The Vicar in Aspic
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.