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Monthly Archives: September 2012

I threw together this google map for the London Open Bike Polo Tournament.  I wanted to give people some pointers to places that we know and like.  It’s not supposed to be comprehensive, and it’s very Hackney-centric.

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From Hackney Cyclists web-site:

Cat and Mutton Bridge Car Free Day

What’s happening?

A one-day experiment to make Cat & Mutton canal bridge car-free, as part of European Mobility Week.

When?

Saturday 22nd September 2012

Where?

The canal bridge just south of Broadway Market, Hackney (plus the bridge approaches).

Who’s organising this?

Hackney Living Streets (the charity that speaks up for pedestrians) and the Hackney group of the London Cycling Campaign.

Why?

Just for one day, we’d like residents and visitors to enjoy this section of street without a constant stream of motor traffic, and to consider the possibility of making the bridge permanently open to walking, cycling and buses only.

I’m not a trained statistician, nor do I hold any transport policy qualifications.  However, I became interested in the numbers of cyclists killed in London after 1992, when Edward Newstead, a working cycle courier, was killed by a left-turning HGV on Oxford Street.  I did some campaigning on the issue of HGV killing cyclists, and to cut a long story short, I ended up in a working group with the Mayor’s Office, TfL, Roadpeace & London Cycling Campaign.

As part of that process, we looked at a lot of numbers. Some of the numbers that we looked at were even leaked and then misrepresented in the media. One thing I have learned, not just from that process, but through reading and listening to the likes of Tim Harford (More Or Less is essential listening for everyone, in my opinion), and other people that use statistics critically, is that when producing raw numbers, particularly road casualty numbers, it is really, really important to give some sort of context, and, the most crucial part, that if you do present seperately collected stats side-by-side, you must compare like with like, otherwise grossly inaccurate conclusions can, and will, be drawn.

For instance, if there is almost no use of powered two-wheelers (scooters and motor-bikes, also known as P2W), then you would expect the numbers of deaths and serious injuries (sometimes called Killed & Seriously Injured, or KSI) to be very low, perhaps even zero.  If this is reported as ‘no motor-cyclists were killed in Carville last year’ without also adding ‘but almost no motorcycles or scooters sold or ridden in Carville last year’, the potential exists for turning a non-story into a very big deal, with the officials of cities that have high rates of P2W KSI being asked by scooter clubs, ‘well, why is Scooterville so dangerous? Why can’t we be more like Carville, the safest place on earth for scooter riders?’  There then might follow questions from the media following up the enquiries of the scooter clubs, questions asked by members of Scooterville’s legislature etc etc, and the general impression given by the fuss is that Carville is somehow safer, whereas Scooterville’s streets are a charnel house of hot, twisted metal and broken limbs, into which no sane rider would venture, which is totally incorrect assumption, not supported by the evidence misrepresented by a not-like-for-like comparison between Carville and Scooterville.

So why am I concocting parables? I have seen various references to an astonishing reported fall in cycling fatalities in Paris.  The Times quoted city officials as saying: “the number of [cycling] deaths [in Ville de Paris] fell from six in 2009 to none last year (2011).”  The Mairie de Paris has some numbers on its web-site for cyclistes décès (that is, cyclists killed) between 2008 and 2010, as follows: 2, 5, 5, 6, 2 (no number given for 2011).  London’s numbers for the same period are: 19, 15, 13, 13, 10.  Looking at these numbers, it would be easy to come up with a headline such as London cyclists more than 8 times likely to be killed than in Paris!  (19, the number for London in 2008, divided by 2, the number reported for Paris).  I have also seen the numbers quoted as London 16, Paris 0 (there were 16 cyclists killed in London last year).

My initial reaction to seeing the numbers was that the reported numbers were wrong.  It seemed implausible that Paris, a city which is still trying to build up a culture of utility cycling (as opposed to cycle sport), should be so much safer than London.  Then I went to Paris over the summer, and I became even more convinced that the numbers were wrong.  Paris has some cycling infrastructure, but not all that much, and is certainly not light-years ahead of London.  Paris also really doesn’t have that many more cyclists than London, based on what I saw.  I would guess that London actually has more regular cyclists than Paris.  I would also say that Paris streets and traffic are about as hostile as London’s to cyclists, if anything, more hostile.  Which is not to say that Paris is all that dangerous for cyclists.

It’s difficult for me to be objective about danger to cyclists in cities, as I was a bicycle messenger for many years, and was (and still am) quite comfortable tackling Hyde Park Corner at speed, or any other street for that matter.  The only place that I ever felt threatened was the Upper Thames Street tunnel.  I used it because it was the quickest way to get from the City to the West End, but I wouldn’t now use it at all, as it’s unpleasant, and, in my opinion, just about the most dangerous road in central London.

Anyway, I didn’t find Paris all that scary (not even La Place de La Concorde, but, like I said above, I am quite happy riding around Hyde Park Corner), but compared to, say, Copenhagen, it’s clearly not as comfortable to cycle in.  By the way, while we’re talking about Copenhagen, let me say here that comparing Copenhagen with London just doesn’t fly.  Copenhagen is not comparable with London.  It is a much, much smaller city.  You can ride across it in less than an hour.  I’m not suggesting that there aren’t lessons to be learned from Copenhagen, but London should be compared with cities of the same size, i.e. metropolises, not small cities. (Copenhagen has a population of under 2 million; London has a population of 8 million, by the most conservative estimate.)

The very long and slightly shorter of it is that, in my opinion, London and Paris offer a fairly similar level of hazard to cyclists.

So, piqued by my own observations, I couldn’t let the number 0 go, after having actually ridden in Paris for a few days.  I emailed a couple of people, including Charlie Lloyd at the LCC, who has done a lot of work on KSI numbers, and knows his stuff.  According to Charlie, the Ville de Paris, from which these numbers are reported, is less than the size of TfL’s Zone 2.  The numbers reported for cycling deaths in Paris are taken from a much, much smaller area, and therefore not really comparing like with like.

So what is the like-for-like comparison?  In the last year, 2 cyclists have been killed in a similar-sized zone to Ville de Paris in central London, according to Charlie, who keeps track of such things. This means that a similar number of cyclists were killed in this area of London as in the Ville de Paris 2009 & 2010.

Also, no-one seems to have to hand the numbers for total km travelled by all cyclists in Ville de Paris.  The number wouldn’t be all that useful for a direct comparison with London, but you could at least get the km / fatality number for a rough comparison, which would be far more useful than simply quoting raw fatality numbers, which in any case, aren’t even directly comparable.

Paris 0 London 16?  Match referred to statisticians for further enquiries.

Before the internet, learning about cycling was a matter of listening to people that I knew who seemed to know a lot about cycling (it took me a while to realise that a lot of people knew very little about very much, often less than me) or reading magazines & books.  And it was difficult to put your hands on very many English books about cycling, and the magazines weren’t all that helpful, unless you were keen on reading a lot of classifieds ads & results from obscurely named time trials (Cycling Weekly), or finding out about what the latest thing in mountain biking was (MBR).  I mean, I used to get paid to write for some of those monthly magazines (not MBR or Cycling Weekly, I should add!), and I really knew next to nothing about cycling, other than what I had learned from having ridden every day for 6 or 7 years.

The only really enlightening (from the point of view of figuring out how to improve my riding experience) book I can recall reading was co-authored by Claud Genzling & Bernard Hinault  and called ‘Road Racing Techniques and Training’.  Claude Genzling had worked with Cyrille Guimard, directeur sportif of the Gitane / Renault team, and was the first to systematise the bio-mechanics of bike fitting.  It was Genzling’s system that led to Guimard putting up Greg Lemond’s saddle by the legendary 2 cm when Lemond first joined Renault (see Lemond’s book “The Incredible Comeback”).  The system set out in this book is the one that is used by pretty much every bike fitter, although most experienced bike-fitters will have developed their own refinements.  The book also included a very basic training program, some elementary bike handling tips & a few somewhat whimsical musings on attitude to the bicycle.  (If you can find a copy, buy it, as it is very interesting!)

I also tried reading Jobst Brandt’s ‘The Bicycle Wheel’, but not really understanding engineering, it was lost on me. I had read ‘A Rough Ride’ and the very few other books about road-racing then available, but although I found them very interesting and inspiring, they weren’t much practical use.  Richard Ballantine’s Book of the Bicycle did have lots of nice pictures in it, but, once again, didn’t add to my technical knowledge.

So it was a matter of snatching conversations with knowledgeable people, listening & learning, not, as now, going onto the internet, looking at Sheldon Brown’s site, and then resorting to google in the unlikely event that the answer to whatever question one might have is not there.  There is also, now, a huge body of english language literature on all aspects of cycling that has been published in book form over the last 20 years, everything from Cyclecraft,  Weight Training for Cyclists, through all the superb books by William Fotheringham, David Walsh, Rupert Guinness, and Matt Seaton to all the excellent cycling guides by the likes of my friend Patrick Field and so on.

But 20 years ago, cycling literature of any kind was pretty thin on the ground.  So when I was handed a couple of Bridgestone Bicycles catalogues by Erik Zo some time in the mid ’90s, I literally had to sit down with shock.  It was a beautiful item, the design was lovely, the paper it was printed on was a delight, it was full of Rebour style drawings, and the writing!  Well-informed, witty articles about subjects such as how a steel bicycle tube is made, starting with extraction of the ore, and finishing with the drawing of the tube.  It was a mine of information, and radically different in attitude to anything I had previously seen, which was almost all overwhelmingly oriented towards the latest gadgets, usually made from unobtanium, and geared towards annual replacement.

I should point out here, to avoid any possible confusion, that this catalogue was produced by Bridgestone Bicycles, which was the US division of the huge Japanese Bridgestone corporation.  The bikes were designed & specced by US designers, and, although the frames were made in Japan, were nothing to do with the Bridgestone track bikes. For more on Bridgestone Bicycles, see this piece written after Bridgestone folded up the division (Grant Petersen subsequently founded Rivendell Bicycles).  Or, to prove the point I made earlier, have a look at this piece on Sheldon Brown’s site, especially as it includes several facsimiles of the catalogues.

I seem to remember that there was an article in one of the catalogues about how the writer’s father, born in the 30s, used to re-use nails after first hammering them flat, which struck a particular chord with me, as it expressed a disquiet at the speed at which this year’s big cycling innovation, lauded in the magazine’s as a must-have, became last year’s discarded toy.

Grant Petersen and Bridgestone Bicycles, in other words, were well in the vanguard of the movement dubbed in North America retro-grouch. Retro-grouchism could be characterised as stuffy, backwards-looking and resistant to change, but in actual fact, was a reaction to the creep of built-in obsolescence, and the focus on selling race ready bikes.  Retro-grouchism was the parent of the ‘steel is real’ movement, if you like.

The retro-grouch objection to the development of bicycle design and marketing can summed up, briefly, thus: cycling is attractive because it is an overwhelmingly practical choice of transport in cities, and also has positive effects on health & mood.  The ‘advances’ in design and technology that have led to a situation where this year’s sprockets do not work at all with last year’s levers have made bicycles less practical.  Acquaintances often say to me, upon having recently bought a bike, “it’s got 27 gears!” To which I often reply, “yeah, but does it have mudguards and a rack?”  The British bicycle industry has badly served the public (and itself) by marketing and selling bikes that are wildly inappropriate for riding to work, or down to the shops, or to the park, or to the bar, which is what most bikes should be used for.

All of this nonsense about what the bike looks like, what exact alloy the frame is made from, how many kilometres you did on your Sunday ride etc etc, obscures what’s important about bicycle riding, which is not what or how you ride, it’s where you ride to.  Everything else is just talk. Just ride.

As the articulator of this dictum, Grant Petersen, as far as I am concerned, is a giant amongst pygmys.  ‘Just Ride’ is a collection of short essays on bike related thoughts, organised into sections.  Ideal for casual consultation, or for use as reference.

Best cycling tops, according to Grant: a seersucker, a snap-button cowboy shirt or just any button-down shirt you may happen to have.  Cheapskate’s alternative to ‘technical’ sports drinks: half and half orange juice and water, with a little salt added.  Or just tomato juice. ‘No ride too short’, says Grant. ‘Do it on a whim any time. Don’t evaluate a short ride in physiological terms’.

Ok, before you start to think that Mr Petersen is wildly eccentric person, who probably lives in the woods, I should point out that he is a gifted bike designer (I own an RB-1 frame, which I use for bike polo), and there is also heaps of excellent mechanical & technical advice in this book.  The section ‘Technicalities’ includes essays frame-sizing, Q Factor, crank length, frame materials and so on.

However, my favourite section is entitled ‘Velosophy’.  He discusses ‘Commute Clot dbs Critical Mass’, ‘The Dark Side of Charity Rides’ and, chiming perfectly with what I have written above, ‘Racing Ruins The Breed’

Racing may have been responsible for some improvements up through about the 1950s, maybe even the 1960s, but soon after the practical improvements stopped, the impractical refinements kicked in, and now the modern race bike has become too specialized [sic], a one trick pony, a disposable, fragile flyweight that isn’t suitable for anybody that doesn’t race. Yet it has become the standard road bike of the day.

This book is absolutely brilliant.  Everybody who rides a bike, whether they ride it for 5 minutes or 50 hours every week, should have a copy.  It will change the way you think about cycling, and help you understand and enjoy riding your bike.

Just Ride, A Radically Practical Guide to Riding Your Bike | Grant Petersen | ISBN: 9780761155584 (0761155589) | Published by Workman Publishing

I think this title is silly.  Also, shouldn’t it be Best 100 Bikes? Or is it a play on the idea that every ‘real’ cyclist has a ‘best’ bike which only comes out for warm, dry Sundays? Either way, this book is more a catalogue of new bikes than a collection of the best 100 bikes ever.

It even has a pricing guide, expressed in relative terms of $ to $$$$$, where $ is less than $1000, and $$$$$ is more than $10 000.  There’s a Colnago CX in the book, and it scores $$$, so you can see that, for the likes of you & me, some of the content of this book is very much in the fantasy bikes area.

The choice of bikes is eclectic, with something for everyone to dislike (and like): folding tandem, electric assist cargo, Velorbis Arrow Gent’s bike, Surly Long Haul Trucker, the afore-mentioned Colnago CX, PK Ripper  … On the face of it, fairly comprehensive of the cycling spectrum, from the entirely functional Brompton to the as-yet unbuilt Intelligent Urban.  Ironically, these bikes appear in the same section, Folding / Innovative.

I am also slightly perplexed to find the Fuji Feather, a brakeless track bike, in the City / Utility section. Ok, it’s fitted with 36 hole hubs, 25c tyres and a 46-16 ratio (which, by the way, isn’t all that small a gear, and is probably a little too big for comfort), but does that really make it an ideal city bike?

After flicking through it a few times, I’m still not really sure what the point of this book is, though.  Is it designed to be an overview of the best bikes to be found anywhere right now, as the publisher’s blurb claims?  In which case, why are Bullitt not present in the Utility section?  For my money (or even if I’m spending someone else’s), Bullitt has to be best urban utility bike currently available, in terms of cost versus utility. If it’s stand-out, innovative design, then the Mike Burrows designed 8 Freight cargo bike should definitely be included, as there is no other mono-blade frame design even remotely like it, and Mike Burrows himself has come up with some of the most innovative bike design of the last 20 years, notably the Giant Compact Road series.

On the other hand, if it’s just straight-up bike pron, why isn’t, for example, Bilenky Cycleworks included?  Bilenky have been around for years, fillet braze as well as anyone, have come up with unusual designs, and have won multiple awards at the North American Handbuilt Bike Show.

Perhaps my sensibility is somewhat different to that of the author.  According to the publisher’s blurb, Zahid Sardar is a writer on architecture and design. It may be that I am not the target audience for this book.

Gripes aside, this book does have lots of glossy pictures of glossy new bikes, and the price is reasonable for 220 glossy pictures of glossy new bikes.  I would not describe it as a coffee-table book (do you know anyone with a coffee table? I can only think of one person, and she is over 60, and doesn’t keep coffee-table books on it) because it’s not hard-back and isn’t really big to be used as a murder weapon.

It does have a couple of pages of quotes from bike designers at the front which are worth a read.  A couple picked at random:

I love to see bikes becoming more popular as forms of transport rather than seeing them used only in races – Chris Boardman.

Cities are becoming myopic in their interest in cars. It is better to have vehicles that are more efficient – Bjarke Engels.

‘100 Best Bikes’, Zahid Sardar, Laurence King Publishing, ISBN 978 1 78067 008 9, £14.95

I have decided to start blogging seperately to Moving Target.  It is now a long time since I was a messenger (I briefly worked in 2005, but the last time I earned my living as a courier was in the winter of 1999 – 2000).  I have written just about everything I can think of to say about my time as a messenger on Moving Target, and am increasingly, not exactly detached, but at least distanced from the messenger scene.

This does not mean that I am quitting Moving Target, or that Moving Target is being closed down.  There is heaps of great content on Moving Target, and I hope that there will continue to be more great content posted in the near future.

I simply find that there are things that I want to say that can’t be said on Moving Target, as they aren’t messenger-specific.  Hence the new address.