Thursday, 31 December 2015

WeeHoo-ing out 2015

Rhoda's Striderbike has been a hit, but we decided that one more ride as a family was on the cards for 2015, so with the trailer folded up, out came the WeeHoo for another run. Rhoda is still a bit small for it so the colder weather gives us an excuse to put the girls in their snow suits (obtained for buttons courtesy of the Dare2B online clearance!)

I'm rapidly growing in confidence with the WeeHoo and its peculiar centre of gravity. So, too, are the girls, and it is definitely much easier to load them and get everything ready, with two pairs of hands. Rhoda cried again early in this afternoon's run but, soon after, had nodded off! After a few laps of the bandstand, Katie was able to sit on my wheel to observe, and reports that it really is very stable and that we can have confidence in both how it tows and how the girls get on with it. We need now to look at pannier solutions. So far nobody seems to have done it with the 2015 model and its asymmetric rear arm. If it requires a welded solution, we want to give it a fair test in standard form, first!

Ruth borrowed her brother's Swisseye 'Young' glasses for eye protection; we were very impressed with the fit on her smaller face, and with the way she left them totally alone under her lid, thoughout the ride.

I dared to bring Katie along the cycle paths we tried in the autumn, which were a pain in the proverbial and littered with broken vodka bottles. Needless to say we returned home once more on the road, much happier with our lot.

Our little microadventure complete, we returned to the house and went off to the gym for a swim. I dropped a quick 1k on the rower as well, in a new PB. There's a turn-up for the books!

We've not covered quite the ground we'd hoped over Christmas. The weather's not played ball and we've had other things to contend with, but we are well set up for 2016. Happy New Year everyone - where will the coming year take you?

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Head to Head Review: Islabikes Rothan vs Strider Pro

For the second year, I've had the frustrating privilege of unpacking and building little bikes that are much anticipated by our children, but which will have to stay in hiding for a little longer.

This Christmas, it's little Rhoda's turn to get her first balance bike, and in a departure from our recent loyalty to Islabikes, we've gone in a slightly different direction. If you want to understand what balance bikes are all about, and why we would never touch a stabiliser ever again, we can write about that another time.

Rhoda has been trying for some time now to make a start riding big sister Ruth's Islabike, and whilst Ruth was 23 months old when she got Rothan, Rhoda was nearer 16 months when she first gave it a go. The weight was just a little too much for her. In any event, Ruth is still some way off being ready for the next step. A few more laps round the bandstand for her!

Fast forward a month and the girls found themselves at the NEC, trying out the competition. The lady who imports Strider bikes gave a very strong and knowledgable pitch for her product, when I explained that we had a Rothan and were considering a second balance bike.

Long before we had finished talking, Ruth and Rhoda had both selected a display model to play with. Rhoda found the top of the range aluminium Strider, the 'Pro' (I'm not sure how a toddler is a 'pro' at anything, but there you go!) much easier to handle, and was making a significantly better fist of walking with the bike. Ruth was shifting, too.

You will have gathered by now that we have purchased a Strider, but after a year of living with Rothan, what's it up against?

The Islabikes Rothan is the baby of their range, but very much a member of the family and oozes quality. Thomas Ivor and Ruth had bikes in matching green paint, which Ruth kissed better when she chipped it! The bike has a v-brake on the rear, with an extra-small lever, a threadless headset with an adjustable stem, pneumatic (presta-valved!), tyres on conventional spoked rims. Short of pedals and a front brake, it's a proper bike. It looks like a bike, it feels like a bike, mechanically it has everything in common with a serious bike from a serious manufacturer. It's a beautifully engineered piece.

We've lived with Rothan for a year now, and Ruth loves her bike to bits. It's covered some miles, but now we will need to spend some money, because she's outgrowing the starter saddle, which has an integral seat post (£15.99 at the time of writing). Nevertheless we are pleased with our purchase, and we are glad we chose it - one should bear in mind that Ruth actually wanted a Strider like a little Australian girl she found on YouTube!

So why, if we love Rothan so much, have we bought a different bike this time, and how does it compare?

Let me get out of the way the things I don't like about the Strider, compared to Rothan, because the case for the change has to overcome some serious misgivings on my part.

In my personal opinion it looks cheap, plasticky and gaudy. That may be saying more about me being a puritanical parent, or just a reflection of how we cycle and view bikes, I don't know, but we like quality products. The Rothan is a piece of engineering for toddlers. The Strider is brash, drawing on BMX styling - I couldn't bring myself to fit the number panel! The frame is agricultural, the headset is a bit rough and the other components are plasticky. Whereas Ruth kissed Rothan's chipped paint after a mishap in the park, I don't think the Strider, even this top-of-the-range model is the kind of bike that encourages children to look after it. It's toy-like. I genuinely didn't think the Strider was in the same league as the Rothan when we bought Ruth's bike last year.

Hold on, though, let's just pick that apart.

It looks cheaper because it is cheaper. Only two-thirds of the cost of a Rothan. And it includes a second seat with a longer seat post. The first seat is specifically designed to accommodate a child in a nappy. "No brakes!" I hear you cry. Well, no, but Ruth hasn't actually used hers successfully yet, and she's now nearly three years old. I reckon she'll quite possibly master pedals before brakes.

The plastic wheels and solid foam tyres weigh less than those on the Rothan, and you can't get a flat tyre. Not sure you can argue against that when the rider is still in Huggies and can neither read nor write yet.
The frame is nowhere near as beautiful, but at 2.2kg it weighs significantly less than the Rothan at 3.4kg. Weight is meant to be one of the biggest selling points for any children's bike.

There's no brake, but there is a patented foot rest on the rear fork, which makes a good deal of sense when you see a more competent child tripping over their own feet as they accelerate the bike. When your feet are your main method of propulsion, you can use them pretty efficaciously for braking, too.

The Strider was delivered promptly, it assembled quickly and easily, the only tool required being an allen key, which is included. My subjective opinion of the form may not be yours, but it functions just as it should.

Second hand prices indicate that the Rothans are holding their value, which underscores the quality of that product and the respect people have for the brand, but also makes the low opportunity cost of getting your little one on a Strider before they're out of nappies a tempting proposition.

For the very youngest children (say, sub-21 months), we believe that the Strider 'Out-Isla's Islabikes', in a way that overcomes our manifold difficulties with the rest of the design. Islabikes have always made justifiably strong points about weight, and about fit. Though I prefer the Rothan in every other regard, for a child as young as Rhoda, that different in weight and therefore initial ease of balance is huge! She doesn't need a brake. She won't want to be fixing punctures (the Islabikes wheels are a swine to inflate because the access to the valve within such a small rim is tight). Yes, she may well fall off it. So what.

Bottom line - if I was buying for a slightly older child, I'd buy the beautiful Rothan again in a heartbeat; for an under-two, I'd seriously consider the Strider based on the price, simplicity and light weight. Since few parents have children quite so close in age as our girls, having two such bikes in the family is not necessarily an economic proposition, and personal preference and budget will come into play.

In a year's time, Ruth will most likely be well onto her first Islabikes Cnoc (for which we see no competition in our eyes) and Rhoda will then have the choice of steeds. It will be interesting which way she goes, and in the meantime how our experiences of teaching on the two bikes differ. We will report back in due course. For the moment, I'd better hide the evidence before the girls wake up!

Islabikes' Rothan is available from the manufacturers' website for £149.99 at the time of writing, with a choice of seat post lengths. We bought our Strider 12 Pro from Action Kids for £100.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Book Review - The boy who biked the world

Thomas Ivor has written this book review for us:

The boy who biked the world - Riding the Americas
Written by Alastair Humphreys
Illustrated by Tom-Morgan-Jones
Published by Eye Books

The book is about a little boy called ‘Tom’ who rides round the world on a bike.

In book two Tom sails from Cape Town across the Atlantic Ocean to get to Argentina. Then he rides all the way to Alaska.

I think this book would be enjoyed by people that have adventures.

Tom felt sad and happy during his journey. At times Tom missed his family and at other times he was happy because he liked being outside all the time.

Since I read the book, I have learnt more about the Panama canal which joins the Pacific and Atlantic oceans together.

I found it interesting because I’m into cycling and having adventures just like Tom. In the next book he cycles home to England from Siberia.

Thomas Ivor read 'The boy who biked the world' on his Kindle, but you can also buy signed copies from the author's website.

Friday, 30 October 2015

Dreaming Big

Thomas Ivor is seven years old. His ambition?

"To cycle the Rockies and the Andes".

He'd like to drive trains as well, of course, but at an age where I hadn't quite reached the point of reluctantly crossing 'astronaut' off the list of intended careers, he is remarkably specific about what he wants to achieve.

It has been wonderful, then, to see him taking inspiration from two men of my generation who have done just that - and more.

Despite a lot of opposition in his other home environment, the little guy has just romped through the final chapters of Alastair Humphreys' first volume of his children's book, 'The boy who cycled the world', which he and I are soon going to review together. I think it's a cracking idea for adventurers like Alastair to recount their amazing journeys in a way that children can access - having read and enjoyed the 'grown up' books he and Rob Lilwall wrote about cycling around the world, I am now just ahead of Thomas Ivor with the junior versions.

I am saddened by the paucity of expectation, and the paucity of aspiration, found in most state primary schools. The almost total absence of men from their classrooms is indubitably part of it, as are the entry requirements to a job which is too important to enjoy such low professional standards and standing. The fact is, children who dream big are those who think big, those who see exciting goals on the horizon, within their grasp but far enough off to make it a challenge, are the ones who stretch themselves, and scan the horizon for opportunity. Those who are encouraged to be disciplined in learning their chosen craft, become craftsmen. Sometimes that also takes for us to accept that academically bright kids might not want to spend their life at a desk, too.

For a boy like mine, to be able to open a book with a chapter entitled 'I am Going to Cycle Round the World' is precisely the spark that could light the blue touchpaper of something special in his life. I am sure that many children will read that heading and fail to discern the difference between that and 'The Hundred-mile-an-hour Dog', or 'My Hamster is a Spy', but even if there were other books on cycle touring aimed at primary school kids, I doubt they would capture the imagination quite as Alastair's book has. Thomas Ivor totally believes he can do it - and I wouldn't be surprised if he does, one day. Our task, then, is to help guide him, without pushing or projecting, and help him build the skills he needs whilst stoking his passion and letting him see where it takes him. Not all homes, or schools, provide that - and I'm not sure that parents are given the encouragement by our 'nanny state' to lead from the front in their children's upbringing. Every hero was once a child. Every school playground therefore contains potential heroes. What a precious commodity!

Sat around a restaurant table at lunchtime on Wednesday with a friend of ours, Thomas Ivor was told there was someone to speak to him on the phone.

Fresh off an aeroplane, someone stopped what they were doing in the middle of a busy day to spend a few minutes talking to a small boy from the other end of the country to whom he is an absolute hero. I wasn't party to it but we, and everyone else he has met since (the hairdresser in particular!) have heard so much about that conversation, and the dreams it has stoked.

Not so many years ago (ok, more than I'd care to count!) I photographed a young Lewis Hamilton standing atop the podium after winning a thrilling Formula Renault race in the rain at Silverstone. Still a young lad, he'd had the discipline to keep learning his craft, the drive to wipe the floor with the other kids in karting and the cheek to ask McLaren's Ron Dennis for a phone number, and then a contract. His Dad Anthony was the first one to reach his car as he parked it up at the end of the race. Three Formula One World Championships later, I can't say I am sure that the fame and fortune hasn't done him some harm, but the dreams of a little boy from Stevenage, fuelled by the interest and dedication of others, and the inspiration of Ayrton Senna in particular, led him to become that champion we saw crowned in Austin last weekend.

I am so grateful, then, to Mark Beaumont for making Thomas Ivor's day and talking to him about dealing with bears, and how he should spend the winter planning his next big adventure. Mark apparently joked with him about asking him not to break all of his records. The funny thing is, only this morning I was reading Hamilton's F1 column for the BBC, and of becoming a three-time champion, the former 'little boy from a council estate in Stevenage' said this:
"Breaking records has never really mattered to me, other than doing something similar to Ayrton [Senna].
Beyond that, if I was to match one of the others who have won more, it is not going to have the same special meaning that this has."
We must content ourselves as parents to give our children roots and wings - but a worthy target is something children must be encouraged to find, and dream of, for themselves.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Raining, nuts and bolts

Today's BBC weather forecast, like yesterday's, was somewhat off target. Just as we were getting ready to set out, rain came, about four hours ahead of schedule! In the end, vacillating between the intended trip and 'Plan B' (a long day trip to the National Cycle Centre at Manchester Velodrome) I eventually decided 'blow it, let's just get wet'. As we set off, the rain stopped.

We've lived in Northamptonshire for nearer three years than two now, but for various reasons have done precious little riding beyond the hundreds, if not thousands of laps of the bandstand we've done with the children, and the odd trip down the traffic-free path where I took Thomas Ivor to practice riding a laden bike. It is therefore something of a surprise to discover that even by British standards of driving, the attitude towards cyclists round here is very poor indeed.

Over the last few weeks I've been purposely driving round our town and its environs by odd routes, trying out different permutations and scouting out bits of cycling infrastructure. I've found very little that I would choose to use with the children, and pretty much none that I would use on my own. Width restrictions. Chicanes. Poorly maintained surfaces. STUPID DOG WALKERS! There's a rant for another piece of its own one day if ever there was one. As ever, contrary to the perception of most non-cyclists we talk to, we felt much more at home and safe on the road, being 'buzzed' by idiots in Evoques and Audis who didn't trouble to leave us much room or indeed see if anyone was coming the other way.

Anyhow, there was a purpose to our trip today. Thomas Ivor arrived from Devon last night for an unexpectedly lengthy weekend visit at the end of his half term, about which we are very happy. I decided that with the turn of the season, I really should fit the Busch and Muller lamp brackets we were kindly sent by the rep whom the girls and I met at the NEC recently.

When you have a handlebar bag, headlamp mounting becomes a little more challenging, and whilst I would love to have a posh dynamo lighting system, for the amount of night riding we do, the cracking Ixon 50 USB battery headlights we have are proving to be a super piece of kit (review coming soon). If you want to keep your bar bag on at night, you ideally need your headlight on your fork crown.

A nearby airfield also plays host to a cracking nut and bolt supplier, so going on the bikes and being able to be sure we had the right lengths and diameters was eminently sensible; £2:50 later we had everything we needed. The heavens opened on the way back but unperturbed Thomas Ivor and I braved it out, whilst the girls sat in the trailer singing nursery rhymes - snug, warm and dry. I have to say, despite the load it felt easier and the time passed more quickly than it does at the gym...

Tonight, Thomas Ivor has learned how to patch inner tubes and I have fitted his front lamp bracket as the first of the three that need doing. It always seems to be the case that fiddling with mudguards, racks and anything attached to your handlebars is always more bothersome than it ought to be. Something always won't reach, or isn't the right shape, or takes an age to adjust. I've learned to take satisfaction in getting it right rather than constantly being cheesed off about it, at which I am really rather pleased. It's good to involve the children in the mechanical tasks at a leisurely pace because it allows conversations you just can't have when you're fixing something on the road with time/light/patience/tools at a premium.

Thomas Ivor's Islabike now sports some new stainless steel rack bolts (one fell out somewhere in Lincolnshire and we forgot about it!), a set of lights nobody can claim they didn't see, his new Ortlieb bar bag has done the business and I'm not sure there will be a better-specced touring version out there. If and when he picks up his first puncture on it, after tonight, he should be able to fix that, too!

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Put my panniers back on my bike

Ask my Dad to name three racing cyclists of his era, and you would expect three names to come out. Jacques Anquetil. Eddy Merckx. Tom Simpson.

I've read a lot of travel books lately, from my son's heroes - Mark Beaumont, Alastair Humphreys and friends, whilst on my trips to Devon to fetch him, listening to the audiobook of Tyler Hamilton's controversial autobiography. Looking for a change of pace, but perhaps coloured by these tales, and our recent trip to Brittany, I reached for a book my Dad bought when it first came out - William Fotheringham's 'Put me back on my bike', the definitive autobiography of Simpson, famous as the first Brit to wear the maillot jaune and the rainbow jersey of the World Champion, and indubitably more famous for dying, dehydrated and suffering the effects of a cocktail of amphetamines and alcohol, on Mont Ventoux on Stage 13 of 1967's Tour de France.

I very much enjoyed the book, with its clever non-chronological structure, dancing back and forth between present, past and 13 July '67 to maintain a thematic approach to help us build a picture of the man as much as the life he lived, each chapter of insight illustrated by an episode from Simpson's career.

In view of his status as one of the heroes of my father's era, and with a cycling-mad little lad of my own, I couldn't help but consider Simpson's story in terms of examining my own reaction to his sad story, the lessons I would want to share with Thomas Ivor in consequence.

Despite being a lifelong teetotaller, and never having touched drugs, I can empathise with much of what Fotheringham reveals of Simpson, I daresay my Dad could, too, then and now. My paternal grandfather, like Simpson's father, was a miner. We've experienced social lift. As a railwayman, I can appreciate the idea of being part of a family in one's chosen trade. As an activist and advocate for causes including cycling, I can certainly recognise his efforts to build cycling's profile and stature as a sport - indeed, he spoke of it when made 'Sports Personality of the Year', calling it a "big honour" for the sport as much as himself.

As a cyclist, well, Katie will probably have a wry smile when I say I recognise Tom Simpson's riding style - it was literally 'death or glory'. On a decidedly more modest scale, I too have a tendency to ride hard and run the risk of 'blowing'. It is no accident that sees Katie do most of the towing when we're touring, because she is much better at a measured, steady effort than I am. I do the heroics. I step in at the end of the day for the last few miles if we end up going further than we'd budgeted for, but Katie, ever the more organised of us, matches supply and demand and holds a much steadier pace than me.

The trouble is, you can't speak of Simpson, or indeed Anquetil, or Merckx, without thinking about drugs. Even the era of my own youth disappointed. There is conjecture about the achievements of 'Big Mig' Indurain, and Riis, Ulrich, Virenque, Pantani, Armstrong et al were all outed as cheats. As Fotheringham notes in his updating 'Afterword':
"...the question of whether Simpson was a cheat can be answered in this way. He broke the rules... 
...Simpson's drug-taking should not be glossed over. It was as much part of his life as his whaler-dealing, his dreaming and his will to win; indeed, these four sides of this personality were all tangled together. And his use of amphetamine clearly played a key part in his premature, tragic death. What he did wrong was to take drugs, apparently to excess..., and to ignore the advice of those around him whom he should have trusted."
My Dad was almost of the same generation as Simpson. I grew up watching Virenque and co. It was one thing to have been immersed in the joy and excitement of those years of bike racing at the time, and subsequently disappointed, but for all they achieved, it's awfully hard to present Simpson as a role model to my children any more than the others. Indeed, I think the thing Thomas Ivor could learn from Simpson is that as noble as it is to dig in on the bike, there is a limit beyond which it is foolish to push past by any means.

It is also fair to say that there are other cycling heroes to be found, close to home. The rider who made the most impression on me as a boy was Boardman - I was ten when he lit up Barcelona on his space-age Lotus bike, and I remember what felt like a stampede at Leicester Velodrome when I tried to get his autograph soon after. Boardman deferred treatment which required banned drugs, to conclude his career. Graham Obree missed out on likely glory in the Tour de France Prologue, ditched by the pro teams when he declined to cheat.

I love bike racing, in all its forms. It still inspires me, I still enjoy going to watch, but there are causes to be disillusioned, and my most memorable days on the bike involve panniers. One day time and fitness might allow me to do more riding on my road bike, and to get more from it than just a sore bum. In this most exciting of eras for British cycling, which has inspired so many and for which Simpson must have yearned fifty years ago, I hope that history will ultimately manage to be both searching and favourable to todays British champions - Wiggins, Pendleton, Hoy et al, and restore once and for all some dignity and integrity to cycling as a sport, in Thomas Ivor's lifetime.

Doliprane - French cycle touring drug of champions...
Touring is probably the only recognised cycling discipline that is not an out-and-out competition as its raison d'être. True, the Mark Beaumonts and Alan Bates' of this world inspire us with their adventures and feats of endurance, but nobody gets pulled up for participating in a doping 'arms race' whilst flogging along with a full set of Ortleibs on the bike. There's an income to be made from selling adventures and tales thereof, but not from beating someone else at all costs. If you ride on the road, touring is the discipline which teaches measured endurance on the bike, and introduces us to the world under our wheels. Our competition becomes with ourselves; the biggest challenge to get out of the door and actually pursue the particular adventures that drive us. Nobody needs to cheat or put themselves in an early grave to do that. If it is possible to cheat on a cycle tour, the only person you can cheat truly is yourself, by not taking every opportunity that comes your way.

The more I consider Simpson's life and legacy, the more I want to go and take on Mont Ventoux myself - with a nod to the premature death of an incredibly gifted but flawed 29-year-old racer, but perhaps, rather than on my road bike, I would do it in a measured, budgeted effort, knowing that with my panniers on the racks, it is not the clock, or cash, but the journey itself, that is my reward. 

'Put me back on my bike' by William Fotheringham is published by Yellow Jersey Press and available in print and on Kindle.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Welcome to Big School

We've done it. We've joined the gym.

Thanks to a new Vitality life insurance policy we have commenced a potentially 27 year long version of the Crystal Maze. Between various qualifying forms of exercise, recorded using gadgets, or attending the gym, we pick up points which earn us rewards in the form of reduced premiums in coming years, cheap kit, and perks like trips to the cinema, iTunes vouchers and coffee.

All in all it should be a good thing for us. The cover will be cheaper, and the half price Virgin Active membership means the policy as a whole costs us nothing compared to the full fees at the gym.

In our first week, Katie, now back in her London commute, has walked almost as far as the Proclaimers with her new FitBit, and I have been for some sessions on the WattBike. We've also taken the girls swimming, twice.

Ample trailer parking at the gym!
I'm starting to fit in - or, at least, starting not to draw attention to myself looking like a 'noob'. It's like being at a new school. I've had to learn where the water is. I've demolished (and learned to fix) the paper towel dispenser in the weights area (I wasn't doing any weights, don't worry!). Being there at closing time allowed me finally to work out the layout of the changing rooms without looking dodgy, or walking into the mirrors. I am still mildly perturbed by some of the people and events I have seen, from men in tight white T-shirts and pyjama bottoms eating ostentatiously healthy food and drinking stuff from plastic pots, to the crazy lady who leads the aqua-aerobics. In both cases, I'm convinced they're on something...

The one thing I still can't quite get my head round the idea that driving to the gym to ride on the spot is not quite as much fun as, and more expensive than, hitching the trailer up and just going for a ride. Oddly, when I arrived at the gym having ridden ten miles with the girls in the trailer, the staff on the reception thought I was seriously hardcore!

I suppose when the weather turns foul, I will be glad to have the option - and by the spring maybe I will find myself all the more ready for another season of touring. After all, until we get Ruth riding, the weight in the trailer only increases!

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Review: Anker PowerPort 5 40W Multi-Port USB Charger

Picture the scene. You're on a self-supported tour and happen across a single power socket in a ferry terminal waiting room. What will you choose to charge for the next hour?

I'm sure that ours can't be the only household now with a box, cupboard or 'man drawer' full of assorted cables, many of them proprietary, a good few probably bespoke to pieces of long-since-obsolete technology, in a tangled PVC-and-cheap-Chinese-copper mess. For years, we had a plethora of different connectors and currents used for charging different brands of electronic device. Throw in having a toddler who loves nothing more than to chew on the end of a cable or two (Rhoda loves Lightning leads, but can't eat a whole one) and charging things becomes a right old nuisance, before you even leave home.

Things have at least been simplified somewhat since the advent of USB, which seems now to have lasted much longer than most of the other connectors. On tour we are now carrying USB headlights on our bikes, USB tail lights on the trailer, a USB GoPro charger, an iPad mini, two or three Kindle paperwhites, and three iPhones. On top of that, there's the battery packs we use when we're 'off the grid', which also charge via a 2A USB supply. That's four on Lightning, six on Mini USB and three on Micro USB, and if Katie has to take her work Blackberry with her (heaven forbid!) that's another Micro, although if you can't make a Kindle Paperwhite last a fortnight on a bike tour, you're not doing the cycling right.

Replacing the previous plethora of unique leads, we now have the world and his wife's take on the 'Plug for the mains socket that creates a USB output for our product' bit. Some really don't like being plugged in adjacent to anything else, they can have vastly different current outputs; the 'Universal' bit has become anything but! Packing for a touring trip, especially to a country using different plugs to ours, has tended therefore to include having to work out the best permutation of plugs for the tasks required. They become the sort of 'bogey item' that serves to fill your panniers by stealth, in terms of weight and cube. Being pointy and not tessellating makes it worse!

It was as I was looking for another battery pack for our trip to Brittany in the summer that I discovered a stroke of genius, in the form of the Anker Powerport 5, which by the power of Amazon Prime showed up the night before we left. It worked a treat.

iPhone, iPad, two GoPro batteries and a pair of 20,000Ah battery packs. One socket!
At the time of writing, you give Amazon £18 (the penny's price rhetoric) and they give you a five outlet USB charger, which automatically tailors the output of each port to the device it is charging, so you can plug a USB lead for anything into it and charge it as fast as the device can handle. The unit is capable of supplying up to 2.4A to any single port, up to a total of 8A across all five. With the right USB lead, everything is catered for - indeed, you can also use it to charge your USB battery pack whilst topping off the devices themselves. Doing all this with one mains plug makes it much easier to take advantage of mains electricity wherever you find it on your travels - on public transport, in hostels and private homes, eateries... You only need one socket and you're in business, still only drawing 1.1A from the mains.

Not only is the PowerPort 5 efficient to use, but in replacing multiple plugs it takes up less space and potentially weight in your bag, and if you're going abroad, one plug means far fewer mains convertors you'll need, too. In our case we took a Continental 'Figure of 8' C7 lead with us to France, which was very handy.

The weight savings are not enormous. Ignoring the USB leads (the common element), I weighed a few chargers:

Five into one...
Smatree adaptor for GoPro charger (Twin 5v output, 2.1A total): 97g
Apple 10W iPad adaptor (5.1v, 2.1A output): 92g
Apple iPhone adaptor (5v, 1A output): 43g
Amazon Kindle adaptor (5v, 1.8A output): 70g

The PowerPoint weighs in at 255g with a UK mains lead, but is much, much easier to pack. If you are going to need socket adaptors, the savings are naturally much greater.

'Do you mind if I plug in my charger' is a lot more likely to be a successful request than 'Do you have five sockets I might use, please?'. Being able to charge multiple devices quickly and without fuss dramatically increases the prospects of success. Fewer items to carry, easier to pack, the prospect of cube and a little weight saved, it 'just works', and the Anker build quality is supported by a decent warranty and Amazon's customer reviews for the product are very strong indeed.

We have no connection with Anker other than as satisfied purchasers of this and other products; the first thing we did when we got back from France was to order a second one. Highly recommended.

Monday, 28 September 2015

W(h)at(t) Bike?

One of the big differences between Katie and me is our historical approach to exercise. I have ridden my bike, historically, for utility, and for the joy of travelling, more than as a form of disciplined physical training. Katie, on the other hand, was not so long ago a competitive rower, in the gym six days a week, on the river at least two days, cycling a fair mileage to do so. She had a trainer emailing her to dictate our diet; a fit ball long before she was pregnant. Weights. Eating and drinking strange concoctions in tins.

It gave me something of a fright, then, when, after a happy summer's cycling but with an eye on our expanded waistlines (and my plantar fasciitis, and my dicky knee, and my total lack of core stability) and to get the girls swimming, Katie announced her intention to investigate joining a gym.

It's funny how you can get to your thirties and still have never done, even once, certain things which others do every day.
  • I have never been inside a bookmaker's shop.
  • I have never, even entered a high street travel agency, let alone sat down in one to have someone wearing too much makeup operate a computer for me, to show me misleading pictures of places they've never visited themselves.
  • I have never eaten a KFC meal. Not even the chips.
  • I have never paid someone to wax, pierce, doodle on or chop off any part of me.
I was going to say I haven't eaten horse, but I once ate a Tesco lasagne and I don't want to mislead; I have been to Nando's, once. Popular as it is with Alan Partridge and Glen Ponder, I'm glad I don't have to go again.

So when Katie chirped up that she was looking at a gym membership for us, the alarm bells went off. I have never entered a private gym. I've seen enough Facebook status updates and #epicfail videos to put me off. I've watched the 'Brittas Empire'. Why, I reasoned, would anyone drive to a building, to pay to ride their bike or run on the spot, before driving home? That's potty. Why would I do that? I could just ride my bike to the gym, save a fortune by not going in, and ride home again.

It was with some, trepidation, then, that I decided to 'stand on the wasp' and pay a visit to one of these hitherto bewildering institutions on Saturday evening.

An hour later, and with both girls having pooped in the nice man's office following the tour, I came out having ticked something off my list. I'd seen a swimming pool that looked more like a hotel's than a municipal leisure centre. I did see, as I feared mirror-walled rooms full of what looked like instruments of torture. I saw people of both genders and all ages in neon clothes, doing the oddest things whilst watching TV.

I was shown the 'spin room', which is nothing to do with the impending political party conferences, where fifty people can ride without anyone crashing, puncturing or even being overtaken. Not that I would be sure to be able to do so, because the seat doesn't go very high on the bikes. My enthusiasm was evaporating in the presence of all these people working hard to go nowhere.

I did, however, amongst the predictably intimidating surroundings, identify a glimmer of hope - something that might offer me a familiar(ish) way in to this strange world. It had a seat and bars that looked like a road bike's. I threw the seat as high as it would go, to try it for size, and discovered it had SPD pedals and actually felt strangely familiar. This was the 'bike that's not a bike' that could tempt me away from my reluctant and uncomfortable stints on the turbo trainer in the lounge. If it's good enough for Mark Beaumont and developed with British Cycling, then I shouldn't turn my nose up at it. It was a WattBike.

A WattBike could be mine for about £30 a week, but for a fraction of that, taking advantage of the facilities being quieter during the day, when I would be most likely to go, I can indeed drive ten minutes from the house and go for a structured training ride whatever the weather is doing - well, it will if I spend £99 on a longer seat post to take with me!

I still feel like I am never going to be one of the 'gym set', and I am unlikely to be seen lifting weights or drinking protein shakes any time soon, but ,aybe, just maybe, taking the girls for a swim and then dropping them off for just an hour will cause me to ride in a more structured way, to reclaim some sustainable long-term fitness in between touring outings, and not to blame the multitude of familiar excuses (some of them good ones) that can stop me getting out on the bike more often than I do.

Do you, and/or your family use a gym, or do you train at home and on the road? What do you think we should do? Leave us a comment below!

Friday, 25 September 2015

On Show

I wish we'd had the chance to go the Cycle Show in Birmingham this weekend, but pressures of family and Katie's work meant that if we were to go, the girls and I had to go today.

A big show at the NEC, preceded by and hour on the train, preceded by an hour on the bus, is a big ask for the three of us, and I'd already 'spent some tokens' with Ruth and Rhoda by the time we arrived. As a result I can't claim to have had the most comprehensive visit, and I never did get a picture of Chris Boardman's famous Lotus Monocoque, which I last saw at Leicester Velodrome (RIP) just after he took the hour record on it, longer ago than I care to remember.

Nevertheless, it was good to talk to all kinds of folk, old friends, representatives of tourist boards, purveyors of all kinds of interesting and exciting products, even a man who assured me he could do something to fix my plantar fasciitis, with some magic computer-generated orthotics! We also enjoyed talking to people considering taking up cycle touring with children and even got to have a sneaky trial, in stroller mode, of what will become the 2016 Croozer trailer, which proved to be the perfect tool for settling her down for her afternoon nap...

If you're serious about your cycling, it's well worth visiting the show this weekend.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Fame at last

Family ByCycle's very own Ruth has made an appearance on the GCN show!

Scroll forward to 16:20 to see her in action. Well done, Ruth!

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Desert Storm rolls out

A rather sad day for the Family ByCycle today as Thomas Ivor left us for the impending school term. He'll be back in three weeks for a visit.

The good news is that 'Desert Storm' - the second-hand Islabikes 'Beinn 20' we picked up for him the other day, has gone with him, so he now has the means to keep riding whilst he's in Devon. We've kitted the bike out to a rather different spec, dispensing with racks and guards for now, fitting the OE knobbly tyres at lower pressures, a toolkit and basic computer from Aldi - oh, and the obligatory colour co-ordinated Islabikes bottle!

After the washout of a bank holiday, which put paid to us having the couple of days touring that we'd hoped for, we were able to head out to the park this morning to start filming our review of the 'Beinn', which can now include some comparison between pre- and post-2012 models, and show the bike in different incarnations - colours, accessories and the like.

It will fall to me to do most of the filming now, and then hopefully we can get a script written between us so Thomas Ivor can do some 'voice over' work next time we see him. We hope that we will be able to persuade more parents (and children!) of the value of a properly-sized, lightweight bike, in helping youngsters to get riding more proficiently at a younger age, with fewer of the distractions and hindrances all too commonly experienced.

The little guy had his first try at using a lavalier microphone today, which complicated the costume changes a little, and we had an incident with a flat battery, but we're gradually getting there with our new video production setup. GCN, eat your heart out!

On location with a pair of 'Beinns'
Hopefully the coming winter will give us all the opportunity to cook up some exciting plans for another adventure next year. Thomas Ivor has been watching 'The man who cycled the Americas'  this week (again!) and has an idea about doing his own version of Mark Beaumont's epic trip...

As Thomas Ivor has departed, the girls have been out of sorts today, but with more good weather I'm hoping to have them both out on the balance bike again before long. Meantime, it's galettes for tea tonight. Fourth night running!

Saturday, 29 August 2015

What did you bring home from your holiday?

A fridge magnet? A snowglobe? An 'I [heart] <insert place name here>' t-shirt? Diarrhoea?

Tonight, I had one of those moments when you just go for broke on the culinary front. 'Caution to the wind' job. "Let's do Thomas Ivor some galettes before he goes back to school".

As perhaps befits such an effort, I managed to end up producing six litres of batter, which turns out to be twice what we were up for consuming, and my technique is still, shall we say, 'improving', but it worked! The egg one went a bit wrong, but cheese and ham worked nicely, and magically, the creme fraiche and smoked salmon came good, too. Took me right back to lunch in St Méen le Grand, just missing the scallops!

We haven't had galettes since we left Brittany a few weeks ago, having enjoyed the traditional Breton staple with all manner of fillings most days during our trip there.

Yes, we have our memories, and our photographs, our blog posts and videos, but how wonderful to bring home the means to have a little taste of our French adventure any time we like.

We're going to have to buy a 'billig' so we can entertain, Breton style, next time we have people to stay with us...

Friday, 28 August 2015

Inspire the next

Today's trip to the park has seen all three children making progress on their cycling journey.

We started out by raising Ruth's seat, and she is now scooting with increasing confidence. I'm amazed how slow she can travel with both feet up in the air! We do need her to cotton on to the idea of using her brakes before too long, or she will learn by the school of hard knocks. We're also going to have to speak to Islabikes about the long seatpost for the Rothan, because Ruth is now right up on the stop.

Thomas Ivor, meantime, has been working on bike handling, taking the opportunity to use laps of the bandstand to practice the skills we want him to have at his disposal on the road, in comparative safety. Today we've done riding one-handed and looking behind whilst tracking in a straight line, leading to indicating left and right, which has gone well. Until he's doing this as second nature he will rely on having one of us on his shoulder on the road, so this is an important, if mundane, rite of passage for him, which will lead to him becoming more independent.

That's where the report might have ended, but sat in the rucksack on my shoulders as we did all this, a little girl kept insistently shouting "Bike!, Bike!".

Once Ruth decided she wanted a sit down, out came the allen key, and Rhoda, at all of 16 months, sat imperiously on the bike, like Borat with a chair, before edging forward a couple of inches...

 ...and falling off.

"Oh Dear!", she pronounced, getting back to her feet without a fuss.

Proud Dad.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Deep Breath

We did it! We're home. That's the first thing. Moreover, we are home safely, with all our gear, the same number of us as we left with. We also have proof of our endeavours in the form of a few broken bits of kit, some smelly clothes, filthy bikes and well over 2500 images and video clips to edit and share, which are still not all downloaded yet. It's funny, too, how the books and bits of paper strewn around the house from our departure all mean something so much less abstract than they did last time we saw them. Place names have been upgraded to memories and knowledge.

We want to thank each and every person who contributed to making our trip a success, and over the next few days there are a number of special people, not least our hosts, whom we want to contact personally and on Warmshowers to express gratitude and reciprocate friendship. That will take a day or three but the Amazon Prime man cometh!

For reasons we prefer not to dwell on on the blog, but those who have met us may have learned, it has been a difficult couple of weeks in some ways, and there are other, more serious matters we must attend to which were waiting for us when we stepped through the door of the house yesterday afternoon.

What we can say is that our French expedition worked out, and we are looking forward not only to sharing the experience as we illustrate and publish our blog pieces over the coming days, but to the next time we set the wheels rolling. Katie has got in the car this morning to go to work, with great reluctance...

Monday, 3 August 2015

Family ByCycle, on location...

Another morning, another departure. Another farewell to new friends, en route to stay with more strangers. We had a great time with Yves and Christine. In particular, it was so affirming to meet people who had done what we are doing, and more, long enough ago to be able to judge that it worked! They're off soon to return to the road without their now grown-up children, at which I will be pleased to hear some more feedback, because I would still like to take Katie for an epic trans-continental bike trip once our children are packed off to university, before they beat us to it! Ruth took a turn this morning at writing in our hosts' visitors book.

No sooner had we dropped back into town than we bumped into another touring family with their children and trailer, in the supermarket car park! Jean-Yves and Caroline, Romane (3) and Gabin (2) were also headed for the north coast and we had an interesting chat with them before getting underway for real.

Thanks to our changes of plan, today has been our first actual low-mileage day, as we prepare to turn north tomorrow and head towards St Malo and home. Finally, we've had some time to do some filming and photography.

That awkward moment when a car crosses the road in front of you whilst the self-timer's running...
Filming yourself on trips like this is rather harder and very much more time consuming than it looks, and there are lots of folk out there having a go at it, with varying degrees of success. It adds a lot of weight, it increases the 'battery burden' significantly, and most of all, you have to find a happy balance between riding and filming. Too much stopping and filming can become tiresome for the group; too much riding and you never have time to film any of what you're passing through. Throw in a triple dose of 'never work with children and animals' and you're asking for trouble!

Today turned into something of a 'filming day', which has been fun, although the quiet paths of the canal aren't all that representative of the greenways we have been on for much of the trip so far. It's also difficult to get the camera very far from us within the confines of the towpath.

Canal towpath isn't really our favourite kind of route for covering ground, although it does increase the likelihood of finding picnic and play areas en route. Like some railway paths, they can serve to insulate you from the places and people around you. Being flat they also demand a steady slog, particularly noticeable when touring, and depending on how the path is engineered you may have lots of width restrictions, gates and road crossings to contend with. Most of all, if I can say this, we don't like trying to put the miles in when we are tripping over the kind of 'Sunday afternoon' dog walkers and cyclists who are only going to cover a mile or two all day and who aren't attuned to sharing space. None of that is conducive to riding freely. Mercifully, although the section we used yesterday ticked many of these unfortunate boxes, moving further inland (as generally with Brittany, we are finding) caused things to quieten down considerably. We didn't see many people at all today, of any kind!
For every 'Family ByCycle riding past the camera' shot, I have established a well-worn m.o. which, in practise, runs something like this:
  1. Decide that there's a shot to be had, and stop; shout to Thomas Ivor to pull up.
  2. Park the bike up and un-bungee the tripod; shout louder at Thomas Ivor's rapidly disappearing form.
  3. Get back on the bike, hunt Thomas Ivor down and bring him back to where I've left the tripod at the side of the path.
  4. Extend the tripod legs and plant it. Try to control breathing.
  5. Camera out of bar bag; start explaining the shot to Katie so she can turn the trailer round and return to the point we need to film from.
  6. Mount the camera, send Thomas Ivor to follow Katie and use his retreating ride to check the shot out.
  7. Set the camera rolling; retrieve bike and set off to join the others, mindful of the precious memory card and battery capacity that is already being used up.
  8. Turn back half way to make sure it really is on. Discover that it is. (Note - miss out this step and it isn't).
  9. Finally rejoin the rest of the team, as the sun ducks behind a cloud.
  10. Nominate who will ride past the camera in what order; remind Thomas Ivor to keep to our pace.
  11. Wait for the sun to come out again.
  12. Sun comes out; dog walker enters the shot. Slowly...
  13. Dog walker leaves shot as the sun goes in again.
  14. Set off anyway, in the determined order. Thomas Ivor promptly drops one of us / fails to keep up / has a huge and inexplicable wobble / fails to set off at all because he's seen a wasp several yards away (delete as applicable).
  15. Turn everyone round to try again. Seconds later, tripod blows over and sun comes out on empty road. Start muttering to self.
  16. Retrieve camera. Stop film and delete the evidence. Repeat Step 8 on way back to the group. Sun goes in.
  17. Contemplate asking for the emergency diazepam stash whilst waiting for the sun to come back out.
  18. Sun comes out; wait for stream of traffic coming the other way.
  19. Decide 'stuff it' on the solar front and set off anyway. Sun miraculously comes out and all is going well until a van drives past the camera right in the middle of the shot.
  20. Frantically dash back and do it again whilst everything's looking good. Katie's lip now bleeding from trying not to say 'Calm Down Dear', in the style of Michael Winner.
  21. Take number goodness-knows-what. Get in! Upon reviewing the footage, it turns out that an enterprising Thomas Ivor has pulled a face as he passed the camera. Decide at the last minute not to pitch his bike into the hedge. I'll only have to retrieve it myself.
  22. Go back and do it all again. Return to the camera to find that it ran out of battery/memory card/both, moments after you entered the shot
  23. Ruth announces she's done a poo. Bite own lip. Give up and decide to make do with whatever footage we have.
  24. Dismantle the camera and tripod.
  25. Look for the bungee that holds the tripod onto the rear rack, which pinged off into the grass earlier.
  26. Hurriedly lash the tripod back onto the rack and set off after the family. Breathing exercises.
  27. Wonder "Good heavens, what was that" (or similar) as one end of the bungee comes free, catches on a spoke and pulls itself apart, firing the hooked end through the drivetrain and nearly pitching you off.
  28. Improvise a new method of attachment for the tripod using the top straps on the panniers and the remains of the bungee, vowing never to waste time and effort trying to film like this ever again. In through the nose, out through the mouth.
  29. Flog back up to the rest of the family, who by this time are wondering what on earth has happened to you and have stopped. Forego the break they've just had, and take the front once more.
  30. Move on, look for another spot, and repeat.
Now, I admit that this may sound like an exaggerated version of events but every stage has genuinely happened, on occasion on the same afternoon and several of them in the same take. It is a wonder we get the footage we do, sometimes, but with some ingenuity attaching the GoPro and with our new video-capable DSLR body (shamefully, bought immediately before this trip without chance to practice with it - not recommended) it is most certainly possible to put together a few minutes of film from a family trip, and I think it's nice to have evidence that we all went on the ride together, even if our relative pace on the road may mean that it grossly misrepresents the extent to which we actually ride in formation!

Ten minutes' work for three seconds of film!
It will be some weeks, even months hence before I will have sorted out, edited and cut the video from this trip, but I always find that the editing process is a nice way of itself to relive the places we visited and experiences we shared.

It's a shame we haven't had more short days like this, and I do think it's important that families record their memories, even more so than other cyclists - not least because the children won't remember half of it! We would undoubtedly have put a couple more days like today into the schedule if it weren't for the need to fit in with both ferry timetables and Thomas Ivor and Katie's holiday dates, but either way, hopefully we will have something encouraging to show you when we get home.

Our impression that the canal was somewhat energy-sapping was confirmed when we rejoined the road for the first time in many miles, which felt much better on the legs even though we had some climbing to do. A tricky little run in on freshly topped road to meet our host, Gilles, and his little girl Adélie who's three, at a much earlier arrival time than we've become accustomed to. We have been made wonderfully welcome, the bikes are parked in the garage, the girls have made another new friend and we're looking forward to sharing a meal later with another likeminded family. Something to enjoy, and something worth remembering.