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l'enfer du North Island

  truer now than ever Wednesday, 30 April 2008 link

There were never any good old days
They are today, they are tomorrow!

Gogol Bordello, Ultimate

  this is what it's like at our house Monday, 28 April 2008 link

Me: I've blogged.
Heather: Right. I'll just go read it.
Me: ... It's about bikes.
Heather: Oh.   ...   Is it boring?
Me:    ...   ...   ... yes.

  a discourse on utility bikes and why they rock link

When I was first starting out as an obsessive cyclist - when I bought my first proper bike - I was fairly into the bells and whistles. In much the same way that stereos in the 80s were sold on having silly amount of buttons and controls, bikes tend to be sold on having silly amounts of gears and bling. I bought a 27-speed bike (3 front chainrings, 9 rear sprockets), which is still pretty standard (10-speed rear sprockets are now available but too fussy for offroad use). I was at a party and mentioned to someone that I'd just bought a 27-speed bike. He looked at me and said "Yes, but how many do you actually use?"

And that's a fair point. At the time, I was in Cambridge. Cambridge is flat. In the middle of a flat county. Hills didn't really happen. I spent most of my time in one of two gears; 44x16 or 32x16. I usually stayed within a couple of sprockets each side of that. Increasingly, I came to think that the actual number of gears is secondary to the spread of gears. Yes, if you're racing, it's important to be able to move between closely-linked gears, so that you can keep pedalling at around 90rpm while increasing speed. So racing cassettes will commonly feature very small steps between the gears - for instance, you can get a 12-23 cassette, where each sprocket is either one or two teeth larger than the previous. This is great for racing, but pretty pointless for day to day riding. As long as you've got a really low bottom gear (for getting up steep things) and a pretty high top gear (for going down steep things), and you can get between them without too much hassle, you should be OK. OK, you may have to change your cadence a bit when shifting up, but if you're just trying to keep pace in traffic a shift slightly away from the magic "within 10% of your optimum cadence" isn't going to be too big a deal.

Plus, more gears is more to go wrong. Derailleurs are notoriously a bit fussy, and tend to require some TLC to keep going nicely. For your sparkling clean and new race bike, that's not an issue. If you're riding a bike day in, day out, in rain, wind and road grit, that's not going to last. Even if you have a theoretical load of gears, all it takes is for your rear mech to get slightly misadjusted and you can start having serious issues. And I'm not even talking about chainsuck.

So gears are a pain in the neck. Or rather, derailleur gears are a bit fussy and can require some attention. But the bikes that sell - certainly, the bikes that have been sold to me - are the ones with the fancy bits and the snazzy rear mech. There's nothing wrong with that, but it just means that you're going to have to spend a bit of time fettling it to keep it all running sweet. Yes, derailleurs are a bit lighter, have a faster response (when properly tuned) and are more easily maintained by the home mechanic; but you are going to have to spend the time on maintenance.

And I mostly don't have a problem with that. Part of the fun of cycling is getting to fiddle with greasy drivechains to get them running smooth and silent. But, quite frankly, I put 100k per week on my bikes via my commute. When I get home at the end of a day, I just want to park the bike and have a shower, not spend five minutes wiping it down and cleaning grit off the drivechain.

So, increasingly, the bikes that I'm liking the look of are the minimalist, city-based bikes. Fewer gears, so less to go wrong; little or no suspension to slow you down (just fit bigger tyres if you're uncomfortable); bikes that prioritise toughness over straight speed; bikes that you're not going to have to mollycoddle. The sort of thing you can put serious mileage on without worrying too much. In general, I'm talking about something without derailleur gears or suspension. Either a fixed gear or singlespeed, or using hub gears. Sort of thing like the Redline 925, the Edinburgh Bicycle Co-op's Courier S1ngle or Courier Nexus, the Kona Smoke 2-9, or my current contender for most realistic commuter bike, the Swobo Dixon. 9-speed rear hub, fully rigid - nice. The only things I'd change are perhaps the brakes (disks are a bit of a thief magnet) and the wheel size (for a commuter, why not just roll with 700cc/29er?). But in general, I believe that this is the sort of bike that we need to see more of: practical for day to day use, enough grunt to get up steep slopes, and liable to stay working even after a winter of hard use and neglectful maintenance. You don't see this sort of bike in the shops often - indeed, none of the bikes I've listed above I've seen in NZ (although I'm sure the Kona is available on special order) - but I'm firmly convinced that this is the sort of bike that 80% of users actually need. Of course, everyone will still want to buy either the shiny mountain bike or the sexy carbon fibre race bike, but I still reckon that a good solid utility bike can't be beat.

And I'd really, really love a Kona Ute. Cargo bikes are just great fun.

You should probably bear in mind while reading the above that one of my proudest moments on a bike was the time I found that a decent wine was on a special price per case at Tescos, and I managed to fit an entire case of wine into my backpack and cycle (slowly) home. I ain't just all about speed, I'm about achievement (as my fondness for audax riding shows - now why doesn't anyone in NZ run randonees, eh?).

  all this and upper back pain too Friday, 25 April 2008 link

A bad cold has conspired with ANZAC day to mean that I've been at home rather a lot recently. So I've been spending time producing mucus, and wandering around things with the girls. Today I took Rebecca on a walk "up a mountain", i.e. up to the top of Black Rock Road and along the new path up to Brandon's Rock. Brandon's Rock is the trig point in Newlands - as in, it's the highest point for a considerable distance and so has a sight marker on the top for surveying. The scramble up to the trig point itself is a bit tricky, and involves a very narrow, rutted, rocky, steep track through gorse, culminating in the potential for plummeting off the top of the rock itself (the other side has about a 10m drop to a gorse-covered hillside). That's as it ever was. The new track, on the other hand, is great. It goes from Black Rock Road up to the access point to Brandon's Rock, along the back of the houses along Edgecombe Street, basically right along the ridgeline. So you've got a nice solid climb and excellent views all along - the peak just before Brandon's Rock is only slightly lower than the trig itself, and is much more easily accessible. So if you've got a few spare minutes and are around Newlands, and want a short but spectacular stroll, I'd highly recommend it. Panoramic views of the harbour, from the Hutt Valley across through Eastbourne and the Orongarongas, past Cape Palliser, around through the Miramar Peninsular, through the city, past Brooklyn Hill, and around through Mt Kaukau and up towards the Porirua estuary. Absolutely lovely, and a good walk on a clear day.

I try not to do too much linkage; but here's a couple of things that have really interested me in the last couple of days. You Walk Wrong is an interesting article about barefoot walking and why it might be a pretty good idea. Those of you who knew me in varsity may remember that I spent a substantial amount of time barefoot then; even now, I try to go barefoot as much as I can (basically, when I'm home). Reading this has encouraged me a lot more and I'm now considering getting a pair of Vivo Barefoot shoes for work. On a different tack, but just as inspirational, is this incredible hand tattoo from the always-interesting-and-typically-NSFW ModBlog. And if you don't get it, take a closer look at the guy's left hand.

  my own private paris-roubaix, except that i won Saturday, 19 April 2008 link

So I've managed to bugger my bottom bracket. No, that's not a euphemism; the bottom bracket is the main bearing on a bicycle. Standing next to a bicycle, grasp a pedal firmly, then run your hand down the crank towards the frame. The bit that the crank joins onto, that goes through the frame: that's the bottom bracket. Now, holding the crank, see if you can move it side to side (rather than around in a nice circle). If you can, the bearings in the bottom bracket have worn loose and it needs replacing. On my bike, I'm getting about 2mm of lateral play, which explains the annoying clicking sound I've had on hard climbs for the last wee while. I'm a bit disappointed that I've worn it out. I'd only got 6000k out of it, which I reckon is pretty light (the BB on my MTB is still smooth after a lot more than that, including a shedload more muddy fun and riding through a couple of floods). Anyway, I need to acquire another old-school Campagnolo BB (they're sealed units so repair isn't a go). Now to find out whether it's cheaper to go to my LBS or pay ludicrous postage from the UK. Och.

To a certain extent, you judge how hardcore you are as a cyclist by what you wear out and how often. Any idiot can break stuff: indeed, it's often a mark of idiocy that you have. "Dude! I totally wrote off my handlebars by wrapping myself around a lamp-post the other day!" I mean, you could do that the first time you put your leg over the top tube. But to wear something out takes time, persistence, and grit. Often literally, in that last item: road grit can stick to overlubricated parts and form an effective grinding paste. This is why it's important to clean as well as lubricate. The first time you wear out a brake block, you get a little frisson; your bike is no longer officially new. The first worn out chain and cassette, a slight feeling of pride. But then you get used to going through a chain or two each year, a new set of tyres ditto. Then you start going through the bigger items - cables that are a bit too stretched, wheels that need re-truing or rebuilding, worn out headsets, and buggered bottom brackets. I'd have said that the BB was probably the bearing surface that I'd expect to go longest between services, so despite the disappointment I'm feeling pretty chunky for having killed one. Grr. There's not even any guilt: they're sealed units, totally non-user-serviceable, so it's not like it died as a result of a lack of maintenance (which, to be honest, is always a guilty suspicion about chain failures).

Mind you, I punctured twice on the way home on Friday. When the second one hit, I was not a happy poster boy for cycle commuting, and used some very bad words.

Reading: 30 Days of Night, which was actually pretty disappointing: some major internal inconsistencies, one pretty reasonable idea (the location), otherwise by the numbers, I thought. Characters introduced to no purpose and then eliminated with no repercussions. General silliness. It looked good, but that's about it. Also re-reading Dune; the overwriting is getting to me a bit more, but it's still a masterpiece. Watching: still working our way through The West Wing - nearly finished season 4. We tend to go "meh" when people say "Hey, you should watch this, it's great!", and for some reason we're always surprised when we try stuff and it does, in fact, actually turn out to be great. And the thing about the West Wing is, it's great.

  business casual Thursday, 17 April 2008 link

Rebecca's current big thing is picking out earrings for Heather in the mornings. She's working her way through Heather's earring collection - her current preference is for "big ones". This morning, Heather had already put her earrings in by the time Rebecca remembered this vital part of the morning routine. To forestall an emotional meltdown, I offered to let Rebecca pick my earrings for the day.

Ever seen a 4-year old perusing a selection of flesh tunnels?

  i am reliably informed that that was not a chaucer joke, and accept that i'm not as clever as i may have suspected Wednesday, 16 April 2008 link

How about that Paris-Roubaix, eh? Nice one to Tom Boonen for taking it (although I was supporting Magnus Backstedt myself). So far the best commentary on the race has been provided by the Bike Snob NYC's re-enactment of the race via ducks. After all, there's nothing that captures the spirit of a grinding, soul-destroying slog through rain, mud and cobbles like a row of bright yellow ducklings.

So anyway.

There's an interesting point in a child's career where they can't walk, but can climb steps. This comes significantly before the part where they can descend steps again. Which means that although Maggie is still at the crawling stage, her current big thing is to climb the kitchen steps and then merrily maraud around as much of the kitchen counter as she can reach from the top step (a lot more than you'd think). Of course, she can't climb down again, so we have ten minutes of happiness, followed by five minutes of her attempting to climb down, followed by a series of screeches to alert us to her plight. She is, very definitely, at the "can't leave them alone for a minute" stage.

There should be a list of skills that no-one told you you'd need as a parent. Toy troll-based ventriloquism, for instance. Speed-changing of bedsheets at 2am. Pretending to be the Daddy Fairy. Modern dance. Extemporising new lyrics to sing to songs that have inappropriate content. Explaining what prayer is and why someone might want to do it. That sort of thing.

Genius business model: and this isn't just a joke, this is one that I think could actually make a few bucks. Toy location. Children typically fixate on one specific toy and require it for comfort - the technical term is, I believe, "transition object". So far, so good; now, fast-forward to the dread moment. "OK, offspring, into bed and to sleep!" "Daddy, I can't find Fuzzy Hippo. *scream* *sob* *scream*" etc. And so you spend twenty minutes turning the rest of the house upside down trying to find a soft toy hippo while onlookers kibitz unhelpfully about your search technique and offer useful comments like "Just give her a different toy". Now, I reckon that if you could come up with some simple mechanism for locating specific toys you'd be golden. Something similar to the mechanisms used for locating lost keys, but with the ability to be sewn inside a toy (and thus having battery replaceability at a pretty serious low). I throw the idea out for some mad entrepeneur to pick up.

  no-one will get the chaucer joke Saturday, 12 April 2008 link

Summer is igoin out. I always note the dichotomy at the end of daylight saving: one Friday, I'm riding home in a reasonably light gloaming sky; the next Monday, I'm pedalling through swiftly-increasing darkness. These are the five months of the year that I spend doing my famous Christmas tree impersonation - "The lights! They burn!" etc. Still doesn't stop twats in Holdens ignoring me and pulling out without looking, though. Today's clue to drivers in Wellington: if you make a sudden lane change and hear a cry of "Indicate, you fuck!", that was me.

We're a house of disease at the moment. There's a cold going through the house, so everyone's been wiped out. Rebecca had it bad at the start of the week, then Maggie, then Heather. The kids are taking a while to get over it, so there's a lot of coughing, sneezing, and waking crying at 3 in the bloody morning. I've been a bit under, Heather's had an unfortunate reaction between the cold and her recent flu vaccination that's basically floored her, and no-one's particularly having fun. That's autumn for you, I suppose. This was capped off this afternoon by a slight accident while playing peekaboo. That doesn't sound so bad, but it ended up with me having to retrieve Rebecca from one of the side crawlspaces on the City to Sea Bridge while blood spurted from her mouth (she having managed to headbutt the edge of a buttress with her lower lip). Man, mouth injuries bleed lots and look worrying.

Amusing consequence of the Electoral Finance Act: it is now potentially illegal for me to discuss my job on this site until after this year's election. Instead of just being unprofessional and a bad idea, as it normally is.

On the headphones: the back catalog of Gogol Bordello. Yup, we're taking a break from klezmer by rolling a lot of gypsy punk. It's catchy! It's ethnic! It's frequently obscene! Does you good. And you've got to love any band that starts a song "Have you ever been to American wedding? / Where's the vodka, where's marinated herring?" (American Wedding from Super Taranta!) Also, Batbox by Miss Kittin - some standout tracks there (Machine Joy and Playmate of the Century are particularly chewy). And, of course, Zvezda Rok-n-Rolla by Leningrad. It's a really, really good song. Though I do feel slightly like a bloke in Novosibirsk listening to, say, Straight Outta Compton and thinking "Good tune, but I wonder what the lyrics mean?", as I'm reliably assured that it's incredibly obscene and not at all the sort of thing you should play near anyone who would actually understand it. My kinda gig.

  possibly more than you needed to hear Wednesday, 9 April 2008 link

You know that thing where you're standing alone in a lift, and you realise that you need to do a fart, and you think "ha ha, no-one will ever know!" and you quietly get things moving, and then you realise that it's taking longer than you'd thought to do the fart so you're about to arrive down in the lobby, but it's too late to stop the fart so as the doors open in the lobby revealing a number of people who want to get in the lift just as you do a huge noisy fart?

That's dead embarassing when that happens, that is.

I can no longer tell - is this confessional humour, gritty slice of life realism, or just wittering? Or am I just making it all up?

Sorry, I'm going to be a bit twitchy for a few weeks. I'm doing my annual purge. It's a bit later than usual this year: normally I go for February/March, but the lovely weather has meant that I've gone for April/May instead. So I am once more off the turps, which means (on past experience) that I'll be a bit twitchy for a fortnight, I'll have vast cravings for sugar, and then I'll settle down and not see what all the fuss was about. And then on June 1st I'll have a beer and go "Eurgh, was that really worth waiting for?" and on June 2nd I'll have one and go "Yes."

Went to the Klezmer Rebs gig on Saturday. The Rebs have an interesting fanbase. About half their fans are from the Jewish community, and the other half are anarchists. It's a slightly odd mix on the dancefloor, but everyone's every nice and the kids all get on very well (why do anarchists give all their kids mullets?) I wore a T-shirt with "Revolution" on it in big letters and spent most of the gig trying to get people to think I was an undercover policeman. Actually, it was a t-shirt for my 2nd favourite bike shop in the world, the Edinburgh Bicycle Co-operative, but it worked in context.

My favourite bike shop in the world is of course Ben Hayward Cycles. But it's a long way back to there.

  i can't be the first one to this Sunday, 6 April 2008 link

You know, for a fact, that one of this week's headlines on The Onion is going to be (all together now):

  it's usually like this Wednesday, 2 April 2008 link

What ho to anyone turning up here from courtesy of my recent guest article on commuter racing. I should point out that I don't talk about bikes all the time here, although many people would argue that it seems like it.

That last statement implies, of course, that "many people" read this site; a dubious proposition at best.

So I've looked it up, and it turns out that I periodically get what's known as a "migraine with aura". The difference between this and a "migraine without aura" is that first your vision goes funny, and then you get a standard "migraine without aura". In my case, this means that about every six months or so my vision goes really funny - typically I get a blind spot taking up about 1/4 of my visual field. It's a very odd sensation: I can see perfectly well in most directions, but one portion of my field of vision just isn't there. For instance, I might not be able to see anything to the bottom left - which is like being blind only in the bottom half of my left eye. This blind spot varies for a bit, sometimes becomes a shimmery field of lights, and disappears after about 15 minutes. And then about an hour later I feel like my head is being detonated from within and I have to go and hide in a quiet, darkened room. It's remarkably unfun, but at least I get a relatively interesting warning symptom before the sturm und drang starts.

Man, there's nothing to pull the shine off your normal lunchtime walk like someone's body being pulled out of a body of water you walk past each day (bloke in mid 50s diving in the harbour, body was pulled out of the lagoon). Mind you, this sort of thing used to happen occasionally back in Cambridge, with bodies being pulled out of the Cam after varying times of immersion. In the midst of life we are in death, etc, and there are worse things than a momento mori I suppose.

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