Posts Tagged ‘Cycling’

Two wheels good, four wheels bad

Following Monday’s post about going carfree, here are my tips for urbanites who are planning to make a bike their main form of transport.

1. Which bike?

If you haven’t already got a bike, you’ll need to think about what type of bike to get. I bought one at the low end of the range of a good make of mountain bikes.

My bike

My trusty steed

I bought towards the bottom of the range because I wasn’t positive I would keep on cycling. In fact I have done, yet I don’t regret buying a cheaper bike. The more expensive mountain bikes come with features that I wouldn’t need given than I mostly cycle around town. Suspension for example which, while though no doubt welcome off-road, reduces your efficiency so requiring you to work harder, and isn’t necessary for on-road cycling.

I bought a mountain bike because I thought it would be hardwearing and take more knocks. (OK, and because it was what everyone was buying at the time and I thought it would make me look cool). I have since changed its chunky tyres for hybrid ones. Mountain bike tyres are designed to grip the ground and provide traction. Necessary for off-road riding: a waste of your pedalling energy on road. While I still enjoy my bike’s robustness, I don’t enjoy the stream of water that pours down my back when it’s raining (mountain bikes don’t have mudguards), or the dirty patches on the inside of my right trouser legs (mountain bikes don’t have chain guards). With hindsight, I think I’d have been better off with a road bike.

I still love my bike though ūüôā

Another option is a hybrid, though personally I regard that as the worst of both worlds, rather than the best.

2. Get a rack and panniers

More comfortable than a rucksack and MUCH safer than carrier bags hanging off your wrists (I know someone who smashed her shoulder when the bags she was carrying caught in her front wheel as she sped downhill on a bike).

3. Outer gear

You’ll want a waterproof jacket, trousers and overshoes. As well as keeping you dry, they’ll be windproof so they’ll keep you warm when necessary. Keep them in your panniers so you don’t get caught out.

I recommend gloves too. Long-fingered waterproof ones for winter, short-fingered ones for summer. Not only do they keep your hands warm and dry, they make riding more comfortable, acting like shock absorbers for your hand. And the short-fingered ones make you look like an urban warrior, which is always a bonus.

I always wear a helmet. Debate rages about this. (Do drivers give more space to cyclists without helmets? Does promoting their use discourage people from cycling? Do helmeted cyclists ride less carefully?) I’ve come off my bike a few times in the last ten years and been glad of my helmet. On the worst ocassion, caused by black ice, though I was severly bruised, my helmet saved my face a nasty scrape (and kept my glasses and hearing aid on and intact).

I bought a pair of cycling shoes a couple of years ago. While they’re not essential, they make cycling more efficient (the solid soles transfer more of your legpower to your pedals). Plus, they take away the need to work out what shoes I’m going to put on to cycle! I can always pop a more glamorous pair in my panniers to change into on arrival. Or sometimes I just cycle in the glamorous ones (see benefits of being carfree number 5).

They’ve also got cleats in the sole that can clip into specially designed (clipless) pedals. That increases your efficiency as it harnesses the power of your pedalling upstroke as well as your downstroke. I’ve never used them though as I’m concerned about failing to unclip quickly enough on stopping (leading to me tipping over and looking like an idiot) or remaining attached to my bike in an accident, resulting in more serious injuries. Having said that, I just did a quick internet search to check my terminology for this blog post and found stuff on the web suggesting that clipless pedals and cleats disengage easily and won’t stay attached during an accident (unlike pedals with toeclips and straps) so maybe I’ll reconsider.

4. Use two good locks

Get more than one lock, of different types (thieves are likely to be carrying equipment to get through a single type). I use a D-lock plus a chain & padlock. Lock your bike to something secure (I once saw thieves attempt to lift a bike over the roughly ten foot high post it was chained to). Make sure you lock both the wheels and the frame to whatever you’re securing your bike to (especially if you’ve got quick release wheels).

5. Service your bike regularly

Do it yourself or use your local bike shop. It costs way less than servicing a car and will ensure that your bike is safe (by replacing worn brake pads, brake cables, chain etc). I have mine done annually.

6. Learn how to fix a puncture…

I confess I could do better on this one myself. I do know how. I did a great course on basic bike maintenance recently. However, I found I didn’t have the strength to get the tyre back on the wheel once I’d fixed the puncture so I don’t know whether I’d attempt it if I got a puncture while I was out. I rarely cycle so far from civilisation that a flat tyre would leave me stranded. However, if I was going way off road or far from public transport, I’d want to be carrying a spare inner tube and a pump and know that I could fix a puncture if necessary.

7…and prevent them

Pump up your tyres every week or so. It’s harder work cycling with soft tyres. Plus soft tyres result in damage to your wheels and tyres, and to more punctures.

For the first few years after I started cycling as an adult, I was lax about pumping up my tyres. I knew I ‘should’. And I rarely did. And even when I did, working hard with a hand pump, I wasn’t sure if I’d achieved anything because I never knew if I’d put in the right amount of air.

And then I bought a strirrup pump with a pressure gauge. Transformation! Now pumping up my tyres is easy, and the pressure gauge (combined with the recommended pressure printed on the side of my tyres) tells me when to stop.

Also, every¬† now and then, have a good look at your tyres. You’ll see that they are full of nicks and indentations from sharp objects you’ve cycled over. Some of these will have the sharp object in question embedded within them. You can gently ease these bits of glass etc out with, for example, a screwdriver, which will reduce the chance of them being pushed further in and causing a puncture next time. I love doing this. It’s like squeezing spots. Dead satisfying!

8. Carry your lights at all times

I went to a party last weekend, expecting to stay for the afternoon and come home early evening to go out with some other friends. Once I was in the swing of the party though, I didn’t want to leave early and my plans for that evening were easily rearranged so I stayed. Luckily someone was driving home from the party and could fit my bike in their car (with my quick release front wheel removed), otherwise I’d have had an unpleasant ride home in the dark.

Find a way to have your lights on you whenever you’re out on your bike (e.g. keep them on the bike, or in a bag you always take with you cycling). If you don’t, you’ll inevitably get caught out, especially in the Spring and Autumn, when you’re more likely to be going out in the light and coming home in the dark.

I use clockwork bike lights. The five minutes I spend winding them up every couple of weeks are worth it to reduce my reliance on fossil fuels still further. You might prefer battery operated lights if you frequently do longer journeys though (say over half an hour).

If you’re using battery operated lights, use rechargeable batteries to keep your environmental impact as low as possible.

It’s a good idea to carry spares batteries, especially if you’re using rechargables (as they die suddenly rather than gradually fading over time). I’d suggest carrying alkaline batteries as spares so there’s no danger you’ll put your spares in only to find they’ve gone flat too.

Another environmentally-friendly option is a dynamo, though you will have to pedal harder as your legs will be powering the light as well as your wheels.

Happy cycling folks. Enjoy getting from A to B with minimal environmental impact, at little financial cost, while improving your physical and mental health. What’s not to like?

And please do share your cycling tips below.

Is your car more curse than convenience?

I ditched my car ten years ago. I’d been debating with myself whether to go car free for a few months as I was using my car less and less. I wasn’t sure though. If I got rid, would I be able to manage? I was self-employed with clients all over South East England and London. Would I lose out on work through spending too much time on travel? Would my travel costs significantly increase? Would I find myself spending lots of money hiring cars to get me to social events in out of the way places, or because I had too much luggage to carry on a train?

Then my car started overheating.¬† A garage told me the head gasket had cracked and it would cost ¬£800 (more than the car was worth) to repair it. That made the decision for me and I said ‘goodbye’.

And I haven’t looked back (except before changing lanes on my bike).

I cycle or walk for local journeys (I rarely use taxis or even buses) and use the train for anything further away. I occasionally hire a car if I’m going away for a weekend (especially with others), doing a journey with lots of stops, or travelling somewhere with a lot of luggage. Probably only about half a dozen times in the last ten years though.

There are options for using cars without owning one that are cheaper than traditional car hire.

For example, car clubs provide locally parked cars that members can hire for slots as short as 30 minutes, booking online at short notice so long as a car is available.

While WhipCar enables car owners to rent out their cars to other people when they’re not using them.

In fact, I haven’t found I’ve wanted use of a car enough even to pursue those options.

Aside from the obvious contribution to me living a low impact life, here are some of the benefits I’ve noticed.

1. I’ve saved money

In my last year of car ownership, I spent about ¬£2,000 on car-related costs (maintenance, petrol, insurance, tax, MOT, parking…), and about a further ¬£1,000 on public transport. In the last 12 months, I’ve spent about ¬£2,000 in total on transport. According to this inflation calculator, the ¬£3,000 I spent ten years ago would be equivalent to ¬£3,700 today. So, while I can’t be sure that there weren’t changes in my travel patterns that I haven’t accounted for, this crude analysis suggests I’ve nearly halved my travel costs by ditching my car. And that’s without taking into account the cost/depreciation of the car itself.

Money’s only part of the picture though…

Glass of wine on train

Let the train take the strain

2. Less stress

I no longer worry about the safety of my car parked on the street, or whether I’ll unexpectedly be faced with a large bill because something’s gone wrong with it. Parking where I live in Brighton & Hove is becoming increasingly challenging and the Council is introducing restrictions in more residential areas, prompting heated debates and strong feelings: not with me though.

3. I’m fitter

Not having a car handily parked outside my house results in me using my bike or Shanks’ pony even more than I would have done otherwise (and Brighton’s hills demand the use of every one of my gears). On a memorable occasion before I ditched my car, because it was pouring with rain, I drove to the gym instead of cycling. Big mistake. The world and her husband had made similar decisions and I was late for my fitness class because of the traffic. Now I haven’t got a car, that’s not an option. I just don my waterproofs and set off by bike. As my Italian friend says “After all, I’m not made of paper”.

4. I’m more connected to my community

As I walk or cycle about, I stop to chat to people I know, see notices for local events, pick up on changes in my neighbourhood, spot birds and listen to them singing, pop into local shops for errands…

5. I wear my high heels more

Didn’t see that one coming! Thing is, it’s easier to cycle in heels than it is to walk in them. So, if I’m cycling for a night out, I can wear vertiginous heels rather than carry them separately and change on arrival.

6. Lots of time for reading

Car-driving friends wonder how I manage to get through so many books. What a waste of time driving is!

7. Not MY fault guv’

OK, so sometimes trains run late or are cancelled. Driving is unpredictable too though. Accidents and breakdowns happen. Traffic gets backed up. And, if I’m late for a meeting because of public transport delays, I think people are less inclined to think that I should simply have allowed longer for my journey than they would be if I’d got caught in traffic.

There probably have been occasions when my life has been more inconvenient or more expensive than it would have been if I’d owned a car. I’m not aware of them though because I simply don’t think about it. And overall I reckon it balances out in my favour.

Admittedly I live near the centre of a city in the South East of England, which is relatively well-served with public transport and I haven’t got kids, or a job that requires me to transport lots of stuff around. All the same, if you’re convinced that you can’t cope without a car, maybe it’s worth thinking again.

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