Monday, 7 November 2011

Single speed

Bike Dock have lent me a single speed bike, an old rusty thing from the 1960s renovated. I can't even make out who built it. In ordinary thinking, this would be the cheapest buy you would find, the least desirable pair of wheels. I'll post a picture of it tomorrow and some more detail.
For now, I am dazzled by the responsiveness of this bike. It is a very nifty town bike. There is never any doubt about what it is going to do when you press on the pedal. My own bike is a 27 speed Ridgeback Panorama, built for touring in open countryside, up and down mountains. This one is harder work but that makes it perfect for training.
All those gears make a bike slacker in its feel and they create the potential for mistakes, they just distance you a bit further from the machine itself.
I'm beginning to think that this single-speed would be the perfect winter bike, for just going to the University and back and jaunts around town, keeping me fitter and serving me better in tight spots.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Putting Your Bike on a Train


It used to be that you had to prop your bike against a wall in the Guard's carriage, usually with a lot of parcels cluttering the place. Now, on the Belfast-Dublin line, you get a meathook on the ceiling to hang it from.
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This is a more cramped system on the Dublin Limerick train, and a bit hard on the mudguard.
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Thursday, 15 September 2011

But is it worth it?

And then suddenly I started to take a downer on cycling. I had chosen to ride round Strangford Lough again on a sunny day in September.
I'd woken up to sunlight and a whole free day. I should have set off early and not bothered checking e-mails or Facebook for just dealing with a few queries took time, enough time for a little cloud cover to gather.
I joked in my Facebook status that I was getting my gel pants on in anticipation of a good ride and even before I was properly changed the comments were coming in and I was tempted to read them and respond.
The wind was stronger than I'd expected but I was soon through the city traffic and onto the Comber Greenway where the dog walkers still don't carry poop bags and some of them have nasty looking beasts, not even on a lead. At the end of the path I was tempted to just turn back, not because I was tired but because I was bored. I was distracted from cycling by thoughts of the other things I could be doing, not just work.
I took and returned calls in a field, sheltering from the traffic noise behind a high hedge; it helped a little.
Perhaps I should have had a tablet computer with me. I could read my e-mails on my phone but not manage long replies. And I could also check up on the witticisms inspired by my reference to gel pants.
I managed to write a little update. My gel pants had not been as comfortable as I had hoped. A man has bits that need to spread or gather themselves comfortably, otherwise he takes a buffeting where he can least endure it. But no amount of readjustment seemed to effect the arrangement I needed. I summed up that dilemma as distinctly as I could for my Facebook friends, a tad bawdily too. But in time I would stop thinking about where my balls were and they would stop bothering me.
The other problem was that I had chosen the less scenic route around the lough. The cycle network takes you meandering along the water's edge, up and down hills. The last time I had tried that I had been exhausted at Strangford and in agony before I got home. This time I rode through Lisbane and Killyleagh, a little tempted to stop for lunch at Balloo. If I had done that I would just have turned for home afterwards. But the smell of food from the restaurant -- yummy. Instead I had a Snickers at a garage and ploughed on.
I was beginning to ache on the road towards Castleward and Strangford but worse, to my mind, was an annoying sense that this was all a pointless diversion from my real life.
Why was I 30 miles from my computer? What was I getting out of this? The surroundings were lovely but I could have come and looked at the fields in my car and been home to do some work. Well it was all great exercise. Maybe, but no one goes to a gym and sits for 3, 4 or five hours on the cycling machine.
I was supposed to be tootling and enjoying nature, whistling to myself in perfect contentment, on the cusp of autumn, without a care in the world. But I did have cares and cycling was not solving them.

At Strangford I stopped to see Kevin Og at the shop. He invited me to the house for a cup of tea but I said I needed nutrition and suggested we go across to the Cuan, a bar restaurant.
Kevin was not one of nature's cyclists and I think he was a little surprised to find that I might be. He ordered his pint of cider and my water and we discussed the menu. I fancied the seafood crepe. We talked about life and the summer and how the world was treating us. When my crepe arrived, Kevin, a man with experience of eating heavily, said, 'are you not afraid that will weigh heavily on you with 30 miles to go on the bike still?'
I hadn't thought about that.
'Maybe I shouldn't have said that', he said with a big grin. 'You will only worry now.'
But we gave each other a manly hug in the square and I got back on the bike and rolled down to the ferry where, on reflection, I decided that my crepe was both heavy and restless, undergoing powerful chemical effervescence in my stomach and uncertain yet about how much inconvenience it would choose to inflict on me.
Is there a toilet on the ferry? I 'd want to position myself close to it.
But I managed the coast road out of Portaferry without this turbulence translating into desperation. Yet every time I passed a farm gate I offered myself the option of deferring till the next one the decision to stop and find a quiet corner of a hedgerow and be as natural as a man can be. One concern was that even on a rolling hill, without a sound but the birds, a farm boy might emerge from behind a hayroll. Or those boats on the lough might be full of people scanning the fields with their binoculars.
There are farm gates along the road from Portaferry at regular intervals and at every single one of them I said to myself, 'do you need to go now or can you hold out longer?'
And in time my gut, thus defied, settled itself, just like the bits in the gel pants that had pinched and ached till I took my mind off them.
The road out of Newtownards is horrific, a long steep hill. I knew that from before but on the last occasion I had hurt so much in my thighs that the struggle was intermittent and agonising. The reward had been a sense of achievement, survival beyond inconceivable extremity. This time I was fitter and it was merely tedious. The only reward was that I was closer to home, but I could have been closer still if I had not bothered coming out on the bike at all.
So why had I?
Months earlier, when I had turned 60, it had seemed important and potentially exciting to prove that I could cycle the way I had done at 30. Now I was doing that. Grand. But perhaps I hadn't properly asked myself why I had stopped cycling in my 30s. I had assumed that it was just that I had lost contact with my old cycling partner Toby and a routine with him. Then I had got busier in my work and used a car more. Then I had got fat.
Well now I wasn't fat any more and I was able to cycle again, but I still had the other deterrents in my life. I had work and a marriage. There would always be something more important to do than traipsing along some country road for hours on end.
And I didn't have a social structure around me of other cyclists who'd turn up on my doorstep and say, 'are you coming out on the bike?'
I could understand now why cyclists devote themselves to more than the pleasure of tootling. Tootling is something you can only enjoy when you have no targets to meet, no other claim on your time. Tootling on your bike is never more urgent than pottering about the garden or soaking in a bath. The joy is in the being free to do it. When you're that free, it hardly matters what you do.
When I spent afternoons and evenings cycling with Toby years ago my girlfriend, Celine, lived in Switzerland so she wasn't expecting me to come to tea and pick up a bottle of wine and some fresh basil on the way. She took up no time at all, really.
Indeed, maybe I had just been busting a gut on the roads round Strangford Lough to keep my mind off the sexlessness of my life.
Now I'm married.
Why have I not been cycling for most of the last 20 years? Well, partly because I have been sharing my life with another person who does not cycle much.
Maureen sits very nicely on a bike. She likes to go out for a wee ride the odd time.
We took the bikes on the car to Donegal and caroused around Rosnowlagh on them. But this was different.
She said: 'I don't mind going for a cycle ride, so long as I know that there is a capuccino at the end of it.'
What she really meant was that she didn't mind cycling to the nearest available cappucino, so long as she could then sit down and enjoy it and read the Irish Times.
On the beach we slalomed round the dead jellyfish, seeing that other cyclists before us had ridden right over some of them, risking the skid.
She got her coffee at a restaurant overlooking Creevy Pier and the astonishing sweep of Donegal bay. A a lone fisherman was dipping his line for mackerel into the edge of the still grey sea fringed by distant hazy blue mountains. In the restaurant, the incessant perky pop music seemed to declare that the proprieters were oblivious to the placid grandeur of the setting.
On the way back I was able to synchronise my pace with Maureen's and work out that her lowest gear was equivalent to my own middle one and that I could go down a lot further. And her saddle was too low. Yet even with the struggle her enthusiasm seemed to be growing, perhaps in anticipation of the next cappucino.There was no way I was going to persuade her to join me on a 50 mile excursion which would guarantee we would suffer afterwards.
I wonder why cyclists and sportspeople generally work for exhaustion. Maybe part of the attraction is a little despicable, a bit like the drug user's need to burn up time that would otherwise be too painful to endure. At the end of a long struggle, when you are lying stretched out and groaning as your muscles try to unwind, you have the perfect excuse for letting someone else make the tea or for not going upstairs to your study right now and fill in your tax returns.
Maybe we invent these challenges for ourselves to make up for the lack of heart for real endeavour, or maybe we are carrying in our genes the expectation that we will fight and the reward programmed into us is sensuous exhaustion.
A cyclist may indulge the pain of sore muscle the way a certain kind of narcissistic alcoholic relishes his hangover.
The groaning body is somehow recognised by our minds as proof of achievement but maybe cycling or running or doing pushups is the grasp for a phoney high, more like masturbation than copulation.
Go out and batter yourself against the hills and you may come home feeling like a hunter or warrior but you can not expect your wife to share in your sense of heroism when there is no material advance in your collective domestic comfort to show for it.
'And don't leave your gel pants lying on the bathroom floor!'
And sometimes she'll say. 'If it's exercise you want, go and hoover the stairs.'
But we cycle because we enjoy it.
Of course it is good to be fit, isn't it? But if fitness is only a by product of cycling then there must be some other value in spending hours on a bike travelling to somewhere you don't need to go to.
I think the paradox is that cycling is leisure and yet it is exhausting. For most people, leisure is what you take when you are tired already.
I thought I would reach a level of fitness that would make long-distance cycling easy and enjoyable. This had not happened. There would always be pain. So there had to be another reason to bother.
Other cyclists created those reasons as time trials, races, group excursions. They set themselves targets and these served to keep them lashed to the routine of cycling.
I had made a breakthrough in finding freedom on a bike but I didn't really know yet what to use that freedom for.
But if I was to retract a little, stop exerting myself and just integrate the bike into my life as a vehicle for getting about the city or dawdling along the river, then I might find a balanced relationship with my bike. I would become one of those cyclists whose machine is as ordinary and uninteresting to them as their shoes. You might like your shoes when you buy them, you don't want them taking up any of your attention while you are going about in them. You don't go out for a walk to indulge the pleasure of wearing them, you go because you like walking anyway and would go in wellies if they were all you had.
Then another question would be whether I had the right bike for that routine and for urban short distance cycling life. My Panorama is a bike you ride stooped. It is a distance bike. It is not a very sociable bike.
I found that with Maureen in Rosnowlagh. If I want to cycle slowly and chat to the person beside me then I would like to sit up and look at her.
Or maybe I was just making too much of a dull day?
The challenge is to accept that cycling is sometimes a joy and sometimes not, a bit like going to the pub in that respect. You can have bad evenings there too.
But I began to wonder if the thrill was wearing off me and cycling was losing its hold on me and even if that wasn't a state more natural to my temperament. After all, I had been content not to cycle for years.
Then a late Autumn day arrived with hardly a breeze and an almost warm sun. And I had things to do, none of them crucial to happiness and comfort let alone continued survival, but still they had to be done. And I'd need the car. And parking had got so expensive in Belfast that there would now be no trouble finding a place to leave it for an hour while I went from one shop and office to another. But as I passed the bike propped by the hall wall, I felt an itch to take it. With the front door open and the freshness of the day in my face I was filled with an urgency to be out on a country road, not necessarily belting down a steep hill, and preferably not strugggling up one either, but tootling along, with my feet locked to the pedals, my hands gripping the bars and the saddle propped snugly under my arse, absorbed in the tension of movement and the challenge of wrestling with a machine that complemented my body and carried it. I knew all about how painful and bloody awkward this whole-body lock-on could be, how nothing else demands all the limbs and attention too. It's not as if you can cycle and spare a hand or foot for anything else, whether squeezing a ball or kicking a can; every bit of you is spoken for. But I wanted it. I was thinking, is any of this shopping and office tripping worth giving up a good ride for? And it didn't feel to me then as if it was.

Maureen and her bike in Donegal

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Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The Torr Road

A thirty mile trip wouldn't be too taxing for me now, but the Torr Road from Ballycastle to Cushendun and back over the A2 is so steep in places a lot of people wouldn't even chance it in a car.
A day later my legs are still groaning. Tomorrow they will thank me for all that new tight muscle.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

You Get The Ride You Deserve

The Sustrans routes around the Sperrins and West Tyrone are short, mostly about 30 mile circuits. Their challenge is in the gradient.
I grabbed a couple of hours on a midweek afternoon in Strabane to try a circuit that would take me from Sion Mills to Castlederg and Newtonstewart. It seems sometimes that the less time you have for a trip the longer it takes to prepare. Procrastination had already crashed into lunchtime -- so I had to eat. This could be the crassest doorstep cheese sandwich, the sort your wife would want to redeem with mayonnaise and rocket salad.
And I had to change clothes and in the flap and frenzy, even this could be complicated. Was it safe to walk across the kitchen floor in shoes with metal cleats under them.
But it was a nice day, slightly overcast but with no particular threat of rain. I started out along the Strabane bypass on a curiously pleasant incline, then to the roundabout on the Melmount Road and on to Sion Mills.
I had maps from Sustrans but these were not as detailed as I needed them to be so I soon lost my way. I didn't find any cycle route sign in Sion, though I'm sure there is one there, but turned right up towards the Glebe to find the hill road to Castlederg.
At the top of the hill I turned left. The map actually indicates a short detour to the right. But I was at least now on a lonely country road and high in the hills, with barley fields and pasture around me and little sound but birdsong and barking dogs.
Dogs seem to be generally primed for hostility to cyclists. Perhaps they sense that we are an affront to nature.
And soon the road was winding downhill, which should have been a warning to me. If I was coming off the mountain so soon, I was hardly going in the right direction.
I could have kicked myself when I saw that my soaring and banking down the road had only taken me back onto the A5 from Strabane to Newtonstewart. Properly, I should have gone back up that hill but the hills ahead always seem a more acceptable challenge for your not knowing them yet than one that has already impressed you with its steepness.
So I had another look at the map.
I found I could go down the A5 for a mile and pick up the route again in the other direction at Douglas Bridge.
So that's what I did. I turned off the main road at Victoria Bridge and then strove up another hill.
There I looked for the road that would take me to Newtonstewart. Again I couldn't find a route sign and tried one promisingly skirting the river only to meet locked gates crossing it after the first bend.
Further along there was a steep narrow road signposted to the town. I reconciled myself to their being a lot of climbing on this route but I was coming to understand how cycling illustrates the law of Karma. The world, I reckon, averages out as smooth, so ride for long enough and you will go downhill as much as up, and every struggle will be rewarded with a freewheeling thrill.
Try to live a cycling life without paying your dues in puffing, in breathlessness and sore legs, and you will always be denied your comfort when you are most hoping to indulge it.
Just like life.
It was a lovely road, high over the whole county and with almost no traffic on it. It was only wide enough for one car anyway and the hump along the middle was thick in small gravelly stones that, on a busy road, would have been brushed away by a car wheels.
I met one tractor and further on a farmer in blue overalls walking his dog. He was wearing incongruously stylish sunglasses.
And I saw the cycle route sign that confirmed I was going the right way, if in the opposite direction to the one I started out on.
At Newtonstewart, the signs guided me to an underpass and into the town.
Here the route diverged from another to the east of it with which it had shared the mountain road from Douglas Bridge. I could go left to Gortin forest or right to Harry Avery's Castle and the Baronscourt estate and Castlederg but I hadn't left myself enough time for the whole route. I took the long climb to the Castle in my lowest gear most of the way. I riled the dogs at every gate, some of them yelping in high pitch, others with the more worrying deep bass profundo growls of more dangerous beasts.
At the very top of the hill I was confronted with a large beefy reddish-brown mastiff.
I stood to watch him, expecting him to rage a while and then get bored. But I miscalculated my move when I chanced getting back on the bike and he rushed at me then thought again when I stood firmly and waited for him. I've little doubt he would have taken the leg off me if I had run.
This could have gone for an hour but a van came up the hill and as it passed between us, I stepped onto my pedal and rolled back the way I had come, leaving the dogs perhaps wondering if he should attack more confidently the next time a brazen cyclist chances a stand-off.
I was left wondering if there was some weapon I made legally carry that would empower me to kill or at least disable a dog like this in self defence.
Given the little time left, I took the A5 at Newtonstewart back towards Strabane.
This was mostly a safe and uneventful ride on a level road. The nearest thing to an adventure was having to stop with the traffic while a farmer escorted his cattle across the road.
Then just after Victoria Bridge I found the hill I had come down on my early exhilarating wrong turning. I had a notion that I could take that road now and recompense for my folly and bad map-reading, and my presumption that I could get to where I was going by rolling downhill more than puffing uphill.
I would climb that winding road back up to the Glebe then rattle downhill into Clady where I could take the Urney Road back to Strabane.
This was an ascent in giant steps, one wobbly exertion after another with the legs weakening further on every turn of the pedal so that in time it seemed a marvel that there was any work left in them.
Another hazard was the nettles growing out of the hedgerows, brushing the back of my hand as I passed, a particular danger when I was inching as close to the verge as I could to make space for unthinking drivers.
I stopped at a barley field to photograph the wet stalks in the evening light and clumsily wrenching myself from my cleats, bounced on the saddle with my whole weight descending abruptly on my right testicle. There is no way of explaining to a woman reader what this feels like and no need to explain it to a man. Perhaps it is something like the sensation of having a cattle prod touch a nerve or funnybone deep inside the abdomen. It is the sort of pain that the conscious mind usually interprets as terminally damaging. But I reassured myself that a lifetime of bad karma was probably expended in that one shocking moment.
The descent into Clady could not have been more thrilling in a plane. Here I had the value of my robust and heavy touring bike, stable in its own momentum, crashing the wind that opposed me, the road clear of all danger in front of me, freeing me to go faster and faster.
I had earned it.

No room for cars

This is on the Sustrans cycle route around Strangford Lough, on the hills over Killyleagh.
I was still fairly fit and fresh when I got this far, but I was burnt out by the time I got home that night.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

A Reason to Ride

For a start, I am small. After a physically exuberant early childhood in which I ran and jumped and wrestled like a puppy, I discovered that I could not compete with other boys. The race was indeed with the swift, and I was not one of them.
So I grew up with the expectation that I would never do anything marvellous with my body. As a grown man of 5 foot 2 and 130 pounds, I did challenge that through hatha yoga, hill walking and cycling for periods in my 20s and 30s. But the conviction that I was a natural sloth settled deep in me. After marriage I acquired the 'married person's allowance' of an extra stone in weight and a slacker rounder girth.
For another, I am now 60. If I was ever going to be a real cyclist like my father, who had a silver cup for his achievements -- and a sore leg -- then it would have been earlier than this.
When he was the age I am now the old black bicycle on which he had taken his sons to school had long disappeared. I doubt he was ever on it after the age of about 50. Yet I remember observing that he had a natural complicity with his bicycle that I could only dream of achieving with any person or machine. He seemed able to command it to stand erect and roll forward at the slightest touch when he stepped on to the near pedal with his left foot and swung the right over the bar. This was almost like a dance step, that left foot crossing in front of his right shin and the right leg arching behind him as the centre of gravity was appropriated from the bike to be shared with the body.
Perhaps it was in observing this kind of movement in another that Flann O'Brien concluded that a man might merge with his bicycle, the premise of the humour in The Third Policeman.
Neither my father nor I turned into the 60-year-olds that we expected to be. He should have been cycling to the pub and home along some broken boreen, the way his uncle Dan did into his 90s.
I enter my seventh decade a little trimmer than the recent trajectory of my life anticipated.
At 59 I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and told that I should lose weight, by a doctor who gave this news to men my age everyday and expected none of them to do anything about it.
With the incentive of reducing my prospects of heart disease and maintaining the span of life I had set that heart on, I set myself a target of losing two stone in six months and achieved that, learning to think of peckishness after a small meal as confirmation that my body was happily consuming its own fat. I had only to pick up a bale of peat briquettes to be reminded that my normality of a year before was to be carrying this load everywhere, like leaden smudge all over my body but more densely concentrated in the abdomen.
An additional benefit of slimming was that I could now comfortably ride a bicycle again. The last time I got on one, about 10 years before, my knees, as I pedalled, pressed into my gut when I raised them, not only finding their movement restricted but also pumping vital snatched breath back out of me. Merged with a bicycle, we made a good bellows but a poor system of the locomotion.
That had now changed, so I decided to start cycling again, having discovered that my body could be restored to what it was earlier -- or at least to the shape it was -- and I wanted to see if it could be really fit again.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

0 - 60 in Sixty Years

This is a little report I made for Radio Ulster to mark National Bike Week. Actually, recording while cycling proved difficult. There isn't much to hear of the bike itself; it would be easier to put cycling on radio if the things made more noise.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

The Best Invention Ever

We evolved, for perhaps 2 million years as vertical bipeds without ever discovering that the forward step motion of the feet could be extended into the more productive circle. The invention of the wheel is often cited as the start of human technology but surely finding the mechanism by which the wheel could be integrated into the natural movements of the body is the real breakthrough.
The further application of sprocket mechanisms on a pulley, whereby a rapid small wheel turns a slow big one, is surely an improvement on the original genius.
It is the same sort of trick that was used to lift weights, changing the ratio between distance and effort to make heavy loads manageable - I was taught formulae for describing this in maths classes - but what the bicycle carries is the very person who operates it. It's not like using a pulley to lift dead weight and leaving the worker standing in the same place. The driver is the load. The cyclist is the operator and the cargo. Brilliant!
Indeed, cycling is an improved application of the legs over what nature and devolution devised, for it makes use of the return step.
Previously the only reason to lift the hind foot and put it in front again was to enable another step. On the bicycle the foot produces movement when it is drawing and when it is returning, especially if you were toe-clips or cleats, which no thinking cyclist would leave home without,  wanting to enjoy the full marvel of the best machine ever made.
Evolution had no intention of enabling the legs to piston, to produce a circular motion. It had bent the knees to help us walk and climb; it had strengthened them to support the upper body, not to allow us to prop that body in a saddle and divert that force elsewhere. Well, perhaps it equipped us with a downward kick to help us defend ourselves against predators chasing us up trees. Is there a single other instance of a body evolved to one purpose being so deftly put to another? Well, yes; the horse. You can't look on a horse now without wondering at how unfinished it appears without a rider. But a horse isn't a mechanism, a product of human inventiveness. It is an enslaved beast. The food you give it provides no return in your own body and the maintenance costs are huge compared to oiling a bicycle.
The bicycle's only fuel is the food the rider eats. What could be neater than that? It is almost like cheating in the game whereby we biped primates learn to progressively manage the resources of the Earth and take off into space. Only a car driven by expelled breath would approximate to the efficiency of the bicycle.
And when you consider that cycling, that is, burning food to make energy to propel yourself along, simultaneously makes you physically fit, giving the body the best possible advantage of that same food -- surely this compares to stealing fire from the gods? Nothing we did in the ancient world ever so justified the myth.
And yet the bicycle has not had the credit it deserves. The history of the industrial revolution has it that every great leap forward was grounded in the discovery of coal or oil. That was the incentive for people to come off the land and build cities.
But what do we see in the footage from modernising countries today but rivers of people on bicycles flowing over the roads to work? The factories would never have functioned if the bosses had been waiting for workers to get there on horses and donkeys. There should be a statue of the bicycle in the heart of every industrial city.
Yet, for all that the bike is a machine, and, I argue, the quintessential machine, the best machine ever devised, being the one that converts natural human movement into improved locomotion without fuel, it is widely viewed as something else -- a style statement.