cycling

Empty Essex

Empty Essex from Adam Bowie on Vimeo.

Empty Essex is the name of ride in Jack Thurston’s excellent Lost Lanes book (NB. The first one. There have been two others since, for Wales and the West Country). The route starts in Southminster in Essex, heading out to Bradwell-on-Sea and past the St Peter-on-the-Wall chapel on the Dengie coast. The route goes offroad around the northern tip of the peninsula, past the now decommissioned Bradwell Power Station (although it may be redesigned and recommissioned in the future).

The route runs along the mouth of the River Blackwater, and the area is popular with the sailing community. Then it heads south passing through Southminster before reaching the southern part of this coast at Burnham-on-Crouch. From there, it was the train back.

This video was shot with a combination of my DJI Mavic Pro drone, and my Garmin Virb Ultra 30 camera mounted on my bike.

Note that there is an off-road part of this ride, meaning that thoroughbred racing bikes are not suitable. Something like a cyclo-cross bike, mountain bike, touring bike or hybrid will be much better. It’s a fairly flat route since, as the video and photos show, it’s a flat part of the world. On the other hand, you do have to face wind. It’s not for nothing that there are on-shore and off-shore windfarms all over the place.

As well as the photos below, there are more over on Flickr.

London Nocturne 2018

[Scroll down for more photos – and even more over on Flickr]

I like to get along to the London Nocturne when I can – the Mr Porter London Nocturne to give it its proper title. There are a series of races across the afternoon and into the evening. Earlier in the day, before I arrived, there had been a Santander Cycles race (and prior to that, an open session around the closed roads), a penny farthing race and a folding bike race. I also saw a number of very smartly dressed people with their bikes who’d no doubt participated in the “Concours d’Elegance.”

I arrived during the Masters Criterium, and also saw both of the fixed gear races. Despite a decent bit of searching, and it being a couple of days since the race, I’ve struggled to find the results of the fixed gear crits. Based on the event’s Facebook video, I think it was Rafaela Lemieux who won.

The one person I did recognise was Keira McVitty who finished 7th. She was on her own in the last few laps neither being able to reach the group in front, nor slowing enough to be caught by the larger group behind. I mention her because she’s does a lot on YouTube (her video from the evening is here), and she also features heavily in the latest episode of The Espoir Diaries for Friends of the Cycling Podcast which is a great series for subscribers following a household of young British riders finding their way in Belgium.

In the men’s fixed gear crit Alec Briggs of Team Specialized Rocket Esspresso took the win thanks to some good teamwork.

In the women’s Elite race Louise Heywood-Mah of Les Filles Racing Team rode away from the race early on, and then managed to keep the entire chasing peleton at bay for the rest of the race. She had nearly 40 seconds on them by the end, which isn’t bad for a course that they were getting around in 90-120 seconds a lap.

In the men’s race, Rob Scott of Team Wiggins tried to do something very similar. He went away early, and held off the peleton for most of the rest of the race. However team JLT Condor were very strong, and they packed the chasing group. Rising British superstar Tom Pidcock stayed close to JLT Condor’s train, and when it came down to finishing sprint it was Ed Clancy who just managed to hold of Pidcock to take the win.

Taking photos of very fast cyclists at night is always a challenge and I’m always learning. I was using an A77 Mk II and an A77. I started with my Sigma 70-200 lens, and even tried a 2x lens converter, but I lost way too much light. This event starts in the daytime, but the Elite women’s and men’s races begin as the sun is setting and finish after it has gone down. While the organisers put up some additional lighting, you are mostly wrestling with streetlights. On Saturday, there wasn’t even that much good light during the daytime as it was overcast and there was even the occasional drizzle.

I used shot mostly with my 16-50mm lens once I’d packed away the bigger one. I tend to need two flashes as my better F58 flash will overheat after too much use. So I switch to an older less powerful flash for a while, and then switch back when it’s had a chance to cool down. One way or another, this is a type of photography that requires as much low-light capability as your camera will give you.

The blurry photos are shot using a rear curtain flash – in other words, the exposure may be as long as 1/15 second, but the flash comes at the end of the exposure. That’s still very fast, and as I’m also panning a little, you get lots of motion blur and hopefully a relatively sharp image at the end of the exposure. Lots of trial and error. I took nearly 1700 photos on Saturday!

I shot many of these images as JPGs and to be honest I should have stuck with RAW. I would normally shoot everything in RAW, but when you’re taking bursts of photos, the time between the camera emptying its buffer and writing to the SD card really matters. My cards are pretty fast, so I’m at the mercy of a camera that is a few years old now. However, thinking about it, the limitations of many flash exposures I can manage in a short period means I should have stuck with RAW. The photos mightn’t be quite as noisy if I managed that.

Dimanche à Vélo

Dimanche à vélo from Adam Bowie on Vimeo.

From last Sunday, trying out a different way to mount my Garmin Virb Ultra 30. I’m not completely convinced that I wouldn’t be better off with a high end GoPro rather than this, although it does let you add data overlays to video very easily. Inevitably, the experimenting also means playing with output settings of Premier Pro CC and seeing how they play with Vimeo. I tend to use 2.7k as I can still get some in-camera stabilisation if I use that. But it still seems to struggle with skies.

The music comes from the soundtrack to a film called Les Gants blancs du diable. The track appears on the recently released compilation album, Paris in the Spring compiled by Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs of St Etienne. This in turn I learnt of via the Bigmouth podcast. Invariably, you can’t go wrong with a bit of 60s French pop as you’ll know if you’ve watched any of my other videos. But now I need to explore some of the other albums Bob and Pete have collated (NB. They don’t seem to appear on services like Google Play Music or Spotify. So you may have to, you know, actually buy them!)

Trigger’s Broom

There’s a great gag from an episode of Only Fools and Horses where street sweeper Trigger has been rewarded by his local council for using the same broom for 20 years.

“This old broom has had 17 new heads and 14 new handles in its time.”

This is actually an example of Theseus’s paradox, a thought experiment about an object – in this case a ship – that has had all its part replaced over time.

I bring this up because my Brompton bicycle has been in for major repairs. There were small cracks on the frame and the main frame assembly needed replacing. For those who don’t know, Bromptons are folding bikes, and their frames come in several parts. A few years ago I also had to replace the rear assembly.

Other parts that I’ve replaced over time include the seatpost, the saddle, both the cranks, the pedals, the chain, the mudguards, the handlebar grips, the tyres, and one wheel. Assorted other consumables have also been replaced.

At this point, the only original parts on my 8 year old bike are the fork, the handlebars, the brakes and gear changers, one wheel (which has been completely rebuilt) and the handlebar stem. So do I have a new bike or can this still be said to be the same one?

I’d argue that it is, the same, and in this instance, there are still original parts. But the nature of Bromptons means that even those remaining parts could be replaced in due course. I must admit, that having borrowed a newer model while mine was being repaired (a nice service that Brompton Junction in Covent Garden offers) I’m very tempted by the newer shifters and brake levers you can get today. But that’s for another day.

[One sidenote was that Brompton has changed the shade of red they use for their bikes in recent years. My bike was all red, and now it’s a little two-tone red. It’s not massively noticeable, but it’s there. I could have gone for another funky colour, but I couldn’t really think of something that would have worked with the remaining red parts.]

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.