Coming Out As A Hermit: A prelude to some posts about “Yurt Living”

As some of you may know, I live in a Yurt. Actually, it’s a 12 ft Ger, but no-one knows what a “Ger” is, so I tell people it’s a Yurt (they are both quite similar, wood framed, canvas dwellings).

It’s got two sheepskin rugs, and a woodburner. I’m still using the candles I got from the car boot sale as my only source of lighting. It’s so damp that my stuff goes moldy and I have to keep anything electrical and most of my instruments in the main house to stop them from perishing. I’ve got a 5litre water bottle and a camping stove. The temperature drops to between 6-8 degrees C at night, but that’s ok because, as I mentioned before, I have two sheepskin rugs. Fortunately I’m also addicted to knitting so ROLL ON WINTER!

A few weeks before I moved in (in August) I had posted an advert on Facebook looking for somewhere to pitch my yurt. It was called “Ever Wanted Your Own Hermit?”. Some very wonderful people answered the ad, and so here I am under canvas.  Straight after I found my pitch, you may have noticed that I deleted the advert, and all references to the Yurt. Why? Well… at first I didn’t want there to be any evidence of my Yurt dwelling online.

“Why not?!?!” you ask. “After all, everyone seems very interested and is always asking about your alternative way of life, wanting to visit the new yurt, see pictures etc. Why don’t you post in your weblog about it?”

Well, there were a few reasons I’ve held fire:

Firstly, although my yurt-dwelling is legal, the way I’m doing it (I’ve checked extensively), I do worry that I might get grief about it anyway, or that the laws might change, so I haven’t wanted to publish my lifestyle on the internet.

Secondly, I’d worry about security, so for that reason I’m not going to give my specific location. Let’s just say I’m somewhere in the Exeter area.

I have thought long and hard about whether or not to write about my Yurt dwelling on this weblog and finally, I’ve decided: YES.

I have changed my mind for one very important reason: I never would have been able to realise my dream of living in a yurt if it weren’t for OTHER PEOPLE’S WEBLOGS.

Reading the writings of those who are living alternative lifestyles has been invaluable research for me on my quest, and I’d like to give something back by writing about my way of life.

In the past year, on my path to a more basic form of transport and a more basic form of living, I’ve read, re-read and learned so much from the following people’s words:

Another reason I was apprehensive about Yurt-posting is that this was meant to be a Cycleblog, not a Yurtblog. However, I’ve come to the conclusion that this doesn’t really matter. For me, the simplicity of Fixed Gear Cycling fits perfectly with the ethos of simple off-grid yurt living. My cycling journey has certainly led me to this place, so actually it IS relevant after all.

Perhaps I should change the name of it to “Zen and the Art of Fixed Gear” or something, to convey my lifestyle commitment to using no more than you need.

Do you need more gears on your bike?

Do you need a house and a mortgage?

These are important questions for me, because in my experience, having anything I don’t need just gets in the way of living, loving and happiness. I firmly believe that too many people worry about lack, when they should be worrying about excess. I think the Dali Lama says some sort of relevant thing in a book I’ve got, but I can’t find it right now.

Anyway, more coming on the Yurt soon, including pictures and inside tips.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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The Big Cycle Adventure Part 1

When leading up to my first cycle tour, there was one question that increasing bothered me: Why tour fixed gear?

Up until now, my fixed gear year has been going well. When it comes to general riding, the advantages of riding fixed, outweighed the disadvantages. But cycletouring? I hadn’t even thought to consider a multispeed bike for touring. I was taking my Fixie and that was that. This is because I’m still in my 1year challenge period and I also don’t have the spare cash to shell out for a new bike.

But the more I looked into it, the more it seemed like fully loaded touring (where you take camping stuff) on a Fixie had no advantages whatsoever. Touring fixed is like saying ‘I’ll do it with one hand tied behind my back’. Doing it loaded AND fixed is like saying ‘ok, BOTH hands’.

Why is that? Because with a heavy bike, uphill riding will require more strength and downhill stretches will be faster, meaning you have to pedal superfast with no option to freewheel. If there are headwinds or unexpectedly steep hills, there is no option but to climb hard. As a result, you can’t pace yourself or take it easy by shifting down a few gears. You have to ride the terrain as it comes and that’s that, possibly leaving you exhausted but with days left to go.

I asked a few cycle enthusiasts ‘why tour fixed gear?’

They said ‘Don’t!’

I searched the web for people who DO tour fixed gear – turns out they are all 100mile per day serious enthusiasts/nutters.

This news terrified me! I have no need to prove myself in this way and yet somehow I’d set myself up for what turns out to be a ridiculous challenge!

Umlaut, fully loaded. Later in the journey I would buy food and strap it across the top of the rack in a drybag

I spent hours checking the route’s gradients and weighing luggage, trying to take more and more things out until I had it down to a manageable 15kg including water. I was worried too about not bringing enough creature comforts to be able to sleep well on camp, leaving me tired for the next day’s ride. The weather forecast predicted rain every day of the trip. I soon realised that I would have to stay in B&Bs on some nights to recover, meaning I was going to do the somewhat silly thing of dragging along camping gear to use on only half the nights.

I had the bike fitted with a 68inch gear (a kind of low/meduim gear) and gave myself permission to flip to the freewheel if I needed to.  I also gave myself a rule not to push myself at all unless I had to. In other words, I was to take it as easy as possible on the flat and stop often, in order to save my energy for any big climbs.

The route was Newcastle to Edinburgh along the coast. 140miles (a figure which proved to be largely fictitious) over 4 days.

It’s seen to be good luck to get a puncture on the first day as I understand it.

The first two days were an absolute joy. I was delighted to find that they were very flat and along some beautiful coastal paths. It was hard to get as far as 30miles in a day, what with wanting to stop at every pretty spot, which seemed to occur at intervals of roughly 1 mile. People were ridiculously helpful, giving directions and filling up my water bottles for free. I call this phenomenon ‘fitness guilt’. Which is the invisible force that causes people who avoid exercise to help those who ARE doing exercise, in order to somehow improve their fitness karma. This is a little cynical – they could have just been nice people.

I pedaled leisurely through Whitley Bay (despite an early puncture), camped near Blyth and journeyed on through Ashington and Amble the following day. In a couple of places I was a little alarmed to discover that with no warning sign or marking on the map, short sections of the cycle path were gravel. Little did I know that these were nothing compared to what was to come.

The remnants of my camp, on the only morning it was sunny enough to photograph.

I spent my second night in a field near Alnwick. The 3rd day was due to be longer (45miles) and hillier. I had slept badly, camped through a severe weather warning and caught a cold. That last minute decision to swap the bivi for the much heavier tent had paid off and I had stayed mostly dry.

Weather was bad in the morning and I was quickly soaked through as I rode off to Embleton. ‘We must be mad!’ shouted a cheerful and equally bedraggled couple cycling the other way.

Worse still I couldn’t find anywhere to have get any kind of food for breakfast. For the first hour, I stopped at every closed cafe (just in case) or little shop I could see, with no success. People had stopped being helpful – probably because I was now exhausted, starving, soaking wet and dripping from the nose. I found a post office that sold chocolate and coke. I bought a mars bar and a coconut bar that simply turned out to be a bar of icing! I took one bite and spat it out – horrible stuff.

Finally I found a cafe called Eleanor’s Byre, glowing in heavenly light and staffed by angels… Well no actually, it was just that it had tea and cake.

‘Did you get caught in the rain?’ asked the owner

‘Yes.’ I replied, ‘I’m very happy to see you.’

‘Would you like some tea?’

‘What’s the biggest pot you’ve got?’

What a fantastic place! I even managed to discreetly wash my hair (and important parts) in their lavish bathroom, stealing some of the air freshener as deodorant (please nobody tell them!)

Refreshed, I continued on my journey, hoping to hit Holy Island by early afternoon. But now, in absence of the rain there were 20mph headwinds. Later, nature would get creative and combine both.

Come 5pm, having ridden hard for hours and eaten almost all of my emergency chocolate, there was still no sign of Holy Island. Thinking I might be lost I phoned Berwick YHA. I told them my location and they looked it up on Google. I was assured that I was 12 miles from Berwick, but to pedal fast because the weather was forecast to get worse.

I pushed on with a new sense of resolve, only to almost immediately see a blue cyclepath sign saying ‘Berwick 18miles’. It suddenly dawned on me how wrong Google Maps must be when measuring distances on the cyclepaths. No wonder today had taken much longer than expected!

With 18miles to go, something fused in me. My mind and body came into complete alignment with each other and I knew that I wasn’t going to give up. I rode as fast as I could, knowing the weather would only get worse. The weird bar of icing I’d bought that morning suddenly and mysteriously tasted delicious. Even when the path turned to a waterlogged field of rocks with only a 6inch wide mud track to follow, I had no thoughts of giving up. In fact, determined not to lose time by stopping to eat, I got out my emergency pie and held it with my left hand so I could eat it while riding.

I consoled myself by thinking about beaches I had been to earlier that day.

In the end, I spent about an hour off-road in the borderline hail. Having fallen over into the mud, I decided to turn inland and find a main road, but my phone (which was also my GPS) had died and I had no idea which way to go. I had an emergency battery charger, but it turned out the phone was actually broken and wouldn’t charge.

Somehow I was undeterred and in my mind, this worsening of odds only served as confirmation that I couldn’t fail. I had a guess at which way was inland and soon hit the A1. Unlucky. Soon the police stopped me to find out what the hell I was doing cycling in the rain, down the side of the A1. Not illegal as it turns out, but worrying. When I explained my situation they actually escorted me the rest of the way to Berwick YHA. When I got there I couldn’t even hold a pen to fill in their arrivals form.

After that day I didn’t care what happened next. I didn’t know how far I had cycled but it didn’t matter anyway. I had just done 8 hrs on a fixed gear bike, loaded, in tough conditions and through tough terrain. It was a challenge that I’d never meant to take on, but having done it I felt I could do anything. The sense of focus I’d been able to draw on had surprised me and I felt secure knowing that I had those kind of reserves to call on.

The following day I was surprised to find that my legs didn’t even hurt. I spent a couple of hours in a bike shop getting the damage repaired that I had caused by riding a road bike off-road the day before. I can highly recommend Wilson Cycles in Berwick: an amazingly helpful, expert and honest place. The staff there were able to confirm that the 4-day route I had chosen was not 140miles at all, but just over 200! And the route I had ridden the day before was not the mapped 45miles, but a solid 60!

With no phone, GPS or map and another day of rain forecast, I had NO problem with skipping a day and getting the train from Berwick to Edinburgh.

Thus ended the first half of my adventure.

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Pre-Bike Trip Thoughts

Since I was very young I have wanted to go on some sort of journey or adventure. I’ve strongly felt that it needed to be solo, a personal challenge and powered by my own body, taking at least a couple of weeks. This bike trip is IT.

I’ve got enough experience cycling now to know that I can probably do it.. but not enough to know if I can definitely do it. There are just the right number of known factors and the right number of unknown factors. I completely accept that I could break my bike or get too exhausted and fail to finish the journey… but that’s all part of it. There’s something very important to me about this journey, even if I don’t know what.

My father was a keen cyclist for years until a crash stopped him cycling seriously. I guess that’s why I could cycle before I could walk, and why I got my first set of toe clip pedals at the age of 8. But I’ve always cycled habitually rather than with any interest, until now.

My father constantly overestimates the progress I’m probably making, saying “You could find a group that does 60mile club runs. Or if you’re really struggling, you could always find a slow group that only do 40mile trips… you can do 40miles can’t you? You can do 20miles in an hour can’t you?” I say “Not really Dad”.

My grandmother says “Don’t listen to him! You know he used to train with the alongside members of the Olympic team? You know he used to be out riding every evening of the week and 100miles at the weekend?”. I say “Did he?”

She says “Don’t push yourself now. You mustn’t do anything that not a pleasure, otherwise there’s no point is there.”

I tell my dad that I’m not taking it as seriously as he did, but I do want to do this 300mile ride – it’s a big challenge for me personally.  In the end, he says “I think you can do it, because you seem like a strong cyclist”. I tell him that I feel like maybe I’m a weak cyclist who just won’t give up. He says “That’s what all strong cyclists are”.

Wish me luck – it starts today.

It’s starting to look like I know what I’m doing

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The Real Reason Women Don’t Cycle?

(July 4th 2012)

Taking up cycling this year, I did notice that most other cyclists I saw on the road were men. On the cyclepaths I do see women, but on the roads it’s mainly men. At a bike shop, I asked if they had any long sleeved women’s jerseys, it turned out they had only two, despite having an entire room dedicated to clothing.  Is this discrimination, or simply lack of consumer demand? Looking on Google, I found some statistics from America, showing that only ¼ of cycle commuters are women. So what’s going on?

I’ve heard many women say to me “Oh, I can’t cycle, it would make my thighs too big”. Come on girls, it doesn’t make them that much bigger! In fact, it’s a hi-reps & low resistance exercise that tones muscle rather than building bulk – which I’ve heard is what most women think they are after anyway. I’m not convinced it’s the leg thing.

So, why don’t more women cycle?

My Chinese Grandmother: You don’t cycle with an umbrella.
Me: No. Why?
My Chinese Grandmother: You get arrested!
(photo credit- Richard Masoner via flickr)

After 6 months of increasing my bike riding, I think I might have found the answer.  If you mostly ride distances of more than 10 miles, you’re going to want a road bike really. And if you’re a woman riding a road bike, you’re basically leaning forward and sitting on your genitals aren’t you. Ouch!

Obviously some women don’t have a problem with this. And there must be men out there who struggle with sensitive bums too. But as a woman you’re onto a loser in the first place if you’re less sitting on your bum than on your cl%#*!&s!

I’ve never heard women talk about this problem, and I myself have never had a problem… until now. The reason it’s happening now is because I’m riding a road bike and I’m riding further. What’s worse is that nobody talks about this! It’s hard to go to a bike shop with mainly male staff and say “Hi, my genitals keep bleeding. Any advice?”

I’ve tried a few things, like getting padded shorts, but nothing’s solved the problem. In honesty it could be a deal breaker for me. I’d give up cycling if this proved unsolvable. Have many women come to this same conclusion and just never mentioned the real reason that they don’t cycle? Have some women even had crotch problems the first time they tried riding, so have given up before they’ve even started?

Having done some research on the internet, I found a few useful articles and the verdict is as follows: Most people, men and women alike, can ride very comfortably with the right saddle for them. I say again: the right saddle for THEM. Everyone’s bum is a different shape, so you need to buy a saddle that fits you, both in terms of shape and density. And actually, if the saddle fits, then you won’t be sitting on your delicate bits at all, but on your “sit bones”. This sounds much better.

But here’s the downside; apparently you can’t simply figure that out in a test ride in the shop – it takes a few weeks to know if you will get on with a particular saddle.  This process could be potentially painful and expensive and frankly, that too makes me feel like giving up. Imagine buying and trying a new saddle every month! What if it took you a few tries to find the one that fitted you? It would make your diary look like this:

January  – Crotch pain
February – Crotch pain
March – Crotch pain
April – SUCCESS!!

I just don’t know if I can go through with it.

A possibly alternative is as follows: A leather saddle

At £90, buying one of these would be an expensive mistake if it didn’t fit. However, leather saddles are not only meant to be the most comfortable kind of saddle, they are also much more likely to fit since they mould to the shape of your bum during a 200mile “break in” period. Possible drawbacks are that there’s still a chance it might not fit, but you’d be unable to tell until you’d fully broken it in, thus making it impossible to return it.  Could be expensive, but then who can put a price on genital welfare after all?

-Full-Time Fixie


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After 6 months, is swapping a car for a bike worth it?

(June 28th 2012)

At the start of this year, I made a fixed-gear bicycle my main mode of transport, for the cost, environmental and health benefits. After 6 months, how has it panned out? Has it been worth it? The answer is yes, yes and yes.

“Make the commitment. Build the equipment you need. Be creative in your transport solutions. Don’t be afraid to use alternative transport to your bike (bus/coach, taxis/cabs, hire vehicle, other friends’ vehicles) as you need to. Keep track of the money you save then after two years forget about it, but remember to brag about your next house addition/trip overseas/new bike/whatever. And be prepared to have ordinary people look as though you are a lunatic after you answer their question: “How can you afford to do that”” – From the ‘Living Car Free’ section of


Environmentally: YES
No arguments against it really. Not owning a car is better for the environment. Public transport is greener than driving and so is cycling.

Cost: YES
In my last post, I looked at cost a great length. Since that post I have in fact spent more money on the bike, but even so, I still seem to be spending quite a lot less on transport than I did when I had a vehicle.

Health: YES
I have to say that although my fitness has improved and I generally feel better/happier, the distances I could comfortably cycle ceilinged after a few months.  I was hoping that I might get up to the point where I could comfortably enjoy cycling 30-40miles, but those sort of distances still take it out of me hugely. I’ve made the decision not to bother to push any further and just stick at the level of fitness I’m at – after all, I want to enjoy this, not turn it into an ordeal. I wanted to get fit enough that I never avoid going out because I’m not feeling up to cycling, and I have!! That’s enough for me.

Has it been limiting?: A BIT
There are limitations to travelling by car and limitations to travelling by bike, but they are different. Overall, I think it adds up to being about the same.

Travelling by car, you are increasingly limited by parking restrictions, at the mercy of traffic jams and in danger of breakdowns.  Your budget is also limited by the fact that you have to pay for the car even on days when you’re not using it, and that repairs might eat up your savings at any time.

On a bike, you are limited by how far you can ride, topography, ability to carry luggage, weather and in danger of punctures.

In honesty I’ve felt pretty happy with the results. I ditched my car, knowing that most places that I go frequently are ones I can get to by bike/public transport. So mostly it’s been easy. Living in a town near Exeter, public transport isn’t as good as it is in a bigger city. There are some places I can’t just get to and that is a bit of a pain. I don’t often have to carry much luggage and I don’t mind riding in most rain (since I spent a load on the right clothes).

On the downside, I do have a mattress to move 8 miles this week (not sure how). I don’t know what we’re going to do about collecting firewood this winter (although I could just buy some with a fraction of the money I’ve saved through not owning a vehicle). I don’t get to give people lifts, or help them move stuff anymore – which is a shame because I liked being able to help out. I can’t think what I would do if I was asked to do some gigs that involved me bringing all my own amplification… but so far I haven’t been asked to do that. If I was, or if playing electric gigs became part of my job, it would be car time again I suppose.

Has it been more enjoyable?: DEFINITELY
Actually I did enjoy driving a car, but it was never something I got excited about. I do get excited about getting on my bike though, almost every journey. It’s nice feeling a little endorphin high kick in during my first half hour at work. Lots of short journey take less time door to door than they do to drive, but even those that take longer feel a little more relaxed.  Journeys involving trains are a little stressful, and getting a bike on a train is a challenge. But then I remember what a huge source of stress it used to be having an unreliable vehicle and constantly having to maintain it. This is definitely better.

Do you want gears?: A BIT, BUT NOT REALLY.
“Buy a road bike. Buy a road bike. Buy a road bike… I’m hoping that if I say it enough times I’ll convince you.” – says my local bike shop, jokingly. Not an attitude shared by Magic Mike – the amazing bike maker who built my fixed gear bicycle.  In honesty, when I’ve been slowly climbing some of these Devon hills, shaking with exhaustion whilst being overtaken by someone pedaling fast in a low gear, I have wondered about buying a geared bike. It would be nice to be able to drop down a gear or two on days when I’m carrying heavy luggage, and it would probably increase the distance I can comfortably ride overall… but for some reason I’m not really swayed. I’d hate to have a freewheel – it feels wrong now.

You see, the disadvantages of riding fixed gear ARE the same as the advantages. Riding fixed gear makes you practice pedaling fast and pedaling slow. It makes you focus on improving your riding technique. It makes you get out of the saddle and climb hills hard, using your whole body. It doesn’t give you the option of being lazy even if you want to. The advantage of this is it gets you fit automatically, meaning overall, cycling feels easier because you got fit.
So, all in all has giving up my car for a bike been worth it?
The answer is YES, but only because it suits my circumstances at the moment. If I got a job far from home, or started gigging a lot, or had more places that I needed to get to that we’re impossible by public transport, then having a car would become essential. Lets hope that by that won’t happen because public transport will improve 10 fold in the next few years in response to the huge numbers of people exchanging their cars for bikes as a result of reading the
FullTimeFixie Cycleblog 😉

“Without a doubt, one of the smartest things I ever did in my life was abandon the car. It has made me more free and independent and I can not imagine ever going back. If people view me with a social stigma because I don’t own a car, I really don’t care and in fact relish the idea that I am showing it can be done.” From the ‘Living Car Free’ section of

Here are my bits of advice for anyone thinking of making the switch from car to bike.

  • Make a list of all the journeys you take regularly. Giving up your car might be the wrong decision, leaving you stranded without adequate transportation. It all depends on your circumstances. Figure out how many of your regular journeys could be cycled, bussed or trained feasibly. If it’s more than 90%, you should be ok. Getting a taxi every so often should still prove cheaper than owning a car. This whole process might be trickier for families than for those without kids.
  • Do it when your car dies: If it’s hard to take the plunge and sell a vehicle, undoubtedly making a loss, a good time to switch to a bike is when your existing car dies. That way, you can try going carless for a few months, and if it doesn’t work for you, nothing’s lost. You can just buy a new car like you were going to anyway.
  • Allow yourself to spend money on cycling. The first few months might be tough, since you’ll be cycling more, but do yourself a favour and make it as easy as possible for yourself by buying the right gear. This will help you to choose cycling more often than bussing, getting you fitter and onto longer distances quicker. Once you’re onto longer distances, not having a car won’t seem as limiting. It may cost a bit initially to buy these extras, but it’s more likely to keep you cycling and stop you from giving up. It will pay off in the long run, physically and financially.
  • Take care of your body: Now that you have no car and the majority of your journeys are cycled, you are relying on your body for transport. Find out more about how to look after your body (especially during exercise) and learn about how to avoid injury.  If you’re someone who get’s sick often, you may find that regular cycling improves this. If you still fall ill often, make sure you can use public transport for most journeys when you’re sick. Exercise has been shown to help people get over the common cold faster, but you must be the judge of when you are too ill/injured to cycle.
  • Take care of your mind: The switch from car to bike will be more of a challenge for some than for others. If you are committed, but finding it hard, try a few of these motivational techniques:
  • Write down as many reasons that you want to switch to a bike as you can think of. Keep the list so that you can look at it when you’re feeling less motivated.
  • Keep a diary of your progress, including whatever makes you feel good. It could be writing an entry about a great ride you just enjoyed. It could be a table showing how many miles you’ve ridden each week. It could be a place to jot down some of the advantages of cycling as you discover them. If weight loss is one of your aims, keep a record of how much you’re losing.
  • Do it with a friend. Challenges and lifestyle changes are can be easier to do together with someone else. If you can find a friend who also wants to give up their car, why not team up and do it together?

“I’ve never owned a car, and I’m not sure if I ever will. I started commuting by bike a few years ago. I do almost everything by bike, and when I can’t bike, I use public transport. Just go for it! Get your bike outfitted with a rack. Get some good panniers. For winter riding, dress appropriately. The name of the game in winter is to layer. And learn some good bike maintenance tips. Get some basic tools for repair and a repair stand. And lastly, don’t let others intimidate you into stopping! A lot of people tell me it’s too dangerous to ride, or I’m crazy to ride, but they’re waiting 20 minutes in the cold for a bus, and I’m getting to my destination long before they do. I’m healthier than they are too, so that counts for something too.” From the ‘Living Car Free’ section of
Read the whole thread at

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Save more than £4000 per year by cycling instead of driving?

(June 16th 2012)

Previously I’ve said that I would talk about the cost, health and environmental benefits of cycling, and this week I’m talking about cost. People have been asking me if it’s really worth it.

Well, first of all it’s not worth it unless you really like cycling… but on the other hand, you might like cycling more than you previously thought, if it was more comfy because you have all the right gear. I don’t really like talking about how much I spend on things, but for the sake of the blog, and bringing forward accurate information, here it is.

Basically, to get everything I’ve got (detailed breakdown below) would cost just over £900. This may seem like a lot of money, for an option that is supposed to be cheap, but I wanted to be safe and completely at ease when riding.  Bear in mind also that this is the outright cost, and in future years costs could drop to £50-£200 per year in maintenance.

However, here are some facts that might help put things in perspective:

  • The average cost of owning and running a used car is £4,441 per year.
  • It would be £5,869 for a new car. Most people don’t like to think how much they really spend on their vehicles, but the AA and RAC both publish reports each year with helpful figures.
  • Just for my journey’s to work and back, a season bus ticket would be £500, but the journey would take 1hr door to door, and get me there an inconvenient half hour early, as opposed to a 20min cycle ride.
  • The average gym membership (according to research by Sainsburys) is £442 per year. If you preferred to cycle you could save time because your workout would be your commute.

Essential gear – Budget option:
This is not my own choice, but workable. If I’m going to cycle a lot I want to feel comfortable, but here is the minimum you could get to cycle frequently and safely.

  • Bike: Get a bike from the recycling center, and hope it works well enough as it is. (£10-30)
  • Bike Accessories: Get some of the cheapest cycle lights. Cheap ones will eat lots of batteries. Cycle on well lit roads only – the cheapest lights will only allow you to be seen by others, they won’t light your way (£6). Don’t use mudguards unless the bike comes with them.
  • Cycle maintenance: Buy a puncture repair kit, tyre levers (£5) and bike chain oil (£6), and a cheap pump (£5).
  • Lock: One can get a lock for as little as £2 in cheap shops. It may be very easy to break, but if your bike was cheaper than your helmet, you may not mind
  • Safety: Buy the cheapest helmet (£20), which may not be that comfy but will be perfectly safe, and get some reflectors if you can (£5).
  • Clothes: Cycle in your normal clothes, tucking your trousers into your socks. If it rains, the very cheapest thing to do is get wet. Alternatively, army surplus stores sell full waterproofs cheaply, although they are very sweaty (£25?). Thin splash proof jackets from tescos usually don’t work at all.
  • Luggage: Carry your stuff in a rucksack. You’ve probably already got one.
  • Navigation: Memorise maps from the Internet. Use Google maps on your phone if you already have one with a GPS function, although signal is usually intermittent, and this can lead to getting lost. Alternatively, spend £5 on a local map and keep it in your pocket.

Total: Roughly £90. Notice that actually, one of the cheapest things is the bike itself, unless you managed to get some of that other stuff 2nd hand too.
Essential gear – Mid range option:
This is my preference, and generally what I’ve gone for. My rationale has been to spend on what’s necessary to make riding a bike really enjoyable and not a chore, to encourage me to keep going with it.

  • Bike: Get a fixed gear roadbike. It’s cheaper than a geared roadbike, whilst being great quality. (£270)
  • Bike Accessories: Lots of bikes these days come with no accessories, and it’s easy to underestimate how much they will set you back. I deciding that the following improvements were necessary, and here’s why.
  • A gel saddle – very important! (£18) !!! Later discovered that gel saddles are actually a BAD MOVE – read more here:
  • Mudguards – to stop the bike turning into an upwards-puddle-machine when it’s wet (£35 fitted)
  • Drop handlebars – many fixed gear bikes come with straight handlebars. This is beyond me, since having one gear, but NOT being able to move to drop position to climb hills seems unworkable to me. For the handlebars, new brake levers and cables it was £70 fitted.
  • A bell – to alert pedestrians that I’m coming past on mixed use cyclepaths (£2)
  • A drinks holder – to make it possible to have a drinking bottle for longer rides  (£5)
  • Pedals – I already had clip pedals, so transferred them from my old bike, but they would have cost roughly £35
  • Pannier rack – carrying luggage in a rucksack is tricky and sweaty. Rear panniers are much better and for that I needed a rack to attach them to. Plus, I often carry a guitar on my back, so any other luggage would have to go in panniers. I got my rack for free, but it would have cost (£30)
  • Lights: Cateye front and back light (£20). Worth it for the good battery life and bright front light. Although it’s possible to spend much more for a VERY bright front beam, this was the very minimum for cycling on unlit roads.
  • Total: £215 – as you can see, the accessories/upgrades were nearly as much as the bike itself!
  • Cycle repair: Puncture repair kit and tyre levers (£5) and bike chain oil (£6), 2 spare inner tubes (£12), cycle multitool (£6), spanner (£5), High quality portable bike pump (£17), track pump for home use (£20). One of the things I quickly realised was that I myself find it almost impossible to pump roadbike tyres up to full pressure with a hand pump, even if it’s a decent one. So therefore, a track pump for home use is an essential, and the portable one is only suitable for roadside repairs.
  • Lock: I spent £20 on my thick lock, have had it for 10 years, and have never had a bike stolen. It’s possible to spend much more, but I think the most important thing is to put the lock through both wheels and the frame.
  • Safety: I already have a helmet that I’m sad to say I avoid wearing on short cyclepath journeys because it’s cheap and uncomfortable. I’m planning on spending £50 on a decent one soon.
  • Clothes: My cycle leggings (£60), t-shirt (£25), jacket (£50) and raincoat (£50 in the sale, reduced from £120) are complete essentials to me. They allow me to ride feeling like I can move easily, and am at a comfortable temperature, reducing fatigue on long journeys, and just feeling good on shorter ones. I’ve had some cycle shoes for years that were £60. I can’t imagine not cycling with SPD shoes. These are shoes that clip your feet to the pedals. They make it possible to climb hills that would be impossible if I couldn’t pull up on the pedals as well as push down. They also give me much more control over the bike at all speeds. I also bought some waterproof shoe covers (£24), after failed attempts to waterproof my shoes with scotch guard. However, mainly I’ve been wearing them in the winter even when it’s dry, since they are windproof and stop my feel getting cold. Lastly, I made myself a snood (tube scarf) to pull up over my face when it’s really cold, because otherwise I’ve found that my lips actually crack. I made mine, but buying one would be about £12. I should have got some windproof gloves too (£35) but I didn’t, and my hands got really cold even wearing 2 pairs of wool gloves all winter. Silly me.
  • Luggage: I was lucky enough to get a set of 2 waterproof rear panniers at a car boot sale for £10, although I understand that usually they would be £30 at least. Some people have cheaper panniers that aren’t waterproof, but this makes no sense to me.
  • Navigation: I am currently stuck on this one. I’ve tried memorising maps and getting lost. I’ve tried having a map in my pocket and getting it out at every junction, which means stopping…. I’ve tried using my phone, but the GPS signal is too intermittent. I have a GPS from my old car which I thought I could use, but the battery life is only 1hr, and GPS cycle-mounts I could order from the internet all have reviews saying that they let water in! I have yet to try an old fashioned map and map case… largely because I got put off when I realised that if I wanted to order the OS maps for the trip I’m thinking of doing in summer, then it would come to over £100. So maybe a “cycle gps” is the answer… although they are 3 times more expensive than car ones, since they have to be both shockproof and waterproof. Any thoughts?

Total: £917 (if all new)
What I actually spent: £820

Verdict – more expensive than I expected, but still cheaper than driving by far.

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Poncy Clothes

(25th April 2012)

I have been cycling frequently for most of my life, but only short journeys in fair whether. I have always shunned the idea of getting cycle clothes, and thought of it as pretentious. Not seeing the necessity for wearing special clothes, unless actually racing or something, I had assumed that road cyclists do it just to try and look professional. But now… I reluctantly, I have finally understood the point of Lycra, even for quite short journeys. I’m kind of ashamed to say it, but it turns out there is a point to dressing like you’re on your way to the Superwoman auditions after all.  The only real downside now is that other people who see me cycle past in all my gear will think I’m a pretentious idiot.

Why men’s cycle shorts should always be black!

Basically as far as clothing goes, the keywords are “breathable” and “windproof”. Beginning my quest in winter, I used to wear 2 t-shirts, 2 jumpers, thermal leggings, trousers, hat scarf gloves etc, and feel cold yet sweaty on winter most rides, because normal clothes are not windproof. Now, I have a set of long fleecelined cycle leggings, a moisture wicking t-shirt, and a windproof jacket (plus hat, gloves, scarf), that’s all I need to keep warm without feeling sweaty at all. Not only that, but the clothes are cyclist shaped, and seamless, meaning that it’s comfy to wear them, and there’s no jeans digging in at the waist (and other areas). I also have a gortex raincoat that actually does keep the rain out and is breathable too.

But all this brings me to the big question of money. Ok, so you want to cycle and feel comfortable… how much is this really going to cost and is it really cheaper than driving or taking public transport all the time?  I initially said that I had wanted to cycle instead of owning a car, for the health, environment and cost benefits. Of course those are not the only reasons. My main motivation is that I enjoy it.

I saw a comment on a guardian the guardian article: “How much money (and time) does cycling to work actually save you?” which read “Choosing to cycle is a way of life that has massive psychological and physical health benefits. It is not just for your commute. Anyone who needs to do a cost analysis…just don’t bother and stick to the lazy/stressy/obese lifestyle.” Rather provocative, but a fair point. None the less, I’d like to show what the financial, health and environmental benefits are from my own perspective, in the hope of encouraging others. Another reason for doing a “cost analysis” is that when I was embarking on this project I was rather surprised by the escalating costs. It was too late by then and I had already started, and was finding myself needing to spend more than I had expected to continue viably. For example, having spent £270 on the bike itself, I was surprised that I found I suddenly had to spend an extra couple of hundred on accessories from mudguards to changing the saddle, handlebars and pedals in order to feel happy with it.

Regardless of all this, “Per mile traveled, bicycle riding costs the frequent cyclist less than half as much as mass transit and only one-quarter as much as driving — even assuming cyclists must replace their bicycles every three years due to bicycle theft and bad pavement.’ according to this Australian website:

In my next post I’ll talk in more detail about the financial benefits of cycling, and in later weeks, I’ll address the environmental and health benefits.

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