Do not despair’s daily bike back on the road

Mayne City Bike

After all the wonderful machines of two weeks ago at Eurobike I returned to the basics of my cycling life to replace my daily work bike.

I actually do more miles per year on this machine than any other, perhaps 3000 per year (4500km). Therefore there are rules. It must handle all weather conditions, be bounced on and off trains and yet it has to be so ugly that nobody could possibly contemplate stealing it. Weight completely immaterial, ability to carry significant loads essential. Puncture proof tyres.

I achieve this by getting old mountain bike frames or bikes and modifying them with recycled road parts from bikes I have had for up to forty years. The mountain bike setup lets me use fat tyres on very cheap steel frames and use of the parts is just common sense – and appeals to my more miserly side.

It has other benefits too. I have learned an enormous amount about creative bike building and repair as I have bashed and bodged various fits together over the years. I have also learned to curse the bike industry for lack of standardisation as I move from bike to bike discovering parts that don’t fit the latest incarnation.

The last bike was a Giant Granite that was left in a park in Reading, UK and picked up by a friend who recycles them. However after a several years and a Belgian winter it succumbed to a crack through the frame. Now it has been replaced by an unidentified silver machine with flaking paint and rusty spots for which the only evidence of origin is “Made in Taiwan” stamped on the bottom bracket.

Substitution of friction shift levers that I can mount somewhere on the frame is the issue I face every time so I can get rid of the mountain bike changers on the bars. Indexed shifters combined with the brakes are all very well if you have all the matching gear mechanisms and correctly spaced sprockets but that is never going to happen here. The rest usually works with a bit of fiddling and adapting.

I am quite happy with it on the first couple of rides to the station but I will probably need a longer/higher handlebar stem at some point. A 25km hilly cross country ride to work on Monday should confirm or remove any other niggles.

Total cost – €40 on E-bay for the run down MTB and a spare frame thrown in. That will undergo the same treatment to become my son’s student bike. Good value all round!

Cycling in Taipei 2013: a roundup of the “I Do Not Despair” experience

Taiwantaipei taiwanThis post rounds up some of my experiences from a week in Taipei and it gives me the chance to bring together the thoughts of people I met and my own observations. I wrote about this a bit last year but this time there are three key differences.

Most importantly I rode a bike myself – the basis for the “Not despairing in…” series of posts on this blog. I also know that the experience of combining walking, writing and talking to activists in 12 countries in 12 months has improved my cycling observation. It is much like when I used to benchmark factories in my previous career, if you do it often enough you develop a more finely tuned sense about what is happening and you have much better references to use for judgements. The third element is that I got to do a lot more talking to people in the cycling industry and advocacy this time which gave my views better balance, on my first visit I was almost a tourist by comparison.

Taipei cycle Show taiwanI was formally in Taiwan to attend the Taipei Cycle Show and to speak at the International Bicycle Design Forum which gave itself the title “Forging Taiwan to be a Bicycling Island”. (News report here.)

After hearing the words from the conference and having my discussions with the cycling community my personal observations reinforce what the cycling world here is saying. The underlying commitment to cycling here is huge. It already had a massively successful and world leading bike industry which has been strategically planned as a key national economic interest for years.

However this was largely built on the back of a static or declining local cycling market.

The first stage of trying to address that has been largely leisure and tourism focussed. This approach that would be widely recognised in the English speaking world – something you do in your sporty clothes at the weekend or in your spare time.

This has been improving vigorously with the influence of the industry and the support of academics in tourism and economic development like Associate Professor Hsin-Wen Chang who is working in association with eight counties on their cycle tourism product.

TaiwanI really must try to get out and try some of their rural routes another time because Lonely Planet and CNN have listed Taiwanese experiences in their top ten in the world and I saw some stunning pictures. Cycle tourism holidays are growing and there are lots of “round the island” promotions and charity rides which are being used to try and build cycling lifestyles. I sampled this ambition Tern Social Taiwanjust by trying some of the extensive and well-engineered riverside cycle tracks in Taipei which now reach over 100km virtually traffic free. I was really delighted to be invited on the “Social ride” promoted by the local staff and friends of Korean folding bike specialists Tern who took a big group of us along the paths after dark. That was great fun as social rides usually are and it was complemented by the fact that the routes through the parks and the river bridges are brilliantly well lit at night.

So leisure is going in the right direction. That leaves transport.

The relative affluence and successful economy of Taiwan means that they have high levels of car use and recent massive investment in motorways and road capacity sitting alongside successful high speed rail and a mass rapid transit (MRT) in Taipei.

Taipei Scooters 1Most of the writes and bloggers online agree with the people I met.  (Example here by Carlton Reid) Transport cycling in Taipei has been neglected, there is a lack of cycling infrastructure except cycling on the pavements and there is almost universal concern about the swarming buzzing scooters anywhere on the island. They are about 30% of traffic in Taipei, a huge proportion. The main perceived threat to cyclists is that they fly around in swarms at what seem very high speeds, all across the roads and swerving around the cars, a combined deterrence of speed and noise. The cars themselves are very scooter aware but that doesn’t stop the average driver from getting the foot to the floor on all the roads around the city, and from what I could see out in Hsin Chu and Taoyuan they are just as fast.

And this is where the contradictions start.

These road conditions and driver speed easily put Taipei on a level with somewhere like Kiev as a really cycling unfriendly city. The Invisible Visible Man did an excellent recent post about his discovery of Staten Island in New York describing similar challenges and the lack of cyclists as a result.

Therefore I would expect to see almost no cyclists whatsoever on the roads and last year I didn’t. However this year I felt I saw more riders, perhaps because I was out a bit more in daylight but I think there is a change going on.

Taiwan cycling

This was confirmed by King Liu, founder of Giant and his daughter Vicky Yang who is CEO of advocacy and promotional NGO the Cycling Lifestyle Foundation.

I can confidently say that if the driving conditions were like this in any European city I cannot imagine seeing any but the fiercest cyclists out on the streets, the fore-runners, the fixies, the messengers. However as I have already posted the

Cycling Taiwancyclists I kept seeing out on the highways were women of all ages, from the young and trendy to the “mature”. (here and here) Yes there were men but

Cyclists Taipei 5as often as not they were often the ones on the pavements.This was an unexpected result and I think it hints that there is a supressed cycling culture just waiting to burst out. King Liu said that the ambitious Youbike bicycle rental scheme had recorded a record 25,000 trips on a single day the previous week, even before they had expanded the scheme from its current base of 2,000 bikes up to the expected 5,000. Vicky confirmed my observation that a big proportion of the users were young professional women who are seeing cycling and Youbike as a lifestyle choice.

Cyclists Taipei 1

Taipei has the space to copy New York and start taking space on the streets for segregated cycle lanes and I have no doubt that this is the big political choice now facing the city. They are putting in lanes on the pavements on some streets but I cannot imagine it will be enough if the demand really takes off and it is a political soft option, not a proper solution. I said as much in my presentation, highlighting the need for a proper joined up network that is accessible to all. The quality of the riverside routes shows that the engineering knowledge is there. Giant and the China Lifestyle Foundation are equally confident that Youbike is meeting a suppressed demand that will enable Taipei to follow Paris and London by getting cycling numbers up in the urban heart while the battles for urban space continue with the city authorities.

In my comments to the press I focussed on speed because I felt so uncomfortable with my own experience on the roads and because it is a “right now” opportunity which will complement Youbike.  However in my speech to the Forum I emphasised that the city could and should see cycle lanes move from the pavements to the streets if the city and the country really wanted to forge a cycling island.

I think it will happen, cycling is too important to be neglected here and the right people are probably in position to make a difference. You can add the names of Tony Lo, Chief Executive of Giant and Robert Wu, Chairman of KMC to the mix of key players involved in the Forum. With that sort of influence from big companies working with the academics and advocates governments tend to listen. It won’t become the Netherlands overnight, no other country has even got close in forty years but there will be significant strides if they can get true political will.

I expect this will become an annual series of posts, I am quite excited about observing the changes, not least because the Taiwanese I met are such open and welcoming hosts who could talk cycling forever. What finer praise can there be for a nation?

Some personal highlights:

Riverside cycle paths by day and by night.

TaiwanRiverside Cycle Path TaipeiMap of Taipei Cycle paths Taiwan

Cycling in Taiwan

With thanks to Tern for the night ride and the very nice bike!

Tern Bicycles Social Ride Taiwan

Photo Credit Tern


Cyclists bridge taipei Riverside

Cyclists' bridge Taipei

What I call a Grimshaw bridge. Any high quality cycling bridge I see anywhere around the world I subconsciously attribute to John for his passion about cycling bridges and design.

The cyclists of Taipei: their Youbikes and bikesTaipei Cyclist 10

Cyclist Taipei 8 Taipei Taiwan Cyclist Taipei 7Taiwan

Cycle commuters are the happiest commuters – but I’m not there yet

A great research titbit from the ever excellent Bike Portland made me realise now is the time to share my Bike to Work problem. “Cycling Commuters are happiest” whizzed round Twitter last week.

Graph of “commute well-being” from a presentation poster by Oliver Smith, Portland State University

This is exaggerated by the fact that those most likely to moan about cyclists are the least happy – lone car drivers. Great for the promotion of cycling and we all knew it really, didn’t we? (And does it confirm the stereotype that all cyclists are just that little bit smug about their transport choice!)

But currently I am not happy with my bike to work. I am seeking a special set of conditions that make my ride “Just so”.

The scene is set by my first week of living in Belgium. I realise that in the ECF office as in much of Europe I am also a much rarer beast than in the UK, while I am a daily cyclist I also have roots in sport, most of my colleagues here are largely transport cyclists and while the daily commute is a great thing to do (and thereby should make them happier) it is just a commute, to be done as efficiently and quickly as possible. One of my colleagues expressed her confusion about my travelling habits because on my second week after moving I rode 24km to the office, appearing as a sweaty mess and heading off to the local gym for a shower. “But” she said, “you have just paid for your season ticket on the train, why ride all that way?”

Automatically I gave her the same answer I have been giving for nearly 20 years. “Oh, it keeps me fit, keeps my weight down and it sets me up for going out with a local cycling club when I get a bit fitter”.

But in in hindsight I realise that my stock answer just isn’t true anymore. While I value the fitness what I miss more than anything else what I need is a ride where I can settle to a steady rhythm and then completely disengage my brain from the process of riding. Over 10 years of my last commuting route in England there were numerous occasions when I would arrive at the work bike sheds and realise that I had no recollection whatsoever of the last hour.

What happened in that missing hour was like a piece of mental magic. I sort, order, conjure and create until the most difficult of problems began to rearrange themselves into manageable form. So many presentations, speeches, projects and problems sorted themselves during those rides that I rely on those moments for my mental wellbeing. And the reverse is true, without the necessary therapeutic hour my mind becomes crowded and even my sleep can be interrupted by the competing threads.

My trusty commuting bike is also built to meet these objectives. Recovered from scrap the Giant Granite is a rigid mountain bike frame with drop bars added for road riding and my favoured Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres so I am never going to be troubled by punctures. But neither am I going to be troubled by the need for speed, add a couple of full panniers and I slow myself down enough to ensure I don’t get to work too quickly. (Oh and by the way it is deliberately ugly, dirty and distressed to deter thieves – honest)Mountain bike converted to road

There is all sorts of medical evidence that exercise reduces stress and people who walk and cycle to work arrive more productive and alert, I am sure I am getting the benefit of all those things on my ride. But I can get many of those by riding the 5km to the station too or on a weekend ride. What matters on my long commute is that the riding itself is completely automatic for just the right period of time.

Brussels Belgium Chemin Des TumuliiSo why I am not happy with my Belgian ride yet? The distance is about right – I can finesse the route to get my favoured 90 minutes and fitness will certainly come, there are five hills of varying sizes which I can charge up if I want to. And it has the makings of a great combination. First 8km on quiet country roads while the traffic volumes are low. Then into Foret de Soignes where I have about 9km on forest tracks and car free service roads before the final 7km is a zigzag though the southern suburbs Watermael-Boitsfort and Etterbeek to the EU district at Schumann.

I have a horrible feeling that this ride is just too diverse. I have to think too much. When I get to Brussels I am not yet confident enough to ride without full concentration. The forest tracks are actually in excellent condition but not enough to relax during periods of falling leaves, rain, snow and ice. I am begging for a dry spell when I can try just cruising.

Just maybe the conditions, travelling away and spells of illness mean I am just being too impatient, I haven’t done the ride enough to make it automatic, to switch off completely. Maybe a bit of route fettling will see me right, but something has to give. Wouldn’t it be a cruel irony if I have got myself this beautiful route and I find myself heading back to the typical horrible cycle lanes by the main road so I can create the cycle commute I need for my well-being?

Let’s end with a reminder of how great it could be ……… I live in hope.Brussels