Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Elephant in the City



Meeting up with a friend in Derry for lunch yesterday, I was struck by the number of cyclists out and about. On the path by the river especially, they whizzed past us with merry abandon - a blur of fluttering garments and large wicker baskets... Wait, what! Wicker baskets?

While cycling in Derry has certainly been on the rise for these past few years, it hadn't quite normalised to the point of everyday clothes and full-on wicker basket mode last time I checked. So what bikes exactly were these? When yet another mystery rider went by, I turned to face the path and recognised it immediately: an Elephant Bike!


So excited I was to find out where these bicycles came from, that I took drastic measures... I followed one of them through the streets. And it led me where else, but to the city's Guild Hall. Ooh this conspiracy ran deep!

With some trepidation, I entered the grandiose structure and found myself in an echoey chamber with carved oak walls and stained glass windows.

"Just what is this wicker-basketness all about?" I asked the helpful gentleman at the desk, in hopes he would not think me insane. The answer made my day.

Turns out, the Derry City Council has organised a scheme to get bicycles for their staff, enabling them to run errands by bike during the work day. How wonderful is that? The programme was launched on the 16th of April, so it's a fairly new development. It was lovely to see them in use already.

In addition to a small fleet at the Guild Hall for government employees, more Elephant Bikes are available at the Tourism Office for the general public. They can be rented by the hour or by the day at very reasonable rates. Considering that Derry has no bike share programme, this is most excellent news for anyone who wants to visit the city and travel around by bicycle.


But to backtrack a tad, what are these bicycles exactly?

Elephant Bike (not to be confused with the custom framebuilder Elephant in the US) is a UK charity initiative. It collects decommissioned Royal Mail bicycles, refurbishes them for civilian use, then resells them within the UK. And for every bicycle sold locally, another one is donated to a social enterprise in Malawi through the Krizevac Project. I have a policy of not promoting causes and charities here, and so I mention all this solely in the context of describing the bicycle. But if you are interested to learn more, please do visit the Krizevac Project and have a look for yourself.


Elephant Bikes begin life as postal bicycles for the Royal Mail, handbuilt by Pashley Cycles in Stratford-upon-Avon (I featured one of these here earlier - albeit an older model). After about 10 years in circulation, the postal bikes are taken out of commission. And it is this decommissioned stock that Elephant has collected - some 20,000 units in all.

Those machines that are deemed salvageable are then sent to be worked on by inmates in a local young offenders prison, where they are stripped of parts and paint, as part of a skill-building initiative. The framesets are then powdercoated, and finally re-assembled in-house with a mix of new and refurbished parts.



The bicycle, in its finished state, looks so shiny and new and pretty, it is difficult to see it as refurbished, or decommissioned, or as a charity project. It looks like a gorgeous, heavy-duty transport bike that anyone looking for a capable sturdy machine would be happy to own. And happily own it they can - for the price of £250.


You read that correctly: pay £250 for what is essentially a Pashley Mailstar/ Pronto with custom paint. Oh, and free postage within Great Britain. With the Pashley Pronto model still very much in production, consider that new ones retail at £650. Its charitable function aside, the Elephant Bike is an amazing bargain. And did I mention the pretty colours? They are available in sage (shown), turquoise, or olive. And in a selection of two unisex frame sizes (18" or 22"). You can buy online, and current wait time is 3 weeks.


The build is a fairly simple one: 3-speed hub gearing, trigger shifter, hub brakes, steel cranks, padded saddle with quick release for easy resizing. The wheels are 26" rear and 24" front, with puncture resistant 1¾" tyres.

Accessories included mudguards, a double-legged kickstand, and a bell. There is no dynamo lighting. However, the original fork-mounted headlight bracket remains for affixing a battery light.


The long rear rack is rated for 20kg of weight. The frame-mounted front carrier and basket (available in wicker or as a black plastic crate) are rated for 20kg of weight as well, and can be purchased as an additional accessory for a further £30.


Never having ridden a Pashley Pronto of this era before, I was achingly curious to try the Elephant Bike. Understandably though, the Derry City Council staff were kind of skeptical of me ("Which publication did you say you were with again, Miss?.."). Still, I was allowed to pedal around the square while remaining within eyesight. And, you know what? This thing is delightful. I am serious: Delightful! The thick blocky tubes and welded construction certainly look industrial in comparison to, say, the Pashley Princess. But it is zippy and responsive as heck - so much so, that seeing postmen sprinting up the hills of Letterkenny on these things (An Post used the same machine for their postal bikes) now strikes me as distinctly less implausible. The small front wheel + frame-mounted front carry system is right up my alley, too. As is the low stepover and low bottom bracket. My favourite-handling Pashley of the ones I have tried to date.


Later, I had a chat on the phone with Terry Richards of Elephant Bike (an exceedingly pleasant man to talk to) and learned some interesting things about their future plans. For instance, they hope that the wicker baskets - which are sourced now from a mass production facility - will soon be made in Malawi by hand.  They are also working on an in-house pannier design to fit the long rear racks, and that too shall be made in Malawi.

Finally, and this is only an idea at the moment, but some of the older (read: lugged and vintagey) postal bikes, if enough of them are gathered up in a salvageable state, might eventually get refurbished as well, and sold as a limited edition batch of perhaps 100 bikes maximum (the current production bikes are a limited run of 5,000).  I suspect there might be quite a lot of interest in that!

We also discussed the bikes' availability. For reasons to do with insurance policies, at the moment Elephant Bikes can only be posted within the UK (within GB at no cost, and to Northern Ireland for a small surcharge). But if you live elsewhere and want one, it is not impossible to obtain it - if you know someone with a UK address who'd be willing to forward it to you (remember that shipping to them would be free, so you'd only have to pay the one-time postage). You could even ask a UK bike shop to undertake this task for you, in the process encouraging them to become an Elephant Bike dealer!



In the course of a month, the presence of Elephant Bikes in Derry has changed the city's velo-landscape visibly, and that to me is very exciting. Visitors - whether locals in the city for the day, or tourists from afar - can now cycle about the place easily. And it's nice to see that, when given the opportunity, they do indeed cycle about the place. Derry is fantastic to explore by bike.

I hope to see more of these lovely machines, everywhere, until all the discarded postal bikes are brought back to life and put to good use. With thanks to the Derry City Council for trusting me with this bike, I wish them the best of luck with their employee cycling initiative. And I wish Elephant Bike folks all the best of luck with their charity work. For a complete picture set of the bike I rode, see here. And visit Elephant Bike online to learn more.


24 comments:

  1. That is very nice and encouraging! My office building recently got 8 bikes for sharing and I've used them a couple times; a month or so passed between the first time I used one and the second, when I went the second time I asked to see how it was going and only a couple ladies had taken advantage of the bikes (and both of them went together), So realistically I am the only one using them and even them! Even then I have to confess that it simply gave me the idea to bring my own bike to work (in the back of my truck) on those days when I want to ride to lunch, other wise I might have used it a couple more times by now. I think that possibly the Texas heat (although it's not hot now it's be uncharacteristically rainy) and the fact that anywhere you'd want to go from our office is annoyingly uphill! Even though I can easily bring my own bike I think that in the future I will use the loaner bikes if for no other reason then to set a positive example.
    So happy to see that their bikes are well received and being used rather than gathering dust. - Mas

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    1. It's good to know that office bike-share is becoming popular. I hear more people mention it all the time. Popularity, as you suggest, no doubt depends largely on region and terrain. But there's no reason for workplaces in flat/ suburban areas not to have them.

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  2. Elephant Bikes are also covered in the most recent Bike Show podcast (http://thebikeshow.net)

    It seems that internet shopping was one of the reasons behind the demise of Royal Mail bikes. There are now just too many parcels. Where I live in London, there is a post trolley chained discretely on a side-street, a van delivers the post to the trolley then the postie does his round of the streets, pushing the trolley.

    Royal Mail had a condition that the decommissioned bikes needed to be totally "rebranded". That's why Elephant bike colours don't include Post Office Red. That's a pity, I think, as I'm sure there would be a big demand for that colour.

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    1. I love the Elephant colours, but found it interesting when the Security Guard at City Hall confided he found them "too feminine" : )

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  3. Wow, what a neat program from beginning to end. Nice sturdy bike, and cheap as anything.

    Also, not to get too political, or whatever, but it is pretty encouraging that a governmental office would take the initiative to use bikes for local errands, rather than maintaining a fleet of cars. I think it's sensible and sets a good example.


    Wolf.

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    1. It really is a wonderful initiative on their part and I am surprised it did not get more publicity. Even the availability of the bikes at the Tourism Office was never announced anywhere, and is not promoted online. Hopefully it soon will be.

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  4. Always read the pictures before reading the text. First glance said refurbished Postal. Then it just looked too good and it seemed like it must be re-issued or recreated Postal. This is a well managed project. Very nice work. It is even easier to see the geometry while looking at a fresh clean paint job. Looks promising.

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  5. Very nice bike, and one that is absolutely crying out for the addition of a full chain guard and a powerfull front light.

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  6. How exciting! And hey, before you know it Derry could be the next great cycling city.

    On a related note, what is the status of your older Postal Bike? And how would you compare the ride quality to this one?

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    1. The "Millennium" model I featured here earlier (here) is no longer mine; I gave it away to my friend Bryan (this guy) to tinker with. Happily, he has determined that the rust, bad as it looked, was only surface. So he is now in the process of stripping and repainting it. The bike was not in ridable condition when I had it (no brakes, no front wheel), so I am not able to compare it to the Mailstar model. Hopefully I will get to ride it soon through.

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  7. I've become obsessed since I saw this yesterday. If one day I can swing it, I will!

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  8. My only concern here would be warrantee issues and repairs? Otherwise, a promising venture.

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    1. They do have a money back policy if you don't like the bike and wish to return it. But otherwise, it's like buying any secondhand bicycle: repairs are up to you. (Which I think it fitting with the price of the thing, to be fair.)

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  9. looks like they selected colours with you in mind ;)

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    1. They *are* nice colours! I like the dark olive best.

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  10. Is that a lamp bracket on the right fork blade? If so, what sort of light fits a bracket like that?

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    1. It's a bracket for the original Royal Mail headlight. You can see the way it attaches if you scroll through this post. Pretty sure there are modern battery lights that could be made to fit it as well, though my memory fails when I try to think of examples.

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    2. All bikes we had in our family, when I was growing up in the uk, had front light holders like that, I'd always assumed it was a standard everywhere until I got my first (foreign) bike - a Peugeot. Seems some call it a "lantern style" bracket.

      "Ever Ready" lights were the brand most often seen, usually with obscure battery types.
      See http://www.flashlightmuseum.com/British-Ever-Ready-Flashlight-2-Cell-Light-Green-Plastic-Bicycle-Light-2D-1970 for one of the more modern lights that fitted.

      But then they brought out new models in the late 80s with their own clamp brackets - useless things, the lights flew off and smashed to pieces if you hit a bump or pothole. Still, I must have bought a few of those before giving up and switching to other brands!

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  11. That looks like a Raleigh Twenty outfitted with a leather Brooks in that last photo. Even looks like it has the original headlight.

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    1. Good eye : ) That's my friend's bike.

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  12. What a wonderful project which assists so many - the bikes look great and are reasonably priced.

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  13. So nice to see that they've been noticed. I helped set up the scheme with the Council after a contact in London made me aware of them. We did do a press release locally in NW and Irish News when scheme was launched (http://www.irishnews.com/news/northernirelandnews/2016/04/19/news/revamped-bikes-encourage-up-cycling-among-council-staff-491462/). The Elephant Bikes are not for public hire...Owned and offered to Council staff only, but there are a range of more modern town bikes for hire at Tourist Offices in Foyle Street. Hopefully a precursor to a public share scheme for Derry!

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  14. Basically all of your posts make me crave a new bike, but not like this one. I am obsessed and determined that one of these will be my next commuter! Thank you thank you for making me aware of these! I'm going to start looking for UK bike shops who will ship one to Chicago... keep your eyes out for anyone who would help!

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