Category Archives: Bicycle Industry Blog

A to B 91 Blog, August 2012 – Electric Bike Special






Electric Bike Special

The British do love to back the underdog, something we have much experience of here at A to B. In the early days of electric bicycles, we fought against profound scepticism from the likes of the Cyclist Touring Club, whose officers hooted with derision that the heavy, cumbersome machines then available might be the future of cycling.
Eventually a few ‘serious’ cyclists began to come round, and today there’s a specialist electric bike magazine funded entirely by industry advertising, and electric bikes make occasional appearances in the Sustrans, LCC and CTC in-house magazines.The general view in 2012 is that electrics are a GOOD THING, even amongst those who wouldn’t dream of riding one if both their legs fell off.
Watching a new industry unfold has been a bit like watching the first stirrings as a volcano rises out of the ocean. First a nasty smell of sulphur, then a remorseless rise, then a more relaxed consolidation phase.You
might think that twenty years on, we pioneers would be sipping metaphorical pina coladas on the sandy shores of this tropical island, but in 2012, the industry is far from secure, and – in the UK at least – the whole
edifice is threatening to gurgle back under the sea.

What’s Gone Wrong?
Batteries have to be the primary issue. Since the arrival of lithium-ion technology in 2003, or thereabouts, the things have proved expensive and unreliable.At first A to B followed the line spun by the importers: it was new technology and within a decade the batteries would cost pennies and last for ever. Ah, one feels so foolish now! Nine years in, the batteries cost from £300 to well over £1,000, and the vast majority fitted to cheaper bikes fail within two, or at most, three years. Do the maths, and you’ll appreciate why the industry has stalled.
But we keep hearing that electric bicycle sales have exploded in Germany and the Netherlands? Well, yes, but these are very different markets.The Dutch in particular have always been prepared to invest in decent, well-equipped bikes and pay accordingly. For our pragmatic Continental cousins, baggage about ‘cheating’ from Lycra-clad sportsters is unknown – an electric bike simply makes day-to-day chores like commuting and dragging five children to school easier and faster.The Dutch have never balked at the concept of paying 2,000 Euros for a fully-equipped bike, and the German or Japanese batteries on these quality bikes have been less troublesome.
In the UK, where transport means ‘car’, and bicycle means ‘leisure’, decent bikes have never sold in any numbers. Electric bikes did start to take off here (although never in Dutch volumes), but the primary market was and remains cheap-and-cheerful clunkers, fresh from the China Sea.These were mostly heavy and crude, with batteries that failed within months, rather than years.
Most of these bikes lasted until the first battery conked out, although a few brave (or gullible) purchasers soldiered on until the £400 replacement bit the dust. A few far-sighted distributors offered two-year battery guarantees, and some subsidized the cost of replacement batteries, but most took a short-term view and hoped for the best.
Current sales are very hard to judge. According to the electric bike trade association BEBA, sales hit a record 15,000 units in 2009, with a prediction of 50% growth for 2010. Did it happen? We may never know…
BEBA has provided no figures for 2010, 2011, or indeed 2012. One suspects – on the rickety evidence that few manufacturers are willing to discuss numbers – that sales have dropped dramatically in the current recession.The only clear evidence comes from the electric motorcycle world, where figures are compiled by the MCIA. Electric motorcycles are currently in freefall, having peaked at over 550 units in 2009, before falling back to a pitiful 402 in 2011.

Bottom End
Paradoxically, for those looking to purchase a cheap and reliable electric bike, the best advice is to go really cheap, and spend no more than £300 to £500 on a lead-acid battery clunker.Your neighbours won’t be casting covetous glances over the fence at your  Woosh Angel, Thompson Euro-Classic or Alien Ocean Tornado, but it won’t have cost you much, and when the battery fails in a year or two, you can replace the cells yourself for less than a hundred quid.A bike like this may be single-speed, and it will certainly be heavy and crude, but it will keep grunging from A to B for many years, without any nasty financial surprises. Sadly the classic Powabyke 6-speed, in production since the early 1990s, has been quietly deleted.Very sad – a bit like waving farewell to your favourite hippo.
More problematic are the great mass of low-end Chinese lithium-ion bikes, on which the battery clock will
already be ticking before you take it out of the box. Oddly enough, the bargains of 2010 and 2011, including such brands as Byocycles, Juicy Bikes and AS have mostly gone up in price by 10%-30% in the past year or so, which is hard to explain with the market so weak. It may be a side-effect of the weakness of the pound against the US dollar, but if so, how have other importers kept prices down?
The de facto standard Li-ion battery these days is 10Ah x 36 volts, giving a capacity of about 360 watt/hours… for the first few weeks at least. If you insist on buying a cheap Li-ion bike, go for this relatively large battery on the basis that if you start with 360Wh, the battery will have reasonable oomph for a bit longer, whereas if you start with 200Wh, it could all be over by Christmas.With last year’s cheapies painting themselves out of the picture, the bargain brands for 2012 seem to be Woosh (again) and Sustain.
It makes sense to steer clear of folders, which tend to be heavy, under-batteried, poorly geared, and shod with rubbishy 12-inch or 16-inch tyres. If you must have a folder, the £399 Tesco Boost looks solid enough, and is so cheap it may be worth a try. Otherwise go for a good quality electric conversion on a decent folder, like a Dahon or Brompton, which will cost the best part of a grand more than the Boost, but should work well and fold well.The Nano-Brompton is back, and very good it is too, but there are signs that the reborn Electric Wheel Company is already overwhelmed with orders, resulting in frustration and delay. Brompton itself has gone strangely quiet on its long awaited factory machine, suggesting either technical issues or nervousness about sales.
Dahon’s factory-built Boost is already with us, but it seems to have failed miserably, and is now being heavily discounted from its £2,000 retail price (48% off at Cycle Sense!). If you want to pick up one of these rather heavy, but otherwise well thought through folding electric bike, move quickly, because discounts at that level can’t last for long.
Mind you, David Hon may well keep it in production, if only to score a few points over his son Joshua, whose rival Tern folding bike company has yet to produce an electric-assist, despite early promises that there was one on the way. Maybe Josh should wait and see… on current form most of the folders appear to be heading for disaster.
In August 2010 Avocet Cycles asked very nicely if A to B could remove a website reference to a long expired Viking electric bike, because Avocet was launching an electric range under that brand name. Just two years later, the range has become a single folder, the EGo, now knocked down to £699.
Mobiky has substantially discounted its folders too, but the little bikes have tiny 120Wh batteries and are still listed at £1,200-£1,300, which just doesn’t add up in the current climate. Even the Pininfarina-styled Velosolex can be found for £999, a discount of some £250, giving a one-off opportunity to buy a design classic for a knock-down price.This interesting bike really does deserve better, and with distribution now in the hands of EBCO, it might yet pull round.

Mid Range
Several l familiar names have simply disappeared. Remember Ezee? Once regarded as the fastest growing electric bike brand, it has effectively disappeared from the UK. Izip, the odd American machines with
chain or spoke drives, have disappeared too for now, after being dropped by distributor Moore Large, but they’ve come and gone before, so may well be back. Gone for good one assumes is Green Edge Bikes, which started full of enthusiasm, then disappeared again. Others have actually gone bust: Ultramotor has disappeared, taking junior partner Urban Mover with it.The brand has since been bought by Indian company, Hero Eco, so the best bits may come back, but for now they’re gone.The Technium Privilege, a badge engineered Kalkhoff was imported from Germany by Wiggle for a year or so, but has now quietly disappeared.
Another bit of hardware that seems to be on the way out is the innovative BionX system.
This high-tech electric bike drive was chosen by Trek and others, attracted by the cache of silent power and regenerative braking, but the BionX-equipped machines have not been very successful, and you don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce why. The Li-ion batteries have been troublesome, and replacements cost
£700 to £1,900.Trek has soldiered on into 2012, but with unsold 2010 and 2011 bikes being discounted far and wide, we’d hazard a guess that the company is planning a stealthy (and expensive) retreat.
Raleigh is in a similar position for very different reasons. Having made the smart decision to badge-engineer the excellent Panasonic-powered bikes produced by its cousin Kalkhoff, Raleigh found itself sold off to Accell, and Kalkhoff suddenly became a competitor. Kalkhoff/Derby have now moved from buying in the Panasonic crank-drive to producing their own Impulse power unit, leaving Raleigh selling a basic 3-speed fitted with last year’s Panasonic. If ever there was an argument for British manufacturing to have some manufacturing
capability, here it is.The British company has been sold by the Americans to the Dutch, and lost the right to put its badges on German bikes. Raleigh retains its Far Eastern Velo-Cite and Velo-Trail brands, but the growth and profits were at the top end, and Raleigh, with its vast dealer network, is now short on bikes to sell.As part of Accell Group it will have access to other electric bike technologies, but most of this is Dutch, and there are no hills in the Netherlands. Once again, the message is clear: keep some development and manufacturing expertise at home…
Several other big ‘manufacturers’ such as Claud Butler have dipped a cautious toe in the electric bike waters by buying in Far Eastern systems, but in most cases the bikes are being discounted in the shops, a situation that can’t go on for long. Another brand widely discounted in 2012 is the East European Gepida, which promised to do battle with the Panasonic-equipped West European brands, using the reborn Yamaha power unit.
Apart from a rather small battery, it’s a decent package, but sales are disappointing and Gepida prices have fallen to £1,400, which is mighty good value.
As at the cheaper end, despite the gloomy, nay catastrophic picture, some manufacturers are cheerfully piling on the £££’s and bumping up prices.The City Free Spirit, a nothing special Chinese brand, is now £1,300, and similar Far Eastern bikes, the Byocycles Ibex and Oxygen E-mate Race, are being advertised for £1,500, well into European roadster territory, while the Lifecycle Mountain Sport Endurance – albeit with a ginormous 1kWh battery – costs £2,000.

Top End
The £2,000 electric bike is now quite commonplace, and the £3,000 barrier has long been breached.At this luxury end, prices are less volatile, but German manufacturer Heinzmann is once again without a UK distributor, presumably because things  didn’t work out with Twike maestro Dr Andreas Schroer.The Electric Transport shops claim to be making direct imports of the Heinzmann Estelle, but with prices starting at a hefty £2,300, one assumes there won’t be many takers.
Others seem to have fallen by the wayside too. The power-assisted versions of the Velorbis Victoria and
Churchill (‘Elechic’) looked interesting when they were launched in 2010, but the bikes simply failed to make an impact.
Kenneth Bødiker of Velorbis insists the Elechic bikes are available to order from 2,045 Euros, but when pressed about where and how a UK customer might get one, he remains silent. The Velorbis failure might have something to do with the company’s decision not to market the electric models using its trademark of sophisticatedly underdressed young ladies.This failure to properly target and market electric bikes seems to be a general issue, particularly where women are concerned, and women should be a key target. Electric bikes are rarely photographed with a rider on board, and when they are, the victim is usually a tubby man, going a bit grey round the edges. Not very aspirational imagery.
A to B’s advice used to be that the better electric bikes started at £1,250, with the 3-speed Swedish-made Monark Eco.This has now gone, and if we ignore the slightly range-challenged Gepida, the cheapest
European crank-drive bicycle now seems to be the Spanish BH-Emotion Xpress 650 at £1,450.To get a decent-size battery you need to shell out £1,700 for the BH Street 650, Kettler Hybritech or Raleigh Dover 3- speed, which of course may not last, depending on the ins and outs of Raleigh-Kalkhoff contractual
arrangements.The Kettler is a Panasonic crank-drive machine, similar to the Raleigh, but with 8-speed hub and halogen lights for the same price. It is nominally promoted by a company in the Midlands, but one gets the impression that electric bicycles are not the most profitable part of the Kettler franchise, so they remain hard to find. Another quality option is Cytronex, the British company making a name for itself by putting power-assist equipment on conventional fast road bikes. Uniquely, Cytronex has stuck with a heavier, but more reliable NiMH battery, which should give at least four or five years service. This conservative stance and modest pricing strategy (prices start at £1,345) may explain why Cytronex is weathering the current storm.
Gazelle’s electric bikes used to be stratospherically expensive, but they too have dropped in price this year, thanks in part to the economies of scale brought about by explosive sales at home in The Netherlands. Sales in the UK remain slow, but with prices for these quality European roadsters starting at £1,485, they will undoubtably pick up.
The award for biggest price fluctuations has to go to Kalkhoff. Four years ago, the Kalkhoff Agattu cost
£1,195, yet earlier this year the range started at £2,095, albeit for a very different machine, with double the battery capacity and a more sophisticated power-assist system.The classic 8-speed Kalkhoff Agattu is now back to £1,895, and 50 Cycles hopes to keep the whole Agattu range below £2,000 for the rest of the year.
The real bargain is the Panasonic-powered Pro Connect S10, now discounted by a breathtaking £800, putting it at a shade under £2,000. A lot of bike for the money.
Should we be paying £2,000 for an electric bike with still unproven battery technology? Yes, if the guarantee is right. Kalkhoff, like most of the bikes in this rarified zone, offers a two-year guarantee, which is adequate if not  spectacularly generous. Other winners at the top end include Bosch, whose excellent power system can now be found on a number of expensive and exclusive bikes, and quality Euro-brands Koga, Sparta and Haibike, which are all distributed by newcomer Just Ebikes of Suffolk. At this end of the market, if you have to ask the price, you should really be looking at something else. All these bikes are reassuringly expensive, although price increases have been relatively modest.

By far the biggest retrenchment has been in the world of electric tricycles. A year or two back, 15 trike manufacturers were selling 25 or so models, half of which cost less than £1,000.Today there are seven brands, 14 individual models, and prices start at £1,040 for Powabyke’s venerable Tryke. As Powabyke has now abandoned lead-acid technology in its bicycles, the Tryke can’t last long, and if it goes, the cheapest tricycle will be the £1,200 Mission Trilogy with a battery half the size of the Tryke’s chunky battery… not good on a heavy tricycle. Quite why the trike market has been so decimated is unclear, but some manufacturers seem to have pulled out altogether, while others have simply given up on the UK, and the remaining handful have bumped up prices in an attempt to stay profitable. Of these, the Di Blasi R34 is a fascinating and unique folding trike, that really will fit into a smallish car, although it now costs £2,470.The best of the rest is probably the tilting Veliac Three at £1,400.We haven’t tried it, but it’s quite light, with a decent sized Li-ion battery.

Bursting Bubble
Has the public really lost confidence in electric bikes, or are the manufacturers simply retrenching under the same recessionary pressures we’re all living with? A bit of both probably.Will the market survive in its current form?
Hard to say. Riding a bicycle with a permanent tailwind is a seductive thrill, but market forces are at work. The worst may not be over.



Gocycle 2 Electric Bike

A to B 88 Blog, February 2012 – Gocycle, Ultramotor, Brompton

The Mole, A to B magazine




Gocycle, Ultramotor, Brompton

This humble organ would never stoop so low as to spread gossip and innuendo about respectable manufacturers. That said, strange things are happening to Gocycle and others, and one feels duty bound to report them, under the much abused journalistic principle that exposure might be in the public interest. Or put another way, if the public are interested, they will continue to purchase this scurrilous rag.

Gocycle issues

First for dissection is GoCycle, an interesting British demountable electric bike introduced by Richard Thorpe’s Karbon Kinetics (KKL) in early 2009. Despite a zillion hours of bench-top fatigue testing and the attention of multi-gender, multi-ethnic focus groups, the GoCycle seems to have suffered from a few issues whilst in production, but nothing terminal, and the Mole for one rather enjoyed its jaunty ride and useful take-apart foldability.

In early 2011, stocks of the optimistically named G1 had been depleted, and the expectation was that an altogether whizzier G2 version, complete with Li-ion battery and other novelties, would follow after a decent interval.

After rather a long gestation, the G2 was finally launched in September 2011, but no bikes followed, and the company went quiet, before announcing in November that Singaporean company Flextronics would be its manufacturing partner.

Judging by the press release, there is clear synergy between KKL and Flextronics. If nothing else, they both speak the same impenetrable gobbledygook: KKL announced that the deal would enable it, ‘…to capitalize on growing international demand for the Gocycle product portfolio by leveraging Flextronics’ advanced manufacturing solutions and global supply chain logistics capabilities’. Nice and clear. Flextronics responded that Gocycle would be, ‘an exciting addition to our diverse Clean Tech solutions portfolio.’ We hope they’ll be very happy together.

Flextronics is one of these companies you can’t easily get a handle on, if only because it’s hard to understand what they’re on about. In the old days, a manufacturing company manufactured things with spanners and wrenches, but Flextronics’ literature speaks disappointingly about ‘solutions’ rather than products: High Reliability Solutions, High Velocity Solutions, Integrated Network Solutions, and those all important Clean Tech Solutions.

The Mole, Flextronics

Judging by similar tie-ups (Flextronics seems to manufacture electric motorcycles for US company Brammo), Flextronics takes care of all the manufacturing hassles, leaving the innovators to innovate.

This brings us no nearer to actually getting to grips with where GoCycle stands, and where it might be going. KKL has been strangely quiet since the merger/take-over/partnering solution. A few 3,000 Euro ‘limited edition’ G2R models were apparently let loose in Europe back in November 2011, but those pre-production bikes seem to have disappeared without trace. Meanwhile, the word is that the G2 will appear in March 2012, a full 13 months after the last G1 was sold. At this rate it will be selling to a completely new generation of cyclists.

Talking of solutions, a common solution to manufacturing woes these days is to be taken over by an Indian company, the subcontinent apparently being flush with takeover cash, despite receiving a reported £1.4 billion in UK aid each year, much to the fury of the Daily Mail.

Ultramotor joins Hero

Brompton JacketThis was the jolly fate of Ultra Motor, the electric bike manufacturer which shed its much bigger Taiwanese subsidiary, before going wheels up in November last year. Within a few weeks, the parent company had been bought for an undisclosed sum by Hero Eco, a newly formed division of an Indian company that started making bicycles in the 1950s and now has an annual turnover of more than a billion pounds.

To Hero, Ultra Motor cost peanuts, and will be used to fuel its relentless global expansion. The intention is to sever links with China and Taiwan, once existing contracts have been worked out, and transfer production to India. Hero Eco is expected to achieve turnover of £200 million within five years, and somehow you just know it’ll hit the target.

Brompton – where’s the Beef?

Back in dear old blighted Blighty, Brompton continues to do well, with buoyant sales and healthy finances, despite or perhaps because of – swingeing price increases of nearly 8% on some models.

All jolly good, but what seems to be missing from Brompton these days is the engineering innovation.You know the sort of thing: gears, tyres, wheels – the spinning bits that turn a bicycle from a static display piece into something useful.

Between 2005 and 2009, Brompton introduced three new variants, a singlespeed hub, lightweight titanium options, a wide-ratio geared hub and new tyres. In the following three years, the company introduced, er, a cosmetic pedal, an alloy seat pillar (later quietly withdrawn), a jacket, a ‘unique’ T-shirt, some limited edition graphics and one solitary engineering advance, the taller ‘H’ type handlebars.

The power-assisted Brompton variant was expected to put the stamp of authority on the abilities of the new management team, but the project seems to have gone on the backburner. According to Brompton’s own website, ‘The pursuit of improvements is the lifeblood of any innovative and ground-breaking manufacturer’. As our colourful U.S. cousins might respond, ‘Where’s the beef?’

East Coast Trains Doodle

A to B 87 Blog, December 2011 – Directly Operated Railways

A to B 87, Industry Gossip from The Mole: Directly Operated Railways



Directly Operated Railways

One does sometimes wonder what the expensive and disruptive privatisation of the British railway system was actually supposed to achieve. Greater efficiency, one assumes? The trouble with this assumption is that for nearly twenty years, we’ve had no publicly owned yardstick with which to compare the performance of the private rail franchises… until now.

Since National Express was booted off the East Coast franchise in November 2009, after contracting to pay a premium it couldn’t possibly afford, the East Coast franchise has been run by Directly Operated Railways, in reality a division of the Department for (Road) Transport, and thus, to all intents and purposes, the ghost of British Rail past.

East Coast Trains Doodle

According to the Free Enterprise culture much in vogue these days, the general expectation was that DOR would prove a cumbersome, rudderless whale, nibbled by lithe, efficient, free enterprise minnows. Nothing could be further from the truth, because DOR has come up with all manner of marketing innovations. It was the first franchise to introduce a loyalty ‘train miles’ scheme, offering free WiFi and First Class upgrades to regular travellers. Good idea. It also launched a concerted assault on competing airlines, with a campaign that included texting the phones of frequent business flyers using the airline’s own database, and advertising on WiFi at Edinburgh and Newcastle airports. Cheeky.

The campaign increased East Coast’s market share from 45% to 53% and won the company a Gold Award at the 2011 Media Week Awards.

Better Railways on the Continent?

Just the stuff we expect from private enterprise, but embarrassingly for those pushing the free enterprise line, DOR is nationalised. Maybe it’s an exception to the rule? We can’t be sure, because when our railway system was laughably ‘opened up to competition’, British Rail was not allowed to bid for franchises. Neither is DOR today, but bizarrely state-owned foreign companies are, and these mostly European railway companies now run nearly half of our rail franchises, and one of the three ‘Open Access’ operations too. French, German, Dutch, and now Spanish railway companies have expressed an interest in bidding for future franchises too, including East Coast, which the government is determined to let.

Incidentally, all of the foreign operators but Keolis (part-owned by French state operator SNCF, and currently responsible for banning folding bikes from Southern and SouthEastern platforms) have proved notably bike friendly. But only our own East Coast allows you to book a bicycle space when you buy a ticket on-line.

East Coast Trains
Unless you are a Daily Mail reader, you may not be particularly worried about Johnny Foreigner running our trains.You might even be quite pleased: German timekeeping, Dutch cycle-friendliness and French, er, style, are no doubt very welcome, but they do come at a price.

In 2010/11 DOR made a surplus of just under £200 million on the East Coast franchise, and being state-owned, it paid this premium straight to the Treasury, and thus to the Great British Public, knocking a few quid off our tax bills. Good news. Unfortunately East Coast is in line for privatisation, after which any profits above and beyond the franchise premium will go either to National Express and its slippery ilk, or the national governments of Germany, Holland, France or Spain, thus helping to keep their taxes down.

Is one being terribly naive in asking the rather obvious question that if a British state operator is doing very nicely at

…being state-owned, it paid this premium straight to the British tax payer…

present, it should surely be allowed to bid against foreign competitors when the franchise is relet in 2013? And if East Coast can do a perfectly good – arguably exceptional – job of running the line without a franchise, why bother going to the trouble and expense of putting these services out to tender at all? Why not keep this solitary state-run service as an efficiency yardstick against which future private and state-owned foreign bids could be assessed? If the state can do it better, why bother spending millions of pounds on lawyers, barristers and consultants in an endless round of refranchising?

What else do they do rather better on the Continent? Why yes, cycle policy of course, but that may be about to change. When the Department for Transport asked the Transport Research Laboratory to produce a report on infrastructure for cyclists, the car-minded civil servants were presumably hoping for a rubber stamp to the segregation of cyclists on railway paths and other dingy byways. But the report has actually come down in favour of keeping cyclists on traffic calmed roads: “Providing segregated networks may reduce risks to cyclists, although evidence suggests that the points at which segregated networks intersect with highways can be relatively high-risk, sometimes of sufficient magnitude to offset any safety benefits of removing cyclists from the carriageway… Of all interventions to increase cycle safety, the greatest benefits come from reducing motor vehicle speeds.” Used ‘Cyclists Dismount’ signs anyone?

A to B 87 Dec 2011

Ford Synus

A to B 49 Blog, August 2005 – SRA, ABD, Merc

Strategic Rail Authority, Association of British Drivers, Merc folding bike

Good news from Bogworthy Junction! The much derided Strategic Rail Authority has finally been abolished, but not before dropping, as a parting bombshell, that services to Bogworthy will be downgraded in the new Greater Western Franchise. But at least we have seen the back of an organisation that was neither Rail-friendly nor Strategically-minded.The bad news is that most of the staff are expected to transfer to the Department for (Road) Transport and continue mishandling rail matters from there. Still, one assumes that the forces of the state know what is good for us.

Most trains these days have space for only two to four ‘cumbersome’ machines, and long-distance travellers are generally obliged to book ahead. Once upon a time, this was done by speaking to a humble, but knowledgeable, railway clerk, who would transfer the information to another similar bod in the bowels of railway HQ, who presumably signed a chit or stuck a Post-it note on a giant map of the network. However it was done, the system worked reasonably well until January 2005, when modernisation resulted in the new, and fearsomely powerful, National Reservation System, costing a staggering £80 million. Booking has since become a hit-and-miss affair, particularly when crossing network boundaries with a bicycle.

To provide just one example, the little train for Kyle of Lochalsh, which carries two bicycles, recently pulled in to Inverness, where no fewer than ten cyclists were waiting, reservations in hand. Eight of the ten weary cyclists travelling that day had already been crammed into six bicycle spaces on another train.

Merc Folding Bike

Regular cycle/rail commuters are buying folding bikes in droves, and who can blame them? But these days, folding bikes might not be all they appear to be either. The Chinese have developed some serviceable nuclear weapons, and shot all manner of dangerous things into space, but the finer points of folding bike technology continue to elude them. The latest arrival from the east is the Merc, a straight copy of the Brompton. This sounds great news for consumers, being made of aluminium and very pretty to look at, but the reality is something of a disappointment. As one understands it, aluminium is lighter than steel, but for reasons that only the boffins are able to explain, the aluminium Merc weighs a hefty 13.2kg, and is thus significantly heavier than the steel Brompton. The Mole took the opportunity to ride one of these faux-Bromptons at the CTC York Rally and found all sorts of oddities in the handling, brakes and folding. A bit of a dodgy purchase at £499 then, but is the company really allowed to sell such blatant copies? As with so much in and beyond the Euro-zone, the answer appears to be yes and no. Merc bikes have been seized and impounded on the European mainland, where copyright laws are interpreted in a relatively protectionist manner, but not in Britain, which adopts a more laissez-faire approach.

Surely the Merc is a straight copy, passed off as a Brompton, bringing only some rather heavy aluminium to the party? Even the Merc instructions are copied from the Brompton handbook. And if the frame is wobbly and the brakes dangerously weak, surely the bike must fall foul of British Standards too? It seems not, or at least Trading Standards has made no move to prevent the open sale of the machines.

atob-blog-mark-mcarthur-christie-mercThe road lobby isn’t all it might appear either! Road interests are advanced by something called the Association of British Drivers, a hang ’em, flog ’em and run ‘em down operation, composed largely of middle-aged men of the kind that wear trilby hats and grip the wheel with chamois leather driving gloves. Believing in broad terms that motoring should be fast, cheap and convenient, the ABD lobbies hard against speed cameras, taxation and road pricing, as one might expect. But Mark McArthur-Christie, the ABD’s Road Safety spokesman appears, to have gone native! After riding a Dawes Galaxy to work and rather enjoying the experience, Mark ‘didn’t bother’ replacing his car when it was written off, and is now car-free. ‘If I absolutely need a car, I hire it’, says the ABD man. For National Bike Week in June, he went a step further, organising a car, bike and bus Oxford commuter challenge.

It’s an odd world: Strategic Authorities that offer no strategies, Bromptons that are not Bromptons and now car lobbyists without cars. While the bearded, sandal-wearing anti-road types arrive at demos by car, the bicycle in the bushes could well belong to the ABD man behind the bulldozers, or perhaps even the chairman of Shell (see previous issues), should he happen to be passing. In the era of Peak Oil, one would be well advised not to jump to any conclusions.

So where is personal transport heading? Celebrities are flocking to folding bikes as never before: in the old days, if you pulled up beside a vaguely familiar face on a Brompton it was almost certain to be Adam Hart-Davis or Simon Calder.These days, it might be all-purpose celeb Jerry Hall, former boxer Chris Eubank, Member for Bath Don Foster, or Tory something-or-other Bernard Jenkin MP. The latest convert is television presenter Kevin McCloud, who felt sufficiently strongly to order Bromptons for himself and two other directors of his production company.

Incidentally, Strida enthusiasts include film maker Spike Jones, Radio 4 presenter Libby Purves, racing champion Stirling Moss, and the Queen’s nephew Lord Linley.


At the more vulgar end of the transport scale, it seems Hummer owners are enthusiastically signing up for the new SYNus, which sounds like a nasal problem, but is actually an ‘urban command centre’. According to manufacturer Ford the SYNus is a ‘mobile techno sanctuary sculpted in urban armour and inspired by the popular B-cars of congested international hotspots’. In practice, this means it’s a security truck, complete with steel shutters that rise up to shield the windows, and deadlocks to disable the doors. Lock your keys inside and you might as well start saving up for another one. Lock your dog inside on a fine summer’s afternoon and the poor chap will be done to a crisp by the time they cut him out.

…such everyday accessories as bullet-proofing, a mini safe and infrared night-sight…


But as one rather suspected, the SYNus is a mere runabout. Meet the $225,000 Bad Boy Heavy Muscle Truck, a post-apocalyptic urban nightmare, based like the Hummer, on US military hardware, but in this case on the rather larger Medium Tactical Vehicle. The Bad Boy weighs six tons, stands ten feet tall and can be ordered with such everyday commuter accessories as bullet-proofing, a mini safe and infrared night-sight. The $750,000 ‘NBC’ version offers protection from ‘dirty’ nuclear bombs and biological agents. Fuel consumption is a little under 8mpg, which sounds rather good, all things considered. The Mole is waiting for the civilian version of the Chieftain tank.

A to B 48 Blog, June 2005 – Central Trains, Brompton

2005 Brompton Launch, Central Trains, Brigitte Bardot & Solex

Catching a train in older, simpler days, one generally purchased – then referred to – a ‘timetable’, before travelling to the station and waiting for something to happen. With today’s technology, the process is altogether easier!

The Mole provides as an example a recent harrowing journey from Bilbrook station on the Central Trains network. Like all wise travellers, the Mole checks on the internet 24 hours in advance, gaining an essential picture of the latest running information. Check One proceeds smoothly enough, revealing that – barring staff defects, locomotive on strike, or the wrong kind of snow – a train is booked to arrive at 10.23am on the appointed day. Journeying to the station in good time, one makes the second essential check, confirming on the old-fashioned paper timetable that Check One had yielded reliable information. All goes well; the 10.23 does exist.

Check Three causes some disquiet amongst regular travellers: the automated voice on the push-button machine-thing claims that the next train will arrive at 11.23, but we have yet to see the 10.23. Check Four involves hasty use of a mobile phone, and a call to the central rail enquiry number. These days, one’s call is generally routed to a pleasant young lady in foreign parts, who is generally obliged to communicate back to the UK to find where the train has gone, and indeed, what country it is in. But on this occasion the apparatus responds with a friendly West Midlands accent. ‘Is the 10.23 running today?’ ‘It’s on its way sir, and running on time!’ Fantastic news; the automated thing must be malfunctioning.

At 10.22, the 10.23 appears from Codsall, causing much relieved shuffling on the platform… then proceeds to run straight through the station.

After enduring 40 sweaty minutes on an overcrowded bus, followed by two missed connections and a late arrival at Bogworthy Junction, one eventually gleans the truth from the Central Trains press office. It seems Central has recently inherited some trains that are too long for certain platforms. Unable to say in advance when or where these trains might be rostered – and banned from stopping them at short platforms by the Health & Safety Executive – the drivers are instructed to run through without stopping. Railway companies are allowed to follow the logical course and welcome customers through the guard’s door, but only if arrangements have been made in advance with the Health & Safety Executive, signed in triplicate, and so on and so forth.

Thus, where we might have trooped past the guard in perfect safety, a dozen of us are obliged to run up the road, leap on a bus and run into another station at the other end. Even ignoring the possibility of some poor old soul suffering a heart attack, or being murdered by an angry spouse, this must surely be a more dangerous scenario? One suspects this is all part of the modern trend towards what is colloquially known as ‘arse covering’, rather as small boys once padded their trousers before visiting the headmaster. On railway property, one’s every move is scrutinised for risk, and the best way to reduce that risk is to keep passengers well away from trains. How one deals with risk outside the station is one’s own affair. Speaking of risk, bicycle launches are a bit thin on the ground these days, primarily because we don’t have an industry any more, so the Mole was greatly thrilled to make the trip from Bogworthy to Paddington for the 2005 Brompton launch at the London Transport Museum.


Brompton’s Will Butler-Adams getting very excited about something, or perhaps recounting a fishing trip


Alexander & Jane Henshaw discuss shoulder bags with Caroline Moore


Mike Burrows (L) and Richard Ballantine (R): ‘Nasty stuff to machine, titanium’.

The venue proved to be an extremely jolly choice, as the exhibits – mostly large and red – made an entertaining backdrop, although one wonders how they get the red wine stains out of Routemaster buses. Brompton has revamped its model range with a positive cornucopia of options (up to 70 billion permutations according to some wag at the launch) where previously five were considered more than adequate. For the innocent punter looking for something economical to ride to work, the main change is that red or green paint, previously thrown in gratis, now costs an extra sixty quid. For eighty quid you can have a bicycle without any paint at all, which doesn’t sound like progress, but will no doubt attract eager buyers.

The real thrust, of course, isn’t in humble green bicycles for bird- watching types, but a brash new range, rebranded with sharp logos and the sort of pastel shades normally reserved for night clubs and similar establishments.The new bikes – be-jewelled with titanium thrunk- washers and other priceless technology – will be aimed at young people, which in bicycling terms means one’s children or even grandchildren – a brave move indeed.

This sort of thing is essential to prevent bicycling from dying out altogether. As Darwin might have observed, if folding bicycles are purchased only by those beyond child-bearing age, the folding bike gene is as doomed as – for example – the MG/Rover gene.

The Brompton launch was characterised more by the people who were not there, than by those who were. The general election hadn’t helped: diminutive transport minister Charlotte Atkins MP had been booked to deliver a few carefully chosen pro-bicycle words, but pulled out, presumably warned off by the spin-meisters that the Government had pulled the financial plug on Britain’s last volume car-maker.

Another no-show was keen Brompton rider and chairman of Shell, Lord Oxburgh. One assumes the top man at one of the world’s biggest oil companies thought better of endorsing a folding bicycle as it was announced that most of the world’s oil reserves had been turned into CO2.

So for a number of political and economic reasons, the launch was populated by the usual suspects.The entire A to B team made an appearance, with Jane Henshaw sporting an off-the shoulder Brompton tyre bag, and young Alexander spending eight hours hopping on and off the exhibits, before being retrieved with minutes to spare for the last train home. Peter Eland of Velovision was very much in evidence too, but the rest of the cycling media seems to have stayed away – odd, given that this was a major launch by a British company building bicycles in the UK. Whether or not Brompton is now the largest British cycle manufacturer (as opposed to distributor) is a matter for debate.


Andrew Ritchie addressing the man (and woman) on the Chingford omnibus

Andrew Ritchie of Brompton announced that his company certainly was the biggest, if one excluded the concern ‘that builds a few specialist machines’, thus neatly writing off Pashley Cycles in a few well-chosen words.

Pashley had failed to attend the festivities, as indeed had Doctor Moulton, who might at least have sent his nephew Shaun, generally kept in reserve for less prestigious events. Indeed, amongst Brompton’s folding bike competitors, only Mark Bickerton of Dahon and Grahame Herbert, designer of the Airframe, made an appearance. Engineers were well represented, with the legendary Mike Burrows taking a keen interest in the new titanium frame parts. ‘Why haven’t they made it entirely of titanium?’ asks Mike in a rhetorical sort of way. ‘Because they haven’t found a way to engineer the hinge in titanium, that’s why!’ ‘Nasty stuff to machine, titanium.’ Well, there’s a challenge. A week or so later, Giant launched its 2005 bikes at a hotel complex just off the M6 toll motorway which sounded less convenient for those arriving by bicycle.

Building on the success of the elegant Lafree, Giant has expanded its electric range.The Lafree sees all sorts of changes for 2005, principally that it will be called something different, which sounds an odd way to build on marketing success. Confident at last that electric bikes have become respectable, Giant has dropped the Lafree ‘brand’, rebadging the electric machines as Giants. A seemingly insignificant piece of badge-engineering, but indicative of a tidal shift in attitudes.


Brigitte Bardot and Solex


Speaking of badges, it seems the Solex cyclemotor has made another comeback, this time in it’s homeland of France, after abortive manufacture in all sorts of places.These friction-drive devices enabled the impecunious to create a motorcycle out of a bicycle, before the likes of the Lafree and budget Chinese scooters made such things redundant.

For legal reasons, the new machines are called ‘Black ‘n Roll’, and in an odd reversal, 65% of the content is shipped from China, where such machines are now banned (hence the glut of electric bicycles), and despite the limited local content, the new Solex is officially Fabrique en France. Diligent research has unearthed photographs of Solex er, models, young and old.Whether today’s model has been instructed to strike a similar pose to Ms Bardot is unclear, but an entire thesis could be written on the subtle differences between the two images. Sadly, one has neither the time nor the inclination, other than to add that the 2005 model has been upgraded to full Euro- standards with electronic ignition, a catalytic converter and whisper-quiet exhaust. The engine, on the other hand, looks much the same.

A to B 46 Blog, February 2005 – Wessex Trains

Wessex Trains, Bike-in-a-Bag

Try as they might to look corporate and glossy, privatized railway companies have a fundamental ineptitude that makes them easy targets for mirth. Take for example, Wessex Trains, the scourge of Bogworthy Junction.

When dear grey Mr Major hit on the idea of privatizing the railways, his aim was to turn the clock back to the 1930s, a generally positive era for trains, although hardly a golden one. In those happy days before Hitler and post-war transport planners went and spoilt everything, the railways were split into four large regional companies, each one responsible for railway services and infrastructure: hotels, ferries, buses, a few air services, freight, parcels, pork pies, and so on. The system had its faults, but by and large it made money and provided rather well integrated transport. Had one been fortunate enough to catch a Great Western train from Paddington to Bogworthy Junction, for example, one would have found a Great Western branch line train providing the connection for Little Piddlington and Hampton Gusset. This well proven technique of making trains, buses and other vehicles connect with each other seems alien today, but it provided effortless transfers.

Come privatization, and forces in the Treasury and other departments engineered a rather different arrangement, where a multitude of intercity and regional train operators would contract to run services against each other. This had the transparent objective of making the industry more competitive (ignoring the fact that the railway was already engaged in a cut-throat battle with cars, planes, coaches and indeed bicycles), and the less transparent objective of isolating the minor and regional lines from their wealthier brethren, clearing the way for wholesale closures.

Busy Bogworthy became part of the lame duck Wales & West franchise, running the smaller Great Western lines at a substantial loss, whilst most of the trains actually stopping at Bogworthy were provided by the wealthy (but oddly, not very profitable) First Great Western.

Great Western had been briefed to ignore the local trains and experiment with its own buses, the general understanding being that local services would rapidly fail. Meanwhile,Wales & West was dismembered, the Bogworthy zone becoming part of Wessex Trains, a strange animal, neither clearly private nor state-owned, but heavily subsidised.

The awfulness of the ensuing decade is too frightful to record in detail. Suffice to say trains grew older and less reliable, arcane industry rules became more cumbersome and Byzantine, but traffic volumes grew, putting the creaking regional system under strain. Most Wessex services were now too busy to close, but the extra passengers were only increasing the problems.

In practice, Wessex, like most regional railway companies, has very little say in how and when its trains are run. Take for example the peak summer services from Bogworthy to Budmouth-on-Sea. With the normal two-coach trains often overwhelmed, Wessex decided to lease some ‘proper’ coaches and a pair of wheezing historic diesel locomotives, one at each end. The principle behind sending a train out with two engines – where Brunel et al might have considered one more than sufficient – was to cover for the all too frequent breakdowns, and make the train easier to reverse. Budmouth is blessed with a ‘run-round’ loop from the days when single engines were the norm, but following the absurd break-up of the industry, Wessex staff were no longer allowed to use it.

A to B magazine, Wessex Trains

The mayor of Caster-bridgeshire meets his namesake, withdrawn from service weeks later

Thus, the oil-belching ‘heritage’ train duly rumbled back and forth to a somewhat hit-and-miss schedule until the Strategic Rail Authority or some such body (one is never quite sure) instructed Wessex to withdraw it. Unfortunately, this bombshell arrived after arrangements had been made to name one of the arthritic locomotives ‘Mayor of Casterbridgeshire’. In a wonderfully Doctor Beeching-esque moment, the mayors and other dignitaries had barely digested their chicken vol-au- vent and fromage surprise, before the locomotives and carriages were quietly withdrawn, this less satisfactory twist being the subject of an ongoing news embargo.

One final ‘Santa Special’ was run in December, apparently in defiance of the SRA, but Wessex has no spare rolling stock to handle the 2005 traffic peak, and no clear idea how to get around the problem.

…the dignitaries had barely digested their vol-au-vent before the locomotives and coaches were withdrawn…

One would have more sympathy for the management team, where it not so adept at shooting itself in the corporate foot. At Bogworthy, access to two of the three platforms is by way of a narrow and rather steep footbridge. In theory (and in practice, not so long ago) staff were available from 6.30am to 10pm to assist disabled passengers over a level railway crossing. But under the Wessex regime, morale has fallen to such an extent that staff are frequently absent. When cross-examined about this by a rightly indignant wheelchair-bound visitor, the regional manager suggested proceeding to the next station down the line, and catching another train back. But as even the station cat could have told them, this time-consuming manoeuvre would merely bring the customer back to Platform Three, at the bottom of the same steps.

A to B magazine, Bike-in-a-BagBicycle carriage policy has deteriorated too. Bicycles were already banned on busy commuter trains into major cities, but Wessex tried to extend the ban to cover most of its peak-hour trains, some of which had plenty of space for bikes. After a few months, the company backed down and rescinded the bike ban, then attempted to mitigate this PR disaster by encouraging commuters to purchase a ‘Bike-in-a-Bag’ folding bike. But as even the importers of the machine would have to admit, the Bike-in-a-Bag is hardly designed for daily use, and – more crucially for Wessex – it makes a large and unwieldy folded package on the train.

At Bogworthy, the perfectly adequate cycle racks were secure and undercover on Platform One, but without so much as a by your leave, Wessex decided to scrap them and put new ones ‘somewhere more convenient’. Needless to say, the old racks went, but nothing arrived, leaving no cycle parking at all.

Staff were then told to expect smart new uniforms. When they arrived, they were two sizes too big. Replacements are now lost in the system.

None of this would matter too much if the trains ran on time, but they don’t. A quick survey reveals only 59% running with what one might describe as Brunellian precision – the remainder running up to 36 minutes late.

The general impression is of an industry in deep crisis. Costs and confusion have run out of control, but management has lost the ability to consult, to plan for the future, or make the simplest day-to-day decisions. For regional franchisees like Wessex, even basic procedures, such as clearing a few nettles to make way for a car park extension, can cost thousands of pounds, months of negotiation, and planning on a military scale. This is not entirely the company’s fault, of course – it’s just that the industry is unworkable.

The real tragedy of this gentle rural farce is that the wolves are already gathering at the door. New Labour is no friend of the railway industry and is now so deeply distrusted in the shires that it would have little to lose by backing closure plans. A substantial majority for Labour at the next election could mean a round of rural rail closures, forcing more people onto the roads, just as the twin futurist nightmares of declining oil production and global warming make their presence felt.

…the real tragedy of this gentle rural farce is that the wolves are already at the door.

And why does one suddenly feel tempted to take global meltdown seriously? Rather disturbingly, it seems that Lord Oxburgh, chairman of Shell, is riding a Brompton to work and making apocalyptic predictions about climate change. At home, we are told, he has persuaded his wife and son to ride bicycles too, keeping a 60mpg diesel car in the garage just for ‘trips to the supermarket’. Could he know something we don’t?

But all may not be lost. Younger readers may need reminding that Jim McGurn once ran a cycle publishing empire that over-stretched itself, resulting in ignominious receivership and lost nest-eggs for hundreds of innocent backers.

McGurn went on to pilot a small-scale bicycle try-out concession at the doomed Earth Centre near Doncaster, until that too went into administration on New Year’s Eve 2004. Not Jim’s fault, of course, but one begins to sense a pattern. Our hero now proposes to bounce back with Bikeland, a £33 million Disney-style cycling theme park to be based in Derby.

One hates to be sceptical, but £33 million of lottery money would fund an awful lot of cycle paths, safe Toucan crossings, secure cycle parking, and other practical day-to-day measures to get people out of their cars and onto their bikes. One suspects that if the Lottery Commission is misguided enough to support it, Bikeland will go the same way as all the other grand projects. In any event, it wouldn’t open before 2008.

Scarily, that may be too late.

Prorace Demonstration

A to B 45 Blog, December 2004, Interbike Las Vegas

A to B magazine, Interbike Las Vegas, sexy girlFIRST PUBLISHED December 2004
Interbike Las Vegas Special

Las Vegas is a decidedly odd venue for a cycle show, as anyone who has attempted to ride a bicycle there will appreciate. American cycle activists, if that is not a contradictory term, have been pushing for the Interbike trade show to become a roving affair, visiting a different metropolis each year and spreading the non-motorised message far and wide. Ah, would that it were so! The organisers have had other ideas, signing up with the Sands Convention Centre in Las Vegas for years to come, or at least until the oil runs out and they are forced to hold it somewhere more sensible.

The city can only really be reached in two ways – driving from Los Angeles (a trifling 300 miles across the desert), or flying in from just about anywhere else. One would think a car something of a hindrance in a small city dedicated to gambling, drinking and other sinful but primarily static pleasures, but this has not prevented car-bound tourists cruising Las Vegas Boulevard by night and day – a pointless activity generating more or less continuous congestion.

Actually, just for the record, cycling from the airport is by no means inconvenient.The only really serious error one can make is to follow the Mole’s example and head east on Interstate 215, a singularly unpleasant highway, necessitating an awkward cross-desert escape manoeuvre. One should, instead, turn left onto Kitty Hawk Way, slip quietly onto the sidewalk east of Paradise (thus avoiding a six- lane one-way cataclysm), and left on the Tropicana sidewalk to Koval Lane, from whence access can be made to most areas in relative safety.

A to B, Interbike Las Vegas, Robert N Broadbent Monorail

The Robert N Broadbent monorail

Until very recently, Amtrak trans-continental trains stopped in Las Vegas, but in one of those bouts of blood-letting to which public transport is periodically exposed in the USA, the trains were withdrawn and the downtown railroad station demolished. Ever since, there have been calls to reinstate the trains, a scheme that would be craftily funded by on-board casinos ready to swing into action as the cars cross the Nevada border. With our own Dear Leader taking an unhealthy interest in gambling and other unwholesome things, it can surely only be a matter of time before some New Labour policy-wonk suggests just such a scheme for subsidy reduction on the crumbling relic formerly known as British Rail. It’s hard to imagine a warm welcome for casinos aboard the 7.47 from Bogworthy Junction, even if they do stay under wraps as far as the Berkshire border.

Generally speaking, Las Vegas tends to be a step or two ahead of Bogworthy in the transport stakes. The city (Vegas, not Bogworthy) boasts no fewer than three private monorails, all of which are free, but oddly enough (or perhaps not) each line stops only at casinos run by a particular mob. This crafty free enterprise system could, of course, be adapted to suit London conditions when the Super Casinos arrive, by building the gambling establishments close to centres of employment. A win-win situation! Or perhaps not.

Las Vegas has tried to alleviate its own transport frightfulness by building a super-slick public monorail, neglecting in its haste to build stations at any of the places people might like to go, such as the airport or the downtown district. For a few weeks last summer, the cars of the Robert N Broadbent monorail dutifully pottered from nowhere to a point several miles distant, until a wheel fell off one train, and a drive-shaft fell off another, these calamities causing the system to be shut down; ‘indefinitely’, say the critics.

Accepting the advance publicity for the monorail at face value, the Mole arrived without a folding bicycle this year, an error soon rectified with a borrowed bike. One or two other brave fellows made good use of their wheels, including Richard ‘cycle everywhere’ Locke, designer of the Airnimal, who proceeded to cycle everywhere as promised. One was particularly impressed to find Richard wearing non-cycle friendly footwear and loaded down with carrier bags at the Designer Discount Mall off Highway 15. Hmm, quite a ride.

A to B magazine, Interbike Las Vegas, Prorace

The delightful Bernard Git demonstrates the ProRace

But what of the Interbike show? Brompton, Airnimal and Carradice had cobbled together a little Brit corner (aka the British Pavilion), decorated with a few brave, if slightly moth- eaten, Union flags. Nothing very exciting to offer, but all very British and ‘business as usual’.

…arguing with Bernard Git proves as futile as snail baiting, but entertaining nonetheless…

A to B magazine, Interbike Las Vegas, Chilsung Gear

The roller-toothed Chilsung gear

As one might expect, the French gave better value for money, an outfit called Twister Bike marketing the ProRace, an epicyclic-geared bottom bracket device, rather like the Mountain Drive, but with the net result of, er, only one gear. Claimed to require ‘less muscular contractions’ (sic), the ProRace is also said to produce ‘More power for less effort’, resulting in a ‘lower heart rate’. For non-engineering types, the ProRace actually performs the same function as a larger chainring, but at much greater cost, and with added friction. Arguing with the delightfully named Bernard Git, the charming Frenchman behind the ProRace, proves as futile as snail-baiting, but entertaining nonetheless.

Not far away, the equally charming French-Canadian ladies and gentlemen of Bionx (formerly EPS) were demonstrating their gearless, brushless, bionically-powered and braked electric-assist bicycle. Although a bit expensive, this magic device performs the near ‘perpetual motion’ feat of storing cycling puff that would otherwise be blown away on long descents.

So much for Europe. Korean company Bikevalley was exhibiting the TaRa shaft drive, a practical sort of device, that may or may not be genuinely new, as is the way with bicycle innovations. Unlike the bevel gears fitted to most shaft-drive machines, the Chilsung gear developed by Bikevalley uses rollers in place of pinion drive teeth, which reduces friction and eases maintenance. In the company’s own words, ‘…the distinguishing part of the central driving the special toothed shape curve of sprocket adapting a rolling movement friction and rotating the power, emerging from previous traditional chain sprocket and bevel gear and this Chilsung gear using shall change the history of traditional inconvenient chain Bike…’ Eh?

Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? And watch out – Bikevalley is working on the rather alarming ‘Z-pump black hole’ whatever that might prove to be.

A to B magazine, Interbike Las Vegas, Double D Chopper

The monstrous Double D Chopper

Home-brewed US innovation proved altogether sexier, if a little weak in the practicality stakes. The Mole’s favourite was the Double D Chopper, said to be the longest pedal-powered chopper on the market, with a claimed ten-foot wheelbase.This monstrous device is easier to ride than it looks, which is fortunate because it has only one gear, and a single back-pedal brake. One begins to grasp the value of advance stop lines…

Staying with the motorcycle theme, Electrodrive is producing a neat electric bicycle based loosely on the Harley-Davidson, with a battery in each cylinder barrel and chain drive to the rear wheel. Are they serious? Well, they seem to be. Of course, one must bear in mind that the Double D’s, Harley replicas and sumptous Manhattan cruisers are no more likely to venture onto Las Vegas Boulevard in the rush hour than fly to the moon, which explains how they get by without gears or brakes. Still, you have to hand the Yanks full marks for style.

A to B magazine, Interbike Las Vegas, Birdy

Birdy looking for roosting sites

Folding bikes were less well represented at Interbike than in previous years. Yet another new Birdy distributor was trying to pick up dealers, with a slight air of desperation. The company has been unlucky in America, with both Jeep and Burley, failing to make a success of the venture. One wishes the current incumbent luck.

A to B magazine, Interbike Las Vegas, John Doidge

John Doidge explains why he won’t be selling folders any more

Not far away, the Mole arrives on the Breezer stand just as CEO John Doidge explains to a passing TV crew that the folding bikes concept really is a little passé. Oh, yeah? But then Breezer did adopt the less-than-scintillating Oyama range, which might explain the rumours that the company has decided to pull out of folding bikes altogether. One wonders whether Uncle Joe Breeze might not have done better to take A to B’s advice before getting into the market, but there we are. The Birdy, for example, would have made a lovely Breezer.

A to B magazine, Interbike Las Vegas, Gaitex

The stretchy Giatex

Finally, if you haven’t heard of the Giatex, be prepared for something rather odd. Described as a ‘stretching bike’, the Giatex features a telescopic frame tube that brings the wheels somewhat closer together for storage. It’s actually not quite as daft as it sounds, but hardly compact when folded, or indeed full-size when stretched. As the publicity has it, the Giatex will expand to fit the kids as they grow, which sounds jolly practical. But the time has come to wave a fond farewell to the whopping choppers, expanding frames and useless accessories for yet another year and pedal back up the freeway to the airport. Viva Las Vegas!

A to B Blog 44, October 2004, CYCLE 2004

CYCLE 2004

Show time once again, and The Mole boards the early Bogworthy Flyer for London, already standing in the platform this particular morning, as Network Railtrack – or whatever it was called at the time – had lifted the rails further west without so much as a by-your-leave.

A to B magazine, CYCLE 2004, Charlotte Atkins MP

Charlotte Atkins MP – a petite lady swallowing a microphone

A to B magazine, CYCLE 2004, Sweet Pea

The Sweet Pea, one of Dahon’s 2005 bikes. Finished in slinky pastel shades, the bike is aimed at young women – new folding bike territory

A to B magazine, CYCLE 2004, Grahame Herbert

Grahame Herbert, designer of the Airframe, gets his finger caught in the new 8-speed hub

Rather confusingly – not having travelled up to Town for a while – one discovers that Thames Trains has evolved into something called first Great Western Link. This may or may not be related to first Great Western, for the two appear to share a new murky brown corporate identity, an amalgam, one assumes, of fGW’s previous green, latter-day vile purples, and Thames’ chirpy reds and blues.

…a preponderance of bicycles without wheels linked to television sets…

Apparently ‘one’ is expecting to bid for what will soon be known as Greater Western, which will then no doubt re- emerge as ‘one’ Greater Western, and the sign-writers will start again, and so on and so forth.

The Mole understands that A to B has received angry calls from a ‘one’ executive claiming that this humble organ has been making fun at the expense of the ‘one’ logo. One suspects the only people laughing will be the PR consultants and designer-luvvies who keep coming up with this nonsense.

The good news is that the railways are – bit by bit – being reintegrated into something that might just, one day, work as smoothly and economically as dear old BR used to do. According to the fGW spin-meisters, the newly integrated fGW and fGW Link will share offices adjacent to those of Network Rail (West), thus coming perilously close to recreating Brunel’s magnificent Great Western Railway. Time will tell. Eventually, our train shambles into Paddington, allowing one to wrestle one’s Brompton from the hordes of other Bromptons in the vestibule, and pedal off across the city to Islington for CYCLE 2004.

Marching into the hall, the Mole arrives during one of those nightmarishly Kafkaesque moments, as a petite lady stands on a balcony and attempts to swallow a microphone. It turns out to be petite Transport Minister Charlotte Atkins MP explaining that she used to ride a bicycle, but due to al-Qaeda, traffic conditions, lack of mudguards, nice cumfy limousines, etc, she wouldn’t dream of riding in the capital these days. A nice positive note on which to kick off the proceedings.

Now in its third year, CYCLE is settling down as a professionally run, if rather compact, show. For 2004, there are plenty of manufacturers in evidence, but rather too many mountain bikes, and a preponderance of bicycles without wheels linked to television screens.

Study the catalogue for signs of practical accessories such as pumps, lights (shock, swoon) or mudguards (stunned silence) and you won’t get very far. But should your interests extend to Fi’zi:k Technogel strips, or X-Type chainsets with hollow BB spindles, you will presumably find some sort of satisfaction.

Not that day-to-day cycling was completely neglected. St John Street Cycles had a nice monopoly on luggage, mudguards and dead sensible bikes furnished with bulletproof Rohloff hub gears and lights that actually worked.

A to B magazine, CYCLE 2004, John Whyte, Mezzo

John Whyte and the Mezzo

Just a few stands away, Avon Valley Cyclery was exhibiting a mouth- watering range of Bike Fridays, Airnimals (including the new budget Joey), Birdys and a full range of Dahons, including a few 2005 models. For industry watchers, the thrust seems to be towards full-size folders (notably the neat Cadenza) and low/mid-range 20-inch bikes, such as the Vitesse, none of which is very exciting, but new, nonetheless. Avon Valley was also showing Brompton in a rather low-key way, plus a soon-to-be-launched 8-speed Sturmey version of the Airframe, neither company exhibiting this year. The only real excitement, indeed the only excitement in the folding bike world for some years, is the all-new Mezzo, brain-child of Jon Whyte of ATB Sales. Should you be wondering, Jon’s main business is designing mountain bikes, cruisers and other strange things, for the like of Marin.
A to B, CYCLE 2004, Mezzo Folding Bike
As with the equally innovative Mike Burrows, Jon comes from the world of motor sport (Formula One in this case), and thus rather refreshingly carries no baggage concerning cycle clips, 26-inch wheels, triple chainrings and all the other accepted wisdom of the bicycling establishment.

The Mezzo – aimed directly at the Brompton – has taken several years to develop. ‘I didn’t start with any special respect for [Brompton designer] Andrew Ritchie’, says Whyte, ‘But I soon developed some’.

Like the Brompton, Whyte’s machine features mudguards (shock, swoon, etc), sensible gearing (4-speed hub or multi-speed derailleur), 349mm (16-inch) wheels, and some exquisite engineering.The folding system is part Brompton and part Birdy, with a little bit of Bike Friday thrown in, proving that everything short of inflatable frame tubes has already been used or discarded. Weight is nothing special, but the Mezzo looks to be a rigid and techie machine for the trendier sort of commuter, although without Brompton’s wonderful luggage system.

ATB technical person Ian claims to be able to fold it in eight seconds and unfold it in six, although one suspects mere mortals will take a little longer.

…this year, the really weird stuff had been swept from the halls…

The real surprise is that prices will shadow those of the Brompton ‘T’ type – £595 for the 4-speed hub gear bike, and £625 – £645 for a 9- speed Capreo derailleur.
A to B, CYCLE 2004, Matthew Dobson, Flea
In its first two years, CYCLE played host to all sorts of weird and wonderful things, but this year the really weird stuff had been swept from the halls, leaving student Matthew Dobson looking a bit lonely, with his delightfully formed but somewhat impractical Flea.
Cycle 2004, Matthew Dobsob, folded Flea

Asked whether he had actually ridden the Flea, Matthew proved somewhat evasive, but who can blame him? Designers really should leave those 6-inch wheels bolted to the wheelie-bin where they belong.

After reaching a crazy wheel-spinning zenith in 2003, electric bikes were virtually absent this year, with just Ebike showing its attractive US machines and late-comer 50Cycles, with a hastily prepared Ezee display.
Finally, one is indebted to the cheeky young fellows at Avon Valley Cyclery for the price tag below, displayed on a Brompton ‘C’ Type. Well, really! Making fun of young people wearing sandals (with or without socks) is neither funny nor clever. Incidentally, should anyone be thinking of checking, the website is currently unregistered. Any takers?

A to B 43 Blog, August 2004, Eurotunnel Cycle Service

Eurotunnel Cycle Services, London to Bright Charity Ride 2004

Press freebies are a bit thin on the ground these days, prompting the Mole to make grateful haste to Folkestone, following an invitation from Eurotunnel to ride through the Channel Tunnel and around something called the Pas de Calais, the foreign bit at the other end.

In the event, the riding through part turned out to mean putting ones bicycle aboard a trailer and travelling by minibus within a train, which sounds like rather more hardware than is strictly necessary, but there we are.

A to B magazine, Eurotunnel Cycle Service, trailerThose wishing to take advantage of the Eurotunnel Cycle Service might wish to note that the closest railway station is actually Folkestone West, not Central, as carelessly printed in the press-pack, and that the cyclists’ rendezvous point is not at the terminal at all, but south of the M20 near the Folkestone branch of Tesco’s. One trusts this information will spare other cyclists the ordeal of joining the M20 motorway for the final approach to the terminal and being apprehended by security guards on the premises. Eurotunnel, it seems, has procedures to keep cyclists out of the tunnel.

A to B magazine, Eurotunnel Cycle Service, France

Hangover- free: Fiona from Bournemouth making it all look very easy. PHOTO Jon Brooke

With composure fully restored, it is time to meet our driver, Norman, not at all the PR type, who kindly stows our bicycles on the trailer and makes us comfy in the minibus. This being a rather choice outing as freebies go, the ‘us’ includes Simon O’Hagan, a charming senior hack from the Independent on Sunday, who makes some excuse about crossing for the D-Day landings. With hardware and journos safely on board, we drive onto the train, vibrate for half an hour at Warp Factor One, and emerge in the Pas de Calais, which is not a bit like Folkestone.

At the Centre d’Affaires in Coquelles we are met by our tourist board minders – Laurence, who rather confusingly turns out to be a woman, and Nicholas, pronounced Nicola, who surprises us all by being a man. Soon we’re rolling through Sangatte, and into the uppie- downie bits, with Nicholas puffing and blowing on Laurence’s bicycle, while the cyclist drives the back-up van. Under cross-examination, it emerges that Nicholas has been banned for drink-driving and has thus been obliged to join us in some gentle exertions.

The coast road rolls past the cliffs of Cap Blanc Nez and Cap Griz Nez where Hitler first spotted Folkestone through his binoculars and famously changed his mind about the invasion. All too soon we’re pedalling through Wimereux, distinctive for its compulsory blue and white beach huts, to our seafront guest house, the Villa Tremail, where the maitre d’ has kindly opened a packet of PG Tips, producing some very weak tea in our honour.

…one of those events that sounds good, but leaves one wondering how it all went so horribly wrong…

The evening visit to a seafood restaurant proves noticeably short of high jinks, our small group remaining stubbornly sober, despite an unlimited bar tab Independent Simon mumbles the old D- Day excuse, and Fiona from the Bournemouth Echo spends the whole evening toying with a single glass of wine.The menu includes steak, cod, and poisson de la jour, which turns out to be something odd but very tasty beginning with ‘r’. Retire to bed, tiresomely sober.

The next morning, we awaken to a sumptuous breakfast and another round of weak tea, before remounting our steeds for the ride back to Calais by the lightly trafficked inland route. Pausing only to stock up with duty-free in a handy hypermarket, which Norman cheerfully stows on the minibus, it’s all aboard once again, back on the train, another thirty minutes of underfloor massage, and we emerge in miserable old Britain.

Norman asks us to point out that the minibus runs from Folkestone at 08.00 and 15.30 daily, returning at 12.30 and 17.30 from Coquelles. In other words, a day trip is quite practicable, and at £16 for rider, bicycle (and child if on a child seat), quite good value. Strangely, a single ticket costs £31, Eurotunnel adding darkly that day- trippers failing to return will be liable to a £15 penalty. One assumes Norman counts them all out and counts them all back. Do cyclists from the Pas de Calais ever make the return trip to Folkestone? Somehow one suspects not.

Things aren’t all bad in Grande-Bretagne. The Mole was delighted to see Uncle Ken returned as mayor of London early in June, albeit with a less Congestion Charge-friendly assembly. This wonderful news was either deliberately or accidentally marked by a shindig in Trafalgar Square entitled ‘Lifecycle, Bikefest in the Square’ – one of those events that sounds good, but leaves one wondering how it all went so horribly wrong.

As one understood it, this was to be a demonstration of the latest advances in capital cycling, and London’s big cycle dealers, plus manufacturers Brompton and Giant booked space with enthusiasm.


Bikefest: The modest tent

Quite why the normally astute Transport for London asked management company, GDF Diversivents to stage a BMX/skateboard-fest is unclear, but wires obviously became crossed somewhere along the line. On arriving at Trafalgar Square – which certainly looked like a suitable cycling venue on a Sunday afternoon – the Mole was greeted with a rather fierce sign to the effect that bicycles were banned. Limited cycle parking, it seemed, was available elsewhere (bicycles must be removed by 6.30pm on pain of death, etc), or you could just bugger off, depending how enthusiastic you were about BMX and skateboarding. Anyone innocently wheeling their bike across the Square was swiftly evicted by a posse of security guards, the ‘Strictly No Bikes’ rule being vigorously enforced. Not a good start. The second problem was the tent. You can book larger tents for suburban weddings, yet this one was hired to accommodate Sustrans, the London Bicycle Tour Company, Leukemia Research, Giant, The Cycle Show, Evans Cycles, Brompton, Cycle Training UK, Cycle Works, the London Cycling Campaign, the All Abilities Access Group, Bikeweek and the National Cycling Strategy.


‘No Bicycles’

To make matters worse, the very small tent had just one very small entrance, so those members of the public who managed to fight their way in through the mêlée of stallholders, were obliged to turn and fight their way back out through the same orifice. Obviously, anything as cumbersome as a bicycle would have been a serious hazard in such a small space, so display bicycles were banned too.

Outside, there was a bicycle try-out zone, manned by London’s very able Bikefix, but it was hidden away behind the concert hall plasma screen showing nothing in particular, and the BMX, skateboard and roller-blade demo zone. With Bikefix (bless ‘em) intent on demonstrating recumbents, the sensible commuter bikes were rather swamped.


Bollywood on Bikes was the best bit

One suspects that even the French might have made a better job of it, but then transport faux pas are something of a British speciality these days.Take the London to Brighton charity cycle ride. Organised by the British Heart Foundation (‘in tandem with Shredded Wheat’, apparently), this event has become the biggest in Europe, attracting 27,000 official riders each June, plus numerous hangers on, including a few, no doubt, who just happened to be visiting the Tooting branch of Sainsburys and found themselves swept along in the throng.

Anywhere else in Europe, special trains would be provided to get 27,000 cyclists home, but not here. In previous years, the British art of fumbling through came into play – extra guards’ vans were found and dusted down, seats were removed from octogenarian rolling stock, and thousands of cyclists ferried home in time for tea.

In 2002, the British Heart Foundation received a note from the then train operator South Central, advising that new rolling stock would be in use on the Brighton line in 2004, so there would be no special arrangements.To enforce the “…the British Heart Foundation decided to send everyone home by road…” ban, an exclusion zone would be created around Brighton railway station, effectively banning all cyclists on the day, whether taking part in the ride or not.

Although suitable rolling stock was available for hire, the British Heart Foundation decided to send everyone home by road, marshalling a fleet of trucks and buses on to the A23, which promptly ground to a halt.

Meanwhile, Brighton railway station was under siege, protected only by a thin blue line of security gorillas. At this stage, a wily group of bicyclists rode to the northern suburbs and boarded a London train at Preston Park station. Having no bikes, the security bods got caught up in the chaos on the A23 and failed to beat them to it.The bicyclists boarded the train, the guard refused to restart, and the line was effectively shut for an hour and a half, until the police arrived and marched the offenders off to Brighton nick.

A to B magazine, World Naked Bikes Rides UK

The ripple effect of this infamous dénouement left confusion and congestion for some time. Innocent cyclists visiting or shopping in Brighton were left tearfully stranded, trains were cancelled and roads blocked. Some participants had driven two cars from London to Brighton in the small hours, left one, returned to London with the other, cycled back to Brighton, and driven back… a total of 230 car-miles. One wonders whether the stress and pollution of the day didn’t kill as many participants as were saved by the healthy exercise.

A to B magazine, World Naked Bike Rides SpainNext year, an altogether better option might be to join one of the World Naked Bike Rides, which tend to be urban events, and thus more easily accessible. Strangely, WNBR has received zero coverage in the cycling media, something A to B hopes to correct, with contributions from Spain (mainly bottoms), The Netherlands (rather formal, and exclusively male), and the USA (exuberantly uninhibited, as one might expect).

Well, it sounds more entertaining than National Bike Week, and quite effective as protests go. The aim, according to a breathless Press Release from World Naked HQ, was to, ‘face automobile traffic with our naked bodies as the best way of defending our dignity and exposing the unique dangers faced by cyclists and pedestrians as well as the negative consequences we all face due to dependence on oil, and other forms of non-renewable energy.’

A to B magazine, World Naked Bike RideEr, yes. In 2005, they’re hoping to organise 1,000 rides. Perhaps they should hijack the London to Brighton? A bit more entertaining for railway staff, anyway.

Folding bikes, of course, were unaffected by the Brighton disaster, although several ever-so-slightly smug folding bike owners found themselves caught up in the rail chaos on the way home, including Brompton marketing manager Edward Donald.

It seems that Brompton has been asked to produce the national ‘Bikes on Trains’ poster, to be displayed at stations and railway ticket agencies throughout Britain. Here was a great opportunity to push the bike/rail message and encourage the use of folding bikes.

A to B magazine, Cambridge-st Ives RailwayBut nothing is simple these days. National rail posters have to be cleared by the Strategic Rail Authority, Association of Train Operating Companies and each of the 25 railway companies, reducing even the most inspirational design to a committee-inspired shell, and the artist to a quivering wreck. Sure enough, the first draft was deemed ‘insufficiently off-peak’, the second contained ‘too many bicycles’, as did the third.The fourth had ‘no visible safety fencing’, the train ‘didn’t look like a real train’, the station – you guessed it – wasn’t a real station and there were too few pedestrians. Finally, and most ludicrously, ATOC felt the poster was putting too great an emphasis on ‘touring in the countryside’ – the raison d’être, surely? The great names of British railway poster art must be turning in their graves.

Fortunately, a few weeks later, ‘New’ Labour finally lost patience with our costly, inefficient, corrupt and generally useless privatised railway and abolished the less-than-Strategic Rail Authority.

Just days before, the Mole had received a desperate communication from Cambridge, where campaigners and residents have been fighting a long battle to have their railway service reinstated, against the wishes of Cambridgeshire County Council, which is pressing for the line to become a guided busway (see A to B 41). Things looked good for the railway campaign when the Council grudgingly revealed that it had received 4,000 letters opposing the busway, two that were ‘uncommitted’, and a miserly four in favour. Unfortunately, in one of its last, and pottiest policy statements, the Strategic Rail Authority unhelpfully chipped in with the announcement that it was in favour of, er, turning the strategic rail corridor into a busway. With friends like Richard Bowker, what need has the railway for enemies? Which brings us to the less than gratifying news that railway strategy will now be handled by the Department for (Road) Transport. Plus ça change…

Eurotunnel Cycle Service: Bookings are compulsory – tel 01303 288790 or 288933 Monday to Friday 09.00 to 17.30 email web . Pas de Calais Tourist Board: tel +33 3211 03460 mail accueil@pas-de- web . Villa Tremail: tel +33 3213 03358 mail

Peter Bottomley MP

A to B 41 Blog, April 2004, Uri Geller bicycle, Cycle Helmets

Uri Geller folder, Cycle Helmets & Statistics, Peter Bottomley MP.

One is most gratified to hear that the Blair Government is not afraid to legislate where the fabric of our society is threatened by dark forces. One refers, of course, to David Blunkett’s Anti-Social Behaviour Act, giving Street Wardens (whatever they might be) and private security guards the power to impose £30 fines on cyclists caught riding on the pavement. This sort of nonsense sounds suspiciously like policy created from the musings of focus groups and the like: The way to reduce pavement cycling is to provide safer roads, but the quick and easy vote winner is to levy on-the-spot fines on Raleigh shoppers wobbling back from Safeway.

The cowards! Mind you, Blair et all seem to be taking some notice of this column. One has barely to suggest renationalizing Railtrack and it is done! Bring rail maintenance back ‘in-house’? One’s wish is granted. Now a novel idea has been floated to renationalize railway stations, as suggested in A to B’s past, ad nauseam.

Kicking out the train operating companies, by forcing them to bid for franchises against the Strategic Rail Authority, would now be comparatively easy. One assumes this idea will be quietly floated a month or two after A to B 41 goes to press.

Of course, Prime Minister Blair is not the only discredited leader thrashing desperately about in search of coherent policy. The Mole is tempted to accept Colonel Gaddafi’s invitation to attend the Libyan International Transport & Logistics Exhibition, a trade fair aimed at opening up the north African hinterland by air, sea and rail. Perhaps our own Dear Leader could try a similar ploy, and bring vital overseas aid and expertise to tackle our own transport problems?

A to B magazine, Uri Geller Folding BikeOne is increasingly reminded of just how odd the world has become. Few people would have predicted Gaddafi’s denouncement of terrorism, let alone an invitation to all and sundry to fund railway lines across the Sahara. Even fewer, one assumes, would dare predict that the erstwhile spoon-bender Uri Geller might launch a folding bicycle.The ‘Uri-Bike’, marketed under the rather unfortunate slogan ‘Bend it-Bag it’ is in fact, more or less identical to the existing ‘Bike-in-a-Bag’. The only real difference is that the 20-inch, 6-speed Bike-in-a-Bag sells for £240, while the 20-inch, 6-speed Uri Bike sells for £300. To be fair, Uri is throwing in a Reevu helmet with every purchase, plus the sort of endorsement that only an erstwhile spoon-bender can provide. This bike, one assumes, will only bend if the rider concentrates very hard.

According to Uri, the ‘top quality machine’ has such an uncompromising specification that he now rides one himself: ‘Although there are many exercise bicycles available, they do not offer the mind stimulation of open-road cycling.’ It’s hard to argue with that. The Uri-Bike might not be the best folding bike in the world, but celebrity endorsement will bring it to the attention of the sort of people who might not otherwise think of stimulating their minds and, indeed, buttocks with Uri on the open road. In that respect, the Uri-Bike is a Good Thing.

A to B magazine, George Stokes, Romford RecorderOn the other hand, cycle helmets appear to be of dubious value. For an example of just how detached from reality the pro-helmet campaign has become, we must thank reader Jean Elliot of Upminster, who provides a cutting from the Romford Recorder. It seems young George Stokes of Romford has narrowly escaped serious injury after being struck by a lorry while crossing the A127 Southend Arterial Road on his bike – a most regrettable incident, and one naturally wishes the young man a rapid recovery.

But since the incident, George’s mother has joined the cycle helmet campaign, even though – as the sharper sort of reader may already have observed – young George received a broken ankle in the ‘horrific collision’. The Romford Recorder quotes Mrs Stokes as saying, ‘I see youngsters now riding their bikes without a helmet in the street, and I just want to stop them and tell them to wear one…’ Yet even a complete medical duffer will appreciate that a helmet is unlikely to reduce the likelihood of a broken ankle. The answer is for the Department for Transport to provide a safe crossing of this very dangerous road.

…even a non-medical type will appreciate that a helmet is unlikely to reduce the likelihood of a broken ankle…

The debate as to whether, or to what extent, cycle helmets protect the user from small knocks, mild concussion, or death is becoming increasingly vociferous, so it might be wiser to concentrate on more general themes.

One is indebted to safety researcher Malcolm Wardlaw for two reports: Assessing the Actual Risks faced by Cyclists, and Safety in Numbers: More Walkers and Bicycles, Safer Walking and Bicycling. Beyond the rather cumbersome titles, these tomes make interesting reading, bringing together evidence from around the world that risk levels for pedestrians and cyclists can be predicted from a simple formula.

Without delving too deeply into the mathematics, a subject upon which the Mole is sadly ill-informed, it seems that a motorist is less likely to collide with a person walking or bicycling where walking or bicycling are common activities. This relationship – first proposed by a certain Mr Sneed in 1949 – can be expressed as a formula, the risk of collisions with cars being approximately equal to the 0.4 power of the numbers enjoying a particular pursuit.

Returning to the sort of terms we lay-folk might understand, if a country (or indeed Romford) were to double the number of cyclists, Sneed’s Law suggests the number of collisions between bicycles and cars would rise by 20.4, which – one is reliably informed – produces a figure of 1.32. Thus an increase in bicycle usage of 100% results in an increase in crashes of only 32%, reducing the risk per cyclist by a third.

…compulsion always reduces the number of cyclists… child cyclists by 42% and adults by 29%…

Conversely, if the number of cyclists is reduced, the likelihood of an individual cyclist being struck by a motor vehicle increases. Quite why this should be is beyond the intelligence of a humble insectivore, although it seems reasonable to assume that in more enlightened places, motorists have become hard wired to expect a bicycle to wobble across their path and take avoiding action. Whatever the rights and wrongs of bicycle helmets – and one has no argument with those individuals who choose to wear one – compulsion always reduces the number of cyclists. Typical figures are those recorded in Melbourne, Australia, where compulsion reduced the number of child cyclists by 42% and adults by 29%.

A to B magazine: Cycle Usage vs Fatalities

Cycle usage versus fatalities in 14 European countries. As cycle usage declines, crashes per cycle/kilometre rise. Britain is currently on the black arrow. Cycle helmet compulsion would tend to move us towards the grey arrow, increasing risk

Peter Bottomley MPPeter Bottomley MP Cycling

Naturally, this reduction in the number of cyclists tends to reduce the number of cycling road casualties, but thanks to Mr Sneed’s Law, the reduction is rather less than one might expect, and the remaining cyclists face a greater risk, initiating a vicious spiral of increased risk and declining usage.Worse still, there is no evidence that displacing large numbers from bicycles reduces fatalities overall. Many former cyclists would walk instead, a mode that (rather surprisingly), puts individuals at greater risk of death per kilometre than riding a bicycle.

To apply this to British experience, we need only glance at the rather depressing graph of cycle casualties versus cycle mileage gathered from 14 European countries. The first observation one might make is that the risk of being turned into raspberry jam by a 40-tonner is remarkably small, even in places like the UK, which are some way to the left (ie, dangerous) side of the graph. But if a compulsory helmet law were to push cycle usage even further to the left, the risk would rise rapidly, negating most of the (often perceived) benefits of helmet use.

In the light of this wider road safety picture, the current fixation in Parliament and elsewhere with cycle helmet provision makes little sense. For a whole raft of reasons, from increasing obesity to road danger, any measures that reduce bicycle use are clearly bad news, both in terms of transport and public health. On the other hand, measures to control the speed and volume of motorised traffic tend to encourage cycle use, and are thus – like the Uri-Bike – a Good Thing.

Moving swiftly from Romford to East Sussex (as indeed one can on paper), we find that Peter Bottomley MP, elected representative for delightful West Worthing, has fallen victim to just such a policy. After speeding through no fewer than four speed cameras, the unfortunate fellow has been banned from driving his 115mph Daewoo Laganza for six months.

Never one to miss a PR opportunity, Bath-based Powabyke has presented the MP with an electric bike for the duration of the ban, much to the delight of the local paper, the Worthing Herald. One hopes the fresh air and modest exercise will encourage Peter to move to two wheels on a more permanent basis!

A to B 40 Blog, February 2004, Rail Privatisation, Cycle Helmets

Rail Privatisation, Cycle Helmets.

Back in the early ‘90s, when Prime Minister John Major came up with the idea of privatizing the railways, the poor fellow could never have guessed how it would all end up. The original idea, it seems, was to restore a bit of pride to the rail network by creating a number of large, privately-owned regional concerns, rather like the ‘Big Four’ railway companies prior to nationalisation in 1947.

Private enterprise would flourish, profits would be made, more passengers would be carried, regional identity restored, jolly staff, wealthy shareholders, Fat Controller, etc, etc. What he actually got – once the civil servants and right-wing fruit & nutcase lobbyists had got their teeth into it – was an unworkable monster. But instead of sweeping it all away, Tony Blair’s even more fruit & nutcase government went on to shore up the crumbling edifice with tiers and tiers of extra bureaucracy, making the privatized railway even more expensive, cumbersome, inefficient and dangerous.

However, one is delighted to see that common sense is working its magic. In recent months, Network Rail (or whatever it’s called this week) has announced that track maintenance will be brought back in- house, eliminating the contractors and sub-contractors that have plagued the rail industry. And we’re already being softened up to accept the idea of vertical-integration on a regional basis. If that means state- ownership, it’s broadly the railway we had before Mr Major started tinkering. If it means private-ownership, it’s broadly what Mr Major intended. In other words, the ten year hiatus has all been a ghastly, pointless cock-up, as ordinary folk knew all along, one suspects.

Compulsory Cycle Helmets

The colonies are not immune to the odd cock-up themselves, of course. One flawed policy being eyed all too seriously by one’s own Police State, is compulsory cycle helmets. It seems a determined lobby has formed, with legislation a distinct possibility in the next parliamentary term.

But the bounders are not playing fair! One of the spurious arguments put before our vulnerable and misguided politicians is the suggestion that 28,000 children suffer serious head injuries each year while riding bicycles. The correct figure (including the sort of injury that requires brief medical observation and a pat on the head) is around 1,000 to 1,200.

The rogues have also suggested that cycle helmets prevent 85% of head injuries. This sort of figure gives the impression that a helmet might get Little Johny home for tea after an altercation with a 40- tonner, but in reality, cycle helmets are virtually useless in collisions with motor vehicles, even small ones.

Rather than forcing cyclists to adopt body armour, might it not make greater sense to discourage people from driving, and to do it slowly when they do get behind the wheel? We need only look at Germany or the Netherlands, where helmets are almost unknown, yet cycle use much higher, and cycling statistically safer.

Governments spend millions on ad campaigns to convince us to stop smoking or drinking and driving, but not driving per se – where are the subliminal messages suggesting we do something positive for our health, like riding a bicycle to work?

A to B 39 Blog, Cycling Statistics, Peak Oil

Dubious Cycling Statistics, Peak Oil
David Henshaw

A plain brown envelope arrived recently at Mole Towers containing a fascinating publication entitled A2B. A vaguely familiar name to readers of this organ no doubt, particularly when we consider that the title in question is bi-monthly and, broadly-speaking, concerned with transport?

A2B is an internal publication from our old friends at the Department for (Road) Transport. Despite the accent being largely (although not exclusively) on road matters, A2B is a perfectly readable in-house journal, but one wonders whether it might not bear just a little too much similarity to A to B? It seems some DfT staff did voice concerns, but their Communications Directorate carried on regardless.

Somehow, one doubts whether A to B has many friends in the Department. Back in A to B 30, a graph appeared in this very column indicating that – on the DfT’s own statistics – cycle usage in the UK appeared to be in a state of terminal decline, while car usage was growing at a healthy rate. Thereafter, the cycling figures mysteriously disappeared from DfT bulletins, leaving us rather in the dark as to trends.

Why worry? Well, rather a lot depends on such figures, notably the local and national funding of cycle facilities for organisations such as the very admirable Sustrans. After all, who in their right mind would pour money into a mode of transport that was apparently doomed? On the other hand, an increase in cycle use helps to unlock funds for cycle facilities and restrict spending on motor cars. ‘Green’ transport look very good at election time too, so accurate figures are important. But once those pesky politicians get involved, there’s often pressure to ‘mould’ the figures to give the desired results.

In the summer of 2003, the DfT cycle figures quietly returned, this time indicating a steady growth in cycle usage rather than the previous marked decline. The discrepancy, we were told, was due to the way the figures had been gathered, as traffic surveys had previously looked only at major roads.

Now, hold on a minute. If every survey since 1993 has failed to spot millions of cyclists, how have the statistics been so precisely revised? Do they now include Sustran’s own – much more optimistic – figures, recorded largely on leisure paths?

Far be it from the Mole to doubt the honesty and integrity of a government department, but one cannot help but wonder whether someone, somewhere might not have been a little economical with the actualité? Either the original figures are correct (suggesting that cyclists are being driven off the roads in big numbers), or cycle use really has been growing steadily for the last decade, but the mandarins at the DfT have been keeping us in the dark.

On the other hand, far from being a conspiracy, the affair might just be a clumsy attempt to bury yet another world-class cock-up. Forget the cycling statistics; the real problem is the steady growth in motorised road transport.A glance at the graph reveals that although car use was checked briefly by the fuel ‘crisis’ of 2000 and the early days of our rather dubious invasion of Iraq, vehicle mileage rapidly caught up the lost ground, growing by more than 2% in the last three months alone.

A to B magazine, Cycling Statistics
As readers of A to B will be aware, fuel cell technology remains in its infancy, but the experts are suggesting that global oil supply is likely to be overtaken by demand within ten years. If one had a barrel of oil for every occasion this had been predicted in the last century, one would, of course, have some significant reserves, but this time the experts appear to be rattled.

Predicting such things is a notoriously inexact science, but the forecasts suggest that an apparently insignificant reversal in the supply/demand equation will cause panic buying and a sharp upsurge in prices, although quite when and to what extent, no one knows.

The nations that will suffer most are those that (a) have used up their own hydrocarbon reserves, (b) concentrated inland transport in oil-hungry aircraft and road vehicles, and (c) declared war on the countries with all the remaining oil reserves. Er, sounds familiar… Some say the crunch could arrive within twelve months.

Speaking of global catastrophes, one is drawn, as if by some invisible force, to the railways, where track maintenance is ‘being brought back in-house’, as Network Rail would have it, but take no notice – this is re-nationalisation. We already have the infrastructure back in state hands, with maintenance going the same way.

According to an internal review: ‘…a single integrated rail maintenance operation’ would deliver higher standards, ‘significant efficiency savings’ and improved safety. Surely British Rail delivered just such benefits before it was dismantled? National ownership ONE, Private ownership NIL, and not a moment too soon. At Bogworthy Junction, a once proud outpost of the Great Western Railway (once privately-owned, then private with state-characteristics, state owned, quasi- private, etc, etc), the nightmare complexity of railway privatisation has resulted in all but one of the staff packing their bags.

On top of the sort of duties one would expect to see in the job description: issuing tickets, waving flags at trains, helping customers over the bridge, cleaning the toilets, sweeping the platforms, dealing with complaints against his employer (and 25 others), staff are expected to provide fax and phone facilities, toilets and a regular brew up for an assortment of gorillas in orange jackets working for contractors, sub-contractors, and any other outfit that might choose to send gorillas to this remote outpost. No one seems to know or care who they are these days.

Incidentally, a rough calculation reveals that Bogworthy may have a turnover of £3 million a year. One wonders how many people would be willing to run such a business single-handedly for wages of a little over £5 an hour? Yes, £11,000 a year. Shouldn’t the DfT be involved?


A to B 38 Blog, October 2003, Fuel Cell Symposium

Fuel Cell Symposium, Cycle 2003
David Henshaw

One hesitates to take sides in the railway national/private ownership debate, but as an ordinary commuter one becomes increasingly suspicious of industry pronouncements on targets and achievements. Take, for example, the claim that 80% of trains run within five minutes of time – itself, a shocking indictment of the private network, but nevertheless pure fiction, as most commuters will agree.

Visiting a selection of London-based shows in September, the Mole keeps a personal record of rail performance between Bogworthy Junction and Paddington, a line hewn from Wessex shales by Great Men, but operated today by a loathsome crew of bus executives and anonymous business types.

During a typical week’s commuting, involving no adverse weather conditions, miscreant leaves or other hazards, one observes that a modest 60% of trains depart on time, but only half that number – ie 30% – arrive on time (or within five minutes of time) at the other end. Most were small delays of six to ten minutes, but two trains arrived disruptingly late – 15 and 30 minutes apiece. Excuses were many and varied, and mostly aimed at Network Rail, although some were a little odd, such as we’ve stopped to let another train pass. What train could be more important than the Bogworthy Flyer? The royal saloon, perhaps?

But we digress from the real matter in hand, for having arrived (some minutes behind the royal party, one assumes) one sets forth on the long and rather complicated trek eastwards to Excel, a conference centre located even further east than docklands, but convenient for the M25 and City Airport, apparently.

Several hours later, one arrives at the Fuel Cell Symposium, where groups of jolly-looking boffins are eagerly expounding to knots of nervous suits why liquid hydrogen is out this year, but compressed gas is in. And with another ten million they’ll be able to prove it…

Without delving too deeply into such unpleasant things as oxides and polymers, the Mole gathers that the hydrogen economy (or at least, the transport part of it) remains some way off, or as one helpful boffin put it: ‘as viable as a pixi’s fart’, which seemed rather apt.

…the boffins are adamant that compressed hydrogen is safe… they would say that wouldn’t they?

A to B magazine, Fuel Cell Symposium

Jörg Weigl’s Hydrogen-powered trike

The transport display proves suspiciously static, with only one vehicle on the move – an entertaining hydrogen-fuelled recumbent, produced by one Jörg Weigl of Germany. For fuel cell geeks, the Optima trike weighs 65kg and can be ridden for up to 550 miles at speeds of up to 40mph on a tank of compressed hydrogen. It also utilises a low temperature polymer-exchange-membrane fuel cell and lithium-polymer energy buffer, which is just about understandable, although the Mole was floored by the ‘four-quadrant-synchronous-engine-frequency-transformer’, choosing to nod wisely at this point.

Is it practical? Er, it cost E32,000 to build (Jörg will knock up another for E20,000 should anyone be interested), and it carries fuel at a pressure of more than 5,000psi.The boffins at the Symposium are adamant to a man and woman that compressed hydrogen is perfectly safe, with 10,000psi being the Next Big Thing, but they would say that, wouldn’t they?

robotThe real problem is that no-one has yet dreamed up a practical way of refuelling a vehicle of this kind, so filling stations are a bit thin on the ground. The general consensus is that robot actuation will be required, as the risks of (a) some clown blowing up the immediate neighbourhood or (b) inflating his jacket and floating off into the stratosphere, are not insignificant.

The city of Middlesbrough, which strangely enough has a ready made hydrogen ‘grid’, is considering installing a filling station, but that would involve travelling to Middlesbrough, a prospect too frightful to contemplate.

Fuel Cell Symposium, BOC/Sigen marathon car

BOC/Sigen Marathon Car

The fuelling problem was brought into focus by the BOC/SiGEN marathon car – ˜ticking over’ on the test track, but too cumbersome to steer around the circuit. Designed to compete in the annual Shell Eco- Marathon, the car should have finished amongst the leaders, but achieved ‘only’ 1,200 miles per gallon. It seems that fuel consumption is measured by weighing the fuel tank before and after a run – fine with conventional liquid fuels, but hard to accomplish with hydrogen at 5,000psi…The judges quite rightly ruled that the vented gas should be included.

…Ten years and millions of dollars to develop, and it’s a complete and utter load of old rubbish…

The only bicycle on display (safely static and de-fuelled) was the very same Aprilia Enjoy compressed hydrogen machine dismissed by Professor Pivot in A to B 27. This has a claimed range of only 47 miles, so would only be of use to those living in or around Middlesbrough, even if Aprilia had kept the Enjoy in production, which it has not. All things considered, one is increasingly optimistic about the future for pedal power.

This impression is reinforced by a visit to Stuff 2003, a show promoted by something called Stuff, a magazine stuffed largely with partially clad young ladies, and aimed at young men with more money than sense.

segwayFor 2003, Stuff invited alternative transport manufacturers to display their wares in a ‘Stuff the Congestion Charge’ zone. Thus, the bicycle world was represented by Brompton and Airnimal, two suitably techie folding machines, plus the single speed Bike-in-a- Bag; arguably less techie, but useful enough for the young man with neither money nor sense.

Otherwise, Stuff the Congestion Charge was clogged with electric scooters of all kinds, which, as good A to B readers should know, are not legal on roads or pavements in the UK. This technicality seems to have escaped the attractive young people busily flogging the machines to gullible passers by. When the Mole produces a copy of A to B 35, complete with damning legal judgement on the matter, the retailers go into a huddle and decide the scooters might be legal in some areas. Further discussion results in a grudging acceptance that the scooters could be legal, but only if registered, taxed and insured as mopeds. Quite why anyone would choose to travel to work on a machine with six-inch wheels and a three- mile range, when they could be riding a nippy Honda 50, is beyond the Mole, but it takes all sorts.

Superstar of Stuff the Congestion Charge was undoubtably the Segway, an example of which performed a number of demonstrations over the weekend. It’s hard to see quite what the purpose of this device is. Range is claimed to be ‘up to 15 miles’, but judging by the frequency with which the demo Segway sneaked off for a crafty recharge, that looks a bit optimistic.When your Segway conks out on the road, you’re supposed to lift it into a car trunk and carry it home. Oh yeah? This ‘portable’ machine weighs 38 – 43kg (83 – 95lb), according to spec…

Top speed is put at 12.5mph, which sounds reasonable enough, but it’s still somewhat slower than a 15mph electric bicycle, with half the range. So at £4,000, no less, what is it actually for?

In any event, the Mole understands that all 6,000 Segways are to be recalled after reports that a number of users – including Hero of Baghdad, Bush Junior – had fallen off when the battery went flat. Sad but true; when the battery coughs and dies this multi-million dollar gyroscopic machine falls over, tipping its human cargo into the gutter. Ten years and millions of dollars in development, and it’s still a complete and utter load of old rubbish. We’ll give it three months before they pull the plug.

It was with some relief that the Mole arrived at CYCLE 2003 on the lookout for proper bicycles with pedals. Now in its second year, the show remains something of a mixed bag, with spinning (ie, bicycling without a road, or indeed, a bicycle) appeared to get the upper hand over the real thing.

Electric bikes were absent, apart from the ludicrously dumpy little Bliss, described rather breathlessly as a high quality lightweight dual purpose ultimate leisure, folding electric bike. Whatever happened to the comma?


Trek F400

The folding bike sector was much more interesting. New to the market are Trek and Specialized, both cashing in on Congestion Charge mania (it’s surprising how much panic a £5 charge can generate). The Specialized is more or less a badge-engineered Dahon Roo, so unless badges mean a great deal to you, stick with Dahon and keep a couple of hundred quid in your pocket. On the other hand, Trek seems to have done some real evelopment work, producing a range of quite interesting designs, albeit on what might be described as a Dahon floorplan. The range runs from a decent Sram 3- speed at £470 to a sexy any-colour-you- like-as-long-as-it’s Starry Night black variant complete with Shimano Deore 9- speed derailleur, for a cool £750. All have the same love-it-or-hate-it vertically stretched alloy frame tube that looks as though it’s been sat on by an elephant.


Specialized Globe Mity

Birdy has introduced a new White model fitted with Shimano’s small-wheel-friendly 9-speed Caprio gear system, but thanks to exchange rate anomalies, it’s going to cost £1,050. Hmm. Less excitement at Brompton, which has launched three new colours – orange and two shades of blue, making no fewer than four blues in all. There’s also a new bag frame, which doesn’t sound very exciting, but produced from a complex array of alloy tubes and plastic mouldings, it’s noticeably lighter and altogether more Bromptonesque.

Surprise hit at the show was the Zero shaft-drive bike. Yes, shaft-drive adds a lot of complication, cost and friction to a conventional bike, but on a folder it neatly eliminates that oily troublesome chain. Claimed to weigh a reasonable 13kg (281/2lbs), the new alloy-framed Zero comes with Nexus 3-speed hub for £475 – a neat, low- maintenance folding bike, one suspects.

condor-20-inch tourer

Condor’s 20-inch wheel tiny-tourer

The best prototype folder on display was the Knightsbridge (see page 12), produced by the irrepressible Mike Burrows. A brief spin around Islington confirms the bike to be one of the nicest 20-inch machines around. The unusual frame is superb, and the bike performs better with a single well-chosen ratio than some multi-speed machines. A real delight that may yet see limited production in folding or rigid form.

The best product fixed firmly to the wall was Sturmey Archer’s new S80 Phoenix hub gear: 305% range, 8-gears, 1.45kg, and so on. A bicyclist’s wish-list, but as yet unavailable in the shops… One awaits developments with keen interest.

For children there was very little to see. KMX seemed busy with their recumbent trike, but star of the show was Condor’s new range of diminutive 20″, 24″ and 26″ wheel touring bikes. There are no plans for a 16″ version, but there seemed to be plenty of interest, despite a price in the £500 region.

A miniature tourer should please the Cyclists Touring Club technical officer, Chris Juden, who’s rumbled on about the lack of such things for decades. Chris, it seems, has finally given up hope of guards vans returning to the Portsmouth line and decided to buy a car instead. He won’t be alone amongst Britain’s car-free journalistic community: The Mole understands that Folding Society supremo Mike Hessey has purchased a Smart car, and having experienced the state of Central Trains rolling stock, one has a certain sympathy. Which brings us back to the railways. British Rail pork pie anyone?

A to B 37 Blog, August 2003, Party Politics

Party Politics & Transport, Cyclist Touring Club in Dorset

Whatever became of politics? In the dim and distant past, politicians came in two shades: Labour, representing muck & brass whippet-owners from the North, and the Tories, a political party that appealed largely to elderly spinsters, cads, spivs and other other seedier types from the South.

You knew where you were in those days – Labour drew inspiration from the Soviet empire, offering equality, reform, and long queues for bath plugs, while the Tories stood on a broadly US-capitalist ticket, plus hanging and birching, but not necessarily in that order. You wouldn’t want to take any of them home to mother, but by and large what you saw was what you got. ‘Honest’ might be stretching a point, but most were at least politicians by conviction.

Labour spent a great deal of time and energy putting everything into national ownership, and the Tories took it out again. A wasteful, pointless exercise to be sure, but it was the British way.

If, for example, British Rail delivered a mouldy sandwich, you’d be minded to vote Tory at the next election, and deliver the anecdote to all your chums at the Red Lion. If you waited 30 minutes for a bus and three competing services came at once, you’d switch your allegiance to Labour. For tens, nay hundreds, of years, the public houses of Britain reverberated to such debate:Would private capital deliver a better sandwich? Would state control make the buses run on time?

Today, the spivs and whippets have been largely superseded by an amorphous mass of two-car, three-bedroom types from Bournemouth to Wigan. And with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the wind has rather gone out of the collectivist sails, leaving mass culture based broadly at the hang ’em, flog ‘em end of the spectrum.

With the electorate reduced to a sort of grey cultural pudding, the political parties have done their best to follow suit, vying with each other to introduce policies least likely to offend the three-bedroom types.Thus, Party A (labels are no longer of any consequence) privatizes the railways and the buses (load off the public purse, lower taxes, etc), while Party B gives vital railway assets to a privately-run cycle-path charity (load off the public purse, lower taxes, etc), Party A proposes a network of toll-motorways – bit dodgier this one, because the Ford-owning classes might realise they’ll have to pay-to-drive – but Party B gives the green light. Party A opts for road construction, then backs off, but Party B makes a big fanfare of returning to business as usual.

And so it goes on. In the absence of meaningful policy, the two-car, three-bedroomed types have become masters of the political process. As one might expect, we now live in a world of drive-thru hamburger restaurants, Virgin rail services (who chose that one?) and multi-terminal international airports flying millions of proles to sun-kissed Spanish beaches.

But in the rush to find policies to satisfy the majority, we’ve lost touch with the fact that some of these policies are actually bonkers. The privatised rail network costs more than the old nationally-owned one, yet runs slower and less reliably. Free-for-all buses add to congestion, yet reduce bus usage. Road construction has increased the demand for road space, resulting in more congestion, more road construction, and so on. Our transport system has become a real-time experiment for the dome-head fruitcakes political parties normally keep well under wraps.

A to B magazine, Party Politics, UK Train ReliabilityTake the railways, for example. Party A franchises services to a shambolic collection of bus companies, French mineral water magnates, and get-rich- quick operatives, handing the infrastructure to privately-owned Railtrack, which boasts that rail hardware will last 100 years, and concentrates on building profitable retail outlets instead. Within ten years, the network falls apart, sending Railtrack spinning into a black hole.Yet somehow, this raises barely a murmer, because no politician is willing to admit that whole process was fundamentally flawed.

Of 25 rail franchises, no fewer than eight are currently under what are euphemistically termed ‘management contracts’. This means the franchises have failed, and should really be handed back into state control, but that would send the wrong message to the electorate, so it can’t be done. Crooked, incompetent or plain daft franchisees can do pretty much whatever they wish.

As the graph demonstrates, reliability has fallen sharply under private ownership, and may take another nine years to return to British Rail levels. At the same time, costs have escalated out of control. According to rail expert Roger Ford, public support (subsidy, investment, call it what you will) for British Rail amounted to a very reasonable £980 million in 1989-90, at 2003 prices. In 2003-04, the cost to the public purse is expected to hit £3.8 billion – four times as much.

In 1989 cost- efficient British Rail opened 15 new stations and brought ten miles of track back into passenger use. In 1990, it opened 20 stations and 16 miles of track.We’re currently lucky to see one or two new stations each year.

Fares have risen well above inflation too – an average of 36% for unregulated First Class fares, and 15.2% for Second Class. The cost of state-regulated fares has broadly kept pace with inflation, but conditions of use have been slashed to such an extent that some tickets are hardly worth buying.

The latest insult from the remarkably unstrategic Strategic Rail Authority is to suggest that Saver fares should be deregulated, a policy that could double the price of off-peak journeys. The public, says the SRA can ‘either have cheap walk-on fares, or a sustainable future for the network.’ Eh? Under national ownership, we had both.

…reliability has fallen… and may take nine years to return to British rail levels…

Pressure for fare deregulation has come from the dreadful Virgin Trains, the company that abolished the unregulated SuperSaver ticket some years ago. According to Virgin Rail chief executive Chris Green, the idea of taxpayers subsidizing Saver tickets is ‘crazy’.

A to B magazine, Cyclst Touring Club, River Frome

An idyllic scene – cyclists dip there toes in the river Frome near Thomas Hardy’s birthplace

A to B magazine, Cyclist Touring Club in Dorset

The miracle of the single tea-urn








Is this really the same Chris Green who, as a high-flying British Rail executive slashed the cost of off-peak travel? Has the wretched fellow forgotten that he once showed the world how to deliver cheap fares and a low subsidy? Back in 1989-90, when Chris controlled most of the trains in and around London, the subsidy for the Network SouthEast zone amounted to £213 million at 2003 prices. Roll forward 14 years, and South West Trains – one of eleven similar franchisees in the area – is alone to receive £175 million a year.

So what, one might ask, are we going to do? Bugger all as usual, but one does enjoy a good moan.

Talking of moans and indeed grumbles, the Mole undertook a most congenial excursion in early August to the Cyclist’s Touring Club 125th anniversary celebrations in rural Dorset.

With lodges costing more than most cyclists were willing to pay, the Warmwell Holiday Village was only partially group-booked for the occasion, leaving the Club’s iron-thighed vegetarian types to mingle rather uneasily with the more conventional beer-swilling, chips-with-everything summer residents. All most entertaining.

The climax of the event – the Birthday Tea at Kingston Maurward House near Dorchester – came on the hottest day of the year. After charging innocent cyclists five pounds each for the privilege of participating, the CTC displayed its legendary generosity by providing a single tea-urn and a few curly-edged sandwiches to give sustenance to 1,600 hungry and thirsty cyclists.

The resulting queue stretched for a hundred metres for most of the afternoon, but one can’t resist a sneaking admiration for disorganisation on such an epic scale. ‘It was a bit like the miracle of the loaves and the fishes’, said one wag. ‘But without the miracle.’


A to B 36 Blog, June 2003, Bike Show

FIRST PUBLISHED June 2003: Bike Show, Round*Up 2003

In April the Mole braved one of Virgin’s new ‘compact’ Crosscountry trains to visit the Bike Show at Birmingham’s ‘International’ Exhibition Centre. According to the positive spin from Cycling Plus magazine, this formerly youth-orientated shindig was to be transformed into a mainstream (ie, CYCLE-style) show for 2003 and was thus worth a visit by those over 20. Approaching the hall with a crowd of sub-12 year old boys, one began to suspect that the hype might have got slightly ahead of the actualité.

For any elderly folk who might – reasonably enough – be drawn by the ‘Bike Show’ title in future years, the Mole can confirm that the event consists largely of noisy BMX displays, with a side order of mountain-style machines for the twenty-plus old-timers. In other words, it’s a dead waste of fifteen quid.

Leisure cycling is big business in the UK. According to the current What Mountain Bike? advertising rate card, the print run for this single title now exceeds 50,000, and the overwhelmingly male readership (94%), has an average age of 32, and annual income of £22,905.

A to B magazine, Bike Show, Ebryo ScooterAt the Bike Show, a selection of nefarious stall-holders were hard at work pocketing wads of cash from young men of this kind. One such outfit was Ebryo Scooters, purveyor of a monstrous electric scooter known in its country of origin as the Flying Dragon, but repackaged as the ‘Street Runner’ for the UK where dragons have less relevance in marketing terms.

The Mole took great delight – as one does when the opportunity arises – in informing the sales girls that this £500 machine (show special £400) was illegal on streets, pavements, cycle paths, or indeed, anywhere other than private land. And a little market research might have revealed this, saving a great deal of embarrassment.

Elsewhere, the Comfort Saddle company was busily steering bottoms onto its product.This ludicrous device looks rather like a leatherette bench seat, of the kind that made a brief appearance in early 1950s motor cars. Gentlemen of a certain age may recall that these softly-sprung wonders provided an unrivalled means of getting intimate with one’s passengers, but gave little in the way of support, should one not wish to slide rapidly across the car. This characteristic is all the more pronounced on a bicycle, where such and annual income of £22,905. At the Bike Show, a selection of subtleties as road positioning and hand gestures are accomplished – without putting too fine a point on it – by gripping the saddle with one’s nether regions.The Comfort is further hampered by a strange spring device that allows the saddle to flex, yaw and roll to angles that bottoms are rarely taken.

When the Mole expresses some mild scepticism, the Comfort apparatchiks claim that the saddle has been widely tested both on and off road, with no apparent tendency for riders to slip from their steeds.Thus, should any readers with flat non-slip bottoms wish to lighten their wallets to the tune of £39.95 plus postage, the means is now available.

Growing weary of bicycling in England, the Mole trekked 3,000 miles in search of enlightenment to Trophy Bike’s Round*Up 2003 folding bike show in Philadelphia, USA.

For those unfamiliar with foreign parts, America is very large, with many busy freeways and a considerable volume of traffic, all going the wrong way. Arriving a little late in the evening at Newark’s rather depressing airport (not unlike landing in a scrapyard), one rapidly establishes base camp at the North Elizabeth Econolodge, pausing only to look right rather than left whilst crossing the adjacent highway, which causes much cheerful honking from home-bound commuters. Incidentally, the Econolodge offers complimentary ‘donuts’ and coffee in place of breakfast, and a half-hourly courtesy coach from the airport, for those lacking the nerve to tackle US highway one by bicycle.

With bicycles now something of a novelty in the United States, a folding bicycle is akin to the sort of novelty that might fall from a McDonald’s Happy Meal.

Folding bicycles are not yet part of the American Dream, although the day of enlightenment might come, just as soon as the population is able to work out what they are for.Thus, the visitor tally at the Round*Up show proves something of a disappointment, particularly as many of the visitors turn out, on closer inspection, to be A to B readers, rather than folding newbies.

A to B magazine, Round*Up 2003Without exception, the select band of US A to B readers (literally one in million on the statistical evidence) prove to be a delightfully charming and urbane bunch. This is fortunate, for at Round*Up they find themselves face to face with a group of equally pleasant, but distinctly potty foreigners, who mostly appear to be intent on selling them folding bicycle trailers.

At around lunchtime on Day One, we make a soggy procession up Market Street, pausing only to retrieve bits of folding trailer sucked into the paths of taxicabs by the fearsome jetstreams of rain.

US mayors are made of strong stuff, but the Philadelphian incumbent takes refuge amongst his aides as our strange caravan files into a marquee on the steps of City Hall. There follow a number of the usual speeches – grateful thanks, shame about the weather, new era in transportation, etc – during which it slowly dawns that this is Philadelphia’s primary Bike to Work Week event, and our small group of potty foreigners is the primary exhibit. “…this is the primary Bike to Work event… and our small group of potty foreigners is the primary exhibit

Of local bicyclists we see none, although a number of advocacy groups have turned out, and they are all busily advocating this and that to the potty foreigners, who are trying to sell them trailers. Meanwhile, at the other end of the tent, the official stuffed shirts are calling for tolerance, in grim tones.

It appears that bicycle/auto relations have plumbed new lows in the city, although one doubts whether the average citizen would be able to recall the last time they saw a bicycle, let alone engaged in kerbside argy-bargy.

A number of bemused TV crews dutifully film the folding bikes folding and unfolding, and the trailers doing whatever it is that folding trailers do, before the mayor paints a small section of the rather optimistically-inclined bicycle mural, then legs it back to City Hall, leaving the foreign bicyclists to trudge gloomily out into the rain.


‘Wandering’ Hanz Scholtz and Lynette Chiang of Bike Friday


The mayor of Philadelphia works on the cycling mural

Days Two and Three prove equally entertaining, with talks from Bike Friday’s roving ambassador ‘Wandering’ Hanz Scholtz  and marketing sidekick Lynette Chiang,  who will need no introduction to long- term A to B readers.The following day,  Airframe designer Grahame Herbert arrives, accompanied by his delightfully unflappable wife Lorraine.The pair have ridden for several hundred miles up the coast – a great success as proving runs go, but rather spoilt by unfavourable road conditions.

Cycling in the USA varies, just as it does in overcrowded Britain, although minor roads are generally quieter and less frenetic, if you can find them. Bulky Sports Utility Vehicles are more common of course, as are stretched limousines and other More colour images at oddities.The latest cult urban attack vehicle is the military Humvee, and its almost unimaginably daft cousin, the stretched Humvee. Yes, for a trifling sum, you can hire one of these monsters and terrify your friends. Or join the mercenary business. Stretched Humvees make an entertaining sight, provided you don’t intend to cross the road.

Urban coup d’état chic is nothing new, but where Brits cheerfully make do with a pair of battle fatigues and an artfully arranged scarf, the Yanks go in for more serious hardware. Love it or hate it, there’s a certain style there.

As US vehicles grow ever larger, so do their occupants. This appears to be an uneven process, for the majority (including 100% of A to B subscribers, naturally) are pleasantly, or at least reasonably slim, but some 20% of the population is now reckoned to be clinically obese, against a piffling 12% in 1991. In a recent US government survey, 27% of recipients admitted that they ‘did not engage in any physical activity’, beyond (one assumes) keeping blood flowing around their vital organs. At the risk of being terribly obvious, perhaps the US should rediscover the bicycle in a hurry?

SS United StatesShould one have time to kill in Philadelphia, the SS United States is well worth a visit. Built in the 1950s, just a decade before the horrors of air travel destroyed the elegant liner trade, the vessel is a rare survivor.Withdrawn from the Southampton to New York run in 1969, she changed hands a number of times, circling the world from shipyard to scrapyard and back, as each project foundered. Finally, stripped to the bones internally, the great liner came home and has been moored on Philadelphia’s Delaware River ever since, awaiting restoration… or the scrapyard. One hopes that one of the various projects will eventually succeed.

…the yanks go in for serious hardware. Love it or hate it, there’s a certain style there…

For liner-geeks, the United States had turbines of 240,000 horse power, offering an unmatched power to weight ratio, and a top speed of 43 knots, or 50mph. She was, however, a tiny bit shorter than the France (now, rather confusingly, called the Norway), or our own dear Queen Mary or Queen Elizabeth, but we shall not dwell on such trifles.

Would today’s jaded air travellers be willing to swap jet lag and deep vein thrombosis for more relaxed travel, one wonders? The market for cruise liners is growing rapidly, but it’s hard to imagine today’s business traveller swapping a six-hour flight for three or more days at sea. Perhaps the liners could be marketed as enforced health camps, offering their captives three days of unrelenting pain in exchange for a few glasses of carrot juice.

cycling-scotlandBut enough of what might be, for we must journey to Scotland, which is visibly pulling clear of our increasingly dis-United Kingdom in transport terms.The latest innovation from north of the Border is a pro-cycling advertisement:Thirty seconds long, the film makes a mockery of those annoying car ads where square-jawed young fellows get the crumpet by driving much too fast on remarkably empty roads. In this memorable example, our hero takes to commuting by bicycle, arriving faster and very obviously getting the crumpet in the shape of a pair – no less – of voluptuous cycle courierettes. Cycle commuting has been on the rise for some years in urban Scotland – up 38% in Glasgow and 65% in Edinburgh during the 1991-2001 census period. Just watch it accelerate now.

It’s hard to imagine anti-car advertisements in a totalitarian state such as England, of course. But in those provincial pockets where the grateful citizenry has cast off the New Labour yoke – London, for example – things are going a little better: A combination of central zone Congestion Charging and widely distributed cycle maps has increased cycle use in central London by 16% in a matter of weeks. Mayor Livingstone, bless his heart, is now enthusiastically pushing for the Charge zone to be extended westwards, with 20mph limits on most residential streets.

Yet even in the capital, research by Transport for London has found that 38% of non- cyclists are ‘worried that friends will laugh at them’ should they try cycling. A case for TV advertising, surely?

But we shouldn’t believe everything the authorities tell us. Readers may recall the graph in A to B 30 drawn from Department for Transport statistics, showing cycle use plummeting by more than 10% in seven years. Following a mysterious hiatus, the figures have been reissued as a 10% rise in the same period.Well, fancy that! But wait…. in the same bulletin, provisional results for early 2003 are indicating a renewed and even more catastrophic fall of 11%. Sometimes you just wish Tony would make up his mind!

A to B 35 Blog, April 2003, Congestion Charge

A to B magazine, Congestion Charge, Day OneFIRST PUBLISHED April 2003
London Congestion Charge Launch, Rough Guide launch

On Monday, February 17th, the Mole joined the world’s media on the streets of London for the launch of Ken Livingstone’s long-awaited Congestion Charge. This turned out to be something of a disappointment because (a) Ken had wisely chosen a half- term launch date, thus eliminating the school run from the equation and (b) the Mayor had talked up the potential for disaster to such an extent that whatever transpired could only be viewed as a successful launch.

In the event, traffic levels were down a thumping 25%, forcing media commentators into a frenzy of interviews with each other for want of stationary motor cars and grumbling occupants. The Mole spent an equally fruitless morning attempting to track down a small body of protesters, rumoured to be waving placards beside the A3 somewhere south of the river, but all to no avail.

By the evening, a formerly hostile media had changed sides, with even the vociferously anti-Ken lobby giving a wary thumbs up. Yes, the charge gave every appearance of being a discriminatory kick at the poorer motorist, but the media soon grasped what Ken had known all along – that the only people driving into central London at peak times were posh nobs.

Thus, the spin changed overnight, with the Congestion Charge melting seamlessly from an indiscriminate tax on the poor to a democratic congestion buster, clearing the streets of filthy-rich, selfish motorists to make room for the buses that the downtrodden masses had been using all along.

Ken had taken quite a gamble introducing the charge (although nothing like as big a gamble as he had made it appear, of course). But the real loser was arch transport spokesperson and Tory Mayoral candidate-in-waiting Steven Norris, who laid caution to the wind on the eve of Charge-day, announcing that he would scrap the system if elected. By Charge-day +14, with traffic stabilised at 10-15% below its former level (just as Ken had predicted), Norris had grown strangely quiet.

A to B magazine, Congestion Charge launch, Mike BurrowsAmongst the winners on the day was Mike Burrows, who cheekily chose this day, of all days, to publicise his 8-Freight load carriers in the capital, arriving by train with no fewer than three machines, a feat for which we must thank the unrecognised British Rail engineers who endowed the Norwich rolling stock with sufficient luggage space.

Wandering aimlessly through the near deserted streets of Vauxhall, the Mole happened upon a pair of Mark 3 Brox HPVs, billboarding the Toyota Prius, which turns out to be a hybrid petrol/electric vehicle, sensibly exempt from the Congestion Charge. According to Toyota, those signing up for the Prius receive a £1,000 grant from the Energy Savings Trust (see page 9), and save £100 on the road tax and £1,250 on Congestion Charges each year (less a £10 administration fee). Of course, would-be Prius owners could pocket the entire £17,000 purchase price by cycling to work instead – an irony that was no doubt lost on the ad agency concerned.

A to B magazine, Toyota Prius advertisementTwo weeks later, the Mole attended ‘Keeping us Moving’, a conference widely billed as the post-mortem of the Congestion Charge.This cheerful shindig was staged by something called EPSRC, working in tandem with another thing called ESRC. For non- transport professionals, these worthy bodies are composed of charming academics whose role seems to involve finding new and imaginative ways of spending tax-payers’ money.

Rather disappointingly – although entirely predictable, given that the Department for (road) Transport was a primary sponsor – this day of egg-head debate centred largely around motoring matters.The only real difference of opinion being the long running spat between the ‘predict-and-provide’ chaps (now on the ascendancy, in the wake of the government’s latest round of road building), and the ‘demand management’ boys, fighting a desperate rearguard action.

As one might expect, bicycles were off the agenda altogether, and rail conveniently sidelined.The Mole discovered why, when sharing a mid-morning coffee with Professor Phil Goodwin, the government’s amiable advisor on transport affairs. ‘I’ve given up working on rail’, says Phil, ‘…because nothing ever gets done…’

Prof Goodwin went on to pour scorn on his master’s policy of building roads, whilst predicting ever greater congestion: ‘For governments to say this themselves is unprecedented’, says the transport advisor, with a twinkle in his eye. Fortunately, he has a day job. Interestingly, he goes on to predict that HMG will do a U-turn and back the Congestion Charge, ‘…within 16 months, give or take four months.’

At the morning press briefing, the Mole took the opportunity to ask whether the conference might best be described as a crisis meeting? ‘There’s no crisis in research’, proclaimed the egg-heads, as one man. Putting it into practice, of course, is another matter. ‘It’s more an opportunity than a crisis’, chips in one professor. ‘The only way to get research into practice is with a high level political commitment’, adds another, implying, rather woefully, that commitment might be lacking in government circles.

Consequently, Keeping us Moving offered little of interest, but there were a few innovations, such as the Deflatable Road Hump, an air-filled device that deflates under slow-moving traffic, but stands firm when it senses rapid movement. Clever stuff, but will it deflate for bicycles? We weren’t told.

…it deflates under slow- moving traffic… will it deflate for bicycles? We weren’t told…

Clever Innovation Number Two is the GPS-controlled private hire system. London, it seems, has 44,000 mini-cabs, of which only 4,000 are registered – many of the remaining drivers being uninsured, with a small but identifiable proportion being homicidal maniacs into the bargain.

It seems the public interface of the system is a roadside box into which one inserts 50 pence and types a destination. Then, through the action of clever mechanisms that must remain unexplained, a message is sent into space requesting the arrival of a mini-cab. Back on terra-firma, all the registered mini-cabs are buzzing about radiating their position to the same orbiting satellite, and the box duly pinpoints the nearest, then prints and disgorges a ticket indicating its registration number, estimated time of arrival, and the fare.

Not only does the system choose the nearest cab, but it guarantees a registered (and thus, one hopes, user-friendly) driver, and dispatches passengers on a first-come- first-served basis, eliminating any post- theatre unpleasantness.

A to B magazine, Rough Guide Launch, Jason Patient

The Rough Guide launch – photographer Jason Patient salutes one of his images…

Back at the conference, a rare moment of insight comes from Professor Glenn Lyons of the University of the West of England. ‘Public perception of travel modes is drifting further and further away from reality’ says the prof, helpfully explaining that bicycles are now beyond most peoples’ field of imagination and trains are considered expensive and inconvenient, but cars are cheap, fast, secure and reliable.

A to B magazine, Rough Guide launch

…and the view from the balcony

During the 2000 fuel ‘crisis’, Professor Lyons moved quickly, obtaining funding for an emergency survey of motoring habits. This revealed that some 30% of commuters changing transport modes when the pumps began to dry up, with 25% of parents walking or cycling their children to school, although the crisis had little effect on business travellers. ‘Habitual behaviour inhibits mode choice’, sums up the professor with a sigh. In laymen’s terms, given a swift kick up the backside, we could solve our transport ills in days. Roll on the next fuel crisis.

After a satisfactory lunch, the participants took their seats for a blast of hot air from a panel composed of the Great and the Good in transport, chaired by BBC Transport Correspondent Simon Montague. First up for ritual humiliation was Steven Norris, who was reminded that he had promised to ‘scrap the charge’. Norris, ever the politician, replied ‘It’s important to split the principle of charging, which is entirely sensible, from any particular scheme.’ One suspects the problem with the London scheme is that the incumbent mayor thought of it first…

It’s a sign of how far Norris has to squirm that even John Dawson of the Automobile Association spoke kindly of the Charge, accepted that ‘tactical charging’ made sense, and that motorists were generally in favour.

Warming to this theme, a traffic engineer stood up and admitted that he had helped to design the computer model for the layout of Milton Keynes, a town specifically designed around the car, yet now as congested as anywhere else. Was this honest man about to come over to the demand management camp? A conversion on the road to Buckinghamshire? Sadly no – the fellow merely concluded that the residents of Milton Keynes would jolly well have to live with congestion. He’s probably right, but one somehow expected a little more insight from a conference organised by the country’s transport intelligentsia. Is that really the best that £40 million a year and Europe’s most powerful computer can come up with? Two weeks later, the Mole joined a motley crowd of flotsam and jetsam from the bicycle world at 80 The Strand, the magisterial home of Penguin Books.The occasion was the rather grand launch of the Rough Guide to London, sponsored by Mayor Ken’s Transport for London.

For those unaware of how the other half live, the views from Penguin’s 10th floor balcony are most striking, although the book turns out to be something of a disappointment (see Review, page 11). No matter! For in a neat post-Congestion Charge twist, the BMW drivers grinding painfully along the Embankment below are effectively subsidising both the Rough Guide and the cocktails. Bottoms up!

Rover Advert

A to B 34 Blog, February 2003, Cycle Role Models, SRA

A to B magazine, useless cycle facilityThe mention of dubious cycle paths in the last issue brought forth an entertaining crop of poor facilities. The Mole’s personal favourite hails from the Georgian pile once known simply as Brighton, but now, one understands, reborn as Brighton & Hove City. In a rambling aside, one wonders whether the town formerly known as Brighton will be constructing a smart new cathedral to match its city status? If so, one wonders whether the good burgers of the metropolis will incorporate any of the fine ironwork from the pile of flotsam formerly known as Brighton West Pier, which got wind of the city tag back in January, and promptly fell into the sea.

Brighton, though careless with its priceless listed structures, is relatively generous to cyclists, allowing bipedular access to the promenade, unlike most other seaside towns or, indeed, cities. Away from the promenade, a considerable amount has been spent on cycle facilities, but not always wisely, as illustrated above. One cannot help admiring the ‘Give Way’ markings in advance of the pole – a masterful flourish. Our thanks to former journalist Fred Pipes for this fine example of local authority mis-spending. Many similar delights can be viewed at Fred’s one-man crusading web site:

As mentioned in this column on more than one occasion, the vast sums spent on useless cycle ‘facilities’ might yield a larger (and certainly more enthusiastic) bicycling population if re- routed into cheerful feel- good advertising. A number of interesting photographs have since arrived to illustrate this point – interestingly enough, all the recent examples featuring electric bicycles or scooters of various kinds.

A to B magazine, Geri HalliwellIn the interest of fairness, the Mole has carefully selected positive role models of both the male and female variety. Such images require little in the way of explanation, although in passing one appreciates how dancer and popular musician Geri Halliwell acquired the fine pair of legs, but how might evolutionary theory account for the manly chins of Formula One racing drivers? A by-product of unnatural G-forces, perhaps?

Incidentally, for Part Number geeks, Geri models a Heinzmann ElectricSurfer scooter, while David Coulthard rides something called a Prima Joe Fly – 20-inch wheels, full suspension and regenerative braking. Sadly, the 0 to 60 time is not recorded.

A to B magazine, David Coulthard on Electric BikeBut just a moment – is this cheerfully helmet-less David Coulthard the same Formula One racing driver who has recently become patron of the Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust? A well-meaning, if slightly potty organisation lobbying hard (against overwhelming evidence) to make bicycle helmets compulsory? According to the Bicycle Helmet folk, David is a keen cyclist who, ‘cycles almost every day in Monaco as part of his training regime and always wears a helmet himself.’

…The railways have done rather well, with traffic figures approaching 40 billion passenger/kilometres…

Well, nearly always. Despite all this sexy publicity, one suspects cycling numbers are continuing to decline (see Mole, A to B 30)? One is left very much in the dark on this question, for following a marked fall in cyclists late in 2001 and the damning graph in A to B 30, the Department of Transport appears to have air-brushed bicycle statistics from its quarterly road traffic bulletins. An innocent mistake, surely? Well, maybe – when pressed, a DoT spokesperson would say only that, ‘…the data for the periods you require are unavailable at present…’ Stalin would have recognised the tone.

In marked contradiction, cycle path charity Sustrans is claiming ‘a rise of up to 50% in the third quarter of 2002’, but of course, their figures relate entirely to cycle paths, and primarily to leisure journeys, including car-assisted  ones, no doubt.

A to B magazine, Richard Bowker

Richard Bowker – claims not to be Beeching Mk 2, despite cancelling grants, cutting services and considering branch lines for closure. But why is he posing under a French train?

Needless to say,   car usage continues to rise out of control, with growth of between 2 and 3% in the first half of 2002. Following sustained lobbying from the road-construction pressure groups, the government caved in (once again) after Christmas, announcing a multi-billion pound ten-year road construction programme, before admitting that traffic conditions in ten years time would be no better than today. The final solution, eh?

Thanks primarily to road congestion, the railways have done rather well in the last decade, with traffic figures approaching the 40 billion passenger/kilometre mark in 2000 – possibly the highest level ever, but certainly since Doctor Beeching was in short trousers. Unfortunately, Railtrack’s gross mismanagement, allied to the greed and cynicism of a number of rail operators and tightening of government purse strings, has brought this remarkable period of growth to a halt.

Without new passing loops, reinstated double track, re-opened lines and new trains, there really is little chance of the rail renaissance continuing. So can we expect a similar government ‘predict and provide’ spending round for the railways? Er, no. Faced with burgeoning demand for rail, the Strategic Rail Authority has been instructed to cut costs by eliminating grants for new passenger and freight facilities, and instigating ‘Tactical Service Reductions’, a masterful new concept aimed at cutting less profitable services to make room for ‘fat cat’ intercity trains.

Ironically, most of the trains to be removed from the timetable in May 2003 – including the entire Bristol to Oxford service – were introduced only recently (see Mole, A to B 7). Launched in 1998 as Stage One of a proposed Bristol-Oxford- Cambridge service (demonstrating just what privatisation could achieve, ho ho), Bristol to Oxford makes an interesting case study. The line was supposed to benefit from new trains and new intermediate stations, but the trains never arrived and – thanks to the unprecedented increase in costs since privatisation – after four years of planning work and countless budget over-runs, only one station (at Corsham in Wiltshire) actually got off the drawing board. But with the trains about to be axed, work on the ground has obviously ceased. Again… The more complicated Oxford to Cambridge bit – which would have involved real expenditure on track and signals – is now dead in the water.

…Expect a round of railway closure proposals, unless Saddam engineers an oil supply crisis first…

According to Richard Bowker, the trendy Virgin Trains man running the Strategic Rail Authority, ‘In parts of the country, the tracks are too congested… Our long-term objective remains to increase capacity through more trains and new track where it makes sense’ (A to B italics). In transport, all modes are equal, but some are evidently more equal than others.

Bowker was to return to this disturbing theme at the National Rail Conference late in January. Looking back from a hypothetical golden age ten years hence, he added a coded hypothetical warning: ‘…there was certainly some service rationalisation earlier in the decade, [but] the prophets of doom warning of Beeching Mark 2 have proved to have been totally misguided.’ Oh yeah?

We must assume that – despite the spectacular growth in rail passenger figures – such much-needed rail ‘bypasses’ as Bristol-Oxford-Cambridge no longer ‘make sense’. More worryingly, we have been warned that the SRA doesn’t have much faith in rural branch lines either.

But to be fair, Richard Bowker is nothing if not even-handed. After all, he might have been tempted to provide funding for desperately needed double track on the Salisbury to Exeter line, where the franchise is run by Stagecoach, one of whose executives just happens to be his dad… But why bother enhancing the railway infrastructure? Bowker has just wasted £29 million of taxpayers’ money shoring up the SWT share price, even as the Government was preparing to pour hundreds of millions into motorway-style ‘improvements’ to the adjacent A303 trunk road.

A to B magazine, Rover Advert

With things going very much that sort of way, perhaps a nice new Rover would make a sensible purchase? Particularly as the company appears to be offering a lifetime A to B subscription with any new Rover 25, 45, or 75 off-loaded before March 31st. What a kind thought. And just the thing for that tedious drive from Salisbury to Exeter, eh? Unless, of course, things go horribly wrong in the Middle East. Expect a round of railway closure proposals in 2003, unless Saddam engineers the mother and father of all oil supply crises first.


A to B 32 Blog, October 2002, Cycle 2002

Cycle 2002, Steven Norris MP, Brompton, Gekko, Airframe, Birdy

With CYCLE 2002 something of an unknown quantity, it was with a degree of trepidation that the Mole set forth for Bogworthy Junction and parted with the customary arm and a leg for a window seat on the London Flyer.

Armed with a copy of Ken Livingstone’s wonderful Cycling Map of the metropolis, the journey from Paddington to Islington proved relatively straightforward, despite an almost complete lack of cycle facilities. Islington, for those who aren’t aware, is an unexpectedly miserable quarter of our fine capital city, situated somewhere beyond Kings Cross. Once there, one had only to join the caravan of bulgy- thighed types to reach the Business Design Centre. This turned out to be a rather jolly little venue – hardly Olympia, but a pleasantly proportioned edifice, in scale with the modest aspirations of a British bicycle show.

One understands that bookings were painfully slow initially, but by Day One there were over 100, filling the halls pretty well. Not all were of use, naturally. Several were showing something called Spinning machines, which on close inspection turned out to be bicycles without wheels. Quite why one would pay good money for a bicycle without wheels is beyond the Mole. Rather like an aeroplane without wings, one would have thought, but a good many bright and fashionable young things were spinning cheerfully away, making a nonsense of New Labour’s claim that intelligence is on the increase.

Elsewhere, one unearths a slightly more complex version of the same thing – a conventional-looking bicycle linked by cables to a large televisual screen.Through complex electrical jiggery-pokery controlled by two clean-cut youths, frantic pedalling results in some horribly realistic hills unfolding on the screen, with the added realism of excruciating pedal effort.

Cycle 2002, Handy Bike

Handybike – six inch wheels proved less handy than had been hoped

Steven Norris MP, Cycle 2002Cycle 2002, Gekko folding tandem bikeAll manner of sporty types tried their hand on this infernal machine, including cycling’s Mr Big, the Rightly Honourable Steven Norris, formerly a Tory MP, but now a professional transport lobbyist, supporting cyclists, motorcyclists, motorists, and any number of other ‘ists’, for a modest remuneration. Unlike the Lycra-clad types, Mr Norris proceeds to ride the Marin County Downhill Course at a nice steady A to B pace, as one might expect from a fellow with a reported loathing for bilious Lycra and daft cranium helmets. In any event, Mr Norris makes no secret of the fact that he finds exercise in other ways, and quite right too.

The image of Mr Norris plodding happily around Marin County was to have a certain symbolism, for at CYCLE 2002 the racing, countryside- decimating, and working-out types were to meet head- to-head with those for whom the bicycle is primarily a pleasant means of getting from A to B.

Folding bikes had taken up a classic defensive position, thanks largely to a strong showing from Brompton on the right flank and newcomer Airframe to the left.Weaker brands, such as the overweight Gekko and ‘What’s your perfect size?’ Handybike occupied the middle ground.

Incidentally, whatever your perfect size might be, those six-inch wheels have proved less than ideal for the Handybike, which is to be redesigned around more conventional rubber. As one suspected all along, size really does matter, at least where wheels are concerned.

Mind you, the Handybike is a relatively practical machine against the monstrous Gekko tandem, which proved so complex no-one seemed willing or able to fold it. At the other end of the scale, one has serious doubts whether two persons would be able to ride the bike either.

Cycle 2002, Armadilo folding bike

The Armadillo OY102 – a sort of updated Cresswell Micro

Close by the Mole discovered the Armadillo range – folding bicycles allegedly manufactured in Bangor, North Wales. It seems the Cycle Citi Corporation of Taiwan is in the process of creating 160 jobs there (Bangor, not Taiwan), and expects to churn out 350,000 bicycles a year, some of the folding variety. Unfortunately, bikes that suit the Far Eastern market are not necessarily competitive in Europe.The smaller models are light, but much too small for anyone of a modestly portly disposition.The top-of-the-range OY102 is an attractive and reasonably comfy 3-speed 16-inch job, not unlike an updated Cresswell Micro, but with a retail price of £349, one suspects the brand will make little headway against the similarly priced Micro or Brompton ‘C’ type.

This ‘long wheelbase’ model (as opposed to chronically short) is quite a neat and handy folder, as the Mole demonstrated to the young lady from Cycle Citi, who claimed that the excesses of the night before had affected her bicycle folding capabilities. A note to head office: Do try to employ staff who can actually do the business.

“…bikes that sell in the Far East are not necessarily competitive in Europe…”

Cycle 2002 - Airframe folding bikeAirframe probably had the nicest stand in the show – well lit, exquisitely designed, and displaying some cheerful- looking Airframes in a variety of fruity colours. One wishes the bike well – the wibbly- wobbly frame will not appeal to all, but the rideability and general sporty stance of the bike should produce sales. According to one seasoned observer, the bike actually rides better than the Birdy… it’s also somewhat cheaper.

The Birdy popped up here and there at CYCLE 2002, although manufacturer Riese & Müller was officially absent.The most remarkable example was the Escape, a conventional Birdy Red with a large clockwork mechanism where the rack might be.The idea is that forward motion winds up the spring, with the energy being released when the lights turn green. Such devices are something of a Holy Grail in the cycling world, but one suspects the eventual solution will be electrical. Still, full marks to young Thomas Jenkins for doing it the hard way.

Cycle 2002 - Escape mechanism

The Escape – a large clockwork mechanism where the rack might be

Elsewhere, Avon Valley Cyclery was displaying some more conventional Riese & Müller products, including the new Froglet: Birdy- style suspension in a near-Brompton package. Another exclusive was the Bike Friday range – the first public showing in the UK for some years.The stand was rounded off with a few Dahons and hand-built Moultons, dotted about in a jungle setting so realistic one could almost feel the mosquito bites.

Electric bicycles were very much in evidence at CYCLE 2002, with some sophisticated crank motors setting the pace.The gossip amongst the trade is that the delightful Giant Lafree Twist has been a runaway success, thanks to the demise of Yamaha, and general growth in the market. Actually, the Yamaha is not quite dead. Lumbered with a number of unsold bikes,Yamaha Europe proceeded to flog the lot to one Freidbert Meinert, on the condition that they were sold suitably disguised. Freidbert has gone one better, neatly upgrading the machines, and ironing out most of the flaws in the process.

Cycle 2002, Smartbike electric bike

The Smartbike – a Yamaha Easy without the bugs

Out have gone the Nexus roller-brakes, auto gearbox and indifferent lights, to be replaced by V-brakes, Lumotec lights, hub dynamo and conventional gearbox. This smart and effective package will be sold as the Smartbike for £785 – a worthy competitor to the Lafree Twist.

“…a conventional Birdy Red with a large clockwork mechanism on the back…”

Cycle 2002, Oxygen Italian electric bikeThe other crank-driven newcomer is the Oxygen, an Italian bike marketed in the UK by Pedal & Power of Chester. Like most Italian products, Oxygen marketing involves delightful young ladies wearing very few clothes. The Mole reproduces an example for the general good of cycling (see A to B 31), and yes, one appreciates that she couldn’t possibly cycle in those heels.

This sort of thing tells us quite a lot about the Italians, but very little about the product. However, one understands that this range of smart, conventional-looking bicycles will be equipped with Shimano Megarange gearing, lead-acid batteries and a reasonable price tag of £600 to £700.There’s also a neat tricycle conversion put together by Parker Products, retailing for £955.

Unlike its European sisters – which must be pedalled to obtain electric-assist – the UK-spec Oxygen has a handy ‘couch potato’ twistgrip throttle.This sort of thing helps to explain why the British are now the most obese nation in Europe.

If the Oxygen succeeds, it’s bound to put pressure on such brands as Infineon and Powabyke, whose frumpier Chinese products have gradually increased in price, while the crank motors have come down. One awaits the coming battle with interest.

Will the lighter, prettier and more cycle-like crank-drive bikes take sales from the cruder Chinese hub motors? One suspects prices are set to fall at the bottom end of the market.

Child carriers were rather poorly represented at CYCLE 2002, with only one trailer on show and very few child seats in evidence. The most interesting example was the Family Bike, an Italian product with similar advertising to Oxygen, but we just don’t have the space.This is an adaptable family of machines with mix-&- match accessories to accommodate luggage and/or one or two children.The most fascinating add-on was the Integrale – a front child seat complete with pedals. Unusually, Alexander Henshaw refused to try this, or perhaps he’d heard that a fully laden Family Bike had fallen over on the test-track, fortunately without injuries.

like-a-bikelike-a-bikeThe favourite amongst the Telly-Tubby fraternity was, as usual, the Like-a-Bike. These little wooden machines were underfoot throughout the show, despite the best efforts of the BDC’s burliest security guards. Sunday’s photo-shoot resulted in predictable chaos, when five diminutive riders converged on the A to B stand, through, between and under the crowds.The photo session was followed by a visit to the test-track, where a remarkably talented two-year-old led the field, but was pipped at the post when the A to B man took the inside line.

len-rubin-ultimate-folding-bikeAmongst the most interesting products at CYCLE 2002 was the ‘Ultimate Folder,’ brought over from California by Len Rubin to illustrate his lectures at the show.This machine is a Brompton- clone constructed almost entirely from titanium. Even with a 14-speed Rohloff hub, weight (without pedals) is 9.4kg, or a little over 20lb.The bike rides well and feels rigid, with the exception of the handlebar adjust mechanism – one of the few components that wasn’t made of titanium.

Due to patent complications, photography was banned, but the Mole succeeds in capturing an exclusive image of a group of men ogling a small grey object on the floor.The price for this vision in brushed satin would eclipse the cost of a season ticket from Bogworthy to London. Rumours are coalescing in the £4,000 region…

All things considered, CYCLE was certainly a success: grump- free traders (well, almost) and a jolly and informative spectacle for more than 18,000 visitors over four days. The Mole understands the show is now set to become a firm annual fixture. Ladies and gentlemen – CYCLE 2003! Contact details for the products and services above can be found on

A to B Blog 31, August 2002 – Sexy Advertising!

Sexy Nexus Shimano, A to B magazineFIRST PUBLISHED August 2002, A to B magazine.
Sexy advertising, Nudist Bromptons

It seems that New Labour now controls the biggest advertising budget in the United Kingdom – no less than £143 million last year. One wonders where it all goes. Particularly galling, given that asthma, obesity and heart disease are on the increase – together with less quantifiable but equally costly ailments such as stress – is that not a single penny of this vast budget has been used to promote the benefits of cycling.

Like it or not, advertising really works, hence the enormous budgets of the car manufacturers. Watch the ads, and you’ll believe – at some primeval level – that a car will make you smarter, sexier, more fashionable, or perhaps even a dab hand at wrestling bison to the floor. For who knows where such subliminal messages take root? These motor car ads are very tempting, of course – even for those who live and work in the inner city, and have no need for a car, or indeed anywhere to put it.

Meanwhile, the cycle industry has proved woefully inadequate – thanks to a seemingly terminal malaise – in fighting back in any meaningful form.

As the car manufacturers are aware, the vague promise of sex and/or bison wrestling, shifts product, even where the product concerned is a complex, smelly, dangerous and in some ways rather unsavoury machine, both for the owner and anyone within range. Bicycles, as everyone knows, provide health, wealth and speedy A to B transport, even before sex and other perceived benefits are brought into the picture. One might assume that cycling would be a self-publicising activity, but in a world of skillfully spun subliminal messages this appears not to be the case; hence the free-fall in bicycling usage.

Actually, a small band of overseas cycle industry players are quite good at selling two-wheelers as lifestyle accessories, and although most of their copy is directed at the German and Dutch markets, a little finds its way over here. Take Shimano, for example. Its utility bike products vary from the jolly good, to the downright pathetic, yet their market image is a crafty blend of high technology and user-friendliness. And how does Shimano sell these utility products? Why, with sex, of course! And the company has learnt the vital lesson – familiar to car manufacturers everywhere – that a sexy lady sells product to both men and women.


Sitting pretty without a bike in sight

The delightful ladies in our examples are busy promoting the benefits of bicycling, even though the one on the left is sitting on a bar stool enjoying a nice cooling drink. But in marketing terms, she has good legs, and that’s all that really matters. Were she sitting beside a Ford Thrust Probe, one might be tempted to visit the showroom, but there are enough pointers here to indicate that she rides a bicycle. No outlandish Lycra or ungainly crash helmet, but a nice top, a short skirt and a fine pair of legs.

Presumably, lady consumers spot a means of toning their own pins to a similar state of perfection, while the men choose Shimano in the vague expectation of buying the delightful creature a drink on the way home from work. We older folk merely try to recall the days when we had either the legs, or the pulling power, or both. It doesn’t really matter how it works, but work it does. To be fair, Shimano’s utility advertising features a few young men and some carefully manicured older folk too, but the headline images are young, sexy and predominantly female. If the UK government were to spend a tiny proportion of that £143 million budget on images promoting alternative transport – not necessarily involving sexy young women, but you get the picture – it might make a start on tackling the transport crisis.

Elsewhere, thanks to the tireless efforts of Japanese distributor Mizutani, the Brompton certainly sees more than its fair share of sexy advertising, although beyond this column, little finds its way to the West. Strangely, the Brentford bike also seems to attract a vociferous following amongst the nudist fraternity, but one hesitates to suggest a reason for this.

Brompton Nude Australia, A to B magazine

An artfully arranged photograph. Ian (right) demonstrates the bike to Maureen and Peter Whitworth-Chalk at the Twin Falls Nature Retreat, Ellenborough, New South Wales

This month, yet another example wings its way to these pages, courtesy of US-based Naturally magazine. In the Summer 2002 issue, Naturally visits Australia, where journalist Ian Maxwell purchases a New South Wales ‘Discovery Pass’ (‘a month’s unlimited travel on trains, buses, trams and ferries’) and sets forth to visit the state’s scattered naturist colonies by Brompton and public transport. All in a day’s work, eh?

Ian doesn’t say, but one assumes he donned clothes for the public transit bits. Either way, the mission was successfully completed, and all on a pass costing a trifling £70, or about £300 less than the British version. It all looks rather tempting from the viewpoint of a wet and dreary British summer. If nothing else, our illustration proves that our Australian cousins really do have glowing all-over tans. Naturally can be found at

One suspects there might be a lesson here for New Labour. If a shapely ankle can promote cycling, just imagine the effect of regular full-page full-frontal advertisements in The Times…

August 2002, A to B magazine