The humble bicycle. My preferred method of travel, my means of commuting and recently, alas, the source of considerable stress and annoyance which I may possibly have already mentioned once or twice. Since this blog is an irregular and eclectic thing, more a bag of Cadbury’s Mis-shapes than Mr Gump’s box of chocolates, there’s far too high a proportion of moaning bike posts in the recent entries, so let’s stop that and have a rather more positive one before moving along to more interesting topics.
After the unmitigated disaster that was the b’twin Riverside 1 bicycle I’ve been relying on a bike loaned to me by the ever generous JJ, who had one day found himself in possession of a neglected machine superfluous to his needs (long story). A quick Internet search revealed it to be a Raleigh model currently selling for nearly £400, so it’s a decent enough bike in its own right, just sadly abused and neglected by the previous owner. As a commuting machine the obvious deficiency was the complete lack of mudguards (a pet peeve of mine, since they ought to be standard for road use outside of specialist racing cycles: try following someone who doesn’t use them in wet weather and you’ll immediately see why, assuming you can see anything at all), so I bought the cheapest possible model to attach to the seatpost. Mudguards of that type are better than nothing, but only by a hair and of course they don’t address the mess and damage caused by spray from the front wheel coating the chain and lower part of the headset (addressed on this rather more authoritative site, if you don’t believe me). Still, tight budget and all that. In use the biggest problem actually turned out to be the dilapidated state of the gears. After an hour or two of tinkering and repair I managed to get them back to almost exactly the state they were in before I started messing around with them, after which I found that the best thing to do was to leave them in the one gear I could find that didn’t slip dramatically. This meant that I was effectively riding a single-speed bike, which is the closest I’m ever likely to get to being a hipster.
Via Twitter my plight came to the attention of Dave, the genial face behind revolveMCR, who suggested that he might be able to put something together for me. Knowing what a fine job he’d made of servicing and repairing my old Pashley in the past I was interested, so we discussed my requirements (which are not especially demanding or specialist) and he came back with some options. You can see the end result in the photo above, a nine-speed bike with suspension forks, full mudguards (FULL MUDGUARDS), pannier rack and slightly bonkers handlebars, all based around a Trek frame. I’d never really looked at these sort of “butterfly” handlebars before, but Dave threw out the suggestion and I decided it was worth a go. They’re great, actually, offering enough variety of positions to avoid stress or numbness on my hands. The odd-looking pole they’re attached to will change, incidentally, as I’m going to raise them up just a little based on having ridden the bike for a few days. One very nice thing with not buying an off-the-shelf design is that it’s possible to leave room for alterations like that. The other interesting point for me was Dave’s initial spreadsheet listing his suggested configuration. I’ve never dealt with a bike as a collection of brand-name components prior to this and it was intriguing to be able to search for reviews and information about the particular frame or forks, rather than just the bike as a whole. Trek, for instance, simply wasn’t a brand I knew anything about (I’ve not exactly been keeping up with the cycling world over the past twenty years) but this appears to be a pretty well regarded frame. At 26″ the wheels seem strangely small to me (which might seem odd coming from a former Brompton rider; it’s probably just the comparison with the Pashley) but I certainly can’t complain about the smooth ride and responsive handling. It does mean that my spare tyre won’t fit, though.
The end result is a compromise of course, a collection of new and secondhand parts due to my very restricted budget, but how nice it was to be able to choose the compromises. Instead of a generally inferior machine I’ve managed to get something with a pretty decent specification but no unnecessary bells and whistles (having said that, I shall be adding an entirely unnecessarily fancy bell very soon) which, so far, rides quite beautifully. It would have been lovely to have had the frame repainted, hub gears and dynamo lighting fitted, but that can come later when I can afford such things. As a working bicycle I couldn’t ask for more on my budget.
Dave’s business is bicycle repair and maintenance, I should point out, and I am not suggesting that he generally offers complete bikes for sale (contact him directly if you want to discuss anything). Delighted that he did this one, though.
The sadly drawn out saga of my bicycle isn’t quite over, but at least things are heading in the right direction.
The Decathlon bike continued its spectacular decline, with new niggling problems arising right up until the moment when the wheel failed again. At that point it was obvious that the bike simply was not fit for purpose; and given that “purpose” in this case was an undemanding ride along a fairly flat tarmac road to work and back that was as good as saying that it was fit for nothing. I wasn’t looking forward to the inevitable argument with the staff at the shop, but it was time to get my money back…
… except there was no argument. Decathlon may have sold me the worst bike I’ve ever ridden, a lump of metal I imagine even Steptoe and Son would have been hesitant to accept, but their returns policy was exceptionally straightforward and handled smoothly by the bored-looking staff at the returns desk. It should have told me something that rather than “Customer Service” the desk was simply signed “Returns”. I walked in, rolling the bike on its front wheel, chain off, split tyre looped over the seat post and the back wheel in my other hand, and said I’d like to return the bicycle. Entirely straight-faced, and with no apparent hint of irony or humour, the chap behind the desk asked if there was anything wrong with it.
Still, a swift refund credited to my bank account and far less fuss than I expected. If you have to return something to a shop it’s great to encounter such a smooth system, although there was no hint of apology over the months of hassle caused by owning the bike and having the temerity to actually ride it. Even so, I’m not sure that it is actually a good thing overall. Yes, they accepted the faulty goods without question and I got my money back, but the attitude towards the product was highlighted to me when I handed over the lights and fittings and they were summarily tossed away into a bin. A fair proportion of these cheap goods – tents, bikes, whatever they happen to be – will be disposed of or replaced by customers who don’t return them. Some will do the job the buyer asks, which is great (there’s a comment on my earlier post about this bike from a happy customer, something I’m delighted to see regardless of the fact that I consider this bike almost dangerously shoddy). Others are returned to the shop for refund or store credit. The half-hearted, inadequate attempts at repair by the Decathlon workshop inspire no confidence in me that they are serious about producing a quality product and keeping it good repair.
My friend JJ loaned me an old bike he’s had hanging around for some time to use until I can buy a better machine. It’s a Raleigh hybrid, nothing special by any means, and despite having sat neglected for a long while, to the point that the tyres were utterly flat, despite being in need of a tune-up to stop the gears from slipping, it’s still streets ahead of that Decathlon bike. The gear ratios, the riding position, everything is better.
Dave at RevolveMCR offered some thoughts on a possible new machine which might be very tempting indeed, so I’m looking into that and shaking the piggy bank to see what I can afford. I shan’t be bothering with anywhere like Decathlon for my transport needs in the future.
A pun-free title and fairly quick return to my rather occasional blog, spurred by a visit to the stats page.
Quite a number of people have come here via a ‘net search for the b’twin Riverside 1 bicycle, made and sold by Decathlon. I’m the unfortunate owner of one these, so perhaps an update is due to give those searchers an idea of how the bike has stood up to a few short months of normal use:
Very poorly indeed.
To put things in context, I use my bike almost exclusively to commute to work along city streets, a round trip of about eleven miles. Hills are few and minor, so the main stresses on the bike are down to the poorly maintained Manchester roads. Naturally I avoid potholes (travelling the same route every day means that I know where they all are) but the tarmac does have a few rough areas. Still, nothing that would trouble a halfway-decent machine. I bought the bike when my Pashley needed a fairly major, urgent overhaul and at a time when the mechanic I trust to do such a job was out of the country for a time (I wouldn’t take it back to the shop from which it was bought, since they have generally caused more problems than they fix). With no time to find a good second-hand bike I read some reviews and was persuaded that a new one from Decathlon would be worth the money.
The first bike I looked at was set up as a city model. Looked pretty decent on the website, with mudguards, pannier rack and lights, all the things needed for a commuting set-up. In the shop I was surprised to find that despite being sold as a bike for adults it was so tiny that my knees rested between the handlebars… which made it impossible to do anything other than trundle in a straight line. So, some time later I settled on the Riverside 1, a men’s bike lacking things such as mudguards (heaven knows why) but seemingly a much better option. The staff cheerfully said that they could fit mudguards, stand etc while we waited.
Three days later the back wheel had developed so much side-to-side play that I began to expect it might pull out and overtake me at any moment. Back to Decathlon, where the mechanic told me it was “perfectly normal” and simply needed some adjustment. After lowering my incredulous eyebrows I let him fix it. By the trip home from work it was as bad as before.
Back to Decathlon and a different mechanic, who admitted that the wheel shouldn’t do that and changed it for a different type. He also changed the mudguards, since the ones installed on purchase were too short. It subsequently became apparent that the new ones, supposedly the correct size, are also too short because Decathlon don’t seem to think that mudguards should actually stop water from spraying up your back. I fixed a piece of plastic to the back and solved the problem. A few days later the back tyre blew out. Ah well, punctures are inevitable in the city… but wait, what’s this? A small puncture, yes, but also a complete failure of the rear tyre itself, which had split along the sidewall. I nursed the bike along to Ken Foster’s Cycle Logic in Chorlton, bought a new tyre and fitted it myself.
Decathlon offer a free service in the first six months. Due to further problems and the sneaking suspicion that the bottom bracket might have gone I took the bike in after about two. They replaced the bottom bracket. They also noticed that the rear axle was bust and so fitted yet another model of wheel, this one seemingly better than the previous two. The brake pads had to be replaced too, as the ones it came with were apparently made of cheese and wore out if subjected to a hard stare. I had to pay for those, Decathlon’s policy being that even though the ones they initially supply are barely fit for the job such things naturally wear out anyway.
Currently I’ve had the bike for about three months. It’s required a number of fixes, most of which entailed getting it over to the shop in Stockport, including two new wheels, a new tyre, replacement brake pads and a new bottom bracket. The right pedal seems to be failing and is making an ominous plasticky cracking sound with each revolution. The gears have begun to slip. Bear in mind that in the short time since I bought it the bike has also received a full service.
If you need a cheap bike try to find something on the second-hand market if you can. It’s worth asking at some small bike shops too, as they might carry reconditioned models or have suggestions for where to get a good one. If you’re considering a b’twin Riverside 1 from Decathlon then I suggest you forget that idea immediately and look elsewhere. Unless you want to buy mine, full service history, serious offers only…
The cheque is in the post. So is the application form.
It’s TGO Challenge time again, or at least the time when several hundred of us scramble to submit our applications for the draw and hopefully avoid the dreaded waiting list: the Challenge itself kicks off next May. For some this is an annual event, some will be entering for the first time and others will be back after a break of a few years. I’ve been lucky enough to join and complete the Challenge twice now, in 2009 and 2011, and it looks as though every other year is probably the very most I can manage, always assuming I get on of course. Thoughts now turn to route planning, getting some more local walking done (or at least fairly local, since I’m stuck in a city these days) and, that evergreen favourite, gear.
Discussions of hiking kit are both engaging and exasperating. Gear is very easy to talk about. Something new comes out, it’s announced with great fanfare by those who make a living from selling it, discussion forums clamour for details and pick them apart, arguments and comparisons abound. I read this stuff too (and occasionally get involved in the conversations, although rarely too deeply) and I certainly spend a more than reasonable amount of time looking at clothing and equipment, but when you get down to it much of the gear on the market is quite superfluous for the typical camper. Still, it’s not the creep of comfort and technology that feeds all this gear talk – people would probably be arguing over colour schemes in the absence of anything else – and I’m certainly not going to claim that I prefer my old Peter Storm cagoule to my Paramo 3rd Element.
My cupboards will tell the truth even if I try to fib about it: I’m not immune to this. I’ve bought things I didn’t need and plenty more I thought I needed, but could have done without. Perhaps luckily I don’t have a lot of cash to throw around, which does at least minimise the occasions when I succumb to temptation.
With the Challenge back on the cards I’ve been looking through my hiking equipment and seeing what needs to change, as well as what might be interesting to change. Despite being tarred with the “ultralight” brush I don’t think of myself as an ultralight hiker. I do try to carry as little as possible, yes, but the whole idea of arbitrary weight categories and the like is such nonsense it almost embarrasses me to find myself associated with it. It’s nearly fifteen years since Ray Jardine’s interview in Backpacker magazine, the first time I and the majority of other hikers came across his lightweight system. Any number of new and established companies have jumped into the lightweight paddling pool and we’ve seen gear go to flimsy, wispy extremes and then start to settle into a slightly more stable and usable norm. Isn’t it about time that “ultralight” hikers were simply regarded as hikers? It’s not a competition. Well, for me it’s not; some people do seem to compete to have the lightest possible pack regardless of practicality, but their sort have been around since recreational camping began, and even before that:
”We all know the type. He professes an inordinate scorn for comfort of all sorts. If you are out with him you soon discover that he has a vast pride in being able to sleep on cobblestones… In a cold climate he brings a single thin blanket. His slogan seems to be: ‘This is good enough for me!’ with the unspoken conclusion, ‘if it isn’t good enough for you fellows, you’re pretty soft.’ The queer part of it is he usually manages to bully sensible men into his point of view… ‘Bootleg is good enough for me!’ he cries; and every one marvels at his woodsmanship.“
– Stewart Edward White, Camp and Trail, 1906
So, on that slightly defensive note, I have to admit that I weigh every single piece of gear I might take on a trip. I began trying to carry less weight (and also less actual stuff) in the mid to late nineties when I found myself suffering from ankle and hip problems when hiking. Unfortunately I went about it in entirely the wrong way, trimming ounces and keeping pounds, and it was a few years before I had anything approaching a sensible system of gear, with minimal redundancy and everything chosen to work together as well as possible. Camping suddenly became much more enjoyable. The little digital scales I now use (under a fiver from eBay and an absolute bargain at that) mean that I can compare items in my notebook or on a computer spreadsheet and use weight to help me decide which of two similar things might be better for the task required, but weight is always only a part of it. Scotland in particular can be a harsh place for someone hoping to use kit intended for American long-distance trails, a wholly different environment.
This time there’s every chance that my rucksack will weigh a little bit more than it did in 2011. That year saw some pretty rough weather – high winds, in particular – and apparently the most recent Challenge was the wettest on record, so I see no reason to skimp on comfort and protection. The lightest item that properly does the job is what I aim to take. Considering the bag weight was not far over eight and a half pounds last time, not including food and water, I can easily add in some waterproof overtrousers and an insulated down vest without fear of my knees buckling. Since I already own some it means I don’t have to reach for my wallet, either.
The tarp, though… Ah, the tarp. I was not the only tarp camper in either 2009 or 2011, but we were certainly rare; it’s easy to see why. Many people simply dislike the idea of sleeping under an open-ended sheet of nylon. Others like to take higher routes where tarp use becomes questionable, or at best somewhat limiting. Personally, I love camping with a tarp (have done ever since a school trip where we camped with them, although they were universally known as bashas then) and don’t mind choosing my route to accommodate that choice. I aim to have plenty of more sheltered options when it comes time to set camp, although in a pinch the tarp can be more storm-worthy than many expect. Having used mine for over ten years I’m familiar with its quirks and limitations, one of which is that it’s only seven feet long. As I’m six feet tall that doesn’t leave a lot of extra cover when the weather turns wild. So, a different tarp may be on the cards. There are several options – fewer than I expected, to be honest, as most manufacturers seem to be aiming for very light tents these days – almost all of which are hampered by being sold only in the USA. Import charges would inevitably make for an expensive purchase, so I need to weigh the choices. Whichever I opt for, though, I probably shan’t get into an argument about it:
”On a campaign you may attack a man’s courage, the flag he serves, the newspaper for which he works, his intelligence, or his camp manners, and he will ignore you, but if you criticize his patent water-bottle he will fall upon you with both fists.“
– Richard Harding Davis, 1917
Everyone is playing ukuleles these days, it seems. YouTube has allowed people to share their progress and performances with ease and the Internet generally has given us all instant access to more lessons, songs and inspiration than we could ever possibly hope to use. The little instrument is back in favour on a scale not seen since the fifties, shortly before Rock ‘n’ Roll persuaded everyone that they should be playing a guitar instead.
When I was a wee lad I had a few – a very few – music lessons, including several on the acoustic guitar, but I never made the slightest progress and couldn’t find an instrument for which I felt the slightest warmth or aptitude. Well, the flute seemed promising. At school they would occasionally have people come in with different instruments to encourage us to learn, so I gave the flute a go and was told, rather devastatingly, that my lips were too big. They thought I might be better with the trombone… Okay, not quite the same thing, but I was prepared to give it a try:
“We don’t do trombones,” they said.
Years later I’d seen and heard ukuleles and quite liked them, the sound appealed to me and they had a certain cheerfulness and lack of pomposity I found endearing, but the uke was a toy, a joke… it was Tiny Tim rather than George Thorogood. The notion of wandering into a music shop (intimidating places at the best of times for the resolutely unmusical) and buying one was laughable. And then the wheel turned, ukes became popular again and people started making good ones in volume, easily available (via the Internet, for those still clinging to the embarrassment associated with displaying their musical ignorance in the shops); and The Lovely Emma bought me a ukulele for Christmas as I mentioned in an earlier post. Although she’s a trained and skilled violinist Em knew as little about ukuleles as I did at the time (perhaps less on the trivia side; certainly a little more as far as her knowledge of music and instruments extends), so she did a little research and in the end found a chap on eBay selling a package of ukulele with a simple case, electronic tuner and chord chart for a good price, branded as an “Hawaii Kai”. I was thrilled, particular when two things happened: firstly, I discovered that the instructions for the tuner were so poorly translated from Chinese that I’d been tuning the thing incorrectly for a week (although it was precisely, consistently incorrect); and secondly I started teasing recognisable tunes from the ukulele… actual music, haltingly played and with many fumbles and mistakes, but by George I was actually making swift progress! This is probably a major reason for the popularity of the ukulele, since virtually anyone can quickly reach a point where it’s clear that they’re getting better.
That eBay uke is made from a laminated wood, dyed to give a deep brown finish, and is fitted with guitar-style geared tuners rather than the friction pegs (much like the ones you’ll see on a violin) traditionally associated with soprano ukuleles. The seller changed the standard strings for a set of Aquila branded ones, which alone boosts the quality of sound dramatically. The result is a completely playable, excellent first instrument, more than adequate for testing the waters and finding out if I was really going to enjoy and continue playing it. Six months, one set of strings, several sore fingers and many hours of practice later I have no illusions that I’m actually any good when it comes to playing the ukulele, but I’m good enough to be enjoying it immensely and catching my first glimpses of what “real” musical types feel when they get lost in the simple delight of making music. I’m also at the stage where I can begin to tell the difference between a fault caused by my playing and one inherent to the particular instrument. The too-frequent “buzz” of the strings, the rough edges on the frets (cause of many a ripped and battered nail), a slight lack of volume and depth to the sound… it was time to think about stepping up to a slightly better instrument.
Compared to many other musical instruments, ukuleles are remarkably reasonably priced. A very good one indeed can be had for the cost of a pretty mediocre guitar, for instance. Taking into account my budget, level of ability (and the level I’m likely to achieve anytime soon) and the sort of music I most enjoy playing I narrowed the choices a little, with a couple of promising frontrunners: the Mainland Red Cedar Soprano and the Ohana SK-38. Clicking those links takes you to YouTube video overviews of the ukuleles; the Mainland video also conveniently discusses the Ohana SK-35, which was probably my third choice to try. The Lovely Emma and I drove out towards Huddersfield and the Eagle Music Shop, as far from the intimidating and unfriendly music stores I’d been into in the past as can be imagined. Seconds after walking in we were offered a cup of tea, so they won me over quite quickly. Eagle are apparently the only UK stockist for Mainland ukuleles, which made their relative proximity to us a stroke of luck. I’d contacted them a while ago asking whether they could get the Mainlands with some of the options offered on the company’s own website, such as friction tuners, and a few weeks later received an email letting me know that they had a red cedar soprano in stock with friction pegs. Unsurprisingly, it had sold by the time we were able to make a visit to the shop, but I knew they had similar models so I’d be able to play a few and get an idea of the sound. Unfortunately, according to their website Eagle didn’t carry the Ohana SK-38, but the SK-35 is similar, so again I was intending to get a feel for the general tone and differences between the ukuleles and then most likely put in an order for my exact choice.
The ukuleles were in a small room, dominated by a wall of banjos (which made an incredible sounding board, bouncing the noise from the ukuleles back as we strummed… bit of an expensive option for the house, perhaps…). There was a nice display of Mainland models, including the wonderful pineapple version of the cedar soprano, but no sign of an Ohana SK-35. There was an SK-38, though. Eagle, it seems, don’t update their website terribly often. As it happens, Southern Ukulele Store, who do update their site frequently, had put a couple of SK-38s onto eBay for £149.99 (plus postage) two days earlier, following months when that model had been out of stock almost everywhere; Eagle were selling the same model for £184.99.
Picking it up the first impression was of remarkable lightness. Instead of the laminated wood of my other uke, the SK-38 is made from sheets of solid wood, incredibly thin pieces of mahogany. Along with the friction tuner pegs it made for an astonishing difference in weight. A quick tune-up, then a strum and… oh my. What a rich, beautiful sound.
It’s an odd instrument in some ways, particularly in the fact that it has a “reliced” finish (which I am fairly sure is a made up word, certainly one I had to check. Turns out it’s not re-liced, which is presumably what happens if your kids get nits for a second time) intended to make it look like an old instrument, specifically a Martin Style 2. I was prepared to be disappointed and dismiss that as a gimmick, but the simple fact is that the SK-38 is a lovely thing in its own right. The wood is gorgeous, imperfect and natural-looking in a way that the laminate can never be. Still, I wanted to take my time and try a few instruments, not make a snap decision. The Mainland surprised me, with a very sharp, somewhat harsh sound. Loud and clear, it nevertheless didn’t feel as friendly as the Ohana; it may well be the superior choice for playing in a group, though, as the softer, mellow tone of the Ohana certainly doesn’t project quite as well (having said that, it’s like a cannon going off when compared to the Hawaii Kai). The rest of the room was crammed with all manner of ukuleles, including a resonator model (originally developed in pre-amplification days to allow guitars to be heard over the sound of a band: it sounded bloody awful to me, though), different sizes of traditional ukes, and a couple of banjo ukuleles, so Em and I played a few and played a few more, then went back and played the first ones again…
In the end nothing spoke to me quite like that Ohana. Only the price was a problem, since I couldn’t justify spending the extra, but didn’t want to walk away from the shop and order online having had such a positive experience with them, and such a beneficial one since it was the first chance I’d had to compare so many models. I mentioned the price… and a few minutes later was told that they’d match the online figure plus postage. And that sound you can hear is the echo of my resolve crumbling. I bought the Ohana.
Not to be outdone, The Lovely Emma bought a case for her Makala Dolphin. She’s been after a protective hard case for a while but was adamant about not spending very much at all. In the end she bought one that cost more than her ukulele did… but it is rather lovely:
The ukulele music I particularly love tends to be popular tunes from the 1920s and 1930s, especially the sort of thing you can hear Cliff Edwards play (try “Night Owl“, a great favourite, then search his name on YouTube for plenty of others. There are some excellent CD compilations available, too), and a great many of the top players back then chose Martin ukuleles. These days, Martin are finding their feet again as a ukulele manufacturer after many years of little or no involvement in the industry, but the old Martins are greatly sought after. For many people, the classic old mahogany Martins are the ukuleles, so it’s no surprise that Ohana chose to make an affordable modern interpretation of one (prices for the originals are, frankly, terrifying). Funnily enough, looking at the Hawaii Kai next to the Ohana it’s obvious that the basic laminate instrument is very much a rough copy of the old Martins too. Without knowing my preference for that sort of look and sound (and to be honest I’m not sure that I was entirely aware of it until recently) The Lovely Emma somehow managed to buy me a ukulele that looked the part, even if the sound couldn’t hope to compare. The Ohana looks a little fancier, but not much at first glance. It’s fairly plain, understated – especially when you look at the prominent rope-style purfling on the Mainland models – and thankfully not “reliced” in a tacky and obvious way. It’s an instrument that begs you to put on a fedora and play it until the sun comes back up, perfect for those classic tunes. Despite that, I couldn’t resist spending much of last night playing “Fat Bottomed Girls” in a chirpy music hall style, because quite honestly I play these things for fun, not from any delusions of authenticity or talent. Sounded damn good, too.
The Vicar died recently.
A few years ago I bought a bike to carry me on the commute to work, about six miles away. Since Manchester is almost entirely flat I could quite easily manage the ride on a single speed, but in the end picked a bicycle with an extravagant five gears to choose from, of which I think I used perhaps three. I’m not from Manchester, and in comparison to my Staffordshire homeland the place is practically a table top. Looking to get a solid, preferably British, machine I picked a Pashley Roadster Sovereign, a traditional design of “sit-up-and-beg” bicycle, with hub gears, hub brakes, hub dynamo… hub everything, really. The saddle was like a mattress and the whole thing weighed enough to ballast a ship of the line. The bell didn’t just “ding”, it went “ding-dong”. It was a joy. I dubbed it “The Vicar”.
The ride was smooth, majestic, relaxed. I could cruise along easily, sitting high and with great visibility over Manchester’s horrendous traffic, bowling down the roads with surprising speed. Of course, in the event I took the bike further afield and encountered a hill it was also a damned struggle to get to the top, something akin to pedalling a house, but it was a lovely bike to ride. Stupidly expensive by my standards, it was also only affordable because my employer happened to be trying out CycleScheme that year. I bought it from a co-operative in Rusholme (no link: I wouldn’t recommend them to anyone) who provided a seemingly-generous deal of three free services over the first year.
The only trouble with a bike like The Vicar is that things have moved on. The notion of a bike you keep, service and repair over the years has been eroded, replaced in large part by very cheap supermarket machines where it’s far easier to simply throw the thing out and buy a new one than attempt to repair it, not an ethos I find to my taste. The parts weren’t all standard. It wasn’t fancy enough to be specialist, but nor was it cheap enough to be disposable. Technology has also changed; the bikes on the market now are surprisingly different from the ones I used to ride. As time rolled along and repairs were needed it became obvious that Pashley use a unique combination of expensive and fairly poor parts on much of the bike; even the bell managed to fail in short order. Things were not helped when it became clear that despite being happy to sell the bike the shop had nobody who actually knew how to service it. Yes indeed, the only chap there who knew the slightest thing about hub gears was in the process of retiring. They never successfully set up the gears even once, not even from new. Thankfully I eventually found RevolveMCR, a considerably more honest and capable outfit, after which the bike was running perfectly. And then Dave, aka RevolveMCR, went on a huge and lengthy overseas trip (about which I am only enormously jealous) and I was forced to go bike to the shop in Rusholme again. The resulting “service” cost a fortune and left the bike in a terrible state.
Today The Vicar is away in storage for a while, waiting for me to decide whether major repairs are worthwhile or if I’ll be forced to sell it. I had to face the sad fact that the absolute minimum it would cost to buy new tyres and put the bike in for a service (ignoring the fact that several other things needed urgent replacement) was rather more than the cost of a new, basic machine from somewhere like Decathlon, the chain of French sporting warehouse-style shops. With The Vicar no longer in a rideable condition and Manchester public transport costs being rather high I needed to find something fairly quickly, the result being a Decathlon B’Twin Riverside 1, which you can see in the picture above. Compared to The Vicar it features a rather hunched riding style (not great for riding in traffic), but is very light and responsive, so I can’t say it’s exactly better or worse, simply different; the handlebars are straight instead of swept back, which makes for a very different experience. It’s made in Germany, which is an improvement over having things shipped from the Far East, and seems pretty solid overall. No mudguards as standard (why the hell would anyone buy an “urban” bike with no mudguards?) but the staff at Decathlon cheerfully sold and fitted a set that are actually the wrong size, so they allow spray to fly up my back anyway. The Lovely Emma sacrificed the pannier rack from her bike, which fitted quickly and neatly, and getting it set up for the commute was fairly straightforward. After about a week, the back wheel developed a huge amount of sideways movement. To their credit, Decathlon were entirely happy to repair or replace the bike with no fuss, so we took it in and had things sorted in about an hour. Cones, apparently. My maintenance reference book suggested a bent axle or bearings problem, but it seems it was the cones. I don’t know what cones are, but there you go.
The Decathlon bike has 21 gears. It’s not a mountain bike, but apparently more is considered better. I expect to use perhaps three.