Posted in cycling, Review

B’TWIN HOPTOWN 500 FOLDING ELECTRIC BIKE

The other electric bicycle

As a counterbalance to the snarking from people concerning e-bikes being a form of “cheating”*, I like to enthuse about them whenever I can. It took a year or so, but eventually my wife couldn’t resist the siren call.

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Hoptown Top Ranking

The difference between us, though, is that while I was willing to spend around £3k of money-I-didn’t-have on my Kalkhoff, my Mrs will only spend a smaller amount of money-she-does-have. For me, I could have spent £1k, but I didn’t have that money, either, so whatevs.

So, with budget being an issue, she wasn’t ever going to get the bike I’d picked out for her in my money-no-object fantasies. (That, by the way, would be something like the Riese and Müller Nevo, in a build with a carbon belt drive and a hub gear – which would cost between £2879 and £3779 ) So, to Decathlon we repaired, and considered their range of reasonably-priced (and, to be fair, quite well reviewed) e-bikes. If you’re on a budget, they’re not bad.

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Riese and Müller Nevo

Bonus fact: the French government offer an up-to €200 refund, in order to encourage fitness and cycling.

Bonus bonus fact: Decathlon seem to have added this into the € price, because the one she got is just £599 in the UK.

Decathlon offer a town bike style model, the Elops, with a rear hub motor and a couple of price points, based mainly on battery size/life. But the model that caught my wife’s eye, not just because of its price, was the Hoptown 500, a folding electric bike. (https://www.decathlon.co.uk/C-811556-electric-bikes)

The Hoptown comes with a 6-speed Shimano drivetrain (derailleur), ergonomic grips, a gel saddle, and built-in front and rear lights. It has a 6Ah battery that gives a relatively small range of 15-25 km, which is good enough for going around town and for a short commute. If you have facilities for charging the battery at work, you could commute longer. For reference, my Kalkhoff’s enormous battery is around 13Ah, I think, so twice the capacity. And – because I am cycling fit – I’m getting up to 72 km (45 miles) of range on Turbo mode, which is the highest level of assist. So I can go to-and-from work (24 mile round trip) twice on a charge – possibly having to drop it down to Sport mode for the last bit.

big_b9d303f15bdc433fa45972a24c5fe2bcNow, the idea that a normal person would be able to lug this Hoptown thing onto the train and commute with it is laughable. It still weighs a lot for a folding bike. But for an electric model, it’s relatively lightweight. Furthermore, whereas my bike is too heavy to go on the car without the addition of an expensive tow-bar and platform bike carrier combination, the Hoptown actually folds down small enough to go in the boot of the car. It was even possible to load up all our summer holiday luggage (including art equipment, a guitar and amp, and the usual bags) and still get the Hoptown into the boot.

So. It’s an ideal solution for someone who wants to buy an e-bike and use it in two locations.

A test ride in the Decathlon car park was arranged, and, happy with it, we set off home with it in the boot.

Not so fast. The only model they had in the shop was the display model, and they couldn’t find the charger. Huh. So an employee drove over to the next town’s store (Montbéliard is just 22km from Belfort), and brought over another model, giving us the charger from that. Visions of Decathlon robbing the charger from Peter to give it to Paul until the end of time.

A few km from home, I dropped my Mrs off with the bike, and left her to ride into Giromagny and then home. This would be a good test of the bike, as the journey from Giro to Auxelles involves at least three pretty hard climbs.

Not long afterwards, she phoned me to complain that the bike’s motor had cut out. I drove out to meet her, and encountered some strange behaviour. Getting on the bike myself, I set off pedalling and the motor kicked in. And then failed again.

So the excuses started. It must be that the battery, which appeared to be fully charged in the show room, was still awaiting its first overnight charging cycle. Batteries are really the most vexatious aspect of modern life, aren’t they? We left it on charge overnight, and the next day fired up the bike again for Maiden Voyage Part 2: I Tell You, This Ship Is Absolutely Unsinkable.

Worked for a bit. Failed. Worked for another bit. Failed. Seemed to work again after using the brake, as if the brake was a switch that turned the motor on and off. Huh.

So we phoned Decathlon and arranged to take it back. The brake-switch thing wasn’t supposed to be a thing, they said.

Since they had the bike they’d “borrowed” from Montbéliard, they gave us that one instead.

So, new bike, new battery.

No problems.

Back in the UK, the bike is deployed, and the manual informs us that the battery will reach peak efficiency after 5 charge cycles. So we deal patiently with the foibles. Sometimes the motor just cuts out. You stop, and turn it back on again, and off it goes.

One of the issues with the building-to-a-budget thing is that you miss out on what turn out to be very useful features. My Kalkhoff’s display tells me how much battery is left, how far I can go on it, and so on. My lights stay on for a few seconds/minutes even when the motor is switched off. The Decathlon’s built-in lights go off when the motor does, so if you’re riding in the dark/fog on a country lane and the motor randomly cuts out, you become invisible to traffic.

Nevertheless, it mostly seemed to be working okay. So my daughter borrowed it one morning last week to ride to work/school with me. A proper test, because it’s a 50-60 minute ride on country lanes, and about 13 miles. It seemed to go quite well, with the motor cutting out only a couple of times. Not bad! (Number of times my Kalkhoff motor cut out: 0.) Again, we made excuses. It cuts out when you’re going faster than 25kph, and to save battery it switches off? Maybe? Or it’s perhaps overheating on the hills and needs a cooling off period? Or, actually, this was a really long ride for the quoted range of this bike, so the battery was probably on its last legs by the end.

Anyway, we got there, taking about 10 minutes longer than I normally do on my bike.

Took the battery out (it’s not very big, with limited range), put it on charge, and then put it back in for the ride home. The light on the charger was green, indicating a full charge.

And this is where the problems began. The motor cut out on my daughter a lot on the way home. It seemed to happen whenever she hit a bump, but it also happened at inopportune moments: at the bottom of a steep hill, usually. So we nursed it home, sometimes having to fold and unfold the frame in order to re-engage the battery, and the excuses stopped. This thing, just like the first one we had, was faulty.

Two for two.

Luckily, Decathlon is an international retailer, so we took it over to our local store and left it overnight. 24 hours later, they called back to say that the battery had been faulty, and they’d replaced it.

So now the bike is on its third iteration, but here’s the thing.

Riding an e-bike is a pleasure. It puts a smile on your face. It’s like cycling, but without the suffering. Think about that: it’s all of the pleasure of cycling (including good cardio exercise, because you are pedalling) without any of the protestant work ethic nonsense about suffering and pain. It’s better than driving a car. You feel good, you enjoy the sunshine and the countryside, you arrive at your destination only mildly perspiring and able to go about your normal day without wobbly legs.

But if you have a constant nagging anxiety that the thing is going to randomly let you down at the bottom of a hill? Not so much.

So I have my fingers crossed that my wife’s latest bike and battery combination will be reliable, but I don’t think I’d want to risk my daughter riding to school on it. Because it’s a long ride home on a heavy bike with no assistance.

The verdict

This ought to be the entry level for a lot of people. Once you’ve ridden an electric bike and felt that push in the back and the wind in your hair, you don’t want to stop. They are A Good Thing. But, if you can afford to spend more, you should. Get more range. Get a mid-drive motor (situated around the pedal cranks), get something German or that £4000 Trek Supercommuter. Spend upwards of £2k and you’ll be a lot happier.

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This isn’t cheating

*If an e-bike is cheating, then so is driving any car that is not a fucking Hamleys pedal car.

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Posted in cycling, Travel

Microcosmic

The Ile-d’Yeu is a 30 minute ferry journey from the French mainland, off the Vendée coast. 

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The Vendée is my favourite part of France: a different kind of landscape, with (I seem to recall) the second best microclimate in France. The Cote d’Azur gets first prize for sunshine, and has the calm, warm waters of the Mediterranean and its beaches to boast of; but it also has overcrowding, endless traffic queues and nowhere to park. A few summers ago, we took a day trip to an island off the Southern coast, and encountered a fabulously beautiful beach on the clear turquoise sea which was a long but thin strip of sand — and there was not enough room on it to lay down a towel.

vendee - 6.jpgThe Vendée has a long coastline on the blue Atlantic (Le Grand Large) with vast sandy beaches interspersed with rocky sections which have tidal pools full of sealife. It’s a great base for a more traditional seaside holiday, for both sunbathing and rockpool exploration, for kite-flying, beach tennis, body surfing, and more. It would also be a great base for a biology/geography field trip, what with the life teeming in the rock pools and the different types of vegetation in the sand dunes as they progress inland. Best of all, even in the peak of summer season, the beaches are not so slammed that you can’t move. You can in fact spread out without finding your face in someone else’s crotch. In the South, if you manage to fight your way through the traffic and the wildfires to get somewhere; and if you manage to find somewhere to park; and if you manage to find a postage stamp sized patch of beach to sit down on, you are also surrounded by the strutting and preening of the Beautiful People (ugly oligarchs) and their giant yachts.

I love the architecture of the Vendée: white houses with red tiled roofs, blue shutters. There are variations on this, and people paint  their shutters different colours, but the traditional Vendée house has two small single-storey sections joined to a two-storey central section. The best of them squat in the dunes, or among the pines, and the sun bounces blindingly off the white sides, and there are no gutters because there’s a collective self delusion that it never rains.

vendee - 1The Ile-d’Yeu has a small port on one side, several sandy beaches, and a rocky coast with a ruined castle. Like a society, it has rules. Visitors are allowed, but not with their cars. Only islanders are allowed to have cars.

I was naively optimistic about this. Far too many beauty spots are ruined by the motor car. Let’s face it: everywhere is ruined by the motor car: towns, cities, countryside. But it’s especially jarring when you visit somewhere ancient and mediaeval, somewhere quaint and relatively untouched by modernity. I remember visiting the hillside fortress village of Gordes and being depressed by the unending stream of noisy traffic. And wherever you go, its a universal truth that even the pedestrian zones, the zones pietons, are blighted by the eternal presence of the busy-and-important person who decides  they are the exception, and so you are always dodging cars and vans as they edge forward at an ironic walking pace and you are forever encountering that peculiar sense of privileged entitlement which is a constant reminder that you live in a capitalist dystopia.

So! I was excited at the prospect of an island with very few motor cars and where everyone hires a bike. An egalitarian utopia of pedal power!

Every island is a microcosm of society

But of course, was disappointed. Of course, the people with cars, the locals, the islanders, asserted their privilege aggressively and selfishly, with no sense that they were part of a society. They treated bicycles as a nuisance to be dispatched, and were they ever determined to overtake — even if there were another 15 bicycles in front of the one they passed dangerously close — even if there was another slow-moving car in front of those 15 bicycles — and in front of that car another 15 bicycles, and so on, all the way into town. It was bicycles all the way down. But no! They must get past, because such is the privilege of car ownership. And of course, the tourists, bless them, mostly unused to the cycling life, were pathetically deferential to their superiors on four wheels and simply accepted this state of affairs, while I wanted to scream at the top of my voice, vous roulez a la vitesse d’un vélo, ou vouz achetez un vélo! Often, overtaken, I would pedal harder, catch up, overtake them, and then act as a rolling roadblock, sitting in front of them with my middle finger dancing in front of their windscreen. Fuckers! It’s not that I hate motorists; I am a motorist, after all. But I hate people who think they are more entitled, and there is no escape from them, ever. Up against the wall! Oh, okay, I admit it: I hate motorists, including myself.

vendee - 5Even worse, it turned out, that as well as hiring a bicycle from one of the myriad hire shops (including the horrifically named Bi-Clown), you could also hire shonky old cars, most of them vintage Citroens and Renaults. For a mere €80 par jour, you could lord it over the cyclists like a rich second-home owning Parisienne. What a way to conspicuously consume! Belching black smoke from a shitty old chugger for a week for the price of a half-decent bicycle. And while you’re at it, park on the pavement, why don’t you?

Eye-watering

It’s an island, so I personally don’t think longer than a week’s stay is necessary. There are only so many things to see, and the town is both small and expensive. I saw some wonderfully colourful cotton shirts, but at €70 apiece in the sale, they were beyond my means, as were most other things you saw in the shops, from tinned sardines to nautically-themed t-shirts. They did a nice line in branding: the island’s name shortened to an assertive YE on everything from polo shirts to wet bags and keyrings.

vendee - 3.jpgThe house we were renting was a  miracle in packin’  ‘em in. Including bicycle hire, we’re talking €5000 for the fortnight, split between a number of families. The first week, three or four families shared, and then we changed over for our week with four more. Each bedroom was constructed with a mezzanine, so that a poky room for two became a poky room for four. I think there were five bedrooms and at least three bathrooms. We got an ensuite bathroom to ourselves, which was a solid reminder to me that the ensuite bathroom or toilet is an abomination that Shouldn’t Be Allowed. Not with walls that thin!

The ethos was that everybody ate together, most of the time, which led to some late mealtimes as everyone drifted in and eventually got around to lighting the barbecue. If you’ve never cooked regularly for 15 people, here’s an example: one day I barbecued 2.5kg of chicken breasts with four trays of sausages, thinking this would be an excessive amount of food. The leftovers were enough to half-fill a cereal bowl. A huge pot of moules (mussels) was accompanied by four bags of oven frites. If I had my way, we’d have done our own thing, eaten when we were hungry, and not had to deal with such catering at scale.

There was lots of seafood, on which I’m not keen. Freshly caught tuna was sliced into steaks and grilled: good, especially with my improvised sweet/sour sauce made with apricot jam, vinegar, and chilli/ginger. But the next tuna brought in was eaten raw, sushi-style. Not my thing. There were also mullet, grey and red, and other huge fish (hake, I think, merlu in French), all caught locally. I would have liked the time to cook and prepare these creatively, but they were just cooked whole and consumed in scraps by the multitude.

As for bread, apparently the local bakery produced wonderful baguettes, of which 8-10 were dispatched daily. I even found a couple of fresh GF loaves on the island, and these were much better than the vacuum packed supermarket breads.

Things you realise they got wrong in Jaws

vendee - 7Jaws is set on an island, and they got right the idea that the “islanders” tolerate visitors only as an economic necessity. They also got right that arrival scene: with the hordes of people arriving by ferry from the mainland. But, in reality, most of the “islanders” are just rich people with second homes. They’re visitors themselves, and they should ride fucking bikes and stop trying to lord it over the rest of us. And the arrival scene is happening all the time, every 30 minutes, another boatload gets off to stay, and another boatload gets on to leave.

Chief Brody wanted to close “the beach” but on an island there is never just one beach:  there are lots of little beaches, and if there was a shark, there would be lots of places for it to operate, some of them — even on a small island — isolated and wild. And if there was a shark, it would probably feed 15 people.

Islands are hills in the sea

One difference between the Ile-d’Yeu and the mainland of the Vendée is that the island undulates a bit. Nothing too dramatic, but whereas much of the Vendée coast was reclaimed from the sea by Dutch geo-engineers hundreds of years ago* and is therefore mostly flat until you get about 15 miles inland, the island itself is a hill in the sea, which is higher in the middle, and has a rocky coast that does rise and descend steeply in places. None of this was beyond the ability of even temporary cyclists, but the nature of the bikes that you can hire made it harder than it ought to be.

vendee - 10The geometry of the bikes we hired was simply terrible. Even a mild incline would cause burning pain in your backside. I don’t know: the saddle wasn’t far enough back from the  pedals or something. So although you never really cycled more than a couple of kilometres at a time, you felt it in your legs when you arrived. Our longest ride was a circuit of about half the island on a day when the Atlantic swelled and there was wind and drizzling rain. It was bracing, though the younger you were, the less fun you found it. The kids and I were dreaming of a Mars bar and a coffee, and we came across a man with a van in an isolated cove who was offering both for €1 apiece to our unalloyed joy. But the youngest kid, their cousin, went into a steep decline. Problem with a cycling holiday, though: if you’re tired and you want to go home, you still have to pedal to get there.

*St. Benoist-sur-Mer, for example, is a few kilometres from the sea, these days.

Posted in bastards, cycling, musings

Head to Toe cycling workwear

11832-12_8106_1024x1024_49bc4d88-b9fd-4645-950c-cb8385845897_1024x1024When I first started buying dedicated cycling clothing, I at first confined myself to getting jerseys and shorts that looked “normal”. So my first pair of shorts were baggy mountain bike shorts with a padded liner. And my first cycling specific jersey was a kind of green jumper.

After getting over that phase and going through several years of succumbing to lycra and “technical fabrics”, I have come full circle and tend to focus on what is sometimes called commuter wear or urban cycling apparel.

Sometimes, it’s true, I arrive at work looking like a normal person in normal workwear, when in fact everything I am wearing is in some way specifically designed for cycling.

  1. Shimano shoes. I’ve mentioned these before. The cleats are recessed, so the shoes themselves look kinda like trainers (ugly, but most are). They’re the most comfortable cycling shoes I’ve ever used, and people usually just think they’re regular trainers (I keep a pair of shoes to change into at work, but sometimes forget I’m wearing them).
  2. Socks. My favourites are merino wool socks, but I also have some Café du Cycliste stripy socks. I guess they’re designed to keep your feet cool or warm or something. The merino wool ones are lethally slippery, as my coccyx continually reminds me.
  3. Swrve trousers. These are stretchy, flat seamed, windproof trousers. They look like black trousers, but they have a special design that minimises chafing, and they don’t constrict your knees when pedalling. They’re cut lower in the front and higher in the back, so they don’t cut in to your belly, and your modesty is preserved at the rear. They’re also slightly rain resistant, so water rolls off in light showers. I really like them. £80, which is £15 cheaper than the Rapha equivalent.
  4. Padded boxer shorts. I have a couple of pairs of these. One is from Rapha: they’re an oversized boxer with a slightly padded chamois – not as padded as proper cycling shorts, but better than riding in your regular underwear. No seams, no chafing etc. I have another, cheaper pair from Tenn outdoors (Amazon). About £30 cheaper than the Rapha ones at £12.99, they’re pretty much the same – slightly tighter in the leg. I bought the Rapha boxers in the sale, by the way. Never pay full price for Rapha.
  5. Base layers – I have a few of these. Some for summer, for wicking sweat. Others for winter, for wicking sweat and thermal properties. I have a merino one, but of course that shrunk. That’s the thing about merino wool. It shrinks every time, even in a 30° wash. I also have some made from artificial fibres. Not as nice next to the skin, not quite as warm as merino, but can be washed without fear.
  6. Shirts. I have three specialist cycling shirts, two from Rapha, and one from Vulpine. The black and white check one from Rapha is the oldest one I have, a bit of a tight fit, and I’m less keen on it for work because I prefer plain colours and not patterns – especially with ties. The other Rapha shirt is a dark blue cotton Oxford shirt, with a heavy fabric that is a little too warm for the hottest days. But it has good stretch and looks like a normal work shirt. They’re nice, but as with most of this stuff, the cost about 4x more than you really want to spend on workwear. Vulpine recently reduced their £100 equivalent Oxford shirts to a more reasonable £58, which is only twice as much as I really want to pay for a shirt. The one I have looks and feels like a regular shirt (mine is a kind of denim blue but it still looks okay with a tie, although a couple of people commented on the “sombre” colour), only with a bit more stretch.
    And here’s the rub. What you’re getting is comfortable enough on the bike and may even be more efficient at wicking sweat away from your body (although with a back pack, all bets are off), but it is to all intents and purposes a normal shirt, only with slightly stretchier (3% elastane) fabric and maybe some flattened seams. So let’s say the other shirts I have for work cost between £4 and £40, which they did. The median price I’ll pay for a (non-white, non-stripy, non-check) shirt for work is somewhere around £25. Now, how much extra should I be paying for flattened stitching and stretch fabric? I’d say no more than £10-£15 more, if that.
    I really like some of the Rapha workwear, especially the knitwear: the crew neck for example, or the “stand collar”. But £120? Or £140? That’s one issue. Another is the inevitable shrinkage from merino wool. The third is the sizing. Rapha’s idea of an “XL” is 107-115 cm, whereas a Marks and Spencer XL is 112-117, which is a 5cm difference at the bottom end and a 2 cm difference at the top. As with all cycling wear, you have to go a size higher, and Rapha’s sole explanation for their XXL is simply “115+ cm”. Har bloody har, Rapha, you body fascists. What does that mean? 116cm? Right.
    Clearly, obviously, Rapha don’t want people like me in their clothes, but you know. The point is, yep I’ve got a belly on me but I’m an XL everywhere else. Why are cycling clothes almost universally a size (or two) smaller than the standards elsewhere? It’s time for EU legislation… oh.
Posted in bastards, cycling

Close Pass Arses Cause Wayfaring Farces

1600The shortest cycling route from my home to work is just 8.6 miles, but it involves riding along the A422, which is a stretch of road with a poor surface and quite a bit of traffic, much of which takes pride in ignoring the 50 mph speed limit.

I’ve ridden along here a couple of times, and it can be hairy. A lot of motorists, who wouldn’t say boo to a tractor, and might even pride themselves in being courteous to horses and their riders, get the red mist when they see a bike. There’s something deeply ingrained in British culture about this; it’s probably, ultimately, class-related. Anyway, the upshot is, rather than be delayed for between 10-30 seconds while they wait for a safe opportunity to overtake, they opt instead for the close pass, which police forces around the country are trying to educate people about.

It’s irrational and infuriating, because if they were honest with themselves about how long they were waiting, and how long they might be waiting at the other end of the road as they wait to cross/join the A43 – or queue in Buckingham’s mediaeval streets to get through narrow gaps made narrower by dicks parked on double yellows, they would realise that the tiny dint in their day caused by the cyclist doing a respectable speed on an electric bike is insignificant. Why don’t these motorists get the rage when they encounter the car parked on the double yellows that’s causing a 10-minute delay instead of at the cyclist causing them a 10-second delay? Answers on a postcard…

Anyway, in order to avoid this dangerous and angry road in the mornings, I’ve adopted a route that adds – ready? – five miles to the 8.6 miles I could be cycling. Which is an additional 20 minutes or so and still involves having to cross the dual carriageway A43 at the Cyclists Dismount sign, which can sometimes take several minutes in itself. The way people drive down this particular stretch of the A43 in Northamptonshire (between the M40 and the M1) is extraordinary. That it happens to go past Silverstone seems to encourage the kind of hot-headed impatient craziness that views a roundabout not as a reason to slow down but as a fucking chicane to be taken flat out with Clarkson-like pride. And god forbid they use signals. Formula 1 fantasy cars don’t have indicators.

Inevitably this leads to frequent delays on the A43 caused by overturned lorries, rear end shunts and other avoidable accidents. My current 13.6 mile route was adopted because the 11-mile alternative (avoiding the A422 but involving a mile or so on the dual carriageway near the end) included a right turn at a roundabout on the A43, which meant moving across a lane and then praying that my white bicycle, high-viz clothing, and twin headlights (one of them flashing), would be noticed by motorists determined not to slow down at all for said roundabout. On the day that I was nearly wiped out and saved only by the rapid acceleration afforded by my e-bike, I decided to opt for the full five mile diversion.

In summary, I have to add 20 minutes to my ride to work because British motorists cannot be trusted to drive with anything like due care and attention. Thanks, all of you  Clarkson-cocksucking Top Gear top twats, for that.

For various reasons, partly involving having to re-cross the A43 – on foot – on a busy roundabout, I don’t want to go home the same way. So I’ve been risking 4-5 miles on the A422 (still crossing the A43 but on a slightly less busy roundabout), until I can reach a left turn that takes me onto some back roads. If only there was a fucking push-button crossing over the A43! I’d really enjoy stopping some of the drivers hoping (!?) to be noticed (?!) by a formula 1 team (?!) as they drive past Brackley and Silverstone. At the time I’m generally leaving work, proper rush hour hasn’t started yet, but I’ve still been encountering the aforementioned close-p-arse-rs on a daily basis. These are people, to be clear, who will risk killing me and a head-on collision with an oncoming vehicle for the sake of a few seconds, so it’s not as if they can ever be reasoned with.

This journey home is about 10 miles, 39 minutes or so, but I’ve discovered that a left turn about 3 miles before my usual one, while it adds a mile and five minutes to the journey, does get me onto the safer side road that bit quicker.

The holy grail is a more direct cycling route along country lanes that avoids having to cross the A43 or use the A422. The sat nav app that came with my bike claims that there is one. You go down Brackley High Street (fairly quiet at 3:30 pm), turn right onto the Turweston Road, and go across a – yes! – bridge over the A43 and into the picturesque village of Turweston. I tried it today. And the bike’s sat nav (based on Naviki, which isn’t the best) took me down here:

Screen Shot 2017-06-30 at 19.03.10

Which looks quite promising. The sign that you see on the right of the road there, though says, “PRIVATE ROAD”, and no unauthorised vehicles, etc. This seems to be a bit of a thing with Naviki. In finding the 13.6 mile route to work, it originally tried to take me down a private road into an estate which ends with a closed gate:

Screen Shot 2017-06-30 at 19.08.46

So I don’t know what would happen if I took Naviki up on the offer and cycled through some rich person’s estate to their closed, private gate. Luckily there was a straightforward alternative (which is a short cycle route alongside the A43, in the face of the gale force winds caused by rapid juggernauts).

What you don’t see in the picture above, though, the one with the PRIVATE ROAD sign, is that the paved road quickly gives way to… a farm gate. It’s a bridleway. Tantalisingly, taking the bridleway across the field, assuming I didn’t get bogged down in “horse mud” or suffer a puncture would eventually, in theory, bring me out on the direct back lane into Buckingham (Welsh Lane). But I didn’t want to risk it. Partly because there were two bridleways heading in different directions and it wasn’t exactly clear which one I should take. Ultimately, it would pass by the nearby aerodrome and out onto the road near Welsh Lane.

So close. You should have seen the smile on my face as I rode over the A43 on the narrow bridge.

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Posted in cycling, musings

32 Short Films About Cycling Stuff

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  1. It says a lot about my Shimano commuting cycling shoes (http://amzn.eu/24kXhZ0) that I sometimes don’t take them off for an hour or so after arriving home. This is the first shoe/pedal combination that hasn’t left my feet screaming agony after a 10-mile ride.
  2. Maybe the pedal-assist electric bike is a help with that, but well done Shimano for making a shoe that’s both comfortable on the bike and comfortable to walk in.
  3. One of the things I love about my Kalkhoff Integrale Limited Edition is that it is (until the next time I buy the very latest iPhone model) pretty much State of the Art as far as its category of things (electric commuter bicycles) go. To whit:
  4. The carbon belt drive, which means no chain, no oil, no ruined work trousers.
  5. The low-maintenance hub gears.
  6. The combination of smart battery, motor, computer, bluetooth linked app.
  7. The battery integrated into the downtube.
  8. The integrated lights, with smart ‘parking’ feature for safety first.transparent_csm_kh16_integrale_ltd_white_updated_eb74974ee4_34cb567afb
  9. My one continuing qualm about the bike is its weight, which there is no getting away from. The truth is, I blast through the 16 mph assistance limit pretty easily, but then my legs are pushing along an absolute beast of a bike.
  10. Momentary sideways instability, as I discovered, can quickly result in a spill. Hurt my ankle in September (?) and I still can’t run on it.
  11. If I could have a word with my past self, I would advise him to get the size below. At 1.83 metres, I’m borderline between Medium and Large, and the Medium would have been a bit lighter.
  12. You live and learn.
  13. I’ve deleted Strava, Cyclemeter, etc. and have stopped measuring time, distance, speed – even when I’m on my normal road bike.
  14. Partly it was to do with the electric bike – it was trivially easy to get into the top ten for the KoM on some Strava segments.
  15. Which was funny for a while.
  16. But in the end, it’s an empty achievement and I don’t care.
  17. More importantly, I want to just ride the bike and be in the moment, not worrying about how far and how fast and challenging myself and pushing myself.
  18. A lot of people enjoy this, I know.
  19. I don’t, though.
  20. Is this what they call mindfulness?
  21. Anyway, riding between fields of rape and enjoying the feeling of being immersed in yellow and feeling the slight warming of the air coming off those fields, that’s where I want to be.
  22. I don’t think people who use Strava are bad people.
  23. But being the loner I am, the idea that I’m stacking up all these stats is kind of pointless. I don’t care about myself, and I don’t know anybody who would be remotely interested to hear my average speed for a ride.
  24. My cycling shoes, the comfortable ones, are a size bigger than my normal shoe size.
  25. It’s a compromise.
  26. Actually, I have odd-size feet, which means that one of the shoes is two sizes too big.
  27. But here’s the thing. It’s almost a universal rule that cycling gear is too small for normal people. You always have to buy a size bigger than you think you need.
  28. So if you’re an L for a t-shirt or shirt, you need the XL.
  29. If you are an XL, you need the XXL.
  30. But here’s the other thing.
  31. Many cycling gear manufacturers don’t do the XXL.
  32. Which is why I look ridiculous on my bike.
Posted in cycling

Kalkhoff Integrale 8G Ltd White

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The bike arrived in a box that was practically bigger than our house – rendering ludicrous the request from the supplier that I keep the packaging if possible, in case the bike has to go back to their workshop. Well, I’ve thrown it in the garage for now (could barely close the door), which is only okay as long as nobody else wants to get in there.

First impressions: even without the box, the bike is massive. It’s a 55cm frame (Large, not even XL), which is just about 21.5 inches. The funny thing about that is that my first Trek hybrid bike was about that size, and I always thought it was on the small side. Well, frame sizes across manufacturers obviously aren’t standardised. Anyway, I knew it was a dilemma. I’m 183cm tall, which puts me bang on the borderline between Medium and Large. I went for Large because of my history of thinking a 55cm frame was too small. Don’t mistake me: this isn’t too big (at all), but it’s clear that I’d have probably been fine on a Medium.

And a Medium, of course, would have been a bit lighter. Second impression: wow, this is heavy. Think of an old-fashioned town bike, with a steel (or even aluminium) frame, heavy wheels, a chunky saddle, mudguards, a rack, and a basket containing 2 kilograms of potatoes, a jeroboam of champagne and panniers full of rocks: imagine how much that would weigh. Now double it. The downtube, seat tube and motor housing are cast from a single piece of aluminium alloy, and the rest of the bike is built to match – obviously strength is important, given the torque produced by the electric motor. So a lot of the weight is in the frame, and to that you can add the several kilograms of motor and several more kilograms of battery. Which is before you get to the chunky DT Swiss wheels and Big Apple 50mm balloon tyres.

It was all set up and ready to go, apart from the pedals and the handlebars, which had been twisted around to fit in the box and rotated to protect the brakes. The pedals that come with the bike are flat and plastic, with a grippy surface. I fitted instead a set of Shimano Deore XT pedals which are flat on one side, and which accept a cleat on the other. This means I can ride in regular trainers – or put on a pair of dedicated cycling shoes. I found the handlebar business a bit fiddly: I had to undo a lot of bolts to rotate brake callipers, shifters, the front light, the computer housing etc, but eventually got everything ready to go.

Meanwhile, I was charging the battery up to 100% for the first outing. First time you use it, they suggest charging it completely and then letting it go flat before you charge it again – in order to train the battery.

Let’s talk specs. The bike is a Limited Edition, which means that (unlike the standard 8G) it has no rack and a rigid fork. Mine is numbered 420 out of 500. I don’t know if that means they made 500 in total, or that many of each size. The engine is Kalkhoff’s own Impulse Evo 250 W mid-drive model with shift sensor technology. That means it drives the crank rather than the wheel hub. The shift sensor cuts the power when it detects a gear change so you don’t have to stop pedalling or slow down. In practice, it’s pretty seamless.

Integrated into the frame and giving the range its name is the battery, which is a 36V 17Ah battery. That’s over 600 watts, which is big for an e-bike. Very big. (And very heavy.) The battery can be charged on or off the bike. There’s a separate power supply for this, which connects to the battery using an Apple-style mag-safe adapter, which will only snap on the right way, thanks to magnets. The battery and motor are connected to the drivetrain by a Gates carbon belt drive rather than a chain, and the gears are Shimano’s 8-speed Alfine hub gears.

The white frame comes with matching mudguards but no rack. These are aluminium rather than plastic and they  properly go with this bike rather than being off-the-shelf. The rear mudguard has an integrated LED light (not as impressive as the rack-mounted light you get on other models). The front has a built-in 100 lux twin headlight. I don’t know how bright this will be in practice. It seems pretty good, but I’ve only ridden in daylight so far.

The Limited comes with a fancy Brooks Cambium C17 saddle (in black), with matching fancy handlebar grips. This is highly unusual in my experience. Even if you spend quite a lot of money on a bike (My Trek Domane 4.5, for example, was not cheap), you tend to get a bog-standard saddle, with the expectation that if you want a fancy one you’ll spend more. The Cambium retails at over £100, so it had better be good, right? It seems okay so far, but I’ve only been on one short and one 13-mile ride. The grips are another £50 value, and I’m afraid I’m a bit disappointed in them. They’re a bit hard (no cushion at all), and given the bike’s lack of any kind of suspension or damping, too uncomfortable. I was wearing cushioned gloves but still found my hand actually being bounced off the bar at one point. (The roads around here are disgraceful).

All of this weight and all of this power needs to be able to stop safely, and the Shimano M396 hydraulic disk brakes are up to the job. The Shimano Alfine shifter is the kind with a numerical display (it only indicates top, bottom, and fourth), though it feels a bit plasticky.

The brains of the bike are contained in an LCD display, which is about half the size of my phone. Using the simple control switch (which is on the left side of the bar, leaving the gear shifters on the right), you can set menu items such as level of assist (there are five settings, from Off to Turbo) and view battery level, speed, distance, cadence, and all the usual bike computer settings. The display also has built-in Bluetooth, so you can connect your phone to it through a companion app. This means you can use your phone as a sat nav, and the directions are displayed on the bike’s LCD display, meaning you don’t have to attach your phone. Should you want to do that, though, the LCD has a USB port which will supply a charge.

I went on two rides. The first one was just a quick blast to check that everything worked. I started off in Power mode (the next-to-highest level of assist) and in 4th gear, and from the first push on the pedal you could feel the motor kicking in and the bike surging ahead. I went around the block and through town, and my top speed was 27 mph. The motor cuts out at 15 mph, so anything over that is pedal power only – but if you’re going even slightly downhill it’s not hard to get up there.

Later on, when it had stopped raining, I headed around my usual 20km (13-mile) circuit. I thought I’d try Turbo mode, the highest level of assist – mainly because I want to run the battery down before Monday. As I set off, the display reported that I’d have a range of 31 miles. Well, in spite of the fact that I haven’t ridden a bike for over a month, I’m still fairly cycle fit, so my pedalling was clearly more than the bike was expecting. In spite of wind, cold, wet roads, it was a joyous ride. In recent years, with my leg muscles (perhaps?) weakened by Statins (or the blood pressure meds, or a combination), I’ve been struggling round that route at around 13 mph, but today I did it at (ahem) 15.6 mph. That, you’ll note, is 0.6 mph above the legal cutoff speed for an e-bike in the UK. That means that for most of the journey I was slightly above the 15 mph, which I’m pleased with. I was also pleased to note that the range the bike was predicting, after 13 miles, was still 31 miles.

I suspect that Turbo mode is more than I need anyway. I didn’t need to use gears 1-4 at all, and only used 5th gear to get up all the hills that usually see me labouring. So I was riding around with a fairly narrow range of gears – just four! – and found that my downhill speed topped out at 30 mph simply because my legs were spinning so fast that I had to stop pedalling.

Mind you, you don’t half notice when you’re going up hill and the motor isn’t helping you. Have I mentioned how heavy this bike is?

All things considered, this was great fun. I found myself chuckling as I launched up hills at a sustained speed. Most of the time I was pedalling as normal — but instead of pain and suffering and struggling against the wind, I was swooshing along (in near-silence, I should add) and actually enjoying myself. It was like having the wind at your back all the time – or, you know, being fit. I even overtook somebody. It’s rare that I see someone going in the same direction (most people seem to prefer anti-clockwise circuits, whereas I go clockwise) so it’s not going to happen often. I wonder what he thought as I blasted past? The sound the bike makes is more to do with the belt drive than the motor, I think. Anyway, I was past him so quickly he would have barely had time to register the sound. What he will have noticed is the enormous size of the thing. The Kalkhoff is a giant tank of a bike made for giant Northern Europeans – about as far as you can get from an Italian road bike with skinny tyres.

As to the balloon tyres, they weren’t providing much cushioning today. I might have to deflate them a little on these roads. I’ll add too that although I didn’t notice how bright the lights were, they do have a neat safety feature in that they stay on for a while after you switch the bike off. This means, say, that if you stop on a dark road and are taking time to hoik the heavy weight of the bike up a kerb or walking along with it for a bit, you don’t suddenly become invisible. The front light stays on for about 15 seconds, but the back light stays on for a few minutes. The commuting begins next week.

Posted in cycling, musings

Cycling’s dirty little secret?

The Information

I’ve continued to research the market in electric bikes and I’ve discovered some interesting things. At the same time, I’m finding it hard to settle on a purchase. Good information is hard to come by. There are a couple of YouTube channels that review e-bikes, and the odd web site, but the truth seems to be that there are a lot more e-bikes out there than there are reviewers. The limited number of reviewers means everything’s filtered through the preferences and prejudices of one or two people. Or the reviews are so generally positive they’re bland. Especially when it comes to finding out about more recent models, you’re kind of on your own. I thought there would – obviously! – be a magazine dedicated to e-bikes, but when I went to the big W H Smith in Milton Keynes, there appeared to be nothing available.

(An online research reveals an American title, but even then the latest issue shown on its web site dates from December 2015.)

It’s also hard to see them in person, unless you happen to live near a specialist retailer. Even then, most retailers tend to carry a limited number of brands, so there really isn’t anywhere you can go to see a wide variety.

Even a thorough trawl through the online reviews isn’t much help when it comes to current or forthcoming e-bikes. A YouTube review of a bike from 2014? In this fast-developing market, 2014 is ancient history. As Ferris Bueller said, in his documentary about e-bikes, “Life moves pretty fast.”

I think I know what the real problem is, and we’ll get to that. First, let’s talk about design.

20110513-dsc02639

I’ve never been a fan of the e-bike that has a rear hub motor and its battery on a rack over the back wheel. That’s a lot of weight over the back wheel, and it looks ugly, too. Bikes designed like this tend to be the older and cheaper ones. The motor can be placed in the front wheel instead, but your driven wheel is then also your steering wheel – and it still looks ugly. The ugliness is in the design (or lack of it): these are clearly regular bikes with electric motors glommed onto them.

As the market has grown – and it has clearly been growing – the designs have improved, and we’re starting to see electric bikes that are designed from the ground up as electric bikes. It’s increasingly rare to find a rear hub motor on a latter-day e-bike. Most manufacturers are offering a crank motor, which places the centre of gravity low and which responds more directly to your pedalling input. The key advantage of these in design terms is that both wheels can be a more conventional bicycle design, depending on the genre of the bike.

trek-conduit-2017-electric-hybrid-bike-black-ev283464-8500-1
Trek Conduit+

Still, it’s common to see the battery attached to the rear rack or stuck on top of the downtube. We’re getting closer to the idea of an electric bike being true to its own nature, but I still think they’re ugly. The Trek Conduit+ made my original shortlist but I’ve discovered enough other options that I won’t consider it now.

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Scott E-Sub Tour

The closer you get to a nice-looking e-bike, the higher the price. Forthcoming models from Specialized and Giant (see previous post) are going to retail between £2k and £3k, which makes your eyes water a bit. At least the Trek is closer to the £2k mark, as is the Scott E-Sub Tour. This latter is typical of the kind of design that’s making some effort to incorporate the battery into the design.

It’s in the hub

Which brings us to the Germans, and their Swiss/Austrian cousins. Once you get into the high Sierras of £3000 plus, the e-bikes start looking very nice indeed (though I have an issue with the drab colourways). Just look at this Rotwild.

rotwild-t-touring-electric-bike
German engineering

The battery-incorporating downtube doesn’t look any fatter than that on my carbon road bike. You’d pay similar money for the (Swiss-made) Stromer ST1, but that still has a hub motor. Stromer’s high-end ST2S, with electronic gear-shifting and a 180km range, comes in at a cool seven and a half grand. 

e-bike-showroom-586x502px-st1-red-men-front_grande_b07f23fe-2aff-475f-bee1-ac12c408e04f
Stromer ST1 has a rear hub motor

One thing I’ve discovered you have to watch out for are the so-called “speed” models, which are capped not at 25 but 45 kph. This means they have to be registered, licensed, and that you have to wear a proper scooter/motorbike helmet when riding them. You can usually tell it’s a speed bike because the motor is 350 watts – whereas the legislation limits the bike to 250 watts if you don’t want to register it etc. I can imagine that hurtling along at close to 30mph will make you want to wear a helmet, anyway.

So I’ve ended up looking at two manufacturers in the main. The first is Kalkhoff, which offers both regular and “speed” designs based around its “Integrale” design (the name refers to the integrated battery), and other models with the battery on the back of the downtube. The second is Scott, which offers its elegant-looking E-Silence in a variety of configurations.

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Kalkhoff Integrale 10 has derailleur gears – like most e-bikes

It’s a complicated business. One thing that has been giving me anxiety is the combination of derailleur gears with the electric motor. Even without a motor, derailleurs are a pain in the arse: fine while they’re working, but I have proved myself over decades of cycling to be absolutely hopeless when it comes to maintaining or adjusting them. Why have gears at all? You might well ask. You’d think that with a motor, you could just have a single-geared bike and let the engine do the work. But these pedal-assist bikes all require you to be pedalling at a steady cadence, which means you have to keep your legs spinning at the same rate, even on the hills – hence the gears.

Which brings us to the nub, or hub, of my decision-making. On the one hand, I’ve never quite trusted the mysterious technology of hub gears. You can’t see them working, and even when you look at animations of how they work, I still don’t understand how they work. It’s all smoke and mirrors, man.

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Belt drive? Oooh.

But then you see the words belt drive and you think, oooh.

A belt drive means no chain. And no lube. And no mess. Hub gears are sealed, designed for low maintenance, which means for a daily commute you could just get on and ride without worrying about the whirrrrr-click of a derailleur or the filthy gunk that accumulates on a chain in all weathers. A lot of people get a hub geared bike for winter riding anyway, but in the context of an electric motor they make even more sense.

So I’m pretty certain I’m going to plump for the belt drive option. The Kalkhoff S11 has Shimano’s latest and greatest 11-gear hub, but unfortunately it’s a speed bike, so it’s off the table. If they offered the 11-gear hub with a 250 watt motor I’d jump at it.

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Kalkhoff Integrale 8 Ltd – belt drive and Shimano hub gears

A further disappointment came when the UK distributor said that the Integrale 8 (Shimano 8-gear hub, 250 watt motor) was sold out. But, they said, they have a few limited edition white ones arriving next week. These have a rigid front fork instead of  the standard suspension fork and mudguards but no rack. That’s okay: I have a rack. So that’s one option (see above).

My other option is a Scott, but their only belt drive model is the E-Silence Evo (below) which is (a) not out yet and (b) closer to £4k than £3k, so way out of my budget really. Why are we even talking about this? Well, because instead of a Shimano hub gear, it has a CVT – a continuously variable transmission. This is the Nuvinci N330, which offers a 330% range of gearing with a technology even more mysterious in its workings than a hub gear. It’s an automatic gearbox for bikes: you set the speed you wish to pedal and the bike automatically adjusts its gearing, keeping your feet spinning at the same rate – assisted by the motor, of course.

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Scott E-Silence Evo with continuously variable transmission and belt drive

“Cheating”

I was talking to someone the other day, and I mentioned my plan to get an e-bike and they said, “That’s cheating.”

Which brings us to cycling’s dirty little secret. You start researching this and you realise how big the market is, how much competition there is, and yet how hard these things are to see on the high street. Evans cycles, for example, are happy to sell you an e-bike on their web site, but when I went into their big shop in Central Milton Keynes the other day? Not a single e-bike.

The shop I went to in Dorking to drop off my carbon road bike for repair had one in the window – a Trek women’s model.

Your basic retail problem is that the staff in these places often display the same kind of twattishness common to guitar stores and record shops. They’re the kind of people who spout macho nonsense about suffering up the hills and sticking to The Rules (Rule #5: Harden The Fuck Up). You’d no more want to ask one of these people about an e-bike than you’d want to engage a music shop employee in a conversation about music.

This is the Strava crowd, the King of the Mountains crowd, the hypercompetitive macho manboys. I’ve been using Strava to keep a record of my rides for a while, but I’d been thinking maybe I ought to not use it when I get an e-bike, because it would belie my true status as the 450th fastest rider out of 750 on that particular hill.

But then, what better way to subvert the bullshit than to shoot up a hill twice as fast as usual and drive them all crazy?

Posted in cycling

e-bike gum

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In the background to all my iPhone vacillation is the fact that I busted up my road bike driving home from France. It looks as if (if I’m willing to take it apart and package it up to send away) I could get it repaired for around £500. But that’s a big if. How do you box up a bike to post it!? How much does it cost? Anyway, apart from the damage to the frame, the wheels are out of true, so there’s more work to be done. An alternative would be to buy a second hand one on eBay and use the premium components from my wrecked bike to upgrade it. But I’m not enthused.

Thing is, I’m thinking of getting an electric bike. I actually prefer to ride for a purpose, and  going out on “fitness rides” is a bit of a drag (plus I’m not built for hills and hate them). What I’d like to do is go back to riding to work on a regular basis, the way I used to in my 20s.  Most e-bikes are peddle-assist these days, which means you still have to pedal, and the motor cuts out at  15 mph (25 kph). You also still need gears, to keep your pedalling cadence steady. Well, 15 mph is a respectable speed to get to work (nine miles or so) and it would still be a bit of daily exercise. I’d still raise my heart rate a bit, but I wouldn’t necessarily arrive feeling weak and sweaty.

My shortlist candidates (so far) are pictured above.

I’ve seen the Giant Quick E+ (or similar) in the Giant shop in Belfort this summer. This is an attractive range of bikes. I like the way the battery is incorporated into the down tube. Giant’s advantage is that they have their own drive system and battery. Of course, it still weighs a ton, but that goes with the territory. The motor is in the hub, and it’s got built-in lights and hydraulic brakes. I don’t like the colour, but all of these commuter bikes (including mudguards and lights in the package) are dull.

The Scott E-Silence is a better colour, but an unknown quantity in terms of pricing, as it’s just been announced. It uses a Brose “silent” belt-drive motor, so it’s supposedly much quieter than other e-bikes. It too incorporates the battery into the down tube and if anything it’s better looking than the Giant.

Finally, the Trek Conduit+ looks like a bit of a throwback, with it’s lumpy battery sitting on the down tube. It uses the Shimano Steps motor and has the best built-in lights of the three. The front light is in the head tube and the rear lights are on both sides, at the end of the chainstays. I like the look of the Trek the least, but it’s probably a very practical design. For example, the ugly battery is easy to remove so you can take it in to charge it, or to transport the bike on a carrier. It’s also a Trek, and my last three bikes were all Treks, so…

Waiting till I finish paying for the car we bought for Chloé’s driving lessons, but then I’ll be taking the plunge… maybe.

(In France the summer, we followed someone on a mountain bike up our very steep hill one night and they were going at such a clip, it was really impressive. Most people cycle past our house with their legs spinning like mad and the bike barely moving. This cyclist was easily doing the speed a normal person might manage on the flat. So it was that the e-bike idea crystallised in my mind.)

Posted in cycling, musings

60,000 steps in Berlin

Berlin was a compromise city for us. Because we weren’t going to France this holiday (Bruce Springsteen this Friday), the family wanted a short city break so we weren’t hanging around at home like animals. (I should add that my personal preference would have been hanging around at home.) Barcelona was mentioned; Rome; Copenhagen. In the end, almost out of the blue, I suggested Berlin. This was because I knew Roy had been there more than once, and because I noticed that a four-star hotel in Berlin cost about the same as a three-star in Rome/Barcelona.

So it was booked. In spite of the anti-depressants, I was very anxious about the trip, but took it all one step at a time. We flew out from Luton early in the morning, and stayed two nights at the Winters Hotel, which is actually fairly near the star at the centre of the Berlin map. Flying Easyjet is a lot less stressful now they allow you to reserve seats on the plane (for a fee). Given this, I wonder why so many people still pay the extra for speedy boarding – but they do. Maybe it’s a class thing.

Anyway, we landed at Schönefeld at around nine in the morning. My first rookie traveller mistake was in finding directions (via TripAdvisor) to the Mitte area rather than specifically to the Hotel. This meant we got the train to Alexanderplatz, as directed, and then were to look for onward travel by bus, tram, or train. But then my second mistake came into play. I’d downloaded an offline map through Triposo, and (*ahem*) it didn’t look like too far to walk. I always prefer to walk through a city. But Berlin is huge, and it was a long walk. Luckily, my third mistake didn’t affect us (there are two Winters hotel locations, but they’re fairly close to each other, not on opposite sides of the city).

So having fucked up the airport transfer, we all had tired legs and sore feet. But the clock was ticking, so we went out again. Checkpoint Charlie was close by (tacky), and there we paid to go in to see an impressive panorama called The Wall, which showed Berlin as it use to be. It was actually quite good.

Next, we walked again, in search of some remnants of the actual wall. This took us through ordinary Berlin neighbourhoods, and through the kind-of parks/cycleways that have been left where the wall was. We eventually reached the East Side Gallery, which is opposite a huge, modern train station – but also near to a completely decrepit block of flats daubed with the words “FUCK OFF MEDIA SPREE” and “REFUGEES WELCOME”. As they say of all such places: city of contrasts.

We then went back to the hotel for a bit, then went out to look at the Brandenburg Gate, browse some shops, and find somewhere to eat. The weather had been warm and sunny up till then, but on the way to the Gate, we were caught in an intense thunderstorm, and got completely soaked.

This had been the weather I was expecting. My always-pessimistic weather apps had both predicted overcast weather and quite a lot of rain. In the event, we were caught in that one storm, but most of the time experienced high temperatures and sunshine. Sunglasses were deployed. My biggest problem was that, in packing as light as possible, I had only catered for the predicted grey skies and rain. I had one pair of jeans and several long-sleeve shirts – two made from merino wool. It was 28°C in the shade. I spent that first day continually trying to overcome a raging thirst. It was finally slaked when we stopped at a (good) Chinese restaurant and I ordered a Berliner Pilsner, forgetting that I wasn’t supposed to be drinking on these pills. Oops.

Shopping wasn’t really a thing. Tired legs, dehydration, and sore feet meant that I didn’t feel like trying on clothes and shoes. And travelling hand luggage only meant that even the WMF kitchen equipment shop didn’t excite me. The Lindt chocolate shop was pretty great, though. Day one step count: 30,077 (21.29 km).

Day two meant galleries and museums, and more tube travel. We got a travel card (eventually: the machines wouldn’t accept our cards) – and hopped on and off the U-Bahn all day long. This saved our feet (a bit) but the damage had been done. We went to the Hamburger Bahnhoff for modern art (a Carl Andre exhibition was on, but I enjoyed most the gallery of so-called “degenerate” art that was banned under the Nazis). And after viewing the Holocaust memorial, we went down to the DDR Museum, which was quite enjoyable. By this time, I was done with the walking, blisters on both feet, but there was, inevitably, more. We ate disappointing Italian in the evening and went down to the Brandenburg Gate to see it again but without the thunderstorm. Day two step count: 24,048 (just 16 km).

Observation: lots of embassies round there: French, Russian, US. There was no visible security outside the US embassy. A couple of cops were standing outside the French one, but only the British embassy, it seems, necessitates the closure of a whole section of street and the permanent posting of 6-8 cops with two vans. That’s how much the world fucking hates us.

Getting back to the airport was much easier. A couple of hops on the tube to Friedrrichstraße and then the Airport Express – which would have been so much easier if we’d done it on the way in. Might have saved the feet, for a start.

So I enjoyed the trip in the end. One thing I do wish we’d done is hire bikes (I was outvoted). Berlin is flat and very cycle friendly, and getting around on bike is absolutely the best way. Two days isn’t enough though, and I never enjoy the pressure to see the sights in the time available. My favourite part of the whole trip was when we sat in a coffee shop for breakfast, reading over the shoulder of a WordPress blogger through the window, and watching people for half an hour. My ideal such holiday would be to do just that: watch the people of the city go about their business. But I’m outvoted.

 

Posted in cycling, Review

Ibera PakRak System

Of course, following the crippling back pain, there had to be a solution that would put the weight on the bike and not on my back. As reluctant as I am to add weight to my carbon bicycle, I obviously can’t use the backpack any more.

One of the reasons I’m reluctant is that, at the weekend and on holidays, I want to ride my bike with as little on it as possible, so I really didn’t want to fit a complicated pannier system that would be difficult to fit and remove. And because the main weight I’d be carrying would be my laptop, a pannier system would end up being imbalanced. So I hit the YouTubes and the interwebs and I did some research. Topeak offer a range of solutions, including a rack that fits to your seatpost and a selection of trunk bags, including one with fold-out panniers. Tantalisingly, they used to have an actual laptop bag, but that no longer appears to be available (in the UK, at least).

A similar, but cheaper, system is available from Ibera, and its this I went for, as their biggest trunk bag looked like it might just be big enough to contain my laptop. The first step is the seatpost-mounted commuter carrier, which gets around the lack of rack fixings on my bike. It looks kind of precarious, but (it says here) it can support up to 10kg, which should be more than sufficient for my needs. It attaches where the seatpost meets the downtube, and comes with a couple of shims you can insert. I used the thicker of the two shims, hoping it will be right. The rack itself can be adjusted – I pulled it back to its furthest position to accommodate the big bag.

Step two is the trunk bag itself, which attaches to the rack with a snap-on system. It has a lightly padded interior and an ABS plastic base which looks pretty solid. It comes with an optional carry strap and has one big pocket with three smaller ones around the outside, plus one on the top. There are also some bungee cords to tighten around a rain jacket or something, and inside there’s a zip compartment in the lid. It seemed as if it ought to be able to contain what I carry to work: laptop, wallet, keys, pen, spare cartridges, maybe a bottle of chocolate milk. It could also potentially contain a shirt and tie, maybe even a rolled up pair of trousers, but let’s not go overboard.

The true test was, could it contain my 13″ MacBook Pro? The dimensions seemed to indicate that it might. And it does – just. But that’s no bad thing. The snugger the fit, the less the thing is going to move around. Above you can see it in its resting place. The zips, once you go past the first corner, do up pretty easily really, and it seems fairly secure. Of course, I haven’t tested this setup over the bumpy British roads on the way to work, but we shall see. If you have a 15″ Pro, that won’t fit, and nor might the older non-retina design with the built-in DVD drive. If you have one of the new 12″ MacBooks, that’ll go in easy, as will the 11″ air (you’d probably need extra padding). Given that the next-generation MacBook Pro will probably be thinner and lighter, the future is bright.

Getting on the bike with the bag on is no easy feat if you have issues with your hips and back. Getting my leg over was a stretch. But I am in a bad way at the moment, so maybe it won’t be too much of an issue. I can also ask someone to snap the bag on for me once I’m on, I guess.

So now the Port Designs GOLED backpack will be going on the eBay. This Ibera solution, by the way was pretty cheap: the seatpost rack was just £22, and the trunk bag was £34. So £56 all-in, about half what the Topeak solution would have cost.