Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Handbadge

1950s Rudge Sports Roadster
Until recently I had not really considered the meaning of the Rudge headbadge. It was only a couple of days ago when, having spotted a lovely sports roadster with a full-colour version of the emblem, that it hit me. Is this the Red Hand of Ulster?

By now I have grown used to seeing renderings of the up-turned hand on flags and logos - the mystical symbol of Northern Ireland, appropriated, interestingly and confusingly enough, by both Loyalist and Republican groups, as well as by various non-sectarian organisations, clubs and the like. And now here it was on this bicycle.

1950s Rudge Sports Roadster
I scanned my memory for what I recalled of Rudge history, but none of it had to do with Ulster. So I looked into it once again. Founded in Coventry, England by engineer Daniel Rudge, the company later merged with Birmingham-based Whitworth Cycle Co. to become Rudge-Whitworth Cycles (and later motorcycle manufacturer). Nothing geographically close to Northern Ireland here. Neither did the old catalogues seem to offer any explanation. The one thing I did find acknowledging the link was the Rudge Ulster motorbike. That, however, was named after the Ulster Grand Prix race, which a rider won on a Rudge machine - an event that the headbadge precedes.

1950s Rudge Sports Roadster
The Rudge sports roadster distracted me from the hand question with its many nifty features, such as this original Sturmey Archer Dyno Luxe battery pack, mounted on the seat tube.

1950s Rudge Sports Roadster
Wired to the battery pack are the headlight and tail light, also Sturmey Archer branded. During this time period, it seems that manufacturers used dyno hubs, bottle generators and these dry battery packs simultaneously. I've often wondered what determined which method they chose.

1950s Rudge Sports Roadster
Like a missing key to a vintage wheel lock, the definitive answer to the question of the Hand's origin may never be found. The most likely explanation seems to be that the Rudge family hailed originally from Northern Ireland and used the Red Hand of Ulster symbol to commemorate this - though I also love Jim Langley's thinking that the symbol meant "hand made." If only we could "talk to the hand" and ask! 

Whatever the origin of the Rudge emblem - rendered in several versions on their headbadges and chainrings - it is a striking symbol, in particular when the bikes are spotted in Northern Ireland. And if anyone is in the market for a vintage Rudge roadster, this one can be had at Gerald Deehan's Vintage and Antique Swap in Limavady. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

What Is the Right Bike for You?

Bellarena Airfield by Brompton
Of all the bike-related discussions I have with readers, with members of the bicycle industry, with other bloggers and with cycling friends, the most common one - the most recurring and inexhaustible - centers on that all-important question: "What is the right bike for me?" What is the perfect bike, the ideal bike? Does such a thing even exist?

Funny enough, over the years this question has gotten more, not less complicated. From city bikes to racing bikes to everything in between, we are plain spoiled for choice in 2014 compared to the way things stood in 2009. There are more off-the-shelf options now than ever in every category and sub-category of bicycles for sport and transport. The custom framebuilding industry has mushroomed. And we are showered with philosophies and slogans - some competing and overlapping - with respect to how to approach cycling in the first place. There are lots of products out there, lots of opinions and information. But how to parse through it all and know what bike is right for you?

After 5 years of running this blog, I still don't know very much about bicycles. But I do have an answer (not THE answer, heavens forbid) to this question that I can offer to those who ask it. It is not an especially profound or epiphonic answer. It is an answer that, quite, frankly, is disappointing in its simplicity. It is an answer so obvious that it is consistently overlooked. Chances are you will find it a bit of a letdown. But here goes anyway:

The right bike for you is the bike you will ride. 

That's it. That is all there is to it. 

The right bike might fit all the criteria put forth, with impeccable logic, by the most revered cycling journal, book, blog, or reviewer - right down to geometry, tire size and accessories. Or it might fit none of them. It might be completely wrong for your use case scenario. It might be ill fitting and improperly accessorised. It might be too fancy for what you use it for, or not fancy enough. It might have features you'll never need, or lack features you do need. Still, if you find yourself riding it all the time, reaching for it when you head out the door, it is the right bike for you. 

The right bike might be the very epitome of your idea of beautiful. The smuttiest of #bikep0rn. The sort of bike you have always pictured yourself upon, gliding down the street as passers-by swoon with admiration and envy. Or it might be nothing of the sort. Even if the bike is lackluster in appearance and totally at odds with the way you see yourself, if you ride it all the time it is the right bike for you. 

The right bike is the bike you ride. 

This does not imply you ought to force yourself to make do with a machine you dislike. Rather, it suggests you keep an open mind about what it really means to like a bicycle in the first place. The litmus test is in the riding.

Is your "dream bike" - the bike that's supposedly perfect in every way - languishing in the hallway while a different one gets ridden? The one that's being ridden is the right bike for you. 

The right bike is the one you will end up riding the heck out of - regardless of whether you, your friends, the staff at your local bike shop, reviewers in your favourite publication, or anonymous commentators on internet forums, agree it is right for you. In short, all I'm saying is...


Thank you, as always, for reading Lovely Bicycle - in particular over this past, rather turbulent year! 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Why Beer?

Over the years cycling has had a transformative effect on my diet. For instance, I acquired a taste for plain water after a lifetime of disliking it. And I started to eat meat again after 10 years of vegetarianism. Just as startling, but hopefully less controversial than the latter, has been my newfound enthusiasm for beer.

Now, I know some feel that that bikes and beer go hand in hand, so this is not exactly a novel concept. But until a couple of years ago I just didn't get it. Why beer? What's so great about it and what does it have to do with cycling? Because frankly, until 2012 I had been unable to touch the stuff. Not only did it taste horrible to me, but drinking even small quantities would reliably leave me with a heavy, unpleasant, bread-coma type of feeling that I wouldn't be able to shake for hours. Beer? Beh. I'd rather have a glass of wine or a cocktail.

So I thought, until one innocent summer evening when I took a sip of Guinness at dinner after several weeks in a row of strenuous cycling. Normally I hated this particular beer even more than the others. But, to my amazement, it now tasted out of this world delicious. I finished an entire pint and felt fine. No bread-coma, no uncomfortable fullness. And thus my transformation into a beer drinker began. I never felt compelled to get into fancy or craft beers. Whatever was on offer would taste pretty good after a long day on the bike - though I would also get cravings for Guinness specifically. There is just something about it that tastes …I don't know, fortifying? As long as I cycle, I love the stuff. And, with equal reliability, if I'm not putting in the miles I soon find it difficult to drink again.

So what is it about beer and bikes? Is it about the ritual of it? Is it about carbohydrates, metabolism and all that?

"It's to do with strength training," a local cyclist explained, and showed me this informative mural. Those climbing muscles are not going to maintain themselves.

Contemplating this bit of expert wisdom, I partook of the dense white foam, which in turn gave way to the dark, strength-replenishing liquid. And as I did this I closed my eyes, losing myself in a deep visceral appreciation. My legs are aching and my mouth is craving beer again. Spring is in full swing.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Toward a Topographical Fatalism

Seacoast Road Cyclist
Without a doubt living in Northern Ireland has changed me as a cyclist. I have noticed. My friends have noticed. But the exact nature of this change is tricky to articulate. It isn't merely a matter of having gotten "better," as defined by improvement in speed and technique. Sure there is that too. After all, how can one not improve with pavement the texture of hard-packed gravel? With a mountain straight out the front door? With winds attacking from every direction? With former racers for cycling buddies? 

But the more fundamental change is in a shift in perspective. I have given in to the landscape. I have stopped approaching difficult topography as a problem - or even thinking of it in terms of difficulty in the first place. The landscape is there, its qualities outside my control. I cannot change it. I can only experience it, appreciate it, remember it. And that is best done if I do not struggle against it, but instead take it as it comes. Rather than suffering through a climb and wishing for it to end, I try to harmonise with it and - believe it or not - enjoy the moment  …or minute, or hour, as the case may be. When approached this way, the reward becomes not the view on top, and not even the sense of accomplishment upon reaching it, but the climb in itself.

Of course it's easy for me to adapt that attitude now that I have a featherweight bike with ultra-low gearing. But it isn't just that either. One day last Autumn I was out with local cyclist and coach Colin Loughery. We were talking about gearing, pedaling technique and strength training. "You want to try something?" he asked. I replied that I did, whereupon he instructed me to accelerate and get into my tallest gear as we rolled down a long flat stretch giving way to a slight incline. "When this flat bit ends," he said, "there will be a drag [hill]. See if you can stay in your tallest gear all the way to the top."

My mood instantly darkened. I didn't look forward to embarrassing myself in front of Colin. But I knew the incline we were about to go up, and there was just no way I could do it in 50/11. Feeling the momentum begin to wear off as I started the climb, my mind raced, grasping for strategies that would at least save me from toppling over. Maybe if I stood right away and pushed with all my might...

But before my butt had a chance to leave the saddle, came Colin's friendly command. "Don't stand! Stay seated and don't change gears. Just pedal." The words coming out of his mouth were so fantastical, that upon hearing them something in me snapped and allowed me to suspend disbelief. Okay, I would pedal. And in this insane gear, while remaining seated, I would crest this hill without breaking my knees or toppling over. 

And then I did exactly that. The strength for it came from somewhere deep within my abdomen rather than from my legs or lungs. It was as if some extra cluster of muscles appeared to accommodate this impossible thing I was trying to do. I could feel it for days afterward. 

"Good. But you stopped pedaling in circles." Colin had said to me at the top. As if, such a normal and casual thing it was to cycle up a hill in 50/11, that we could talk pedaling technique. Circles were the last thing on my mind then ...a pity, as later I discovered that making sure to continue pedaling circles and resisting the urge to stomp makes even grinding feel nicer, more meditative. 

The seeds had already been sewn. But it was on this ride that a philosophy of topographical fatalism took root. Just go with it. Suspend disbelief. The road awaits, and with it the wonderful unknown. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Adventures in Cyclo Shepherding

Lamb Herding
The first time it happened unintentionally. I was cycling down a neighbouring farm lane, when I noticed frantic activity in front of one of the cottages. The farmers - a man and woman in their 60s - crouched facing each other with their arms spread wide open, as if about to perform some strange circle dance. As I got closer I saw they were attempting to surround a tiny, highly vocal bundle of white fleece. The creature, sensing that capture was near, leapt and darted about wildly until it evaded the two pairs of outstretched hands and galloped away. Never having witnessed such a scene before, I stood frozen over my bike for a moment, mouth agape, watching the newly born lamb - hardly larger than a cat - disappear down the lane in the direction of the shore. For a moment the others stood silent as well. And then all at once we knew what needed to happen. By the time the farmer said "Would you go and chase it down on your wee bike?" my foot was already pushing the pedal.

Lamb Herding
So what exactly is involved in herding a lamb by bike? Luckily I had watched sheep dogs do this a few times, so I wasn't entirely clueless. First, I cycled fast, to catch up with the lamb. The rush from the escape having subsided, it now hopped along anxiously, its tail trembling, not sure what to do next. I slowed down and cycled directly behind it, coasting to let it hear the ticking of my hub and sense my looming presence. And then, ever so slowly and carefully, I maneuvered my bike as if I meant to cycle around it and into its path. 

Lamb Herding
After some initial moments of indecision, the lamb did what I had seen others do when confronted with this maneuver - it made a U-turn and ran back in the direction of the farm. Slowly I followed close in its tracks to make sure it kept this course. It was growing dusky by this time and my bicycle's headlight was glowing bright, illuminating our path. When the farmers spotted us approaching they were ready and grabbed the twitching creature after I steered it into a narrow, fenced in part of the yard where the newborn lambs and their mothers were kept in a pen. The poor thing had gotten out by accident, but now it wanted its mother - wagging its tail happily and going straight for the milk upon seeing her. All was well.

Lamb Herding
I would not say that herding lambs has become a habit. But I've helped bring back a few of these wayward darlings now, including this fleecy fellow just earlier this morning. My little Brompton is hilariously perfect for the task - compact and easy to accelerate and maneuver, it can sprint after the lamb, then slow down and hover around it until it turns in the desired direction. The lambs seem to accept this two-wheeled shepherd and behave predictably.

Lamb Herding
Despite their erratic galloping ways, once caught the lambs are actually quite docile and cooperative. Cooperative enough to sit in my bike basket, I've wondered? But, considering they aren't house-trained, I've never gone as far as to try it.