A big welcome to hundreds of new subscribers this month, and particularly to our 2,000th victim. If you’re new to A to B, our speciality is transport, primarily pedal power and pedal/electric power. Not leisure cycling, but real A to B stuff. Our aim, if you haven’t already guessed, is to tackle the frightening trends of recent years and bring a little sanity back into transport. So how are we doing? Well, 2,000 of you are clearly heading our way – just another 50 million to go… Actually, you’re an influential lot: many local authorities and transport professionals subscribe (although, strangely, not the Department of Transport), so our influence is greater than you might expect.
Thank you for your excellent review of the Airframe.You have certainly identified the most important features of the bike – the aluminium frame not only gives exceptional light weight but also an enjoyable sporty ride.When you combine this with the structure, you have a very comfortable ride and a bike that can indeed be ridden over drains and manhole covers with no shock to the system.
However, as the cliche goes, you cannot ‘have your cake and eat it’, and the modulus of elasticity of aluminium is one third that of steel.Would you complain when boarding an aeroplane that the wings are ‘wibbly-wobbly’ (Mole, A to B 32)? Of course not; if they didn’t flex, you would disembark rapidly.
Naturally, a relatively elastic frame gives some loss of efficiency, but this is more than compensated for by the increase in acceleration due to the lighter weight of the bike.There are three points that need correcting in your review: 1) The vertical adjustment of the handlebars is actually 50mm; 2) There will be two saddle columns to cater for riders from five foot to six foot three inches; 3) The handlebar stem has been meticulously tested by an independent materials laboratory and found to be completely satisfactory.
Silkmead Tubular Ltd, Dunstable
More Italian Technology
The ‘retention toilets’ on Virgin’s new Cross- Country Voyagers not only shut down and lock themselves when the water runs out, or the tanks fill up with effluent, but there is no facility to top up with water en route.The good old ‘dump on the track’ loos were often given a quick top-up, and High Speed Train sets were given water bowsers at all major stations.
On one recent train (crammed with over 200 people, after collecting passengers from the broken-down train in front) only one of the three toilets was working, and that on a wing and a prayer. Even three is barely adequate for four carriages – we used to have two per carriage. If that one toilet had shut down, we’d either have had riots, or people would have been forced to relieve themselves in the gangway between the coaches, with accomplices holding modesty screens across the doors.
Lots of complaints about the new Voyager – they’re also unreliable, too small, too noisy, lacking in luggage and bike space, and mobile phones don’t work in them.We stick by our view that British Rail’s High Speed Train was (and remains) one of the finest trains ever built. (Eds)
Cards on the Table
Are you a commuter magazine? Or a folder and electric bike magazine? If you are a commuter/utility mag, then please include some full-size wheel commuter/utility bikes (Dutch preferably).
In the last three years cycling to work, I have seen just one Brompton and one unknown folder – everything else is a ‘Mountain Bike’, or the most popular bike of all – the BMX. If, of course, you are a specialist folder/electric bike magazine, then you’re doing an excellent job.
This is a tricky issue – we’d love to do more on utility bikes (we reviewed them briefly in A to B 25), but we feel this sort of machine is more within the remit of the CTC magazine, ‘Cycle Touring & Campaigning’, or ‘London Cyclist’. However, they aren’t testing them – for whatever reason – so we will definitely return to ‘proper bikes’ at some stage. People ride the most extraordinary bicycles in this country, and the blame lies largely with cycle magazines and cycle shops. If people aren’t shown proper bicycles, they’ll never discover how wonderful they can be. (Eds)
Use Those Paths!
Thanks to the sterling efforts of Sustrans and other lobbyists over the years, we now have a half decent network of cycle paths throughout the country. Yet wherever I venture, I see cyclists riding on the road, oblivious to these facilities – sense, self-preservation and reason cast to the wind. It would come as no surprise to me if the government decided to suspend future provision as a waste of public funds, and who do we have to blame but the selfish antics of those who can’t be bothered to slow down to negotiate the odd pavement crossing.
As we understand it, the government provides very little money, thus cycle paths tend to be designed for local leisure use, rather than commuting. Few motorists would opt for a new road bypass if it ran twice round the local beauty spot, through a series of gates, and ended in a sea of broken glass. At night, there can be personal safety issues too. Off-road cycle provision is useful, but what we really need is safer roads. (Eds)
Are They Related?
Congratulations on an exceptional Issue 32. I was fascinated to read about the Giant EZB. However, I cannot believe that you did not notice the Giant’s remarkable resemblance to the Riese and Müller Equinox, even down to the fine detail of the chain concealed in the rear fork?
All of the frame members and unusual angles are almost identical, also the suspension, the seat, rear deck, hub gears, chainguard, etc. If the Giant was yellow, it would be difficult to tell them apart! Is this a coincidence, or just a straight copy?
It would have been interesting to compare the newcomer with the bike it appears to have been cloned from. Or at least to acknowledge that the Giant is not quite ‘A brand new concept’ or ‘a completely new sort of bicycle’.
The general layout is bound to share a few angles, just as conventional bikes do. Incidentally, we didn’t mean to imply that we saw the EZB as a brand new concept, rather that this was Giant’s view. Giant denies any link accidental or otherwise between the designs, and points out that the R&M bike costs £1,080-£1,330 while the EZB costs £595-£975. (Eds)
Better Bike Book
Just a quick reply to the queries on page 16 of A to B 32 about a good manual for bicycle repair (and the review of what sounds like a dreadful one on page 10), I find Ben Searle’s book Bicycle Maintenance is comprehensive and written by someone who really knows his subject and communicates it well. He deals with both Sachs and Sturmey Archer hub gears. The book costs £18 including UK p&p directly from Ben Searle, 77 Strathmore Road, Horfield, Bristol BS7 9QH. For overseas postage rates, contact Ben on 0117 9879894 or by email at: email@example.com
For Sturmey See Tony
In response to the queries about instructions for maintaining hub gears Letters, A to B 32), my website has copies of the original documentation for virtually every Sturmey (and BSA) hub produced.There are instructions for more than 40 hubs, from 1902 until 2000.These are presented in PDF format, making the drawings zoomable (typically up to 800%) and easily printed out on a page-by-page basis.
Our apologies to Tony, who is much too self-effacing to mention that he is also the author of ‘The Sturmey Archer Story’, which includes some invaluable tips. See also page 37 of this issue. (Eds)
Regarding instant puncture repairs (A to B 29). If your readers are near to a branch of Decathlon they can buy small cans for puncture repairs at £3.These claim to fix one MTB tube and comes with schraeder and presta adaptors. Can’t tell if it works in practice, but it’s got to be better than wrestling with the tyres on my Moulton at the roadside!
Zap those Lights!
Many thanks for all the words of elegance, wit and wisdom I glean from your matchless pages every issue. Could I seek direct enlightenment about two matters, please? I’m about to fit a Zap motor (probably the SX model from a UK supplier) to my conventional roadster to coset a grumbling knee on my daily, far- from-flat, six mile commute.
I’m wondering which 26″ x 1.75″ tyre to fit with the Zap.There are plenty of low-tread styles at my favourite local suppliers, but blank looks at the mention of the Primo, which is regularly lauded in A to B. Should I hold out for this brand, or is it favoured more for its high-pressure, small(er) wheel benefits?
Short of importing Zap’s own lighting products (assuming they can still supply), where nearer home might one purchase 12 volt cycle lights to fully exploit the power source? Much of my route is delightful by day but hazardous at night, so in the darker months I expect that the beefier lamps would be as much a boon as the assisted hill climbing.
Following financial problems, Zap appears to have ceased manufacture of its motor, so if you have one, hold on to it.The Zap uses a large 12 volt lead-acid battery – an excellent candidate for powering a headlight.When we were using a Zap, we fitted twin headlamps with 6 volt 3 watt halogen bulbs and wired the pair in series, feeding directly off the battery.The result was enough light to give safe passage along the most miserable country lanes and convince motorists that the bike was something bigger, resulting in the sort of courtesy cyclists rarely see.The lights increased the drain on the battery by only 4% – hardly enough to measure. As for the tyre, it doesn’t need to be a slick, but must have a central tread-free area to contact the Zap friction roller. (Eds)
Brompton Map Holder
I eagerly look forward to each new issue of the magazine – a brilliant read!
I am hoping that you can help as I imagine that somebody has solved this problem before. I use a Brompton for surveying possible cycle routes and frequently need to refer to a map. Can you suggest a suitable map holder which does not interfere with folding the bike?
Two proprietary map-holders are said to work on the Brompton.The Zefal, which Velcros to the Brompton bag frame (mail-order from Avon Valley Cyclery), and the Mini Map Holder (mail-order from St John Street Cycles). St John Street says this will just fit the standard handlebars, but works better on the Brompton handlebar upgrade brace.We have no experience with these map holders, but will endeavour to compare them before the next issue. (Eds)
Greetings from Belgium
Congratulations on your excellent magazine. Am I the only subscriber in Belgium?
1. It would be nice if you could add a link to your web page directing us to a few extra (colour) pictures of the items you test.
2. Please keep in mind your readers from out of Britain. I can live with the ‘railway’ section, but I am not at all interested in several pages on the history of the M1 (as I can imagine that you would not be interested in reading anything on the E40 or the E17 that cut through Belgium either!!)
3. I agree that the Brompton is a quality tool. Outside Britain however, with prices that are sometimes 50% higher, the superiority over other constructors is not always so evident!
An opportunity for some statistics! Our European subscription base is pitifully small – 7 in The Netherlands, 7 in Belgium and 16 in Germany.This compares with 150 in the United States, and a total of 2,100, mainly from the UK.The print run is now 2,500. 1). Despite a few niggles, our epage experiment seems to have worked, and we think colour pictures are an excellent idea. See ‘A to B Gallery’ at www.atob.org.uk 2) We’d love to hear about the E40, provided it covers as much historical ground as the A5! 3) Around 75% of our (mainly British) readers own a Brompton – obviously our choice of articles tends to reflect this. (Eds)
The Final Word
In which you get your say… briefly
A standard others can only admire . A breath of fresh air . A splendid magazine .The best cycling magazine available . Honest, factual and practical . Fascinating . Always readable Essential reading . Very good throughout . Should be twice as thick and twice as frequent A consistent top-quality read . Good reading – good value . Like the bike/public transport mix Excellent coverage of wide topics and intelligent reviews . Slightly whacky style makes A to B a pleasure to read . £12 is cheap for good independent advice . Helpful and informative Please emphasise the environmental and health aspects of pedal power . Fewer battery bikes please! Our main interest is electric machines . More about restoration Hoping to read about tricycles . Too much about trains and not enough anti-car bile More long-term tests of Birdy and Brompton . More trip planning and multi-modal transport Occasionally anti-car (I don’t own a car, and am not pro-car) . A beam of light in a grim world An island of sanity in a country going slowly mad . Invariably accurate, occasionally caustic – rather good . A bit blokey and sexist, but otherwise rather good
“At present I carry two children to school by car, often picking up shopping on the way home. But the traffic is dreadful and I’m embarrassed to sit fuming in the car when alternatives exist. I saw the ‘Family’ bike at CYCLE 2002 – would this be a suitable bike for my regular school run?”
Hilary Johnson, Blackburn
The Family Bike features a fairly conventional step-thru frame with a number of bolt-on accessories to convert the basic machine into a commuter bike, child-carrier or domestic load-carrier, but it’s hardly a car replacement, and it exhibits a number of disturbing characteristics that make daily use impractical.
Unfortunately, carrying heavy and/or vulnerable loads atop conventional full-size bicycle wheels brings a number of problems.The primary one is stability at low speeds, made much worse in this case by the comparatively flexible step-thru frame. Another serious irritation with carrying a child over the front of the bike, is that the poor creature has to be lifted up, then threaded down through the gear and brake cables into the seat. In practice, most people would find this a terrible chore.
Other weaknesses with the Family include an unreliable stand (a really good stand is essential on a load-carrier) and a crude and rather inadequate derailleur gear system.
…All of these characteristics raise handling issues… the Family Bike is a rather unstable
There’s nothing wrong with the principle though. A cyclist can carry a considerable load (say 30kg) on the flat once they’ve expended a bit of energy accelerating the mass to a modest 10mph or so. At these lowish bicycle speeds, wind resistance is not a serious issue, tyre rolling resistance shouldn’t cause too much hindrance, and mechanical losses can effectively be ignored. So in practical terms, a power output of 100 watts or even less should suffice to keep you rolling, once underway. Stopping involves transforming the kinetic energy into heat, so you need decent brakes, and a load that’s high and/or at the extremities of the machine (see the Oxygen Atala, page 21) may cause handling problems.
On hills, the picture is rather different, because you’re now attempting to lift the mass against the pull of gravity as well as move it forwards, so the power requirement rises very rapidly. For example, if the same rider were to attempt to climb a 10% gradient at 10mph with the same bike and 30kg load, a power output of almost 700 watts would be needed – far in excess of most people’s capabilities.
In practice – assuming the bicycle has suitable gears – most of us climb hills a good deal more slowly.Thus, if our cyclist chooses instead to climb doggedly, expending a steady 100 watts, speed would drop to about 11/2mph, or rather less than walking pace.
Let’s take another look at the Family Bike, and imagine it fully loaded and tackling a hill.With two children and a pile of shopping on board, we have a number of problems: The bike will be moving slowly; the load is positioned high up; it’s mostly carried towards the extremities of the bike; and there’s the extra complication that the child on the front tends to rotate with the front wheel. All of these characteristics raise handling issues. There’s no escaping the fact that the Family Bike is a rather unstable machine – with a heavy load on board, hills would be a nightmare.To make matters worse, the minimum gear ratio of 36″ is much too high to tackle any serious gradient.
Let’s put our optimum criteria on a blank sheet of paper and see what we come up with:The best place for the load is in the centre of the bike and low down, so we need a long wheelbase machine, with smallish wheels to keep overall proportions within reasonable limits. Small wheels would also enable the bike to carry panniers at either end for extra capacity, without putting this extra load unreasonably high.
A number of multi-wheel options exist, such as the Cycles Maximus Trishaw, the Brox or the Christiania, but these are large and comparatively heavy machines for ordinary family use and in traffic they get stuck amongst the motorised traffic, putting you back to square one.
For a possible answer we must consult the admirable Mike Burrows. Designing a load-carrying machine for a local welder, Mike produced the 8- Freight – a very long (two-metre wheelbase!) bicycle with 20-inch wheels and an ultra- low well for freight, positioned in the centre of the machine.The 8- Freight couldn’t be more different to the Family Bike – it is not specifically designed as a child carrier, but with a bit of lateral thinking, I feel it fits the criteria rather well.
…Safety could hardly be improved upon… the children are positioned centrally in an effective steel cage…
This flexible load carrier is roomy enough to carry two child seats, one behind the other, plus a reasonable load of shopping in panniers, or one child plus extra shopping, or the full supermarket shop, child free.
Safety could hardly be improved upon – the cyclist has excellent all- round visibility and the children are positioned centrally in an effective steel cage.When stationary, the wide stand (again, centrally positioned) provides great stability, enabling the children to hop in and out unaided.The stand is apparently automatic too, descending with the aid of gas-filled struts.
Gearing rather depends on the sort of gradients the bike is likely to see, but brakes are low- maintenance hubs and the 8- Freight is also fitted with Burrow’s trademark mono-blade forks for easy maintenance. In practice, you could probably fix a puncture without removing the load, by swinging the stand down and pulling off the offending wheel.
At a claimed 18kg for the basic machine, weight is remarkably low for this sort of machine, and comfortably lighter than the 21-30kg Family.The sensible weight distribution would make the bike feel lighter too. Obviously a two-metre wheelbase brings problems of manoeuvrability, but unlike a trailer, the 8-Freight is no wider than a conventional bicycle and should be capable of threading through stationary traffic. Remember, we should really be comparing this concept with three- or four-wheeled vehicles, both powered and unpowered – not a conventional bicycle.
Mr Burrows is no power-assist enthusiast, preferring instead to design light, practical machines that can achieve a great deal with human power alone. However, a simple rugged motor such as the Heinzmann would suit the bike well, making this sort of transport practical even in the hilliest areas.
At £400-£700, the Family has the edge price-wise, but even at £975 (excluding any custom extras), the 8-Freight is by far the best option.
In a fast changing world, legislation sometimes gets left behind.Take bicycle lights for example – not so long ago, cyclists were obliged to use old-fashioned filament bulbs, even though red ‘light emitting diodes’ had been around for years in rear lamps, and they did a better job in most respects. Light emitting diodes (generally known as LEDs) consume much less power than filament bulbs for the same light output, and are compact, light, cheap to produce and virtually indestructible in normal use.
LEDs are now legal in bicycle rear lights, and some are produced to British Standard (or the European equivalent – usually German). However, technology has marched on yet again, and the white LED front lamps predicted by Professor Pivot (see A to B 28) have finally arrived in the market place. None of the front lights tested here (and few of the rear lights) are certified to British Standard so they should not, technically, be used as the sole source of light, although you’re quite entitled to use them as secondary lamps. Flashing lights (most of the examples below feature some sort of flashing mode) are illegal when fitted to the bike, but accepted to be permissible when fixed to the rider, or even luggage. Opinions vary as to the effectiveness or otherwise of the various flashing modes. What makes all this particularly daft is that although LEDs are bright, the beam tends to be very narrow or ‘directional’, so a proper mounting and careful alignment are particularly important. Someone should tell that to the manufacturers – most of the lights below have rather poor mounting brackets. A misaligned LED lamp is next to useless.
If you decide to carry non-approved lamps, it’s unlikely that the police will trouble you these days, but a word of warning – motor insurers have been known to refuse damages to injured cyclists where a bicycle was equipped with non-approved lights. In the eyes of the law, the brightness and effectiveness of the light are irrelevant.
The irony is that the new breed of cycle lights are extremely powerful, outperforming all but the very best filament lights. In really dark conditions, both the front and rear lights can be seen for well over a kilometre, and the front LEDs will pick out road signs, ‘cat’s eye’ reflectors and white markings at quite a distance.They’re also powerful enough to cut through fog and murk, and economical enough to treat as day-running lights in poor weather. Legal or not, they’re a terrific safety asset.
We’ve tested the lights for brightness at a range of 1.2km (3/4 mile), both head on, and at an angle of 45 degrees to the viewer. Even at this range, the best front lamps look almost as bright as a car headlamp, but don’t expect the same sort of light output.White LEDs produce an intense, eye-catching blueish light, but there isn’t much of it.
Cateye EL200 (WHITE)
Our star buy in the front light department. Although boasting only three LEDs, the EL200 scored ten out of ten for long-distance visibility, giving an even more intense beam than its larger more powerful stablemate, the EL300. It also did better at 45 degrees, with a reasonable score of 3/10.This lamp was rated best on the road too, producing a tunnel of intense light, but with enough scatter to illuminate hedges and verges close by, giving information on road position that some of the others lacked.
Battery life is claimed to be 35 hours, but our figures suggest that good quality conventional batteries would give 24 hours, and rechargeables anything from 8hrs – 20 hours. That’s still pretty good, but we’re talking four AA cells here, so replacements can be expensive, and a spare set rather heavy. When the batteries begin to run down, the light reverts to a weaker ‘back up’ beam, which is claimed to last for a further 75 hours.This is much less effective, but does mean you won’t be left completely stranded with flat batteries.
The EL200 slides onto a neat handlebar bracket, but for some reason, it’s allowed to swivel, making precise aiming a hit-and-miss affair. The bracket is held to the bike with a quick release too, so if you leave it, you could come back to find it missing. In any event, constant fiddling is not a good idea with lights that need precise adjustment, so we’d recommend ditching the quick release and fitting a nice conventional screw instead.
Worth mentioning in passing are the EL110 (single LED, at £17.99), and the MC200 at £19.99.This comes with a filament bulb, so the run time is only three hours, and and it isn’t even British Standard approved. No chance – the EL200 wins every time.
Range (head-on) 10/10
Range (45 degrees) 3/10
Power Consumption 76mA – 112mA
A to B rating 9/10
Cateye LD260 (WHITE)
This, we’re told, is a revised version of the LD250 – a single LED handlebar- mounted front light. Problems with lack of endurance have resulted in an unusual three-battery design, giving a claimed run time of 100 hours in continuous mode, or 200 hours flashing. As usual, our experience is rather different – up to 30 hours with good conventional batteries, but just six to 15 hours with rechargeables.
Light output is good, considering the size of the lamp and the single LED. At 1.2km, the brightness was rated at 4/10, but this fell to 1/10 when viewed at 45 degrees.
The mounting bracket is a little cleverer than usual, being adjustable in two planes – more or less essential when setting up these very directional lights. Battery replacement is a bit tricky though.The casing can only be removed with a coin, and the whole operation is fiddly and frustrating.
This light is also available as the LD260BS – a British Standard approved rear light. We’d say it was a bit weak, and it would certainly require a separate BS approved reflector, but if the authorities say it’s up to the job, far be it from us to argue.
Range (head-on) 4/10
Range (45 degrees) 1/10
Power Consumption 32mA – 40mA
A to B rating 3/10
Cateye EL300 (WHITE)
This is the one that’s making all the headlines. The EL300 is the only LED lamp specifically designed to replace a conventional filament lamp, but it remains technically illegal on its own. Power comes from four AA cells, and light is generated by an array of five LEDs, each with its own powerful lens. Welcome to the future – the EL300 makes all current cycle lights look like Edwardian acetylene lanterns.
So much for expectations. In practice, we rated the long-range brightness at 9/10 (yes, less than the smaller EL200) and visibility at 45 degrees at no more than 1/10.The EL300 produces a well focused beam, but unlike its 3-LED cousin, there’s very little scattered light, despite side lenses.The lack of scatter made the EL300 less popular on the road too – great for illuminating road signs on the horizon, but less useful for spotting pot-holes, branches and other road hazards close to.
Running time is claimed to be ‘up to 30 hours’, plus 80 hours on ‘back up’, but we’d suggest 17 hours at full brightness with conventional batteries, or five to 121/2 hours with rechargeables. Never, ever put your faith in manufacturer’s figures.
On the positive side, the EL300 has a proper cover secured by a proper screw capped with a knurled knob, so battery replacement won’t destroy your fingernails or leave you searching for small change.The mounting bracket is identical to the EL200, with all the pros and cons that implies.
Range (head-on) 9/10
Range (45 degrees) 1/10
Power Consumption 120mA -160mA
A to B rating 6/10
Cateye LD500W (WHITE)
This light makes no pretence of being a sole light source, but it’s often used this way, so we decided to test it anyway.Three LEDs are mounted within a British Standard reflector (this doesn’t make it a British Standard light though), and power comes from a pair of AAA batteries. Long distance light output is poor, at 4/10, but there’s a great deal of scattered light, so the brightness at 45 degrees is a reasonable 3/10.
The bad news is hopeless road illumination and a fashionably transparent casing that allows light to escape in all directions, destroying your night vision. Burn time is claimed to be 50 hours in continuous mode, or 100 hours flashing… Not in our experience.With good batteries, you should see 14 hours, or a rather disappointing 21/2 to 6 hours with rechargeables. Battery replacement is awkward and fiddly, thanks to a stiff ‘quick’ release, a neoprene seal with a life of its own, and a casing that clips feebly into place.
The LD500W does nothing that’s claimed of it, it’s over-priced, and extremely irritating.We probably wouldn’t use it if it came free with breakfast cereal.
Range (head-on) 4/10
Range (45 degrees)
Power Consumption 65mA – 83mA
A to B rating 1/10
Cateye LD600 (RED)
This long, thin lamp contains five LEDs and is arguably the brightest on the market, scoring a full ten brightness points viewed head on, but a slightly disappointing 3/10 at an angle of 45 degrees.As well as constant illumination, the light can be set to one of three flashing modes if you like that sort of thing.
Batteries are two x AAA, which are claimed to last 15 hours, although our results suggest 14 hours with good conventional batteries, or three to eight hours with rechargeables.The batteries live behind a sliding panel on the back of the lamp, making replacement easy, even in the dark.The only real weakness is the bracket, which clamps vaguely to the bike, fastened by a plastic ratchet thing that makes accurate positioning almost impossible.We’d suggest making a bracket of your own.
Mounting apart, the LD600 is both light and powerful. It’s directional, but still brighter than most BS approved lamps at 45 degrees.The batteries are easy to change, and AAA cells are small enough and light enough to carry a spare pair in your pocket.
Range (head-on) 10/10
Range (45 degrees) 3/10
Power Consumption 64mA- 83mA
A to B rating 9/10
Basta SL6 (RED)
The Basta is one of the best British Standard approved LED rear lamps, and available in battery, dynamo, or dynamo/standlight variants. It’s also fitted as standard to the Brompton, where it has a tendency to water ingress. On the positive side, the SL6 gives a good spread of light, it has an excellent reflector and with the full complement of four AA batteries (it can be used with two), it will run for 46 hours, or 14 to 36 hours with rechargeables.That’s a couple of weeks use for a regular commuter – for the rest of us, the batteries are more or less fit-and-forget components. Against the Super LEDs, light output is modest – 4/10 head-on and 2/10 at an angle, but it’s in a different league to the bulb-powered jobs.
Range (head-on) 4/10
Range (45 degrees) 2/10
Weight (c/w 4 batteries) 270g
Power Consumption 82-116mA
A to B rating 8/10
Cateye LD500 (RED)
This one is superficially similar to the LD500W, but houses five red LEDs instead of three white ones, and costs a reasonable £9.99 against £18.99. Unusually, the LEDs receive full power when flashing, but reduced power when continuously on, so power consumption is broadly similar in either mode and maximum brightness is not all it could be. However, we awarded it 4/10 when viewed directly and 3/10 at 45 degrees, which is better than most. Despite using only two AAA batteries, the reduced power consumption means a battery life of 41 hours (conventional batteries) or 7 to 18 hours (rechargeables). Goodness! Not far off the 50 hour claim!
Just like the LD500, there’s a fiddly sealing strip, grotty bracket and all the rest, but with batteries lasting 41 hours, you won’t be changing ‘em too often, so it’s not half as annoying as it might be. If you’re intending to use this lamp on its own, it incorporates a British Standard reflector and gives a very reasonable spread of light. But we’d suggest bolting it firmly to a proper lamp bracket.
Range (head-on) 4/10
Range (45 degrees) 3/10
Power Consumption 28-29mA
A to B rating 8/10
Cateye AU100BS (RED)
This is another rare LED light certified to British Standard, so you can use it as your sole source of light, but only if you purchase a BS approved bracket.Yes, this lamp comes with the same diabolical mounting supplied with the LD600, which – needless to say – is neither British Standard (nor A to B) approved.
Against the latest turbocharged models, light output is modest at 3/10, but brightness is little reduced at 45 degrees, giving a score of 2/10.With six LEDs and a complicated array of prisms, the AU100BS gives much the same brightness when viewed from almost any angle – even from the sky, thanks to a vertical LED.These certification people think of everything.
This one uses a pair of AA batteries. Fitting is a bit tricky thanks to the usual coin arrangement and wayward rubber seal, plus batteries that need to be prised out with a screwdriver, whereupon they fly like bullets into the nearest drain. Battery life is claimed to be 40 hours, but 25 hours would be nearer the mark with conventional batteries, or eight to 20 hours with rechargeables.
Range (head-on) 3/10
Range (45 degrees) 2/10
Power Consumption 73-110mA
A to B rating 7/10
Our thanks to Avon Valley Cyclery for their assistance – ring them for a free catalogue on 01225 442442 Cateye lights are available through most good cycle shops – the Basta SL6 from Brompton dealers.
Those who’ve followed the electric bike story in these pages, will probably have noticed the genre evolving into two distinct families – the cheap and cheerful, usually Chinese, hub motor machines, and the more sophisticated crank motors, primarily Yamaha or Panasonic based.The latter tend to be lighter, quieter and more like conventional machines to ride.They used to cost more too, but with the crank-drive Giant Lafree E- Trans now reduced to £650, and a few Chinese jobs bolstered with knobs and whistles, and put back in the window for £900+, the price distinction is becoming increasingly blurred.
The Oxygen Atala is a new (to us, at least) crank-drive machine aimed at the middle ground. Prices for these conventional-looking bicycles range from £699 for the steel-framed Avenue to £790 for the aluminium Distance.
How, what and why?
Atala, we’re told, has been making bicycles in Italy since 1926, long before Generalissimo Mussolini began wrestling with the railways. By the 1990s, the company had introduced an electric model, which appears to have sold mainly on the Italian market. Around 18 months ago, Atala was sold to Oxygen, a US company, and the brand began to go global.
The Distance is a conventional bicycle – nothing flash, but a nice ordinary layout: derailleur gears, rear rack, and so on. Park your bum on the slightly frumpy saddle, and you’ll feel at home, as will most day-to-day cyclists. Unusually for a crank-drive electric bike, the bottom bracket is conventional – the motor being a simple bolt-on unit driving via a neat one-way clutch and a separate chain to a small inner chainring. Everything else is completely normal, apart from a third apparently unused chainring on the left side.This houses the crank movement sensor that tells the motor when to start and stop.
With the ignition switched on, any movement of the pedals brings the motor to life, providing some extra oomph. But if you’ve ridden anything equipped with a motor as sophisticated as the Panasonic crank-drive you’ll be disappointed by this system, because it contains a number of fundamental flaws. Firstly and most worryingly, the motor will fire up whichever way the pedals are turned.Thus you can entertain your friends by whizzing along whilst pedalling backwards, but you must also remember not to idly swing the pedals whilst waiting at the lights, or the machine will leap forwards. Not very pleasant.
Another flaw is that the power arrives in timed chunks for a set period every crank revolution.The length of this ‘on’ phase can be set to three different levels, but in practice the low levels serve little practical purpose. On ‘high’, the chunk lasts for around a second, so if you pedal at a cadence of 60rpm, power assistance is more or less continuous. On the flat, it works quite well, but on a hill, your cadence drops and so does the power assistance. Change down a gear and power returns, but by this time you’ve lost forward momentum – the result is a downward spiral, slower and slower, with less and less assistance until you find yourself dragging a load of useless batteries up the hill on your own.
When the British importers saw the machine in action, they quite rightly insisted on a secondary hand-throttle – outlawed in most of Europe, but legal here through some Machiavellian chicanery.The hand-throttle offers two settings: ‘economy’ (full power but with a gentle ‘soft’ start), and ‘boost’, giving instant power.The cadence measuring thingy can’t be turned off, but put it on ‘low’, and you can safely ignore it.
Batteries are perhaps the most disappointing part of the set up. Our Oxygen is powered by four 108watt/hour lead-acid gel batteries, giving a capacity of 432 Wh. Production bikes will be fitted with a 216 Wh battery (half the weight and half the range), or a 456 Wh battery with slightly greater range than the model we’ve tested. This sort of thing is hardly state of the art and the location of the 12.8kg (28.2lb) battery pack over the rear wheel leaves much to be desired.
…electronics are mounted above the motor, right in line with spray from the front wheel…
For example, if you stand in front of the bike and wiggle the bars, the rear end wags like a dog, with clear signs of bending in the frame. And who can blame it? In normal road use, the bike feels fine and can be ridden hands off without problems. But make a sudden deviation, and the batteries will try to pass you on the inside… Gross weight is 35kg (77lb), but the bike feels heavier, because the unladen weight distribution is an astonishing 22% front, 78% rear. In other words, if you can’t lift 27.5kg in one hand, you won’t be able to swing the back of the bike around. Whip the battery pack off (the batteries are in two panniers strapped together across the rack), and you’re left with a better balanced machine weighing 22.2kg (48.8lb) in total.
Most of the electronics are housed in the front of the left pannier, with two of the four batteries.This is a vulnerable position at the best of times, particularly as you have to reach in and unplug the motor cable from the circuit board to plug the charger in.The delicate bits and pieces are only protected from prying fingers and the ravages of fresh, muddy or salt water spray by the canvas pannier.
Other electronics are mounted above the motor, right in line with spray from the front wheel, and shielded only by a plastic cover.This works fine until one of those autumn days when global warming deposits several inches of rain on Somerset. Out and about on the Oxygen, we hit 30cm of unexpected standing water. Splosh is followed by splutter, then a pathetic and repetitive beeping sound. Power disappears, and the warning lights go into a frenzy. Clearly the bike is trying to tell us something. Fortunately, all is well the next morning, but this is obviously not a machine for all-weather rural commuting.
On the Road
The Oxygen is a machine of marked extremes. Although the battery packs and electronics are rather crude, the motor is extremely quiet… probably the quietest electric drive we’ve seen. So unless you’re in the habit of riding right into the library, no- one will hear you coming.There’s a temptation to deliberately stop pedalling, just to experience that rarest of experiences – mobility in near silence. No creaking as your short fat hairy legs rub together, and no infernal combustion, just a gentle sigh from the motor and a soft swish from the tyres. Delightful.
There’s always a downside. In this case, the motor is both under-powered and horribly inefficient at low speeds, so it’s vital to change down a gear or two if the motor speed falls. Maximum continuous power is claimed to be 160 watts.We’d say that was about right, with a peak of some 250 watts. But the power being drawn from the batteries exceeds 700 watts at low motor speed, so it’s a seriously inefficient device.These dramatic peaks should never happen in practice, because the motor runs via the crank, so when you change down a gear, the motor finds life easier too. But on steep hills, you soon run out of gears, despite the Shimano Megarange system, which provides a 36-inch bottom gear – hardly a crawler gear, but low enough to winch you up modest slopes.
Despite the inefficiency, first gear will tackle quite impressive gradients – about 17% (1 in 6) with modest pedal effort, or 11% (1 in 9) with the motor alone, albeit at a nominal 3mph. A glance at the power chart reveals that the bike couldn’t keep this up for very long without something expiring, but it’s nice to know the capability is there.
The Oxygen needs to be driven with care because the motor is so quiet there’s no indication of stress. A crank cadence meter or an ammeter would give a useful guide to the strain on the batteries and motor.
When the batteries do eventually give up the ghost, the bike is as easy to pedal as any other conventional machine with fairly weighty panniers on the back.Well almost – the Oxygen has an unusually upright seat pillar, putting your bottom rather close to the crank. As a consequence, you find yourself choosing between a high saddle or pedalling gently to avoid knee damage.
Stopping is taken care of by Promax V-brakes, and they’re atrocious.They work reasonably well in the dry, but a few drops of rain turn the friction material to a sticky goo with the stopping characteristics of liquid Teflon.The rear brake will just lock the wheel, but the front incorporates a pressure limiter – a safety feature in the dry, but cutting braking effect to almost nothing in the wet. A simple change of brake blocks might cure the problem, but it needs looking at.
The Oxygen is unsuspended at the rear, which is unfortunate, because most of the weight is over the rear.The front suspension forks have a rather sticky, faltering action, offering minimal travel.
We normally deal only with motor assistance, on the basis that pedalling is good for you, so everyone should jolly well do some. But we know from readers’ letters that some people buy these bikes because they’re unable to pedal, or have very limited endurance.The Oxygen is quite a good choice if you’re looking for a motor-only machine – the wide range of gears allows for fairly sprightly progress on the flat and slow but steady hill climbing. Either way, progress in absolute silence will no doubt give you lots of pleasure, although range is bound to be limited.We managed 12 miles on our ‘easy’ course – mainly flat, but with a few short sharp gradients of up to 9%. Speed on the last few hills fell to a snail-like 3 or 4mph, with an overall average of 11.7mph. Not very exciting, particularly from a machine with a Powabyke-size battery (expect at least 20 miles from the Powabyke without turning a pedal).
…the wrong motor, drawing too much power from the wrong sort of batteries, mounted in the wrong place…
In practice, range is more dependent on an internal cut-out which reduces power on hills by about 75% once the motor has been working moderately hard for 25 minutes or so.This tends to do its stuff at the most inconvenient times, such as pulling out into rush- hour traffic, or climbing a 15% gradient. Once the cut-out has begun to operate, progress on hills more or less evaporates.
The real test is our pedal-assisted ‘mountain course’ run, but on this occasion, the cut-out caused us to abandon the ride after only six miles: At four miles, a 9% gradient caused a momentary cut-out, but two miles further on, as we made a start on the long 12% climb into the real hills, power-assistance disappeared and we reluctantly turned back. To be fair, after a five minute rest break, the motor is back on song, but a stiff 17% gradient cuts the power again.
To find the range, we head back into easier country.There are three ‘fuel’ warning lights, typically out of sight on the side of the left-hand pannier, beneath the ignition key. After nine miles the first is extinguished, and at 15 the second has begun to flash, while assisted speed is clearly dropping. Speed continues to slide until at 19 miles, with the fuel gauge still apparently on half full, it’s all over.That’s a reasonable range, but the average speed of 10.9mph makes the Oxygen one of the slowest bikes we’ve seen. Fuel consumption is 20Wh per mile – an extremely high figure for such a feeble machine.
With a reasonable range of gears, pedalling home won’t leave you gasping. Unless, of course, you bought the bike because you’re unable to pedal home, in which case you’ll be disappointed…Typically for large lead-acid batteries, charging is painfully slow. From flat, the tiny charger takes no less than 11hrs 30 minutes to squeeze 377Wh into the batteries.That’s rather less than the nominal capacity of 432Wh, implying that the battery is not being run right down (no bad thing), or it’s failing to charge up properly (not so good).We didn’t try the two-hour range, but you’d be lucky to get more than three or four miles out of the bike after a leisurely lunch. An annoying feature of the charging system is an alarm that chirrups into life when charging is complete.This would drive you mad if it started beeping at 3am, which it would for a regular commuter giving the bike an overnight charge. Speed aside, the charger is a 14cm x 6.5cm x 7cm pocket-size plug-in device, weighing only 290g. Lead length is a useful 190cm (75″).
At 4.5p per mile, running costs are typical by electric bike standards, thanks largely to the ease with which replacement lead-acid batteries can be obtained and fitted.You should be able to find similar batteries for about £80 a set by shopping around.
The Oxygen has the wrong motor, drawing too much power from the wrong sort of batteries, mounted in the wrong place.You wonder how Italian engineers manage to get things so wrong (see also the Aprilia Enjoy, A to B 28).We can live with high power consumption if the trade-off is oodles of macho wheel-spin, but the Oxygen is also one of the weakest performers we’ve seen… a rare achievement.
On the positive side, the bike will climb serious gradients, even without pedalling, provided you’re in no hurry, and that the stressful bit doesn’t exceed that 25 minute window. It’s also remarkably quiet and looks broadly like a conventional bike – features that may well be at the top of your priority list.
Oxygen Atala Distance £790
Weight Bicycle 22.2kg (48.8lb) Battery 12.8kg (28.1lb) Total 35kg (77lb)
Gears Shimano SIS Megarange
Ratios 36″ 50″ 61″ 68″ 76″ 86″
Batteries Lead-acid Gel
Maximum range Motor only 12 miles Pedal-assisted <19 miles
Full charge 11hrs 30 mins
Spare battery £82
Fuel consumption 20Wh/mile
Running costs 4.5p per mile
UK distributor Pedal & Power tel 01244 671999 mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Pedal reflectors are a legal requirement in most western countries and the majority of pedals are fitted with them.These little yellow reflectors are extremely effective when caught in the lights of a car – the rhythmic motion catching the eye and transmitting the unmistakable signature of a bicycle. Unfortunately, on most roads under most lighting conditions, the reflectors do very little.
Flash Pedals are an attempt to get round this problem – they’re perfectly conventional but have light emitting diodes mounted in the reflectors.The clever bit is the power supply – no batteries, but a small generator on the pedal shaft. As the pedal turns, an alternating current is fed to the diodes, causing them flash on and off.
Although pedals revolve comparatively slowly, the effect is quite good – highly visible at night and noticeable even in low light conditions during the day.The mechanism sounds complex, but adds only 25g to the pedals, which weigh a fairly typical 190g. More of a problem for some people is the width of the generator. If you’re used to pedalling with your feet on the inboard edge of the pedals, the curved generator housing will annoy. And we should point out that the lights are technically illegal on two counts (in the UK, at least): firstly because they flash, and secondly because they’re red, and red lights should not be visible from ahead.That said, yellow versions would be easy to produce.
Flash Pedals work well in most conditions, from unlit country roads to city streets – especially in gloomy conditions when other lights are off. As a last resort, they continue generating light where all other sources have failed, which has to be better than nothing.
Being particularly effective at high pedalling speed, Flash Pedals would be well suited to children’s bikes and BMX machines – the sort of bicycles that rarely if ever carry lights, but have a tendency to appear from nowhere after dark. If they become a fashion accessory, the roads will be a lot safer.
Flash Pedals are not currently available in the UK, but retail and trade enquiries are welcome. For details, contact Margaret Kim, Bizmate Technology Co Ltd tel +86 20 8139 6047 fax +86 20 8139 6143 email email@example.com
Sound good doesn’t it? A torch and/or bicycle light that recharges itself for free from the sun – no more batteries, no more dynamos, no more fuss.You get to save lots of lovely money while saving the planet. Unfortunately, the reality is a little more prosaic, and it’s worth explaining why.
To generate a reasonable amount of power, you need quite a large solar panel – 11cm x 5cm in this case, giving overall dimensions of 17cm x 7cm. Even with a panel of this size, output is quite small.The exact figure depends on the latitude, the season, the time of day, and the degree of cloud cover.We measured a low of 0.3mA at 3pm on an overcast November afternoon in England, and a high of 20mA in the sun-drenched tropics.Well, no, actually we created that one with a 40 watt light bulb on the same afternoon, but the effect is much the same.
With so little power available, the torch bulb needs to be small by bicycle standards – 600mW in this case, or about a quarter of the brightness of a typical front light. Running at 2.4 volts, the bulb draws current at the rate of 250mA, or somewhere between 12.5 and 833 times faster than the solar panel can supply the juice.Thus, the torch will need to sit in the sun for somewhere between 12.5 and 833 hours for every hour of use. In the sun-drenched tropics, you could realistically expect to use the torch for an hour or so each evening, but in an English winter, the same charge would take months…Well, you get the picture.
Should anyone have the patience, the internal rechargeable battery will give a theoretical run time of about 2 hours 20 minutes, but if you get fed up with waiting, there’s room for a couple of conventional AA batteries too.That rather negates the environmental advantages of course, as does the fact that the internal batteries are nickel cadmium, which require careful disposal.
Don’t write off the idea of solar powered lights. Replace the bulb with state-of-the- art light emitting diodes, and the inefficient solar panels with satellite-grade jobbies and you’d have a truly practical device. Unfortunately, this isn’t it.
But we shouldn’t be too negative. If you live somewhere sunny, the Solar Torch will work well, and even in the UK, it could provide self-charging emergency cover, as long as you don’t use it too often.There’s an array of flashing LEDs in the tail (not sure what for, though) and it floats, which yachtsmen will find useful. Particularly in the tropics.
Multi-purpose Solar Torch . £15.99 . Centre for Alternative Technology tel 01654 705959
Even the Brompton’s worst enemies have to agree that it does a good job of folding. It’s also pretty nippy on the road.Where it’s not so hot is in those tricky off-road situations – loose rocky surfaces and mud in particular. As anyone will know who’s tried to haul one along the wrong sort of track, mud soon builds into a sticky poultice between the tyre and mudguard, and it can take weeks to shake out the last remnants.
The Brompton isn’t an off-road machine of course, and we’re not suggesting for a moment that it would be the best tool for serious mud-plugging. But many folding bike riders commute for all or part of their journey on tracks and trails, where the smooth tyres, limited mudguard clearance and high gearing are a positive hindrance. Most small- wheelers have 305mm or 406mm tyres, and there’s a reasonable range of knobbly rubber available in both these sizes. In the Brompton’s 349mm (16″ x 1 3/8″) size, there are none, and as far as we know, there never have been any. But even if a good tyre was available, you’d be left with the high gearing and the limited clearance.
…Slip on a tube and a new knobbly tyre and you’re off…Well, not quite…
The answer is to convert the bike to take the smaller 305mm tyres, as used by Dahon and most Far Eastern manufacturers. Although tricky to do, the conversion solves all three problems at once: a pair of knobbly tyres cut through the mud, and the smaller tyre diameter increases clearance and reduces the gearing.The operation is reversible too, so it would be quite practical to convert the bike for winter riding, or even for an off-road holiday, then swap all the bits back in fairer weather.
At this stage, we should point out that our donor bike is a fairly old three-speed Sturmey Archer model.The 5-speed offers a wider gear range, but the hub is a bit frail for off-roading and the gear change rather vulnerable.We don’t know how easy it would be to convert a post-Summer 2000 bike fitted with a 3-speed SRAM gearbox, although most of the information below will remain the same.
Needless to say, the operation requires a few bits and pieces and a few workshop days, because the new tyres won’t fit the old rims, the old brakes won’t (necessarily) contact the new rims, and the Brompton uses special narrow axles…
We bought a 305mm front wheel at a local cycle shop – these are relatively common wheels, fitted mainly to childrens’ bikes, but look for something with proper spokes and a substantial rim. A Dahon wheel is ideal. Unfortunately, the hub will be too wide for the Brompton forks, so it’s necessary to have the wheel rebuilt onto a spare Brompton hub. For the enthusiastic amateur wheel-builder, this is an easy task, but a professional rebuild shouldn’t be too expensive, because the Dahon spokes should fit straight into the new Brompton hub.
Slip on a tube, and a new knobbly tyre and you’re off…Well, not quite, because the Brompton brakes have a ‘drop’ of about 60mm, and the smaller wheel needs a drop of 80mm to reach the rim. As the new tyre is wider, and we’re particularly interested in creating extra space around the tyre, the answer is to raid your local cycle shop for an old-fashioned calliper brake.We found something called a Chang-Star Deluxe, with a width of 65mm and drop of 70-90mm. Inefficient, not very attractive, but ideal for the purpose. Plumb in the new calliper, taking care to follow the standard Brompton cable run, and the front of the bike is ready for action.
Finding a three-speed 305mm wheel proved surprisingly difficult, and we ended up approaching Dahon UK.The only complication here is that Dahon, like most cycle manufacturers used the standard Sturmey-Archer axle, whereas the Brompton has always used a special narrow-axle version.The easiest way round this problem is to swap the Dahon hub internals for the Brompton ones. If you know how to do this, great – if you don’t, pop into a dealer with the correct equipment.The conversion requires a giant spanner and takes just a few minutes (in other words, it should cost very little).
At this stage, it’s necessary to do something rather cruel to the Brompton rear frame, but it’s unavoidable.The Brompton frame is offset to one side for various technical reasons, but the wheel is not. A close inspection will reveal that the frame tube on the right hand (chain) side is slightly squashed, to give sufficient tyre to frame clearance. Unfortunately, our new tyre is a little wider, and it also meets the frame in a different place, so it’s necessary to re-squash the tube some 20mm closer to the hub.We did this by holding a suitably-shaped tube against the frame and gently hitting it. Don’t hit the frame directly with a hammer, and don’t overdo it…
With the tyre and tube in place, the wheel can now be fitted and the gear cable and tensioner assembly refitted as normal. But once again, we’re up against the brake problem. Standard- issue Brompton rear brakes have a drop of about 50mm, according to model. Most designs are also a tight fit around the tyre, causing many of the problems off-road.
No doubt there are a number of suitable callipers around.We managed to squeeze the required 67mm clearance out of the Alhonga dual-pivot design.This was a common Brompton upgrade before the company introduced its own dual-pivot brake a couple of years ago, and should still be available from folding bike specialists. After grinding the slots, we just produced enough clearance for the pads to work effectively.
Gears, brakes, clearance… have we finished? Not if the bike has a dynamo, because this will now be in the wrong place, but it’s easily sorted with an extended bracket.The final adjustment is to the folding stop on the rear brake assembly.This device must be accurately set for the bike to lock together properly when folded.The smaller tyres allow the bike to fold a little lower, necessitating some adjustment of the stop to keep everything together. Once again, this was just possible on the most extended setting.
On the road, the first impression is of high rolling resistance – only to be expected from tyres of this kind. Gearing on older 3-speed Bromptons is generally 48″ – 83″, which is far too high for off-road use.The new smaller tyres reduce the ratios to 44″ (first), 59″ (second) and 77″ (top), which is better, but still too high.
On & Off Road
We tried fitting a 44-tooth chainring and 14-tooth sprocket, a combination supplied by Brompton for those preferring lower gears.This gave ratios of 36″, 48″ and 63″. Not ideal, but a good compromise, offering reasonable performance off-road, plus a useable top speed on tarmac. A smaller chainring will help off-road, but limit top speed.
How does the bike perform? Obviously braking and acceleration on loose, sandy or muddy surfaces is much improved. Indeed, the off-road Brompton has yet to get stuck anywhere. Even with the mudguards in place (we still view this primarily as a commuter bike, like any other), there’s some 20mm clearance around the tyres in most places, although things are a bit tight near the rear brake.When mud does start to accumulate, it’s much easier to hook, or wash, it out.
A pleasant surprise was the extra efficiency of the mudguards.These normally create quite a bit of spray, but the smaller 305mm tyres reduce this, even under the most extreme conditions. Surprisingly, the conversion proved quite popular on tarmac too. Provided you aren’t aiming to break any speed records, the off-road Brompton plugs along perfectly well. One point to watch is that brake efficiency may be considerably reduced, particularly if you have fitted nondescript callipers and/or steel rims (ours has a steel rim on the front, aluminium at the rear).
Is this conversion really worth all the effort? That depends on your circumstances. If you regularly have problems with poor off-road traction, and clumps of mud that take days to work their way out of the mudguards, a 305mm conversion should more or less cure the problem.
Cost will vary a great deal, depending on how much you do yourself. Our bike cost about £80 in parts, but you should expect to pay at least two or three times that for a professional conversion.
Reversing the process takes only a few hours, although there is such a wide variety of 305mm tyres available, it might be easier to stick with the smaller tyres, but keep a summer and winter set, swapping them according to the weather conditions.
Most good Brompton dealers should be able to make the conversion. Kinetics of Glasgow offer a mail- order service – both wheels rebuilt with 305mm rims for £65 plus postage. Tel 0141 942 2552
At first glance, the Aardman office looks like that of any other medium-sized company – perhaps a high-tech engineering works of some kind. But inside, things are a little different.Well, for a start, the staff are predominantly young, they’re all terribly nice, and they’re also terribly busy. In this factory, the staff are clearly on a mission.The canteen is different too…Where your average engineering company might have picked up the odd award for widget-fettling, Aardman has an impressive array of gongs, including a small group of Oscars, all displayed with delightful nonchalance across from the baked spuds and soup de la jour.
For the philistines amongst you, Aardman Animations began life in a quiet way back in 1972, before making it big with the plasticiny ‘Morph’ in 1980, and finally rocketing to national then international stardom with the much loved Wallace & Gromit.The company has gone on to produce many award winning television advertisements and has entered into a partnership with US film-maker Dreamworks.The result was Chicken Run – the company’s first feature film.
…a number of subscribers, including Dave Sproxton… the Executive Chairman.
So what has all this to do with A to B? Well, it just happens that Aardman is based in Bristol, home of Sustrans, and a city sharing equal billing with York as the UK’s cycling capital. Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that amongst 60 or so Aardman employees there are a number of A to B subscribers, including – most usefully – Dave Sproxton, who happens to be one of the founders, and now the Executive Chairman.
Making lateral connections, as creative types often do, Dave wondered whether electric bikes might benefit the company. Aardman has two studios – a smallish place on Bristol’s fashionable dockside and a much larger studio some nine miles out of town, or thirteen if you take the motorway, which you generally do, because Bristol is one of the most congested cities in Europe.
Put the blame where you will – car-centric national policies, car-centric local policies, a tram system that never left the drawing board, Railtrack’s spectacular implosion, John Prescott’s tummy, and so forth.Whatever the reason, Aardman suffers like every other business in the city, and the bill runs into millions of pounds every year…
Why Not Go West?
So why doesn’t this thrusting young company simply up sticks to its big studio at Aztec West, an industrial development bordering the US-style Cribbs Causeway retail park, way out of town by the freeway? Sorry, the M5 motorway.
According to Operations Manager Tony Prescott, Aardman intends to maintain its presence in the centre of Bristol because it’s a great place to be. Also, many of the staff live within walking or cycling distance of the urban studio, including (usefully, once again) Dave, the Executive Chairman. Lesson Number One for more conventional medium size companies – a ‘green’ minded MD can have a big effect.
..Aardman keeps three vehicles… All very useful in their way, but overkill for the toothbrush…
For Aardman, delays can be very expensive. Just imagine you’re producing the last few frames of a feature film, with the Dreamworks executives drumming their corporate fingers in L.A. and you urgently need a tin of Humbrol ‘signal red’ enamel and a toothbrush.You either put the production on hold, or send a ‘runner’ to the nearest hardware store, which tends to work out cheaper. Hence the runners – usually youngsters starting their film careers.
Aardman Animations keeps three vehicles – a Volkswagen Transporter for big things like cameras, a Peugeot 106 and a Citroen Berlingo van. All very useful in their way, but overkill for the toothbrush, and – according to 25 year old Jay (currently runner-in-chief) – the vehicles are next to useless after 4pm, when traffic can lock solid for hours.
The obvious solution was a bicycle, but Bristol is a hilly place, runners are not necessarily as fit as the name implies, and time is money. Perhaps an electric bike would provide a cost-effective answer?
In early May 2002, A to B entered the picture, helping to arrange a demonstration of the top machines. Choosing the best electric bikes is pretty easy: 1) Powabyke (rugged and cheap to run, but heavy and agricultural), 2) Heinzmann (solid in a teutonic sort of way, but a little stodgy), 3) Giant Lafree Comfort (light, quiet, efficient and just-like-a-bike-to- ride).The Aprilia looks good, but is a complete disaster, and now that Yamaha has thrown in the towel,there’s really little else up to commercial use.
In June the three bikes arrived for a two week trial, and Aardman invited staff to try them out.Those who climbed aboard soon found themselves smiling.The bikes were used for private errands too, including popping out for sandwiches – even popping home.
A Testing Time
What were the results? The Powabyke was criticised for its weight and top-heavy feel, with several lighter members of staff finding it disconcerting on corners. (Macho types approved of the rugged MTB looks though). Some people also had problems with the controls – juggling 24 gears, two brake levers and a twistgrip throttle is tricky, even for an experienced cyclist.The Powabyke’s lack of suspension caused problems too.The Bristol docks are a maze of cobbled yards and monstrous potholes that ‘rattled the battery to hell’, according to Tony. In the end, the Powabyke proved too complex for beginners – if bikes like these are to succeed in a day-to-day commercial environment, they obviously need to be novice-friendly.
The Heinzmann was rated somewhere in the middle – no frolicking battery to worry about, but nothing particularly positive to write home about either.The two-hour recharge is a considerable bonus, but it was assumed that a ‘pool’ bike would require a spare battery, so the recharge time – for Aardman, at least – was less critical than one might imagine.
Far and away the biggest hit was the Lafree, the Aardman staff being ‘simply bowled over’ by the bike’s quality and effortless performance. According to Tony Prescott, ‘The Giant had the biggest grin factor’, and that was that. The simple controls (hub gears, no twistgrip throttle) were widely appreciated, as was the upright riding position, the understated appearance and quiet, effective motor. Perhaps the most important feature was light weight. At 22.2kg, the Lafree Twist is light enough for most people to carry up a couple of steps – something that’s bound to happen sooner or later on city centre deliveries.
A commercial application is quite different to a private purchase. Running costs – usually top of the list – were not really an issue for Aardman, because against running a van, even the most expensive electric bike comes cheap.The primary factors on Tony Prescott’s mind were convenience, ease of use, speed and availability. From the trial, the Giant seemed to be the best.
…Day-to-day commercial use can throw up all sorts of issues that were not envisaged…
Where to now?
These are still early days. Aardman is currently arranging to purchase a Giant Lafree and continue the trial in more realistic circumstances. Day-to-day commercial use can throw up all sorts of issues that were not envisaged at the start. Much depends on the attitude of the staff, but some are seriously considering electric bikes of their own, so that battle may be half won. Others are less sure. Jay, who obviously knows a thing or two about running, is sceptical that a bike will handle heavy packages. He makes another very good point that could only have come from the man at the sharp end:What if he rides a few miles to fetch something small, then gets a call to keep driving, to pick up something bigger? This obviously happens – easy with a van, but requiring a wasteful journey back to base if he’s on the bike.
When we visited one September morning, Jay was making a couple of typical runs – two miles for some cider(!), then nine miles out to Bradley Stoke to return a spade after a location shoot…Yes, that’s right, one garden spade.The trip takes more than half an hour by van, and could easily have been matched by bike, although a spade is at the top end on the practicality scale.
Aardman has no plans to transfer staff between the two studios by bike, although we tried this run and did it in less than half an hour in ideal conditions.The longer motorway trip should be quicker, but can easily take longer, depending on congestion. For these cross-city journeys, a conventional bicycle would cost a lot of staff time, but the electric bike comes close to matching the car, at much reduced cost.
The real test will come as the winter unfolds.Will staff still be willing to jump aboard a bike when it’s raining or freezing, or both? Whatever Aardman decides to do, the traffic will still be there, and the city will continue to seize up after 4pm. One suspects that archetypal problem-solver Wallace would have taken one look at the hills, the one-way streets and the never-ending congestion, and invented the electric bicycle.
This lecture was originally presented by author Tony Hadland at the CYCLE 2002 show in London, September 2002.The emphasis is on British- designed machines and on foreign portables that had a significant impact in the UK. ‘Portable’ is used inclusively to represent folding, separable and demountable cycles.
In The Beginning…
As early as 1881, the journalist Henry Sturmey wrote: ‘The idea of putting a bicycle into a bag is, indeed, a queer one, but of considerable value for all that, in these days of high railway charges’. William Grout had recently invented his ‘Portable’, an Ordinary or High Wheeler bicycle that could be packed into a relatively small bag.The big front wheel unbolted into four segments (solid tyres have their advantages!) and the spine of the bike folded in two. But the Grout Portable cost two or three times as much as a standard ‘Penny Farthing’, itself not cheap.The class of people who could afford it were not the sort willing to spend ten minutes grovelling about with spanners and wrestling bits of bicycle on a railway platform, while their social inferiors tittered in the background.The Grout Portable therefore did not catch on.
About this time, tricycles were set to eclipse the High Bicycle in popularity, being easier and safer to ride. But the problem with tricycles was getting them through doorways.Therefore many were made to reduce in width.The axle on which the two wheels were mounted might be constructed on a folding system, so that all three wheels could be swung into line. Alternatively, the axle might be made to telescope to a reduced width.The modern ‘safety’ bicycle soon saw off the penny-farthings and greatly reduced the popularity of trikes. Nonetheless, compressible tricycles were available for well over twenty years.
A Military Interlude
At the end of the 19th century and in the early years of the 20th, there was considerable interest in military folding bicycles.Various nations, including the French, Dutch, Italians and British, experimented with them. In Britain, the Danish engineer Mikael Pedersen introduced a ‘Folding & Military’ version of his famous thin-tube bicycle, that was claimed to weigh a mere 15lb. In reality, it separated rather than folded (the two parts could be held together with a strap) and the late John Pinkerton’s example weighed 29lb.There is a lesson here about accepting bicycle manufacturers’ claims! Perhaps the prototype did weigh 15lbs. But in series production, weight often creeps up as consumer use reveals the inadequacies of design and detailing, and as cost pressures encourage the use of cheaper, heavier materials and components. Anyway, the British army did not adopt the Pedersen and the ‘Folding & Military’ version was phased out after four years.
There were certainly folding (but otherwise conventional) diamond-frame safety bicycles commissioned by the British War Office in the First World War. These typically had a simple hinge in both the top tube and down tube, sometimes with additional reinforcing tubes linking the top and down tubes, adjacent to the hinges.These machines are often said to be BSAs, though in reality that company made few.The confusion arises from the widespread use by frame-makers of BSA fittings, such as lugs and bottom bracket shells.
In the Second World War, BSA and Raleigh certainly did make folding military cycles. BSA’s so-called ‘Parabike’ was by far the best known. (Interestingly, BSA did not formally adopt the name ‘Parabike’ until after the war, when they used it for a non-folding toy version.) The Parabike’s twin top and down tubes were formed by continuing the chain and seat stays forward to the head tube, a form of construction possibly suggested by the Moorson company’s twin-tube lightweights.There are numerous myths about Parabikes being used in large numbers by paratroopers in combat situations. I know of not one case that has been authenticated. Certainly, Parabikes were tested, and training routines evolved, documented and carried out. But when you think about it, the last thing a paratrooper (already burdened with a huge backpack and a rifle) needed when dropped into the flat and boggy fields around Arnhem was a folding bicycle to make him an even easier target for the waiting German machine gunners. Hence, large numbers of these The Parabike – it may never have seen action machines ended up being ridden in non-combat situations, behind the lines and on military bases. Many were sold off for civilian use after the war. The Parabike was significant, however, because it made the general public aware of the concept of folding bicycles. It was also quite elegant and at least five different companies have produced derivatives, not all of which folded.
A Glimpse of the Future
…the last thing a paratrooper needed… was a folding bicycle to make him an even easier target…
During the Second World War, Cycling magazine gave a glimpse of the future when in 1942 it reviewed Le Petit Bi. Designed by A.J. Marcelin of Paris in the late 1930s, this was probably the first small-wheeled, open-framed, unisex, folding bike-in-a-bag brought into the UK. It was allegedly made in steel and aluminium versions, solo and tandem.The original solo version had a squat triangulated non-folding frame, the size reduction being achieved by elegant folding handlebars and a long telescopic seat tube.The machine could be parked vertically, for instance in a wardrobe, standing on its rear pannier rack.
Le Petit Bi seems to have achieved a certain cachet with intellectuals: the philosopher Sartre and the artist Picabia were both photographed riding it. A post-war version incorporated a frame hinge, making it even more compact when folded.There is no evidence that Le Petit Bi was sold in the UK but it seems to have had some early post- war influence on the Continent and in Japan. In the late 1940s, the Japanese cycle trade sent a research mission to Europe seeking ideas to copy. By 1953, the Silk Road cycle company was selling its Road Puppy small-wheeled folder in Singapore. It is probably no coincidence that the Road Puppy was similar to the post-war version of Le Petit Bi.
The Moulton Revolution
Forty years ago, in November 1962, the Moulton was launched, and saved the British cycle industry, whose sales had been plummeting for years. Although most Moultons were not portables, the Stowaway models were and proved a milestone in portable cycle design. Before the Stowaway, portable cycles only occasionally came onto the UK market and there had never been a successful small-wheeled portable. Since the Stowaway, there have always been small-wheeled portables on sale in the UK.Through licensing deals, the Moulton Stowaway was sold by Huffman in the USA, Raleigh in South Africa, Malvern Star in Australia and Jonas Oglaend in Norway. Alex Moulton worked with the Dunlop tyre and rim company, pioneering the adaptation and development of existing juvenile wheel formats (most notably the traditional 16×13/8″ British format) for adult use, using specially made rims and tyres.This ISO 349mm size went on to be used by Bickerton, Brompton, Airframe, Micro and others, and remains a key tyre size today.You can now buy high performance 16″ tyres from Primo, Schwalbe and Brompton – before the Moulton, all you could buy in this size were tyres designed for use on toy bicycles.
Moulton, whose design had been dropped by Raleigh shortly before they were due to mass-produce it, rapidly became the second biggest single-brand cycle maker in the UK. Competitors fought back with rival small-wheelers but could not cost-effectively circumvent Moulton’s patents to produce a bike with the key combination of 16″ high- pressure narrow- section tyres and dual suspension. So most adopted a compromise based on 20″ wheels, sometimes with semi-balloon tyres.
The Dawes Kingpin range was one of the first of these and included a separable model and a folder.The separable was soon dropped, but the folder remained in production for almost 25 years – the longest run of any British small-wheeled folder thus far. (Although Brompton look set to eclipse this record in the not too distant future.)
…The Stowaway… proved a milestone in portable cycle design.
While Raleigh tried to negotiate back the production rights to the Moulton, they competed with its inventor by launching the infamous but commercially successful RSW16 small-wheeler range. This used 2″ wide 16″ diameter balloon tyres. In 1965, a folding version, the RSW Compact was launched. One of its designers was John Dolphin, who during World War 2 designed the folding Welbike moped for the UK Special Operations Executive. (SOE’s mission was to ‘setEurope ablaze’ via bigger when folded… ‘ungentlemanly warfare’.) Certainly the RSW Compact was built like a tank, weighing 7lb more than the Moulton Stowaway. Strangely, it seemed to get bigger when folded. It never sold well and was deleted from the Raleigh range in 1968.
By that time, Raleigh had bought the original Moulton bicycle company.The greatest result of the ensuing Moulton-Raleigh collaboration was the Moulton Mk3.This was similar to the earlier Moultons but with stronger, triangulated rear suspension. It was not sold in portable form but in 1969, Alex Moulton made a few Stowaway versions based on Mk3 prototypes. One of these, known as the Moulton Marathon, was specially built for Colin Martin who in 1970 rode it from England to Australia. He was probably the first cyclist to complete a major intercontinental ride on a portable cycle.
Photos and illustrations courtesy of Tony Hadland, Nigel Sadler, Harlow Cycle Museum Part 2 follows in A to B 34. For a more comprehensive review, read the book ‘It’s in the bag!’ by Tony Hadland and John Pinkerton, and its online supplement by Mike Hessey (www.hadland.net)