future shock

center parcs bike hire

in the mid-nineties, mrs washingmachinepost and i, accompanied by our then, young children, paid our first visit to center parcs, the most northerly of which, at the time, was situated in the forest of nottingham (though robin hood was apparently off on his own holiday during the week we visited). with remarkably few exceptions between then and now, we have paid an annual visit to either nottingham, or the facility at whinfell near penrith, both with kids, and latterly, as a couple.

following that first visit last century, i recall writing an article for the post claiming that i felt i had seen the future of cycle use, at least in the uk. for those who have not made the acquaintance of the center parcs villages, owned, in the uk, by brookfield property partners, essentially cars are banned from the village thoroughfares except during arrival and departure times. for the rest of any visit, cars are required to be left in car parks of ever increasing size. travel around the extended villages is thus carried out either on foot or by bicycle; both those owned and brought by guests, or hired from substantial hire facilities at each center parcs village.

my exclamations of joy all those years ago, were encouraged by what appeared, on the surface at least, to be the ideal to which many municipalities aspired, relegating the motor car, while increasing the importance of both walking and cycling. it's the very set of circumstances that remain the aim of many active travel schemes across the nation, schemes that all seem perfectly acceptable and possible in theory, but which rarely make the desired impact due to the preponderance of motor cars and a seemingly insatiable desire to continue driving everywhere.

hypothetically, you would surely agree, if center parcs can mandate that the car is excluded from the travel infrastructure in its villages, it would be a relatively simple procedure to do likewise in villages, towns and cities all across the country. however, as we all know, despite the best intentions of many and endless grants from central government both north and south of the border, not only has this not happened, but we seem no closer to achieving this state of affairs in any corner of the country.

however, the timely rethink of my mid-nineties prognostications has little or nothing to do with the current state of play concerning the whys and wherefores of active travel. in fact, the very cause of this current naysaying is almost entirely at the behest of the bicycle and its new adherents. i can only admit that, during that first visit to nottingham, i hired a bicycle, keen to be a part of this new world, one that i was naively sure would have been rolled out across every corner of the british nation by now. yet such an innocent appraisal of the situation had effectively been undermined before we even left for newark station and the return trip to civilisation.

as an experienced cyclist, i was somewhat aghast at the unforced antics of my fellow velocipedinists. around the village were one or two mini-roundabouts, which many of the parc cyclists either ignored by cycling over the top as if they did not exist, or opted to persistently ride on any side they darn well liked. there was little in the way of courtesy extended to following or oncoming cyclists, many seemed blissfully unaware of braking distances, or of how to brake at all. that initial visit to center parcs utopian ideals, was the first and last time i ever hired a bicycle on such a holiday.

nothing i have seen has ever given me cause to regret that decision.

on arrival at whinfell this november, mrs washingmachinepost and i had just checked in at security to leave our luggage, and were heading into the village centre, past the bike hire facility, when a middle-aged woman rode in front of us, tried to turn the wrong way, then almost crashed into a fence when attempting to correct her trajectory. i saw way too many hire bikes with the saddles ridiculously low, watched teenagers dismount to push their bicycles up remarkably shallow gradients, and observed any number of hire bikes lying desolate in the cycle parks adjacent to several of the village facilities. many had been apparently dropped with the derailleur side down, probably engendering some sort of damage.

the cycling itself was a worry to watch. those who had obviously brought their own bicycles seemed confident and in control, but more often than not, those on the village hire bikes were all over the road, frequently causing pedestrians to take evasive action, and often riding on pathways that expressly forbade any form of bicycle travel. sadly, were bicycle use to become mandatory across the uk (or even the world), i fear the above scenarios would only be exaggerated.

lest you feel my fears to be unfounded, i have witnessed any number of visitors to the island this past summer, aboard e-bikes when they appeared to have both the constitution and fitness to ride analogue bikes. and during those island excursions, several have been seen illegally riding on the narrow pavements of bowmore village, busy enough during summer season without scattering pedestrians every which way. additionally, riders have been seen riding in large groups with scarcely a care for the traffic around them, which includes many large articulated trucks serving the island's distilleries.

though it is illegal to drive on britain's roads without either a provisional licence and accompanied by a qualified driver, or a full driving licence and appropriate insurance, there is no requirement for cyclists to sit or pass any sort of exam before joining the traffic stream. no cyclist in this country need ever have seen a copy of the highway code, let alone understand its contents.

so while we long for the day when the bicycle gains its rightful place in the transport firmament, contributing to the fight against climate change and providing a robust and economic means of transport, it seems we may have to be careful what we wish for.

monday 28 november 2022

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two wheels good - the history and mystery of the bicycle. jody rosen. bodley head hardback. 396pp illus. £25

two wheels good - jody rosen

eastern philosophies contend that an object is not inherently that which we mankind may have decided to name it. in other words, a tree (for example) contains no specific tree-ness, and were it actually a sentient being, it would be blissfully unaware of its designation. better examples might be cows or sheep, animals that occasion much discussion within the sunday morning peloton, particularly when they appear on the road in front of us. neither animal is aware of their human originated designation, which would presumably explain why, on my morning walks, when i offer a "morning, sheep" to those in the fields, they seem particularly non-plussed.

we can but wonder whether those animals and plants have taken the time to apply names to us. that being the case, we too remain quite unaware of the nature that has been bestowed upon us.

and to briefly return to my original tree example, though the english speaking peoples of the world will recognise precisely to what that word refers, spaniards think of it as an arbol, the french see an arbre, and the chinese walk through forests of shùs. there may well be a wide variety of words for a bicycle across the many world languages, but drill down a little further and you learn that, whatever you choose call it, the bicycle means different things to different people, even those of similar nationality.

american author, jody rosen has explored those many definitions of what a bicycle means to all manner of different people, including, in chapter 13, 'personal history'.

"A cycling life begins in a blaze of glory. For hours or days or weeks, you still don't know how to ride a bicycle. [...] Then, suddenly, you are breezing along a road that stretches towards a limitless horizon."

it's not too hard to infer from the book's title, that mr rosen is much in favour of the bicycle, in all its many forms and appearances. to that degree, in common with probably every other cycling book in existence, it could be seen as preaching to the converted. i harbour great suspicions that those who could care less about the bicycle will probably head straight to the graphic novel section in waterstones, bypassing the cycling section. however, recognition of this particular set of circumstances, does not, or should not, detract from the book's excellent value to those of us who truly believe that two wheels are, in fact, good.

the author's prologue pays testament to the exotic advertising that featured in the bicycle's early years, where it was often associated with surreal astronomical properties, subsequently resurfacing in the mid-twentieth century when bicycles bore space-age names, such as 'skylark, skyliner, starliner, spacelander...; i'm sure you catch the drift. by précis-ing some of the landmarks in the early development of the bicycle, mr rosen sets us up for that which follows in the next 300+pages.

he even pays tribute (if indeed that is a suitable word) to those for whom the bicycle is one that effectively goes nowhere. from the humble exercise bicycle, many of which end up as oddly-shaped clothes horses left unceremoniously in a corner. somewhat dramatically, he begins that particular chapter with "A pair of exercise bicycles are resting 12,500 feet beneath the North Atlantic Ocean, about 370 miles south-southeast of Newfoundland." this is a reference to exercise bikes illustrated aboard the RMS Titanic. the chapter even identifies the last two passengers to make use of the machines prior to the ship sinking below the surface (charles duane williams and his son, r. norris williams).

in a commendably brief chapter, mr rosen introduces the reader to south african born jonathan goldberg, he who trademarked the concept of spin classes, subsequently adopted and transfigured by 'soulcycle'. these entrepreneurs "...pitched SoulCycle as a 'cardio party', with 'rockstar instructors', leading riders who move in unison as a pack to the beat." though he subsequently mentions the oft advertised peloton bike, he gains my utmost admiration by omitting any reference to zwift.

i do heartily approve of a bicycle book that omits the latter, but finds room to mention frank zappa.

and then there's the ubiquitous scot, danny macaskill, who appears in a chapter aptly entitled 'balancing act'. for the berneray born showman, the bicycle is far more of a tool than one of objectification, of speed, or means of transport. macaskill, through a series of well-produced and filmed youtube videos (his video of riding the ridge on skye, has racked up over 78 million views) has demonstrated just what can be done with a machine that most of us approach in an entirely different manner.

"By the time Danny was five years old, he was a familiar figure in Dunvegan, a little boy on a bicycle that he manipulated with startling ease, as if it was an extension of his limbs."

following a chapter-long exploration of the history of 'trick cycling', the author, in retrospect perhaps foolishly, joins danny on a bike ride near glasgow, during which he exceeds his own abilities and performs an over-the-bars display all of his very own. "I'm a wee bit worried, " he said, "that you're going to kill yourself."

as mentioned above, despite the likelihood that 'two wheels good' is a series of dissertations geared heavily towards the enlightened, it is arguably all the better for it. there are no vain attempts to persuade the none-believers that we're right and they're wrong, just a smidgeon less than 400 pages in celebration of everything the bicycle is, and almost nothing concerning what it isn't. the variety of those dissertations is wide and entertaining; rosen has an enthusiasm and a clarity of purpose that is hard to ignore, but a joy to absorb. if you are a cyclist of any particular flavour, or even none of the above, this will teach you more about the bicycle than you never realised you didn't know.

friday 18 november 2022

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in a filthy, cracked cup

cracked teacup

"we used to have to get out of the lake at three o'clock in the morning, clean the lake, eat a handful of hot gravel, go to work at t'mill every day for tuppence a month, come home, and dad would would beat us around the head and neck with a broken bottle.
"If we were lucky."

the above is a quote from monty python's four yorkshiremen sketch in which a group of be-suited, bow-tied toffs try to outdo each other in recollection of their childhoods, exaggerating at every turn, the hardships they had suffered on their way to presumably successful careers. though i would dearly love to impress you with my recollection of 1970s tv humour, in fact, the quote is verbatim from tuesday's guardian newspaper. the article in which it was included was the first of the regular two 'long read' features, published on tuesdays and thursdays each week, in this case entitled 'who remembers proper bin men?'

no doubt you would need to be of a certain age to recall many of the aspects of life in the 50s and 60s, recounted at length in the selfsame article: having to ask permission to leave the table after a meal, blackboard erasers, three-bar electric fires, marbles, duffle coats... the list goes on (for an entire paragraph, if you're interested). naturally enough, this fits perfectly with my oft admitted luddite tendencies, signalled by the recent purchase of my handbuilt wheelset from condor cycles, featuring thirty-two double-butted spokes laced three cross to campagnolo hubs outfitted with proper cup and cone bearing sets.

for those who fear a nostalgic ride down someone else's (mine) memory lane, i'm none too sure i can assuage your despondent anticipation, but while it might engender a sudden need to wash the dishes or make a coffee for your significant other, i have high hopes that, for me at least, it will be a cathartic few moments before reality bites once again. because not only do i have a proper set of wheels, to all intent and purposes, they are affixed to a proper bike. my ritchey logic eschews aero-formed carbon tubes in favour of 'real' round steel tubes, admittedly not fastened into cast lugs, and usurped solely by a gently curved carbon fork.

the latter, i'll admit, leaves me wide open to accusations of cherry-picking; insouciantly choosing the bits of technology that suit my purposes, while fervently moaning about square-section monocoque carbon frames and deep-rimmed carbon wheels, neither of which are ever likely to make me any quicker than i already know i'm not. sadly, i have no defence for the latter. while i long to own a lugged steel italian frame with pre-index downtube gear levers, shifting the chain over a freewheel, rather than these new fangled cassette thingies and sporting a polished alloy, 42/52 chainset, actually doing so would probably not be the uplifting experience i hope it might be.

but then again, maybe it would.

my introduction to the world of road-cycling was via a lugged reynolds 531 frameset, subsequently replaced by a similarly badged 653 steel frame. even my first colnago was of round-tubed columbus steel, before migrating to the iconic c40, with its clover-leaf profiled top tube. and, in the case of the c40hp, cantilevered chainstays with rhombus shaped holes. and though my specialized crux cyclocross bike features sculpted carbon tubing, press-fit bottom bracket bearings and hydraulic disc brakes, by progressing to the ritchey, i have effectively come full-circle, a transition encouraged by the sadly discontinued, steel framed, chris king cielo.

i doubt i'm alone in this, but i would argue that i'm probably in the minority. if strong present day sales of high-end road bikes are factually true, then evidence would suggest that the contemporary roadie is more in thrall to oddly shaped carbon fibre, electronic shifting and, in my opinion, pointlessly specced hydraulic discs. and i'm well aware that i may just have described you. in which case, i much appreciate your keeping the guffaws of laughter to a minimum.

but my original fascination with the road bicycle, as opposed to its heroes, was its inherent simplicity. unlike the burgeoning mountain bike market of the eighties, which seemingly emerged with a new anodised widget each week, a five or ten year old road bike brought no fashion shame on its owner, as opposed to riding a month-old mountain bike. and nowadays i look at the latest machinery from canyon, pinarello, colnago, bianchi et al and frequently despair. only the other day, a fellow on twitter identifying as the campag kid posted images of wheels built on highly-polished large-flange campagnolo hubs, showing tied-and-soldered spokes (ask your grandfather), the likes of which we will probably never see again.

even the campagnolo record hubs that form the centre points of my new wheels are black anodised. a sad pointer to compromised modernity.

road bikes from past years more often than not, seemed guilty of prioritising form over function, the diametric opposite of today's bicycles. in tim hilton's 'one more kilometre and we're in the showers', the author contends that the average road cycling peloton will contain more of the artistically inclined than any comparable strains of society. i fear that those days too, may have gone. with almost every square centimetre of today's carbon fibre seemingly wind-tunnel tested within a millimetre of its existence, there's precious little room for individualistic flair. for henri cartier bresson, paul cezanne and frank auerbach, computational fluid dynamics was not a resource to which they were introduced.

just don't get me started on electric drumsets.

wednesday 16 november 2022

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words fail me

beekse bergen 'cross

thankfully gone are the days when watching even some of the better known spring classics races involved finding a non-georestricted feed from belgium's sporza broadcaster. success in that direction invariably entailed listening to commentary in the station's native tongue. and though listening to flemish may have arguably created a more authentic viewing experience, there was little denying that, combined with an almost postage stamp sized window in the centre of the browser, it was often hard to decipher just who had made it into the breakaway. the fact that on-screen adverts would appear at regular intervals, only allowed to be dismissed after thirty or sixty long seconds, meant you really had to be an enthusiast to persist.

and while we're on that last thread, what is it that makes broadcasters or advertisers think that, having struggled to find the obscure event in the first place, any of us would be keen to click on a proffered advert and be led, kicking and screaming, away from our cycling? the same goes for youtube.

beekse bergen 'cross

modernity, however, has alleviated these often fruitless searches, providing full-screen, high-quality broadcasts, either through an online subscription to eurosport, or, more recently, full events or edited highlights on youtube. if, like me, you subscribe to the premium version, it is entirely advert free from beginning to end. at this time of year, cyclocross is flavour of the season, with youtube allowing the option to sit in the comfort of your own home and watch both men's and women's editions of uci world cup and super-prestige races anytime you darned well like.

as it transpires, my recent purchase of a new television brought with it the opportunity to use apple's airplay, a feature of which i had been blissfully unaware at point of purchase. therefore, i can open the youtube app on my tiny ipod, connect it to the tv via airplay and watch extremely high-quality video on my 42" television. many of the latter broadcasts have been commentary free, sporting only the ambient sound; cheering fans, screaming disc brakes, and, in the background, the event commentator when the camera shows the start/finish line.

beekse bergen 'cross

commentary free, that is until, on sunday, i happened upon the last four laps of the uci event at beekse bergen, won by laurens sweek from lars van der haar and michael vantourenhout.

as i joined the event on my large(ish) telly, there was commentary from marty macdonald (i think) and jpow himself, jeremy powers. the on-screen captions are now clear enough to be read without difficulty, enlightening viewers as to the rider in first place and the gaps between him and the following riders. in the face of that, the commentary team, while doing a fine job, seemed pretty much resigned to pointing out exactly what we could see on-screen. according to jeremy, one of his on-course informants had told him that world cup leader, eli iserbyt, was now looking stronger and rapidly closing the shrinking gap between he and the back of the leading group.

with european champion, vantourenhout, riding for the same team as iserbyt, having grasped the lead from sweek, according to the commentary, he was now slowing proceedings from the front, assisting iserbyt in his one man campaign to reach the pointy end of the race. with no disrespect to either commentator, this was something that could be clearly seen, as the producer concentrated on this, ultimately unsuccessful, chase.

beekse bergen 'cross

but then, with only one lap remaining, suddenly the commentary disappeared, leaving the youtube audience to watch the finale in silence - apart from the ambient sounds as described above. i feel quite guilty in relating that those last few sandy kilometres were quite blissful, confirming, if nothing else, that i actually prefer watching commentary-free cycle racing. eurosport's coverage of the grand tours and one or two other races often provide options for commentarily challenged viewers such as myself; i invariably opt for the quieter version.

i understand that those who, like yours truly, like to think of ourselves as more than well-informed about cycle sport matters, can be reasonably excused from being told just what it is we're watching. however, since all broadcasters are more than keen to improve their audience figures, it makes practical sense to inform the less well-acquainted as to the sport with which they may have little previous experience. but just as we have progressed from tiny sporza rectangles in our browsers, perhaps it's now time to provide a mandatory commentary/no commentary option to prove how civilised we've become.

tuesday 15 november 2022

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