Finishing touches

July 14, 2017 at 14:08 | Posted in bicycles | Leave a comment
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Finally, the last few bits for the transformation of the Radish from a 2 x toddler to a 2 x small girl transporter arrived.

Now the rack passenger has a comfy cushion for their bottom, and foot rests for their feet. I had to buy them from the US, and while the prices were OK, the shipping was (as you might imagine) a bit steep. I wish there was an Xtracycle distributor here in Australia. Surely there’s a market for one? Anyway, thanks to Matt at BikeShopHub in Flagstaff, Arizona, for patiently answering my emails and sorting everything for me.

Separately to getting all the rack bits, I also have had the drive train replaced, as the rear derailleur had sort of lost all its springiness – I guess the weight of that long chain takes its toll over seven years, and it was drooping badly and not changing at all well. It’s now all new and snappy, and feels very nice. Oddly the bike shop didn’t change the chainwheel, despite it being worn into sharks teeth. This meant the chain still rattled somewhat, and didn’t feel smooth. I have no idea why they didn’t change this (as they changed everything else), but it did mean I could buy one online and do it myself. It’s not often I get to use my crank-puller. I have most of the tools for bike maintenance, but for the most part am too lazy to do things myself.  Still, this little job was easy enough, and now the drivechain is silky-smooth and silent. I’m sure it makes for a very relaxing ride for the passengers!

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New York 2140 – Kim Stanley Robinson

July 4, 2017 at 14:22 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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I bought this as an easy read for a long plane trip, and it served its purpose admirably. It’s a sci-fi book (something you might possibly deduce from the title…) set in a world where sea level has risen forty feet as a result of global warming, and the world is finding a new equilibrium. Much of Manhattan is now underwater, but life in the most solid tall buildings goes on, with the streets becoming a sort of Venetian canal network. The weaker, smaller buildings are gradually slumping into the water, whilst even larger skyscrapers are constructed on higher ground. It’s quite an evocative picture of a possible near future, with humanity living both differently yet also rather similarly to today. One similarity is the global financial markets; still managing trillions of dollars of money, all leveraged and borrowed, and ripe for collapse. Both financial and literal liquidity are woven together neatly throughout the book.

Into this scenery is placed an eclectic cast of characters; software coders, a tough policewoman, a social lawyer, a banker, a TV reality star, two savvy street kids and a lugubrious building supervisor. The opening of the book is strong, as these characters are sketched out, and it becomes clear that it is one of those books where the lives of these characters gradually become entangled and drawn together. Ultimately, however, the way this happens and the end result is a bit unsatisfactory – it’s all rather rushed and much too neat. Still, as a book to pass the time its certainly to be recommended, and threaded through it is a commentary on our own time, and our negligence in dealing with the climate crisis the world is currently in.

Postscript: I read the final chapters of this book as the results of the June 2017 UK general election were coming in, and there was a certain frisson in seeing the people perhaps rise up and smash the neoliberal order that has held the world in such a grip since the 1980s – exactly as was happening in the chapters I was reading. Alas, the UK election result was rather more messy and did little more than rattle the hegemony a little, unlike the all-too-neat ending of this book.

Ride and Fly – take 2

June 28, 2017 at 14:07 | Posted in bicycles | Leave a comment
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Well, I had to travel again, on an aeroplane. So, of course, I rode to the airport. Honestly, I have no idea why I didn’t start doing this years and year ago. It’s faster, cheaper and a lot more relaxing. Easy easy easy. Forgot all those traffic jams, those tense moments in stationary traffic where you wonder whether you’ll make your flight, the waiting around for taxis to pick you up, those eye-watering fares. Just an easy, pretty much flat half-hour-or-so ride, with guaranteed parking right outside the terminal entrance.

This time, I didn’t bother with my towable suitcase. I just strapped a regular case on the back of the Radish, which to be honest was much easier. Easier to ride, and easier when I got there.

I had a quick shower when I arrived at the airport, although with the cool morning I hardly needed it, and caught my flight with ease. Coming home, I strolled out of the terminal, strapped my bag to the back on the bike and pedalled away. It’s actually really nice to be able to get some exercise after sitting on a plane for long hours, and I was home in no time.

Yes, it would be nice if bike access to the airport was a bit better. But to be honest, it’s not too bad if you’re used to riding in Sydney. Next time you need to fly, take your bike. You won’t regret it.

Ride and Fly

June 21, 2017 at 14:00 | Posted in bicycles | 1 Comment
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You may remember some time ago I impulse purchased a luggage trailer. My initial review was not 100% favourable, and to be honest since then it’s pretty much stayed in the garage unused.

However, the other day I had to go away on business, and the mid-morning flight timing seemed to suit cycling to the airport, plus the trip was going to need checked-in luggage, so I decided to bite the bullet and ride to the international terminal.

I duly dusted off the trailer, packed it pretty full and set off.

The first thing I noted was when I packed. The internal dimensions of the bag are not as large as the external size would suggest, and the zipper opening only allows you to open just over half of it. So it’s not that easy to pack. If also means the most easily accessible and largest part of the bag is the bit at the top, so this bit tends to end up packed more tightly that the bottom bit. This means the weight is distributed towards the top, which exacerbates the somewhat unstable nature of the trailer. More on this later…

Anyway, I coupled it up to the fixie, kissed everyone goodbye and set off. My family waved me off at the doorstep and then went inside as I pulled away. This was lucky, as had they remained a moment longer they would have witnessed me falling off as I turned out of the drive, sprawling unceremoniously on the road. Why? Well, the nature of the coupling means you can’t take a sharp right hand turn, as the back wheel jams up against the tow arm. It’s not an issue in normal riding, but low-speed manoeuvring  carries this risk. Perhaps this is true of all trailers, I’m not sure, but it certainly wasn’t a very auspicious start.

I dusted myself off, and tried again. From there on it went fairly smoothly, although I did still have this background concern about the trailer stability. Riding in traffic on pot-holed roads is a little hair-raising, as I was conscious that if the trailer hit a pothole it might turn over, pulling the bike out of line. That didn’t happen, but I did experience a couple of issues with trailer stability; it tipped over a couple of times when I had to negotiate curbs or tight corners. I could see them coming, and had for the most part stopped beforehand to push the bike around, but it does underline the problem. This thing is easy to tip up.

However, leaving the shortcomings of the trailer aside, riding to the airport is great. Bike access to the airport is fairly straightforward (even if the shared path is rather narrow and directly adjacent to fast-moving traffic), and you can lock up your bike for free right outside the arrivals area. Given the utter rort on transport options to the airport, this is a rare bargain and by itself makes cycling worthwhile. There are free showers in the departures area too, so I was able to have a shower and change before I checked in for my flight. And when I got home there was no waiting about; I walked out of the terminal, grabbed my bike and set off.

The other thing I hadn’t properly appreciated is how close the airport is to where I live. Even (cautiously) pulling a trailer and having to navigate an unfamiliar route, I got there as fast as I’ve ever got there by taxi. Wow. Eleven kilometres. That’s nothing. It’s an interesting thing; my non-cycling friends consistently over-estimate distances based on driving times. It seems utterly unlikely that a journey that takes over an hour by car is less than 15km, but often that’s the case in Sydney (and pretty much universally true at peak time). Seems I had fallen for the same fallacy with regards to the airport. It’s actually right on my doorstep.

I am ashamed of myself for not doing this before. From here on, I will mostly ride, I think. I might not use the trailer much, given its poor design, but I can certainly see me strapping my bag to the back of the Radish and riding there on that. Too easy.

Scotch Finger Lemon Butter

June 15, 2017 at 13:09 | Posted in bicycles | Leave a comment
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Lemons are pretty awesome, when you think about it. They can enhance just about any style of cooking or eating – whether desert, main course or drink. They can lift a roast chicken, give zing to a meringue pie or complete a gin and tonic. Yes, I’m a fan of lemons.

Arnott’s have some form with lemons too. The Lemon Crisp is a god among biscuits. It is transcendent. If you’ve never tried one, go and buy some right now. They are addictive.

Funnily enough, there is a link between the Scotch Finger and the Lemon Crisp. When I reviewed the last ‘Twisted Fave’ Scotch Finger, the one with choc chips in it, I noted at the end of the review that they were good, but ‘nowhere near Lemon Crisp territory’. Did some Arnott’s employee read this, and did this create a subliminal link in their mind between Scotch Fingers and lemons, leading directly to this new variety?

Yes, it did. It surely did. It’s surely thanks to me that we have these biscuits.

And you can thank me effusively, because these are good. I really wasn’t sure how they were going to be; on the surface it seems kind of like an odd combo. But they work brilliantly. The lemon is, well, lemony; the bright flavour adding lifted notes to the rich biscuit. It’s like a rich lemon cheescake. I’m going to give these an eight out of ten. Good show, Arnott’s. Oh, and feel free to send me a few cases by way of thanks for the inspiration…

 

Arnott’s Bites – Mint Slice

June 8, 2017 at 21:21 | Posted in biscuits | Leave a comment
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Arnott’s are at it again, fiddling with old ideas. Apparently they have re-branded the ‘Chocolicious‘ range simply as ‘bites’, and also changed the flavours. In shocking news, it seems the dark chocolate version is no more. This is a tragedy, as it was by far the best one. However, in more cheery news, the Mint Slice is now honoured with the chocolicous bite treatment.

To be honest, I was never a fan of the whole ‘chocolicious’ thing, a rather unfortunate portmanteau that I previously blasted as ‘try hard and derivative’. ‘Bites’ is more to the point, although I now feel rather nostalgic for the old packaging, which I think did look more classy than the new, rather utilitarian design.

Enough of all that – how are the new Mint Slice versions? Well, the Mint Slice, as you will know, I believe to be Arnott’s finest creation. So I was pretty excited about these. The individual elements – the chocolate, the biscuit and the peppermint cream – are all there. But the proportions are way different. The chart below will give you the idea:

That’s a lot of chocolate. Chocolate dominates in this new format. That’s not all bad, as it’s Arnott’s delicious high quality dark chocolate, but it does rather unbalance the texture a bit; there’s not really enough biscuit to give textural contrast and structure. These are good, but not as good as the original. I’m going to give them an eight out of ten.

Riding in Berlin

June 1, 2017 at 15:14 | Posted in bicycles | Leave a comment
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I recently had to go to Berlin on business, and managed to find a few hours to get away from work to explore the city. Which it did, of course, on a bicycle. There are bicycles for hire literally everywhere in Berlin; it seems every cafe, shop and kiosk in the city offers bicycles for 12 euros a day. There’s also a municipal public bike hire, sponsored by Aldi. I didn’t try this, but it seemed quite high-tech, with bikes having screens and taking payments individually, rather than via a docking station.

I duly explored all the sights; the Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie, the Tiergarten, the Victory Column, the Reichstag, Kaiser Wilhelm Church and the Holocaust Memorial. It’s a lovely city, with a great vibe and fascinating history.

The bike was set up with a single front brake and a coaster back brake. Given it was set up in ‘continental’ mode, this meant that the front brake lever was on the left, and there was no brake at all under my right hand – which is the one I do 99% of my braking with. The coaster brake got me out of trouble a few times as my fingers grasped vainly at thin air when I needed to stop!

Getting around by bike was easy. There weren’t heaps of riders, and not that much bike infrastructure, but the drivers were calm and gave plenty of space. The more I ride outside of Australia, the more I agree with the observations of many seasoned bike travellers that Australia, and specifically Sydney, is one of the worst places to ride a bike anywhere in the world.

Close pass by police car

May 29, 2017 at 23:00 | Posted in bicycles | Leave a comment
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Every day on the way to work, I ride up Burns Bay Road. It’s the place I get the most close passes. In part this is because of the layout; the council have in their wisdom decided to stencil bike symbols in the parking area, right in the door zone. Needless to say, I don’t ride in the door zone. If you want to know why, click here.

However, this creates conflict with motorists, who think you should be in the the ‘bike lane’. So they pass quite close. I’ve had a lot of close passes on this road. (For a short while, the council removed the white line. It was much better, as I said at the time. Then they put it back.)

However, this one was rather unexpected. Not very close, but definitely inside one metre (the legal minimum), and not very comfortable. And it was a police car.

What to do? I asked my friends at SydneyCyclist, and subsequently went into the police station to complain. It was interesting. For one thing, when I mentioned that car involved was a police vehicle, I immediately got the Duty Sergeant, rather than the usual constable.

He took the still images I had taken from the footage, but oddly declined to take the video file. A day or so later, I got a call from the officer in charge of the traffic division. He went through the scenario with me, and was sympathetic, although I did have to educate him on the difference between bike route symbols (the painted bike symbols, which have no legal standing), and a Bike Lane, which is defined in the Australian Road Rules (and which Burns Bay Road does not have). I would have hoped a senior traffic cop would have known the difference, especially as it has legal implications as to where you should ride your bike.

He ultimately apologised, and asked me what action I wanted. I was happy with an apology and the driver being spoken to about his obligations around cyclists, although some of my cycling friends were not impressed that the cops did not charge the driver with the offence.

This is the same police station who have been absolutely unsympathetic to these types of issues in the past. Somehow I doubt this will be a turning point…

(You can see the video footage here).

 

Two Caravans – Marina Lewycka

May 26, 2017 at 10:20 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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 Another book plucked from the shelf. So many good books on my shelves waiting to be read! This is Marina Lewycka’s second novel, and follows the fortunes of a group of itinerant workers who have come to England to pick strawberries. There is a memorable and hilarious cast of characters, from the shady Farmer Leapish who houses the workers in two broken-down caravans in his field to the naive nineteen year old Irina, fresh from Ukraine and hoping both to make a living and find a handsome English man like to match the dashing Mr Brown from her ‘Let’s Talk English’ textbook.

Whilst a highly comedic novel, it does shed an uncomfortable light on the conditions endured by such migrant workers, as well as the lack of security and risk of being trafficked they face. The use of language is sublime, with the various characters somewhat broken English adding to the atmosphere; for example the hard ‘mobilfonmen‘ who control the workers, and the sinister Vulk, who calls Irina ‘little flovver‘ as he kidnaps her with nefarious intent.

The first half of the book has a wide ensemble of characters, and follows them as they move around the country (driven away from Leapish’s farm when his wife runs him over in her sports car after finding out he has an ‘arrangement’ with Yola, the Polish supervisor). Along the way they acquire a dog (called Dog), and the pace and humour in this part of the book make for a rattling read.

About half way through, most of the characters disappear, and the book becomes a love story between Irina and Andiry, as they attempt to find stability and peace whilst pursued by Vulk. This part of the novel is less successful, to my mind, and it becomes more forced.

Still, it’s a fun book to read that I recommend. And one that will certainly open your eyes to the conditions endured by the immigrant underclass who make up much of the low-paid workforce.

Tag-a-long on the cargo bike

May 22, 2017 at 14:07 | Posted in bicycles | Leave a comment
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As you may remember, over the New Year period we went to the UK, and had a very successful experience with a Burley tagalong trailer. The kids loved it, and it was very easy to ride with it on the bike.

I’ve been thinking about getting one for use at home ever since, especially as the children are really now too big for the ‘two passenger‘ solution I had – their increased weight coupled with the high centre of gravity was making putting them both into the kiddie seats a tiring proposition. If I could put the tagalong on the back of the rack, and leave enough space for another child to sit straddling the rack at the front, I’d have a more manageable solution.

The issue was how to attach it to the bike. I pondered this for a while, whilst doing some internet investigations. And I found a few people who had successfully fashioned a bracket to attached a Burley trailer to an Xtracycle. I reached out to those people, but the information I found was rather old and I couldn’t track them down. But, after some consideration, I figured that I could probably work something out locally. And if not, I’d just have to buy a new bike suitable to fit the Burley to. So I bought a Burley Piccolo trailer, which duly arrived.

The next step was to find someone who could convert the Burley rack into something I could attach to the Radish. The Burley rack as it comes is a well-built steel rack, which fits in the conventional way over the back wheel of a bike. I needed someone who could take the top part of the rack, and fabricate some kind of bracket so I could bolt it down to the rear deck of the Radish. Luckily I had the adapter brackets for the kids seats as a kind of template.

After a bit of ringing around, I found the inestimable Matt Hopkins, of Hopkins Welding. He gamely agreed to have a go at the job, and duly set to with this metalworking tools and welding gear.

I can share a short lesson here if you are every thinking of doing something similar. Don’t simply take the part you need modified to your chosen artisan, along with a rather vague description of what you need. Yes, that’s right; version 1.0 was not quite right. I hadn’t taken the whole hitch mechanism along, so Matt couldn’t see that he needed to avoid some parts of the frame when fabricating brackets, where the hitch slots over them. However, when I subsequently took along the whole thing, he was quickly able to modify it to version 1.1, which worked perfectly. I have to say Matt was very patient with me over what was undoubtedly a much more fiddly job that he at first had imagined, and is a thoroughly nice bloke.

The other requirement was for something for the child sitting on the rack to hold on to. A bit more internet investigation revealed solutions for this too; with an extra long stem, some small handlebars and the correct shim I was easily able to fit some stoker bars behind my saddle, making for a secure ride for the child sitting on the back.

So, with everything fitted it was time for our first ride. We scooted around the block a few times, with the kids swapping places on the tag-a-long and the rack. And it was a great success. The kids love it, and it’s much easier for me to ride; the lower centre of gravity and less weight on the rack makes the bike much more stable. I can also finally do away with the faff of straps and kids seats.

I’m on the lookout for a cushion and some Edgerunners for the Radish, to finish off the job, but for now it works fine as it is. The dual-kid transport solution is back in action!

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