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For a greater understanding of the Tour, and professional male cycle sport in general, I recommend the following books. I apologise for the fact that some of them are out of print. I haven't selected these books to be obtuse, or seem clever, I selected them because I think they are worth reading, and reveal, sometimes consciously, as in the case of Benio Maso's excellent work, sometimes unconsciously, as with Freddy Maertens' autobiography, what lies beneath the surface of professional road-racing.

Jean Alavoine, a rider that Albert Londres came to admire, struggles on the Tourmalet in 1923

1. Les Forçats de la Route, Tour de Souffrance (Slaves of the Road, Tour of Suffering) – Albert Londres

Albert Londres was well known as an investigative reporter, writing on people trafficking, the piteous conditions in France's colonies, and other significant social and economic issues of his times. He was a major public figure, practising what the French call grand reportage, of sufficient importance in French public affairs to have not one, but two annual prizes awarded in his memory.

As far as I know, this has only been published in English once, translated by Graeme Fife, and issued as a gift with Cycle Sport in 1999. There is no current english translation available, which seems incredible, as Londres invented some of the most enduring clichés of cycle sport, not least the title. The interview with the Pelissier brothers, which he conducted whilst they were eating (riders trapped in a restaurant by a journalist – a scenario many modern writer-followers of cycle sport will recognise), after they had abandoned le Tour de France of 1924, has been quoted in part many thousands of times, because of the significance of the section dealing with drugs to the modern era:

You want to know how we keep going? Here…” He pulled out a phial from his bag. “That's cocaine for the eyes. This is chloroform for the gums.”

“And the pills? You want to see the pills? Take a look, here are the pills.” Each one of them pulled out 3 boxes.

“Fact is,” said Francis, “we keep going on dynamite.”

 

It's a shame that the rest of Albert Londres' reports from the 1924 Tour (unlike the Pelissier brothers, he continued on the Tour) are not more widely known in English. They are worth reading because they are from the beginning of real reporting on road cycle sport. As he is writing for a newspaper, Le Petit Parisien, which was a rival or, at least, not in league with the organisers of the Tour, the owners of l'Auto newspaper, his is a neutral point of view, not inclined to the hyperbole and downright fabrication of chief organiser Henri Desgranges and his employees. One can also sense in his reports, which were filed at the end of each stage, and not re-written later, that, almost against his will, this Tour novice was falling under the spell of the Tour and its heroes.

Sex, Lies and Handlebar Tape by Paul Howard

A biography of the first 5 time winner of the Tour, Jacques Anquetil, I suggest this book because Anquetil was one of the first big stars of the television era. The first live outside broadcast of bicycle racing came from the 1960 Paris – Roubaix, which made a star of Tommy Simpson in France because his (failed) solo breakaway were the first images of live bicycle racing ever broadcast to the watching public, and the 1960 Tour de France was the first to be broadcast live, as opposed to viewed later on newsreels.

Anquetil was the culmination of natural progression in road cycle sport. At first the heroes were noble sons of the soil (or so the journalists would have had it), but after WWII, the improvement of road surfaces, allowed the development of cycling stars with the allure and presentation of popular stars of stage and screen. There would have been no point Hugo Koblet, the pédaleur de charme, keeping a comb in his jersey pocket in the 20s & 30s, as his hair would have been matted with dust, mud and other less appetising substances, but in the 50s, as more and more roads were tarmaced, and more and more pictures, both still & moving, were taken of the riders, it made sense to look as presentable as possible. Jean Robic, winner of the 1947 Tour, was contemptuous of Louison Bobet and his brother because, according to Jean Bobet, the brothers didn't blow their noses on their fingers, but the power in cycle sport was passing from the stone age giants such as Robic and Gino Bartali to the silver and small screen idols such as Coppi, Riviére & Anquetil. My mother, who was a French teenager in the 1950s, had a crush on Anquetil.

Anquetil dominated the Tour not just physically, but tactically and psychologically. An illustration of this is that he was credited with winning the 1966 edition for his team-mate Lucien Aimar, despite the fact he abandoned the race. This domination earned him the whistles of the public, who preferred the honest, but unsubtle methods of Raymond Poulidor. Or at least, they preferred the image Poulidor that was presented by the media to that of Anquetil.

Anquetil's era is significant because it was towards the end of his reign as the undisputed master of European cycle sport that the riders, teams, sponsors and race administrators developed the attitudes towards doping that led directly to Liestrong. Anquetil was an unrepentant doper, maintaining his stance that the riders should retain the right to do whatever what was necessary for them to practise their craft even after the amphetamine and alcohol assisted death of Tom Simpson on the scorched upper slopes of Mont Ventoux in 1967.

Anquetil blamed Simpson's team for not looking after him properly and was absolutely steadfast in his refusal to accept dope testing, and as one of the most important figures in the sport, there is no question that he was instrumental in the development of the informal structures of doping, both in its artisanal & systematic phases, by which I mean that doping was effectively tolerated by everyone in the sport, including the media, because those that weren't participating, whether riders, team helpers, race organiser, and, crucially, the journalists, kept very quiet in public about what they knew of doping in private. This silence extended to Anquetil's domestic arrangements, which, whilst not actually criminal, were certainly scandalous.

Cover of 'The Sweat of the Gods'

The other books I have suggested are very much of their times. This book covers the development of professional road cycle sport from the very first 'official' road race run in France, 1868 or 1869 (as Maso points out, the myth-making – or fabrication – of male cycle sport obscures what really happened, but we can be reasonably sure that James Moore won) to the present day. Not so much a record of who won which race, as an explanation of why a given race came to be founded, who & what the sponsors and organisers were, and by what means stories, rather than news, because one of Maso's themes is that of myth and myth-making, of the race were spread.

He explains magnificently why the exploits of Coppi, who routinely humiliated his fellow competitors in the 40s & 50s, were celebrated and lauded by the media and public, whereas the feats of Merckx were often denigrated and, towards the end of his reign, occasioned actual hostility. (Briefly, it was the effect of live television – hours of pictures of a solitary man riding a bike up a road emptied of competitors not make for a great televisual spectacle, whereas a literary description of the same feat can be made much more exciting). This book is in print, and every serious student of male professional road-racing should have a copy, in my opinion.

4. Fall From Grace – Freddy Maertens

Fall From Grace, Freddy Maertens

There is no point in pretending that this book is an easy read. The narrative is jumbled, and one senses that Maertens' ghost-writer struggled to impose himself on the fallen champion. Freddy Maertens insights into his relationship with his wife made me grind my teeth, and there were other sections of anecdotes of 'pranks' which were equally distasteful.

 

Don't read this book if you wish to view male road-racing of the 1970s through rose-tinted spectacles; Freddy will grab them off your face, spit on them and then grind them into the pavement. However, Freddy Maertens' memoir has one overwhelming virtue – it is very honest.

If Anquetil was the king of the French in an era when the French still dominated le Tour, Maertens was the pretender to the throne of the king of the Belgians in an era when the Belgians dominated not just le Tour but all professional cycle racing. Not just Merckx and Maertens, a double world champion, winner of the Tour of Spain as well as countless other races, large and small, but de Vlaeminck, a good enough all-rounder to take the points jersey at il Giro, as well as multiple Classics, Van Impe, 6 time winner of the King of the Mountains competition, and winner of the Tour itself in 1976. A gilded era, which still overshadows everything that has come since. Maertens' Flandria team, managed by, amongst others, Lomme Driessens, a man whose character could charitably called 'colourful', counted Walter Goodefroot (manager of the Telekom team during the polluted 90s and early 2000s), Marc Demeyer (died suddenly, whilst in his prime), Michel Pollentier (thrown off the Tour in 1978 whilst leading in what was the biggest doping story since the death of Tom Simpson) and Sean Kelly, who rode in Maertens' sprint train at the beginning of his career.

Maertens career and palmares are, in my opinion, the finest of any Belgian except perhaps Merckx himself, which makes Freddy's fall all the more sad, but makes his memoir all the better. I considered including Bernard Hinault's Memories of the Peloton in this list, but discarded it not least because although it is well worth reading for his account of the 1986 Tour alone, there is very little in the memoir to endear Hinault to the reader, whereas Maertens', despite the evident sexism and general boorishness, is far more entertaining and engaging, despite its faults. Inexplicably out of print in English.

Wide-eyed and Legless, Jeff Connor5. Wide-eyed and Legless – Jeff Connor

The Tour of Maertens' era was in the doldrums. The fields were 160 or less. The ambiance was stiflingly parochial, according to Robert Millar, even in 1983. By the late 80s this had all started to change, and quite rapidly. The field in 1987 was over 200. An American had already won the race, a Colombian and a Scot had taken the Grand Prix de Montagne – this was the result of the policy of mondialisation pursued by the organisers. This policy brought a British team to the Tour for the first time in decades. In its midst came a tabloid journalist, a Tour novice like Albert Londres was in 1924.

There are other echoes of Forçats de la Route, not least because Connor gets to see riders abandoning up close. There are some similarities between Tony Capper, the boss of the ANC-Halfords team that Jeff Connors was travelling with, and Lomme Driessens, Maertens' mentor – both are substantial characters, but ultimately turn out to be unreliable friends, even if Capper is not a villain of the same order as Driessens.

If you find all the British triumphalism surrounding Sky tiresome, or wonder why British cyclists of a certain age are willing to forgive Cav and Wiggo all sorts of transgressions, you need to read this book. This book shows just how pathetically amateurish British professional cycling was before Peter Keen came along, and might help to explain why guys like me are moved to tears when Cav wins in Paris, or any Brit takes any jersey, i.e. we have been used to inglorious failure for so long that the current success finds us utterly unprepared psychologically.

Wide-eyed and Legless is also absolutely gripping, and well-loved enough by British cycling fans to have prompted Connor to write a follow-up called Field of Fire.

 

There’s a school of thought, with which I broadly agree, that insists that a bike ride is not really a ‘proper’ bike ride unless at least one night has been spent in a ditch or somewhere else equally unsuitable, such as a bus shelter.  Jack Thurston, the presenter, writer & producer of the excellent Bike Show podcast, is a man that thinks that any bike ride could be enhanced by a night in the right ditch, but not just any ditch. Jack, whilst being a hard and hardy rider, will not needlessly inflict discomfort upon himself or any companion.  He views the riding of a bicycle as the literal pursuit of hedonism, albeit ameliorated by some passing and minor inconveniences.

Jack’s approach is reflected in ‘Lost Lanes’, which is a collection of 36 rides in southern England.  Most are day-rides, none require the intervention of a motor-vehicle to transport rider & bike to the start and, as the author says, all of ‘the rides can be ridden on any bike that’s in good mechanical order’, i.e. they are rides that anyone, not only ‘proper’ cyclists, could do, if they desired.  All the rides pass by excellent pubs, cafes & restaurant, which are noted in the text.

These are rides for the pleasure of being in the countryside (mostly – one ride is entirely within urban east London), because Jack believes, and I agree with him, ‘of all the modes of travel, only the bicycle combines freedom and speed with total immersion in the surroundings’.

The format of the book is that the actual routes are downloaded (either as turn-by-turn route sheets or as GPX files suitable for use with GPS route-finders) from elsewhere, and the book is descriptions of the routes in lyrical prose, which includes topographical and historical details, and pencil-drawing outline of the route that could be transferred reasonably easily to a map and illustrating photographs.  The photographs are superb. My girlfriend’s reaction to the book was that ‘it makes England look like France’.  I think she meant beautiful and warm.  She also said the book made her want to get on her bike and go do one of the rides.

Jack has written a Tour de Horizon as part of the introduction, as well as a section on lanes and another on wild camping, which I rather like.  It really is a literal panorama – Jack describes the country we will be riding in from ‘the shingle spit of Dungeness’ to ‘Suffolk’s cluster of stunning medieval towns and villages’ and on to ‘the gently rolling landscape of the upper Thames Valley’.  He briefly covers the geology, topography and demography of the whole area, which I found admirable.

At the back of the book, he has included some suggestions for organised rides, and includes the Dunwich Dynamo, which most London cyclists are probably familiar with, and one which I have never heard of ever, the Foulness Island Bike Ride, but which I very much want to attend, having read Jack’s description of it.

I haven’t ridden outside of the M25 quite as much as Jack has, but I have ridden fairly extensively in the south east, but there was plenty in this book to inspire a jaded old hack such as myself. Like Anna, flicking through the book made me want to get on my bike and ride somewhere new.  I am looking forward to an opportunity to ride ‘The Fifth Continent’, a loop in Kent from Ashford to Rye and along to Dungeness.

Being an east Londoner, I have had to make do, for the moment, with Ride No. 28, the Eastern Excursion, which passes from Hackney to North Greenwich and south across to Charlton and back to Hackney.  I can report that the route card and the GPX file work well, and the fact that I took 3 hours to do a 2 hour ride is entirely down to my own dawdling and inability to look at the route sheet at the correct points.

If you listen to the Bike Show, and enjoy it (which I am sure all readers do), then you should buy this book.  Not least because it would only be polite to show your appreciation of Jack’s efforts, which have hitherto cost you nothing, but also because this is an excellent book from which everyone can learn something.  If you are planning to buy the book, please consider buying it directly from the Bike Show web-site, rather than somewhere else – Jack will get more money if you do.

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.

Bridge_St_Shoot-1[1]

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.

As some readers will already know, I work in the office of a London courier company. 4 years ago, my boss was finally persuaded to buy a cargo bike.  The deal was that we would supply a bike, with a secure, waterproof box, emblazoned with the company livery, and the rider would pay a daily fee to cover the costs (initial & continuing) of the bike.

The experiment was a success.  Over short distances, carrying loads too big for conventional courier bikes, the cargo out-performed the vans. The riders made money, easily covering the rental fee they were charged for use of the bike.  (I’m not going to go into the detail of the rental fee, but it covers the out-goings on the bikes more or less – mostly a little less.)

A success, but qualified by the reliability of the bike that we had bought.

Every part of the bike (frame, components apart from handle-bars and levers) broke at least twice, and some parts 4 or 5 times, over a 15 month period.  As the bike was pretty much hand-made, and had a number of one-off fabrications fitted, this meant that the bike was often off the road for days, sometimes weeks.

The following summer, 2009, the Bullitt cargo bike became available for purchase in the U.K.. We had been thinking of buying another cargo bike, but wanted something that would be more reliable, and was easier to repair, which meant mass-produced frames & parts.  The Bullitt frame was not only mass-produced, but was fitted with conventional parts, and was much lighter than anything else available, barring the 8 Freight, so we bought a Clockwork, i.e. fitted with hydraulic disc-brakes and an Alfine transmission (the Clockwork is now specced with Nexus 7).

We are now on our 3rd Bullitt, having replaced our first cargo bike with another Bullitt, and having suffered frame failure on the 2nd Bullitt after 2 years.  In that time, we have replaced pretty every part on the 2nd Bullitt, apart from the handle-bars and levers, including the kick-stand.  The front-hub was replaced not due to failure, but simply because I wanted to have a dyno hub fitted to the bike, so that the riders never have to worry about having lights on the bike.

Overall, I am very pleased with the way that the Bullitts have performed.

The spec was just about right, although I would recommend that any commercial user swap out the front hub for a dyno as soon as possible, and expect to replace the tyres straight away, as the tyres that come with Clockwork / Bluebird spec are seriously rubbish, and last about a month.  You do not want to spend any time at all dropping the wheels out of a cargo bike, so puncture resistance and durability are even more important than on conventional bikes.  I don’t actually like Marathon Plus at all, but they are perfect for this application, and well worth the money.

We did break stuff, but it wasn’t a big problem, as even when the kick-stand snapped (the kick-stand broke on both Bullitts – something I think Larry vs Harry have sorted out now, as a decent kick-stand is very important on a cargo bike – it’s seriously inconvenient to have to prop a loaded cargo bike up on a regular basis), L vs H sent us out a new one, which arrived within the week.

Notably, we broke the gear mechanism on one bike twice.  I suspect that this indicated a mixture of misuse, and insufficiently frequent servicing, rather than inherent unreliability of the part, as the 3 year old bike’s hub is only now in need of replacement.  Again, because mass-produced and widely available parts are used, it was a matter of days to get a replacement mechanism fitted.

Did I say stuff got broken? I think we replaced most of the moving parts at least once (calipers, discs, rims, chains, chain-sets, head-sets etc – there are two on a Long John style cargo bike etc etc), but over a two year period, this is exactly the sort of wear & tear I would expect from any pedal bike used for couriering most days, most weeks in London.  My very conservative, not at all well-educated, guess at average daily mileage for the bikes is around 30, so allowing 48 weeks continuous use a year, so I reckon that each bike does at least 7 200 miles a year, in all conditions – even snow, ice & salt.

As I mentioned above, we fitted secure, water-proof boxes to all our bikes, and this is probably the most problematic area for commercial cargo bikes.  You want to be able to secure the load so that it’s safe on the bike whilst the bike is unattended, and you want to be able to carry as much as possible, but clearly the box can’t be wider than the bike (this will make the bike a lot less manoeuvrable, and ideally the box will be light, as well as strong, water-proof & secure.  Too big and heavy a box will demoralise the rider, especially if the rider is asked to ride 4 miles to deliver an envelope only a little bigger than his (or her) hand.  This is important, because, as the old courier proverb has it, “a turning wheel is an earning wheel”, so sometimes it’s good to get some work on board, no matter how small the item, as long as it’s not wildly out of the way.  It’s not a great idea to send a cargo bike to Greenwich, if most of your cargo clients are based in Clerkenwell, and send stuff into the West End.

Our first bike (8 Freight) was fitted as big a box as we could reasonably fit, and this was a big mistake.  The weight destroyed the rack, and this was a big reason why the bike was so unreliable.

Repeating the mistake, we initially fitted a flight-case style box, custom made by Quentor to fit the Bullitt.  Even though the box was very light for its size, it was (is) relatively heavy, and the weight dramatically affects the handling of the bike, to the point where I dropped the bike on its side the very first time I tried to ride it.

We looked around for alternatives, and considered getting an aluminium box fabricated to our spec, but the cost was not considered by me to be worth the benefit.  Bullitt now sell a box for £300 (more or less, at it is priced in Euros).*  We fitted this box to one of our Bullitts, and with the dyno-hub, I would say this spec is pretty much perfect for courier work.  Still light enough to make envelope delivery economic and durable enough to give acceptable reliability (I find the idea of fitting carbon fibre parts, or, indeed, any race-quality parts, to commercial cargo bike ridiculous).  The commercial (as opposed to domestic) cargo bike is the epitome of the old truism of ‘light, cheap and strong – pick two’.  On our spec, the total cost is over £3000, which is an absurd sum for what is basically a sophisticated shopping bike, but for the heavy commercial user, it compares very, very favourably with the alternatives (which would be a small car).  So you could say, at least by one measure, that the Bullitt is all 3, i.e. light, cheap AND strong.

Big Blue Bike, who are based in Cardiff, got completely fed up with the weight of a hard box, and have developed a different solution, a foldable, secure, waterproof bag-box hybrid.  I haven’t seen it close-up, but they tell me it will be on sale shortly.

I finally, reluctantly watched ‘War on Britain’s Roads’, which is a documentary recently aired on BBC 1.  I had heard about the documentary some months ago, having been contacted by a researcher acting for the makers.  He told me that they were making a film about the conflict on Britain’s roads, and the role that video footage was playing in it, and were interviewing protaganists in some of the more notorious incidents.

I realised before he went on what was coming next.  No, I wasn’t willing to help the film-makers identify the riders in ‘London Calling’, Lucas Brunelle’s now notorious film.  Not in a million years.  The researcher tried to persuade me that the footage and interviews would be a valuable contribution to a balanced view of the problems on Britain’s roads.  I snorted.

When he told me that Cynthia Barlow was participating, my heart sunk, and I told him that I would die of shame if ‘London Calling’ was shown as part of a programme featuring Cynthia.  Well, despite my best efforts, the footage was shown, and although I haven’t died, I do feel absolutely mortified.

I have been proud of the messenger community for its part in helping, in some small way, to repopularise cycling, by showing that it is a practical, economical alternative to motor transport.  I also like to think that bicycle messengers have had some impact in other, less tangible ways on cycle culture.  I was also proud of having helped to highlight the danger of lorries, when I was chair of the London Bicycle Messenger Association.

Now I feel sick that our actions in ‘London Calling’ have been used to undermine the cycling community, and the work of good people like Cynthia Barlow on national television.

And the worst part is that I knew this day was coming.  I feared it, and did as much as I could to prevent it.  I made it pretty clear in this post ‘The Revolutions Will Not Be Televised’ why I thought it was a really bad idea to allow any film-maker near an alleycat.

But once Lucas posted ‘London Calling’ on You Tube, it was only a matter of time before it was picked up by someone, somewhere.

There’s been a lot of talk about the footage, which features some pretty stupid riding by some people I know really well.  The race that features in it was called ‘Lost In The Crowd’, and Walshy, who organised, wrote a report of how the race came to be on Moving Target.  If you read the report, you will notice two things: first, Lucas put up £300 cash prizes; second, he had a very clear idea of what footage he wanted from the race.

In his report, Walshy says:

Brendt Barbur called me a few days later and explained that his friend Lucas Brunelle had a few guidelines for the race. A basic set of criteria was established in the hope of maximising the transfer of excitement, and dare I say danger, from real life onto the big screen.

further on he also says:

We selected lots of short checkpoints so that there would only be one ideal route between them and maybe 1 or 2 alternatives. We were hoping that the riders would bunch up for most of the race so that Lucas could tailgate large numbers kinda like the ‘Running of the Bulls’ where Lucas represents the bull and everyone else represents the heartless and inhumane crowd. Ideally, by the end of the race, every rider would have ridden exactly the same route and Lucas would have sat behind, and among, the main pack catching all the action.

In other words, the idea was to create a race with maximum chaos on the road, and that this was what Lucas was looking for.  To encourage the riders to go as fast as possible, and take as many risks as possible, Lucas also had put up £300 in cash prizes.  At the time, the first prize of £125 would be equivalent to nearly half a week’s wages for most couriers (average earnings have shrunk considerably, and this would now be more than half a week’s wages for most London cycle couriers).

Previously, I have deliberately avoided criticising Lucas Brunelle directly, because there seemed little point in starting a fight over something I couldn’t change.  It was pretty clear to me early on in his career as ‘film-maker’ that he seemed intent on building a reputation as a ‘bad-ass’ who could hang with the ‘craziest bike racers in the world’, and was unlikely to listen to anything I had to say, or read anything I might write.

I was confirmed in this view when I saw ‘Line of Sight’ (it’s on You Tube, and you can find it yourselves – I’m not going to link it) at the cinema.  After an interminable opening 10 minutes of ‘race footage’, the film cuts to a panaromic view of New York’s skyline, and then Lucas appears in the fore-ground (hence my ironic titling of him as the ‘the King of New York’), and then he gives an entirely fatuous monologue on alleycat racing, intercut with more race footage.  It’s notable that Lucas’ choice of sound-track for his movies is similar to the choice of Leopard Films for ‘War On Britain Roads’ – wailing guitars, thrashing drums and portentous, thumping bass.

Peter Walker, of the Guardian, tweeted last night that:

Blog doesn’t even point out the footage is six years old, or that cameraman is not ‘involved in race’ but professionally filming it

Peter, you don’t know the half of it.  Lucas is not a professional film-maker.  He runs, according to this Bicycle Magazine interview, an IT company.  This allows him to fund his hobby of going around the world to participate in, and film, alleycats.  I have no idea whether he manipulates all or any of the other races he films in the way that he manipulated ‘Lost In The Crowd’, by determining course routing, and putting up cash prizes to encourage increased participation.  By the way, in the Bicycling interview, Lucas is quoted thus: I love cars. Fuck bike advocacy.  There’s no way of telling whether Lucas is being serious, but it fits with the whole ‘fuck you, I’m not going to do what you tell me’ attitude.

In no way could his film-making be described as ‘professional’.  The double head-cam set-up is well-designed, the images are pretty high quality, but that’s the extent of his craft – that, and his ability to ride a bike as quickly as some of ‘craziest bike racers in the world’.  The films that he produces have little artistic merit, in my opinion.  Once you get beyond what’s happening on the screen, they are boring, and way, way too long.   The novelty of watching people make ill-advised manouevres wears off pretty quickly.  I always come away from the films thinking: what a bunch of idiots, and what a waste of my time.

I don’t want to get into a discussion of the wisdom or otherwise of alleycats here;  I put down my thoughts in a blog post on Moving Target, after the death of a participant in the Da Tour de Chicago.

However, I will say this:  many people (indeed some of the cyclists watching the ‘London Calling’ footage for the BBC programme) say that the riders shown in Lucas’ film are demonstrating ‘skill’.  I disagree.  There is no skill in cutting through a junction and hoping that the cars crossing your path, who have right of way, will stop for you – it’s just rude, stupid and dangerous.   Skilful riding in traffic is cutting through the flow without making waves, not barging to the front of queue, forcing other people to get out of your way.  As for the incidents involving pedestrians, really, truly shameful.  Criminal, as the police officer says in his comments in the programme.

Charlie Lloyd, on behalf of the London Cycling Campaign, put out a press release in which he described the racers as ‘professionals’.  Charlie was being very, very charitable.  A lot of the guys in that race were couriers, so their profession was using a bike to deliver parcels – they were not professional racers.  If they were that good at racing bikes, they would have gone on to win real races.

The numbers of professional road racers who were couriers is very small.  I only know of one of note, and that is the legendary New Yorker, Nelson Vails.  Maurice Burton was a London courier, but only after his racing career had ended.  Ray Eden, who was a London bicycle courier, and then went on to race, was probably good enough to race with the pros, and if he  had been part of the current British Cycling programme, I think he would have done.  These guys are the exception, not the rule.

I heard from other people that the film-makers had contacted, people that had been in the race.  They had all refused to participate.  The film-makers were persistent.  I know for a fact that a couple of were contacted multiple times, and one was offered £500 to participate.  I spoke to the guy who was offered the money, which was tempting to him, because, like Lucas’ £125 prize, it was a lot of money for someone in a low-paid, dangerous job.  I told him that it would only be worth doing if he received enough money to be able to leave the country and not come back.

I am proud that no-one participated.  However, I am genuinely ashamed that the London messenger community has, however inadvertently, brought shame on itself in this way.  I had nothing to do with the race, did not ride in it, but please accept my apology.

When I spoke to the film-makers, I explained the context, as I have outlined above, in which the film was made. They told me that Lucas had been contacted and had consented to let his footage be used.  This made me angry.  I suggested to the researcher that the person they should be putting in front of the camera was Lucas, so that he could explain why he organised that race, and what role his camera played.

He created the race, he encouraged the riders to go as fast they could, and he filmed it.  Why?

In the original version of this article I stated that the first prize was £300.  This was incorrect.  The total prize fund was £300, with the first prize being £125.

Scarlett, a.k.a Bring Me My Fix on the London Fixed Gear & Single Speed forum, is a very wordy guy.  He’s also a great guy to go for a Sunday ride with, as he doesn’t show-boat, wheel-suck, half-wheel or switch.  Also, I have never seen him in a pair of tennis socks

He raced a lot at Eastway, but I don’t think I ever raced against him, as he was always in the E/1/2, being a more than half-decent rider, whereas I was a career 4th cat, and was consequently always getting a kicking off the old guys who used to be elite riders, the bionic juniors and the elite women. He’s a hero of mine, because he beat one of the noisiest Essex boys, a real nasty piece of work, in a sprint up there. I also recall that he beat Lee ‘Terminator’ Povey in the final of Rollapaluza IX, all the way back in 2007, which year now feels like Year Zero of London Bicycle Culture.

It was always obvious to me, reading his often quixotic, but always compelling, posts on LFGSS, that he had a talent for writing, and that he should spend less time fiddling around on the forum, and more time writing something of consequence.  And this is, in fact, what he has done.  The Srampagmano Tales are a pastiche of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which will be familiar to O Level English Literature students of a certain age.  I use pastiche in its proper meaning, not pejoratively, for the Srampagmano Tales openly imitate the form & structure of Chaucer’s work.  As in the Canterbury Tales, Scarlett uses the device of a group of travelling companions to satirise the dress & attitudes of the companions, who are riding to Brighton (the London to Brighton ride has become a cycling pilgrimage, after all), and London bike culture more generally.

It’s a much more witty, and far better observed, poetic version of all those tiresome ‘cycling tribes’ articles that pop up in the main-stream media every spring.  The satire & characterisations aren’t as savage or as smutty as Chaucer’s (the Pardoner, in particular, was utterly demolished in the original) because Scarlett is, after all, as the french would say, un amateur du velo.  But it is very funny, and we will all recognise ourselves in these tales.

Being not of a poetic bent, I am very much in awe of Scarlett’s book, as the ability to write in rhyming couplets, much less go the whole hog, and write several thousand words in iambic pentameter is way beyond me.  I earnestly urge everyone to buy this book.  The best place and time to buy the book is tonight at Look Mum No Hands, because the author & illustrator (Scarlett’s partner, Faith Buck) will be selling & signing copies.

There’s an excellent interview of Scarlett over here on Traumfahrrad.

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