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.
Hearty applause to Morrisons supermarket for the audacious, groundbreaking serving suggestion displayed on their own brand of brown sauce. Best served, it seems, on a sausage, robustly pronged by a shiny fork, and with no trace of the actual product on show.
It has not been the best of weekends for laundry. Until the temperature drops enough to warrant turning on the central heating the house is not a great drying environment, but Manchester is rarely a fine spot for hanging out your great and smalls on the line. Catching up on some overdue washing, it looked as though everything would be as likely to come in wet from rain as it would remain wet if hung indoors.
The casual nature of modern technology struck me again in the early evening (and if you’ve ever been struck in the early evening you’ll know what a shock that can be) as I wandered out to the garden to cast a dubious eye at the heavens. I’d been lucky, very lucky, that the day had stayed dry, but another hour would be really helpful… or I could skip the chance and take the now almost dry laundry inside to hang. Considering my firm belief that it was about to rain every time I’d looked outside since about ten in the morning I wouldn’t have wagered heavily on my predictive abilities… then I remembered that these days I have a mobile ‘phone. Whipping out the little time-waster I punched up the weather map app (weather m’app?) and watched as it rolled a series of animated radar images across a virtual Manchester. Three minutes later I was inside, putting the clothes on the rack to air. Five minutes after that the heavens opened.
The secret that helped to fight the Luftwaffe, right there in my pocket, available at a moment’s notice. Helping me to do the laundry.
No big post today, just a test of the WordPress app for Android. Hopefully there will be no disruption to comments etc because of it, but you never know until you try.
Hello to everyone who has dropped by from Backpackinglight.com and Andy Howell’s blog. Try not to be alarmed if I start posting about the gaming convention I’ll be attending at the weekend 😉
The gentle snapping crunch, accompanied as it was by a slow sagging to the right, was enough to tell me that the spring on my bike saddle had just broken. Again.
Manchester’s roads are, on the whole, bloody awful – if they ever need to fake a video feed from the Mars rovers they could just set up a camera here and point it at the potholes – but my commute is generally level and I don’t launch myself recklessly, or even with reck, off kerbs and over obstacles, so it’s more than a little disappointing to have a supposedly heavy-duty item like a saddle spring fail during a slow, smooth ride. When this happened last year the manufacturer, Brooks, fitted a new spring, apparently newly crafted to solve a design flaw in this particular saddle which historically had both rear springs twisting in the same direction and was prone to failure. I can’t fault their customer service, at least.
This time the B33 saddle (which, for the curious, looks very much like this) is going back for a replacement rather than repair. After enquiring about alternatives I’ve been offered the even more sofa-like B190 (this wide boy here); no saddle like a razor blade for this commuter, no indeed. And if you recall that advert you’re probably as old as I am. The “stranded rear coil springs” haven’t actually left me stranded yet, but breaking twice in under two years has left me wary of them.
In the meantime I’ve pinched the saddle from Emma’s bike and fitted it temporarily to The Vicar. I’m sure she won’t mind.
This is not a post about my cat. Not about anyone’s cat, as it happens, but there does seem to be a law of the Internet (not quite Godwin’s, unless we’re discussing Nazi cats… Catzis? Have I strayed far enough from the point yet?) requiring all blogs to include at least one cat photo, so here it is. As it happens, the photo is of my cat, the genuinely adorable Mrs Peel, but the rest of the post will not be about cats at all, unless I’m feline up to it. *ahem*
So anyway, yes, ultralight hiking! I knew there was a topic in here somewhere.
I cannot claim complete immunity from an interest in the material side of hiking, the kit, the gear, the gubbins etc. My wardrobe is full of the stuff for one thing, although there’s a handy degree of crossover with the gear I use when cycling to work. No point buying two lots of performance clothes, eh? I like to research something before I buy it, which does mean that my dearest girlfriend (Mrs Peel is her cat too. Damn, I mentioned cats again…) has to put up with me while I wander around camping shops, click between outdoorsy websites and pore over the technical listings in gear catalogues. The end result should be that I buy precisely the right thing for the job and don’t waste money or acquire kit I end up not using. And here’s a lovely bridge I’d like to sell you.
Even so, I’m an amateur, the merest dilettante, when compared with some people, especially some of the people who like to frequent hiking forums on the Internet. On one site there was a rather sad post from a lady bemoaning the fact that such places always start off with excitement, enthusiasm and innovation but inevitably become little more than a string of enquiries as to which new gadget to buy.
In the case of ultralight hiking the shift from weird marginal extreme pursuit, the haunt only of the obsessed and the creative, to slightly less marginal pursuit with lots of commercially available products has happened pretty much alongside a similar but more pronounced shift for the Internet itself. In the late nineties the ‘net was growing, creeping into homes and offices, but not everyone was convinced and not every company felt the need to have a website. Today you really don’t need much in the way of technical knowledge in order to surf, just as you no longer need to source exotic coated synthetics and break out the sewing machine if you want to use ultralight hiking equipment.
There comes a point, of course, when the rapid innovation and explosion of ideas slows, when new gear begins to look a lot like the old gear, merely in a different colour and fractionally lighter (or even, to the horror of many, slightly heavier!). In many respects we are hitting material barriers in the pursuit of ever lighter equipment. Some incredible fabrics and materials have been found and put together with ingenious methods of construction, but really, how light do we need to be? At what point does the compromise become too great? Price, durability, complexity – pretty much everything except, say, your pet cat… Damn again – figure into the suitability of any one piece of gear for any one hiker. The numbers game of ultralight is fascinating and it’s very easy to find yourself drawn into shaving off an extra ounce or two, or even a gram, but like many people I’m less interested in the extremes of the process than I am in enjoying a nice walk and a spot of camping. For me, carrying less weight does indeed mean a much better hiking experience. I’ve had fewer injuries and less fatigue for starters. That said, I can’t say with any conviction or honesty that a full rucksack weighing nine pounds is going to adversely affect my hike when compared to one of eight and a half pounds; small differences might show up eventually, but if the difference is down to a warmer pullover or an extra bar of chocolate I’m as likely to shoulder the difference and not worry about it.
When I did my first TGO Challenge walk across Scotland in 2009 I was wearing my battered old Ventile smock and trusty cotton duck Tilley Hat; trousers were almost certainly involved as well. If the comments I heard are anything to go by then this was considered somewhat eccentric. The smock was worn every day, since it was both my windproof and waterproof outer garment. Only on one day did a relentless spell of rain overwhelm it, but for the route I took and conditions I encountered (including sleet and snow) it was excellent, as good as it has always been. Even so, I’m taking a Páramo 3rd Element jacket on the next Challenge, partly because I’m being slightly less cautious about my route and will be spending more time out of the valleys. The 3rd Element (now sadly discontinued, although that’s why I was able to buy a new one for rather less than half price) is considerably more eccentric than my smock – I’ll let you Google it to discover why – yet is greatly prized by the likes of Andy Howell and Colin Ibbotson. Colin, of course, is British ultralighting’s combination boffin and test pilot, pushing the limits on behalf of us all, but mostly because he clearly enjoys it.
Anyway, I might also carry a very lightweight windproof jacket, useful as an extra layer to trap a bit of warmth, or too help keep the bugs off on very hot days when zipping up the Páramo would be unbearable. Mine is a GoLite something-or-other, bought, like so much of my kit, in a clearance sale and consequently a particularly eyebrow-raising shade of orange. This flimsy, gossamer-thin hooded top weighs a rather astonishing 108g (bit of a sop to the metric users out there. I get complaints, you see), despite the fact that I don’t take small sizes. It folds into its own pocket to form a tiny, wallet-like pillow of nylon, yet erupts impossibly out of the pouch as though liberating itself from John Hurt’s chest, ready for action. It is by no means the lightest such jacket on the market. How light can such things get? How light do we really need them to get, indeed? Posts on the ultralight hiking forums seem to suggest that newcomers are terribly worried that their gear might not be light enough. Are they buying the right things? Will losing another half pound make all the difference? Will the big boys point and laugh at their comparatively heavy kit? In reality, it’s not at all difficult in these days of supermarket fleece jackets and tough synthetics to get a respectably light outfit together for a very reasonable amount, without needing to spend hundreds on the cutting edge. Carrying twenty pounds is a lot better than carrying thirty (unless the extra ten pounds are included for a purpose, of course: lightest possible is not necessarily lightest suitable), so why agonise in advance? It’s a wonderful thing to be able to access all of this information and opinion from one’s desk (or even ‘phone), but nothing substitutes for experience: a decent, cheap start lets you actually get out and hike, then next time you can start tweaking it all to suit your personal preferences.
My stove, of course, sits sneering at me to highlight my apparent hypocrisy. It weighs less than half an ounce and is made of titanium, of course. Get over it.