing some curtains. Who needs electricity when you've got pedal power, eh? And how deliciously appropriate to make bicycle tool rolls for pedaling, by pedaling!

Velo Bagworks Tool Roll
The minimalist, under-the-saddle tool-roll has become a popular offering from cottage industries and DIY enthusiasts. It is an item that is useful, fun and relatively easy to produce - allowing makers to offer a handcrafted product at a reasonable price. New to the market, Velo Bagworks tool rolls are made in Devon, England and sold via Robert's Etsy shop at around £15-20 apiece depending on fabric and pattern. Some are made from a PU-backed cordura and some out of waxed cotton canvas (pictured here), both reasonably waterproof. 

Velo Bagworks Tool Roll
There are several features of the Velo Bagworks tool roll that make it stand out from similar products of its kind. Firstly, it is among the smallest, most compact tool rolls I've ever seen. 

Velo Bagworks Tool Roll
While large enough to fit the basics - including a good sized multi-tool, spare tube, tire levers, even a small pump or CO2 cartridge - it makes use of space with impressive efficiency and folds up neatly into a wallet the size of a large adult fist. For those who prefer their tool bags as small as practicable, this one is a good candidate.  

Velo Bagworks Tool Roll
Additionally - and this is perhaps the more important feature to mention - the Velo Bagworks tool roll is designed to close and attach securely. The traditional "bike burrito" style tool roll is typically held together with a leather toe strap, which tightens around the roll but is not attached to it. As several cyclists I know who've used such bags have learned, this design carries a risk of losing the tool roll in action: It can simply slip out of the strap and you'll never know it! No such danger with the Velo Bagworks, as its lighweight nylon strap is sewn into the fabric of the roll itself.

Velo Bagworks Tool Roll
Threading easily through the rails of any standard bicycle saddle, the Velo Bagworks tool roll uses a snap-closure buckle, making it simple and quick to fit and remove, as well as to tighten as necessary. The roll is narrow enough to sit snugly under the saddle and does not interfere with pedaling. Because of the small size of the bag, those who like to clip a tail light to their seat post still might be able to fit it in if enough seatpost is showing.

Velo Bagworks Tool Roll
The Velo Bagworks tool rolls come in a variety of traditional colours, as well as these crazy "deck chair stripes" patterns. I love how the bright stripes look on my bare-metal bike, though they pretty much go with any bicycle colour. 

Velo Bagworks Tool Roll
If you like the look and sound of the Velo Bagworks tool roll, one of them could be yours at no cost. We would like to give away a similar roll to the one pictured here (the exact pattern of the stripes is a little different on each bag) to a Lovely Bicycle reader located in the UK or Ireland. 

If you'd like to take part in the give-away, simply leave a comment to that effect, and don't forget to include your contact email. And if you're in the mood to entertain, tell us: What is the strangest thing you've ever carried in your tool roll or saddle bag? Any bag-related adventures or misadventures? I'll get things started by admitting I've put an uncapped 1L bottle of water into a saddlebag...

Entries accepted till Thursday, 26 June, 11:59pm GMT. Many thanks to Velo Bagworks for the give-away, and, as always, thank you for reading Lovely Bicycle!

Friday, June 20, 2014

Gone Postal

Pashley Postal Bike
When the postman stopped by with today's mail, I doubt he expected to find a two-wheeled ancestor of his delivery machine in my yard. Yet that is exactly what happened.

"Ever ridden one of these?" I asked.
He shook his head vigorously. "How old is this thing anyway?" 

Pashley Postal Bike
The machine - a rescue bike that found its way to me - is actually not very old by vintage bicycle standards. But its condition is rather dire - from the heavily rusted frame and components, to the missing original front wheel. Whether it can be revived I am not yet sure, but it is an interesting historical specimen regardless. 

Pashley Postal Bike
Since the late 1970's, Pashley Cycles have been the main supplier of bicycles for the Royal Mail, and it is only this year that the practice is ending. Over the decades, there have been several iterations of the Pashley Postal Bike, and the one in my possession is a "Millenium" model from the mid '90s. 

Pashley Postal Bike
The lugged diamond frame with a slight upslope to the top tube is built around 26" wheels with fat tires. A carrier rack bolts onto the lower and upper head lugs and holds the plastic mail delivery basket. At the time this bike was made, the Pashley postal bicycles came in "male" (says so on the decal) and "female" versions. Later these were replaced by the unisex welded MailStar model

Pashley Postal Bike
One thing I've wondered about the postal bikes, is why they did not use the smaller front wheel design, so that the basket and load capacity could be made larger. However, the 26" front wheel design seems to have been standard with UK postal bicycles, even before Pashley supplied them.

Pashley Postal Bike
Until some time in the 1990s the postal bikes were built as single speeds with rod brakes. The Millennium model was introduced in response to the Royal Mail's request to improve the bike's handling and durability. At this time, the bikes were redesigned to have all-weather braking capacity, as well as to be sportier an more lightweight. Plastic mudguards, hub gears and brakes (3-speed SRAM - as Sturmey Archer was having production difficulties at the time), straight handlebars, and other small updates were introduced during this period while keeping the traditional lugged construction. In 2000 Pashley developed the altogether new welded unisex design, which they called the Pronto and  the Royal Mail dubbed the MailStar, ending the era of the classic delivery bike. 

Pashley Postal Bike
Since the Millenium postal bikes were designed specifically to be hardy and survive all-weather conditions, the excessive wear on this one suggests that it was left outdoors in the rain for prolonged periods of time - possibly after its  life as a postal bike had come to an end. 

Pashley Postal Bike
I am told a few people around here used to own decommissioned postal bikes and use them as farm bikes and pub bikes. Seems pretty consistent with the state this one is in.  

Pashley Postal Bike
Too bad, as it could have been a lovely surviving example of the mail-by-bike era, as well as of the classic delivery bike.

Pashley Postal Bike
If I can get it ridable, I would love to know what this bicycle feels like on the road - especially with the amount of weight a postman would typically carry. Assuming the frame has not rusted through, as far as functionality the bike requires a new front wheel, new tires, new saddle, possibly new handlebars, and a front brake system. 

Pashley Postal Bike
But everyone who's cast their eyes on it so far has suggested restoring it from scratch - sandblasting and respraying the frame, sourcing period-appropriate decals, and so forth. It is an excellent idea (and Pashley is willing to help, judging by the conversation I've just had with them). And though I am not sure I am the right person for such a daunting project, I'll try to find someone who's into it, and see what can be done with this bicycle. 

Pashley Postal Bike
The era of the postal bike may be ending in the UK. But, according to Pashley, the Royal Mail operated the largest carrier bike fleet in the World - and so, for a while at least, the postal bikes from decades past will find their way into civilian use, both local and distant. And in various states of alteration and refurbishment, the bikes will live on and ride on, their baskets filled with groceries, work bags and supplies, sometimes even with letters and parcels. 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

2 Wheels, 4 Legs: a Study in Attitudes

Can I Come Too?
Since the very start of this blog I have shared random, at times ludicrous thoughts about pets and bicycles. But never have I been around such a large number of animals as now that I live in rural Northern Ireland. From being held up by bovine traffic jams, to getting my bicycle grips eaten by shameless Shetlands, to herding wayward lambs, to being herded myself, I've had enough experience with animals on my bike to last a lifetime. What interests me about the whole thing, is the mere fact that animals react to bikes in the first place. For instance, when I pass a sheep, horse or cow on my bike, I could swear that they pay more attention and study me more intently then were I to pass on foot or in a car. Perhaps this is because the hybrid two wheeled beast is a relative novelty for them, and thus warrants a closer look that the beasts they are familiar with. Or perhaps it's because animals, with their natural instincts, know a good thing when they see it. Would it be taking things too far to suggest a look of wistfulness comes over their faces as I roll past? 

Okay, maybe. All the same, certain patterns of behaviour are fascinating to observe - in particular among felines and canines. I live next door to a farm that is home to a handful of dogs and at least 40 barn cats. Whenever I ride, photograph, wash, maintain, or even park a bicycle outside my house, a good few of them come out to get involved. The dogs' behaviour in these circumstance is that of would-be participants. If I ride, they want to come along. If I work on the bike, they want to help. If I take photos they volunteer themselves as models or even try to paw the camera as if to advise on settings and composition. They are like that hapless, enthusiastic brand of intern every employer dreads, whose eagerness to help is matched only by their talent for getting in the way. And, hard as I try to explain that I do not require assistance in this particular project, they remain undeterred until they run out of energy and wander away on their own accord, off to pursue the next thing to catch their attention.

Bike and Barn Cat
The cats, on the other hand, seem to think their job is to evaluate the machine. Whereas the dogs communicate joy at the sight of any bike that appears in front of them, the cats express caution and extreme skepticism. "What is this thing you've brought here? Better stand back till I examine it."   

And with an air of a put-upon expert who is nonetheless ethically committed to doing a job thoroughly, they circle the bike in slow motion, meticulously examining every inch, rubbing and sniffing and furrowing their brow as if taking copious mental notes, until finally they express readiness to pass judgment upon it. And that judgment is rarely simple in nature. Oh they have something to say about the bike, you can be sure of that. Question is, can you be counted on to comprehend their profound findings? "Pssht, why do I even bother," the cat's face finally says. And with an air of mild disgust the feline expert strolls away unhurriedly - returning every now and again to supervise, just in case you totally mess up whatever silly thing it is you are planning to do with this piece of equipment. "Certainly this job is beneath me," says the peevish flick of their whiskers, "But if I don't help you, who will? Certainly not that cretin, the dog..." 

Monday, June 16, 2014

Beach Cycling and Its Contents

Beach Bike
For years I've dreamt of combining two activities I love: riding my bike and swimming in the sea. Considering that Boston was right on the water, cycling to the beach proved a surprisingly elusive goal during my time there, with successful two-wheeled beach trips few and far between. But now that I live practically on the shore I am determined to make the most of it. 

But what are beaches like in Northern Ireland, you might ask with a suspicious shudder - picturing scenes of frigid waters and relentless winds, clusters of pallid holiday-makers in ponchos shivering on soggy sand as black clouds loom overhead. Well, in reality it isn't nearly that bad. For instance, when I first came here I was told it was too cold to swim without a wet suit. Foolishly, I believed this and didn't even try to go in the water at first. Then one hot day I walked in the waves and discovered the water was perfectly within the boundaries of what is considered swimmable in Northern New England! Not quite lukewarm, but not ice cold either - with a good half hour of swimming possible before cramping sets in and limbs begin turning blue. And to top it off, it is sunny nearly every day! Not for the entire day of course, but more like for an hour at a time in between bouts of fog and rain, but let's not be nitpicky here. Summer is here and the beach trips have commenced!

Beach Bike
Though technically I live right on the water, the nearest official beach - staffed with lifeguards and lacking in dangerous riptides (well, relatively speaking) - is 3.5 miles away. It's a pleasant ride that can be accomplished on almost any bicycle. The easiest is to ride my Brompton, with its bottomless pit of a front basket into which I can throw anything a beachgoer could desire, laptop and portable wifi unit included. But really any bike that will accommodate a large Carradice-style saddlebag will do, and sometimes a faster bike can be more fun. 

Cycling to the Beach
On the bike I wear my regular street clothes, with shoes that are easy to slip on and off and underwear that can pass for a swimsuit. Some time ago I discovered that wool underwear - both short and long - feels amazing to wear in the water, keeping me warmer than an ordinary swimsuit would. The wet wool also keeps me cozy once I get out of the water, and begins to dry relatively quickly. When I'm ready to leave, I just put my clothes back on over it and pedal home. Even if the wool is still damp, this feels surprisingly okay - nothing like cycling in a soggy synthetic swimsuit or wet cotton underwear. And being able to do this eliminates need to deal with the logistics of changing or transporting a soggy swimsuit by bike (though the latter is not especially complicated - just wring it out and use a plastic bag).

Cycling to the Beach
The rest of things I bring along, I will wrap in a towel - starting with the fragile stuff first, so that it's surrounded by the most padding. 

Cycling to the Beach
This makes for a neat bundle that can then simply be stuffed in a bike bag or basket, with everything held in place and not bouncing around too much. 

Beach Bike
And voila: Beach bag and beach bike. Heaven!

I've been to the beach plenty of times this summer already, and though it isn't quite warm enough to submerge myself fully yet (oh yes it is! finally swam after writing this post) I find just spending time there - reading, writing, photographing, living -  to be boundlessly enjoyable, and all the more so if I come and go by bike. There is something about cycling down a sunbaked road, in anticipation of smelling the salt, seeing the waves, and touching the sand with my bare feet, that makes for an out of this world experience. True, Ireland isn't exactly a tropical island. But something this good is best in measured doses, and worth getting rained on once and again… and again!

Friday, June 13, 2014

Rand-O'Clock

Plumbridge
A brevet is not a race. This is a thing that randonneurs are ever eager to remind us of, a fact that they repeat with conviction - particularly when enticing newcomers. And technically it is true. We are given a time limit to complete a brevet, and on the surface the time allotted seems plentiful: If we pace ourselves and make a reasonable effort, we can enjoy the scenery and the camaraderie, even grab a meal or two. But no matter how we spin it, a brevet is not a leisure ride and it's not a tour; it is not a free-form meander or a spontaneous frolic. It is a timed event that requires strict adherence to a route. The map is our indispensable guide. And the clock is our constant companion. 

Doing a ride on the clock is an altogether different experience from cycling that is not timed. On the clock, things have a way of coming into sharper focus. The present attains a simplicity and clarity; it becomes more concentrated. What's in front of us and inside us reveals itself in the finest of detail, the periphery fading away. We discover things about our bicycles and bodies that surprise us, even if we're far from novice cyclists. We gain new insights into our speed, strength, style of cycling, energy fluctuations, nutritional needs, even our moods and our character. 

Why does the presence of a timer, a self-imposed stressor, do these things to us on a bicycle ride? Because we're human. It is really no more complicated than that. And it's what makes randonneuring challenging, exciting, frustrating, fulfilling and addictive. 

I began this summer with a 300K brevet and will probably do a couple others, same distance or shorter, in the near future. But inherent to randonneuring is the pressure to "advance" to longer distances, making such a plan seem rather unambitious. What about a 400K? If I did a 300K out of the gate, surely I am ready to try the next distance.

Giving this some consideration, I thought again of my companion the clock. Based on the 300K and on self-timed rides I've done before it and after, I know that my overall average (not to be confused with rolling average) over long distances with significant climbs is around 10.5mph. That's above the roughly 9.5mph minimum required to complete a brevet. But it's not enough to relax and enjoy myself on these events. It also means that I spend way more time on the bike over a given distance than a speedier cyclist - creating more opportunities to develop fatigue, aches and pains, and various other problems - physical, mechanical, and logistical. 

Consider, for instance, cycling in the dark. A rider fit enough to complete a summertime 300K in sufficiently few hours to finish before dusk will not have to deal with the issue at all. A rider who is not, will face this extra challenge. Same goes for sleep deprivation on the longer distance brevets.

According to some seasoned randonneurs I've talked to lately, the 400K is a pivotal distance precisely for that reason. Compared to the shorter brevets, it is new territory. A make you or break you distance. A wild card. And much will depend on the rider's fitness, on how many hours those 250-odd miles will translate to.

Mary of Chasing Mailboxes describes a 400K she recently completed on tandem, in 20 hours. It's a number that made me want to cry and laugh simultaneously, reminding me of just how great the discrepancy between myself and most randonneurs I encounter truly is. Mary's performance means that, purely time-wise, her 400K experience was more like my 300K, which I completed in 18 hours 45 minutes. Can I handle a brevet where I'm on the bike 1 hour and 15 minutes longer than the longest time I've spent on the bike so far? Yes, I think I can. But realistically, a 400K is likely to take me 25 hours and I'm not sure my body and mind can handle all that time on the bike quite yet. I'd like to try a 400K some day, but I'd rather do it when I'm fit enough to complete it within a shorter timespan. 

When cyclists discuss their readiness to handle a particular brevet, I notice they tend to speak solely in terms of distance. But as I dip my toe deeper into the murky waters of randonneuring, I come to feel that thinking of it in terms of time makes at least as much sense. The clock is my constant companion,  and it does not let me forget.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Shelter From the Storm

The other day I was cycling with a friend when it began to rain fiercely. An admitted fair weather cyclist, he suggested we stop and shelter under a canopy of trees until the downpour's intensity lessened. I explained that I thought this a bad idea. Stopping on the side of the road in chilly weather when already soaked and sweaty, we would only grow colder and more uncomfortable. Rather than shiver under those dubious trees, why not continue pedaling - say, to the nearest shop or cafe, if he really wanted out of the rain. Luckily we were close to a village, and soon enough we were enjoying the cozy interior of a filling station shop, watching the rain taper off over vending machine coffee. My companion seemed happy enough that we'd gone with my suggestion.

"Not bad," he said biting into a gooey bun. "But where do you shelter when you're out in the middle of nowhere?"

"Shelter?" It was the third time he used the word and I realised that this notion, so apparently normal to him, was not something I'd ever given much thought to. "I don't shelter from rain; I just go on with the ride!"

Fast forward to this morning, and I was ready to eat my words. Cycling alone and yes, in the middle of nowhere, I got caught in one of those flash floods - a wall of rain so dense the visibility was next to nothing; water on the road so deep I could dip my toe in on the downstroke. God knows how, but this water carried with it a rather strong current, pushing my bike in its desired direction - which was off the side of the road - as I strove to progress forward. In this manner we battled, until finally I was forced to admit defeat when a tractor came close to crossing paths with me under this waterfall, careening wildly around the bend through deep water. Cycling in these conditions wasn't safe; I had to stop until this blew over. But where?!

One interesting feature of the Irish landscape is the abundance of derelict buildings in various states of dilapidation. Like a scattered flock of unkempt, emaciated sheep, these structures pepper the landscape with an air of resignation, gray crumpling stonework peeking out of green weedy chokeholds. Their presence, while sad under ordinary circumstances, becomes a happy occasion for a cyclist in need of a bathroom stop. And so it was now that I needed shelter from the storm. Stepping over a thicket of nettles, I dragged my bike and myself through the doorless entryway and stood in the dank interior watching the road outside turn into a river. I do not have a plan for sheltering from bad weather, rarely finding myself in situations so bad I can't pedal through. But as life likes to remind us from time to time, anything can happen. Should cyclists have a strategy for this sort of thing?

Twenty minutes later it was over, and, in the feeble sunshine, I was back on my bike, contemplating this quick burst of celestial violence as I cycled home. Sticking out from under my helmet, my two soggy braids made a "thwack" sound as they hit my shoulders every time I shook my head in disbelief.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Visceral Entertainment

When we glamourise urban transportation cycling, a favourite fantasy activity of this genre is cycling to the theater. A civilised evening out and you can do it on a bike! Oh my. Wistfully we picture elegant sophisticates pedaling stately steeds unhurriedly, their tranquil faces luminous in the neon glow of storefront signs. 

Meanwhile, there I was… bracing against the headwind, sweat streaming down my face, as I cycled 7 miles past endless fields stuffed with grazing sheep, the smell of freshly spread manure filling the evening air. Ah, rural cycling at its finest. A civilised evening out and you can do it on a bike! 

At last, and only slightly worse for wear, I arrived in the tiny town of Limavady to see the much-recommended Flesh and Blood Women. The community arts center where the play was staged has this multi-purpose room that makes for an intimate auditorium, with the audience clustered close to the stage. When I walked in, the place was packed. The only available seat that offered a decent view was in the front row. I took it. And, as the lights dimmed and the performance began, I found myself face to face with the actress delivering the first monologue. 

I have seen my share of plays, but it's been a while since I'd seen one in a venue this small, sitting this closely to the stage. I had almost forgotten that, when a play is good, the physical presence of the actors is so viscerally engaging as to be overwhelming. It is as if a real event unfolds in our presence. We don't just watch it happen; we feel it happen.  

The actress in front of me was so very there I could see her eyes tear up, her forehead glisten with sweat and her calf muscles twitch as she paced in stiletto heels. I could feel the force of her breath when she spoke. Her emotions vibrated and these vibrations in turn resonated through my own body. Weakened and relaxed by the physical effort of having cycled into town, I found myself especially receptive to this stage presence physicality. There was a rawness to watching the play that matched my own state of being.

Feeling all this, I could not help but recall the previous week, when a friend and I had driven to see a movie. These experiences were parallel, but so interestingly different. Seeing a movie on a screen versus seeing a play, and driving versus cycling. In one there is a degree of separation introduced that dampens the visceral and makes for a more detached, abstract experience. In many ways, this is a more comfortable way to be - to travel, to observe, to seek entertainment. There is privacy, protection. There is a reduction in effort. But in spite of this - or perhaps because of it - it cannot pack a punch as strong as direct experience. 

Riveted by the persons on stage in front of me, I hear the final click of their heels as they leave the stage and imagine pedaling home in the cool country night. What a strange and visceral entertainment. 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Long-Term Review: Vulpine Women's Rain Trousers and Jacket

Vulpine Women's Rainwear
When we think of rain gear for cycling, we tend to imagine technical, slippery garments designed for the very specific purpose of keeping dry in wet conditions. These garments do the job. And we can't wait to peel them off once the rain ends. But what of those of us who live and ride in climes where rain never really "ends" as such? where precipitation is the norm, and not a special occasion? Are we to resign ourselves to permanent clamminess under plasticky shells? Are we to shiver under the oppressive weight of soggy tweeds? 

"Heavens forbid," says British apparel manufacturer Vulpine. "We've made some Epic Cotton (™!) rainwear for this very predicament. And it even looks stylish off the bike." 

"Oh Vulpine. You with your quirky social media presence and your heady claims. I'll believe it when I try it for myself." 

And that is how a parcel landed on my doorstep last Autumn containing items from the new Vulpine women's range (read about the men's in this earlier post as well as here): a pair of women's Cotton Rain Trousers and an Original Rain Jacket. Admittedly I took my sweet time testing these garments. Autumn turned to Winter and Winter to Spring, and before I knew it summer was around the corner. Of course, this being Northern Ireland, it has rained continually. 

Vulpine Women's Rainwear
After months of wear, I remain unsure of how to describe the Vulpine Rain Jacket. It is flattering and comfortable, it's kept me dry in the rain, and has all sorts of cycling-specific features that I'll list in a bit. But beyond that there is just something about it - can jackets have auras? - that makes for an overall effect beyond the sum of its parts. On the bike or off, I don't mind saying this jacket feels fricking lovely.

Vulpine Women's Rainwear
The cotton fabric has a soft texture to it that is pleasant to the touch. The "Epic" treatment (read about it here) really does make it water-repellant and resistant (as defined by keeping me dry for up to 4 hours in a downpour; haven't tried longer). Available in the military green shown here (which is more like a soft sage) or indigo, this jacket is designed for both dry and wet weather, and rated for temperatures 8-18°C. The fit feels true to size, I am a UK size 10 (US size 4) and the Small fits me well.

Vulpine Women's Rainwear
The tailoring I would describe as military meets biker, relying on a combination of darting and drawcords to give the jacket structure.

Vulpine Women's Rainwear
At the same time there is a drapeyness that softens the look, the flowy quality of the fabric an interesting contrast to the square shoulders and crisp standup collar.

Vulpine Women's Rainwear
Large zipper pockets with magnet-closure flaps have somehow been achieved without adding bulk to the waistline. A slew of additional interior and sleeve-side pockets offer more storage opportunities, again without compromising the flattering silhouette.

Vulpine Women's Rainwear
A removable hi-viz "splash guard" flap with reflective detailing can be released or stowed away (I never use it, but for those who like this sort of thing - it is indeed highly visible: "Like a baboon's bottom!" according to the delighted remark of a cycling companion).

Vulpine Women's Rainwear
A subtly placed vent over the shoulder blades provides ventilation. And extra length in the rear and in the sleeves provides good coverage even in a drop bar position, without looking out of place off the bike. Neither do the subtle reflective bits at the shoulders and sleeve cuffs look overly cycling-specific.

Vulpine Women's Rainwear
On the bike, the best thing about the jacket is that it does not pull or constrain in any way - the cut allows for excellent freedom of movement while appearing sleek and tailored. In cool weather the jacket regulates temperature adequately even on spirited rides, though I would not wear it in temps above 75°F.

Over the months I've tested it, I have found the Vulpine Women's Original Rain Jacket surprisingly versatile. I have worn it on commutes, on long photo expeditions and on road rides, as well as off the bike altogether. I have worn it with cycling clothes, with casual clothes, even with dresses and high heels. In cool temperatures, I find the weight and breathability to be well suited for both casual and sporty cycling, regardless of whether it's raining or not. The one major drawback as far as versatility, is that the jacket is too bulky to stow away in a jersey pocket or even in a small handlebar/saddle bag, which limits its usefulness in a roadcycling context.

Vulpine Women's Rainwear
While the Vulpine Original Rain Jacket has many useful features to recommend it, in truth my fondness for it has just as much to do with its overall je ne sais quoi. It is one of the more interesting articles of clothing I have worn in some time. It looks lovely, feels lovely, and has become a wardrobe staple.

Vulpine Women's Rainwear
Alas, I cannot say the same for the Rain Trousers (available in the indigo shown here and in sahara - a light khaki). Ever on the lookout for a good pair of cycling-friendly trousers, I wanted to like these things, but they are just not for me. The fabric seems to be the same as that of the jacket, but somehow feels stiffer in use. As far as fit, perhaps the problem is my large behind, which makes these trousers sit all wrong - unflatteringly baggy around the abdomen and hips, but tight across the butt.

Vulpine Women's Rainwear
The high-waisted tapered leg design doesn't do me any favours either, giving my figure a dated, lumpy look. I can picture these trousers looking good on girls with willowy, boyish figures, creating curves where they do not already exist. But big-bottomed girls, beware!...

Vulpine Women's Rainwear
In theory, the adjustable waist and ankles of the Rain Trousers are useful features. However, for me they only exaggerate the unflattering fit mentioned earlier.

Vulpine Women's Rainwear
Ditto with the enormous front pockets, which tend to bunch up inside the front of the trouser legs.

Vulpine Women's Rainwear
The front pockets and the waistband at the rear flare out uncomfortably when I am on the bike, and while they don't constrain leg movements I can at times feel a pulling sensation suggesting an awkward fit. 

Vulpine Women's Rainwear
But fit issues aside, there are other aspects of these trousers I am less than enthusiastic about. Firstly, while they are just as water-resistant as the Rain Jacket, they somehow don't feel quite as effective at temperature regulation, despite their 4-20°C rating. Perhaps it's the lack of vents or the fact that, unlike the jacket, they sit directly against the skin. But my legs get hot and clammy when cycling vigorously, even in cool weather. The fabric feels a bit too stiff for pedaling comfort as well. Maybe others will have a different reaction, but I cannot imagine wearing these trousers for anything but casual commuter spins.

Vulpine Women's Rainwear
To balance out the critical comments with some positive ones, the Vulpine Rain Trousers did get something important right that other manufacturers can't seem to manage: They feature a nice roomy gusset at the crotch and no seams that dig into sensitive areas on the saddle regardless of position on the bike. The reflective bits at the cuffs are also nice, and I daresay these trousers look a bit more flattering as capris with the cuffs turned up. 

Vulpine Women's Rainwear
As far as durability, I cannot fault either the jacket or trousers after several months of use. Aside from their impressive water-resistant properties, both garments have proven to be stain-resistant and even scuff-resistant. The jacket in particular I've been wearing quite a lot, and it hardly shows signs of use. 

Vulpine designs their clothing to transcend the on/off the bike distinction, as well as to bridge the gap between sport and transport. These in of themselves are tricky endeavours. Add water-resistant properties and women-specific fit to the mix, and they're really asking for trouble! In light of this, to come up with a garment as cool and versatile as the Women's Original Rain Jacket is commendable. And I hope my blunt feedback about the Rain Trousers will not discourage Vulpine from continuing to offer their brave and unique designs. 

Complete picture set of the jacket and trousers here