Monthly Archives: February 2013

Inspired by Channel Four’s coverage*, I used to fantasise about riding in the Tour de France.  Of course, riding the Tour was just a dream.  Being an extremely average physical specimen and a smoker, I was never going to get the call from Cyrille Guimard or Peter Post.

However, I took the Tour into my work.  After all, because of the way that the work of a bicycle courier is organised (the more parcels you deliver, the more money you get), the daily life of a messenger (courier) is pretty much a race.  You are competing against the other riders to get your hands on the parcels before they do, get them in your bag, and get them delivered.

I modelled myself on the pros. I ditched the cut-down, upturned bars, started using ‘proper’ drop handle-bars and wearing cycling caps, and began to draft the wheels of other cyclists and tail-gate motor-vehicles, just like I had seen the pros do on the tv.

Theobald’s Road, a very slight incline, would be the lower slopes of the col du Galibier (I always preferred to imagine myself on Alpine climbs, never Pyrenean).  Percy Circus became one of the lacets of l’Alpe d’Huez.  I went on Sunday rides with mates, and started to ride harder and harder.  Occasionally, I was able to sample the delicious sensation of dropping a fellow cyclist who was trying hard to keep up with me, enjoying watching them drop away from my back wheel, thrashing like a drowning swimmer might.

I started doing actual bike races, on an actual racing bike.  (Ok, it was only the Tuesday 10s at Eastway). I had become a proper amateur cyclist.  I was ready to test myself against the Giants of the Road, on the roads of the Tour de France.

In 1993, I rode up Mont Ventoux, literally up it.  Nearly all ‘mountain’ roads pass between mountain peaks.  This is one of the very few mountain roads that takes you to the very top of a mountain.  And, for all that Mont Ventoux appears much older and far more eroded than the nearby Alps,  it really is a mountain, which, as I write this in February, has snow on it.

This was my first ride on roads used by the Tour.  I rode to the summit via Sault, having started that morning from my great aunt’s house on the Crau plain, about 100 kilometres distant from, and 1900 metres lower than the summit.  The climb from the Sault side is the easiest of the 3 road climbs, with a total elevation gain of around 1200 metres over 24 km, at relatively gentle gradients.

The weather was benign, being hot and not very windy.  I generally go alright in the heat, and I had plenty of water, so the dehydration so dreaded by cyclists wasn’t a problem.  Pretty much by chance, I wasn’t on an over-geared bike, being on a triple chainset, with a lowest gear of something like 28 X 24.

I had taken it relatively easy on the ride in, so my legs were reasonably ok by the time I got to Chalet Reynard, which marks the start of the hardest part of the ride, if you are coming from the Sault side.  Again, I was lucky with the wind, so was able to ride to the top without serious difficulty.  My first ‘major’ climb, and one of the most famous, and significant for a British cyclist.  I left a cap on the Simpson memorial.

5 years later, I would reach the foot of Mont Ventoux having danced my way over the Col de Murs, which had been designated a Cat 2 climb for that year’s Tour.  Arriving at Saint-Estève, which is where the real climbing starts, if approaching from the much harder south side, I had felt really strong, and attacked the first kilometre into the forest, thinking how easy it was.  Within another kilometre or so, I was sat under a tree, trying to inhale my lungs back into my chest.

The ride up through the forest on the south side is steep, and, as it is not possible to see very far through the trees, somewhat disconcerting, as it isn’t possible either to look back and see how high you have climbed, nor to look up and see how far you have to go.

By the time I hauled myself up to the Chalet, I was suffering, and the Mistral, which had been blowing all week, absolutely destroyed me mentally and physically once I was above the tree-line, and into the arena of the white stones, which make Mont Ventoux appear snow-capped when viewed from a distance.

If you don’t know what the Mistral is, you have never been to eastern Provence.  The Mistral is a wind that blows from North to South down the Rhone valley.  The wind is a regular feature of the climate of that part of the Midi, and is generally caused by an atmospheric depression in the Bay of Naples.  When it blows, it generally blows for 10 days or so, and is very, very strong.

The inhabitants have adapted to the wind by growing lines of poplars and pines to protect gardens and houses from the wind, and none of the older buildings in that part of Provence have any large windows facing north.  It is a wind that can whistle up insanity and disorder, not to mention ruin any number of days on the beach, or, indeed, any otherwise pleasurable outdoor pursuit.

The road from the Chalet to the summit zig-zags along the flank of the mountain, turning north and  west.  Every turn to the north forces the cyclist into the jaws of the roaring monster that is the Mistral, if it is blowing.  On that day it wasn’t blowing hard enough to rip me off the mountain, but it was more than strong enough to bring my speed down to a crawl, and to force me and my legs to crab desperately along the road in over-geared (39 X 26) discomfort.  Robert Millar describes this sensation as ‘blowing your brains out’.  Millar once said that it doesn’t matter how strong you are, the sensation of climbing on the limit of your endurance and beyond is the same.  You go faster if you are fitter, but the pain of grovelling in the gutter is the same, no matter how strong or weak you are.

One of the most disconcerting aspects of the climb from the Chalet is the optical illusion.  As you ride towards the summit, the Observatory appears not be getting any closer for a considerable amount of time.  The kilo stones count off the distance remaining accurately, but in the hundreds of metres in between, with the mind in free-fall from the effort, the disorientation of this receding mirage can be very demoralising to an exhausted rider.

On that second time up, the temptation to get off and throw my bike off the side of the mountain was great.  It’s possible that the only reason I didn’t was that I wearing racing shoes, fitted with Look cleats, upon which it is virtually impossible to walk very far.  I made it to the top, but the climb of the mountain hadn’t been a pleasant experience.  I seem to recall that David Millar said he couldn’t understand why anyone would ride up Mont Ventoux for pleasure, and on this occasion it really hadn’t been a pleasure. On the ride down, I was virtually torn off the road by the cross-winds, which made it even less pleasant.

My 3rd encounter with the mountain was in 2004.  I had signed up for a week  with Veloventoux, a cycle-holiday company run by Craig Entwistle, who has probably ridden over Mont Ventoux more often than any other Englishman, alive or dead.  The programme was a few light rides, with La Ventoux – Beaumes de Venise cyclo-sportive on the Saturday.

A few light rides, I say, but we rode up the north side of Ventoux on the Tuesday, completing my set.  It had taken me more than 10 years to ride all 3 of the roads up Ventoux, but some people do it in the same day, the so-called Cinglés du Ventoux (cinglé is colloquial French for ‘mad’).  With 160 hilly kilometres on the Saturday, we probably should have done nothing of consequence, and, almost certainly, we should have stayed away from the local produce.  Mont Ventoux is flanked by some of the most celebrated vineyards in France, Côtes du Rhône.

I am happy to tell you, dear reader, that we did neither, even managing to combine a very pleasant afternoon’s ride with the local touring club with an evening in the club h.q., a café-bar in Nyons, making an extensive inquiry into the nature of the local rosé, whilst hearing of the club members’ exploits on their various long-distance epics on Les Diagonales de France.

On Saturday, the big race.  Let’s make no bones about it, a big cyclo-sportive like La Ventoux is a big race.  There are motorcycle out-riders for the leaders, and proper prizes for the winners.  The roads are more or less closed by default in the bigger events, as there are thousands of riders, making the road pretty much impassable for anyone not participating.  Spectators line the route.  A cyclo-sportive is the closest that the mere mortal can get to riding the Tour de France, especially when the sportive uses a road like the road up Mont Ventoux.  It is hard not to get carried away at the start, and blow your legs off in the excitement of being in a huge group, riding on the roads that the stars use.

The other really great thing about cyclo-sportives for the extremely mediocre rider such as myself, is that, no matter how often you get dropped from the various groups that form and re-form, there’s always another one behind.  You might spend most of the day watching a lot of back wheels disappearing into the distance, but there’ll alway be a least one, not far away, that is coming back towards you.  So no matter how slow you are, relative to the fastest guys, there will always be someone that you can leave behind on the road, grasping futilely at your dead air.  The amateur can enact his (or her) fantasy of launching a race-winning attack on the run-in to the finish that will turn the general classification upside down, in the manner of Merckx, Coppi or whichever rider you prefer.

The course of the event is one and a half times over Ventoux, with a loop round to the north of the mountain, if you do the full route, thus making every finisher demi-cinglé, or half-mad.  The route also takes in two tremendous descents, first from the top of the mountain to Malaucène, and then from Chalet Reynard back down to Saint-Estève.

As on my first time, the weather was extraordinarily benign, being nice & warm without being too hot.  I can’t remember too much detail about the day, apart from one moment when I was foolishly sitting on the front of a smallish group with another guy, and, getting annoyed with our companions, who weren’t coming through to take their share of the wind, said in french, ‘look, 15 Frenchmen led by an Englishman and a Belgian’.  I do remember that at the feed station at Chalet Reynard, on my second time around, there were cups of wine available.  I also remember being a little disappointed by the meal supplied at the finish, the disenchantment being somewhat off-set by more free wine, and the Gold certificate that I ‘won’ for getting the requisite time in my age group.

The lack of detailed memories, however, does not erase the glow of having ridden in the tracks of Giants.

* I watched an episode from the late 80s again, looking for Stephen Roche’s attack on the descent of the Col de Joux-Plane, and was totally stunned to see that Richard Keys was the presenter in 1987!

8freightAs I mentioned in my review of the Bullitt cargo bike, the company I work for had previously had a different cargo bike.  That bike was the 8 Freight, designed and built by Mike Burrows.  For those of you that don’t know, Mike Burrows is one of Britain’s most innovative designers, and probably the best bicycle designer of the last 20 years.

His most widely known design is possibly the Lotus ‘super-bike’, which was used by Chris Boardman to win the 4000m pursuit at the 1992 Olympics.  His most widely ridden design is definitely the Giant TCR.  Mike is an inconoclast, i.e. he is a destroyer of previously widely held dogmas.  He prefers recumbents to the coventional diamond safety bicycle and disdains such things as traditional cycle fitting, happily slaying sacred cows such as KOPS:

‘knee over pedal spindle’ (or KOPS) is the sort of
formula you might expect to find in chapter three of The Da
Vinci Code. It has no place in the real world.

Unsurprisingly, when Mike applied himself to the ‘problem’ of designing a bike to carry loads, he didn’t bother with tinkering with existing designs.  The conventional cargo bike, commonly known as the long john, is a diamond frame with the front cut off, a load-carrying platform inserted, and the forks tacked on the front end, steered via 2 complete head-tubes and head-sets and several flanges, bushings and a long connecting strut from the rear-most head-tube assembly to the fork.

Mike’s design reverses this, as Mike has no experience of, and little interest in, complicated steering mechanisms, but is fully conversant with long chains from his work on recumbents.  He also made the fork mono-blade, and rear wheel single-sided, to keep fabrication costs and weight down.  This makes the 8 Freight unlike any other bicycle I have ridden, as the rear wheel is significantly off-set from the track of the front wheel.  The head-tube angle is steep, around 80 degrees on the test model,  and I have never really got my head round the rake and trail of the fork, but suffice to say it is extreme.

The advantage of having the rider at the front is that it avoids the wheel lock problem of the long-john design, which occurs when you turn the front wheel far enough to one side and the steering-link strut fouls the mud-guard (or tyre) of the front wheel. This configuration handles very differently to a conventional long-john;  you don’t bank the bike round corners, you steer it.  The rider isn’t aware of the off-set of the rear wheel; instead, when the bike is turning, there is a pronounced sensation of side-ways, as opposed to circular motion. However, as with all unfamiliar bikes, the rider quickly becomes accustomed to the unique handling characteristics.

The massively over-sized frame tube is, of course, very strong, and therefore well able to take a lot of weight.  My own personal record is well in excess of my own body weight (which is around 75 kilos), and users have reported successfully carrying fridges and the like.  The handling under load is excellent, with stability seemingly increased as the bike is weighted.

My initial experience of the 8 Freight in a commercial setting was mixed.  We had a number of problems with the bike, most of which stemmed from two things: the box that we fitted, and the tyre pressure that we used.

Mike’s slightly despairing comment about the box was something along the lines of ‘you put a great big heavy box on my lovely light cargo bike’!  The box was probably too big, and over-stressed the load rack, and this, combined with over-inflating the tyres, caused a number of failures in the tubes of the rack.

The tyre pressure was also significant.  At the recommended pressure of 40 psi, the Big Apple tyres wallow a bit.  This gives the rider the sensation that some considerable portion of their energy is being wasted.  It therefore seemed logical to inflate the tyres over the recommended pressure, and make the ride a little quicker.

This was a mistake, of course.  At the correct pressure, the tyres provide some suspension of the load, and lessen the dynamic forces operating on the cargo rack.  It’s impossible to say for sure, but there seems little doubt that over-high tyre pressure contributed to the failure of the tubes in the cargo rack.  I should add that at no point did the massively over-sized main tube show any signs of failure at all.

This neccessitated a number of repairs by Mike, and some modifications to the cargo rack tubes.  The constant need for repair was frustrating for both ourselves and Mike.  Also inconvenient was the uniqueness of some key parts, such as the derailleur hanger and the front wheel, which were fabricated or modified to Mike’s design in Norfolk by Mike himself.

All of these problems led us to end our use of the 8 Freight after 15 months, despite our experiment being a qualified success, proving to our customers that cargo bikes can provide effective commercial delivery services.  So it was somewhat surprising that we were offered an 8 Freight on trial, although it was a pleasant surprise.  The 8 Freight we were given was a new model, made in Taiwan from 7000 series aluminium.  Mike had not been able to use 7000 series aluminium for his ‘home-made’ 8 Freights, not being in a position to buy alumunium in sufficient quantities.  I’m not sure if the 7000 series is of a thicker guage than that obtained by Mike, but it is supposed to be stronger.

The design has not been fundamentally altered, so the handling, weight and so forth are all more or less the same.  As we had been asked to test the bike precisely because we had more or less destroyed the previous model, we fitted the same size box as before.  This time, however, we were careful NOT to exceed the rated pressure of the Big Apples.  We used the bike over 6 months, including the very busy Christmas period.

Sax, probably our strongest and fastest cargo bike rider, was on it during the Xmas period. This is about as stern a test of a cargo bike I could imagine, for 2 reasons – one, he rides a cargo bike quicker than most people ride their standard singles; two, he is almost entirely mechanically incompetent, regarding bike repair as an ageless mystery practised by sorcerers (in our case, a sorceress – our cargo bikes are maintained by Nic Hamilton at Look Mum No Hands).

Overall, the test bike stood up well.  There was no sign of failure in any of the tubes in the rack, which was the important thing.  We did have some problems with the derailleur assembly, but this is inherent to the design, as opposed to manufacture.   If you want internal gears, you probably should be looking at a different design.  As I mentioned before, one of the positives of the long-tail is the lack of a complicated steering mechanism, and superior manoeuvrability.  Another positive is that with the load behind, it is possible to fit a bigger box to the 8 Freight than to most long-johns, as the load will not interfere with the handle-bars.


I am told by the guys who supplied the bike that the one-off parts will now be mass-produced, so there should be greater availability of spares.  The price is likely to be pretty competitive, especially for such a light bike.  Is the 8 Freight a genuinely viable commercial cargo bike, as opposed to an over-sized shopping bike?  In my opinion, yes.  If you can get over the ‘wierdness’ of the handling, it is a fun bike to ride, and, in my opinion, actually more comfortable and stable than a long-john.  Furthermore, I find it to be a bike with a very, very high smile factor, i.e. I almost can’t help smiling when I ride it.  And the guys at Outspoken Delivery, Cambridge have been using the ‘old’ 8 Freight for years, albeit with a smaller (but still large!) box.

8 Freight cargo bikes.

Zero has used 8 Freights for several years.

A report was published yesterday by the Transport Research Laboratory, the broad thrust of which is that the construction industry, despite the fact that their vehicles have been identified time and again as the number one threat to cyclists, have failed (with a few notable exceptions) to take effective action to reduce that threat.

INot photo-shopped, a real picture (Selim Korycki)t is now 19 years since the British Medical Journal published a report entitled Deaths of cyclists in London 1985-92: the hazards of road traffic’, which specifically addressed the problem of the disproportionate number of collisions between lorries (aka Heavy Goods Vehicles) and cyclists that resulted in a fatality.  By the way, isn’t it absurd that whenever these collisions are reported in the mainstream media, the driver is always described as ‘unhurt’ – of course the bloody driver was unhurt!  In the conclusion to report, there is the following:

a ban on heavy goods vehicles in urban areas should be considered.

Reading the numbers again, and some of the conclusions, some things jump out.  The absolute numbers of cyclists killed by collisions with lorries hasn’t really changed that much since 1985 -1992 (the period which the report was based on),  75 deaths in 8 years, or around 9 or so a year then, 8 or so a year now.  The report also notes that the higher proportion of women cyclists who die in accidents involving heavy goods vehicles in inner London cannot be explained satisfactorily. Same thing now.  It is a fact that women are well over-represented in the KSI numbers where the other vehicle was a lorry.


I am sick of writing and reading about London cyclists who have been killed by a collision with a lorry. I looked on the contents page of Moving Target, and started counting the number of articles that I wrote about the issue between 2005 & 2011, and stopped counting when I reached 40.  As I said in a previous post, I am delighted that the mainstream media has now picked up the story, and are demanding action.  However, I think they should be going further, and demanding, like the author of the BMJ article, like the London Bicycle Messenger Association did in 2004, a ban on lorries in central London daytime.


Memorial for Sebastian Lukomski, killed by a lorry on Upper Thames Street. Photo: Ben Brown

Putting it in economic terms, why should commercial road users be putting the costs (medical attention, police investigation etc) of their business onto the rest of us?  In a recent Freakonomics podcast, economist Steve Levitt said ‘there are few instances in our society where individuals are able to impose such large externalities on other individuals through their behaviour as on the roads.‘  Sure, all motorists are required by law to have 3rd party insurance, but this does not cover the costs of the emergency services etc, which are substantial, especially, as almost always happens where a fatality has resulted, there is an extensive police investigation.  Relatively speaking, there is little cost to the operator, or the operator’s employer, i.e. the organisation that is paying the operator to deliver whatever load the lorry is carrying, of a fatal collision. It is therefore not very surprising that, in a business in which margins are low, competition is high, and buyers are very price sensitive, that lorries still run over cyclists, as there is almost no economic penalty for doing so.

The threat of a daytime lorry ban, almost universally dismissed as unworkable, might serve to concentrate minds, given that it would carry considerably greater costs, especially in the construction sector.  I realise that there is currently a night-time ban on lorries in London, but this should be done away with.  This ban dates back to 1982, and I have no idea at all why it was brought in.  We want as many HGV movements at night as possible, surely?


And to those people who think that a daytime ban on HGVs is madness, I say, be reasonable, demand the impossible.

From Hackney Cyclists:

1st February: Cycling surges. Car ownership collapses.

Figures released from the 2011 Census this week reveal large increases in the number and proportion of London residents who use cycling as their main way to get to work. Across London as a whole, 4.3% now cycle to work, while the figure in inner London is 7%. Hackney has London’s highest proportion of people cycling to work, at 14.6% (or 15.5% if you exclude employed people who work from home).

Meanwhile car ownership is plummetting in inner London, and especially in Hackney, where the proportion of households which are car-free has risen to 64.6%, up from 56% in 2001, with just 170 motor vehicles per 1000 people, and about 4000 fewer cars owned overall, even though the population has increased by 44,000.

I’m not sure exactly what lessons can be learned from Hackney.  The difficulty with changes in behaviour is that it can be difficult to figure out what the causes are, unless credibly large surveys of road users are undertaken.  Without such surveys, what you have are correlations, rather than causes.

A tweeter suggested that the rise in cycling in London since 2000 was caused by the introduction of the Congestion Charge.  It is probable that the Con Charge was a cause, but equally I could suggest that, since the fixie craze started in the early noughties, this was a cause of the rise of cycling.  I’m not seriously suggesting that the increase in cycling in London is down to the availability of off the peg fixed wheel bicycles, and that Jan, owner of Brick Lane Bikes, and a former London bicycle courier, is a more important figure in the Hackneyisation of London than Ken Livingstone, but it is a fact that Hackney is the home turf of those pesky hipsters, whose preferred form of transport is the fixie.

I’d like to believe that the drop in car ownership and rise in cycling is caused by Hackney Council making it less economically attractive to own and operate a car, and thus more economically attractive to ride a bike, so Hackney residents have changed their behaviour over the last 20 years,  but it could also be that cycling-minded people have been attracted to come and live in Hackney, and petrol-heads have moved elsewhere, to places like Barnet, where they feel more welcome.

Either way, this is good news for Hackney, which has often been a source of bad news, so Hackney Council should be proud that it is getting something right, as seems pretty clear from these numbers.