Monthly Archives: September 2012

Bike Snobbery?

So having had a Fixed Gear bike for 9 months now, I’ve been getting a little lonely cycling by myself. There was that one epic failure of an attempt that I had to ride with the Exeter Wheelers on a Thursday night – something that I certainly wouldn’t have attempted if I’ve realised that they are one of the most hardcore racing groups in Exeter! I lasted about 20mins. And I’ve been out riding with road cyclists of a more reasonable pace occasionally. But other than that I’ve been mainly training by myself.

Yesterday I ran into some people from the very excellent organisation Sustrans, who’s free iphone map app I use all the time. I asked if they knew of any other FG cyclists or a group in Exeter. Sadly, the answer was no.

“Are you a Fixed Gear snob?” They asked jokingly.

Or maybe not so jokingly. The thing is, riding Fixed Gear has all sorts awful connotations attached to it. It’s harder, but slower and to some people that’s just dumb.

Each to their own, but that’s TOO TIGHT for me!

Some people ride Fixies for fashion, which sounds rather like wearing your trousers too low for the sake of fashion: impractical and potentially dangerous. This analogy is especially pertinent when considering people who ride Fixies without brakes (not even just a little front brake there for emergencies?!?!). I certainly can’t imagine doing what the hipsters do and cycle for miles across the city at high pedal cadence in skin-tight-jeans – ouch! Yet someone said to me recently that if people take it up for fashion and stick with it for fun, then it’s a good fashion to follow since it’s good for your health. Fair point.

I’ve had my two cents in on why I ride FG in my previous post ( No I’m not a Fixed Gear snob. I’m still tempted to get a multispeed roadbike as well when I can afford to (although the jury’s still out on this one and I try and push those sinful thoughts away).

Because let’s be clear about this – it’s not as efficient to ride a FG as it is to ride a multispeed bike. But whilst not being as efficient, it is very enjoyable in such a way as is easier to experience than to explain. If your goals are distance and efficiency, gears are for you. If your goals are fun and fitness…

Well Fixed Gear cycling is very good for increasing fitness. Just look at this quote from cycle coach Chris Carmichael.

An hour and a half to two hours of fixed-gear riding is equivalent to four hours of regular riding”

Apparently cycling at 14mph for one hour (which happens to be the maximum I’ve ever averaged) burns 700 calories. But that’s on a multispeed bike. Go figure!

Yes, there really is a “Bike Snob” book, written by ex New York cycle courier Eben Weiss who blogs under the name “BikeSnobNYC”

But even though I’m not a bike snob, I would like to train with other FG cyclists. Why? Well problem with training with geared cyclists is as follows: It’s even harder. That’s been my experience anyway. They speed up on flat sections whilst I struggle to keep increasing my cadence. They coast on the downhill sections whilst I expend extra energy pushing back on the pedals to stay with them. And climbing hills just doesn’t work out either. Even if we could do the same overall times if we were riding separately, riding together we approach each stretch of road so differently it’s counterproductive for both parties. I’ll still do it though, from time to time – it’s good for me.

So, is anyone up for the Exeter Fixed Gear Club? I’m aware that this may be a minority thing. Is there anyone out there who I can persuade into getting themselves a Fixie? After months of asking around and searching the web with no luck, a friend found this for me by chance – a cycle community. Let’s see what it brings.


Filed under Uncategorized

The Big Cycle Adventure Part 3 (the last)

After a day off due to having jarred my hands, I nervously got on my bike with plans to ride a modest 12 miles to Holy Island from Berwick, and take public transport from that point onwards if it proved too painful. I’d had my handlebars double taped for extra cushioning, and changed the bike back to its Fixed Gear setting so I could brake with my feet and give my hands a rest

Finally I’d found an advantage to riding Fixed Gear! My hands were so damaged that using the hand-brakes was hard, and I have to say that I probably wouldn’t have been able to ride that day if I hadn’t been on a Fixed Gear bike that allowed me to brake with my feet instead. Furthermore, I started to wonder if I might never have sustained ulnar nerve damage if I’d not ridden with the freewheel for a the whole of the day before.  Riding SS not FG had forced me to clamp my hands tightly around the brakes for all of the bumpy downhill bits, which was probably when most of the jarring took place.

Thankfully the rest of the journey passed beautifully and without any further disasters. I was able to cycle to Holy Island, enjoy the wonderful fairytale scenery and then managed to make it another 30miles to Seahouses without a problem.  I met a German family who were cycling around looking for a campsite. It seems they had expected England to be rather more like Europe – where campsites were everywhere and there was no need to book. I was pleased to be able to use my smartphone to look up the nearest campsite and book them into it, persuading the staff to take pity on them and stay open a bit longer to let them in. I felt glad that I could at least help someone at last, but also relieved to know that other people were having as many disasters as I did when travelling.

Feeling relaxed, I cycled through the late evening sunshine and watched the sky change as I headed towards Alnmouth to camp… then I got a puncture… and then my bike pump broke.

Sitting on the side of the road I wondered what to do. I had managed to get the tyre to about 60psi with the defective pump – hard enough to ride, but soft enough that it would probably pinch puncture soon if I rode it. Looking behind me I saw a gate, which turned out to lead to the most idyllic wildcamping spot I had ever seen. An inviting willow tree surrounded by lush greenery, and the backdrop of the sun setting over a gorgeous cornfield, welcomed me. There was no need to pitch a tent. My shelter had already been provided.

The following day I reluctantly packed up camp and prepared to leave this little haven. I thought I’d been smart in leaving my padded shorts (which I wore every day) out to air overnight, inside out. I discovered in the morning that slugs think of the chamois as an excellent place to sleep! I cleaned off the silvers as best I could and made my slimy way towards the nearest bike shop to get a new pump (the ride seemed strangely more comfortable than usual).

My final day passed peacefully as I steadily made my way to Newcastle to finish the tour. I’d got the hang of when to eat chocolate, but still suffered a couple of blood sugar dips. These generally happened because I didn’t think to eat when I didn’t feel hungry, but upset and defeated. Then I’d eat something sweet and be feeling cheerful again in under a minute. That’s the sort of thing that could lead to a serious comfort eating habit! No wonder a lot of athletes balloon when they retire in their 30s.

This last leg from Seahouses to Newcastle was 76miles and I was surprised to be able to make it at all. I celebrated by making passers by take pictures of me and my bike by the Tyne River.

Initially I’d intended to do 300miles in 8 days riding, but in the end it turned out I’d done 320miles in 6 days, having missed one day due to bad weather, and one due to injury. About 60miles were done Single Speed and the rest Fixed Gear.

I kept returning to that question that had bothered me since a week before I left for this trip: Why tour Fixed Gear?

Here are some of the comments I’ve received when people have learned that I’m touring on a Fixed Gear bike.

“You’re either mad or very fit, or both” – fellow tourer

“Are you riding Fixed Gear with panniers?” – incredulous coastal bike shop, whilst looking in vain for my derailleur.

“Er.. WHY?!” – fellow tourer

“I wouldn’t do that, you’ll wreck your knees” – unnamed bike shop.

“Well… it’ll make it more of an adventure” – The Bike Shed Exeter (big up The Bike Shed!)

On the last day of my cycletour I’d written to Harriet Fell (widow of the late Fixed Gear guru, Sheldon Brown, and equally experienced and accomplished) to ask for some encouragement to get me through. She very kindly responded to my out-of-the-blue email by writing to tell me how she herself had come to Fixed Gear bikes for racing and touring for 30 years without looking back. Most charmingly, she told me that when she met her husband ‘My first words to him were, “You’re riding fixed gear, aren’t you?”’ They were obviously a match made in a heaven without derailleurs.

So this is my answer to the question: Why tour Fixed Gear? – BECAUSE YOU CAN

When training on a Fixed Gear bike, you can’t help but get fit. And whilst you’re doing it, you can enjoy the increased control and lack of distractions that cycling without gears provides. When it comes to touring, ok it’s physically harder to tour FG, but after all that training you’re probably fit enough to do with one gear. So the question becomes, why tour on a multispeed bike and give up all the advantages of FG cycling?

The fact is, that riding a Fixed Gear bike feels lovely, even more so that Single Speed. I can get completely into the zone, totally forget that I’m riding a bike, and just pretend I’m a wheeled creature, because each pedal stroke feels like a stride. I know how fast I’m going or how steep a hill is just by the rhythm of my legs. Maneuvering is easy and so precise that it almost feels like I’m walking. It simply feels like magic. It’s as though I’ve suddenly gained the ability to run at speeds of 25mph+.

On a multispeed bike, every gear change reminds me that I’m operating a machine and breaks that illusion. The strange business of accelerating with the pedals and breaking with the hands seems clumsy and out of control. Ok, so there will be some tougher hill climbs without gears, but what are a few tough climbs compared to the peace and joy of riding a Fixed Gear bike? Daily mileage on a Fixed Gear tour might be lower than on a multispeed bike tour, but who cares when every mile feels so fantastic?

I part way through the tour I had been wondering whether I would upgrade to a multispeed bike at the end of the year to celebrate my first year as a full time cyclist. In the end… I’ll probably just get a better Fixed Gear bike.

PS: If the Olympics or this weblog has inspired you to get yourself a bike and start riding, then I’d recommend an excellent maker, mainly FG and SS. His bikes are beautifully finished too.


Filed under Uncategorized

The Big Cycle Adventure – Part 2

I’d thought I was going “into the wild”, but it turned out I was just going “into the gift shops”


Restored by 4 days staying in Edinburgh with friends, it was now time for my return journey to Newcastle. I felt confident that having survived the weather, rocks, mud and a police escort during my outward journey, I was both brave enough and fit enough to cycle from Edinburgh to Berwick-Upon-Tweed in one day. I had carefully measured the distance on Google Maps and at 62 miles, it would be the furthest I had ever ridden in one day.

I’d got a new smartphone since the old one had died (due to age, not damage) so I would have a more reliable phone-GPS than before. Even so, I felt that the best way to keep safe and to find my way, was to join other people if I met them. I’d been out there on my own and had had enough of that. During my outward journey I’d thought I was going “into the wild”, but it turned out I was just going “into the gift shops”. It was time to admit that the Coast and Castles path was far more densely populated than I’d imagined and I should just admit it and talk to people now and then.

The first person I met was called David. He was on a long journey to London and was aiming for Berwick by nightfall. Like me, he was wildcamping in fields and forests, but he had the most heavily loaded touring bike I’d ever seen! It was like a wheeled camel, with everything under the sun attached to it it, including a fold out chair, the kitchen sink and everything under the kitchen sink too. Each pannier had extra items dangling from it and a huge number of cords bungeed a pile of miscellaneous kit across the top of the rack.

David and his loaded bike.

David would tell you that whoever invented the caribena should be given a knighthood. He also said that whoever invented the bungee cord should be shot. This was something he would repeatedly mention whilst he was loading up his pannier rack after a rather nice lunch that he’d made for us with his extensive camping kitchen.

Unfortunately, David’s heavily weighted bike simply made him too slow for me to ride with all day without worrying that I’d never get anywhere. So I took his number in hopes of meeting up later when we’d both arrived in Berwick, and then cycled on.

Soon I met two more guys who were on their way to Berwick. It was the first leg of their Edinburgh to Derby Charity Ride, at 80miles per day.  Learning that they were aiming to average 10-13mph (about the same as me), I was keen to stick with them.

Now we’ll have to call them, say, James and Matthew, because I simply can’t remember their names, neither could I find their Charity page on the Internet. However, if they are in fact reading, they should not be offended, because the only reason I can remember David’s name and not theirs, is because I took his number down.

The day ended up serving as a good way of comparing different sorts of bikes on the same route. James and Matthew were credit card touring – meaning they were taking the bare essentials in small panniers, staying in B&Bs and buying everything else they needed along the way. James had a hybrid with SPDs and Matthew had a mountain bike with plain pedals and no toe clips. I had my road bike in Single Speed mode rather than Fixed that day. I was using SPDs as always, and was carrying lightweight camping luggage in 2 panniers and a handlebar bag.

David, who I’d left to ride slowly some miles ago, was riding with 4 panniers, a handlebar bag, and seemingly had a magnet on the back of his pannier rack that attracted large metal objects which piled up on top of it. Having said of his sturdy touring bike “This is the heaviest she’s ever been”, I received a text from him mid afternoon, saying that he had buckled his front wheel and wouldn’t be seeing me in Berwick after all.

A towerI felt sorry for the guy because I myself was only just realising how overambitious a solo cycle tour really is. The ideal situation for a beginner like myself would be to travel with someone who is experienced and good at fixing bikes. As it was, almost every day I had found myself searching for the nearest bike shop for one reason or another – a broken pump, an unexplained grinding noise, or a bit-that-has-fallen-off-and-gone-in-the-river.

I was grateful to have some people to cycle with that day.

On the Hybrid vs MTB vs Single Speed side of things, it was immediately evident that I was up every hill faster than the other two, but definitely appreciated having a rest at the top whilst I waited for them. Having only one gear my “strategy” had to be quite different to theirs. I couldn’t go slowly because I’d lose momentum, so I would sprint off as soon as I saw a hill coming up in the hope of gaining enough speed to make the climb easier.

James and Matthew would instead drop down to a comfortable gear and cadence and make steady uphill progress. It was clear that not only, was I faster, but I was also putting in more effort per hill than they were, and getting methodically exhausted. Matthew in particular could drop down to a low gear on his MTB and climb casually. In terms of stamina, he fared best throughout the day. The MTB also came out on top when yet again, marked cyclepaths that were supposed to be paved, turned to potholes held together by gravel.

After a few hours I had a blood sugar crash. It wasn’t exactly that I had forgotten to eat, but with so much up and downhill, it seemed like I just couldn’t eat fast enough on the short flat sections. We stopped for a break and James and Matthew rescued me with a high tech energy drink whilst I established that I was 2 chocolate bars away from normal bloodsugar. These guys were all about the high tech drinks, and I have to say, whilst they may not be any better than real food and water, it’s certainly easier to get the balance right with the electrolyte stuff.

“How far is it to Berwick?” I asked Matthew, who had both a cycle computer and a dedicated GPS.

“Well,” he said, looking at both “we’ve done 62 miles so far…”

“Hang on,” I said “shouldn’t that mean we’re there already? It’s 62miles from Edinburgh to Berwick”.

“No it isn’t. We’re doing 80miles a day, remember?”

It was then that I realised that Google Maps had failed me again. It was never 62 miles to Berwick – this was just an online map lie. Having already cycled the furthest I thought I could manage in 1 day, I was now going to have to do another 18miles.

some water (blue, isn't it)Thankfully it turned out to be a little over 13 miles before I was bidding James and Matthew a fond farewell and returning once again to Berwick Youth Hostel, exhausted but happy. It was the steepest and longest day of the whole trip, but I had enjoyed the physical challenge, the scenery and the company, and felt tired but undamaged.

In the morning I discovered that actually I was damaged. I had taken good care of my legs the night before – massaging them with oil, and drinking a high tech recovery shake I’d received as a parting gift from James and Matthew, but I hadn’t considered that I might have worn out my arms. Yet in the morning it became clear that I had succumbed to the all too common “ulnar nerve inflammation”, characterised by the constant pins and needles in the last 2 fingers on each of my hands.

This can be caused by poor technique, but it turned out that in my case, it was most likely caused by riding a road bike with thin tyres on bumpy surfaces for long hours, and by riding much further than I was used to.  It took me by surprise because I hadn’t felt any tingling during the ride, only afterwards, but apparently, that is how the inflammation usually manifests.

For all my worrying about taking a Fixed Gear bike on a cycle tour, my main problem turned out to be that my Fixed Gear bike was also a road bike with thin 100psi tyres. Having one gear was the least of my problems.

Since lots of UK cycle paths are not suitable for thin tyres (even if the map doesn’t specify) a road bike could just be the worst choice for a cycle tour that involves paths. I thought I was doing well because I didn’t break my bike. Turns out, I was just breaking myself instead.

I knew nothing about unlar nerve problems, but phoned a friend and learned enough to know that I shouldn’t ride with this injury for fear of doing permanent damage. I had to accept that this might be the end of my adventure.


Filed under Uncategorized