Tag Archives: A to B 36


A to B 36 – United States Special!

Ah, technology. Our web site has been down for two weeks out of the last eight, because our ISP has made multiple detags of our address… whatever that means. If you’ve had problems with the site, it’s worth trying one of our satellites: www.a2bmagazine.care4free.net or www.electricbikes.care4free.net These alternatives are even less reliable, and tend to lag behind the real thing and lack a few graphics, but they’re better than nothing.

Back with good old-fashioned paper, you may have noticed an advertising leaflet in this issue, for both A to B and Velovision. The two magazines are complementary in many ways – we’re both minuscule in printing terms, but Velovision is bigger, glossier and more enthusiast-based, while A to B is a smaller and, er, more economical version of the same thing. In this rare (possibly unique) example of co-operation, we’ve decided to share publicity costs.

Please pass the leaflet on to a deserving type. Better still, if you can display leaflets at work, please get in touch and we’ll ship you a pack with a display stand.

A to B 36 Contents


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!

Letters – A to B 36 – Albert Winstanley . Brompton . Cycle Paths . International Rail Tickets

Useless Cycle Network

The picture on page 41 of A to B 35 sums up the situation in Nottingham (and too many other British cities) as far as cycling ‘facilities’ are concerned – white lines painted along uneven pavements obstructed by signs, traffic lights, trees etc. If this is British best practice, I’d rather not have it, thanks! The best lanes in Nottingham are the bus lanes – they are wide, clear, smooth and regularly swept of debris. And they’re in force 24 hours a day. The biggest problem with cycling in Nottingham is the ring road and horrendous one way system, which seems always to prevent you from getting where you want to go, to such an extent that ignoring ‘No entry’ and ‘No right turn’ signs will often get you to your destination quicker and more safely than going round Broadmarsh several times.

Oh, and for an example of the differing attitudes of road builders to cyclists and motorists, one only has to look at Raynesway (A5111) in Derby, which has just been slewed (to make way for yet another bypass).The road surface is excellent, but the token cycle path alongside seems to have been shovelled out of the back of a lorry and then stamped down with a pair of welly boots. Needless to say, I use the road!

Dave Burbridge

Please Sell me a Ticket!

I’m riding the Paris-Brest-Paris Audax ride in August on my old Moulton and I want to take the train there and back with my bagged bike. I’d prefer to travel there 16th August and return 23rd August.

I’ve previously read in A to B that I should be able to get through tickets (possibly discounted) from my Midlands station (Tamworth) to Paris rather than a ticket to London, plus Eurostar ticket, but I can’t find a method that works.When I try to book online on the Virgin or other British railway websites, nothing recognises Paris, Gare du Nord or similar. Any suggestions as to how I can get through ticketing from Tamworth to Paris (ultimately St Quentin-en-Yvelines, but Gare du Nord would do)?

Dave Minter
Via email

The failure to establish a user-friendly through ticket system has to be one of the biggest scandals of the rail privatisation debacle. Although long-distance trains stop at Tamworth, the station is run by Central Trains, and in your area only Virgin sells through tickets, so you’ll have to buy separate single tickets to and from a Virgin station.Then,Virgin can only sell tickets to Eurostar destinations, so you’ll need separate local French tickets too.That said, at £79 to £89, the Birmingham – Paris bit can be good value.The Virgin customer service line is 0870 789 1234. For train times, German Railways (www.bahn.de) provide an excellent English-language European service, but you’ll still have three tickets to book. Any better suggestions? (Eds)

Sturmey Responds

Just a couple of points about your report on the Dahon Vitesse (A to B 35).The Sturmey- Archer 3-speed is not the same as when it came from Nottingham, as the hub internals are very different.With the original AW hub, it was possible to find a ‘false neutral’ between gears 2 and 3, which nobody really minded until Dutch manufacturers asked us to correct it 15 years ago.We consequently introduced a ‘no in-between gear’ (NIG) 3-speed hub in 1989, but only in the drum-brake version, which is widely used here in the Netherlands.The old AW 3-speed continued to be made alongside the new hub, largely because it was a cheaper system.

When production was moved to Taiwan, the new owner was naturally unwilling to produce two different 3-speed systems, so the NIG was introduced into the AW. Spares for the AW will eventually run out, but the internals of the new hub (part number HSX143) were designed to fit the old hub shell.The gear indicator toggle chain is also longer.

Note too, that when Sunrace bought Sturmey-Archer they quickly recognised that the Sturmey-Archer name was much stronger in Europe than elsewhere, so the decision was taken to omit the Sunrace name and continue to brand the products as Sturmey-Archer.

Alan Clarke
Sturmey-Archer Europa N V, Amsterdam,The Netherlands

Nothing New

As an older reader (just celebrated my 80th birthday) and Pashley Moulton ATB rider, can I join in the debates? First,The Mole’s mention of Milton Keynes in A to B 35: I seem to remember the place was first conceived, with its grid-iron layout, as being dedicated to public transport (trams!) and cycleways, before the motor lobby hijacked the town.

Next, your News (page 19, A to B 35) that they’ve re-invented the shaft-drive. And why not? I’ve heard of shaft-drive bikes in the 1920s and ‘30s: it was only the slump in that decade which killed them off. I also recall the Trident (unfortunate name) from the 1980s, which had lovely German-designed skew gears in the rear wheel stay, but was ruined by a rubbish frame from Taiwan.Then there was a good made-in-Germany roadster, not to mention my old Yamaha Townmate scooter and other motorbikes, from the beautiful 1950s Sunbeam to BMWs. Shaft-drive must have a future, especially in transport bikes, and it’s a perfect match for the indispensable hub gear.

Doc Arnold
Appledore, Devon

Interesting about Milton Keynes: we’d never heard that before, but it might help to explain why this very car-centric town has a street pattern focussed on the railway station… According to Carlton Reid of cycle trade magazine BikeBiz, the Sussex drive unit fitted to the Aurora bikes may be the same unit that was fitted to the Trident back in the 1980s – apparently it first made an appearance at about that time. (Eds)

Which Airport Folder?

We require folding bicycles in a case of suitable dimensions to take on package tours.The cases must be able to withstand the rigours of airport handling and protect the bikes. The machines are for touring day rides of up to 50 miles – they must have mudguards, a gear ratio from below 40 inches to 75 inches, and carry the food, tools and clothing required on the ride. Is anything produced that meets our requirements? If not, would you suggest a compromise?

Richard & Margaret Nicholl
Wincanton, Somerset

We generally recommend the Bike Friday or the Brompton for hard case carriage by air, because these two fold into particularly square, compact, packages – the best defence against airline baggage handlers. If you like the Brompton’s rather upright stance, the L6 offers a gear range of 40″ – 86″ (or a bigger range with aftermarket sprockets), weighs from 11.6kg and costs £524. Fit a decent saddle and bar-ends, and this bike is more than capable of holding its own with sportier machines. If you do a lot of this kind of thing, a Bike Friday makes sense – typically expect gears of at least 31″ – 90″, weight of 10kg and price in the £1,000+ region.We should also mention the Airframe (light, but a bit bulky), the Birdy (full suspension, but equally large) and assorted Dahons (cheaper, but mostly larger and heavier). (Eds)

Tried the BMW?

We live near Rochester, upstate New York, and ride around the parks and along the Erie canal with two children, one on a tag-along behind my wife’s Birdy, while I ride an Airnimal. I can thoroughly recommend this fast, light and sturdy bike. I have a fast set of wheels (Araya rims fitted with 28 spokes) and an ‘all purpose’ set with standard rims and Spanky knobbly tyres.The climate here does not help – we are very near the Canadian border and there is lots of snow for five months of the year. So even with the knobbly tyres, it seems that I may have to invest in a more conventional mountain bike. I wondered if you considered reviewing the BMW folding mountain bikes (Q3.S and Q6.S) or if any of your readers have any recommendations? They certainly look like mean machines, but with a serious price tag (just under $1000 and $4000 respectively).

Baz van Cranenburgh
Fairport, NY, USA

For many years BMW folding bikes were thinly disguised Montagues, but the Q3.S and Q6.S are very different.We’ve been unable to get a bike from BMW, or a reply from Montague, but we notice that BMW is still listed as a partner on the Montague website. Anyone know more? (Eds)

The Holy Grail

I continue to search for an electrically-assisted bike which will give me enough help on our steep hills here in the Chilterns.Through the kind assistance of Addiktion Cycles in St Albans, I had a good long trial ride round the outskirts of the town on a new Lafree Twist. It was exhilarating on the flat, down hill and up slight hills, but it did not give me enough help on significant hills. Admittedly, I am nearly 73 years old, out of condition and on blood pressure drugs, but I am still disappointed, because you found it ‘possibly the best power- assisted bike, so far’.

I have tried other bikes in the past, but ruled them all out (Powabyke too heavy, Heinzmann too expensive, etc). Do you have any other suggestions, please? I really enjoyed my ride today, except for the steeper hills!

Brian N. Parsons

We were impressed by the Ezee Forza (see page 34), or try the Electro-Drive kit, which has limited range, but will climb almost anything:Two contacts – tel: 07974 723996 or 01244 671999, or email: sales@electro-drive.co.uk or sales@pedalandpower.co.uk

Cheaper at Halfords

The article about map holders in A to B 34 was of particular interest as I have been using the Zefal map holder with my Brompton for over five years, but mine came from Halfords and cost £3.99. It appears to be just the same as the Zefal and is available in all Halfords branches under their own cycle luggage label, although it now costs £4.99.

I am thinking about getting a carrying case for my Brompton as it is getting more use on public transport these days.The case made by Carradice appeared to be a nice piece of work when I examined one at the London CYCLE show last year, but they’re expensive and produce a rather bulky package to carry around when riding. However I see that Dahon markets a bag for folding bikes with 16″ wheels which they claim will fit the Brompton. It is made from tough padded nylon with shoulder straps, and when not in use the bag folds into its own pocket and can be carried as a waist pack.This ‘Doubleplay’ bag looks ideal, and costs only £24.99.The problem is that none of my local dealers had heard of it.

John Swain

Dahon tell us the Doubleplay is out of stock, but the standard 16-inch bag is available direct for £19.99, plus £3.50 postage.Tel: 01580 890007. (Eds)

Golden Days Awheel

I had subscribed to A to B for nearly three years off and on before I purchased a Brompton L6 last August.Thanks to your readers’ letters I was able to ask all the appropriate questions, and was pleased to see that the nice copper-haired Stephen at Ratcliffes of Leigh gave honest replies, didn’t dismiss my concerns, and didn’t treat me like a mithering pensioner. Nor did he bat an eyelid when I returned from a 40-minute trip around the town


The Brompton has exceeded all hopes and met all my needs so far. I find the saddle unsuitable for a day ride, but I’m reluctant to change it because I’m reluctant to increase the weight, which I find just manageable.

It was the sheer joy of reading Albert Winstanley in Cycling World that first got me on a bike in my early forties. I hope he’s still around – please write another letter Albert! Perhaps you could reveal the whereabouts of any hidden copies of Golden Days Awheel – a cycling treasure discovered in the St Helens Central Library?

Anne Kilmurray

Albert still resides at a very earthly address in Bolton, Lancashire. (Eds)

Brompton Update

A few comments on my Brompton, which is used for coastal surveying work:

1) Schwalbe Marathon tyres: No punctures in 3,000km (1,900 miles) of use – part urban commuting where the problem is broken glass, and survey work where most punctures are due to thorns.The rear tyre lasted 3,000km, but the front has not been changed.

2) Pedals:The folding pedal got a bit too worn after about 2,000km (1,250 miles), so I have fitted old track pedals with toe-clips. I carry a 15mm spanner should I need to remove the left-hand pedal. I intend trying the MKS removable pedals when these become available.

3) Saddle height adjustment: Being tall, I fitted a telescopic seat post, and when folding the bike, I sometimes remove the top section.When unfolding, the main stem comes up to the maximum, and the top section is fitted with a plastic collar which also secures a rear LED. Removing the saddle helps with train racks, but is not usually necessary.

4) Rear frame pivot:This has worn a lot, probably due to salt, sand and water getting in during survey work, so the frame will be going back to the factory soon for new bushes. I intend to fit a grease nipple to improve bearing life.

5) Carrying bag: I made a nylon bag to carry the Brompton, with pockets for the saddle and left-hand pedal.This is useful on ferries that charge for bikes and in some (posher) hotels.

Martin Fillan
Hennebont, France

The Final Word

In which you get your say… briefly

Best mag of them all – one improvement: should be monthly! Love the political slant and the intellectual but anarchic style . Good mixture, bang up to date, balanced and dynamicRefreshing, honest, and a consumer guide too! Refreshingly different . A joy to read Don’t change – A to B is a perfect vision for the world . Honest, witty and non-commercial Still an excellent read . Good reading and honest opinions throughout . Well worth the money Really enjoyable . Excellent, crap-free read . Keep it A5 please . More bike tests – too hung up on rail travel .Any pressure for a decent rail service is good . Please ignore comments asking for less politics . More on folders, less about electric bikes . More electric bikes please More electric bikes . How about info on electric scooters? How about an article on trikes? Don’t forget recumbent trikes! Can’t wait for it! Top sprocket! Irreverent, soulful and fun


Solar Powered Transport

Professor Pivot“I’ve always been interested in the idea of solar-powered transport, but no-one seems to have built anything practical yet. Is a solar vehicle a practical proposition in the UK?”

Jonathon Crouch
King’s Lynn

Professor Pivot replies:

Clean inexhaustible solar power has been a transport dream since photovoltaic cells first began converting light directly into electricity, but the reality seems as far away as ever. Solar cells have many applications these days, from lighting remote telephone boxes to powering satellites, but for transport, the problems are two-fold: cost and energy efficiency. At £5 to £20 per watt (bigger panels are much cheaper), the cost has changed little for some years: It’s the classic Catch 22 of high technology produced in low volumes, but increased demand for other high technology products has seen prices tumble, so the same is bound to happen to photovoltaics eventually.

Energy efficiency is a more taxing problem. Photovoltaics are improving rapidly, but most convert only 10 to 15% of the light energy hitting their surface into electrical power. Specialist cells of 25% efficiency are becoming available, and 35% or more is possible in the laboratory, but to avoid disappointment, we should work on a performance of a little over 10%.

Solar Cars?

Cover the horizontal panels of a typical car in photovoltaics, and you might cram in six square metres, trapping around 3 kilowatts of energy, but giving a peak output of only 0.4 kilowatts of electricity.To reproduce internal combustion performance, you’d need 30 kilowatts or so.Thus, with today’s technology, under ideal summer conditions, we could expect to generate around 1% of the peak power required. In practice, cars spend far more time sitting in the sun than moving, but even with the best panels charging a battery all day long, range would be very limited, and practically nil in winter.

Solar cars have achieved some amazing feats, of course, but the successful machines utilise a large surface area of priceless aerospace-grade panels to optimise power input, with sophisticated motors and lightweight construction to optimise performance. And it’s no coincidence that the annual solar challenge takes place in the Australian desert… But as we all know, cars are notoriously energy-hungry machines, and we can do a great deal better with other modes. Motorcycles and planes are even worse in the power requirement/surface area stakes, but low-speed motor boats are feasible, and a few have been produced. Best of all, though, is the humble bicycle – true, it offers a modest surface area, but it has an even more modest power demand.

…bicycles, like cars, spend a lot of time sitting in the sun, going nowhere…

The power requirement of electric bicycles varies a great deal, but we know from experience that the Panasonic-equipped Giant Lafree is the most efficient currently available, with a mean consumption of less than 100 watts under typical conditions.We could generate 100 watts from a panel measuring about 1.5 square metres, which would certainly be feasible on a faired recumbent. However, with a battery on board, there’s no need to generate all the power, particularly as bicycles, like cars, spend a lot of time sitting idly in the sun, going nowhere. In practice, a much smaller panel generating 20 watts would more or less recharge the Lafree battery during a long sunny day, giving a daily solar range of nearly 20 miles. If one were to start the day with a full battery, the solar boost might extend the non-stop range from 20 to 24 miles, or anything up to 40 miles spread over the course of a day, provided the bike was left in the sun between rides. A solar charger of this kind might also enhance the battery life, thanks to reduced current drain on hills and a steady trickle charge, rather than a daily boost. Suddenly the technology looks more practical.

In Practice…

uni-solar-usf-5-solar-pvThe bad news is that solar panels are generally unsuited to use on bicycles. Although the panels themselves are light, they’re fragile too, so they’re usually housed in a heavy rigid frame.A few lighter, flexible panels are produced for boats and mobile homes, and although these are not particularly space-efficient, we must concentrate our search in this area.

Taking weight, space constraints and price into account, a pair of Uni- Solar flexible USF5 panels look like a good compromise.The two panels weigh 1.1kg, measure 44cm x 54cm and cost around £180 in the UK. Rated output is 300mA at 33 volts, or 10 watts – only half the power required to refill the battery during the day, but enough to provide some reliable data. By comparison, a spare battery for the Lafree would give twice as much mileage (in all weathers, of course), but cost a little more and weigh three times as much.

I’ll be fitting the panels to A to B’s long-term Giant Lafree in the next few weeks, and reporting back in subsequent issues. In terms of practicality, this is cutting edge stuff:We The Uni-Solar USF5. The border is unproductive, but gives aim to find whether panels are the panel some protection from inevitable knocks practical in our gloomy climes, or whether the weight and bulk cannot be justified for everyday use.

Perhaps carefully angled panels on a south-facing roof would be more effective? Or a combination of the two systems? More in the next issue.


Budget Commuters

Dahon Presto P3

The Presto is probably the most conventional looking of the three

If you’re a regular commuter, whether by train, car or bus, you could almost certainly use a quality folding bike.You may not realise that yet, but it’s probably the case nonetheless. A folder makes commuting more flexible, allowing you (for example) to hop off the train in a cheaper fare zone, take a different route when your line is closed, eliminate tube fares or station parking, or park- and-ride from the edge of the city. Everybody should have one, and the classic machines include the Brompton, or – if you prefer 20-inch wheels – a Dahon (typically the Helios), or the Giant Halfway.

None of these bikes are cheap, so we’re looking at three cut-price compacts: the Pashley Micro-Luxe, still only £295, the new Dahon Presto P3 at £345, and Brompton’s bargain basement C3 at £375. All three bikes have 16-inch wheels (the larger ‘British’ 347mm size on the Micro and Brompton, and smaller 305mm on the Dahon), and all fold into compact packages, although not quite the bus-friendly folded size of the Brompton L-type. But they’re much cheaper, and on paper at least, should do a similar job. Is this true?

It’s been a few years since we produced a group test of folding bikes, and we’ve never tried the Brompton C3, although the Brentford factory has been quietly producing this cheaper variant for several years. Basically, the C3 is a Brompton frame with inferior bits and pieces hung on it, with the exception of mudguards (there aren’t any), and it comes in any-colour-you-like as long as it’s red. A word of caution – we wouldn’t recommend buying a C3 with the intention of upgrading it to L6 spec when funds allow, because the cost would be prohibitive. However, the C3 accepts Brompton’s pannier system and with these sort of extras, it might be worth considering as a fine weather commuter bike.

The Presto is new, and one of a bewildering range of new and revamped models to arrive from Dahon’s Chinese factory in recent months.The frame is effectively a smaller version of the 20-inch Helios frame we admired in A to B 31, but almost everything else is new, or at least, new to us.

The Micro is one of the great survivors of the folding bike world, having been in more or less continuous production in a number of guises since its birth in Birmingham back in 1976.The bike has been produced by Pashley for a number of years now, but the company has made few changes, other than safety modifications and a change to a SRAM hub when Sturmey ceased to exist. Our test bike is actually a few years old, but can be treated as a new machine in most respects.

The Contenders

Despite their diminutive size, all three of these bikes can be adjusted to fit most riders, with the Dahon being the most adaptable and the Micro the least. If you’re very tiny, you’ll be delighted to hear that the Brompton can be ridden with the saddle only 65cm from the ground, but less pleased to hear that the Micro only drops to 74cm, and the Presto to 85cm. For the very tall, it’s more or less the other way around – 94cm for the Micro or Brompton and a useful 101cm on the Presto. Just to confuse matters, the Brompton leaves the factory with the saddle right forward and as low as it will go. Reverse the saddle bracket and fix the saddle at the very top of the stem, and you’ll find another centimetre or so, at the expense of a slightly taller folded package.The Brompton is also available with a taller saddle stem, or two-stage telescopic device, but that adds to the cost, weight and folded volume.

Micro Luxe Folding Bike

The Micro-Luxe - quirky looks and handling

Handlebar height is only adjustable on the Presto, in a range 84 – 101cm, the others being fixed at a reasonably comfy, if rather upright stance. Reach from the saddle to the bars obviously varies with saddle (and/or bar) position, but it’s greatest on the Presto at 52cm – 60cm (considered too much by some), and around 48 – 51cm for the Micro and Brompton. Generally speaking, the Presto is a bit stretched for the very small, but the best choice for those of six-foot plus.

Weight is almost as important as ride quality with compact machines, and when you’ve dashed from Platform 1 to Platform 14 a few times, you’ll begin to appreciate why.Winner here is the Micro at 11kg, followed by the Brompton at 11.3kg, and the light alloy, but more generously equipped Presto topping the scales at 11.6kg. If they all sound a bit heavy, Pashley claims it can produce a 9.5kg single- speed version of the Micro to order; Brompton says the C3 can be trimmed to 10.7kg with some pricier bits, and Dahon has just withdrawn a delightful single- speed version of the Presto, weighing a claimed 7.9kg.You might find one if you’re lucky, but you’ll have to pay £450. Most of the bigger, better folding bikes cost more than this, and they tend to weigh more too: 11.4kg for the Brompton L3, 12.2kg for the Dahon Helios, and 12.6kg for the Giant Halfway.

…if you can live with these quirks, you may be  very happy together…



Although it bears a family resemblance to the very sweet Dahon Helios, the little Presto proved a bit disappointing. Despite having the lowest gear ratios by a small margin, the smaller 305mm tyres make the bike feel slightly over-geared and lethargic.This effect is made worse by a degree of lateral flex in the main frame tube. On the positive side, the long 102cm wheelbase helps to smooth out any choppiness on poor road surfaces, and the saddle stem feels rigid fore and aft, so you can put in plenty of effort, provided you avoid twisting the machine.The handlebar stem would be rigid enough, but the joint feels loose, and despite greasing the moving parts, and adjusting the stop, we couldn’t eradicate this. And once in a while, the hinge appeared to latch, but was only partially fastened. Generally speaking, if the hinge mechanism is hidden, as it is here, it’s worth checking that things really have engaged properly before riding away. Of Doctor Hon’s many designs, this is not the best.

The Micro is a strange beast. Initially it feels highly unstable (‘wonky’ is a common complaint), but if you persist, that impression soon fades.The wonkiness is partly the result of a rather spindly front end and short 89cm wheelbase, but mainly due to the bars being well forward of the steering axis. Consequently, the handling is always going to be strange, but most people learn to live with it.The frame is solid enough at the rear, but that stem really is as frail as it looks, so the only practical technique is to sit upright and spin the pedals smoothly, putting as little weight on the bars as possible: much the same as riding the old Bickerton. If you can acclimatise yourself, the Micro can be quite a rewarding bike to ride, but the short wheelbase means you have to take a little care, and rough surfaces are beyond its capabilities. If you can live with these quirks, you may be very happy together, but if you can’t, you’ll hate it.


The Brompton C3 - economy version of the Brompton L and T models

The Brompton is the most rigid of the three, with something of a ‘proper’ big bike feel, and despite much higher gearing (still some 10% lower than the conventional Brompton), it feels sprightly and fun to ride.At 101.5cm, the wheelbase is almost as long as the Dahon, the frame is stiff, but entertainingly lively, and the rear suspension absorbs bumps quite well.The result is a machine that handles tricky canal towpaths and off-road trails with surprising ease – the lack of mudguards helps here, although lower gearing would be an advantage if the bike was to spend any time off-road.

dahon-presto-p3-2None of these bikes are great hill-climbers. Despite a bottom ratio of 44 inches, the Brompton does best, because it’s rigid enough for you to stand out of the saddle on steep hills.With a bottom gear of 40 inches and a reasonable frame, the Dahon isn’t far behind, but the little Micro is limited to the sort of gradients that can be climbed with your bottom very firmly on the saddle. Standing out of the saddle on a Micro is an acquired art, and not an especially productive one.Top speed depends on how fast you can twiddle the pedals with a 75-inch top gear (Micro and Presto) and 82-inch gear (Brompton).

The best sixteen-inch rolling resistance is broadly comparable to a typical big-wheel bike these days, but there’s no special tyre technology on these budget machines.The Brompton wins the booby prize, with 1960s- vintage Raleigh Records, although the other models are fitted with the company’s own excellent tyres these days.The Micro used to come with useless Swallow tyres, but they went out of production, forcing Pashley to spend a few quid on their replacement – the good-all-rounder Schwalbe Marathon. Get the feeling the Micro is starved of investment? Dahon fits a pair of Kenda Kwests – another safe bet. In terms of rolling resistance, measured on our standard test hill, all three managed a shade over 13mph, or about one mile per hour behind the best 16-inch flyers. If anything, the Dahon seemed to have a slight edge, despite having the smallest tyres.


Never were a group of bikes more widely separated. Both the Brompton and Micro are fitted with horrible side-pull callipers that should have become extinct several decades ago, but seem to have survived in this base-model Lost World.This, together with nondescript levers and long cables of dubious quality, results in some truly scary braking performance, even in ideal conditions.

Worst of all is the Brompton – mainly because the callipers and levers are so flexible that a crash stop results in the levers meeting the handlebars long before an acceptable brake force has been applied. On our test bike, the rear brake managed a stop of .27G (some way short of locking the wheel), while the front achieved a desultory .35G – not much risk of being thrown over the handlebars there. Heaving both levers right to the bars produced a panic stop of .48G, which just locks the rear wheel.That’s a sufficiently poor performance to be dangerous with heavier riders, or in busy city traffic. Once again, all other Bromptons are fitted with much improved dual- pivot brakes.


The Brompton C3 has the worst brakes of the group. Note the mounting block for the carrier system

The Micro has marginally better Tektro levers, but similar Saccon callipers to the Brompton.The rear brake did even worse, with a mean performance of only .25G, a rotten stop, made only slightly more interesting by a strange harmonic, which runs up through the frame and into your private parts. Strange but true. The front brake lacks the entertaining massage effect, but makes up for it with a modest stop of .52G.That’s not enough to lift the rear wheel, but considering the short wheelbase, it’s probably close enough for comfort, so improved callipers wouldn’t C3 necessarily make the bike any safer. Both brakes resulted in a stop of .6G, which is adequate, but far from heart-stopping.

In marked contrast, the Presto comes with Dahon-branded V-brakes, excellent Jagwire cables and Promax levers.The result is brake performance as close to a hydraulic system, in terms of performance and feel, as cable-operated brakes are likely to get.The cables flow through their guides almost without resistance, and when the brakes bite, they do so progressively and with real power.

The front to rear weight distribution must be good too, because we achieved an excellent .41G stop at the rear before the wheel locked up.Yes, that’s almost as good as heaving on both the Brompton anchors. Obviously there’s enough power here to lift the rear wheel with ease in a front brake stop, but the long wheelbase keeps things well under control. As the wheel starts to lift, the front brake hits a maximum of .75G, which is the best result we’ve achieved in our short experience of G-meters. It’s also better than the Orbit Orion tested elsewhere in this issue, which rather overturns the widely held belief that small-wheel don’t stop as well as big ones… Given similar technology, they stop just as well, or better.


Dahon again, by a wide margin. The Presto has a pair of Next folding pedals (strange, because it only needs one), a smart little rack, a bell and a stand.The Micro has a pair of frightful VP-112 folding pedals (strange again) and a stand.The Brompton has nothing, except that wonderful Brompton frame. In terms of aftermarket fitments, there’s a mounting plate for the Brompton front carrier system, and another useful accessory is the folding pedal. But that comes as standard on the L- or T-type, together with proper brakes, decent tyres and so forth…You pays your money and takes your choice.



The Presto is the most difficult to fold, producing an untidy package

In folding tests, the Brompton always wins. The secret is a clever frame that folds and rotates back on itself around the steering head, producing easily the neatest, and marginally the smallest, of the three folded packages at 124 litres (4.4 cubic feet). And that’s with the left-hand pedal sticking out. Once you’ve learnt to do things in the right order, which is essential, it’s all very  straightforward, with a quick-release for the saddle stem and two big user-friendly U-clamps on the frame and stem joints.The folded package is marginally taller than the others at 56cm, and about the same width at 35cm (thanks to that protruding pedal) but at 60cm, it’s much shorter.

The Dahon frame folds around a robust-looking hinge, while the other (less satisfactory) hinge allows the handlebar stem to tuck down between the two frame halves. A quick-release drops the saddle stem, which can be left rather untidily in place or removed, while another quick-release on the handlebar stem must be loosened and re- tightened to allow the bars to assume their most compact position.This tricky manoeuvre proves the bike’s Achilles heel and results in all sorts of confusion for those unfamiliar with folders. A lock-nut on the quick-release would help, because the adjustment keeps changing, and needs constant fettling and fiddling. Get it wrong and the bars can drop right out of the folded package, or worse still, swivel round while you’re riding away. Get it right, and the Presto produces a near C3 folded package of 129 litres – 75cm long, 35cm wide, and 49cm tall (with the saddle stem stowed between the frame halves).


The Brompton is by far the neatest and quickest folder

The Micro is the simplest and/or crudest design, relying on a pair of rather frail- looking Brompton-style hinges, allied to the simple frame geometry of the Dahon. However, the Micro can be folded in any order, because the bars end up on the outside of the package – a much easier concept for beginners to grasp.There’s no handlebar height adjuster, and a simple quick-release to lower the saddle stem.The resulting package is a little wider than the Dahon at 36cm, taller at 51cm, but shorter at 71cm, producing a slightly bigger package of 130 litres.

Once folded, the Brompton is effectively locked together until the next time the saddle is lifted.The Micro and Dahon are not quite so clever, the Micro being secured in the folded position with a couple of domestic water- pipe clips, and the Dahon with an easily mislaid bit of Velcro.There’s no obligation  to remove the saddle stem with either, but if you don’t, the package will be taller: 64cm for the Micro (producing a 168 litre package) and 68cm for the Presto, resulting in a rather cumbersome 178 litres.


The Micro is the crudest design, but it works reasonably well

On paper, the three bikes might appear similar, but folding the Brompton is much more consistent. Once you’ve got the hang of it, the elements clonk down into exactly the same place each time and lock in place. Unfold the Brompton, and everything goes back where you left it the last time the bike was used. It’s a simple, reliable mechanism that can be repeated time and again, without trapped fingers or cables, and it’s as easy to do on a cold wet night as your train arrives, as it is on a Sunday morning in the park.

Fit a folding pedal to the Brompton, and the width comes down to 27cm, reducing the package size to 90.7 litres, or about 3.2 cubic feet.With a few compromises on riding position, caravanners, pilots and yachtsmen with cramped locker space can jiggle the length, width and height down a little further, producing a folded package of less than 85 litres, or three cubic feet.

Folding times are largely irrelevant in the leisure market, but the stuff of missed appointments and supper (or partner) going off the boil for commuters. Once again, the Brompton dominates: Provided you ride the bike with the saddle at its upper stop height, the C3 can be folded up or down in about 12 seconds (we managed a record of eight, but we know the bike well). Unfolding takes a second or two longer, because of the need to set the saddle alignment, but thanks to a height stop, everything else should wind up precisely in place.The Micro is superficially similar to the Brompton, but the need to remove the saddle stem adds a bit of time, making about 24 seconds in all. Unfolding takes about the same time, including setting the saddle stem height and alignment.

The Presto languishes in the 50 second zone – mainly because of the need to loosen the handlebar stem, then re-tighten it in the folded position; remove the saddle stem and stow it; then wrap the Velcro round. Unfolding can take even longer, because both the saddle and handlebar height and alignment must be set before riding off.


Before reaching our own conclusions, it’s worth summarising the views of our small panel of ‘conventional’ cyclists. At first glance, the Micro was dismissed, because of its dumpy appearance and short wheelbase.The slightly odd-looking Brompton was also treated with suspicion and the Dahon faired best, being considered the smartest and most conventional of the three bikes. A brief ride tended to produce much the same result – Dahon on top, closely followed by Brompton, with the Micro trailing behind. But folding changed everything, with even the beginners rating the Brompton best of the bunch, the Micro second, and the Dahon last.

Are these machines practical commuter bikes? Our advice with the Micro is to try it and see if you can live with the quibbles and quirks. If you can, you’ve found a compact, light and very economical folding bike. If you can’t, you’ll have to spend more…The short and the tall will prefer the Dahon, thanks to its adjustability, but for most commuting purposes, the folding is too clumsy, although a simple car park-and-ride journey shouldn’t prove too taxing. But if you want a Dahon, the 20-inch models are cheaper, easier to fold and much nicer to ride.

And the Brompton C3? It’s a jolly little bike, but you get the feeling there’s a much better machine trying to get out, which of course there is: the Brompton L-type.The L3 costs 25% more than the C3, but it’s probably the best commuter bike on the planet, so there’s no contest. Save up for the real thing…


Pashley Micro-Luxe £295
Weight 11kg (24.2lb)
Folded Volume Stem removed 130 litres
Folded size L71cm H51cm W36cm
Gear system SRAM 3-speed hub
Ratios 41″ 56″ 76″
Manufacturer Pashley Cycles tel 01789 292263 web www.pashley.co.uk

Dahon Presto P3 £345
Weight 11.6kg (25.5lb)
Folded Volume Stem removed 129 litres
Folded size L75cm H49cm W35cm
Gear system SRAM 3-speed hub
Ratios 40″ 55″ 75″
Manufacturer Dahon web www.dahon.com
UK distributor Cyclemotion tel 0800 585405 mail sales@cyclemotion.co.uk web www.dahon.co.uk

Brompton C3 £375
Weight 11.3kg (24.9lb)
Folded Volume 124 litres
Folded Size L60cm H56cm W37cm
Gear system SRAM 3-speed hub
Ratios 44″ 60″ 82″ . Manufacturer
Brompton Bicycle tel 020 8232 8484 web www.bromptonbicycle.co.uk

Folding Panniers

Folding Panniers

Folding PanniersIf you do practical things with a bicycle, like shopping, you’ll know all about panniers – those gloomy bags you can’t live with, and can’t live without.When you need them, they’re usually too small, and when you don’t, they’re invariably too big. So, how about folding panniers? A very A to B solution, we thought.

Folding PanniersThe theory is admirably simple: a pair of metal baskets with hinged bases and sides. For 90% of the time, the panniers are wind-cheatingly slim, but get to the supermarket and – flick, flick, flick! In a few seconds, you’ve created two rigid containers measuring 18cm wide by 21cm deep and 32cm long. Oh all right – 7″ x 81/4″ x 121/2″ in real units (yes, we’re reverting).That’s big enough for 16 tins of cat food plus a box of Friskies each side – a total load I of around 13kg.

Get home, feed Tibbles and the process can be reversed – the slim-line versions standing out from the rack a mere 2cm each side (just under an inch, gran).

Folding Panniers LoadedAny disadvantages? The panniers are heavy (2.4kg the pair), and they can be noisy, particularly when empty, but a well placed bungee cord should solve that one. There’s no protection from rain or pilfering either, but no-one ever claimed they were suitable for touring. Longevity? Hard to say, but these are the sort of extras that can be reconstructed with a pair of pliers and a twist of copper wire. Speaking of which, we found the crucial clip that holds the assembly shut needed a bit of tweaking, and the mounting clips were happier on a thin steel-framed rack, although they worked perfectly well on a modern alloy rack with 8mm stays.

One slight grumble on a big-wheeled bikes (or ‘cumbersomes’ in folder-parlance) is that the depth of only 21cm wastes a lot of productive space, but shoe-horn the panniers onto a small- wheeled folding machine and they begin to look seriously space-efficient.

The panniers fit just about anything, and will fold away with the bike on most, including the majority of Dahons, and the Pashley Micro (provided you have a rack, of course).You can only get one on the Brompton T-type (although folded size is unaffected), and we think two could be squeezed on to the Airframe. Besides folding, you also need to watch the heel/pannier clearance, which can be tight. But mounted so close to the ground, even a 13kg load has little effect on handling – another plus for small-wheeled bikes. Need to carry something really long? Simply strap it across the top. Good, eh?

As so often happens, we started sceptical but rapidly warmed to folding panniers, and found ourselves using them on a regular basis.This would be a genuinely useful accessory on a folding bike used as a boat tender, or similar. Wherever storage is at a premium, but there are big loads to carry once in a while.

Folding Panniers
Weight 2.4kg (pair)
Price £30 (pair)
UK supplier eGO Vehicles (UK) Ltd
mail egouk@egovehicles.com tel 01483 272222

Orbit Orion

Orbit OrionTests of ‘conventional’ big-wheeled bikes are rare in A to B, because we prefer to concentrate on more interesting things, but the concept of a really well-equipped commuter machine was quite tempting.

Everyday bikes, it seems to us, should be like everyday cars – practical, reliable and safe. As most regular cyclists will know, the reverse is often the case. Most bicycle lights are poor and other essential equipment is either missing or unreliable. Salesmen deliver stacks of gears, but within a few weeks the indexing starts to go wrong, the chain has worn out and that enthusiastic return to cycle commuting begins to feel more trouble than it’s worth.

Orbit’s new Orion (‘the best commuting machine yet made’, says the company) is a brave attempt to sell a ready to ride, fully-equipped commuter bike. In essence, it’s a custom-made alloy frame in ladies or gents styling, kitted out with some really good (and hopefully reliable) componentry – a solid, practical everyday package.


We’re not really the best people to ask about big-wheel handling.This one seems jolly good, although the alloy frame feels a bit dead and stodgy compared to steel, and at up to 14.2kg, it’s on the heavy side. Rolling resistance is good, handling is adequate (no- one fell off), and that’s about the limit of our expertise, and very possibly your interest.

Orbit OrionGears are either Shimano 2×9 derailleur or – much more interesting – a SRAM 7- speed hub.The German-made SRAM 7-speed is probably the best multi-gear hub (and will remain so unless the Sturmey 8 proves to be very good indeed). Since the demise of the frail but elegant Sturmey Archer 7-speed, the SRAM’s only competitor has been the Shimano Nexus, which it comprehensively outshines, whatever your local Shimano agent might say. Gear range is wider (284% against 244%), efficiency is higher, particularly in the low gears, and wheel removal doesn’t involve blood, sweat and tears.

Our example is slightly marred by rather tight and graunchy mechanicals, which are stiff enough to cause some drag, but we’ll put that down to the fact that it’s new. Less forgivable is SRAM’s twistgrip, which causes plenty of grumbles. Unusually, the SRAM operates with a rigid (as opposed to woven) push/pull gear cable, terminating in a shifter box on the hub axle. In theory, this eliminates problems with weak return springs, because it doesn’t need any, but the change can be notchy and vague – something that gets worse with age and maltreatment. In this case, the vagueness in the cable is made worse by a considerable amount of play in the gripshift. Finding a gear is like fishing in murky water – you never quite know what you’re going to drag up.

On the positive side, the hub changes smoothly, and the gear ratios (although rather oddly spaced) are a good compromise, spanning the range 33 to 93 inches. An easy sprocket change would give a lower or higher range, according to taste. Against a derailleur, the SRAM should give years of trouble-free service, the wheel will be stronger, and the chain and sprockets will last better too, because everything should be in perfect alignment all the time.The chain also gets a bit of weather protection from a rather wimpy chainguard, which obviously protects your clothes too.

If you can’t live with hub gears (and we strongly recommend that you change your mind), Orbit are also building a Shimano Nexave 2×9 version of the Orion.These derailleur things are quite common on bicycles, we’re told: two (or more usually three) chainrings, plus a cluster of gears in the rear wheel where the spokes ought to be.The advantage is slightly improved efficiency over a hub, but the disadvantages run on and on: unpredictable shifting, short component life, no chain guard, a weak wheel assembly, no gear shifting at the traffic lights, and so on and so forth. For some reason, the current fashion is to cram more and more cogs onto the rear wheel – nine in this case.The result is, er, 18 ratios, which sounds quite exciting, but the degree of overlap between the high and low ranges is so vast that you’re actually left with eleven. In fact, the lower range, spanning 27.5″ to 85″, would almost suffice on it’s own in city traffic – the high range of 37″ to 115″ being largely superfluous until you hit the open road.The overall impression is that the bike is rather over-geared.

…the lights are always ready for action… This is a great safety feature…

Given the gear indexing problems with so many tightly spaced cogs (we never got the system to work 100%, even after careful adjustment), we wouldn’t suggest a 2×9 for commuting.You could achieve much the same thing with a 2×7, using either a derailleur or (better still) a 7-speed hub at the rear end.

The Avid V-brakes are good, though not as good as some.We managed a typical rear wheel stop of .3G, with a slightly disappointing .65G at the front.The rear cable is a bit sticky; something that’s not helped by an out-of-true wheel on the derailleur bike (ah well, comes with the territory, you see).


Orbit Orion Bike LightThe most interesting technical advance on the Orbit is the state-of-the-art lighting system – Nexus automatic hub dynamo, Hella FL980 front light and Basta automatic tail light. Our first taste of auto lights (see Giant Lafree Comfort, A to B 31) was less than satisfactory, because the Nexus system would only turn itself on after a stop, which made it useless for tunnels, or gloomy avenues of trees. On the Orion, the very similar system works perfectly – the hub absorbs little energy during the day, but as soon as the detector senses low light levels the front lamp clicks in, and stays illuminated for as long as required. That might be ten minutes, or all night – no dynamo to work loose or seize up, and no batteries to replace.

The Nexus hub provides enough oomph to give strong illumination down to a fast walking pace, and when you do come to a stop, a single yellow LED (powered by an internal 9-volt battery) provides adequate standlight illumination for a few minutes. Or it should, but one of our test lights jammed on, eventually flattening the battery.The Basta rear light is completely separate, so there are no troublesome cables or earthing worries.Two AA batteries provide plenty of illumination and again, the system is fully automatic, sensing both darkness and movement.

Orbit Orion Bike Rear LightWould we now recommend auto lights? Once you gain confidence that the lights really will do what they’re supposed to, this is a good system and a great safety feature. Few cyclists bother to stop and turn on their lights in heavy rain, or generally poor lighting conditions, but most motorists do, and quite rightly so.With the Nexus/Hella system, the lights are always ready for action.

Orbit Orion Bike Otherwise, accessories are a bit thin.The bike comes with Pitlock skewers (see A to B 34) to help keep all the expensive components in place, but if you’re a forgetful numbskull too, you’ll be constantly leaving the key at home – big problem if you need to remove a wheel or lend the bike to a shorty.

Pumps don’t seem to be fitted to bikes any more, but the Orion has sensible Schwalbe Marathon Slick tyres, combining reasonable rolling efficiency (15.3mph on our test hill) with a degree of puncture resistance. Rims are Alex G2000, which Orbit claim to be strong enough for tandem use, and we’ll have to let them be the best judge of that.The mudguards do what they’re supposed to do, but clearance is tight enough for stones to get drawn noisily around once in a while.

The oddly-named Bor Yueh rack (Mongolian perhaps?) is suitable chunky, but if you’re commuting to work in Epping rather than transporting a Yurt across Mongolia, you’ll probably want to augment it with the Klickfix (or indeed, Brompton) pannier system.

Our biggest grumble was the lack of a stand, which proved to be a mild, but ongoing, source of frustration in our time with the bikes. A must-fit accessory.


Would we ride to work on it? No fault of the Orbit, but we probably wouldn’t. For a longer commute we generally mix folder with train or bus, and for shorter or hillier routes, we’d probably choose an electric bike. But we’re the wrong people to ask – plenty of cyclists enjoy a good ten-mile thrash to work in the morning, and if you want a quality component package, there’s no doubt this is a suitable machine, if not the most suitable on the market. Our advice, though, would be to go for the hub gears (you knew we’d say that, didn’t you?) and for some reason we all preferred the gents frame.


Orbit Orion £695
Frames 46cm 51cm 56cm (ladies 51cm only)
Weight <14.2kg (31.2lb)
Gear system SRAM 7-speed hub or Shimano Nexave 2×9 derailleur
Gear ratios hub 33″ 37″ 45″ 55″ 68″ 81″ 93″ derailleur 27.5″ – 85″ and 37″ – 115″
Wheelbase 104cm
Manufacturer Orbit Cycles web www.orbit-cycles.co.uk email sales@orbit-cycles.co.uk tel 0114 275 6567 fax 0114 270 1016

Kickbike City Cruiser

kickbike-city-cruiserWe test bikes with big wheels and we test bikes with small wheels, but we don’t often test machines with a big wheel at one end and a small wheel at the other. No pedals either.

The Kickbike is the sort of thing that pops up in those futuristic ‘ideal world’ cycling tableaus that occasionally appear in the less cynical cycle magazines. In principle one size fits all, and there’s sufficient street-cred for young Norman to hang out on the mall, the sort of practicality granny demands for cruising the shops and enough speed (down hill at any rate) for dad to scoot to work.We’ve tested the City Cruiser model costing £190.The company also produces a ‘touring’ Sport Classic at £200 and a lighter, more aerodynamic Millennium Racer at £230, with an off-road job due in the summer at a rather awe inspiring £250. Still, there are plenty of people willing to spend £250 on dafter things than an off-road scooter, so it’s bound to go down a storm.

What and Why?

A Kickbike is effectively a bicycle, stripped of drive system and somewhere to sit, leaving a very large scooter.The bike has a 28-inch wheel at the front and 18-inch at the back (fitted with the 40 x 355mm Cheng Shin tyre from the Birdy), which gives it something of the look of a Penny Farthing, but without the leg-over problem, because there’s nothing to get your leg over.

The Finnish designers suggest all sorts of applications from racing (yes, some clown has set a 38.9km/h record); touring (another banana has ridden more than 300 miles in a day); and BMX stunts (no records for this one). But in practice, this is a flat-country, short- distance, shopping or commuting machine.The UK importer claims that the Kickbike can be kicked for ‘20 miles… on flattish terrain in about 21/2 hours.’ With practice, you might achieve this sort of thing, but where a bicycle would involve a lot less effort, one is tempted to ask ‘why?’.

…where a bicycle would involve a lot less effort, one is tempted to ask ‘why?’

‘Why?’, we soon discover, is a common question. According to Kickbike, scooters are legal on footpaths as well as roads, which could help to broaden your route-to-work options, although it won’t make you any friends amongst pedestrians.Without saddle, pedals and other drive system paraphernalia, a Kickbike is also lighter than the equivalent bicycle, but not by very much. Our City Cruiser model (complete with front basket) weighs 10.4kg – a clunking 1.4kg more than claimed.

The wheelbase is quite long, at 112.5cm, and that, combined with the large front wheel, means that manoeuvrability is not what it could be. At this point another ‘why?’ looms…The 18-inch rear wheel is quite useful (see ‘leg-over’ above), but we’re at a loss to explain the big ‘un, which adds some 12cm to the length and a great deal to the turning circle.With an 18-inch front wheel, there’d be room for a bigger, lower (and thus more stable) load basket, and the bike would be both lighter and more manoeuvrable. Still it all looks very attractive, which is half the battle. Kickbike also makes the perfectly valid point that elimination of chains and cogs means no grease and oil on your clothing. And the step-thru platform and well-enclosed wheels allow you to ride to work wearing pretty well anything, from outrageous flares to diaphanous floaty numbers or shorty minis… all those things you’ve been dying to wear on a bike, but didn’t dare.

Kickbike City CruiserThe gear ratio depends on the length of your legs and how muscle-ly your thighs are. Initial acceleration is well up to hub gear standards, but speed rapidly tails off, where a bicycle keeps accelerating.The practical terminal velocity on the flat is around 7mph, although ten is manageable for short distances, and speed can sail up into the twenties on steep down grades, especially if you have the nerve to squat down and assume a wind-cheating position behind the front wheel.The ideal situation is a gentle down gradient.We recorded a reasonable rolling performance of 14.5mph on our test hill, which is about half way between 18-inch and 28-inch performance, less the extra wind resistance from standing up. Progress on the flat can be reasonably sprightly too, with a following wind, but going uphill is hard work, even on modest gradients. If you’re not used to the kicking action, you’ll be doing a lot of walking.

Handling takes a bit of getting used to compared to a bicycle, although we never found the limit. At speed, the handlebars feel as though they are about to develop a ‘shimmy’ or wobble, an impression that rather detracts from the otherwise effortless progress downhill. Another interesting impression is the softness of the ride – this turns out to be flex in the frame, which bends by a centimetre or more on bumps.That’s only a problem if you’re a stickler for precise steering geometry and other esoteric things. More serious is the very limited ground clearance under the platform – 6cm unladen and up to 1cm less under a fatty.That’s low enough to ground on road humps and the like.

kickbike-city-cruiser-2The turning circle of the Kickbike is much greater than a small scooter, and big even for a bicycle, which is rather disappointing. It can be turned in three metres, which is adequate on the road, but rather cumbersome on the pavement. Manoeuvrability is also hampered by the lack of a saddle, because on a crowded pavement you can’t easily swing the bike around.The technique is to hook your foot under the frame and lift it round.

In practice, a 16-inch folder will turn faster and quicker than a big scooter like this. It probably won’t be as stable though.Thanks to the powerful gyroscopic action of that big front wheel and the low platform, the Kickbike feels reasonably secure. But with no saddle between your legs (in other words, no means of bracing yourself), riding one- handed is tricky.

With a pair of Alhonga dual-pivot callipers (yes, they’re the predecessor to the current Brompton design) braking is powerful and reliable, although Brits should treat the levers with caution, because our Kickbike arrived with continental-style reversed cables. We managed a stop of .34G with the rear brake, which is well up to bicycle standards. At the front, the rear wheel tends to lift with a stop of only .69G, which is on the low side – partly because of a lack of weight at the back of the scooter, and partly because, once again, the rider tends to get thrown forward, because there’s no saddle to brace against. Squat down and back (not something you’d have time to do in an emergency, of course) and the maximum stop can be as high as .8G.The limit here is the brake callipers, which aren’t really powerful enough, and the brake blocks, which tend to twist in the calliper arms under severe braking.

…a full complement of disadvantages, most of which were licked in about 1890…


A bit limited.There’s a little bell which goes ping in a most satisfactory manner, and a useless vestigial stand that serves only to reduce the already limited ground clearance. Even without a full load in the basket, the stand won’t hold the machine up, unless the front wheel is turned clumsily to full right lock. And with no saddle, it’s difficult to lean the Kickbike on posts, tree trunks, traffic wardens and the like – a major disadvantage at the shops, you might think. The basket is useful, but as we’ve said, on the small side, so don’t expect to carry home anything bulkier than a small box of cereal and a couple of litres of milk.

In purely practical terms, there’s nowhere to mount lights either, although that need not be an insurmountable obstacle.The mudguards are good, but by the very nature of scootering, wet feet are guaranteed if the weather’s dicey.Talking of water, the Kickbike comes with a mounting for a water bottle – are they serious?


All things considered, it’s hard to imagine a day-to-day commuter scooting to work. Scooters come with a full complement of disadvantages, most of which were licked in about 1890 with the arrival of the dear old safety bicycle.The odds are stacked even higher against the scooter today: a compact folder will go further and faster, yet turn on a sixpence and fold away at journey’s end. On the positive side, a scooter is a good way of exercising muscles that wouldn’t normally see much use walking or cycling (Ow! We can vouch for that), provided you don’t expect to travel any distance.

Foolish young things will probably buy the Kickbike on looks alone, but stuff it at the back of the garage after a week, and good luck to ‘em.We’re not convinced the machine has a future as a commuter steed, and the jury remains out for the little-old-lady market. As one little old lady succinctly put it, ‘I could use that! I walk up hills anyway’.Then, after a moment’s thought, she added, ‘But I do like a seat for coasting down the other side!’ And that sums it up rather well.The question remains, ‘why?’.


Kickbike City Cruiser £190
Weight 10.4kg (22.9lb)
Wheelbase 112.5cm
Roll-down Speed 14.5mph
Brake Force front .69G rear .34G
Manufacturer Kickbike web www.kickbike.com mail hannu@kickbike.com
UK distributor Vroom Scooters Ltd web www.kickbike.biz mail info@kickbike.biz tel 07817 192652

Ezee Forza

ezee-forza-electric-bikeWe’ve talked about the evolutionary aspects of electric bicycle development before. And, love ‘em or loath ‘em, the early years of this new century provide a fascinating opportunity to observe transport evolution in progress. Broadly speaking, electric bikes have split into two groups; the heavy Chinese bruisers, personified by the Powabyke, and the newer gazelles of the genre – light, agile pedelecs, such as Giant’s Lafree.

This month, we’re riding the Ezee Forza, a fascinating hybrid from a small Chinese company that might turn out to be an evolutionary dead end, but might also herald the demise of the 40kg dinosaurs. Manufactured in Shanghai, it’s relatively cheap, but it also offers much of the sophistication and performance previously found only on the most expensive machines.The result is something quite new: decent equipment, light alloy frame, NiMH battery and hub gears borrowed from the Lafree concept, but with a down- to-earth Powabyke-style front hub motor and a potential price tag of around £650.That would put the bike head-to-head with the mid-range Powabyke, but with weight and performance closer to the gazelle evolutionary strand.

Enter the Forza

The Forza has an alloy frame and upright riding position broadly reminiscent of the European-designed Giant Lafree.There’s even a similar characteristically curved frame tube, but unlike the Lafree, the tube curves down towards the wheel. Another difference is the slightly garish polished alloy frame, against the Lafree’s understated enamelled version, and some humungous chunky welds, where the Lafree looks delicately crafted.

…not the lightest on the market, but close, and it offers a lot more performance…

Without the battery, the Forza weighs an acceptable 23.6kg (52lb), putting it mid way between the Powabyke Commuter (27.6kg) and the relatively sylph-like Lafree Twist (18.3kg). But unlike either of these machines, the Forza offers suspension – well, suspension forks and a bouncy seat pillar anyway – so it should really be compared with the Lafree Comfort, which weighs 21.4kg without battery.There’s only a couple of kilogrammes in it, so we’re obviously looking at a fairly skillful weight honing job.

Factor in the battery and the Powabyke weighs close to 40kg, the Forza 29.4kg, and the Lafree Comfort 25.3kg.The Forza isn’t the lightest on the market, but it’s close, and it offers a lot more performance, as we shall see.


ezee-forza-electric-bike-saddleTypical of Far Eastern electric bikes aimed at Germany and the USA, the Forza has a saddle as broad and flat as a dinner plate, with modest height adjustment of 86-89cm, even before the suspension post has sagged under those decadent western buttocks.We did manage to twiddle the saddle up to 96cm by ignoring the ‘max’ warning, but for those lucky enough to sport a slimline Euro-bot, and lovely long legs, this sort of thing is a bit of a joke. It will also more or less guarantee knee damage, should you put any great effort into the pedals. Forza tell us that production versions will come in two frame sizes.

ezee-forza-electric-bikeThe suspension forks and seatpost are not of the best quality, but they do a manful job, coping with most road conditions. Actually, a fair bit of the resilience seems to come from the chunky 26″ x 1.95″ Kenda tyres, which are knobbly on the edges and smooth in the middle, in true ‘mountain-style’.The bike would go further and faster with narrow high pressure tyres, but it might not be so comfortable.

Brakes are a bit of a mixture – V-brakes at the front and Nexus roller brake at the rear. Under perfect conditions, the brakes are well matched, achieving brake force of .75G (front) and .35G (rear). Our concern is that these two very different systems would react differently to wet or icy conditions – something to watch.

Under way without power, the three-speed Nexus hub feels somewhat over-geared at 46″, 62″ and 85″, but with the motor engaged, the ratios are about right. Noise levels are low by hub motor standards – much quieter than the Powabyke, but a little noisier than more expensive designs, such as the Heinzmann.

Thanks to the confusion over the legality of throttle-controlled electric bikes in the UK, Ezee provided us with a bike that could be used in either pedelec (ie, only when pedalling) or full throttle-controlled electric mode.We should also point out that our bike is very much a prototype, and final control specification has yet to be decided.

The pedelec mode proved most unsatisfactory, switching straight to full power after a second or two, and staying there for a while after you stop pedalling.The brakes are fitted with over-ride switches to cut the power, but in practice, this sort of thing is useless in heavy traffic and can take you dangerously unawares during a tight U-turn, for example.

In throttle mode, the bike proved much more controllable, although once the rear- mounted key is turned to the ‘on’ position, there’s no safety cut-out, so inadvertent use of the throttle will set the front wheel spinning.This should be sorted on production bikes, so it would be unfair to dwell too long on this.


The Forza has an unusually large NiMH battery, but at 5.8kg it's one of the lightest. The saddle tips forward for battery removal

Safety grumbles aside, once you’re on the move, the throttle gives a nice progressive response and the motor pulls cleanly from a stand without fuss, getting into its stride from around 8mph, and proceeding with some enthusiasm to 16mph, or as much as 18mph with a fresh battery.

Er, isn’t that illegal? Well, yes and no.When 90% of motorists choose to pass our 30mph-zoned gate at 40mph+ and the police have no intention of stopping them, we’re not going to criticise an electric bicycle doing a modest 18mph are we? Unfortunately, Ezee tell us production machines destined for Europe will incorporate a 15mph speed limiter. Perhaps the EC would like to do the same for cars?


The front hub motor is compact, economical and powerful, and the NiMH battery – although tiny by Powabyke standards – offers an impressive 324 watt/hour capacity in a particularly lightweight package.This battery/motor combination results in a cracking top speed, plenty of mid- range torque, and considerable  endurance.  We completed our 17.6-mile ‘mountain’ course in a record-breaking time of one hour seven minutes, thanks to some superb hill climbs, including a long 12.5% (1 in 8) stretch, cleared at a steady 9mph.The biggest problem with a powerful motor is holding it back, particularly on a bike with only three gears – the technique is to use full throttle until the bike begins to slow, then change down to second and throttle back until you crest the ridge. On full power, the motor will try to storm the hill at a ‘late for work’ pace and the battery will suffer.The problem with hub motors (as opposed to crank-driven systems) is that on really steep hills the motor is working more slowly (and less efficiently) than it would like, so a good general tip is to engage first gear, throttle back further still, and do a little more work yourself.The practical limit in this case is about 17% (1 in 6).

…only two come close…the Powabyke Commuter and the Dawes S-Drive…

Having reached our destination without the slightest hiccup or falter, we turned straight round after a nice cup of tea (thanks gran) and did it all again in reverse. Average speed continued to hover around the 15mph mark (yes, that’s the legal maximum for power assistance), until 26 miles, when the first of two low fuel warning lights popped on during a steep hill climb.The indicator has three lights – green, yellow and red, but green stays cheerfully illuminated until the battery is almost exhausted and red never makes an appearance. By 31 miles the yellow light was permanently on, and the end came quite suddenly at 32.8 miles, covered at a cracking average of 14.8mph with excellent fuel consumption of 9.9Wh per mile. Battery replacement will probably cost in the region of £200, giving an estimated running cost (note, we now include 2p per mile for cycle consumables) of 5.8p per mile.

…the Forza is in a class of its own in terms of speed, range and rideability…

How do the figures compare? Running costs are amongst the cheapest we’ve seen, and about the same as the Powabyke. In terms of range, most electric bikes can scrape up to twenty miles these days, but only two come close to the Forza – the Powabyke Commuter did the same mileage at a slightly lower 14.3mph average, while the long-range version of the Dawes S-Drive (now discontinued) managed 48.9 miles, but at a rather lethargic 13.4mph.


In motor-only mode, the Forza managed a shade under 20 miles on a flattish circuit – about the same as the Powabyke again, and exactly as claimed (35km). If you don’t think that’s remarkable, remember that the Powabyke has a monster 13.4kg battery, but the Ezee battery weighs just 5.8kg… And the average speed (on a wet and blustery spring day) was a consistent 15.5mph for most of those 21 miles, falling to 12mph or so on modest hills and 9mph on a 10% gradient.When the battery eventually expires, the Forza is surprisingly easy to pedal, thanks to a much more rigid frame than the Lafree. Standing out of the pedals is easy on this bike, which is fortunate, because you’ll be doing plenty of it with a 46″ bottom gear. Ezee tell us that production bikes will have the Nexus 7-speed hub as an option – worthwhile if you expect to tackle hills unassisted. But even in three- speed form, the Forza is in a class of its own in terms of speed, range and rideability.



A good equipment package - decent rack, 3- speed hub, dynamo lights and full mudguards

With a 324Wh battery, charging is never going to be quick, but the large battery has been paired with a powerful charger – a neat little fan-cooled unit measuring 19cm x 10cm x 5cm and weighing 1.1kg (half of this in the generous three-metre leads). A 90% charge takes exactly five hours, after which the charger reverts to a low top- up rate till morning. Fast chargers can be inefficient, and this one manages only 50% efficiency, so the process generates quite a lot of heat, consuming 600Wh over the five hours (and 16 watts per hour thereafter). Chargers of this kind should not be left connected for too long – we would suggest a maximum of 15 hours.


Possibly the broadest package of any we’ve tried, although not necessarily the best componentry.The Forza has a useful rear rack complete with traditional spring-thingey, chainguard, substantial but not overly heavy centre stand, basic but acceptable trip computer and a dynamo lighting set.


Front suspension and dynamo lights - all part of the package.

The trip computer works well enough, but if you push the buttons in the wrong order it’s possible to erase everything, which is a bit annoying. It’s also a bit short on functions, offering only speed, elapsed time and mileage, but no average calculation, which looks a bit mean. On the other hand, it’s simple to use and easy to read, and it’s the first standard trip computer we’ve tested, so top marks.

The dynamo lighting system is based on rather crude copies of European products – a shaky-looking bottle dynamo, a neat but remarkably ineffective front lamp, and a workable, but old- tech rear lamp.The dynamo slips and whines for a mile or so until it warms up (and fitfully thereafter), the lamp bulbs look and perform twenty years pre- halogen, and the wiring looks vulnerable at the rear, but it all works, and it’s part of the package.


Our prototype Forza has one or two minor niggles, such as a noisy rear mudguard, and some glaring faults in the control software, but everything else performed well, from the fast compact charger to the lightweight battery and quiet efficient motor.

Weight – both of the battery and the bike – is particularly low, resulting in reasonable economy and sprightly performance.We’re quite convinced that with a few tweaks, the Forza could be a very effective machine indeed.

Should the big manufacturers be worried? If the Forza can sell for less than £700 in the UK, Giant will be under some pressure, but the sheer quality of the Lafree will probably keep it in the top spot. For Powabyke on the other hand, machines as good as this could mark the end of the line.The Forza is (much) lighter and will probably be cheaper. It also looks better, and it offers an impressive list of accessories, from lighting to suspension. Cost, performance and range are about the same, but the Forza recharges in almost a third of the time.Which would you buy?


Ezee Forza £650
Weight Bicycle 23.6kg (52lb) Battery 5.8kg (12.8lb) Total 29.4kg (64.7lb)
Gears Shimano Nexus 3-speed hub
Ratios 46″ 62″ 85″
Batteries Nickel Metal-Hydride
Capacity 324Wh Max. Range Pedelec 32.8 miles Motor-only 19.9 miles
90% charge 5 hours
Fuel consumption Pedelec 9.9 Wh/mile Motor-only 16.3Wh/mile
Running costs 5.8p per mile
Manufacturer (no UK distributor yet) Shanghai eZee Kinetic Technology mail sales@ezeebike.com web www.ezeebike.com fax +86 21 58224040

Letter from America – The Simple Life

letter-from-america-36Henry Thoreau never rode an electric bike – or any other kind of bike, for that matter. He died in 1862, during the American Civil War. Had he lived in our time, no doubt he would have delighted in all the alternatives featured in A to B. He would probably have been a faithful supporter of the magazine, and might have contributed an article from time to time. He would probably have seen that the magazine is about more than bicycles and scooters. It is about sane, sensible living, and he had a few things to say about that subject.

Mr.Thoreau lived almost all of his 45 years in Concord, Massachusetts.That place is sacred ground to Americans who know their history. UK readers may recall that in the 1775-76 era a certain unpleasantness erupted between the troops of King George III and his American subjects. Perhaps Ralph Waldo Emerson described it best in 1835 in his Concord Hymn:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled Here once the embattled farmers stood And fired the shot heard round the world.

Sacred ground or not, Henry Thoreau did not think much of his society. He saw those around him rushing through their lives and doing whatever it took to ‘get ahead’ during the 1840’s and 1850’s, all the while staggering under their burden of debts and obligations. He saw it all, and in his classic book Walden (1854) he observed, ‘The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation’. Later in the book he gave his remedy for all this misery. ‘Simplify, simplify’, he wrote. Mr Thoreau would have been very comfortable with A to B.

Historian David Shi tells us that in the USA there has been a regular shift between periods of excessive luxury and periods of a return to simpler living, which in the early years of the American republic was called republican simplicity.The current name for this return to sane, sensible living is voluntary simplicity.The leading American spokesmen for Henry Thoreau’s ideas today is Duane Elgin. He, in his book Voluntary Simplicity, sees the need to eliminate much clutter and stress from our lives in order to find a life that is, ‘Outwardly Simple And Inwardly Rich’.

Our modern world has given us wealth and convenience beyond the dreams of past generations. It has given us other things, too – workaholism, frantic living, mindless consumption and a never-ending supply of tranquillizers. Something is clearly out of balance, and we would do well to take a close look at how we live.

Mr Elgin’s thoughts are those of Thoreau, updated to reflect the dilemmas of modern life. Like Thoreau, he sees lives of quiet desperation all around him, and like Thoreau, he sees that it does not have to be that way.There are remedies, if we will only adopt them.

A human face for all of this has been supplied by Linda Pierce, a self-described reformed Yuppie lawyer. In 2000, she published the results of her Pierce Simplicity Study, which she titled Choosing Simplicity. It is a survey of 211 Americans: ‘Real people finding peace and fulfilment in a complex world’.

The heart of Ms Pierce’s book is in the responses of these 211 people, 40 of whom were interviewed in depth by telephone. All 211 were invited to fill out the usual forms and check off the usual boxes.They were also asked to add any personal comments they wished about their attempts to find a slower, saner and simpler lifestyle. Most did comment, supplying the author with everything from small note cards to 30-page handwritten letters.

The result of all these efforts provides a fascinating look at people who seem to live largely without quiet desperation. Most live in cities and suburbs, rather than mountain tops. Most have regular jobs and homes or apartments.There is Joe Judge, whose life is quite different from Armando Quintero, whose life is extremely different from Colette Bryant. For all their differences, these people and the rest, report lives of considerable fulfilment. Mr Thoreau might find their accommodations to our modern world a bit odd, but he would probably not quarrel with the results.

There are millions of people all around us who are living differently from the mass of men.You might find it worthwhile to wander into your local library or bookseller’s and meet Duane Elgin and Linda Pierce.They would be pleased to share some thoughts with you. Henry Thoreau will be there too, of course. Modern readers will probably find that his expressions are a bit out of date, and that his thoughts are not. As we all move through these times, it is well to keep in mind an old Chinese proverb:

When the student is ready, a teacher will appear