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Saturday, 31 December 2011

Farewell 2012 - a Year in Cycling

*The format of this piece is borrowed from David Mitchell's yearly piece in his Guardian/Observer column.

What an eventful year 2012 was in the wide world of cycling. The UK government was forced to adopt the EU fifth motoring pillar as a part of a series of concessions made during negotiating our re-entry into the EU after the events following David Cameron's now infamous use of the UK veto at the end of 2011. The change has yet to have any detectable effect on cycling rates, with a government spokesperson adding, "It seems that the legal technicalities surrounding insurance disputes following road traffic collisions was not the major factor which was keeping people off their bikes. We are at a loss." 2012 was also a year for moral outrage, following from the announcement that Brooks were planning a Soylent variant of their popular B17 saddle. The company to issue a statement apologising for the move, "We misread the market," claimed a Brooks spokesperson, adding "It seems it just isn't the time for this type product right now."

As we are soon to transition from one year into the next, let's take a moment to remember some of the more notable stories from 2012:

Churchill Ballad
Earlier this year Adobe released the Re-animation Suite, a collection of software tools which allowed the creation of an animatable CGI model of a person using a combination of archive still and video imagery. Following Adobe's acquisition of Bremneras, a company specialising in voice emulation software, the means to produce photo-realistic animated versions of people which could speak in the appropriate voice were within the grasp of ordinary people. Predictably, many set about using the technology to make crude YouTube videos. However, cycle journalist Carlton Reid seized upon the opportunity to re-animate the speech by Winston Churchill which is used in one of his I Pay Road Tax graphics:

The resulting video was later re-mixed and auto-tuned into a faux-power ballad and promptly went viral. In the process, Mr Reid, creator of the original video, became a mainstream celebrity on the back of the popularity of the viral hit. Carlton's new-found fame led to him being invited as a guest on Top Gear, leading to one of the most memorably violent interviews in the show's run. He also managed to get the fastest time in the reasonably priced car.

Healing Power of Helmets
In August, ground-breaking work was published in the Lancet identifying the possible use of cycle helmets as a powerful universal placebo. Professor got the idea for the study after seeing how strong many non-cyclists faith in cycle helmets was, despite the lack of evidence in support of this position, "I often receive comments and heckles when out on my bike. One of the recurring comments was along the lies of, 'You should wear a helmet, otherwise you'll have an accident.' it was at this point that I realised that the cycle helmet held a special place in the imagination of a large section of the public, who attributed it with almost limitless healing and protective power" This prompted the Professor to put his lab to work in investigating this effect further. Whilst the helmets could not do much to help cyclists in the event of a crash, the group found that wearing a helmet during the recovery process significantly reduced treatment time compared to the control group. The team proposed that what they were witnessing was actually a super-powered variant of the placebo effect, noting that helmets could be used to reduce recovery times for illnesses and injuries which were completely unrelated to cycling.

Cycle helmets are now used as a universal placebo in hospitals nationwide, shortening the recovery times for all patients regardless of their condition. Whilst the work has been widely welcomed, it has been a disaster for, who now have to issue a warning to visitors of their site that the contents may prevent their future use of the universal placebo treatment. Those who choose to continue reading the site are urged to carry a card stating that in the event of injury, use of the new universal placebo will no longer be effective.

Cat-6 Olympic Shocker
Earlier in the year, there was a great deal of surprise when the IOC unexpectedly recognised Cat-6 racing as a separate Olympic sport. The inaugural race taking place at the London 2012 games. As I'm sure most of you are aware, professional Cat-6 racing takes place on open streets and the winner does not merely cross the finish line first, but must be acceptably presentable for a working typical office environment. The sport attracted athletes from other cycling disciplines who were keen to be the first to win gold in the new event, in addition to enthusiastic amateurs including Mr Jim Davis from The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain. Whilst Mr Davis (who rode his Dutch bike during the event) crossed the finish line last, he was already dressed in a suit and didn't need to take a shower. To the shock of much of the world of professional cycling, he took home the gold medal. 

In the months since the games, the recognition of Cat-6 racing as an Olympic sport and the result from the first race has had a profound result on the nation's Fred population. Many manufacturers were quick to respond, with Specialized producing an all-crabon roadster including crabon mudguards and chaincase and Endura produced a Cat-6 cycling suit which is designed to be indistinguishable from a regular £150 suit in every single characteristic (MSRP £350). Sturmey Archer announced that crabon-shell version of their popular AW hub will go on sale in early 2013, complete with all-titanium internals.

Trek was not so quick to respond, with their new Cat-6 Madone rumoured to just be a Batavus with 'Madone' written on in Tippex.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Cycling is Safe

This one has been languishing in my drafts for quite some time, with both Vole O'Speed and As Easy As Riding A Bike sharing their own views on the issue in the meantime. Statistically speaking, cycling here in the UK appears to be surprisingly safe. Indeed, in the past I have focussed on this when talking to new and potential cyclists about their experiences of poor subjective safety. These statistics are also readily utilised by a vocal minority who  are ideologically opposed to the use of separation by mode for the prioritisation and protection of cyclists. As is often the case with statistics they only tell part of the story; whilst it appears at first that they show cycling to be a 'low-risk activity,' what they literally show is that the current sub-section of the population who choose to cycle are doing so relatively safely.

Like most other people who choose to cycle in the UK, when I cycle I do so in a hyper-aware state; I always expect the worst from other road users, I pre-emptively hover over the brakes when I see a car approaching a give-way line where I have clear priority and I plan my escape route for when that BMW makes a sudden turn without indicating. I am relatively fit, fast, I cycle in the optimal gear and I know precisely how much force I can put into the brakes before the wheel locks up. Put simply, the bar it set much higher for cyclists than it is for other road users because the road environment is inherently hostile for cycling. Most people who drive motorised vehicles, which are significantly wider, faster and heavier than bicycles, do not do so in a similar state of hyper-awareness. This is because there is simply no need; the vehicles and road environment have been designed in such a way that their operators are largely protected from the limitations of their own ability. The bar has been set rather too low for such inherently dangerous machines.

I have often thought that if some of the greatest minds of the 1950s were put together in a room and given  and nearly unlimited budget and the specific task of designing a road network to minimise the number of people choosing to cycle, without being permitted to explicitly make cycling illegal, the result would not be far off the current UK road network. The exceptional hostility for cycling which is designed into the UK road network is enough to prevent the vast majority of people from every wanting to cycle on it. The result is that those few who are willing to cycle on it are not at all representative of the general population; it is because this minority can cope with the road network as it currently exists that cycling appears to be a statistically safe activity.

In The Netherlands, cycling is statistically slightly safer than the UK. The difference is not as much as might be expected, which is often used as an excuse for opposing the construction of Netherlands-style dedicated cycle infrastructure in the UK. However, with a little context the safety statistics from The Netherlands start to appear much more impressive. By implementing road designs which are not inherently hostile to cycling, the section of the population choosing to cycle is much more representative of society as a whole. The majority of ordinary people, cycling without being in a hyper-aware state typical of UK cyclists manage to get around by bike and are still statistically more safe than the tiny minority of physically and mentally exceptional UK citizens who choose the bicycle. Next time there is a discussion about how safe cycling is, remember that in places such as the UK where cyclists are a tiny minority, the statistics don't tell you a great deal about how safe cycling is, only how safe cyclists are.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Apologies for my recent absence, unfortunately the blog had to go on the back-burner for a few weeks. It is now less than two weeks to Christmas, which means I can share with you The Twelve Days of Christmas (for cyclists) starting on the last verse. Feel free to sing along.

On the Twelfth day of Christmas my council gave to me

Twelve Cyclists Dismounts

Eleven-inch wide bike lanes

Ten side-road give-ways

Nine wheel-benders

Eight near misses

Courtesy of MiddleAgeCyclist

Seven narrow 'A' frames

Six-Pounds from the budget

Five buckled rims

Image courtesy of Bakfiets en Meer

Four biking 'crackdowns'

Image courtesy of Bike Snob NYC

Free high-vis

Image courtesy of The Lo Fidelity Bicycle Club

Two ASLs

And a bike lane running through a tree

Image courtesy of Facility of the Month

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Re-gearing the Brompton

Second-hand bikes can be a great way to get a good bike at a more affordable price. The downside is that you  get a bike which has been set-up according to the preferences of its previous owner. When I purchased the Brompton back in February, it had been set-up with obscenely high gearing, a 50-tooth chain-ring with a 13-tooth rear sprocket. With the Sturmey Archer S-RF3 rear hub, this gave gears with 3.7, 4.9 & 6.6 metres development respectively. I put up with this for a long time because although it was much too high, it still worked. Eventually, the stresses to the sprocket and chain from starting from stationary in such a high gear were too much, and the chain would no-longer mesh with the chain-ring.

Not having a 24mm socket to remove the left-hand folding pedal, I had a look at the official Brompton chainsets which would allow me to leave my existing left crank in place without a major mismatch. Needless to say, they were excessively expensive. Instead, I was fortunate enough to find a Stronglight chainset which, online at least, looked similar enough to the Brompton one for me to get away with leaving the original left crank in place.

The unused Stronglight left crank, with the original Brompton one. They could almost have been separated at birth.

The fitted Stronglight chainset with the Brompton original below, again they are very similar looking indeed. I also replaced the rear sprocket and chain, resulting in 42 teeth at the front and 14 teeth at the back. This produces 2.9, 3.8 & 5.1 metres development, respectively. This means the Brompton can now much more easily climb hills and accelerate from stationary without busting my knees. It may not be a very flashy upgrade but it makes a significant difference to how useful the bike is. If your gears are too high (or low) don't suffer in silence, do something about it. It can make the difference between a bike you merely tolerate riding in certain circumstances to one you actively want to use.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Thoughts on Cycling & the Political Spectrum

Cycling is not an inherently political thing. However, like many other things it is often framed in terms of the left-right political spectrum. In those who are more right-leaning, there is a tendency to frame things in terms of individualism and to look inwards to find the source of social problems, often suggesting they are a result of  a character flaw or behaviour. In those who are more left-leaning, there is a tendency to frame things in terms of collectivity and centralisation and to look outwards to find the source of social problems, often seeing behaviours as a result of environmental factors or a shortcoming of a society itself. As with most things, reality probably lies somewhere between the two extremes.

But what does all this mean for cycling? From a right-leaning perspective the bicycle fits nicely with individualism, an individual mode of transport which has no negative impact on the lives of others and offers the user complete freedom of movement. In a small way it allows its users to directly act against concerns such as climate change without the need to restrict the freedom of others. The economic benefits of cycling are also particularly desirable from a right-leaning perspective. From a left-leaning perspective the bicycle fits well with collectivism by producing wide-ranging societal and environmental benefits, especially in a country like the UK where the cost of healthcare is paid for through the government. Cycling (and affordable public transport) in place of catering primarily for more expensive environmentally and socially destructive forms of transport make mobility accessible to all members of society whilst increasing the health and safety of citizens, which is extremely desirable from a left-leaning perspective.

There are downsides too. There is a tendency towards xenophobia towards the right-end of the political spectrum; where cyclists are seen as a minority group they may be assaulted, threatened & intimidated by those who see cyclists as a group being 'different' somehow from themselves. The focus on social problems being a result of character flaws means that measures to promote cycling may end up being restricted to 'awareness' and 'training,' with infrastructural changes to the built environment to benefit cyclists (and other vulnerable road users) being shunned in favour of encouraging behavioural change indirectly, which is less successful. At the left-end of the spectrum there is a tendency towards over-regulation of the behaviour of the population, with measures such as compulsory cycle helmet legislation considered despite the damage these laws are already known to do to cycling rates.

As stated at the start, cycling is not inherently a political thing. The perception of the activity and those participating is largely due to existing personal experiences or prejudices, although how these experiences or prejudices manifest themselves may be framed depending on the political persuasion of the individual. However, when talking cycling with those in power, it is worth considering how to frame cycling as a 'good thing' in terms of the political mindset of the person whom you are addressing. For example, some might consider cycle infrastructure to be an inherently left-wing means of encouraging cycling, but it could just as easily be considered in more individualistic terms as a means of extending the freedom of movement for the individual, or as a means to produce an economic benefit. It's all a matter of spin.