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?

Should the wearing of bicycle helmets be made compulsory in the UK?

I’m as sure as anyone can be that a bicycle helmet saved me from more serious injury, or worse, when I had a cycling accident in 2010. On a bright, clear, May morning, as I was coasting downhill on my Airnimal Chameleon folding bike, a jogger emerged from between parked vehicles directly into my path. He didn’t even cast a glance in my direction. As I swerved to avoid him, which I did reasonably successfully, I lost control of my bike. I hit the ground hard and slid across the road, only coming to a halt as the back of my head hit the corner of a raised kerb with enough impact to leave a deep dent about 3 inches long in the helmet and leave me unconscious on the tarmac. A doctor friend of mine who was riding behind me is also convinced that the helmet was a potential life save in this accident. None of the drama of a car crash, or getting caught in the left-hand blindspot of a lorry, but this simple accident, which happened at about 15 mph put me in hospital for two weeks and out of work for six. Unsurprisingly, I’m a very strong advocate of wearing a helmet when cycling. But then again I always have been, and perhaps it saved my life.

Meanwhile the arguments for an against compulsory helmet wearing rage on, some supported by “scientific” papers and others by anecdote or “common sense”. The most recent CTC campaign brief (which by its very title suggests that it comes from a position of bias) is called “Cycle helmets: An overview of the evidence.” It pushes the same tired old arguments we’ve been hearing for years and even throws in some statistical equations to bolster its credibility. You would have to devote months of study to really get to the truth about the quality of most of the evidence presented and I am sure there will holes in the methodology and/or conclusions of most the papers referenced. And don’t forget, when giving an overview of any evidence, you can be selective in exactly which evidence you choose to review. How much of the evidence in favour of wearing helmets ended up in the waste bin under the reviewer’s desk? It’s not unknown for a researcher to respond to the question, “What do you think the result will be?” with “What result would you like?” The CTC has a clearly stated position and it’s not going to publish evidence that contradicts that position. To be fair, this most recent paper does cite 140 references to others, in case you’ve nothing on your plate for the next couple of years. But, having reviewed a random sample, the relevance of some of these papers to the arguments presented do seem rather tenuous and a large number of them are for studies conducted outside of the UK, where cycling conditions are often totally different to those encountered on our roads.

Cycling helmet
Is it really not worth £50 to reduce your chances of injury in some cycling accidents?

Despite my advocacy for helmet wearing, I agree with the conclusions of a paper published in the Journal of Medical Ethics last year (2012) that argues convincingly against the imposition of a legal requirement to wear a cycling helmet, except perhaps in the case of children. In a paper entitled “Liberty or death; don’t tread on me“, authors Hooper and Spicer provide a very coherent case for civil liberties to be to taken into consideration, whilst acknowledging that helmets do provide a degree of protection against head injuries in some instances (as concluded by the BMA’s research). If over 30,000 smokers die of lung cancer and tens of thousands die from alcohol related diseases, why should we legislate for the 200 or so deaths and 2000 or so injuries that are inflicted on cyclists each year, particularly when most of these outcomes would not be prevented by helmets, when we don’t prevent people causing themselves serious harm in other ways? (By the way, if somebody cycles for 50 years, don’t the numbers become a bit more scary: 10,000 deaths and 100,000 serious injuries over that period.)

I will always wear a cycling helmet because I believe I have benefited from that practice and may well do so again in the future. I would much rather that somebody took up cycling than be put off by a legal requirement to wear a helment, and we all have a duty to our children to do everything we can to protect them. I’m in the fortunate position that the cost of a helmet does not deter me from cycling at all, but I recognise that for some it probably does. I would rather they cycled without a helmet than not at all, so long as they understand that the head is a pretty important piece of kit, and of far greater value than the price of a helment. It’s also the heaviest part of the body and striking the ground with it is more than a little risky.

When I see others cycling without helmets, I don’t consider them to stupid. However, I do think that their decision is unwise and I will  encourage them to reconsider. In this controversial matter, doing what we believe to be right does not mean imposing our opinions on others through legislative process. I just wish the CTC would stop clouding the issues with irrelevant data, and start promoting helmet use in a positive way. Or maybe the organisation is frightened of giving the government a stick to beat them with: “You think it’s important for cyclists to wear helmets, so why shouldn’t we compel them to do so?”

After the accident I mentioned at the start of this post, I was very ably supported by the CTC’s legal firm in gaining significant compensation from the jogger for the injuries I suffered. (Incidentally, the guy at no stage during my extended and painful recovery ever bothered to enquire about the state I was in, or even if I had survived the fall – despite the fact that was unconscious on the ground after the event.) The final irony of this story is that I was advised by Paul Kitson, the CTC’s legal eagle at Russel Jones & Walker, that if I had not been wearing a helmet, I may have received a lower level of compensation due to contributory negligence. How do you square that with the CTC’s neutral stance on the subject?

Chook’s rescue bike is equipped for any eventuality

Yesterday, New Year’s Eve, at Darling Harbour, Sydney, Australia, I witnessed one of the most heavily laden bikes I’ve seen in a long time. Dressed in full fireman’s gear (despite the 30 degrees C temperature), “Chook” (real name Anthony) volunteered for duty on his Ricardo bike to protect party goers against something…..although I’m not sure quite what. The bike appeared to be equipped with at least two fire extinguishers, various fire blankets, a long handled broom, emergency medical kits, a two way radio, multiple flashing lights and heaven knows what else.

Chook, Sydney, Australia
Fireman “Chook” fully equipped to rescue party-goers from danger in Darling Harbour, Sydney on New Year’s Eve 2012

I had a few words with Chook, who described himself as a disabled volunteer for various organisations, including the New South Wales Rural Fire Service. It just goes to show how much you can pack onto a bike if you try, and that lycra is not always the most appropriate clothing for the job at hand.

December 2012: two British giants of bicycle design and manufacture died this month

December 2012 has been a sad month for those who admire great bicycle design and manufacturing. Dr. Alex Moulton passed away on December 9th at the age of 92. The Moulton Bicycle Company that he built is in Bradford-on-Avon, Wilthshire, less than 3 miles from where I live. The company’s success is based on the revolutionary small-wheel, full suspension Moulton bicycle. Originally a rather utilitarian design popularised in the 1960s, a Moulton AM7 model was ridden to a speed of 51.29 mph over 200m at the 3rd International HPV Scientific Symposium in 1986 – a new World Unpaced Cycling Record. Moulton bicycles still enjoy an enthusiastic following throughout the world and the top model costs over £14,000.

New Series Double Pylon Moulton
Perhaps the pinnacle of Dr. Alex’s Moulton’s bicycle design genius: the New Series Double Pylon

Alex Moulton was first and foremost a brilliant engineer whose collaboration with Sir Alec Issigonis led to the development of Moulton suspension, including ‘Hydrolastic’ and ‘Hydragas’ systems that were adopted for several British cars, perhaps most famously the original Mini. Here’s the BBC New video reporting Alex Moulton’s passing.

Just 3 days after Alex Moulton’s death, Ron Cooper, master bicycle frame builder died. Born in 1932, Cooper, who raced bicycles in his youth, originally built frames for A.S. Gillott but left the firm in 1967 and started building frames under his own name.

Ron Cooper bike
This touring bike may have been based on the the last frame built under Ron Cooper’s direction, according to the eBay advertiser selling it in December 2012

He believed that free hand brazing, done without the use of a jig, produces a better frame and his reputation for making great frames spread far and wide. By 1979 over half of Ron Cooper’s frames were sold to customers in the US. His workshop was most recently located in Deptford (S.E.London).

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.

Bifocal cycling glasses – why don’t bike shops sell them?

With the dramatic rise in the number of older cyclists (the definition of ‘old’ being 15 years older than you are today), there must now be millions of riders around the world who need reading glasses. For cycling, these would ideally be wrap-around bifocals so that you can read both road signs and your GPS screen or map.

But what do you find when you go to your local bike shop, or any of the major online cycling kit dealers? Absolutely nothing.

I found a solution on eBay by searching for “safety bifocals”. This turns up a lot of options, some of which are indistinguishable from sports glasses and do the job a treat. I wear clear ones all year round for protection against flying debris and insects but you can also find dark tinted versions and glasses with yellow lenses. Prices start from about £5 per pair, a fraction of the price of designer sunglasses that appear to be almost identical, bar a logo.

Cycling bifocals
These bifocal safety glasses from eBay are ideal for cycling, eliminating the need to carry a separate pair of reading glasses and providing good eye protection. You can find dark or yellow tinted versions too.

Searching on “bifocal sports glasses” brings up even more options, although my impression is that adding in the word “sports” seems to make exactly the same products about 50% dearer, and one that boasts “Italy Design” is around twice the price of most of the others, but looks no different.

Nearly all of these glasses come from the US, so it’s worth buying a few at the same time so that postage doesn’t add too much to the cost of each pair. In my experience, every time you show them to another cyclist who’s long-sighted they’ll say, “you don’t happen to have a spare pair, do you?”

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!)

A new twist on drinking and driving….boozing and biking

In a very imaginative brand extension, New York’s Cooper Spirits International LLC, which owns the St Germain French drinks brand, is selling a single-speed bicycle complete with bottle holder on the crossbar and a free bottle of the firm’s sweet spirit drink. The $1000 steel-framed bike, which is described as a ‘limited edition’ (although no numbers are quoted by the company) uses a coaster brake and combines combines clean, classic looks with some nice bits from Brooks, North Road and Michelin.

St Germain bicycle
The St Germain single speed bike comes complete with a bottle of booze to keep your spirits up

Choose a medium (20 inch) or large (23 inch) frame in any colour you like, so long as it’s navy blue.

Looking back at 2012: turning 60, turning pedals and Bradley winning the tour

At the start of my 60th year I was determined to have a good year’s cycling. I’m not a racer, and not even fast, but I do seem to have the stamina to stay in the saddle for up to 15 hours in a day without feeling totally wrecked at the end of the experience. That opens up opportunities to have fun on a bike, and in 2012 I did. To give you some idea of just how badly I’ve contracted the cycling bug, here’s a  short summary of my five most interesting and challenging rides during the year:

April 1st (my 60th birthday), I set out from Barcelona to ride my 61 year-old Thanet Silverlight back to the place where it was built – Elmdale Road, Bristol. The story is recorded here in my blog of the event. The journey is about the same distance as Lands End to John O’Groats, but sounds further, and the weather is usually better.

Thanet Silverlight
This Thanet Silverlight bike was made in Bristol and first sold on 22nd October 1950

Bike Bath on 24th and 25th June – 100 miles in the Mendips followed by 100 miles in the Cotswolds. Lesson learned: don’t take a road bike on routes planned by a mountain biker! However, it was seriously well organised and great fun. Details of next year’s event are here. I did these rides on my ‘best bike’  –  a Rourke steel frame with Campagnolo components.

Cycling, Cheddar Gorge
Nearing the top of the Cheddar Gorge in Somerset during the Bike Bath Gladiator Challenge, 24th June 2012

July 22nd was forecast to be a glorious sunny day. The other forecast was that Bradley Wiggins would win the Tour de France. He duly obliged of course, becoming the first Englishman ever to do so. I didn’t watch the last stage of the race but instead took the opportunity to have my own little ‘Tour de Wiltshire”, a wonderful ride around my home county on the Wiltshire Cycleway. Usually quoted as somewhere between 160 and 165 miles, I clocked up 173 miles including detours, my longest ever solo one-day ride. Only during the Vatternrundan 13 years earlier had I ridden further in a day, and then there was a lot of support around. The weather was glorious, as is Wiltshire. Try the ride…but take time to savour the sights over 2 or 3 days, that’s what I’ll be doing in 2013.

My last big cycling event of 2012 was L’Eroica. I took my 1965 Hetchins Magnum Opus bike for this classic challenge but in deference to my knees, made up a compact double chain set from TA parts so I could manage most, but not all, of the amazing climbs on the 205km ride, thanks to the lower gearing available. The weather was overcast and reasonably cool for Tuscany, there was even the odd light shower – ideal cycling conditions. The atmosphere was amazing with around 5479 cyclists participating in the event. They were mostly Italians but included 1450 ‘foreigners’ from 33 other countries. Here’s a great blog post about the 2012 event from Wade Wallace (Melbourne, Australia).

I’ve already arranged travel for the 2013 event……

Postscript – the great Thanet tandem mystery

In preparing for the Barcelona to Bristol trip I did several rides on the Thanet, one of which took me along the Bristol to Bath Cycle Path just a few weeks ago. When I arrived at Bitton, where there’s a small steam railway and cafe, I met a bloke selling a couple of old bicycle parts from his van in the car park. He said that mine was the second Thanet he’d seen that week, and that the first one was a tandem.

When I got home, I checked Hilary Stone’s book and, sure enough, two Thanet tandems were made in the early 1950s, one for the firm’s owner, Les Cassell, and another that was sold to a “deaf and dumb man” in Bristol. I called Hilary and told him the story. He doesn’t know the whereabouts of either Thanet tandem, or indeed if both of them still exist. Clearly, one still does. Does anyone know of its whereabouts?