Category Archives: Musings

Bikes ain’t bikes

It used to be that a bike was a bike was a bike. These vehicles of yesteryear had a basic frame (male and female styles), two wheels, a seat, classic shaped handlebars and a bell. Some bikes had brakes, and some were the backpedal brake variety. As a teenager, I had one of these clunkers. Mine had ‘real’ brakes, and a single, very large chainring on the front. It was hard work to ride, so it often also sported a nice collection of spiderwebs which I was generally happy to leave undisturbed.

I was amazed and impressed (and a bit overwhelmed) when I re-entered the cycling world some years ago. I had been assured that these old bikes were long gone. And my mentors were right! But one thing I was not prepared for was the enormous variety and the complexity of the modern treadly.

steel is real

Such a lot of choice (Photo credit: Flowizm)

Nowadays when one speaks of a bicycle, it is difficult to know what the discussion is about! Mountain bikes have become a class of their own – big chunky tyres, bouncy suspension front and rear and (if you mountain bike in Scotland) a good set of mudguards (fenders). At the other extreme, road racers are slick, lightweight machines with such skinny tyres and superfit owners who count every gram of weight as a potential threat to their performance capability. Then there is something called a hybrid……. 🙂 Not to mention touring bikes which are in another class of their own – panniers, granny gears and multitudinous spaces and places to attach touring gear.

Women now ride bikes that look like the mens bikes of yesteryear and in many places, what used to be a ‘womens’ style is now unisex and it is difficult to know the difference (if there is one).

A Dahon Tournado folded into its carry case. A full sized touring/road bike ready to be transported anywhere. Sadly, these bikes are no longer available.

A Dahon Tournado folded into its carry case. A full sized touring/road bike ready to be transported anywhere.

So when you go to purchase a bike, it is important to be very clear in your mind what you intend to do with that bike before you enter the shop.  Otherwise, be prepared to be bamboozled by the (fantastic!) array and complexity of choice that will face you! Even if you know exactly what you want, you may find yourself being tempted by something that is right outside your intended scope!

Dahon Tournado [Ritchey Break-Away frame] w/ S...

A Dahon Tournado fully assembled (Credit: Kaptain Amerika)

Which brings me to the point of this post. It has almost reached the point where a cycling enthusiast has to own more than one bike.

The commuter which can fold down to the size of a large carry bag is a must if one travels to work on a busy train, but it is just not suited to a holiday tour. Likewise, if you enjoy bouncing down the rocky slopes on a mountain bike, the same vehicle is not going to get you anywhere fast on the sealed tarmac.

Giant Anthem - a mountain bike set up for touring.

My Giant Anthem mountain bike poses near Orleans (France). I bought and modified this bike for this tour. Because it had front and rear suspension, I had to get special pannier racks (Old Man Mountain racks). I have since replaced the pannier bags with waterproof ones.

To me it feels rather excessive to own more than one bike, but it is almost becoming a necessity given the degree of customisation and incompatibility between bike styles. What are your thoughts on this matter? Do you agree, or do you feel that your bike is able to comfortably cover all the activities you enjoy?

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‘Clip-less’ cycling shoes make pedalling a lot easier

Is it really necessary to wear cycling shoes when riding a bike, or is this just for wanna-be Olympic contenders? Many people are probably unaware that there is such a thing as a cycling shoe! I was certainly in the latter category until I started cycling a few years back, thinking that most people just wore sports shoes with tough soles.

So why not just ride with ordinary shoes?
Well, no reason at all. Any shoes that are properly attached to the foot should work just fine. There are many people out there who refuse to don cycling footwear (or any specialised cycling wear for that matter) and even write blogs about their reasons (see the ‘other people’s experiences’ further down the page).

I am not a fan of slip-on shoes on a bike, as it is too easy for them to slip-off mid ride! But while riding with ordinary shoes is acceptable – it’s also very inefficient and frankly, hard work!

It is only possible to exert pressure on the downstroke and then that foot has a holiday while the other one exerts a downstroke on the other side. If only there was some way of attaching feet to the pedals, then one can push down and pull up as the pedals go around. This way, a lot more power could be generated with the same pedal rotation.

Well, luckily, there is.

Cycling-shoes

My cycling shoes look like sneakers from the top. (The velcro tabs stop the laces from getting caught in the chain).

Actually, there are two ways you can attach your shoes to your pedals.

1. Toe clips
I have always known about metal toe clips on pedals and thought these were quite common. Nowadays, though, modern toe clips are made of plastic (I am told this is because plastic doesn’t crush the foot in an accident – not sure how true this is). KJ tried these plastic toe clips a few years back, but he did not like them and they only lasted one or two rides. I have a friend who has old metal clips which he has used for years and would not exchange them for anything.

But plastic toe clips did not appeal to me at all, so I had to look for something else.

2. Clipless pedals/shoes
I am not sure why these are called Clipless pedals and/or shoes, because to me they clip together, so should be called the opposite (there’s logic there somewhere). However, apparently the name evolved because they were an alternative to toe clips, so were “clip less”.  But, ……I digress…… 🙂

Flat top of the pedal for ordinary shoes

Flat top of the pedal for ordinary shoes

Other side of the pedals, where the shoes clip in neatly

Other side of the pedals, where the shoes clip in neatly

Regardless of what they are called, this shoe-pedal combination is wonderful. I now have pedals which are similar in structure on all my bikes. The top is flat – great for quick rides where ordinary shoes are all that is needed.

The other side has a spring loaded clip-in mechanism which secures the shoe to the pedal. The shoes clip in easily once you are on the bike and are released with a quick sideways ankle twist.

The bottom of the cycling shoe has a cleat screwed to it. This can be moved around to a position which is most comfortable for the rider. I got sore knees for a while when I first started riding with clipless pedals/shoes and found that all I needed was to adjust this cleat to fix the problem. It seemed that my shoes were not facing forward properly once I was clipped in, so that my knees were twisting a bit with each pedal stroke. So, once I knew what the problem was, I fiddled with the settings and the problem disappeared.

The adjustable cleat under the shoe

The adjustable cleat under the shoe. The two round things are screws for adjusting the placement of the cleat.

My worry when I first started using this system was what would happen if I had to stop suddenly and forgot to unclip my feet. The answer is, of course, that I would  fall over! And I did – but only once!

It happened at a most inconvenient time, when everyone just happened to be looking my way :-). They must have wondered why that strange person just ‘fell over’ on that bike, instead of putting their feet out! I felt rather silly, but did not get hurt (I wasn’t moving after all!) so I just had to get over a bit of embarrassment!

But this was a small price to pay, and I am now so used to the shoes that I clip in and out as required without even thinking about it. I would also not dream of going on any substantial ride without these shoes. They really do take a lot of the hard work out of pedalling a bike.

I recently saw some cycling sandals with clip attachments – I am considering getting some of these for summer when it is too hot to wear socks and closed shoes.

It’s all in the (pannier) bag

As a mother, I have spent the last 20 years carrying a bag that contained a multitude of items to cover all eventualities at any possible time. Bandaids for cuts and scrapes, lipstick, tissues, and even sticky tape and scissors to mend homework books – I had the lot.  All of this stuff and a lot more became my regular load, compactly packed into my trusty handbag.

When my offspring finally developed the capability to deal with many of these events on their own, I was able to jettison many items, but it was not easy. Old habits die hard!

One small bag to take warm gear for a winter ride

My habit has now transferred itself to my cycling pannier bag and I seem to have an endless list of things that I am convinced I really could/should keep handy for every ride.

However, when I realised that I was looking longingly at those who go out on a ride with a small puncture kit, a miniscule pump and a bottle of water tucked away invisibly on their slimline, lightweight bikes (at least I think they take a puncture kit? :-)), I had a rethink.

I had finally woken up to the fact that I was taking far too much unnecessary gear which I would probably never use.

Fully loaded and weatherproofed on a rainy day while touring in France

My nearest and dearest assure me that I tend to worry too much about what may happen (but then take comfort from the fact that I probably have most things covered so they don’t need to worry!)

In recent months, I have decided to become rather ruthless and to cut the load of ‘might need one day’ gear down to that which is really essential! But I am also an independent sort and get annoyed with myself if I have to use/ borrow other people’s tools or spare tyres.

Riding on the beach in Tasmania – not too much being carried in the bags

So it has not been easy! So, here is my current list for casual rides around my local area (I go back to the full list when touring – that is non negotiable!):

  • Puncture kit
  • Tyre pump
  • Chain to lock the bike (depending on where I am riding)
  • Water (carried all the time regardless of the weather)
  • I have toyed with the idea of having a spare tyre, but so far, have resisted! (But it is easier to fix a puncture with a spare tube, so perhaps… :-))
  • Toolbag (this is where my indecisions really start) containing:
    • multitool screwdriver (fits all the screws and fittings on my bikes)
    • Some cable ties (they are useful for so many things especially if something comes loose or breaks)
    • Small plastic tyre lever
    • Side cutter pliers
  • I used to carry a first aid kit, but this is on the discard pile at the moment. (I seemed to be very prone to coming off my bike and hitting the dirt when I first started riding. This has not happened for a while now, so perhaps my riding skills are improving and the need for bandaids has declined :-))
  • Lightweight rainjacket/windcheater (rolls up into a tiny pack)

Weather considerations

I feel the cold and nothing spoils a ride quicker for me than having frozen body extremities. So winter temperatures and short days are tiresome, with head, arm and leg warmers all finding themselves classified as ‘essential’ items along with a good jacket. I admire riders who go out in the snow and bitter temperatures, but I am convinced that they must just be far more cold tolerant than me!

Riding around Auckland (New Zealand). Good weather, so not much gear on board!

I find this winter kit bulky, but non negotiable for about 4 months of the year, so usually this means having to take an extra pannier bag to lug it along.

Likewise, if rain is threatening, I will take some rain gear – waterproof jacket, gloves and pants. However, rain is less often a problem than the cold. One can ‘avoid riding’ on rainy days but I am not too keen on putting the bikes away for the whole of winter to avoid the cold!

What I would like to know from other readers is whether their kit is similar and whether you have have ‘must takes’ that I have left out?

Lard(er) management

I have a sweet tooth and love all sorts of delicious food, but alas, it does not love me! Just the smell of a jam doughnut and my mouth waters, and my bodyweight clicks up a few extra grams!

The older one gets, the less one needs in the way of calories or kilojoules to maintain a healthy physical size. I have fought the battle of the bulge all my life right back to when, as quite a young child, I was led to believe that I was a bit on the ‘heavy’ side for someone my age (now I know this was not true but it was what I believed).

I am now passed my half way mark in life and over the years, found I had put on more weight than was good for me. A decade ago I decided to change this and have worked hard ever since to reduce this to where I want it to be and keep it at that level. Sadly, my kilojoule allowance is now frustratingly low in order to keep it this way 😦

Keeping a handle on my weight was one of the main reasons why I took up cycling a few years back (together with the fact that I was getting no exercise). Now I commute to work daily and feel very guilty on the rare rainy days that I ‘cheat’ and use the car!

Cycling is energy efficient and helps keep the weight off

One of the biggest perks of being a bike rider is that you can take your hobby/sport with you and go bike touring when you are on holiday. Not only do you see so much more of the place that you are visiting, you will get to know so many more of the locals. But best of all, you can indulge in the local food delicacies without too many pangs of kilojoule-laden guilt.

France is one of the most beautiful countries and the food and wine found in each district is incredible. Foodwise, it is very different to what we get in Australia – it is just not possible to find the range of cheeses, pastries and breads, particularly in the regional area where I live. In the first week of our French tour, we were treated to wild boar, cheese that I did not know existed (!) and the rich French culture to set it all off. I was in heaven!

But there was one problem. I could not work out how many extra kilojoules I was eating each day or whether I was managing to ride them off to maintain a status quo (weight wise). The last thing I wanted was to return home to find a net increase in my weight. It is too hard to loose, so I would rather not put it on in the first place!

Unfortunately, both the major cycling tours that I have done have left me heavier on my return than when I left. (Admittedly, I was a lot fitter at the end too, so some of the weight may have been due to increased muscle rather than fat.) However, I am determined that this will not happen again, and I am now learning how to balance my energy levels before I again go on the road.

France, exquisite food from enticing bakeries and cheese shops

With the advent of the iPhone and iPad (and I am sure the non-Apple devices have similar software), it is now possible to get apps which you can use to monitor your energy input and output fairly closely. Many people would wonder “why bother, just have a good time and go on a diet when you return”, but in my book, this is a sure way to ruin the memories of a fabulous holiday.

My challenge though, is to be able to weigh myself now and again while on tour. In our western society where obesity is becoming a major issue, I would like to see a return to the practice of having a set of scales in each pharmacy or supermarket, where you can weigh yourself for free (or for a fee, I would be happy to pay!) The other challenge is to be able to calculate the kilojoules in meals in restaurants. Some food outlets advertise this information, but I think it should become compulsory standard practice everywhere.

I am also on the hunt for a set of small, lightweight scales that can be carted about in one’s pannier bag. This would assist greatly in calculating portions of snack food that are so essential to the rider, but are so easy to overdo. If you know of any scales that you think may be suitable, please share this information in the comments section.

And if you have any other ideas about methods to balance energy intake with energy output while on a cycling tour, it would be great to hear about them and to be able to share them with others.

Company on the road

Your cycling companion(s) can make or break your cycling trip. As such, your choice of a partner or riding group is one of the most important decisions in your tour planning. The critical thing to remember is that everyone needs to enjoy their trip, or else there is no reason for them to participate!

The pace of travel will most likely be set by your slowest rider. Conflicts and differences of opinion will be inevitable and should be expected and planned for. Acceptance, forgiveness and maturity are highly desirable (essential?) personal characteristics for everyone. On the up-side, riding with others means that you will have a larger cohort with whom to share your experiences.

Cycling alone – the pros…

Cycling on your own is one of the most liberating experiences you can experience. You only have yourself to please and you can go when and wherever your mood takes you. You can ride fast or slowly or a combination of both (or not ride at all!) – whatever takes your fancy on the day! You do not have to be sociable if you want to be grumpy, and you don’t have to cheer anyone else up when they are feeling a bit glum. If you have a passion such as photography, you may find that riding with someone else just does not work (unless, of course, they also get distracted by the same photo opportunities as yourself).

The downside….

If you are not someone who is used to spending a lot of time on your own, then you will probably get quite lonely. You could plan to stay at busy hostels or hotels each night which may alleviate this problem, but if you are camping, this won’t be an option.

Riding on your own can a liberating, but also leave one feeling lonely from time to time

Another significant con of being alone is not being able to leave your gear unsecured. This may be manageable/easy while you are away from populated areas but can be a nuisance when in town.

However, I know that despite these drawbacks, many people do tour quite happily on their own, and enjoy it immensely.

Cycling with a partner

If you have a friend or partner with whom you ride on a regular basis, the chances are that you will already be comfortable with each other’s company. This includes being able to perceive changes in personal moods and to react accordingly, giving space when needed and companionship at other times. If you can find someone to travel with (even if it is only part of the way), I believe that this is the best way to cyclo-tour. The benefits of riding with someone else are many. You have someone to talk to and to with whom to share the events of each day. This can make general travelling experiences a lot more enjoyable.

When there are two of you, it is also possible to ride more confidently and take possession of a road lane when required. Traffic can be quite overwhelming on your own, particularly if you encounter unfriendly or inconsiderate motorists. The latter can be quite upsetting from time to time, and it helps to have someone who can lighten the situation and help overcome these annoyances.

Unloading the bikes from the train in Paris

If you are planning to break your trip by catching the occasional train, having 2 pairs of hands and feet makes this a lot easier. In places like France and the UK, the train system is fantastic, but trains run to strict schedules and don’t mess about waiting while you get all your bags and bikes aboard! You have to be (a) ready and waiting and (b) quick about it when the train does pull in.

Having a partner to act as a ‘guard dog’ has significant advantage. Forays into a grocery store, using the bathroom and ducking over a wall to get an unforgettable photo are all quite easy when there is someone standing by who can watch your bike and all your gear while you are otherwise occupied. Also, if you are camping in a populated area, it helps to have two pairs of eyes keeping stock of all the gear. This is the main reason why I would not choose to cyclo-tour alone. Having to secure everything becomes quite tedious when you have to do it a number of times a day.

Guard dog duty at Gare de Lyon. KJ watches the bikes while I explore the magnificent station building

In the same vein, if you have equipment problems, one person can stay with the malfunctioning bike while the other is free to go for parts and/or advice.

Of course, if you are cyclo-touring in a remote place such as the outback of Australia, there is no problem with abandoning your cycling rig to duck behind the bushes – for the simple reason that you are probably the only person around for many miles! You would need to love your bike and own company out there though, people are very few and far between!

A dry riverbed Western NSW in Australia. Not too many people to be found out here!

But there is a downside too…

The down side of having someone riding with you all the time is that you don’t get to do much on your own. However, it is easy to plan some days to separate and do your own thing. This is an essential strategy if you have different interests and want to spend some time pursuing them and having a bit of ‘personal’ time.

KJ waiting for me to take some photos – this little town in France begged a photo on nearly every corner!

One thing that I find when touring is that some days I feel great and riding happens easily, whereas other days (for no logical reason) are just hard work! If this happens to you, your partner will need to be able to accept this shift and let you work through it with no pressure; likewise you will need to extend the same courtesy to them if required.

Cycling with a group

If you enjoy the company of others and are considering riding in a group of three or more people, there are a few things you will need to think about carefully. Firstly, if you are all friends before you leave, you will want to return as friends!

One thing you can be sure of, people will have different moods and your group will need to cope with them all! The more people you include, the more variation in interests, opinions and directions you will have. Not everyone rides at the same speed or with the same level of skill. Even those who have been training and getting ‘fit’ may not have the same touring tenacity as other more athletic folks.

Really good planning is essential and you may need to agree about how you will manage issues and disagreements before you make any travel arrangements! The bigger your group, the more variation you will have to deal with each day.

If you have cycled with others (or on your own) and can add more suggestions to those I have above, please leave a comment below.

Please be seated (in comfort!)

One of the things I found most difficult about setting up a bike was finding a comfortable saddle. When you think about it, of all the parts on a bike, this really is the most important. If you are not happily seated, you will spend your entire ride fretting, or simply being in pain. There is one certainty about saddles, if you don’t get yours ‘right’ you won’t ride a bike for very long.

Given the importance of finding a good seat, I am amazed at some of the uncomfortable perches that come attached to a new bike. Perhaps cycle manufacturers just assume that the purchaser will immediately remove the supplied seat and replace it, so do not bother giving it much thought. Or maybe I am just too fussy!

The trouble with saddles is that you may need to try quite a few before you will find one that you like. Additionally, your tastes may well change over time 😦 This can get very expensive if your local bike shop expect you to purchase each time you want to try a new style. There is also often a problem in that your local supplier generally won’t stock a very wide range, so you have a rather limited choice. If you are lucky enough to know someone else who rides, they may have some spare saddles that you could borrow and try. (It would be great to have a ‘saddle library’ so that you can borrow, try and return the seats until you find one you like!)

If your local shop get to know you a bit, they may be willing to let you try a saddle for a few days and return it if you are not happy. The expectation is that you will ultimately find one that you like and will then purchase it from them, which is fair enough. I was lucky enough to find a store like this which was great.

Many riders (including myself) start out thinking that the softer the saddle the better. If this works for you, then go for it. There are some great gel saddles out there and I rode with one of these for about a year. But I tried about 3 different types before I found one that was sufficiently comfortable. If you only ever plan to ride shorter routes such as a trip to the local shops, then you may be happy with this type of saddle forever.

However, if you decide to ride further afield, you may start to encounter problems. The issue with soft plushy seats is that they don’t really support your body as well as the harder saddles. And when you ride a lot, support becomes absolutely crucial.

This is when it is time to start looking at the firmer seats. I read as much as I could about the pros and cons of different styles and eventually decided to try a Brooks saddle. The articles I read indicated that once they were ‘ridden in’ they were very comfortable and would take the cyclist a long way with no problems.

There is a lot of information out there on the internet about seats and if you are at this point in your cycling career, I suggest you read as much as you can before making a decision. (Your experienced cycling friend may even reveal a stash of firmer saddles to try if you just ask!)

It did not take as long as I had imagined to ‘ride in’ my new saddle – a B17 S Standard. In fact, I was delighted with it right from day 1. After about 3 months, it became a bit softer and is now a firm (pun intended!) and very comfortable favourite. However, it was also at this stage that I started to use cycling knicks. (Having the padding on my rear instead of permanently attached to the seat made a big different to comfort levels – not sure why, but the cycling buffs out there all seem to agree!)

Over the years, I have progressively purchased Brooks saddles for each of my bikes. The B17 S is great on the mountain/touring bike while I have a Flyer S (has springs on it) on my roadbike. (I have not provided many photos on this post, but you can see a full range of Brooks products here. They have a wonderful range of bike accessories!)

I was absolutely delighted when purchasing my Dahon Tournado – it came with many high quality attachments, including a very smart Brooks B17 Special saddle. Both the bike and its customized case had been put together with considerable attention to detail which was most appreciated. Sadly, Dahon are now no longer trading and Tournados are therefore no longer available.

I would be happy to ride for many hours with any of my Brooks saddles now. Interestingly, I doubt I would get very far with the gel saddle which I liked so much when I first started riding.

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Small steps to cycling fitness

This post is going to seem a bit odd to people who have been riding for a long time, and think nothing of hopping on their bike and heading out for a 25km ride ‘around the block’. The reality for new riders is that riding that ‘far’ is a big step and not one to be taken lightly.

I had a few health issues when I first started riding, and it took a mammoth amount of effort to get up the smallest of hills. I just could not envisage the day when not only would I navigate the same hills with minimal effort, but would do this without even noticing the incline!

The reality is that, for those people who have never ridden before, or have not ridden since they were young, getting up the confidence to get on a bike can be very confronting. However, as with most challenging things, getting started is the hardest part.

Start by riding small, manageable distances. If you live in a quiet street (traffic wise), then ride up and down your street, then when you are comfortable, extend your zone around the block. (Make sure you know your road rules though, and rigorously observe them). If you have an experienced rider who is prepared to ride slowly with you and show you the ropes, so much the better.

Even better still, if you can get access to a cycleway where there is no traffic at all, this will be an excellent place to build up your fitness levels. I was lucky in this regard, traffic is almost non-existent in my suburb, so it was ideal.

Once you can do the equivalent of a few laps of the block and arrive back feeling invigorated rather than exhausted, then you are ready to go further afield. But don’t make the mistake of trying to go too far too quickly. You will arrive back exhausted and the enjoyment of riding will be lost.

Having a breather half way up the hill – that slope in the distance still waiting to be conquered!

Nearly at the top – pushing the loaded Anthem up the last bit of that big hill in the Scottish Highlands

If you have a steep hill or two along your route and they give you sleepless nights, the solution is easy – get off and push your bike up the hard bits, then enjoy the ride down the other side! There is no rule that says if you have a bike, you have to ride it all the way!  I have pushed my loaded bike up many steep hills, when common sense dictated that walking was far more sensible than struggling to ride. It is also a good way to ‘appreciate the view’ or ‘take a photo’ – yes, I have used all these excuses! But now I don’t bother with excuses, if I want to walk, I just do!
Using this method, no hill will ever be a problem for you again and you can go back to having undisturbed beauty sleep!

But each time you get to a hill, try to get a little further before you dismount. Before long, all those hills that looked like such a challenge will gradually become less forbidding, and eventually, you will barely notice them.

I can remember the enormous feeling of achievement when I first cycled 26km. The best part was that this took us into our local shopping precinct, so a cup of coffee was always available at the half way mark. This soon became a regular and enjoyable summer weekend outing.