Wednesday, 30 April 2014

The free bike: or, The Ballad of the Inferno

Riding a bike often feels amazing. After all, who would  not be seduced by racing though a forest, being whipped across the face by tree branches, on something which looks like it might have been built in a secondary school CDT class? Or leaning your bike over so far in a fast corner that your pedal bounces of the tarmac?

There's another side to cycling that I love and that is the bizarre economics of it. Riding a bike can be incredibly expensive. Bike firms like Specialized will happily let you hand over a massive dump truck full of money in exchange for a bike a bit like Mark Cavendish's. Who buys these things? Chaps who wax their legs, that's who. This approach to cycling is built on a massive surplus of cash and a willingness to indulge certain well known bike firms in their experiment to see what kind of price tag they can attach to a bike before someone claps them on the back in a manly way and congratulates them on the scale and ambition of the joke. Turned one of the simplest and most useful machines ever invented by man into a weird plaything for the super rich? Well done!

There's another way to approach cycling, which is essentially to try not to spend much money on it. Bikes - some bikes - essentially last for ever. While other pieces of machinery expire around them, bikes can keep rolling along, sustained by their extreme simplicity and the surprising expertise that often went into making even basic bikes. My Claud Butler is like this. I bought it from its first owner, whose mum and dad had got it for him as a present for getting a grammar school place back at the end of the 1960's. Every major component is the one that the bike left the factory with, and none of them show any signs of wearing out. You might not think that extreme tight fistedness is a sound way to enjoy something. But the Claud is a little tangerine miracle, full of soul and warmth. As you can see, I invest a fair bit of emotional attachment in the bike. But the bike pays me back. It is game for whatever, and when I catch sight of it, it always makes me smile. There it is, orange paint glowing slightly, looking fast even when it is standing still. Saddle up, handlebars down, fewer spokes on the front wheel than on the back.

The Claud taught me that dramatic improvements in athletic performance can come with practice. I kind of knew that already. But the Claud doled out an actual three dimensional lesson, so that I really know that now. What happened was this: I did a charity bike ride through the night to the coast. It was only 54 miles, and the gradient profile was beautiful; all the climbing was in the first third of the route, and the remainder was gently downhill to the sea. It nearly killed me, and my legs felt so weird - massive and useless - at the end of the ride. Watching the black sky fade to grey behind Blackpool Tower, I promised myself I would never participate in this kind of self inflicted pain-a-thon again.

Luckily the ride was not repeated for a year, which was exactly the amount of time for me to doubt the horribleness of the experience and sign up again. It also allowed me to get a bit of practice in. Well, a lot of practice in, actually. I changed bikes too, dropping the heavy, uncomfortable bike for the Claud. The Claud is, according to the scales, only a kilo lighter. But is has magic and alchemy powering its moving parts as well as me, so it feels a lot lighter. The ride out of Manchester was completely different. I kept wanting to overtake and going for it. I told myself to calm down a bit, and started looking around for someone who was going at a pace which seemed quick but not exhausting. I didn't have anyway of seeing how fast I was going, and I knew it would help me pace myself if I had someone else for reference. Eventually, I found two lads who were making good speed on an Enigma and a Specialized. I tucked in behind them, and drafted them up the long, steady climb towards the summit in Blackrod.

It felt much quicker, and it was: when I reached the finish in Blackpool, it was still definitely Saturday night rather than Sunday morning, with scenes of drunken carnage being acted out one street back from the seafront. I checked my times when I got home, and was pleasantly surprised to find I'd knocked an hour off my time from the year before.

Then there's the money side of things. Because the Claud was built with components that apparently never wear out, all I have to do to is ride it instead of driving the car and my bank balance automatically starts to look healthier. I keep expecting this trick to stop working, but it will be four years next month since I bought the Claud and so far it never has.

A word of caution though: Bicycle economics works on slightly different rules to normal economics. So you can't assume that all bikes will work in the same, miraculous way that the Claud does. This piece is really about The Free Bike. The Free Bike is a British Eagle Inferno, a not-quite-mountain bike from the dawn of the 1990's, afflicted with a Global Hypercolour / Jamaican flag themed fade paintjob and a name which slightly sounds like the name of far right political party's journal. I got The Free Bike when Mrs L was having one of her periodic sessions of throwing away anything not part of the fabric of the house. I was cheerily throwing the latest load into the tip when I noticed a gentlemen unloading a couple of bikes from his car. I hailed him, and enquired whether the bikes would be going into the tip. He confirmed that they would. I immediately found a place in my heart for The Free Bike (though sadly not for the pink and silver Emmelle that was its companion) and took it home. If I hadn't been steering, I would have been doing some Fagan style rubbing my hands with glee. I made the mistake, you see, of assuming that because The Free Bike charged me nothing for the privilege of coming to live with me, it was - like the Claud - going to cost me nothing for the duration of its stay.

In fact, The Free Bike quickly revealed a massive appetite for components. It snapped a brake cable, exploded a tyre, massacred a seatpost bolt and bent a saddle. It shattered a chain, ate the bearings in the pedals, destroyed a cassette and snapped another brake cable. I loved it though, and treated it as though it was a reliable way of getting to work even though it clearly wasn't.

The Langsetts went on holiday to Pembrokeshire last week, and The Free Bike came with us. That's where the picture at the head of this piece was taken, half way through brilliant blast along some forest tracks, watching the sun sparkle on the rain drops. But this was the ride where The Free Bike's appetite for destruction finally caught up with it.

Coming back up the hill, there was an innocuous "Twang!" noise from somewhere down in the engine room. The back wheel abruptly stopped turning, so I got off to see what the problem was. In fact, there were about four or five separate problems, each one of which had caused another failure to follow it until the back end of the bike looked like this:

The back wheel that has slipped out of alignment, the derailleur caught in the back wheel, the chain down the back of the cassette - all these things are fixable. But if you look closely, you'll see that the drop out - the little yellow 'C' shaped bit of metal that holds the back axle - has peeled open. You might want to amuse yourself by zooming in on the earlier photo to see whether you can spot any evidence of the whole back end falling apart; I know I have.

The drop out's going to need replacing, and I'm not sure what The Langsett Guide to Frugal Bicycling says about damage to frames which would cost more to repair than a replacement frame would cost to buy. The Free Bike is up on the repair stand at the moment waiting for me to work out how to deal with the fact that it suddenly is not free at all.


  1. Oh dear. Now I see what you mean. My advice: get someone fearless to help you, clamp it into a vice and give it some welly to straighten that dropout back.
    In my case the dropout has opened, so the lower part has sunk. I'm unsure how to fix this without damaging the hanger. It must have taken great force to bend that.

    Love your CB, by the way, and I feel the same about any of my Viscounts whenever I come back to it after being to the shops or a loo break on a ride. Those bikes simply have something magical about them. I recently said they almost look like proud horses with their arched necks, waiting to run if you give them free rein.

  2. By the way: here's the solution to my problem, which possibly could be a solution to yours: