cycling

Garmin Varia RTL510

I seem to have a constant battle with rear lights on my bikes. The main problem is that I use a saddlebag on my full-size bike, and attaching a bike light to it is a seemingly simple task, but tends not to be brilliant.

If you have enough seat-post showing, then placing the light below the saddlebag in such a way that it’s still visible to traffic, is probably the preferred option. But in my case, there isn’t really enough seat-post showing.

Topeak seem to have the popular saddlebag market sewn up, and I have owned several of their models. However, in many instances, when you then hook a light through the slot made for them, they hang backwards and downwards, meaning that the light isn’t as effective. Remember, a rear light is basically only there for you to be seen!

My preferred rear lights, for compactness, have been Lezyne’s Zecto Drive range. But they suffer this problem.

My recent solution has been to change my saddlebag to a use a Topeak Wedge Sidekick saddlebag. I have the smaller of the two sizes. That’s enough for a tube, a couple of CO2 canisters, a large multi-tool, tyre levers and patches. Importantly, it’s firmer than other Topeak models, so hooking a light on the rear keeps the light pointing higher rather than lower. I’ve been happy so far.

All of which brings us to Garmin’s new Radar Light. Now why might I want a radar light? Is that strictly necessary? The answer is clearly not, but it has immediately proved itself useful.

The light fixes to your bike via a regular Garmin quarter-turn connection. The box includes mounts for a seat-post, but as mentioned above, I don’t have room to place it on a seat-post. Fortunately, creative people who design stuff to be 3D printed have got solutions for you. I bought a Varia Saddle Bag Clip via Shapeways. They 3D print things that creators have uploaded to order. It’s an extra cost, and it’d be nice if Garmin packaged one in their box, but it does the trick. Alongside the Topeak Wedge Sidekick, the light stays firmly pointed in the correct direction.

The light itself is relatively basic. There is a single led light and it has four modes – solid on, night flash mode, day flash mode and standby mode (As far as I can see, standby mode is a bit useless since it doesn’t have traffic detection). The battery is recharged via micro USB and the battery life seems decent with 6 hours in solid mode and 15 hours in day flash mode. Fine for most rides, but you’ll probably need a backup light if you do, say, the Dunwich Dynamo.

So how does it work in practice? While a standalone device is available (RTL511), it’s perhaps most useful when paired with compatible Garmin bike computer. In my case I paired it with my Garmin 1000 which was as simple as adding a new sensor. In the top right hand corner you get an indicator that there is connection, and you’re ready to go.

It works by determining larger objects that are moving at a different speed to you. When it sees one, it gives you an alert and small dots appear on the side of your Garmin bike computer (the right hand side by default). The device can determine several vehicles at once, and you’ll see a series of dots. The closer the dots get to the top of the screen, the closer they are to you. If a car passes particularly fast, the screen goes red, but if it’s slower then you get green. The unit will also beep to alert you to this traffic.

I must say that in practice, it worked very well. You do get the concessional false positive, and if a car stays behind you, matching your speed, perhaps up a slow windy hill with few overtaking opportunities, it may lose the vehicle for a while. Other cyclists tend not to show up, but in general I really like it. Note too that it obviously only detects traffic behind you and coming towards you. You shouldn’t see dots tailing off towards the bottom of the screen!

The radar has a 40 degree wide angle which covers a decent chunk of the road. It also means it continues to work going around corners for example. Garmin says that it can detect vehicles up to 140m away, and I’ve no reason to doubt that in my usage.

And when the vehicle gets very close, the blinking on your light increases in frequency to make sure that the driver has seen you!

The only real downside is the impact on battery life of your bike computer. The Edge 1000 I use has never had amazing battery life, but I got the low battery warning after a 70km ride last weekend which is a bit early. Obviously, the number of sensors you’re using will impact on that, as will things like screen brightness and me using maps (which I was). But while the light itself will probably last well, you’ll need to keep your bike computer’s battery topped up.

I’ve not tried the light in the city centre, and I understand that it can be less useful – probably too much other traffic to cope. In any case, you nearly always have cars behind you, so there’s little added value. It’s best for those places where it feels like cars sneak up on you.

Even with only a couple of rides under my belt, I’m already a fan.

For a much better and more detailed review, DC Rainmaker is obviously the place to go.

Wicken Fen: A Cycle Ride from Ely to Cambridge – Stuck in Draft #4

Here’s a cycle ride I took in April 2016. I think the winter and spring months are quite a nice time to do this ride. It’s not especially demanding and is easy to reach from London with direct trains from King’s Cross. Another in my series, Stuck in Draft.

Reading Rain recently, I realised that it had been a while since I last visited Wicken Fen, the National Trust owned wetland fen in rural Cambridgeshire. It’s a wonderful little paradise that shows how the fens would have looked before they were managed by man. The fenlands are very arable, so over years, a complicated system of ditches, dykes, pumps and droves has led to the marshes being drained and many crops being grown.

At Wicken Fen the National Trust has a 100 year vision to take over more of the land between Wicken and Cambridge and to preserve a unique natural habitat.

I suspect that most people drive to Wicken, but it’s pretty easy to get to via bike, which is of course how I travelled there. The closest station to the reserve is at Ely, but it’s a nice ride to continue on afterwards back to Cambridge. Ely is very easy to get to from central London, with three trains an hour leaving King’s Cross, the fastest taking a little over an hour.

The route I took, shown on the linked Strava map below, is actually not the one I’d fully recommend. My route took me along the A142 from Ely a bit too much, and although this isn’t a terrible road to cycle along, traffic does past you at speed. It’s worth noting that much of the landscape here is very exposed, so even a slight wind will be felt by you.

I’d instead recommend following the Sustrans National Cycling Route 11 which runs along the Ouse before turning SE and towards Wicken. The only thing to note about this, and other parts of the route, is that they’re not suitable for cyclist with skinny racing tyres.

My slightly duller route joined up with Route 11 at Barway, where a large grocery packing plant sits alone in the fens. An adjacent hostel suggests that many of the workers are not local. And continuing on, a sign in both English and Polish warning drivers to be on the lookout for cyclists, backs that up.

It only takes a little over half an hour to reach the reserve itself, down a short road in the village of Wicken itself. You pass a car park and several houses before reaching the visitor centre.

I would say that I’d arrived early, but the site is open from dawn to dusk, and now that we’re on British Summertime, that would have meant 6:30am – far too early for me to reach Wicken via public transport from London. Nonetheless, even a little past 9:00am, there were few about.

A helpful staff member pointed out the various routes around the reserve, and where was currently accessible. As these are wetlands, much of the land is inaccessible for large parts of the year. Sedge Fen has a Boardwalk allowing access year around, and that’s where most visitors go. Beyond that there is the longer loop that takes in a couple of the bigger hides that tower over the nearby fens. When I visited this was an out-and-back walk since the ground was still too wet towards the back of the reserve.

The National Trust also has cycle hire, a nice little café where I got a snack for lunch, and a well stocked shop. You can do short boat trips, and they even have some geocaches hidden around the reserve!

One solution for being able to get into the reserve early might be to camp, and I note that there’s a wild camp nearby that you can reserve for a group – especially good for families.

I got back on my bike and headed south, still in Trust-owned fens. The cycle route is well signed and you’re soon out in open land.

I’d brought my kite with me since I thought it might be fun to try some more kite aerial photography. There wasn’t a great deal of wind, but it was enough to get my camera up into the air. Not as fancy as my drone, but it’s much more packable in a runsack, and I’m not sure that the Trust would have been happy with me buzzing around with rotors, whereas a kite is harmless.

The cycle route is also called the Lodes Way, because it reaches the pretty village of Lode near another National Trust property, Anglesey Abbey. But also because lodes are what the manmade waterways that criss-cross the countryside in these parts are called. Lode is a pretty little village, filled with thatched cottages (alongside some more recent buildings). I’d have called in at the Abbey, but the car-park suggested that it was quite busy, so I decided to give it a miss.

From Anglesey Abbey, I should have perhaps headed south a little further to the village of Bottisham, before joining National Cycle Route 51, but I instead cycled along the B1102 through the village of Stow cum Quy before rejoining the route and riding into Cambridge. If you’re lucky you might pass the end of Cambridge Airport’s runway when something interesting lands.

The massive new CyclePoint at Cambridge Station has recently opened, with room for nearly 3,000 cycles, perhaps the closest anywhere in Britain to those enormous cycle parks you see near Dutch train stations. In due course there will also be an attached shop. But the whole area around the front of the station is still something of a work-site at the moment.

The whole trip at 36 km (22 miles) is a nice day out – especially if the weather is good.

A Shopping Failure – Stuck in Drafts #1

Note: This was written several months ago, but for some reason I never published it at the time. Hence the “Stuck in Drafts” label.

I recently visited The Cycle Show at the Birmingham. It was an entertaining – if slightly tiring day. Obviously it’s a bit of a trek from my part of North London, heading into Euston and then out again on a Virgin train.

At the NEC itself, it’s always a healthy walk up and down escalators, staircases, and past closed food outlets, before finally reaching the venue. Let’s put it this way: I factored in 15 minutes to make my return train from the venue.

The show itself was pretty good. I headed straight to the interview stage where Vincenzo Nibali was being interviewed on stage by Ned Boulting, with occasional translation help from Matt Rendell. In fact Nibali’s English is pretty decent, but for the finer nuances, he obviously prefers to answer in Italian. And he wasn’t given a completely easy ride with questions about when you should have to wait for a leader who has a mechanical, or his notorious dismissal from the Vuelta when he got a tow. But overall, he was charming, dressed in a very dapper suit, and making a few gags.

He obviously wasn’t at the World Championships in Bergen, preferring to wait for next year’s Innsbruck event. But the show’s proximity to Birmingham International almost certainly helps in getting these big names into the event, as they can do a day return flight, make an appearance, and keep some sponsors happy.

After the interview, Nibali was to be found on the FSA stand signing posters and posing for selfies. I’m now the proud owner of such a poster.

Many – but not all – big brands appear at The Cycle Show. But not all. I was disappointed that Tacx weren’t in evidence, since I’m currently in the market for the quietest cycle trainer I can find, so that I can use one in my second floor flat without sounding like a cement mixer to my downstairs neighbours.

There are a few deals here and there to be had at the exhibition, and I busily snapped a few things that I might be interested in, in the future. Inevitably I came away with several bags worth of stuff, including a cleverly worked out way to protect my signed poster!

My only real complaint is that there is never any obvious coverage of the World Championships which always seem to clash with The Cycle Show. The Tour of Britain takes out a large area, which includes a place to sit down and have a cup of tea or a beer. They have a large screen on which they show… highlights of The Tour of Britain which had taken place weeks earlier. So no, you couldn’t see the women’s World Championship race. I watched highlights when I got in.

At the Madison stand I was intrigued by a shopping bag they were selling – the bikezac. Essentially a bag-for-life with hooks for a pannier rack, this seemed to be exactly what I need to do larger shops, as I’m not a car owner. I bought a pair for £10, being told that they will carry up to 10kg each. The next day I would put them to the test.

I cycled over to Sainsbury’s on my self-built bike, grabbed a trolley and went shopping. Now I do quite a lot of shopping with my bike. Mostly, however, it’s my Brompton being wheeled around in a shopping trolley. The key thing is to not buy more than you are able to carry home.

Each Bikezac is rated for 10kg as I mentioned, and I made sure not to buy too heavy products. They’re made of a material that feels similar to that which Ikea bags are made from, and have decent cloth handles. I packed the bags successfully, although a couple of additional items had to go into a regular carrier which I strapped to the top of my rack.

Sadly within 400m of Sainsbury’s, as I slowly cycled along a shared footpath (the A10 being no fun on a bike), a bag had fallen off. I retrieved it, and checked to make sure that it was securely fastened. On I travelled. Yet only another 100m or so further, and the same bag had fallen off once more.

This was annoying. Fortunately the bag that was slipping did not carry my eggs. As far as I could see, everything was still intact.

I walked the bike off the main road and onto a smaller road, where I gingerly set off again. The surface was smoother, and I cycled slowly to ensure that no bumps in the road would cause any problems.

You can guess what happened next.

Yes – it came off again. This time into the road with traffic swerving to avoid my quickly retrieved shopping. And now I seemed to have a leak. Closer examination revealed that the one litre orange juice carton was a bit beaten up and now no longer contained a litre of juice. Furthermore, it looked like I was planning to “shotgun” a can of Cherry Coke Zero. Those items ended up in the bin, and both the carriers came off the pannier.

I did manage to cycle home, but with both bags hanging off my handlebars.

The bikezacs ended up in the bin within less than 24 hours of me buying them.

So what went wrong? Well a number of things:

  • Open Hooks. The two hooks you use to attach the bag to the bike are open, meaning that any shake can judder the bag off. If you have smooth roads, this might not be a problem, but I found it was for me. Most decent panniers have a system that grabs hold of the pannier and closes things up. These didn’t.
  • Plastic hooks. The plastic used for the plastic used for the hooks bends a bit too much. Therefore, under weight it can give a little.
  • Incompatible Rack. Sadly, I think that my Blackburn rack was also partially the problem. The hooks were slightly in the wrong place to allow both hooks to be “inside” struts. Look carefully at the photo above and you can see one hook is at the rear, allowing the bag to slide along and then off.
  • No lower hook. There’s nothing to hold the bag to the side of the rack. So a knock lets the bag move too far from the side of the rack.

Now the bags do have some clever things like an elastic band to pull the bag shut, and another hook to help with that. But sadly, I simply cannot recommend these bags. While they’re foldable, portable and inexpensive, they just don’t do the job.

I will look for some alternatives. Ortlieb make the Bike Shopper but it’s nearly £70 for a single pannier.

Lights

It has been a week since British Summer Time ended, the clocks went back an hour, and suddenly the sun is setting around 4:30pm.

If you ride a bike, and work regular hours, that means that you’re going to be cycling home in the dark. Now I’m a pretty live-and-let-live cyclist, in that I’m not prescriptive about helmet use (I wear them for longer rides, but don’t for shorter ones), or the need to wear high viz jackets at all times.

However, I do take objection to people insane enough to ride around the streets after dark with no lights. Aside from anything else, it’s the law:

Rule 60

At night your cycle MUST have white front and red rear lights lit. It MUST also be fitted with a red rear reflector (and amber pedal reflectors, if manufactured after 1/10/85). White front reflectors and spoke reflectors will also help you to be seen. Flashing lights are permitted but it is recommended that cyclists who are riding in areas without street lighting use a steady front lamp.

Yet there are so many quite insane people who feel able to ride without lights.

Quite adequate cycle lights are ridiculously cheap. Chain stores like Halfords and Decathlon have very reasonably priced gear, as do larger supermarkets and stores like Robert Dyas. Then there are the myriad of online places.

Here are two examples from my commute home today. This took me along the Seven Sisters Road and onto Green Lanes. These are busy roads.

This guy had no lights, and ran the red light too.

This woman rode all the way up Seven Sisters Road and then along Green Lanes. No lights, and happily ran a few lights too. Compare the bright lights of the braking moped and the cars ahead, with the lack of similar on the cyclist.

I was in a black cab recently and couldn’t help noticing just how bad “Boris Bikes” are to spot on dark streets. These are bikes that have two flashing LEDs at the back. So imagine how invisible you are to drivers, even on well lit roads, with no lights on at all.

Beyond these, there are those people who do have lights but they’re so weedy or badly places as to be ineffective. You’ll see people riding along with one of these hanging from their saddle with no particular concern about which way the light is pointed.

Sorry. These are fine as supplementary lights – perhaps to strap to a rucksack – in addition to a proper light. And it can be useful to keep a set in your bag for emergencies – e.g. your regular light’s batteries have run down. But not for exclusive use on their own.

Then there are those who have a light, but have managed to hide it behind a pannier or have it pointing at some wild angle, so it’s just about ineffective since it’s not actually visible.

And then there are those who pop a front light onto the back of their bike, because it’s all they had available. White at the front; red at the back!

Finally, there are those who have not changed the battery in years, leaving them barely visible.

Of course, the other extreme is those who’ve bought lights that are really designed for mountain bikers in rural Wales, or are using 300 lumen bulbs that seem designed for small lighthouses. But aside from running the risk of inducing epileptic fits in the surrounding population, at least they are visible. (Hint: If you’re in an urban area, those super-bright settings are really designed for daytime use!)

It’s not hard. So turn some lights on.

U-Turns in Pancras Road

Note: This is aimed particularly at anyone who cycles in central London and travels near either King’s Cross or St Pancras stations. Everyone else? As you were. Unless you work for Camden Council…

While tube maps show King’s Cross St Pancras as a single station, anyone who visits will know that there are actually two different stations served by that tube. King’s Cross serves trains to the north and Scotland, as well as Hull, Cambridge, King’s Lynn and suburban stations to the north of London. Over in St Pancras, there are Eurostar services to the continent, services towards the midlands, and trains running north-south between Bedford and Brighton.

Between the two stations is Pancras road. While you can travel through towards Camden, it’s mostly used by black cabs, minicabs and a few buses dropping people off and picking passengers up from the station. There are dropoff points for both stations along the road, and King’s Cross’s taxi rank is set back from the road too (St Pancras’s taxi rank is on the other side of the station).

These are busy places, and there is always lots of traffic.

However, Pancras Road is also used by a large number of cyclists who are entering or leaving either mainline station. And that’s where the trouble comes, because the road can be positively chaotic. On the St Pancras side, is a long area for setting down and picking up, but at busy times double parking is pervasive. So minicabs in particular will crawl along the road waiting for a spot to open up to safely discharge their passengers. They tend not to worry about other traffic users.

Then there is the real problem – vehicles conducting three point turns. I understand that once you’ve set down, vehicles want to return into central London, but vast numbers conduct three point turns. I took this video on Friday with separate vehicles all trying to do the manoeuvre in very busy surroundings.

It would be safer for all in the vicinity if three point turns or u-turns were made illegal on this section of road. Particularly for cyclists, this can be dangerous as there is so much movement in the area, that cyclist can become invisible.

Instead, such turns should be further up Pancras Road, where there is already taxi-waiting space for those cabs queuing to pick up passengers at King’s Cross. For others, it’s easy to loop around St Pancras station via Goods Way and Midland Road, from where drivers can head off in any direction again. Let’s just keep the horrible 150m section between Euston Road and the passenger entrances of King’s Cross and St Pancras Stations clear of u-turning traffic can we?

Bike Cameras for my Brompton

For some time now I’ve been thinking about putting a camera or cameras on my bike for my commute. While there was no single thing that tipped me over the edge, and I’ve been lucky to only have some rare incidents with other traffic, the ease with which you can fit cameras to bikes meant that I needed to bite the bullet. On camera footage definitely helps with prosecutions of bad behaviour – especially driving.

I wanted to do it cheaply and I already owned an inexpensive GoPro Hero camera. These retailed for less than £100 or so a couple of years ago (that’s cheap for a GoPro). These models aren’t available any more, but they shoot 1080 at 25 frames a second which is fine in this instance. I know that today, there are a wide range of cheaper action-cams available online and on the high street. I suspect that some of these may supercede a three-year-old base level GoPro, but the footage is of high enough quality for my needs, and I already had the camera.

I attached it to my saddle using an adapter that fits to the rails at the back of the saddle (although see below for a better value package). This mounts the camera upside down, and as long as you make the change in the settings, it records video in the correct ratio. Mounting it under the saddle hides, to some extent, the size of the camera.

For the front camera, I chose a GoPro Hero Session which is just under £150 and is the cheaper of the two Session cameras currently available (Note that GoPro will probably update their range soon with a rumoured Hero6 being launched at the top end). There’s a Hero5 model that costs another £100 and adds things like voice control and automatic upload to the cloud. The more expensive model is 4K, whereas the model I bought maxes out at 1440p (2.7K). GoPro says that stabilisation comes with the more expensive model, but there is definitely some stabilisation in this cheaper one – at least when you record in 1080p. You can see an example of that in the video of above at around 7:30, when I go over some cobbles. You can see my bag bouncing around on the cobbles while the camera’s view is relatively stable (the bag was a bit overstuffed, but is attached firmly to the bike). The image remains stable as I believe there’s some electronic stabilisation going on – probably throwing away some of the extra pixels from the wider 1440 image.

The cheaper Session is still waterproof without a housing to 10m, and has Bluetooth and WiFi connectivity, although I tend to leave these off to maximise battery life.

Other cameras I considered were the Cycliq Fly6[v] and Fly12. These are cameras specifically designed for bikes, and are built into LED lights. While the rear Fly6[v] was reasonably priced at a little under £100, and includes a very decent looking light, I already have plenty of rear lights. I currently use the Blaze Burner which I backed via Kickstarter. The problem with the front light is that it’s over £200, and is massive. Mounting it on a Brompton would not be easy as you want something that doesn’t stick out when you fold the bike. So it was a non-starter.

Contour cameras are popular with some cyclists and include functionality like over-writing older files that you don’t want to keep. But the camera quality isn’t that great, and there don’t seem to have been any updates in a while. The GoPro Session does have some reasonable low-light imagery for rides in the evening.

To mount the Session to my bike I bought a set of adapters which was good value on Amazon. I was specifically after a minimalist mount that would let me hang the Session below my Brompton’s handlebars. This set came with two options, and I used the smaller one, meaning that the camera doesn’t get in the way when the bike is folded. The camera casing is firmly afixed to both the bars and the GoPro which means removing it all requires a hex key. However the Session itself can easily be popped out via a quick release. The mount set also included another adapter for saddle rails.

Both cameras can be set to use single-button quickstarts – indeed the Session only has one proper button, with a second tiny one set out of the way. So a single press of a button on each camera both turns them on and starts a recording.

The sample video above gives you an idea of what the cameras are capable of, although I know that I could do a bit better with the Session’s output, especially with Protune which allows a “Native” output for finer colour correction in post processing. The regular Hero has no such options with the video quality.

Overall I’m pretty satisfied with my solution. A series of beeps let me know that I’ve switched the cameras on (and off), and I’ve left the LEDs on for confirmation that all is working. The set-up is fully waterproof – the cheaper Hero doesn’t actually come out of its case – and the battery life is sufficient for my needs. I’d say that it’s roughly 2 hours for each camera. Importantly, both cameras fit onto a Brompton very comfortably, and don’t shout “camera” too much.

No sooner had I written most of this entry than I was on my daily commute and the following incident happened. It all happened slowly, and I was unlikely to get hurt as I had plenty of time to brake, but the car driver simply didn’t look to see if there were any cyclists coming as he crossed the junction where I had right of way. Note that while the rear facing camera wouldn’t seem to be much help in this instance, it does allow me to clearly read the driver’s number plate.

RideLondon Classique 2017

A few weeks ago, it was the annual RideLondon. This year I didn’t get a space in the main RideLondon 100, but I still popped down to watch the RideLondon Classique race around a central London course. Unfortunately it was a miserable day, with fairly unrelenting rain.

I meant to arrive a little earlier than I did, but by the time I got to the bottom of Piccadilly where the teams were warming up and had parked up their various buses and vans, they were mostly all heading to the start line.

I positioned myself near the top of Whitehall where the cyclist came past twice a lap, once heading out onto The Strand, and once again when they returned around Trafalgar Square, through Admiralty Arch and into The Mall.

The rain meant that nobody wanted to let a breakaway go, and the race was tight all the way through. That also meant that any riders who dropped off the back would stay dropped for the remainder of the race. You felt very sorry when you saw the same riders, lap after lap, doing their own wet-weather time-trials.

RideLondon pays equally for both men’s race and the women’s race, and as a consequence offers more prize money than any other race in the Women’s World Tour calendar. For that reason alone, the teams take it seriously, even though I suspect many would rather race something more akin to the men’s route out in the Surrey Hills and back.

I suspect that the organisers don’t think that they could fit it another ride along that route when they already run both the RideLondon 100 and RideLondon 46 along those roads, making sure that they’re clear for the professional men who set off some 5-6 hours after them. There’s also the issue of TV coverage of both men and women. As things stand the Women get live TV on Saturday evening, while the men get coverage on Sunday afternoon.

Back to the race, and Sunweb took it very seriously. They always had riders at the front of the race, and were looking for intermediate sprint results too. At one stage I found myself standing next to team director or helper who had a radio, and was busily instructing his riders from his viewpoint where I was near the top of both Whitehall and The Mall.

In due course the race was won by Coryn Rivera in a closely fought sprint finish. Cevelo’s Lotta Lepistö came second while Canyon-SRAM’s Lisa Brennauer was third. Just behind them was Marianne Vos who had been reasonably anonymous in the race. I’d not seen her since I’d seen a couple of spectators grab a selfie near the start (I kicked myself I didn’t do the same).

A shame about the weather which I think neutralised the race too much. While a criterium like this affords plenty of views to see the riders, there’s a limited amount they can do to get a break.

Plenty more photos over on my Flickr page.

oBikes – Initial Thoughts

oBike 1

On Saturday night, I was returning to my north London home when I noticed something I’d not seen before – a new type of hire bike.

Now us Londoners have become used to “Boris Bikes” – or Santander Cycles as they’re officially known. This is a scheme that I’ve been using fairly consistently since its start, using the bikes to traverse central London if I don’t have my own bike with me. London has a network of docking stations, and you can take a bike from one station and lock it up somewhere else. The scheme works well, and is certainly useful for commuting. If you arrive in London at a mainline railway station, you may complete your journey on a bike. Or if you live in Zone 1 or 2 – the central area of London where most of the docks are to be found – you might carry out all your commute on a bike. They’re popular with tourists too – especially in some of the larger parks like Hyde Park.

But there are some significant flaws, or at least shortcomings.

You can only really use the bikes within the area that has had docks built. This is largely Zone 1 and 2 in the middle of London. And while the bikes extend a fair way east to Docklands, they don’t extend that far in other directions. They don’t even extend as far as the inner gyratory road system, let alone straying into the outer boroughs.

You have to return the bike to a docking station, and they can often be full in popular locations. While a mobile app can help you a little with that, the flow of bikes is such that a team of vans has to move bikes around to prevent key spots being filled all the time. The bikes are also fairly heavy, but they come with three gears, so while you won’t be racing too much on them, you can get pretty much anywhere.

But back to the oBikes. I asked the proprietor of the shop I was in on Saturday evening, how long the bike had been there. He said that it was the council that had put the bikes out (this is very much not true), and that the where many along the entire street. When I left the shop, I saw that on a closer inspection, there were several more along the length of the road.

Well, always keen to give a new bike scheme a go, I pulled my phone out, downloaded the requisite app, registered my card details, and tried to release a bike. The app seemed comprehensive, if a tiny bit confusing at times. There was some kind of deal on giving free hires, but it really wasn’t clear from the app because you could click through to get the details. I paid a £29 deposit and then got a free hire. It seems that in fact, hiring remains free for the remainder of July, but I only learnt this later on the website.

While the bikes aren’t locked to any physical infrastructure, their rear hub is locked in place until it’s released wirelessly. Using the app, you can locate the rough whereabouts of a free bike, although in practice I found that the GPS coordinates could be up to 100m out. You then scan your phone on a QR code on the stem of the bike and a few seconds later – mobile data permitting – the lock on the hub is released. A trigger physically pinging up.

The mobile app warns you to wear a helmet, and ensure that the rear light is switched on. But in fact, the lights seem to come automatically, powered by a dynamo system when the bike is moved. While Boris Bikes’ lights work on a similar basis, they seem to store more residual power meaning that lights start immediately when you move. Even with the low demands of LED lighting, these lights seem more ineffective, especially when you set off.

What about the bikes themselves?

Well, they’re awful.

oBike 3

oBike 4

On the plus side, they’re much lighter than Boris Bikes, and they have a proper basket on the front rather than the often irritating affair that Boris Bikes have, that require a bungee cord to hold bags in place. But beyond that, I have no good things to say about the actual bikes.

They’re clearly cheaply made. There’s a single gear, and somehow it doesn’t seem suitable for anything other than a really slow potter around. It feels incredibly spongy too – something that a fixed gear bike really shouldn’t feel.

The seat post goes from low, to not-quite-as-low. Now I realise that at 6 foot 2 inches, I’m not the shortest person. But for me, this was like riding a BMX. My knees were nearly at the handlebars, and it was generally incredibly inefficient for me to cycle on. Indeed anyone much over 5 foot 10 may struggle with these bikes.

There’s a feeble bell rung by a twist-grip affair. Nobody is going to hear it. At least the hub brakes did seem to work well. The bikes have mudguards of sorts, but they’ve tried to remove as much surplus plastic as possible meaning that there’s very little real protection. I wouldn’t want to ride one of these in the wet without completely covering myself with muck.

Overall the bike felt like one those awful super-cheap supermarket bikes that I’d never recommend anyone ride, no matter how little money they had to spend. And at least those bikes have some gears.

Now I live at the top of a hill. It’s not a steep hill, and nor is it a long hill. In fact it’s 900m at an average gradient of 4%. While you feel that in your legs, it’s not going to stop the average cyclist comfortably riding up it. I can do this on my Brompton with extra shopping bags hanging off my handlebars.

But using the oBike I struggled. I mean I really struggled. The single gear was neither fish nor foul, and the uncomfortable riding position didn’t help. I ended up cycling on the pavement as I was going so slowly. In the end I gave up. I parked up in a responsible location and ended my ride, locking the bike by pushing a trigger down over the hub. My phone beeped as the app acknowledged that my bike hire had come to an end.

I was very unimpressed.

The following morning, however, I needed to get back down the hill and then travel further into my local town centre to catch a train. It would be tight walking there in time, but as I came back down the hill, I saw that the bike I’d parked the previous night was still there. So I unlocked it once more, and took it out for another ride.

Going down the hill was fine, although I still felt as though I was riding a BMX, and found myself having to get out of the saddle to stretch out my legs. I rarely get out of the saddle on Boris Bike, which seems much more suited to carrying a wider range of differently sized people. I don’t even max-out the seatpost on those bikes meaning that riders of perhaps up to 6 foot 4 can comfortably ride them.

On reaching the flat, the limitations of the single gear were once again in evidence. I have no idea what gear the bikes are, but again I found it incredibly slow going. It took me much longer to get to my destination than it would have done on any other bike. And it was much harder work as well.

I parked the bike up by some Sheffield stands in the town centre quietly vowing not to use the bikes again. As I did so, two separate people came up to ask me about the bike. What was obvious was that the lack of a requirement to dock the bike somewhere specific was popular. “It’s like Uber, for bikes!” said one man.

However I had to tell both people that I thought it was only good for travelling somewhere very flat, that it was not for tall people, and that nobody was going to get somewhere very fast with one of these bikes.

Subsequently I learnt that although hundreds of bikes had appeared across London the week before, no permission had been sought from any council to run the scheme. While it’s not completely clear why council approval would be required, there is almost certainly concern for how the bikes are treated, and in particular, where they are left. There are horror stories in China, where these bikes are made, and where this type of hire scheme has become prevalent, about hundreds of bikes being literally piled up on pavements near places like stations. In some instances pedestrians struggle to walk along pavements to avoid thoughtlessly placed bikes.

All the bikes I’ve seen so far have been left in decent places, often by existing bike stands. But I can see why many would prefer the more ordered system that Boris Bikes use.

There’s also the question of people vandalising the bikes. Although the hubs lock the rear wheels, the bikes can easily be lifted and placed somewhere else. A similar scheme in Manchester has already seen a number of bikes ending up in canals, and my borough has the New River – effectively a non-navigable canal.

I do feel a little torn about the oBike scheme. On the one hand, I’m very much for encouraging bike use, and my local council is doing a lot for bikes, building new cycle lanes in the face of sometimes quite hostile local opposition. But a badly run bike hire scheme is probably not the answer either.

It certainly feels that the Singapore-based company that launched these bikes has bought the cheapest bikes they could get in China, and not remotely considered local needs. While dockless schemes seem like an excellent idea, in that it reduces the costs dramatically since there’s no infrastructure required, I worry that it also means doing things on the cheap, and not worrying unduly about the social and environmental consequences.

And a bad scheme can have a significantly negative impact on cycling as a whole. If people find bikes abandoned in inappropriate locations, then they will take against the scheme. Similarly, would-be cyclists might well be put off from cycling after experiencing poor quality bikes that don’t make travel easy. These bikes are not a good introduction to cycling, whereas I would argue that while heavy, Boris Bikes are a decent introduction, and may well have persuaded many to invest in their own bikes and cycle more as a result (I’m hoping the upcoming replacement model will be even better).

The reaction overall has not been positive thus far, and in fact my local council has reached an agreement for the bikes to be removed locally pending a wider conversation about how the bike scheme should work. I believe that the same is happening in other London boroughs.

While Boris Bikes were a TfL initiative, and cost millions to set-up, and require continued investment to maintain, the scheme has been well conceived, and there is full support as well as maintenance of the equipment. The bikes, currently manufactured by Canadian company, and seen in other cities such as New York, are well suited to their environment and in general are a boon to encouraging cycling as a form of transport. It’s worth noting that for TfL, cycling is not just a “nice-to-have” but an essential part of London’s transport mix. Every cyclist on the road is one less tube passenger for example. I can’t say the same for oBikes.

This morning, as I got on the train at my local station, at the top of the same hill I live on, I noticed someone had parked a bike by the station to get their train. All I can do is give kudos to whoever rode that bike up the hill this morning!