31 January 2009

Saints alive! Brompton Oratory and bad cycle lanes

Cycled past the Brompton Oratory (right) this morning, the splendid Catholic church in West London which somehow gave its name to the folding bike.

There's a statue of the much-venerated figure of Cardinal Newman adorning the church, so why not of the Brompton's much-venerated designer Andrew Ritchie, patron saint* of the ingenious folding personal transport solution, who used to live just opposite in the bike's early days.

According to the church's website, the name 'Brompton Oratory' is incorrect, though that's exactly what the sign outside calls it. They maintain its correct name is the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, but I wouldn't have been so keen on a bike called 'Mary'.

We'd been having an inline skating lesson with Mike van Erp, who's great fun and a brilliant teacher, and being a very active cyclist (whose bike-cam videos of bad drivers appear on YouTube) is obviously the right sort of chap. I only fell over when I laughed. Quite often, then.

We explored the back streets of posh West London on our way home. Down Ebury St (Google map below) is a contraflow cycle lane in a one-way street that's a bit like those cures that are worse than the disease.

The lane (right) forces you to ride right alongside the line of parked cars. One hastily opened door and the best you can hope for is a nice memorial at Brompton Oratory. Unless you ride out a safe distance from the parked cars, in which case you're staring down the barrel of the traffic gunning the other way.

But the lane isn't completely useless: on our visit, it was reassuring to see that the cycle lane did serve a useful purpose, as a taxi park.

View Larger Map

* Of course, the patron saint of the bicycle is in fact the Madonna del Ghisallo. I'll try to remember that next time I have a bike nicked.

30 January 2009

Don't ask me, I don't work here

I'm always being asked for information at train stations and bus stops. At first I assumed it was down to my reliable, approachable aspect. I soon realised the truth. Because I wear a reflective cycling jacket, but not a helmet, people wanting to know if this train stops at Stevenage think I must be some sort of transport employee.

It happened first at Waterloo. I'd got fed up of those reflective Sam Browne belts that always end up being held together with staples. I'd just started wearing a dayglo jacket, visible from Mars, instead. A haughty, well-dressed couple demanded to know where Waterloo East was. Being a helpful sort, I walked them there. The woman gave no thanks but muttered to her husband how awful the rail company must be if it employed such scruffy and unshaven people. Only afterwards did I realise she was talking about me.

It's happened regularly since. There I am waiting for my train or just standing near a bus stop, and someone comes up and starts badgering me. Which is the platform for Cambridge? When is the next bus to Lewisham? What are you going to do about this litter? Why is my train late?

What I really want to do is say, 'That's the train for Cambridge there. I know it says Edinburgh Non-Stop, but that's just a mistake, don't worry.'

Of course I don't. I say I'm sorry, I don't know, I don't work here, there's an information point over there, and they humph and grumble like it's my fault I don't know and I must be some sort of luminous-jacketed Reg Varney fantasist.

Last night the fluorescent bib played its tricks again. I'd been hurtling round town all day (exactly the sort of complex short-haul itinerary that's fast and reliable by bike but tedious and unpredictable by public transport). My brother had been down from Yorkshire on business, and I zipped up to King's Cross (top right) to meet him briefly before he got his train home.

Sure enough, as we stood on the concourse having a laugh, there was a procession of people pumping me for information about the next arrival from Hitchin or the wi-fi connection speed on the York train.

So, apologies to Network Rail: if you get any customer complaints about 'one of your staff' who was not only clueless but seemed to be more intent on chatting to his friends and swigging from a can of Foster's... that was probably me.

29 January 2009

Dye, thieves! The exploding cable lock

Today's the last chance to see the exhibition of anti-theft devices at New London Architecture.

In my previous post about this exhibition, I didn't mention the SmartLock, one of the exhibits there.

This is a conventional-looking, lightweight cable lock which contains highly pressurised liquid. When the cable is cut through, the liquid explodes (right), covering the cutter in dye and in 'smartwater', which is invisible but forensically traceable. There's a video at the SmartLock website (where the image comes from).

It's not in production yet as far as I can tell, but I'll be surprised if it really does work. The cable lock by itself offers no protection, so the careful cycle parker will still be using two heavy-duty locks anyway. The advantage of smartwater traceability will be zero: every detail of my stolen bike was registered on immobilise.com, the theft was reported within minutes, but the police simply don't spend time and resources on recovery. (I spent hours prowling Brick Lane Market, second-hand bike shops, and websites such as Gumtree that carry lots of bike ads, all to no avail.)

As to the deterrent effect of the dye, I'm about as confident in that as in Hull City's chances of staying up this season. How much would a cloth dampen the explosion? How obvious will it be that a bike's been spattered and therefore tampered with? Will a spattered bike really be unsaleable? Will thieves abandon the bike out of surprise after they and it get spattered, leaving you with a bike but a spattered one, and if so will people then assume you're riding a stolen bike?

But it's an idea worth trying, and if it eventually does get into production then we'll find out.

It's tempting to think 'why don't you put cyanide gas in there', but that would be immature and stupid. For one thing it's much too quick. Better something slow and painful, polonium maybe.

There's more anti-theft information and resources at bikeoff.org.

28 January 2009

It ain't over till the fat lady cycles home

I've been to both the big London opera houses in the last few days: English National Opera last Saturday night (for the Magic Flute, and the Royal Opera House last night (for Korngold's Die tote Stadt).

There's something unforgettable about the rush of cycling home on a high after an evening of gorgeous music, superbly sung and enticingly staged.

On the other hand, getting on your bike can be a welcome relief after three hours of tedious Germanic shrieking.

Here's a quick compare-and-contrast of the most important aspects for the cyclist: 1. Cycle parking; 2. Proximity of beer; 3. Musical quality.

Wandering round the foyer in casual clothes toting panniers is not a problem at ENO, which is unpretentious - people generally wear what they would to Pizza Express. At ROH there are more posh frocks and designer suits, and people you've seen on the telly, and a notable absence of reflective jackets or cycling mitts. Turn up there in lycra longs and you might feel a few raised eyebrows burning a hole in your back.

Obviously, you won't be drinking in either of the opera house bars, unless you urgently need some small change in return for a twenty quid note and two glasses of Chilean Cab Sauv, or unless someone else is paying.

Both places do cheap restricted-view/last-minute deals (check their websites) though snagging these requires time, luck and patience.

As to which is 'better', a quick straw poll of star ratings on the reviews site www.musicalcriticism.com suggests that pretty much everything at either place seems to get between three and four out of five (which confirms my experiences). ROH is glitzier, but you can't say one automatically outsings the other.

Productions can be more lavish (though not necessarily more inventive) at ROH. At ENO's Magic Flute for example, they have trained pigeons; at ROH's recent Carmen, Escamillo entered on a real horse. Mind you, he did look pretty damn nervous, and liable to do something that needed clearing up any minute. So did the horse.

English National Opera (ENO)
Coliseum, by Trafalgar Square (right)
Cycle parking Nothing right by entrance. Sheffield stands 100m south of entrance, but often full. Lots of Sheffield racks round the north side, in Mays Court, 150m away, well used but always space.
Drinking The Chandos, a few doors south on the corner, is woody, well-patronised, and does Sam Smith's bitter for £1.88 a pint (not an offer, but a regular deal). It's perfectly possible, indeed recommended, to have a pint here during the interval. After the show, go up bizarre Brydges Place, perhaps London's narrowest alley, directly south of the entrance. On the right halfway along is The Harp, a pocket-size pub where the orchestra hang out. You can tell they're orchestra because they're not talking about music.
Music All performances in English (with surtitles). Generally more 'up-and-coming' (ie younger, slimmer, non-diva) singers than ROH; more fanciable sopranos and tenors. Prices £10-£85ish.

Royal Opera House (ROH)
Covent Garden (right)
Cycle parking Sheffield racks right opposite main entrance. More racks nearby in Bow St.
Drinking Wellington at bottom of Bow St is usual London prices. Has outside tables.
Music All performances in original language (with surtitles in English). Generally older, fatter singers than ENO; more Premiership-style international big names (ie expensive foreign imports who often dazzle but sometimes pull out mysteriously). Prices £10-£120ish.

At ROH last night, I was pleased to find two other normal-looking cyclists locking up at the same time as me on their way in to the opera. As we did so, a chap told us to park somewhere else because that area, right in front of the entrance, is prone to theft; well-intentioned advice no doubt, but we ignored him, partly because we had two chunky locks each, and partly because he was wearing a red bowler hand and sparkly waistcoast. I hope his excuse was being a street entertainer.

27 January 2009

Brompton bends the rules (but not on underwear)

The February/March copy of the CTC mag is now out, and has joined the stash of magazines under my bed. (Which are all about bikes, bike touring or cricket. Goodness knows what Freud would make of that.)

Inside it is my article about a trip to the Brompton factory, near Kew Bridge in west London (right top and middle). I talk to Andrew Ritchie, inventor of everyone's favourite folding bike, and to Will Butler-Adams, the energetic new chief exec, about how the company's doing.

OK, seems to be the general answer: they have full order books, a steadily increasing output (22,000 bikes a year and rising), and a nicely mixed portfolio of domestic and export (70 per cent of Bromptons go abroad, I was surprised to learn).

There's something reassuringly old-school about Mr Ritchie (bottom right). He still cycles in to the factory six miles from his house each way, in his pullover and trousers – no lycra nonsense here. He's what my mum would call nicely spoken, with a wry sense of humour and English dispassion. And while the manufacturing process today involves whizzy computer stuff, all those angles and curves on the original Brompton were worked out by the Cambridge engineering graduate on a good old-fashioned slide rule.

Indeed, it's the very slide rule in this picture here. As far as I know, this is the first time the fact has been revealed, or a photo of the item published. (See larger version of photo.) You'll notice there's a slight kink in it, as if in homage the famous graceful bend of the Brompton's main tube. It's not some specially curved instrument for tackling sophisticated hyperbolic functions; Mr Ritchie just left it too close to the fire one day.

Two other features in the mag caught my eye. Following on from yesterday's post, there's an interview with Magnatom, a 'helmet cam vigilante' cyclist in Glasgow who posts up YouTube videos of dangerous drivers, and has received death threats for his activities.

And, in the fascinating diaries of a 1930s cycle tourist travelling light in Yugoslavia and Albania, we learn that 'such luxuries as pyjamas and underwear are soon dispensed with after a little practice'.

I did once travel super-light, with a Brompton and a daypack round Japan. But I definitely did not dispense with underwear.

26 January 2009

Proceedings in camera

If you want to take video while riding there are three options: helmet camera; bike-mounted bracket; or you steer with one hand and film with the other.

The first two can be bought or made. But the third is easier and more artistically satisfying, as you can pan and tilt, plus you get interesting action shots of the sky when you fall off.

All new technology, you might think, this snapping-from-the-saddle business. Not so. I was intrigued to find this advert on the British Library website's Online Gallery today. It is, the ad says, 'AN IDEAL MACHINE For those Gentlemen who wish to combine Photography with Cycling'. (You can read a description or see a high-res zoomable image.)

Dating from 1888, it's a special tricycle from the Crypto Cycle Company that comes with a built-in rig for taking photographs while out riding. (Presumably not actually while in motion?)

A curious feature of the trike is that it's compressible to 26 inches width - perhaps they suffered from narrow cycle lanes then, too. As if out of Wacky Races, the bottom line of the ad excitingly informs you that the bike is 'supplied with or without Crypto Power'.

The price, without camera, is 22 guineas. For young readers, that's just over £23 - equivalent then to several month's wages for an artisan. (Bikes of the late Victorian and Edwardian era probably felt about as expensive as cars to do for us today. There were thriving second-hand markets.)

Me, I'm working on the bike-mounted-bracket solution...

25 January 2009

A very good demonstration

Cycling through central London gives you some of the world's best city-sightseeing routes.

One of my favourites is the one from Hyde Park to Westminster Bridge, via Wellington Arch (right), Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament. (Google map is below.)

You'll get plenty of photos here, such as the ones they take after arresting you for taking pictures in Parliament Square that helpfully show how tall you are compared to Kevin Spacey.

We did this very route yesterday, on our way back from an afternoon in Hyde Park. On a sunny weekend it's a lovely place to wander round by bike on the traffic-free paths (below right), watching the inline skaters and skateboarders doing that cool fancy-footwork stuff with the sort of plastic beakers you used to get at primary school. Now I know why they were always so scuffed and scratched.

You'll hear many different sorts of language spoken, especially when one of the skaters thinks you're cycling too close to their beakers. On the other side of the Serpentine lake is the Diana Memorial, where you can easily while away an hour trying to work out what it's supposed to be.

There'd been a demo for Gaza in Parliament Square when we went past the Houses of Parliament en route home. We thoroughly approved of this exercise of the right to protest, especially because it meant Westminster Bridge was closed to traffic. Can we have another one next Sunday, on Waterloo Bridge perhaps?

So we could amble across on the wrong side of Westminster Bridge, with the full blessing of the police, with the tarmac entirely to ourselves. Er, except for the tourist flocks of sheep-people all edging backwards, trying to fit the clock tower into their mobile's camera.

It was sunny, so I took some video snippets of that picturesque trip home. They're strung together below. (There's no sound, so nothing to catch you out if you set it going at work.)

And here's a Google map of the route. More photos at www.bike99.com/11.html

View Larger Map

24 January 2009

Which planet am I on?

The latest issue of New Scientist magazine reviews a new book, The Pluto Files: The rise and fall of America's favorite planet. The author, Neil deGrasse Tyson, wasn't directly responsible for the demotion of Pluto from planetary status in 2006. But after installing a new Pluto-free display of the solar system in New York's Hayden Planetarium, where he is director, he received hate mail, and evidently decided to cope with it by writing this book.

Well, anyone who's cycled from York to Selby, or from Taunton to Bridgwater, has proof of Mr Tyson's folly. Both cycle paths have scale models of the solar system, and both feature Pluto as fully-fledged planet. So it must be.

The York-Selby route is the world’s second longest cycle path. To scale, anyway: at 1 in 575,872,239, it represents a six-billion-kilometre-long rail trail. It begins just under the ring road south of York, with a 2.4m diameter golden globe representing the sun, and finishes 10.3km away just outside the village of Riccall with the tiny 6mm sphere that represents Pluto (right). En route you have all the planets, sized and placed to that scale.

It vividly illustrates the emptiness of space, very different from the crowded celestial pool table suggested by your school textbook. Though, granted, as you strike south away from the sun, things start off relatively congested. Mercury, the size of a ball-bearing, is 101m from the sun. Venus, slightly larger, is 87m on. Another 72m brings you to Earth, a bright blue gobstopper splendidly painted with continents and oceans. Mars, a vivid crimson pea, is 136m beyond.

Jupiter, swirly and as big as a football, is over a kilometre on; Saturn, adorned with its rings, is a similar distance past that. To reach grapefruit-sized Uranus (right) and Neptune you have to go another 2.5km and 3km respectively. If you think the name of Uranus is bad enough, it could have been worse: when William Herschel discovered it in his back garden in Bath in 1781, he wanted to call it George.

Finally comes Pluto – or rather ‘134340 Pluto’ as it is now officially known, following its relegation in August 2006 to the minor league of planets along with other distant orbital chaff such as 90377 Sedna, 136199 Eris, and 50000 Quaoar. But it must be a planet because here it is, just outside the village of Riccall, along with its satellite (or rather, planet twin) Charon.

Each is as big as the sort of thing that falls out from inside your bike during some ambitious piece of DIY mechanics and doesn't appear to fit anywhere when you try to put it back. You just can't imagine how something so small and so far could possibly be detected from earth, the size of a mouse trackerball 11km distant, especially when it's only illuminated by the sun, back on the A64 by-pass.

But if Pluto seems remote, consider that on this scale our nearest stellar neighbours – the Alpha Centauri family – would be 70,000km away. Space has an awful lot of not very much. But then Selby could well be full of Dark Matter.

As if that wasn't enough proof for the planet-denying Mr Tyson, there's TWO more Plutos on the Taunton-Bridgwater canal in Somerset, a canal which has a double set of scale-model planets along its length, and which somehow manages not to be linked to the rest of the waterway system.

In this case the sun is halfway between them, at Maunsel Lock (where there’s a Canal Centre; OS 193, ST309298). The canalside orrery has a double set of planets, ranging out from the sun in each direction. So, to scale, it’s even longer than York’s.

It’s 23km along the canal from the Bridgwater Pluto to the sun and beyond to the Taunton Pluto, which has placed the now-relegated planetoid in the decidedly non-league location of a supermarket car park (right). Pluto, which as any fule kno is A PLANET, wasn't discovered until 1930; well, they should have looked here.

There's quite a bit more about these routes and other similar ones, including how-to information, in my book (see left).

Here's a Google map of the York-Selby route:

View Larger Map

Not especially London-centric, I know, but I couldn't resist it, and it's worth trying to snag a cheap rail deal to York to do this path. And tomorrow's post will be very London, I promise.

23 January 2009

Hard rain's gonna fall, but only 12 times a year

Dishcloth skies and four-dimensional drizzle this morning as I biked to work. Central London was wet, tired and grey. Or perhaps that was just me.

But anyone driving past me, had they looked up from their mobile phone, would have wondered what I was so damn happy about. Because when it's raining, I'm wary of looking miserable. Poor bloke, the drivers might think, he can't afford a car, or the time to be sat in a traffic jam like me. Or worse, ha ha, I'm warm and dry, and he's cold and soaking.

Which isn't the case. I love cycling and that doesn't change given a bit of vertical moisture. All the positives are still there - door-to-door convenience, control over route and timing, speed and cheapness, and arriving feeling alive and well, despite the kebab last night. The only thing that changes is that you've effectively been standing in a shower with your clothes on for half an hour.

Now, given decent waterproofs, you'll arrive at work completely dry. Sadly I've only got half-decent waterproofs, so I arrive with, on average, one leg and one arm sodden.

Figures authoritatively plucked out of the air by the website bikeforall.net say it only rains on 12 commuting days a year. Well, rains hard, anyway. That translates to six full sets of damp arms and legs per annum, which isn't too bad. Today was one of those special days.

But no misery for me in the rain. No clenched teeth, narrowed eyes and hunched shoulders, like a Tour de France rider being hotly pursued up Mont Ventoux by the testing lab. No. I want drivers to know that I'm happy. I don't want to risk their misguided pity or contempt.

So the harder it rains, the more I look like the Dalai Lama in a reflective jacket, smiling away, chuckling when the lights turn red, eyes creasing and shoulders rocking in pleasure when a passing bus launches a puddle at me.

I just wish I could do the same when it's sunny.

22 January 2009

How long does a bike last?

It's a testament to modern engineering and marketing that you can buy a full-suspension bike from Halford's for eighty quid that will easily last you 20, 30, even 40 minutes or more.

Obviously a proper bike - one that costs you over say 250 quid and is made from metal, not tinfoil - will last rather longer. After all, you see plenty of Sunday club riders on a 20-year-old Dawes Super Galaxy.

Well, no. For me, at least.

As with beer, I don't buy bicycles, I only end up renting them. I compiled a list of all the bikes I'd ever had, and a clear pattern emerged: the maximum lifespan of a bike I own is about five years. Most don't even last that long before they get stolen, squashed by a lorry, or lost in the middle of 30,000 other bikes in a subterranean college shed.

Take, for example, my beloved Raleigh Record Ace (1996-2001), the bike I did the End to End, and London to Athens, on: turned into a folding bike by a truck while parked in Clink St.
Or the Specialized Hardrock (2001-2005): nicked while double-locked to a stand as I was having a curry in Twickenham. The curry wasn't even that good.

On that basis my current bike, a heavily customised Specialized Crossroads, with the accent on 'heavily', will expire sometime this year. I won't be too upset; it's something of a foster child. I was given it by an in-law who had bought it as a Christmas present for her boyfriend only for him to chuck her, so she gave it to me when my other bike was nicked.

The handlebars are so high that BP has dubbed it 'the Hyena' (below right). Thanks to the meercat stance it offers, when riding it I must be seven foot tall. I can look down on most car drivers, see what they're texting as they drive along, and let them know the error of their ways:

-'Scuse me, do you know what you're doing is wrong?
-What do you mean?
-I mean there's no apostrophe in it's.

I don't love this bike like I loved the other two. But it gets me around. It has a rack that can haul wheelbarrowfuls of shopping, and mudguards, and 27 gears, three of them in actual use. It has a twinky little bell unable to cut through a pedestrian's iPod, but handy for summoning a concierge. And when it goes to that great Brick Lane Market in the sky, I might just be a bit sad.

But then I'll have my excuse to buy a Thorn Sherpa. They really are built to last. I just hope that whoever steals it in 2014 will appreciate the fact.

21 January 2009

Taking Liberties exhibition cycle tour of London

I'm currently working at the British Library, editing the website of their exhibition Taking Liberties, the 900-year struggle for Britain's freedoms and rights.

This has involved taking several dozen pictures of London sites associated with exhibition items. The shop where Thomas Paine's Rights of Man was sold in 1791, for example; the house of feminist pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft; or the building where the committee for the abolition of the slave trade first met in 1787.

The stop-start process of snapping all these locations, many of them in central London or the City, would have been unmaginably tedious by public transport, with lots of foot-slogging and Oyster-bashing. And by car it would have been impossible. But on a bike, the process was great fun, taking me through lots of Dickensian lanes and passages, and to little enclaves I'd never otherwise have seen.

And gloriously expanding my knowledge of back-alley pubs. For instance, just down the lane from where the worthy abolitionists first met in 1787 is a pub called the Jamaica Wine House (top right), ironically then a meeting-place for the slave-ship masters. It's virtually unchanged from those days, except for a fresh lick of paint, a new front door, and everything inside.

And visiting by bike is the best way to enjoy the psychogeography of these sites and their contribution to history. So I've put some of my favourite Taking Liberties sites on this Google map, and sketched out a suggested cycle route to thread them together.

View Larger Map
There's a large picture for each site, and a link to the relevant item in the Online Exhibition.

I've only chosen central London locations, and any one-way streets used assume you're going clockwise overall. There are many other locations on the exhibition website's various Google maps.

For example, Magna Carta fans might be interested in cycling out virtually all along the river on the Thames Path to Runnymede, perhaps coming back from Windsor by train. En route you might pop in to St Mary's church by Putney Bridge: the site of the Putney Debates of 1647, where following the overthrow of Charles I, the people discussed what the new Republic of England should be like, and what should be in the British Constitution. Being Britain, that's still at the committee stage.

Further afield, there's one of the caves that claims to be the one where Robert Bruce had his encounter with the spider (top right, accompanying our various exhibits on Scottish independence).

I was there in autumn last year with my chums Mark and Si, cycling from Carlisle to Edinburgh one weekend. We were cycling in Dumfries, just past Gretna, through the village of Kirkpatrick Fleming (which put me in mind of Kirkpatrick Macmillan, the man who didn't invent the bicycle). I saw a sign to the cave, and couldn't resist the diversion.

Mark and I scrambled down the muddy path to the entrance of the cave (top right). It is man-made, hollowed out of the rock halfway up a cliff-face as a hidey-hole for treasure. Now there's a wooden access walkway. Our luck was in: the original spider's web was still there (below right).

I was delighted, partly because I'd seen the historic spider, but mainly because I could legitimately take a picture for the website and thereby make the whole weekend tax-deductible.

20 January 2009

Lessons from history (don't cycle from Wolverhampton to Birmingham)

This morning I've been testing one of our new websites here at the British Library. It gives you paid-for access over the Internet to millions of digitised British local newspapers from 1800-1913.

The Times already has a huge searchable digital archive of all their editions, going back to 1785. You can access that online for small charges (five quid for a day pass, for example), or if you're from Yorkshire like me, come into the British Library and use it for free.

Our local newspaper site (due to go live at the end of the month) will work similarly. In fact it's already available free inside the Library, and we're just testing the payment mechanism for when it goes live to the world.

So, of course, I've been doing lots of searches on bicycles and cricket, purely to test the system you understand.

And it throws up some fascinating local stuff. For instance, the Bristol Mercury of 22 May 1819 has a feature on the cool new must-have gadget for the young and trendy: the velocipede. For the benefit of bewildered readers, it supplies an illustration (right) suggestive of extraordinary male discomfort.

"On a well-maintained post-road, it will travel up-hill as fast as an active man can walk", it notes in wonder. "When roads are dry and firm, it runs on a plain at the rate of eight or nine miles per hour, as fast as a courier. On a descent, it equals a horse at full speed."

Terminology is yet to evolve: it has a 'saddle', but is steered by a 'rudder... in the same manner as a Bath Chair', and the wheels are connected by a 'perch'.

The Mercury notes that a new velocipede would set you back six or seven guineas. A pint of beer cost you a halfpenny then, making the velocipede cost as much as 3,000 pints; on the other hand a craftsman would earn about a pound a month, making it around six month's wages for our fashion-conscious artisan.

By 1869 pedal-driven velocipedes were the cool new thing. They had a variable number of wheels, especially after an accident, but the two-wheel version (direct-drive pedals and solid tyres, of course) was proving popular for touring.

The Birmingham Post of 31 Mar 1869, for example, talks about what was claimed to be the longest bicycle journey undertaken in the country so far – Liverpool to London, in four days:

The bicycles caused no little astonishment on the way, and the remarks passed by the natives were most amusing. At some of the villages the boys clustered round the machines, and, when they could, caught hold of them, and ran behind until they were tired out. Many inquiries were made as to the name of "them queer horses", some calling them "whirligigs", "menageries", and "valparaisos".

But it wasn't all pleasant: "Between Wolverhampton and Birmingham attempts were made to upset the riders by throwing stones." Some things don't change.

19 January 2009

Parking hoop-la

My Biking Partner spotted this collapsed bike (top) round the corner from where we live yesterday. Clearly it was dangerous - not only blocking the pavement, but also at risk of being squashed by the car.

So BP did what any public-spirited citizen would do: leave the bike where it is, and go home to get the camera.

It was for a good cause though. Pictures were taken and emailed to local council cycling officers with a request for cycle hoops to be installed.
We really like cycle hoops. Devised by a student called Anthony Lau, they are intended for places where there isn't space for conventional Sheffield racks, but where the demand for bike parking is such that people shackle up to road furniture anyway.

Adding the hoop (right) turns a greasy pole into a sensible bike park. You have two points to lock it with your two locks, it won't fall down, and you can't lose your bike to that trick of unbolting the sign at the top and sliding the bike up and off. It happens. (The hoops need special tools to undo them.)

The hoops cost shillings, and are easy and quick to install. Southwark and Lambeth are already rolling them out, which I suppose is what you do with hoops; you can see lots of examples along Union St (right) from Southwark tube station, for instance. More details on www.cyclehoop.co.uk.

And yes, of course we did put the bike back upright. After waiting a few minutes on the off-chance that the driver of the parked car might turn up and accidentally steamroller the bike, of course. That would have been a cracking YouTube video.

18 January 2009

Enhanced 'Are you a real cyclist' page

I've enhanced the 'Are you a real cyclist?' quiz.

It's now on a new page on my bizarrebiking.com site, with pictures and automated push-button scoring.

And, incidentally, I see from today's Sunday Times that comedian and impressionist Alistair McGowan is a cyclist. Apparently he cycles seven miles to work and back every day.

Let's hope that if we ever happen to be stopped next to each other at the lights, he doesn't say to me 'Oy, you're that bloke that edits the website for the British Library, aren'cha? Go on, do a bit of JavaScript for us.'

17 January 2009

Comedy Cycle Lanes 1: Nine Elms Lane

This is the first in a series about bad bike facilities. (For the mathematicians among you, the series is infinite, irrational, and monotonic increasing.)

First up is one of the crown jewels of crap cycle paths: the one along Nine Elms Lane in south London, between Queenstown Road and Vauxhall. Here's a Google map:

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I've been past it several times, and greeted it like an old friend yesterday when I went into Clapham to have my teeth re-grouted.

Well, not so much an old friend, more like a vengeful and ugly ex-partner from a messy divorce.

Anyway, the path starts just by Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, where stray or unwanted apostrophes are taken in and cared for. Here is where you can join the path. Except that you can't, because they fence it off from the road by these toothpaste-coloured blocks.
If you get as far as rappeling the blocks to get on to the path, then once you've abseiled down the pavement, you can practise your slalom skills.
A bad bike path is a bit like those hitherto unseen characters that join the Star Trek party, beaming down to a dangerous planet populated by bad actors: you just know it's only a matter of seconds before they disappear horribly. Sure enough, the Nine Elms path expires here, only to rematerialise after the bus shelter. (All cyclists, of course, simply ignore the path and opt to follow the road.)
Finally, just by the turn-off to the fruit and veg volcano of New Covent Garden market, comes your comic highlight: the cycle path completely blocked in the space of ten metres by an electricity box, a street light pole, and - boom, tiss! - the sign for the cycle path.

To be fair, the same bike path is also blocked by the sign for the bike path at several other points on the bike path, and on the one that runs along the opposite side of the road.

Do you know of more LOL bike facility incompetence? Other chortle-making cycle-path cluelessness? Or perhaps you're a publisher who wants to push a book called Crap Cycle Lanes, which I distinctly recall was actually my suggestion? Let me know...

'15th-century incunabula': An Apology

Several readers have written to me to point out that the phrase '15th-century incunabula' (posting, 15 January 2009) is a tautology, as all incunabula date from the 15th century.

I tried arguing that the latest incunabulum was in 1500, which might just be in the 16th century depending on your definition, but I was slapped down by the Curator of Old Kraut books.

16 January 2009

Worrying signs

First, an example of something you should never do.

Display the large version of the picture on the right by clicking on it, and look at the signs next to where this cyclist has parked their bike.

Can you see what's gone wrong here? Answer at the end of this post.

(The picture was taken on a Saturday market day at the north end of Broadway in north London, between Regent's Canal and London Fields. We can recommend the market for great food. But don't go there on an empty wallet.)

You can see a lot more bike pictures on my new Flickr site, which I'm adding to steadily. The 'Slideshow' on the left cycles through all those images; click on one to go to its full-size version on Flickr and to read details about the picture.

You'll see that my Flickr pseudonym is 'Dee Railer'. I spent ages trying to think of a bike-related name, but that's the best I could come up with.

But if you think that's bad, consider the rejects: Allen Key, Dinah Molights, Anna Tube, Ria Wheel, Kay Bultize... Unless, of course, you know worse.

Anyway, here's the answer to the picture question...

That's right - there's an apostrophe in 'Saturday's', which is clearly wrong, as this is a plural. Never do this.

15 January 2009

Cycle parking done by the book

I'm working at the British Library at the moment. Between Christmas and New Year I was the only person in from the massive London web team. (The other two were on holiday, in raw third-world places such as Kenya and Newcastle.)

It was tempting. I could do a global find-and-replace across the whole British Library website, changing every occurrence of 'the' to 'the bloody'. I could make the front page redirect to my Facebook profile. I could change the banner for Online Gallery to read 'Liverpool are rubbish ha ha Ryan'.

Of course I didn't. However, I did mildly abuse my position by making a change on our 'how to get here' page. This gave brief details of access 'By train' and 'By Underground', but oddly puts the mention of bike parking inside the 'By car' slot (above right).

This is clearly intolerable, because like any normal single-issue weirdo, I judge an organisation by how much cycle parking it has, and the simple matter of whether the website includes cyclists. (BAD: London Eye; Madam Tussaud. OK: National Theatre; Tate Modern.)

So I corrected the page, even though I'm really only supposed to do the Taking Liberties website. I made a new section 'By bicycle'; and I bigged up the cycle parking (because it is good - see photos above right and bottom right - even if that side gate in Ossulston St by the covered Sheffield racks is usually mysteriously closed).

And I included a link to Transport for London's journey planner for London, which can provide you detailed cycle routes between any points across the capital. I'll do a bigger review of it a bit later when I've had more chance to evaluate its idiosyncrasies. Put in 'British Library' as your destination, for example, and it directs you to the staff entrance, the wrong way up a one-way street.

But then, it also directs me out of my house the wrong way up a one-way street, too; perhaps it's just reflecting what it thinks most cyclists do anyway.

Anyway, that new bike-friendly how-to-get-to-the-Library page is now up. (GOOD: British Library.) Do try the TfL journey planner in cycle mode and tell me what you think.

And see if you can find the parts of the website where I've substituted the phrase 'our collection of north German 15th-century incunabula' with the words 'a load of old kraut books'.

14 January 2009

When architects design bike parking

There's a small exhibition of innovative bike parking ideas until 30 Jan at New London Architecture, just off Tottenham Court Road.

Some ideas are good. The Plantlock, for example (above right): half cycle parking, half herbaceous border. Once filled with compost, the Plantlock weighs a ton and provides secure stationing for two bikes.

We've got one at the front of our house, and it's ideal for guests who arrive on a bike, and who prefer fresh tomatoes and herbs with their dinner. Unfortunately it's also popular as a latrine with the local foxes. When you come to our house, best avoid the salad.

Other ideas are more what you'd expect from architects. In other words, stylish, expensive, and hopelessly impractical.

These folding handlebars (right), for instance: they narrow the width of a parked bike, which may be important if your bike is stored somewhere cramped such as a hallway, but they add lots of weight and bar clutter. Especially when you're only an allen key away from turning the handlebars sideways anyway.

I was quite taken with this impressive-but-pointless cyclist-shaped mirror that goes behind your bike's wall bracket (below right), though I didn't like the reflection very much. There was someone who looked like me, only older.

Anyway, it's worth a visit. And while you're there you can also enjoy one of my favourite unheralded things in London: NLA's huge permanent plastic model of central London (below).

It features every building down to house size in grey plastic. All those planned buildings with the now-obligatory silly names (the Cheesegrater, Glass Shard, Pinnacle, Mobile Phone, etc) are there too, in white.

I'm surprised it's not better known. After being featured on this blog, it still won't be.

13 January 2009

New Year Bike Quiz 2 of 2

The second part of yesterday's quiz.


11 According to a survey by Cycling England in September 2008, 64 per cent of women (right) never cycle. What was the main reason (cited by over half of them)?
A Didn't want to arrive at work sweaty
B Helmets would ruin hairstyle
C Partner didn't like it
D Worried about getting lost

12 How many cycling golds did Britain win at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing?

13 In 1954 a young man got into boxing accidentally when his bike was stolen. Furious, he found a police officer who happened to be a boxing coach, who persuaded him to take up boxing to channel his aggression. Who was the young man?

14 Which band released the single Bicycle Race in 1978, which featured a large photo of several dozen nude women cyclists?

15 What links Oscar Pereiro, Alberto Contador, and Carlos Sastre?

16 A classic 1948 Italian realist film about the search for a stolen bicycle was re-released in December 2008. What is the title?

17 Gold Hill, Shaftesbury, Dorset (above right), is famous for what cycling reason?
A Thomas Hardy broke his leg riding down it
B Dropped at last minute from Tour of Britain in 2008
C Setting for a TV advert
D Olympic cyclists Bradley Wiggins was born there

18 In 2006 Bath University researcher Ian Walker studied the space given by cars overtaking cyclists, and concluded that which one of the following is safer than wearing a helmet?
A Sign on bike saying 'KEEP BACK'
B Cycling on pavement
C Using lights in daylight
D Wearing a long blonde wig

19 England's biggest body of water (right) has a traffic-free bike path all round it. What county is it in?

20 Which of the following is illegal?
A Breaking the speed limit on a bike
B Refusing a breathalyser test while cycling
C Riding two abreast
D Cycling to church on Christmas Day

11. A was the chief worry. C, however, was also a concern, followed by D. More
12. Eight. More
13. Cassius Clay, now Muhammad Ali. More
14. Queen. More
15. Tour de France winners 2006, 2007, 2008. More
16. The Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette). More
17. C. The Hovis advert was filmed there in 1971. More - Ad on YouTube
18. D. The wig suits you. More
19. Rutland. More
20. *Updated 3 Feb 2009* All of them. The Holy Days Act 1551 said you must go to church on Christmas Day, and you must walk, but was repealed in 1969 (I'm told). Nothing wrong with the others.

12 January 2009

New Year Bike Quiz 1 of 2

We spent New Year's Eve with friends in Cambridge. Everyone there was a cyclist, so part of the entertainment was this bike quiz I put together. Here are the first ten questions; remaining ten tomorrow. Answers at the bottom.

Rebecca and Jane's team won, with 14 out of 20.


1 What is special about the 35km long cycle path (top right) started in 2007 along the coast of Doha, Qatar?
A Solar-powered fans provide tailwinds
B It's air-conditioned
C Magnets underneath track propel special cycles
D Only place in UAE you are actually allowed to cycle

2 According to the sign at its bottom, the B6138 (Cragg Vale, right) in Mytholmroyd, Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, is England's longest what??

3 The world's longest cycle trail, which will be 21,500km long when complete, is currently 70 per cent there. Where does it go?
A Newfoundland to Vancouver
B Moscow to Kamchatka
C Seattle to Panama City
D All around Japan's Honshu coast

4 In June 1904, something happened to 47-year-old English composer Edward Elgar (below right) that was so exciting, he cycled round to tell all his friends and relatives, including a 50 mile round trip to his dad's house. What?

5 Whose last words, in a landmark 1968 film, were 'a bicycle built for two', from the song Daisy Bell?

6 Bicycles feature prominently in which magic-realist Irish novel, written in 1940 but not published till 1967, including the theory that interchange of atoms between machines and their owners over time turn people into bicycles?

7 Who was the last US President to have a cycling accident?

8 There are approximately 500 million cars in the world. How many bicycles?

9 At the 1974 West Coast Cyclocross championships in Marin County, California, Russ Mahon competed using what's now considered to be one of the world's first what?

10 Which of the following happened to Conservative leader and cyclist David Cameron in 2008?
A The Daily Mirror filmed him going the wrong way up a one-way street en route to Parliament
B The Guardian revealed that a van driver tried to push him off his bike
C His bike was stolen outside Tesco's in Portobello Road
D He apologised for his unintended centre parting in Parliament, caused by his helmet

1. B. Solar-powered panels provide a mist of cooled water. More
2. The longest continuous gradient - in other words, the longest road freewheel downhill (or longest uphill). More
3. A. It's the Trans Canada Trail. More
4. He had just received news of his knighthood. He cycled from his home at Craeg Lea, Malvern, to his dad's house in Bromsgrove. See Allen, K.: Elgar the Cyclist (Malvern: Aldine Press, 1997), pp.39-41
5. HAL9000, the maverick computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey. More
6. Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman. More
7. As of January 2009, it was George W Bush, who crashed into a policeman at the G8 summit in Scotland in July 2005. More
8. One billion is the figure quoted by Wikipedia, though there are no reliable sources for it. More
9. Mountain bike. More
10. All of them. More: A, B, C, D

Questions 11-20 tomorrow.

11 January 2009

Waterloo sunset

I came home early from work last Tuesday. My route takes me over Waterloo Bridge, which offers some of the finest cityscapes in the world. Downriver is the National Theatre, St Paul's, Tate Modern, and in the distance Canary Wharf. Upriver is the Eye and the Palace of Westminster.

Travel guru Simon Calder has cited Waterloo as his favourite cycling bridge - and, of course, on a bike you have the chance to take the view in at your own pace.

And last Tuesday, I just happened to be cycling over at dusk on a crisp, cloudless evening, at the orangest angle of sunset.

There was a buzz, like being at some once-in-a-generation natural event such as an eclipse. Commuters were stopping to grab it on their mobiles, and at least two well-prepared snappers had their tripods and interchangeable backs at the ready.

I didn't have a tripod, just the bridge railings, and it was very, very cold.