Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Another day, another tandem...

Last night I took the children for a swim, and after a text from Katie about an eBay listing, came home via Cambridgeshire, with a whopper of a tandem on the roof!


Now we've got one that fits Katie on the front and Thomas Ivor on the back, and one that fits me on the front and Katie on the back, pending the addition of some Kiddy Cranks which would open the way for me to have one of the girls on the back, and tow the other on one of our trailerbikes.

The new one has pedigree - the original owners rode it to Turkey, and it's already got a number of touring accoutrements. Looks like the fleet plans have just changed, again - and if it already knows the way to Turkey, that's one less thing to worry about if we decided to take off round the world, right?

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

'Pimp my Tandem' Update - Nearly roadworthy again!

Two steps backwards, one step forward, has been the way of things so far with the tandem project. For every two things I remove, I successfully replace or reinstate one. This has so far resulted in a 'decluttering' of the bike such as to cause it no longer to be rideable - but I'm not done yet!

Katie and Thomas Ivor's first ride on the bike showed up a few immediate deficiencies - notably that the handlebars were too low and were particularly uncomfortable. Katie, like me, also hates grip-shifters. The front derailleur's spring is so strong, they spent the whole ride in the little ring, because of fears the shifter would break if put under enough force to move the derailleur! Brakes were a bit uneven, the stoker bars were really scabby and poked the captain up the bum when getting on and off. Otherwise, though, the fit was not all that bad, and we are reassured that the bike can be a useful member of our fleet, if not necessarily in the capacity we were anticipating when we first started looking at multi-seat bikes on eBay!

The list of jobs ran something like this, we felt:

Tranche 1 - Make it rideable for minimal cost!

  • Get rid of the stoker's bar tape - just make it stop!
  • Clean everything else.
  • Remove the rear rack, clean out all the bosses and put new stainless screws in (we already have a stash)
  • Swap out the handlebars and shifters for spares we already own; swap V brake arms while we're at it
  • Raise the handlebars as far as we can
  • Swap the saddles for spares which may be more comfortable in the short term
  • Try a really long seat post to see if Daddy could ever ride it without being impaled or crippled
  • Assuming the above are successful, fit handlebar bag bracket, front lamp bracket, some old bottle cages and order some spare inner tubes for initial rides out.
  • Do some homework on drivetrain options, including replacing worn-out components and fitting kiddy cranks.

Tranche 2a - Drivetrain and Stoker Refurbishment (budget dependent on whether we are going to do 2b in the longer term!)

  • New chainrings, cassette and chains (need to consider possible upgrade to 8 speed or more)
  • New front and rear derailleurs (front is stiff; rear is broken!)
  • Consider fitting kiddy cranks
  • New stoker bars and possibly stems

Tranche 2b - Wheelset replacement

  • Two nice, shiny new 26", 48 hole wheels. Mummy has already requested a dynamo hub, if we go this far!
Tranche 3+ - Icing on the cake if we are totally invested in the thing!

  • A frame and fork respray
  • Custom frame bags (tent pole carriers!)
Tranche X - Nice-to-haves which we can use on other bikes anyway, not time critical.
  • Nicer water bottles
  • Speed and cadence sensor
  • Front and rear racks

I've got a few bits to tinker with today, at which, hopefully, a first proper ride (and some pictures being taken in daylight) can take place at the weekend, and I can start totting up the costs so far, which should be decidedly modest. For once, I am making that a particular challenge!

World Autism Awareness Week - The Final Cut!

Thomas Ivor raised over £450 for the National Autistic Society - and made it into their 'Thank You' video!

Saturday, 28 April 2018

Our new, old bike - Just how green are we cyclists?

I spent another evening last night, after the children had gone to bed and before Mummy ByCycle came home from the office, tinkering with our new tandem.

I say ‘new’, but it’s anything but, in truth. I think the Suntour 3040 front mech dates it to about 1989, in fact, making our 'new bike' the oldest in the family, by a reasonable margin.

The question, as usual with an old bike, becomes ‘how far do you go?' We’ve ridden the bike, it works, it goes and stops, but the handlebar grips and twist shifters are ergonomically heretical, the chainrings look like a circulating shiver of sharks, and the ‘it’s knackered, change everything’ 0.75mm chain wear gauge flaps around in the links of both chains like a drunkard's wotsit in a pub toilet. The rear cassette lock ring is stuck fast, resisting all attempts to budge it, and the rims are, well, a bit concave. The frame seems sturdy enough and all the welds are sound, but the paint job is badly chipped, there are signs of surface rust, and several of the chromed bits, aren’t very chrome-y. The seats are new, but uncomfortable for Katie and too big for Thomas Ivor; the rear rack is severely wonky; it doesn't have any bottle cages.

The thing is, none of this can’t be fixed. It comes down to what’s economical. Chain rings, five of them, two chains (one of them a big ‘un), new jockey wheels, cassette and realistically front derailleur, new bar grips and shifters, and I’m on the way to £500 including buying the bike. Having done that, you’d end up needing to replace the rims to put serious miles on it, so that’s two rims and a double wheel build, even if you recycle the hubs, which will undoubtedly deserve new bearings if you’re going that far. With all that new stuff on it, you’d want to paint the frame, by some means, just to protect it structurally. Is that uneconomic mission creep, the result of getting too invested in a tired basket case of a bike which would be better melted down, or is it a symptom of a throwaway society in which some cyclists, for all their green creds, too willingly throw away serviceable equipment because manufacturing labour remains cheap and raw materials (for now, at least) relatively plentiful?

By this point you’ve caught yourself saying ‘I could have a nice new one for two grand’ in your head, but:
  • this was meant to be a low budget exercise;
  •  done properly, the bike may still look its age at a superficial level but the components that matter will all be new, should function perfectly, and it will be the spec we have chosen, in the details. Crank length. Saddle choice. Compatible with our lights, luggage and phone mounts. It could even be in our own paint job;
  • we don't have to spend all the money in one go. Some things have to be done together, but by no means all;
  • taking things apart to see why they work, and then struggling with 'reassembly is the reverse of removal', is therapeutic. Sometimes.
  • Even I will struggle to get the budget beyond half the cost of a new one.
The other option, I guess, is to give it a thorough clean, spend nothing on it and just have fun riding it into the ground, like some people do with old cars - but at that, one day something will fail, possibly a relatively simple component, that will put it out of action - perhaps a long way from home. You see so many bikes like that, lined up by the scrap bin at the council tip.

When I bought my first bike, a Raleigh from Halfords for the princely sum of about £130, it came with a lifetime warranty on the frame. Truth be told, the frame is the only original bit that’s aged remotely well, but it’s as solid as ever. As for the components, well, a lot of them got changed over the years. I was seduced by upgrading to 7 speed, and the Shimano 'mega-range' freewheel. The bars rusted so I replaced them, and got some bar ends while I was at it (they were still socially acceptable back then). I changed the pedals, seat post and saddle (my glow-in-the-dark, 'this will preserve your ability to have kids' scaremongering seat has not aged well, I'll admit).

When I took the 'Yellow Peril' to our local bike shop for the headset and bottom bracket bearings to be done, thinking I would rebuild it, the chap convinced me that for what I wanted to do with it (touring with children) I was best off buying a new bike. And I did; it was the right choice in the circumstances - but a good proportion of the components of that old bike have now made it out of the plastic tub in the basement and back onto the girls' trailer bikes, with others now earmarked for the tandem.

This being so, I'm going to take the Tandem (which we really must name now) not only as a foray into a strange new world of not being able to buy so much as a brake cable in Halfords in an emergency, but also a step back. I'm going to see how much I can do to the bike using, as far as possible, only things I already have in the house; see how far that takes it, see how much we love riding it, and then we can think about an investment strategy. Watch this space!

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Two's company; three's an aspiration! Buying our first tandem.

The auction had sat at about £125 for a couple of days. We hit the 'watch' button.

A couple of hours before the end, someone bid £155. Unless it went for a song, it was too much of a risk. It was obviously going to clear £200 at the end. We had a chat as I got the barbecue out to cook dinner, and decided we'd leave it. 

3 minutes to go and I sneaked another look. No movement. "I'm going in, just in case", I called to Katie. "No more than £200 and it's worth a punt, right?".

"Go on, then. Nothing ventured...", said Katie, sticking her head out of the back door. 

I put in £205, just in case it was close. Don't tell her, will you. My finger hovered over the button for what wouldn't have been the first entirely futile attempt at an auction 'snipe' lately. 

10 seconds. The house WiFi had better hold up, out here in the garden, or this was going to be upsetting.

I think I actually saw '3 seconds' just as I hit the button, and the screen went blank for a what felt like at least a week.

Eventually, it became apparent that yes, we had just bought our first tandem - a Thorn Voyager - for the princely sum of one hundred and eighty-two pounds and thirty-three pence.


Er, ok... now we've got to fetch it! Not so simple when there was no way I would fit on it, we had no idea if any of the five of us would fit on the back without adaptations, and we didn't have a tandem carrier for the car - the latter would have cost more than the bike.

Our brave but possibly foolhardy plan for Katie, under the weather lately, to make a late night trip to a Luton postcode and cycle home, not just on a bike she'd never set eyes on before, but her first ever tandem ride, and do 30+ miles home in the dark, was eventually cast aside (to our mutual disappointment - we like a challenge!) for the more practical solution of stripping out our people carrier, which was in dire need of a litter-pick anyway.

Luckily, our new purchase fits without too much bother, with the wheels off, and I only bent the mudguard stays very slightly, getting it home. In the same way, I only took a bit of paint off the front door getting it in the house, and Katie and I sat on the settee to eat our dinner, watching 'Gray's Anatomy' through the latest addition to the family, still a bit bewildered at what we'd done.



A bit of work since then, and every single member of the family having sat on it in some way, has proved that Katie fits on the front, Thomas Ivor fits on the back, and we ought to have no trouble adding a trailerbike rack on the back (although the scarcity of spare Islabikes racks is once more, a pain in the posterior) so that together they can tow one of the girls.

Our new tandem (as yet awaiting the decision of the naming committee) is no spring chicken. It's old school bike engineering in many ways; a steel frame, lots of chromed bits; solid, heavy-looking cranksets with a Suntour front derailleur (remember them?) and seven gears on the back. We haven't had a grown up bike with V brakes for quite a while! The paint is thin, and there's some rust. But it's a simple, rugged design, and now the manky bar tape is off, we're on our way.

Katie and Thomas Ivor went out for their first ride last night, and didn't die, so whilst it may be a brief dalliance that leads to a different machine in the end, we have a little project on our hands - and I think it's going to be fun. It will be interesting to see how much we can do with the beast, with things we already have in the cupboard... #PimpMyTandem is born!



Monday, 12 February 2018

Five reasons to ride your bikes even when it all goes a bit wrong

I wish I'd screen grabbed the weather forecast I read, late on Friday night, as we were going to bed and hatching a plan for the weekend - so that I could have juxtaposed the natty new BBC weather graphics with what actually arrived. 'Sunshine and 7 degrees all afternoon', it proclaimed. After what turned up, I want a refund.

Or do I?

We spent Saturday morning at the gym. Just for once, Katie and I managed to get Wattbikes next to one another, both with working headsets, seat post clamps, pedals - even bluetooth! The final piece of the jigsaw, being able to see one another on Zwift, remained elusive, but we did an hour or so up the mountain towards our Le Col challenge hours, interspersed with some adult conversation and trips to the water cooler to combat the intense heat (none of which later). It hurled it down with rain so we went and got Rhoda some new trainers to ride in, and nipped to Cafe Ventoux for a bit of an outing and something to eat. Katie took the opportunity to see what she might spend her £50 Le Col voucher on - assuming we got some more time on the bike before the weekend was out.


Sunday came, and the sun shone as we sat in church. A bit better than the forecast, we thought. Excellent! We drove home, choosing to ignore the car's temperature warning beep, and threw ourselves into the task of getting everyone's touring kit out at the same time for the first time since last May.

The touring bikes came up from the basement - a feat in itself. Katie's had air in the rear hydraulic brake line. Again.

Ruth's winter cycling jacket was missing. The girls had been sharing one for weeks, which was fine until we wanted them to ride together.

EVERYTHING needed oiling.

Ruth's jacket was still not in evidence.

Rhoda's bottle cage had been robbed from her trailerbike when Thomas Ivor put his foot through one during cyclocross training. Thomas Ivor hadn't tightened the bolts back into the frame, and one was missing on the basement stairs.

Ruth's jacket wasn't in the car. It wasn't anywhere in the pile of coats by the front door. It wasn't in the washing basket, or the cupboard. It wasn't in the girls' bedroom, or their chest of drawers. Running out of places to look.

We had a shortage of serviceable rear lights. About four of them have had the switches fail in wet weather recently. It was looking decidedly dull outside.

Ruth's jacket was not in our bedroom, either. It was not under the settee, nor in the bag we took to her last cyclocross race. It was not in the front garden, or the flippin' fridge. The hunt was becoming desperate and tempers were fraying.

In the end, since all the jacket-searching had cost us so much time we were all 'hangry', we jumped in the car, all each one of us (except Ruth's top half) in full lycra, and went to a well known burger joint which euphemistically calls itself a 'restaurant' but is careful to enhance the eating experience by never bringing to your table everything you ordered. As we arrived there, we were treated to a hailstorm. Words were possibly had with the Almighty, who had apparently hogged the promised nice weather, for the part of the day we had spent indoors, worshipping Him.


I think the children thought that was it, and we were going to go home, take off our cycling kit, put a fire in the grate and spend the rest of the day looking for Ruth's jacket, but somehow, (perhaps that £50 Le Col voucher had something to do with it) Katie and I steeled ourselves to the prospect of cutting back our ambitions for the day's riding, but restoring some honour by being able to say we had ridden, after all. Here's what I think we learned, as we set out under grey skies, which proceeded to dump on us from a great height...

1. There will be 'can't be bothered' days on the road, too. They may of themselves have no particular reward at all - but they facilitate the 'other days' - and you have to do them to reach your goal.

When you reach the end of a tour, you will remember the really tough bits. The stinking great hills. The equipment failures. You'll remember the amazing bits - the natural wonders, a tasty meal, road angels you met. What you're unlikely to remember so readily is the miles and miles you spent just plodding on. The days when getting on the road again was a drag. A nagging headwind. Rain that stops as soon as you've put your wet weather gear on. Even in lovely places, there are boring bits.

The fact is, going the distance is very much about being able to keep on going when the motivation is low and excuse factor is high. If you hadn't done a few hours at 10mph feeling uninspired, here and there, you might be hundreds of miles short of your objective. Sticking with a plan to throw your leg over the bike, even when at the time, it would be much easier not to, is good discipline for days where caving in could kill off your big aspirations.


2. If you don't find the kit you need today, you won't have it for next time, and you'll lose another ride. If one plan goes for a Burton, try and respond in a way that prevents recurrence.

We covered less than half the distance we had hoped, in the end, but if we had used 'we can't find everything in a hurry' as an excuse, we'd not have gone out at all - and we'd have left ourselves the same excuse for next time, too. In the end, we figured that if we only rode up our street and back, to have done that before the day was out would be a sign that we were able to get moving more quickly, and fully equipped, next time. Today's ride became a facilitator for the next one! (See point 5, below)

Repurpose a ride that isn't going to hit all the original targets. Roll with the blows and do something purposeful with it - even if that's short of, or different to, what you'd hoped. It might mean next time goes more smoothly.


3. What doesn't kill them makes them stronger - children get used to what they've experienced safely, and will be calmer next time. Use incentives.

What is training for, if not a bit of conditioning?! A small dose of hail in the faces, endured by choice and survived, makes for better endurance next time it comes and can't be avoided. Use mitigations (being able to turn round and put the wind at your backs, and doing that before things get ugly) and rewards (hot chocolate and a warm bath at home afterwards) while you have them. If we encounter a full-on hailstorm again, in the middle of nowhere, the children know what to do, and that it will be ok. They won't die. It will still be a good adventure. We were well impressed with the girls' willingness to endure a burst of rough weather and keep going; Thomas Ivor was able to get used to the 'new' sensory input of cold stuff hitting his face whilst riding a road he knows well, and could process his response at his own pace.

Children today are often shielded more than is helpful to them, from the weather. Properly equipped, with careful management (both important caveats!), they can endure more than they think - and if you are willing to do it close to home, out of season, that unexpected storm on your next tour will be far less of a curved ball. Which brings us to the next point...


4. Train hard, fight easy - test your contingencies and ability to deal with problems when you can choose to, rather than when you have no choice! 

Last year, we were privileged to go to visit Islabikes in Shropshire. In preparation for a staff outing, a weekend's off-road touring through Wales, founder Isla Rowntree presided over (and participated in, and won) a competition in which every participant had to change their rear inner tube against the clock, unaided, using only their own equipment for the trip, fully packed up as it would be on the day.  I won't say who found they'd packed a 26" tube on their 29er, but several of the participants encountered trouble they'd not foreseen, and a few doubtless tweaked their preparations subsequently! As Isla pointed out, they'd be glad of the frustration now, if they had a puncture out on open moorland in a freezing cold deluge the following week.

Solving problems you hope you will never have, with a safety net, might lead to packing new or different things (or knowledge!) that improve your chances on tour, when things go wrong. If the things you fear most on tour, you've already tried and found a response for, you have rather less to fear. In our case this time, it wasn't so much equipment based but a test of 'can we ride on in these conditions', in a situation where we could bail out at any time -  and the answer was "yes - and Rhoda needs the peak of her hat adjusting for her when it happens". If that's the worst of it, we won't be so worried next time the BBC forecast turns out to be so lamentably inaccurate!


There is a general level of satisfaction to be had from having 'done it anyway', and if children bank positive experiences of dealing with situations you'd prefer not to deal with, but might have to, everyone stresses less. Even if unbeknown to them, you dialled things back a bit having satisfied yourself it was ok, everyone gets a feeling that nothing can stop you next time. Some days, when you're digging deep, that's what you need upon which to draw.


5. Evaluation is the mother of preparedness - a.k.a. 'Always look in the toy box'.

We got home, got warm, got the girls some hot chocolate and a bath, and Katie set to, continuing the hunt for the lost jersey, finding a number of other things we didn't know we'd lost, along the way, and filling two bags for the charity shop, largely of toys that the girls didn't need any more. At the bottom of one of the toy boxes, patiently waiting all along to be discovered, was a Size 1 HUP cycling jacket.


We made a list, from which the missing jersey was cheerfully removed, of other things that had come to light during the afternoon. Ruth's trailerbike seat needs to go up. Rhoda's gloves are getting tight and she is probably ready for the larger crankset her sister uses. We have a new 11-34t cassette that needs fitting to Katie's tourer, along with bleeding those pesky brakes again. I ended up recording Ruth's heart rate, not my own (although that was instructive, during the ride!). I've got a loose front lamp bracket. We need to sort out some more rear lights, or fix the ones we have. These are all things we can try to fix before our next full team ride, rather than consigning ourselves to repeating them - and whilst it's been decided that the girls are to have special bags to put their cycling clothes and accoutrements in, we will be sure to check the toy box, next time something's gone astray...

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Magic Moments - Rhoda's Rolling!


I don't know whether it's because it's not a natural skill - we are not inherently programmed as humans to ride a bicycle - but the moment your child finally, without really meaning to, sure that you can't possibly let go, motors away from you, finally letting you stand up straight and have your arms back, is a special one for me. There is something seminal in the life-milestone laid as your little one goes off on their own - even if they do go on to ditch the bike ten yards away.


Despite her formidable progress in many areas, including her tolerance and stamina for riding her trailerbike from Vatersay to Lewis last summer, Rhoda has been a bit behind Ruth's curve when it came to pedalling her own bike. Balance biking was no problem for her - indeed she was doing it younger than her siblings - and she learned how to work her brakes very quickly indeed, but where Ruth was pedalling at two (though unable to use her brakes to stop!), Rhoda could slow the bike to a stand nicely, but was in danger of turning four before completing her first lap of the bandstand unaided.

Over the past few months we've been biding our time, just having a little go once in a while to see if she was ready without labouring it, trying both the Cnoc 14 and the 16, the latter rolling and arguably fitting Rhoda better now, but being trickier for her to swing a leg over. A growth spurt having fixed that, something possessed me to give her another whirl on Friday. Mummy was working from home, and gave Rhoda the incentive that she could have chocolate buttons delivered to her at the bandstand - only if Daddy called to say there was cycling to be seen!

When it comes to learning style, Thomas Ivor is mostly 'stick' but with specific 'carrots' (he is best motivated on the bike by anger, sometimes!); Ruth is mainly 'carrot' and a bit of 'stick' when we get to a 'mind-over-matter' sticking point. Rhoda is all about the carrots. Especially if the metaphorical carrots are actual chocolate buttons.

Our approach to teaching children to ride has developed over time. Thomas Ivor had stabilisers and a heavy bike. We've learned a lot since then! 

Rhoda's pedalling technique was something of a headache, because she'd developed a penchant for doing it backwards, but that remedied itself in its own time, part way through our Hebridean trip last summer. Now, it was time to meld that with the balancing she'd been doing for so long. Early signs weren't promising - her initial enthusiasm turned to frustration when things didn't work first time, and I sent Mummy a text warning her not to hold her breath...


In common with many children, Rhoda had a fixation with the risk, in her mind, of me no longer holding on and preventing her from falling. Interestingly, I discovered she was far less concerned about hurting herself than hurting the bike! The answer to this is to maintain contact with the child, under the armpits, so they can feel your touch, whilst you know they are actually taking over the balance of the bike from you. Ultimately, you reach the point where they are so busy riding the bike that they don't notice your touch becoming intermittent, and then before you know it, you are running ahead to give them a target to ride towards. When you are 6'8" tall and stiff as a board, this moment can't come soon enough!


Mummy was duly summoned to the bandstand, and joined in the game!


It is rather easier with two of you, not least because your little cyclist has a tendency to ride inexorably towards whatever holds their attention (often what they least want to hit, in this case the bandstand itself!) and so by having someone behind them, and someone to ride towards, their fixation becomes on the parent they're being encouraged to ride to, not the parent acting as 'catcher'. Avoiding falls at this point is very helpful, if you can pull it off; luckily, Rhoda's bike handling and braking were already pretty good.

At this point, 'little and often' is the key, to embed the child's learning and cement their confidence. Otherwise, you end up teaching them more than once!

From being unable to do it properly on Friday morning, Rhoda was chasing her big sister (who felt very very grown up, offering to ride in her lowest gear to be helpful, and testing our her new heart rate monitor) round the bandstand on the Sunday afternoon.
It's a bit strange, looking back, having that feeling as Rhoda pedalled away that she might be the last child (certainly of mine!) that I get the privilege to share that special moment with, and yet I am also reminded of the torture, by comparison, of teaching Thomas Ivor, who had used evil stabilisers and a heavy, heavy bike. Either way, on we go! Three years ago, Thomas Ivor was re-learning to ride from scratch, on his first Islabike; Ruth was making her first tentative steps waddling along with the balance bike and Rhoda was asleep in the trailer. Now, we have Thomas Ivor doing 100km runs on Zwift, Ruth racing cyclocross and Rhoda, well, there's no stopping her, now! It's a good job, because we have big plans for the team this year...