Sunday, October 28, 2007

City Of Sydney Spring Cycle.

This post is a bit belated, partly because last week was busy and partly because I'm feeling a bit under-motivated about this blog. I'm beginning to suspect that I'm very boring, and don't actually have anything to say. Anyway...

On Sunday, 21st October, I took part in the annual City Of Sydney Spring Cycle, a mass recreational ride across the city organised by Bicycle NSW, along with over 8500 other riders. This year's full route meandered for 50km from St. Leonard's Park in North Sydney, across the Harbour Bridge, and through harbour-side suburbs and parks to the finish at Olympic Park in Homebush. There were multiple starting points to allow riders to choose shorter 20km or 15km routes, and a loop at the end which could be cut off to reduce the chosen distance by 10km. The route was pretty benign, with just a few short, steep ascents, as one would expect in an event that attracts a lot of infrequent and casual cyclists. There were several rest-stops in parks along the way, with water supplies courtesy of one of the ride's sponsors, a manufacturer of drinking-water filters. The route was well marked, and the whole event very well organised.

I opted to ride the about 7km from home to the start, and got there at around 07:45. I had pre-registered and already had my ride number card laminated and cable-tied to the stem of my Swift Folder, so I could ignore the long queues snaking round the park. The weather was perfect, and it had obviously brought in a lot of last-minute entries. I faffed about taking some photos, before rolling through the starting arch at 08:00.

One of the main attractions of doing the Spring Cycle is that two lanes crossing the Harbour Bridge are closed to motor traffic for two hours and cyclists are allowed to ride across as if they were... I don't know... real road users or something. Normally we're consigned to the leper-colony of a bike path which requires us to carry our bikes up 55 steps to reach it from Milson's Point. I've lived in Sydney for 25 years now, and there's still something breathtaking about rolling over the crest of the bridge and seeing Circular Quay, Darling Harbour and the CBD spread out in front.

After rolling off the bridge the stream of riders entered the twisty streets around The Rocks, and a few problems emerged. Such a large crowd of riders inevitably included many different types of bikes, and cyclists of very varied experience and ability. At certain points things got a bit hairy, and I saw a couple of good crashes. There were shaved-legged roadies flying along, taking things way too seriously, but at least they had a clue about riding in a group. Then there were once-a-year riders wobbling blindly from side to side, but at least they were usually in front of me where I could see and pass them. The biggest threat were idiots on huge-wheeled mountain bikes who seemed to slow to a crawl on ascents so everyone passed them, but who then came flying down the other side barely under control, ploughing into groups slowing for the tight corners, waiting at traffic lights etc. as we wound our way through the suburbs.

At the finish in Olympic Park, all sorts of vendor displays, food and drink stalls and demonstrations had been laid on. There was even valet parking for bikes, organised by the local Boy Scouts, but unfortunately their idea of parking was to hang the bikes by their saddles on a square-section steel rail, presumably on the assumption (false in the case of my Brooks) that the bikes' weight would be supported by the saddle rails, so I gave it a miss. There was a criterium running and I watched that while I ate my packed lunch, but I'm not really into racing so I probably missed all the finer points.

I had intended to fold my bike and take public transport home, but it was a lovely day, and I was feeling strong, so I decided to ride instead. I chose a route to "close the circle" via Meadowbank, Ryde, North Ryde, Lane Cove National Park and Chatswood. There was no real alternative but to ride "across the grain" of the terrain, and I confess I found some of the climbs rather challenging, especially the long pull up from Lady Game Drive to Pacific Highway, but I made it home after a round trip of 101km, tired but without any aches or pains. Unfortunately I screwed up my computer settings somehow, so I don't know my average speed.

I enjoyed the day, but I can't help wondering whether the Spring Cycle is good for cycling. Sure it gets thousands of bikes on the road for one day, but how many of those sit in the garage for the rest of the year? The Spring Cycle is a massive operation, with road closures, police on duty at the intersections, dozens of volunteer marshals, ambulances on stand-by along the route, carefully organised rest-stops and so on. Is this the message we want to give cyclists and the public? Do we want them to think that this is what it takes? That this is what cycling is supposed to be? A special occasion thing requiring all sorts of planning and police escort, without which it is presumably too unsafe or disruptive or something?

What about encouraging everyday cycling? The sort of cycling that goes about its business quietly; not requiring road closures, or anything more from the police than the vigourous and equal application of the rules of the road on a daily basis to motorists and cyclists alike. Crossing the Harbour Bridge on the Spring Cycle struck me as the perfect metaphor for the position of cyclists in Sydney. Welcome to share the road on a special occasions once a year, forced to haul their bikes up 55 steps to a narrow, poorly maintained path on every other day.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Small wheels in Germany and Finland.

We all know that knowing what you're talking about is not required for writing one of these things; Just look at pretty much any political blog if you're inclined to doubt me. At least I can console myself that my ill-informed drivel is pretty harmless, and produced by ignorance rather than anger and bigotry, but it seems that at least part of my last posting was a load of foetid dingo's kidneys. I've just blundered across two non-folding small-wheeled bike designs from Europe.

While wandering round the internet this morning, I visited the web-site of the German bike manufacturer Schauff (Warning - cheesy Flash and elevator music). In their "City" bike section, I found this "La Luna" small-wheeled bike. The design doesn't look very sanitary from a structural point of view with its curved stays and long unbraced step-through frame tube, which probably helps explain its hefty 16kg mass.

I don't think this advances the state of the art much, though I'm sure it delivers smaller overall dimensions than a traditional town-bike and a unisex one-size-fits-most frame, two traditional advantages of small wheels.

Rather more interesting is this Tunturi "Chat", which is rather cute in an Ikea-ish sort of way. Unfortunately the manufacturer's web-site is in Swedish only (Though I believe Tunturi is a Finnish company). I can't read the language, and it is not one of those offered on Babelfish either, so I can't say too much about it other than it seems to be a simple steel single-speed bike with a rear coaster-brake. The Finnish steel industry has a high reputation, but I suspect this bike is made from something like gas-pipe since the bike's mass is quoted as over 17.4kg.

The frame looks better triangulated than the La Luna and ought to be stiffer, but the whole design looks compromised by the inclusion of the integral front and rear grenade launchers. I thought commuting in Sydney was bad, but I've always found a sawn-off shotgun quite sufficient. Helsinki is obviously a tough town.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Why Small-Wheeled Bicycles?

I've been fascinated by small-wheeled bicycles ever since I saw my first Moulton in London when I was about ten years old. Suddenly, a bike that wasn't essentially just a refined version of Starley's Rover design of 1885. It was the product of a professional engineer looking at bicycle design from the perspective of the motor industry, in which design had advanced far faster over the same eighty years.

Launched in 1962, the Moulton rolled on sixteen-inch wheels with high-pressure tyres and smoothed the ride with suspension at front and rear. It was a real vehicle with mudguards, integral luggage racks and a step-through frame that allowed easy mounting in any clothing. It was revolutionary in a cycling world which was then, and remains today, intensely conservative. It was cool, hip and unisex; it was so... Sixties. Swinging London loved it.

Roughly 200,000 Moultons were built between 1962 and 1975 (when Raleigh bought the rights to the design and promptly stopped production), making it probably the most successful challenge ever mounted to the conventional diamond frame (though I confess I don't know how many recumbents have been sold). Yet now one can walk into bicycle shops all over the world, and it is as if the Moulton had never existed.

With the notable exception of Dr. Moulton's own current designs (sadly hardly available in Australia), the small wheel has been consigned to the specialised world of folding bicycles, and stigmatised by association with the many inferior, or at least heavily compromised, designs of folder that have been produced over the years. However, well-designed folding bicycles, constructed with high quality materials and components, have a great deal to offer the cyclist in my opinion, and fulfil some at least of the promise of the small-wheeled bike.

Of course, there is one audience I cannot hope to reach. The roadies; racing cyclists and those who worship at the same altar. Long ago the Union Cycliste Internationale (high priests of their cult), facing the disgraceful sight of Moultons breaking cycling records, did the only thing such guardians of stagnation could decently do. They banned them.

"Sacrebleu! What eez zees? Zees is not our holy object! À la lanterne!"

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Hello? Is this thing on?

Well, I've finally plunged into the blogosphere. Is it me, or does it smell kind of funny in here? Feverish and sticky and foetid, like General Sternwood's hot-house at the beginning of "The Big Sleep"; hung with the exotic, fleshy, overblown, larger-than-life blooms that thrive in this artificial environment.