27 July 2012

E-read all about it: Bicycle Reader issue 1 – review

E-readers are now mainstream. It’s no longer a surprise to see someone next to you whiling away an hour or two – in the queue in York post office to buy a stamp, perhaps – with a Kindle or Kobo.

And for the everyday cyclist, the e-reader is a pannier essential: unlimited, lightweight, space-efficient reading matter to pass the time with that riverside picnic, or waiting for the red light on Clifton Moorgate to change.

Addressing just this sort of situation is Bicycle Reader (picture), a periodical e-magazine curated by cycle journos Jack Thurston (of the Bike Show) and Tim Dawson (a Sunday Times Cycle Guy columnist), which aims to assemble the best in new and classic thoughtful writing about bikes: essays, extracts, articles, opinions.

In the first issue, Summer 2012, Jack’s Up and Tim’s Down (yes, about climbs and descents, which requires a bit of imagination in the Vale of York’s ironing-board topology) frame eight diverse pieces.

There’s Mark Twain’s sardonic 1884 account of learning to ride a ‘penny-farthing’. It’s known chiefly for its conclusion (“Get a bicycle. You will not regret it, if you live.") so it’s nice to discover its quotable, period-portrait entirely (“If you try to run over the dog he knows how to calculate, but if you are trying to miss him he does not know how to calculate, and is liable to jump the wrong way every time.").

Gentle, bygone-era travel pieces from Violet Paget (posh continental picnics) and Albert Winstanley (back-lane exploration of the Trough of Bowland) complement fresh writing about car-free living in LA and bike politics in Washington DC. A polite-but-passionate Victorian debate about wheeling issues (Cyclomania) contrasts with Paul Lamarra’s absorbing exploration of the unheralded Scotland just off the M74.

The most fascinating item is probably Martin Ryle’s Vélorutionary, a philosopher-cyclist’s view of the bike’s role today that was previously seen only in a niche journal, Radical Philosophy. Biking helps us all think - Sir Bradley himself has said how much his time in the saddle has helped him work things out in his head – but while we fete the professional cyclist who can think a bit, it’s good to celebrate the professional thinker who cycles too. Though the question I usually mull over as I cycle home from the post-Mystery-Play- Rehearsals pub session is how to best stay upright.

There’s no shortage of words about cycling these days, though much of it is disposable: angry blogs, fluffy travelogues, rewritten press releases posing as news. (Yes, yes, I know, I’m as guilty as anyone. But as someone says in the Mystery Plays, let those among you without sin cast the f– ow! Ow! OWW!)

But this is a collection worth not just reading but re-reading – thinking stuff ideal for chewing over in that leisurely sandwich break or unwanted train delay. At the price of two packets of pub crisps it’s good value, and I look forward to the second edition later this year.

24 July 2012

Did it ring your bell?: ITV4 The Cycle Show Mon 23 Jul - review

ITV4’s new weekly series The Cycle Show (right) got pedalling last night, promising to cover all aspects of the bike world from road racing to commuting. You can watch it for the next few days on ITV’s player.

Top Gear for bikes it certainly isn’t. The microbudgets of fringe TV see to that. No joshing MAMILs racing each other on butcher’s bikes down the Bolivian Road of Death here.

Instead what we got was a slightly awkward chat, filmed in the cut-price venue of London’s cool-cycle-cafe par excellence Look Mum No Hands, largely between affable presenter Graham Little and Nigel Mansell, F1-champ-turned-cyclist.

The world’s Second Greatest Living Manxman pronounced on the historic achievement of Sir Bradley, Team Sky, Cav (the First Greatest Living Manxman), and that wossname bloke who came second. He skipped through the gears of sofa-TV cliches - awesome, incredible, amazing... er... awesome – without ever managing to engage one of them.

Graeme Obree was also on the upholstery. I have a great affection for the clock-beating Scot, whose battle with demons - entertainingly portrayed on film - may be familiar to many of us.

His double-espresso exploration of the sofa space – often leaning forward to hear what was being said over the hubbub from the cafegoers behind – provided a nice counterpoint to Mansell’s instant-coffee blandness.

It was good to see footage of Obree’s latest speed bike, a contraption which looks frankly frightening. Though if you’ve stared down the abyss, as Obree has, then having mere high-speed tarmac two inches from your nose may feel relatively benign.

The special guest on the squashy seat for the second half was Gary Fisher, godfather of mountain biking, looking scarily like the magician-grandfather in a Disney flop.

He said some pleasantly positive things about not very much, and the programme ended with the bizarre sight of Obree and Fisher racing each other on sprint machines. Obree won, by a whisker, the way he glanced round near the end engagingly suggesting that he was ensuring victory over the plucky (and extremely fit) Mr F by only a small, diplomatic, margin. He’d even sported a pair of comedy Wiggo sideburns too: hats off, Graeme.

Their views on safety summed up the difference between Mansell and Obree. Always wear a helmet, said the now unmoustached one glumly. No: wobble a bit, suggested the animated Scot with a sly smile. Drivers will give you a much wider berth. Must say, I think that’s nearer the mark.

Anyway, two film reports complemented the coffee-table banter. A group of road bikers did the Box Hill circuit that’ll feature in the Olympics, half-heartedly giving us an idea of how basic racing tactics work; and a commuter gave us ‘safety tips’ for London. They were adequate as far as they went, which was just about up to the lights.

It’s easy to think of what they ought to be doing in the show. Where to go this weekend for a family spin; UK touring-route gems; news roundups on upcoming new routes, races, Skyrides and sportives; product reviews; a cycling YouTube top-ten each week, gathering up the best new helmetcam and other vids put up...

But such things need money, and the budget for producers Century TV must be as squeezed as a York cycle lane. Nevertheless, the first programme was like an energy bar when you need a sandwich: a well-meaning sugar rush that left an empty stomach.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is that cycling is an outdoor thing; the opposite of sitting on a sofa and watching a telly programme with people sitting on a sofa. We got rather a lot of that and it didn’t always make for inspiring viewing.

I’m happy to give it another watch next week, it might well improve, and I’d like to think a weekly programme could become a must-watch for bike fans.

But cycling on TV is not an easy ask. The subcultures – commuting, racing, touring, weekend leisure etc – can have little crossover, and the only ad money is in flogging high-end road kit. Chain Reaction sponsor the series and good for them, but Century TV’s task in making the series is challenged by high expectations from a diverse and demanding audience, and tiny budgets.

But then, that didn’t stop Graeme Obree...

17 July 2012

Thames Crossings 28a: Emirates Air Line

I was in London yesterday, investigating the new addition to my 2009 Bike Crossings of the Thames series.

Because on 28 June 2012, this new bike-capable river-hop opened between Greenwich Foot Tunnel and Woolwich Ferry.

The new option is the oddly named Emirates Air Line (picture). It’s a cable car service from north Greenwich (the O2, on the south bank) to Victoria Dock (near London City Airport, on the north bank). And not something to pump up your tyres with.

It styles itself as a ‘flight’ in the same irritatingly gimmicky way as the London Eye, and all the (very pleasant and helpful) staff wear airline-style uniforms.

Which is enough to make you reach for the sick bag. Except they don’t supply any, which proves it isn’t really a flight at all.

At least they don’t charge you £6 booking fee or demand £8 per carry-on bag, either.

Now, crossings are not cheap: £4.30 single, or £3.20 if you have an Oyster card.

But it TAKES BIKES! FREE! (picture) Hooray!

Views during the five-minute crossing are stunning. Unless (picture) you go during a period of relentless drizzle and rain, or to give it its technical name, ‘2012’.

The stations – which are just like underground stations, with Oyster touch-ins, no toilets, and so on – have normal ticket gates, wide enough for bikes, and provide lifts encouragingly marked with a bike symbol to take you and machine up to or down from the boarding area (picture).

There are also several bike racks outside the southern, O2, station (picture), if you’ve come to do a return trip, or perhaps just spectate and head on along the nice traffic-free cycle path on the south side past the Thames Barrier to Woolwich.

So, the new Air Line is bike-friendly, and joins the canon of Thames Bike Crossings. Probably not enough room in the cars for more than one bike, or tandems or trailers or recumbents, but otherwise you should be OK.

From here it's only a couple of miles to the Woolwich Ferry.

UPDATE 17 October 2012

More pics here, from a recent journey done with a group of cyclists.
Numbers are not a problem, and staff are bike-friendly, helping you into the cabins with your bike.
Inside the cabins, the seats tip up to make space for one or two bikes.

16 July 2012

Art problem: No bike racks at Boro's mima

We were in Middlesbrough yesterday, and I was intrigued by these unused wobbly bike racks (picture) on the ‘naked street’ that runs between the train station and the Middlesbrough College / Riverside Stadium area.

Whether they’ve been rearranged by careless student motorists, or exuberant Boro fans driving home after a rare home win, we don’t know.

But we do think they look a bit like a modern-art installation.

You know the sort of thing; one that needs an explanatory panel detailing the artist’s CV, and saying how the work asks fundamental questions about the nature of art and existence.

So it’s appropriate that a few hundred yards away is mima (picture), Middlesbrough’s splendid modern-art museum.

(As ever with modern art, its contents are 90 per cent nonsense and 10 per cent genius. Trouble is, you don’t know which is the ten per cent. Even after you’ve been.)

Sadly, in contrast to the above street, the eminently visitable mima has precisely no bike parking at all.

Yet it’s directly on a National Bike Route (NCN65, the climax of the White Rose Route) and in the middle of a vast and spacious square, with enough room to park every bike I've ever had stolen. That's lots.

Unless this total absence of places to park a bike is some sort of nihilistic modern artwork in itself?

One that asks fundamental questions, such as why on earth didn’t they put those unused bike racks here instead?

13 July 2012

Cheers and booze: Best-named pubs for cyclists

The Wetherspoons pub most aptly named for cycle tourers - The Panniers (right), which I mentioned in a previous post - has set me and a few fellow cyclists thinking about other boozers named for cycle parts.

Nigel, a Cambridge Cycle Campaign stalwart, in the Comments section of that post, found a community pub The Rusty Bicycle in Oxford, “which looks very promising, if only I ever had a reason to visit the Other Place".

And as fellow commenter David Nottingham slyly suggested, any Wetherspoons counts, as it’s part of a chain.

Anyway, today I nipped down to two York pubs that could be assembled as part of a bicycle.

The Blue Bell (right) is one of the town centre’s top pub experiences, a cosy, woody gem down Fossgate with good real ale and an interior unchanged from Edwardian times.

As, sadly, is the nonexistent cycle parking – in those days, no doubt, they could safely lean their unsecured bikes against the wall outside.

(Of course, my bell isn’t blue. It’s black, like those one-quid tinkly Chinese-made bells always are. Coincidentally, there’s an Indian* restaurant called The Blue Bicycle a bit further down the same road.)

And the Saddle Inn (right), just south of the city limits in Fulford, is a fine main-roadside local, with beer garden and four real ales at under three quid a pint.

A quick Google frenzy throws up a few more velopubs.

The Old Pump, Barlow (between Sheffield and Chesterfield) reminds me that I really ought to upgrade my ancient five-quid Zéfal.

Add The Frames, in London W10, to The Wheel, Naphill, in the Chilterns north of High Wycombe – a late 1700s real ale place – and you have the makings of a new machine.

While there’s a natural twinning between The Hub, a hip-looking bar in the centre of Liverpool, and The Bearings, in rather less-hip Newark.

Cheers. Any more suggestions?

* Erm, it's not Indian. See Comments!

10 July 2012

Cream of cycle touring: Devon Coast to Coast

I did the Devon Coast to Coast route last week with my chum Nigel, the 100-mile traverse of Devon from Plymouth to Ilfracombe.

It’s 70 per cent offroad, more than half of that being well-tarmacked, flat railtrail (right). This fallen tree blocked our progress at one point - Beeching's Axe was clearly more pervasive than I thought.

The other 30 per cent is definitely not flat, with 1 in 4 descents down winding lanes to a hairpin bend, followed by 1 in 4 pushes up the other side.

Indeed, the GPS height profile resembles an ECG trace of, say, a cyclist riding the hilly sections of the Devon Coast to Coast route.

The route is well signposted (right), when you can actually see the signposts through the rain.
The railtrail sections – notably Drake’s Trail out of Plymouth, the Granite Trail into Okehampton, the stretch of the Tarka Trail from Great Torrington to Barnstaple, and the final swooping descent down to Ilfracombe – are a delight, and well-endowed with fine viaducts, bridges and tunnels (right).

If you’re doing it in the rain like us, don’t expect the tunnels to be a dry haven – they’re as dripping inside as outside.
The route takes you through some thrilling scenery and delightful villages, and gives you all the traditional Devon sights. Such as Polish lorries wedged tight thanks to following their satnav down a back lane (right).

Of course, we offered assistance – we suggested he upgrade to the 2012 data set.
We stayed in Okehampton and Barnstaple, taking a leisurely-ish two and a half days for the route.

Okehampton sported some interesting bike parking (right) appropriate for a convivial trip that involved more calorie intake than expenditure.

Indeed, for a Devon cream tea, drop into the Green Lantern in Great Torrington – £1.90 for the best mid-course refuel we had on the trip.
Barnstaple gave us the most appropriately named Wetherspoons for cycle tourists I’ve ever seen (right).

Anyone know of any more? Is there a Saddle or Pump or Puncture? If so I can see another arbitrary cycle trip coming up...

Anyway, the Devon Coast to Coast is lovely, and we recommend it. Don’t underestimate those hills, though, in between those lovely flat smooth railtrails.

GPS trails (thanks Nigel):
Day 1 – Plymouth to Okehampton goo.gl/maps/lzcx
Day 2 – Okehampton to Barnstaple goo.gl/maps/Dia5
Day 3 – Barnstraple to Ilfracombe and then Lynmouth goo.gl/maps/yav6

NB The above routes are not suitable for HGVs.
UWAGA Powyższe trasy nie nadają się do pojazdów ciężarowych.

01 July 2012

Currying favour: Bradford Skyride

We were at Bradford Skyride today. So, after a fine local breakfast – liver curry and puris from Cafe Regal on White Abbey Road – we joined the bibbed masses for the start at Centenary Square (right).

I’m not an unqualified fan of big-sponsor mass-participation events, as I’ve made unclear in previous blogs about local Skyrides.

However, this was a definite success: well organised, and all rather fun.

Indeed, the road closures made it a great way to see central Bradford, and its grand honey-coloured buildings dating from the late Victorian boom days, largely unspoilt by, er, much subsequent business having taken place.

Such car-free sightseeing was especially good for those unfamiliar with Bradford, such as us, having spent most of our previous visits sheltering from heavy rain.

Not so this time - the rain was torrential instead.

Nevertheless, lots of local families were out in force, braving the wet weather (right).

(Actually, that’s the fountain in Centenary Square, which you were cordially invited to aquaplane across.)

On the home half of the two-mile-ish circuit up to Lister Park and back, we stopped off for refuelling at Koffie and Cake, a rather splendid new Italian-run cafe (right).

The bibs and corporate razzle I can take or leave, but cake shops like this are an unqualified plus.