close, but no cigar

french national cyclocross championship

as i have mentioned to the point of tediousness, i have enjoyed a marvellous festive season's televised cyclocross, featuring events in belgium and the netherlands. as many other aficionados will be aware, mathieu van der poel has returned victorious from every race he entered, apparently incurring the wrath of a small percentage of trackside supporters, presumably hoping to witness van aert reach the top step of the podium, but there's no arguing that mvdp has demonstrated skills and tenacity well above those by the competition.

however, it well behoves us to remember that cycle racing is still a minority sport, within which cyclocross exists as a smaller minority within that larger minority. therefore, the fact that eurosport have seen fit to not only broadcast live coverage of pretty much every event from the uci world cup series, the x2o badkamers trophy, super prestige and the exact cross trophy series, surely deserves a raucous round of applause. and were that insufficient praiseworthy timetabling, they also included the one-off hexia cross event from gullegem. what more could an armchair cyclocross fan desire?

in addition to all of the above, the quality of coverage has been exemplary, detailing every aspect of every race, no matter the weather and including the floodlit event in diegem. we've also benefited from expert commentary from marty macdonald, helen wyman, jeremy powers and ian field, all of whom are so well-versed in this branch of the sport, that every race is a school day. and it's also been notable that the crowds behind the barriers prove just how popular is cyclocross in belgium, the netherlands and france. we'll soon find out whether its popularity extends as far as benidorm.

however, every major trophy series takes a weekend break in mid january to allow for each country's national championship event. for the first time in cyclocross history, britain's national champioships took place in scotland, in callendar park, falkirk, where 23 year-old cameron mason, last year's national champion, successfully defended his jersey, beating thomas mein into second by a margin of 1:16. however, such is the minority interest in cyclocross on this side of the channel, eurosport either chose not to bother, or were not offered the opportunity, which, as it transpired, was a real shame.

television coverage of the british event fell to the bbc, and while i'm sure we ought to be thoroughly grateful that we saw any live coverage whatsoever, to be honest, it was a lesson in how not to tackle such a project. the picture quality was abysmal when watching on bbc iplayer, there was no on-screen timing information displayed at the finish line; i only discovered the winning margin by searching online. normal practice would be to record the leader's time across the start/finish line then show the gap to second and third. that simply didn't happen.

and it wasn't until the third last lap that i realised there were hurdles to be jumped, because the camera position didn't show them, while other camera views were scarcely well judged. commentary was by marty macdonald, who could be heard clearly throughout. co-commentator was helen wyman who sounded as if she were calling from a phone box in shetland.

come sunday, eurosport had opted to offer live coverage of the french national championships, with commentary by jez cox and, once again, helen wyman. i have no idea if either were actually in france, but the audio was nigh on perfect, as indeed was the tv coverage; scarcely a corner was left out of shot. and though it surely demonstrates the difference in the sport's popularity from one side of the channel to the other, not only was the french championship course far more clearly marked with red mesh barriers, but there was a substantial amount of finish-line advertising and crowds that outnumbered those in falkirk by several levels.

however, the latter aspect is one of culture, and something very unlikely to change in the short-term (or even the long-term, come to that), but the bbc holds a reputation for being one of the world's premier broadcasters, one able to televise all manner of live sporting events in a manner that has gained respect across continents. so why then was the footage from falkirk seriously pixelated throughout, suffered from poor choice of camera siting, and succeeded in making helen wyman sound like a dalek? i am grateful that there was any live coverage at all, but the end result was scarcely what should have been expected from britain's state-owned broadcaster.

monday 15 january 2024

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home on the range

container ship

the covid pandemic, as we are pretty much all aware, disrupted society to a degree not previously witnessed in modern times, not to mention the number of people who lost their lives worldwide. the newspapers have not been slow to point out that those whose bank accounts were well fortified prior to covid, seem to have come out the other end even better off, but for many, the opposite is the case. and to be selfishly parochial about matters, the bicycle industry seems to have both benefited and suffered depending on how perspicacious were their management teams.

quite why certain retailers and service providers, such as peloton for example, thought the gravy train would continue once life returned almost to normal, is anyone's guess. similarly, why states and countries thought likewise, would tend to suggest that many live decidedly in the short-term, rather than casting their gaze a bit further into the future. it's a topsy-turvy situation, however; as shipping from the far-east returned to normal, cycle and component manufacturers substantially increased their orders, first to replace that which had flown off the shelves during the pandemic, and secondly to fill their cupboards in order to supply the dramatic increase in sales which they seemingly expected to continue ad finitum.

having done so, you can scarce trundle through youtube or the trade sites without reading of substantial discounts on new bicycles due to overstocking and the imminent arrival of next year's model. 2022 and to an extent, early 2023, promised that the era of the bicycle had finally arrived; those of us with more realistic blood in our veins had frequently mentioned that, as soon as winter arrived, those born-again cyclists would just as quickly ditch two wheels in favour of four-wheeled transport, which is largely what happened. there may be a few more added to the world peloton via the e-bike route, and there will be those who enjoyed what they discovered, but by and large, cars 'r' us.

however since the demise of covid, britain in particular has suffered from the folly of brexit and the collateral damage of the ukraine war. neither of those may have directly impacted the bicycle industry, but due to the cost-of-living-crisis, people have had less spare income to consider purchasing £11,000 carbon fibre, or augmenting their four wheels with two electric ones. many bike shops have closed, high profile online retailers have filed for administration and, as reported only a few days ago, folks like kwik-fit have started to make inroads to bike servicing, previously the preserve of the bike shops that remain.

and now comes another potential blow: houthi rebels. having occupied their time by attacking ships in the red sea reputedly bound for israel, the escalation of the situation following american and british bombing raids at the end of the week, has had several shipping companies opt to divert their freight container ships round the southern tip of africa, a diversion that not only slows delivery times, but adds up to 30% to their fuel bills. costs such as these will undoubtedly find their way onto the price tags hanging from the handlebars of your next bicycle.

so why don't we make bicycles in the uk? during the aforementioned disruptions, campagnolo were noted to have escaped the slings and arrows suffered by shimano and sram, principally because they continue to base production in italy and neighbouring countries. yet only days past, raleigh, once britain's premier cycle manufacturer, announced that redundancies would undoubtedly follow the closure of its nottingham headquarters and outsourcing of its warehousing. of course, it's a long time since raleigh was truly british; parent company accell is based in the netherlands.

even boeing, which once had large sections of its aircraft built overseas, brought the manufacturing back to the united states, citing the pragmatism and economics of doing so.

bicycle manufacture has changed substantially from the days when british framebuilders joined metal tubes by means of ornately crafted lugs. taiwan undoubtedly has the greatest expertise in the world to mass-produce monocoque carbon frames, though it's hard not to argue that reliance upon such has resulted in a certain ubiquity of design. but the modern world appears intent on becoming a less friendly place in which to disperse the manufacturing of goods. there surely has to come a time when making stuff at home becomes overall far more practical and economic, than shipping it halfway across the world, bearing a sticker that advises designed in britain or designed in california?

maybe that time is now.

sunday 14 january 2024

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fore thought

the machrie golf links

when i were a lad at secondary school, like many others, i was peer-group pressured into playing golf. or at least attempting so to do. two of my best friends at school took to golf like ducks to water, though i do recall the period during which this took place to have been remarkably short. the main instigator was in possession, via his golf-loving father, of at least three sparsely populated, doudy khaki coloured golf bags which we dutifully took on the bus to one of the nearby golf courses. i should point out that the area in which i lived at the time, was replete with a myriad of courses, some of which were of championship standard. i hasten to add that we never quite made it anywhere near that level.

it is a truism that you'll never quite know how good or bad you are at anything until you've tried it at least once. i tried golf twice and on neither occasion was there any semblance of nascent skill on my part. other than the fact that i share a surname with one of the sport's most celebrated players (the very same situation allowed my father to sport a golf bag with the family name writ large. he failed miserably attempting to live up to its promise) golf and yours truly did not inhabit the selfsame universe.

i can clearly recall my very first attempt at the sport, reputedly invented by my nation's ancestors. the first hole could be viewed from on high, the trajectory of that little white ball intersected by a narrow stream (or burn, as tradition would have it) into which six of those i had borrowed, ended up. i seem to remember taking 108 strokes to reach the ninth hole, when the par for the course was a little over half that number. by my second attempt closer to home, i had taken to informing other players that their golf caddys had punctures, and making sandcastles in the bunkers. in my specific case, it really was a waste of a good walk.

in later years, in order to reach my place of work, i cycled past that very same course, and at weekends, as i attempted to arrive several miles distant by 7am, it was possible to view a small queue having formed, awaiting the course opening at a similar time. this included mornings of relentless precipitation and inherent darkness during the late autumnal months. i remember thinking that, while i was well aware of my need to be out in such depressing conditions, i could scarcely fathom why they were.

of course, one is encouraged to 'live and let live'. just because i had failed to see the point of hitting a little white ball towards a flag eighteen times in succession, did not mean that the point did not exist. however, i cannot deny that i find the incomes of those at the top of the game to be verging on the obscene. though it is clear that there is a certain skill to minimising the number of shots played during a match, it scarcely justifies such substantial remuneration, and by the looks of many of the accused, it scarcely requires the stamina and fitness demanded by other 'sports' (cycling springs to mind).

i would heartily concur with those who have it desgnated as a hobby, rather than a sport.

it is, however, hard to argue with its popularity. islay is home to the highly reputable links course at machrie, and judging by the published results of several annual competitions, its adherents considerably outnumber those in the sunday peloton. of course, that may simply be grist to the mill, proving that it's a darned sight less challenging to play a round of golf than it is to join the sunday morning ride, or participate in the annual ride of the falling rain.

that said, based purely on local observation, there seems to be very little cross-pollination between the two activities. i can think of only one individual who once played golf, joined the velo club for a few years, before recently returning to the dark side. were we to advertise the benefits of cycling on the clubhouse wall, i fear the gallery would rebuff such preaching. and in similar vein, the occasional golf magazine that appears in debbie's of a weekend has never been perused by any of the velocipedinal fraternity. never, it seems, the twain shall meet.

which surely calls into question the appearance of a full-page advert on the inside back page of this week's 'comic', enticing readers to subscribe to a golf magazine that presumably forms a part of 'future publishing's' portfolio? you would be well within your rights to query "what on earth were they thinking?" as they demonstrate just how little awareness they have of their target audience. one can only hope such foolhardiness is offset by a similarly placed advert in said golf magazine proffering a subscription to cycling weekly.

iron age thinking.

photo: the machrie

saturday 13 january 2024

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bicycle treadmill

new and improved

in the early 1990s, as a freelance graphic designer when print was still king and only programmers or geeks were ensconced in the online world, a sizeable proportion of my workload considted of designing and printing brochures for local businesses, the majority of which were a part of the local holiday accommodation sector. due to technological and economic strictures, the majority of these were confined to monochrome reproduction, which, in an intriguing sort of way, often made for a more creative result. when acquiring colour brochures from other sources, i was in the habit of photocopying them in mono to separate design from colour; it was interesting to note just how many relied on colour reproduction in place of intrinsic design.

however, i recall saying at the time, that the first of islay's accommodation providers to spring for a colour brochure, would effectively force each and every one of their competitors to do likewise, or suffer by comparison. that basic principle can be viewed in many different aspects of modern life, from which the bicycle industry is no exception.

though i may be wholly incorrect in my recollections, i believe that felt bicycles may have been the first major cycle manufacturer to invoke the aero principle in its top level framesets, resorting to the old standby of promoting just how much quicker over a specified distance this new model was, compared to its predecessor. there are, of course all manner of variables that might undermine such claims if examined a tad more closely, but such are the vicissitudes of marketing. and in a very similar set of circumstances to that of the weight-loss industry, the promise of extra speed for no appreciable increase in effort on our part, was probably too good to avoid.

there were, of course, precedents for this state of affairs. the promise of fewer frame-borne grams than the competition, or stiffness, had kept the industry's copywriters creatively occupied for many a year. but the double-glazing industry had effectively pre-empted that which still occurs in the velocpedinal realm; once you've sold everyone double-glazing, then what do you do? in that particular branch of commercial enterprise, you apparently offer triple and quadruple glazing, helpfully pointing out how much more effective each is compared to the double-glazing originally promised to be the ultimate in insulated installation.

once everyone had squeezed every last uci approved gram from the frameset, apportioning hitherto unheralded stiffness in the region of the bottom bracket was a most equitable diversion. the problem, as i and several others see it, is the remarkable resemblance to the software industry before it discovered the subscription model. if you will allow me to elucidate, software updates generally occupied an eighteen month cycle; version one would become version two after a year and a half, enticing customers to upgrade by means of attractive pricing for those who had the perspicacity to register their purchase.

it would appear not to make any pragmatic sense to adopt a subscription model in relation to the bicycle. rarely, if ever could frame upgrades be applied to an existing machine, and economically, replacement scarcely bears consideration. according to online cycling journal velo (formerly velonews), " companies typically refresh a model every three years or so". and according to a feature on their website, there are a number of bicycles from the likes of cannondale, pinarello, factor and a few others, the lifespan of which suggests they are ripe for an update.

i've linked the article below, as my purpose is not to plagiarise, but is it not a little sad that it's come to this? i was once informed by a continental tyres technician that members of the cycling public (that would be you and i) are continually looking for even external 'improvement' (ie tread patterns), whether any real improvement exists or not. in which case, are we the ones to blame for this apparent set of circumstances? or have the bike companies subliminally created the situation in the hope that we never become satisfied with that which we have, perpetually craving something new at regular intervals?

i know i have previously asked this question in relation to the professional classes, but is cycle racing any more exciting simply because it has become faster? irrespective of your answer to the latter, i fear that the question i ought to have framed is not that above, but whether our own cycling experience has become proportionally faster or more satisfying as a result? there may be the mistaken apprehension that, as we age, purchase of something lighter, stiffer and more aero, will allow us to maintain forward motion comparable to our younger selves; i have found no advertising copywriting that actively disavows us of that notion.

in a thoroughly equitable world, an upgraded bicycle would appear only when technological developments offered suitable justification. yet the world in which we live today, it seems that necessity controls the situation; if three years have passed without comment, repainting the current model may be the only available and marketable solution.

velo online article

friday 12 january 2024

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tougher than it looks

ryan kamp

the first electronic groupset i had the privilege of riding was shimano's dura-ace, in the early days when the notion of hiding the battery had yet to be thought of. in the case to which i refer, the battery sat in a cradle affixed to the seat tube in place of a bottle cage. presumably reducing a top level bicycle to a single bottle cage was regarded as a retrograde step, as it wasn't too long before the battery shape was altered to allow its secretion within the seatpost. however, my principal concern at the time was that, when riding in the rain, water would be likely to sit at the point where the electrical contacts were placed.

ryan kamp

as it transpired, the first few days of the review period were afflicted with persistent precipitation, during which the electronics continued to perform exactly as designed. i am not, as previously advised, a fan of electronics when it comes to changing gear; despite the last 15 years, i still think it to be a solution looking for a problem. really, how hard is it to push a lever as opposed to pressing a button?

however, i do recall that the bicycle on which the dura-ace di2 was installed, still featured slotted cable stops on the frame, necessitating the profligate use of zip-ties to constrain the flimsy wires along the outer surface of the bicycle's tubing. i'm sure the situation as described will be the source of much hilarity in the era of electronic-only framesets in which anything vaguely resembling a wire or cable has been enclosed within the bars, stem or frame tubing. the conspiracy theory is that bicycle designers do not favour bicycle mechanics, but i couldn't possibly comment.

however, despite many years of development by shimano, campagnolo and sram and successful deployment in the interim, i, and several others still regard the technology as somewhat flimsy. granted, the advent of wireless technology first by sram and latterly by the folks at vicenza has perhaps raised the bar, since externally, all that need be robust would be front and/or rear derailleurs. i'm led to believe that sram have patented the method by which their individual batteries can be removed for charging, perhaps explaining why campagnolo's version is less than aesthetically pleasing.

campagnolo super-record wireless

but the derailleurs themselves are presumably every bit as sturdy as their mechanical equivalents, yet personally, i would still harbour doubts as to the long-term efficacy of the electronics and their ability to keep untoward moisture at bay. that said, all modern electronic groupsets have been through the mill during the spring classics and some very wet stages of the grand tours. and the cyclocross cervelo as ridden by wout van aert, is advertised as being constituted for electronica alone. luddites such as yours truly need not apply.

earlier this week i paid tribute to the two italian manufacturers who had stepped in to provide dutch professional cyclocross rider, ryan kamp, with a bicycle, gearing and wheels. colnago's gabriele sirtori was happy to inform me that the bicycle aboard which mr kamp will compete was their gravel g3-x and now vicenza has come through to advise that kamp's colnago is racing at the behest of their super-record wireless groupset. if you have witnessed the majority of this season's cyclocross events, you will be aware of just how much gloopy mud has featured in those events. meaning, essentially, if campagnolo's top of the range wireless groupset can suffer the slings and arrows of glutinous mud and still change into the gear specifically required, then there's very little either you or i could do that would cause it any apparent grief.

of course, i would imagine that all the top cyclocross pros are riding electronica; campagnolo's very recent return to the mud hardly constitutes the last word in proven reliability in the face of adversity. to the best of my knowledge, no rider has had to run half the parcours to reach the pits due to malfunctioning electricity. i would think the biggest hurdle (pardon the pun) to replicating ryan kamp's impressive setup, would be the £4,500 price tag for super-record wireless and the thought of getting that drenched in mud. however, it does rather fly in the face of the other two who have seen it necessary to offer gravel/'cross specific groups.

ryan kamp

thursday 11 january 2024

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renowned bikepacker, markus stitz posted a video to youtube earlier this week, documenting his pre-christmas bike ride from edinburgh in scotland, to elfurt in thuringia. but rather than his regular gravel style bike, he opted to travel aboard a loaded hase gravel cargo bike. first riding to newcastle, he was joined by distance cyclist, mark beaumont from whitby to hull before boarding a ferry to rotterdam in the netherlands and pedalling the final european stretch to achieve an impressive 1100km in winter.

aside, however, from the splendidness of his undertaking, it might still be considered unusual to tour or bikepack on a cargo bike, a genre of bicycle more readily associated with the oft referred to, last mile for courier firms, or even sole traders who find the versatility of a cargo bike around towns or cities to be more effective than the ubiquitous transit van. of course, making such use of the cargo bike is not something that logically pertains to every situation; i would be as surprised as anyone else were the glasgow-islay freight company to opt for such methodology in the far flung corners of the hallowed isle. not only that, i have a more than sneaking suspicion that the present day drivers would be less than enthusiastic about the change of pace.

like many courier firms, the islay-based version employs a mechanic to deal with the maintenance of both its fleet of buses and various sizes of truck. and in order to facilitate any untoward malfeasances in the wild (so to speak), that mechanic is provided with a small van of their own to reach the corners that other mechanics just can't reach. and i have previously found it strange that motor vehicle mechanics seem largely unacquainted with the far simpler mechanical constitution of the average bicycle. in my days as a bicycle mechanic in the hebrides, i was several times confounded that local motor engineers were inclined to bring their offsprings' bicycles to yours truly for repair.

granted, specialist cycle tools may be necessary for certain procedures, but such toolage is considerably less expensive than those required by the average motor garage. and it surely can't have been the insurmountable intricacies of the modern velocipede that had them sub-contract the repair work.

i no longer have an appropriate amount of spare time to take on cycle repairs other than my own (and i'm often found to be struggling even with that), but one of my good friends undertook a certified cycle mechanics course a few years past, and now offers his own repair services, armed not only with trained knowledge, but a large shed at the foot of the garden in which to practise his mètier. and despite the existence of one or two e-bike hire outlets, none of the local motor engineers has been entrepreneurial and diversified into cycle fettling. however, in the light of recent developments, that may be an avenue for future thought.

in 2023, kwik-fit, the very service company to which you might entrust your motor vehicle for tyre replacement (during which they advise that your exhaust system and shock absorbers could also do with replacing), formed a partnership with fettle, a company formed in 2019 to offer 'faff-free bike repair, including collection and delivery. kwik-fit, it now appears, may simply have been testing the water and, pleased with the height of the waves, has taken the next step and bought the company outright. this, according to those in the know, is a signal of its intentions to take as big a slice of the 'burgeoning' last-mile delivery and cargo bike delivery sector as possible.

obviously enough, kwik-fit service centres tend to be situated in areas of suitable population; to the best of my knowledge, there are none midst scotland's west coast islands. but there are still plenty of centres to be found throughout mainland uk. according to kwik-fit's managing director, mark slade, "This acquisition will also enable an acceleration in the rollout of the Fettle network that would have been more challenging for it to achieve independently." from which one might derive that the company ultimately expects to feature fettle's bike servicing in as many kwik-fit centres as proves pragmatic.

engendering what might be mistaken extrapolation on my part, it seems possible that the cycle servicing expertise possessed by fettle would be available to the ordinary velocipedinist in the street, cargo bike or no cargo bike. quite how that might impact upon the hard-pressed independent bike shop, only time will tell. but just remember, if you take your bike to kwik-fit/fettle for a new tyre, don't fall for the "that chain and cassette looks like it's seen better days..." routine.

markus stitz european cargo bike ride

wednesday 10 january 2024

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there ain't no sanity clause

the doctor is in

i count myself as overly fortunate in not only being an allegedly sane individual (apart from a compelling need to avoid capital letters) and, insofar as i'm aware, suffering not from any form of mental health issues (capital letters notwithstanding). additionally, by and large i do not believe i am afflicted with an addictive personality. i do not drink alcohol (and yes, i do live on an island that features nine whisky distilleries), i don't smoke or take drugs (including lengthy struggles to take even an ibuprofen) and i'm not that keen on sweets or chocolates. oh, and i don't eat meat or fish, though i have not strayed as far as veganism, the principles of which, according to my opinion, don't stack up very well.

that said, perhaps i ought to 'fess up to my two notable addictions: cycling and drumming. these, i'm led to believe, are perfectly healthy addictions; the only suffering is likely to be witnessed on my bank statements and possibly the hearing of my neighbours. during the covid pandemic, as someone charged with maintaining islay's local newspaper, i found myself in an excepted profession, allowing me to travel (walk) to my place of work, where two of us toiled manfully and womanfully in an office closed to the public, with only each other's company to prevent any tendentious signs of increasing eccentricity.

though i have regularly ridden my bicycle since moving to the hebrides over 30 years ago, the covid months emphatically underlined just how effective cycling can be in dispersing any morose thoughts that might have accumulated during the working week. i'm not definitively saying that the grey matter would have become insuperably frazzled had cycling not been available as an outlet, but i'm pretty sure it acted as an escape valve. of course, enjoying the mindful benefits of cycling at each end of the working week was hardly exclusive to yours truly; the icing on the cake in the hebrides was no appreciable curtailment on where and how often such saddle-borne therapy could be practised. and on that note, i can thoroughly recommend living on an island.

many mainland-based cyclists were 'forced' into a zwift subscription, or minimal outdoor pedalling, accompanied by disparaging comments from nearby pedestrians. for the latter reason, i can understand the popularity of watopia.

of course, it's hardly noteworthy that i would cite the major benefits to be gained from riding one's bicycle on a regular basis, whether in company or solo. you would scarcely expect a self-confessed cycling blog to say otherwise. however, a recent conversation with a friend provided unsolicited corroboration for the above contentions. the fellow in question runs his own successful business on the island, but has recently suffered from one or two bouts of undiagnosed medical difficulties, which, he admitted, were prone to occurring on scheduled downtime from the daily grindstone.

a few years past, he was inclined to ride his bicycle once or twice a week, an experience he told me he enjoyed more than he initially thought he would. a former amateur rugby player, he's a tad fitter than the average bloke, fitness, he agreed, was comfortingly augmented by his regular cycling. unfortunately, his recent bouts of illness have meant the bicycle remains untouched in the garden shed, but he said he was keen to return to two wheels, to once again reap the recognised benefits of so doing.

though i'm wary of coming across as someone's grandfather, my lack of an addictive nature (the two exceptions outlined above notwithstanding) has seen me reach the third decade of the 21st century without acquiring a smartphone, and remain largely immune from the vicissitudes of social media. i realise that, in this respect, i am in an ever-decreasing minority; not all are so fortunate or deliberately obtuse in their ministrations. but should you suffer from any of the foregoing, i can thoroughly recommend getting out on your bike at every available opportunity.

however, as i type those words, it dawns on me that i am, in effect, preaching to the converted. all this, you already know. but in fact that makes you all particularly well-informed proselytisers for the cause. at least when you swerve the conversation round to cycling (which i'm sure we all do far more often than we realise), you'll be educating from a position of authority.

i leave it in your more than capable hands.

tuesday 9 january 2024

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