Cycling Home from Siberia, a book by Rob Lilwall

The fact that chapter 2 is entitled “How will I die?” gives you some clue as to the nature of the 3-year journey described by Rob Lilwall. It’s the story of a ride undertaken in the most extreme conditions, starting out in Siberia and riding in temperatures down to -40 degrees Centigrade.

Cycling Home From Siberia

Travel, tragedy, religion and romance…a good read

At times Lilwall really does seem to be an adventurer with a death wish. He not only cycles through the toughest of terrain in the most appalling weather imaginable but also rides through extremely dangerous regions of Afghanistan and sneaks past border guards in the dead of night because he doesn’t have the necessary documentation to cross the border in daylight. The author was only 27 years old when he set out in 2004 so perhaps held the common belief of youth that he would live forever, but he comes across as a rather anxious man that needs to prove something to himself, without knowing exactly what. I found the book to be compelling and read it every day until I reached the end. It is more than just a travel book, although it is fascinating as such. It has a smattering of human tragedy and romance too. Lilwall also writes at some length about his Christian faith. At the end of the trip he surmises, “I did not feel any sense of achievement, but rather a strange emptiness.” A strange comment perhaps, as he met his future wife during the journey. This is not a book about the joy of travel or the joy of cycling. It’s tone is very serious. “Cycling Home from Siberia” is nevertheless a very good read.

My first wheel build…slow but not painful

For a long time I’ve seen wheelbuilding as a bit of black art, and it’s a view shared by quite a few other cyclists I know. I’ve always wanted to acquire the skill, not least because it will enable me to build custom wheels for some of my projects. For example, having recently spotted a great looking Bob Jackson restoration on the Spindles and Sprockets community project website, I decided that a 5-speed Sturmey Archer hub on a 27-inch wheel would be ideal for my restored 1948 A.S. Gillott frame.

The "Sprockets and Spindles" community bike project in Corsham, Wiltshire, made a great job of restoring this Bob Jackson frame, which was rescued from a skip.

The “Sprockets and Spindles” community bike project in Corsham, Wiltshire, made a great job of restoring this Bob Jackson frame, which was rescued from a skip. It uses a Sturmey Archer 5-speed hub and has beautifully clean lines.

But you can’t buy one off-the-shelf so I concluded that I would prefer to build the wheel, rather than keep running back and forth to my local bike shop and paying £40 labour, plus parts, to have one made up.

I’ve considered going on courses; they seem to run for anything from one to three days. Surely anything that can be learnt, if not mastered, in such a short time cannot be that hard to teach yourself? So, having looked at several YouTube videos, read Sheldon Brown’s advice and then discovered “The Professional Guide to Wheelbuilding”, reviewed in yesterday’s post, I set about building my first wheel. Spoke lengths were calculated using this online tool. I made up a nipple driver from a piece of 6mm diameter aluminium rod that was lying around in the garage. (The book suggests bending and filing a screwdriver but mine is simpler and works perfectly well.)

I then started the project with an old, cleaned-up Campag Record hub and a vintage Mavic rim. This was my first mistake – ignoring the advice in the book  that it’s best to start with a new rim because then you know there are no problems with it. I built up the wheel with the correct length spokes, tightened the spokes as instructed, popped the wheel into the truing stand and it wobbled like a very, very wobbly thing. In all directions. I stripped it down again. The rim was far from flat and circular.

I didn’t have a spare rim but I did have a new Weinmann XR18 rim on a wheel with a pretty rough hub, the roughness caused by an earlier unsuccessful experiment in swapping axles. I stripped down the wheel to harvest the rim. Here’s another really valuable piece of advice from the book – don’t believe all the published measurements for wheel components, particularly the effective rim diameter (ERD) of rims, which is a critical measurement for calculating spoke length. I found an online reference to the XR18 having a 615mm ERD, then measured it as 610mm, using a simple homemade tool, described in the book.

Wheel

My first completed wheel build, complete with self-congratulatory glass of Bordeaux!

There is accurate online information on this too, but if I’d believed the first reference I found, I would have started building the wheel with spokes that were too long. Despite being a bit weary after my initial efforts on Saturday evening, I started building the wheel with the Weinmann rim. As I came to insert the last spoke into the rim, I realised there was no hole positioned to receive it. Somewhere along the way I had gone wrong, and I still don’t know where. Another lesson learned: don’t try to build a wheel when you’re tired – you’ll probably rush it and screw up.

The following morning, I took the wheel apart then, after about an hour, I had it re-laced and the spokes tightened evenly. It took another hour to get the wheel into its final shape, proving that building your first wheel is not rocket science, or a mysterious black art, but you do have to be methodical and patient – a bit like basket weaving, I guess. I’m looking forward to starting on the next one.

A brilliantly clear and concise guide to building wheels, and making the tools you need for the job

I mentioned in an earlier post that I had reservations about buying a book written by an author who describes himself as “one of the most respected professional wheelbuilders.” I went ahead anyway, downloading the £9 PDF version of “The Professional Guide to Wheelbuilding” by Roger Musson. And despite the confident-verging-on-arrogant tone in some places, this is a superb book for the novice wheelbuilder (i.e. me) and probably a very useful one for those more experienced in the craft.

Professional Guide to Wheelbuilding

A superb book for the novice wheel builder

Roger Musson doesn’t just describe how to build wheels but also gives detailed instruction for making most of the tools that you need for the task. I’m not sure I would have built his wheel truing stand. The potential for swearing due to my limited DIY skills probably made purchasing a ready-made one the right decision. But I would have made the dishing tool (saving £40) – that looks very simple, and I did make a rather simpler version of the nipple driver described in the book.

This really is a detailed guide that takes you through the process from start to finish. If you have  computer or iPad, I’d recommend the PDF version over the printed page. The PDF is quite high resolution, which means that you can zoom into the diagrams without losing details – something that very useful in some places. If you prefer paper, you can always print the pages that are most useful. The book is not only supremely practical, it also does into the theory of calculating spoke lengths and the author has a very good, simple tool for this on his web site. Amongst the very useful tips is to measure everything and not take the manufacturer’s data, or any other published information, as being accurate when you start to build a wheel. As I built my first wheel this weekend, that advice was invaluable. Highly recommended.

The Urban Biking Handbook by Charles Haine: biking from start to finish

The Urban Biking Handbook

One of the most comprehensive books on bikes and city cycling

This US book, subtitled “The DIY Guide to Building, Rebuilding, Tinkering with, and Repairing Your Bicycle for City Living” (perhaps a record length for a subtitle?) is the most comprehensive I’ve read on the subject. If you’re an experienced cyclist the first few chapters are going to seem very basic and mundane as they carefully describe the different types of bicycle, where they came from and what’s suitable for what. All but the most knowledgable of us will find something new here though in a book that’s as clearly and simply written as it is informative. With chapters that cover choosing your bike, city riding, cycling attire, bicycle customisation and even how to go on a cycling date or holiday, it’s the most comprehensive book I’ve found that’s entirely dedicated to bikes and cycling. It will be particularly useful to those who want to encourage friends or family to take up cycling because it provides a gentle introduction to the subject and explains any cycling jargon as it goes along. Easy to read and a mine of information. Even at a rather pricey £9.78 for the Kindle edition, I recommend it.

Free Country by George Mahood: irreverent, amusing and revealing

This self-published book by George Mahood is great fun. In Free Country: A Penniless Adventure the Length of Britain, George and a fellow adventurer set off to prove that the people of Britain are generous, considerate and generally good eggs. The experiment to examine this thesis involves setting off from Land’s End towards John O’Groats to complete the journey by bicycle. The couple’s only possessions at the start are a pair of union jack boxer shorts each plus a camera, notebook and pencil to record the journey. No bikes or alternative means of transport, no other clothes, no money. For 18.5 days they then blag their way to John O’Groats and cover the 1000 miles on the most unlikely bicycles, which were acquired along the way.

Free country

A heart-warming tale of British generosity, and cycling lunacy

There are interesting descriptions of the places visited but this is a travel book that’s much more about people than geography, revealing the stark contrasts in attitude that travellers might encounter on a bizarre journey such as this. And, before you ask, the Scots come out of if at least as well as the English for their generosity and good humour.

Towards the end of the book George comments, “It doesn’t cost anything to cycle or walk through the beautiful British countryside… It doesn’t cost anything to make new friends, and it doesn’t cost anything to smile and have fun.” Amen to that.

At £1.99 for the Kindle edition (£10.99 in paperback), this book is a steal.

On My Own Two Wheels: Back in the Saddle at 60. A book by Malachi O’Doherty

At the start, I thought I’d enjoy this book more than I did. I had taken up cycling seriously again at the age of 56 and the author at the age of 60. I thought we’d have a few things in common but, apart from the desire to lose a bit of weight, we didn’t. “On My Own Two Wheels” is a deeply introspective and rather sombre book and if you don’t know your way around Eire and Northern Ireland, then read it with a map your other hand, otherwise many of the journeys described will be rather meaningless. I battled through to the end of the book but I don’t think it ever succeeds in expressing the sheer joy and freedom of riding a bike; the author seems to take everything so very seriously.

On My Own Two Wheels

A rather introspective and joyless book about cycling

However, one particular idea from the book stuck in my mind: “We had the wheel for about ten thousand years before discovering that one behind another was enough for an elementary vehicle…” I did a little more research. According to Wikipedia: “The oldest known example of a wooden wheel and its axle were found in April 2002 in the Ljubljana Marshes some 20 km south of Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. According to the radiocarbon dating, it is between 5,100 and 5,350 years old. It has a diameter of 72 centimetres (28 in) and has been made of ash wood, whereas its axle has been made of oak.” The predecessor of the modern bicycle, the dandy horse or Draisienne, dates from 1817. It is quite staggering to think that it took 5000 years for mankind to make the leap from wheel to bicycle. How could Leonardo da Vinci have missed this one yet still figured out the idea of helicopters, particularly when the earliest wheel was already the right size for a bike?

The Bicycle Book, Bella Bathurst – a book that really gets under the skin of what it is to be a cyclist

This is undoubtedly the best book on cycling that I read in 2012. It ranks alongside Mark Beaumont’s “The Man Who Cycled the World” and Rob Penn’s “It’s All About the Bike”, both of which were 2011 favourites. Bella really gets under the skin of what it is to be a cyclist and, presumably because she’s a writer first and a cyclist second, rather than the other way around, the writing style is deeply expressive and easy to read. She describes the different cycling “tribes” from racers to couriers and everything in between.

The Bicycle Book

A fascinating and beautifully written book about bikes, cyclists and the relationship between them

The various types of bicycle are analysed in some detail too. But most importantly, Bella captures the relationship between people and bikes, whether those people are commuters or top class athletes.

Today, some travel writers are jumping on the cycling bandwagon by penning what are essentially travel guides with the odd mention of a bicycle thrown in for good measure. The Bicycle Book is certainly not that. It’s totally  focused on bikes (including their history) and the people who ride them and, through a series of fascinating interviews says much about how those who build bikes (such as legendary frame builder Dave Yates) and ride them relate to their machines.

Mud, Sweat and Gears…a book about beer with some incidental cycling

Ellie Bennett’s book is subtitled “Cycling from Land’s End to John O’Groats (via the pub)” and really is more about pubs and beer than cycling or bikes. In fact, having read if from cover to cover (if you can do such a thing on a Kindle) I’m still not sure what kind of bike she was riding. The book is easy reading. It has the usual complaints about hills, rain and headwinds but is full of very interesting historical stuff about the places that Ellie and her companion Mick pass through or visit along the way.

Cycling book

If you’re a beer and cycling enthusiast, this is the book for you

My only reservation is that the style sometimes seems to change very abruptly between the general narrative and descriptions of places or events. It feels like chunks of it have come from from tourist guides or history books before Ellie drops back into her own easy-going writing again.

The beer bibliography is extensive; how she managed to complete the journey with so much drinking along the way is baffling. The book shows that even if you’re 50-plus, and perhaps not in peak condition, you can still achieve, and enjoy, great bike rides in the UK. (I’ll correct this post in due course if Scotland votes for independence; if that happens, it might be a nice challenge to be first to complete the Land’s End to John O’Groats run through two independent states!)