Tag Archives: A to B 37

A to B 37

A to B 37Not much about bicycles in this issue, but plenty of transport, including supersonic planes, solar power, a brace of electric bikes, child trailers, a recumbent trike, ferries, open-top buses and trains.Yes, it’s true – the Royal Mail will in future be carried by road (although most experts agree it will cost more in the long run). And you can wave a cheque-book at a British railway company all day, but it won’t sell you a ticket to Amsterdam (hardly rocket-science, is it?). Oh, and the railway network now costs four times as much as it did in BR days (yes, in real terms)? It could be worse, but it’s sometimes difficult to see how…

Technical things do pop up in A to B from time to time, and we’ve had a few reminders that the technical bits can be hard to understand. Please don’t give up – there’s a full explanation of G- meters and electrical terminology on our web site. Enter any of the ‘Electric Bike’ pages and click on ‘Technical Things Explained’ at the bottom of the page.

A to B 37 Contents

A to B 37 Blog, August 2003, Party Politics

FIRST PUBLISHED August 2003
Party Politics & Transport, Cyclist Touring Club in Dorset

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A to B magazine, Cyclst Touring Club, River Frome

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

A to B magazine, Cyclist Touring Club in Dorset

The miracle of the single tea-urn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mail by Rail – common sense surely?

mail-by-rail

On 6th June 2003, the Royal Mail announced that it was to dismantle its entire rail distribution network by March 2004, transferring the majority of the business to road.

So what?

According to the Government, the Royal Mail’s choice of transport mode is a purely commercial decision, and moving from rail to road will save tens of millions of pounds a year.We think this is nonsense for a number of reasons:

1) The Royal Mail is not a private company, but a government-owned plc. Not only is it obliged to do as the Government says, but actions taken by the Royal Mail send messages to the rest of us about government policy. Strangely enough, the same Government is committed to an 80% increase in rail freight by 2010. If they are serious, they’d be committed to keeping their own traffic on rail, surely?

2) Following a wide-ranging review of transport options in the early 1990s, the Royal Mail decided it made sense to stick with rail deliveries, investing £170 million in state-of-the- art facilities.The move to road is predicted (by its supporters) to be worth savings of £25 million a year.We should add that the Royal Mail is claiming a figure of £90 million a year, but they would say that, wouldn’t they? But even if these figures are true (and we have every confidence in real terms that they are not) the savings will be cancelled out for many years by the capital expenditure on those now worthless rail facilities.

3) The Royal Mail currently carries 14% of all long-distance mail (including 25% of all 1st Class mail) on 49 trains. According to the transport unions, these trains will be replaced by 500 HGV lorry movements a day – a total of 122,000 vehicle miles per day, or 305 million miles a year.

Why should we care?

…over the last 18 months… 99.9% of Royal Mail services ran, and 93.5% ran to time…

According to the DETR – an arm of government, after all – the hidden ‘external’ cost of heavy goods vehicles is in the region of £28,000 per vehicle/year, but some authorities suggest 50p per kilometre might be nearer the mark.You can look at figures in all sorts of ways, of course, but on this sort of evidence, it would seem reasonable to predict an environmental and social cost of somewhere between £14 million and £244 million a year. In real terms, the cash saving has almost certainly disappeared.

Even if you’re a hardened motorist who couldn’t give a fig for the additional 15,000 tonnes of atmospheric pollution generated by those lorry movements, you’ll probably already have appreciated that from early 2004 the vehicles will be in front of you and behind you, costing you time and money.The same Government that wants freight transferred to rail and atmospheric pollution reduced, etc, etc, has also admitted that road traffic will rise by a third in the next ten years.Why add to the problem?

If you make domestic journeys by air, expect extra delays. At present Royal Mail has the option of air, rail or (tenuously) road for Anglo-Scottish deliveries.These will mostly be carried by air in future.

If you travel by rail, you can bet that fares will rise as a result of this decision.The Royal Mail contract helps to pay for the rail infrastructure the trains use. If it is terminated, those costs will fall largely onto rail passengers.

Thanks to the botched privatisation and consequent patch-ups, bodge-ups and misunderstandings, rail services are currently unreliable and slow (see Mole, page 3), but rail freight company EWS has worked hard to make the Royal Mail contract a success under difficult circumstances. Over the last 17 months, the company claims that 99.9% of Royal Mail services ran, and 93.5% of those trains ran to time.That sounds better than the M25 option, surely?

The A to B angle

We use Royal Mail exclusively, and are a relatively large user, dispatching about 1,500 items a month. As such we receive a lot of surveys from Royal Mail, but three months ago we became a little suspicious that there might be a hidden agenda, when a phone survey repeatedly asked our views on future service reductions. At what level of delivery performance would we switch to another operator? Of course, Royal Mail was well aware that performance would suffer, and it was checking with business customers to see how much traffic might be lost. At present, most A to B magazines are dispatched to major cities from the Bristol rail depot (opened in May 2000 at a cost of many millions of pounds). For the record, we’re very satisfied with performance levels, but they will obviously deteriorate if the 125mph trains are replaced by 60mph lorries.

What can we do?

Sometimes, we’re powerless to intervene, but this is a government matter, and that means your MP is obliged to take note of your views. Our leaders sometimes forget, but that is what democracy is all about.The postal and transport trade unions have established a central web-based information point, enabling you to email or fax your MP in just a few minutes. Simply visit: www.savemailonrail.org.uk

Transferring long-distance mail to road is about as short-term as transport policy gets and the long-term consequences could be pretty unpleasant. In theory, post could return to rail, but in practice, this would be an expensive and complex operation. If we fail to act now, we may regret it for a long time.

Concorde

Concorde

PHOTO: Ryan Hemmings

It might seem strange lamenting the passing of a supersonic aircraft in a magazine devoted to transport alternatives, but as with our first Transport Icon (British Rail’s High Speed Train) Concorde helped to change the way we view travel, genuinely making the world a smaller place. If the supersonic dream really is now at an end, what does it say for the hopes and aspirations of mankind? In 1969, more than thirty years ago, we put a handful of men on the moon, but it seems we’ll never go back, let alone reach for the stars.We also looked forward to commuting around the globe by supersonic aircraft, but today that vision of cheap, convenient transport is looking increasingly unrealistic. Is it all downhill from here?

‘Green’ it Was Not

Concorde is one of the most expensive and polluting modes of transport ever invented, but it’s strangely comforting that a handful of spoilt wealthy folk can take day trips to New York. Perhaps it upholds our dwindling faith in technology; in our ability to do whatever we want if we really want it. In reality, of course, it was Concorde’s very exclusivity that made it viable, even on a limited scale, for had we all been able to travel supersonic, the environmental consequences would have been nightmarish.

Concorde consumes fuel at the rate of one gallon per 17 passenger/miles, squandering anything up to 95 tonnes during a typical flight. If that sounds a lot, it is, but fuel consumption of this order is actually only slightly higher than the cattle-class transporters criss-crossing our skies.

…directly beneath the flight path, windows would shatter and chimney pots quake…

Fuel consumption is greatly increased by reheat – normally found only on jet fighter aircraft – an injection of neat fuel into the exhaust, that (once clear of land) blasts Concorde from its take-off speed of 250mph to Mach 1.7. Cruising speed is around Mach 2, twice the speed of sound or some 1,350mph.Yes, Concorde really does cruise on the edge of space, way above the belt and braces airliners, and 60,000 feet above terra firma. As British Airways likes to put it: ‘Only astronauts fly higher – but they don’t enjoy the same quality of entertainment and luxury…’ They don’t pay their own fares either: A standard return trip to New York on Concorde costs around £8,000 (hurry, there aren’t many seats left). For that, you get rather limited legroom, as much pampering as the crew can achieve given the space constraints, and an arrival time at JFK before you left Heathrow…You will also have done something that only two and a half million others have done in the history of aviation, and you may be one of the last ever to do it.

This all sounds wonderful, but supersonic travel has brought many problems. It’s all well and good accelerating the occupants of a plane to twice the speed of sound as they sip their cocktails and leaf through the in-flight magazine, but for those under the flight path things can get a bit bumpy.

A personal recollection: Living near Weymouth on the Dorset coast, we’d wait every night for the french windows to quake – a barely discernible rumble perhaps, but we lived many tens of miles from those lucky sods slipping effortlessly through the sound barrier above the English Channel. Directly beneath the flight path, windows would shatter and chimney pots quake – sonic booms are tricky things.

Those living near Heathrow will know all about reheat during takeoff too. At low speed Concorde makes a spectacular racket: far louder than anything else in the skies (although the plane is claimed to be no noisier than other first generation jets). But somehow we forgave Concorde all of these sins, because she was a beautiful plane and a deliciously effective A to B machine – a true icon of transport. Mind you, we might have viewed things differently if supersonic airliners were passing every ten minutes bound for the unfinished hotels of the Costa del Sol.

Entente Concordiale?

Concorde began life as a germ of an idea in 1961, when French and British aviation companies pooled their resources to investigate the supersonic option.Then in November 1962 – for all sorts of reasons that had nothing to do with aviation – the politicians came on board and Concorde was off the drawing-board and into the prototype phase. As this was the height of the Cold War, it was perhaps inevitable that President Kennedy should announce the start of a US project seven months later, probably because the Russians had starting work on the Tupolev Tu-144, or ‘Concordski’ as it became known to everyone else.The era of supersonic flight was just around the corner, or so we thought.

‘Concord’ was one of the few names that worked well in both French and English, but the name was to cause major problems as the two countries bickered over that final ‘e’. Eventually, British technology minister Anthony Wedgewood Benn caved in, announcing that the British planes would adopt the French spelling, preserving a sliver of national dignity by adding that the ‘e’ stood for ‘excellence’, ‘entente’, ‘Europe’, or a little tenuously, ‘England’.

…escalating fuel costs and security fears… the world no longer wanted or needed a supersonic plane…

Despite such differences, and the slightly uneven 60/40% airframe construction split in favour of France (we knew more about engines, you see), the race was soon on to launch the first Concorde. Rather disappointingly the laurels went not to France or Britain, but to the Russians, whose hastily assembled, and rather lethal, Concordski took to the skies on 31st December 1968. Concorde 001, the French plane, followed on 2nd March 1969, with the British 002 undertaking a first test flight on 9th April.

It seems hard to believe now, but the Concorde we know today was expected to be no more than a prototype for a family of supersonic airliners, offering improved range and payload with reduced fuel consumption and quieter take-off and landing – a thoroughly modern commercial airliner, in other words.

With the experience gained from the first machine (Concorde ‘A’), it was predicted that relatively modest changes to the engines and the shape and size of the wings would produce some major efficiency benefits, giving a maximum range of some 5,000 miles, making numerous long-haul destinations viable. One thing supersonic aircraft don’t like is floating around slowly, and for Concorde, less than 500mph is a walking pace.This helps to explain its roaring engines and strange nose-up attitude at low speed, necessitating the ‘droop-snoot’ nose to maintain pilot visibility. Unfortunately, low speed flight has become increasingly common as planes stack up to land at busy airports.

Concorde ‘B’ promised an improvement of no less than 41% in the lift/drag equation at low speed, but with sales languishing, and costs escalating, the French and British governments refused to provide further funding, putting Concorde on the long and lonely flight to commercial extinction.The prototype machine never was, and never could be a commercial proposition in the long-term.

Into Profit

The rest, as they say, is history.The fuel price shocks of the early 1970s convinced the Americans to concentrate on more prosaic airliners, and the Russian plane turned out to be impracticable. For Britain and France, so much money and prestige had been sunk into the project, there was no turning back. Concorde eventually entered service with British Airways between London and Bahrain in 1976 – hardly an economic route, but the Americans wouldn’t let it land.The following year, the plane finally gained landing rights at New York, giving at least one viable and cost-effective route, largely over open water. Concorde was making money at last, but only 14 examples ever entered revenue-earning service, and the developments costs were quietly written off.

For the next 23 years the plane performed almost faultlessly, without a single casualty, despite the odd tyre failure and occasional excitement with the engines. In 2000 that all changed, when a punctured fuel tank led to the loss of an Air France plane and all on board. Despite a clever fix that got the remaining planes back in the air, it soon became clear that Concorde’s days were numbered.With escalating fuel costs, and security fears causing a general loss of confidence in air travel, the world no longer seemed to want or need a supersonic plane. Perhaps the long-anticipated communications revolution – video-conferencing and email – has had an effect too? Whatever the reason, the world is certainly a very different place.

The End

Concorde is certified to fly until 2009, but after 27 years of front line service, British Airways and Air France have decided to retire the planes early.Virgin boss Richard Branson has offered to take the planes on, but A to B readers will hardly need reminding of the way his organisation treated our first transport icon.We trust that Concorde will be allowed to fade quietly and with dignity from the transport scene. Concorde. Gone, but not forgotten.

Letters – A to B 37 – Giant Lafree .Mad Dogs . Rail . Sexism

Sexist AND Ageist!

A to B Sexist and Ageist?I really am rather disappointed to read that A to B feels it has to advertise for ‘young ladies’ to be available to act as hosts for the CYCLE 2003 show this Autumn, as per your advertisement.When I first saw this I thought it was a joke but on second reading, you are serious. Perhaps I am getting like Victor Meldrew, as I’m now in my mid-50s but I DON’T BELIEVE IT!

Seriously though, really – you must know that we don’t need to sink to the lowest common denominator when looking for pleasant, helpful and informative hosts at such an event (which is what is really needed, surely). I never thought that such a well written and commendable magazine would feel the need to be both sexist and ageist. Don’t you agree that smartish, pleasant, fairly/quite knowledgeable men and women of all ages would be much more appropriate as hosts at such an event?

Dave Swindells
Hadfield, Derbyshire

Sex and Age,No Barrier!

Having seen your advertisement, I felt I should respond. I have 45 years cycling experience, 20 years of cycle commuting, and I currently own a Bike E,Windcheetah, Saracen ATB, Raleigh Randonneur and a Birdy Black, doing all my own maintenance. I am an early retired university lecturer, 54 years of age, with good communication skills, able to encourage cycling as a viable alternative mode of transport

In order to comply with the selection criteria in your advertisement, I have booked for a full sex change in August, although this may leave me a little tender if bike demonstrations are required. I intend to address the ‘young’ element of your advertisement by having my navel pierced and purchasing low-slung buttock cleavage revealing jeans, which should distract attention away from my greying beard.

Graham Bretherick
Holmfirth,West Yorkshire

Confused readers should turn to the bottom of page 42, issue 36. I have to own up for dropping this ‘advertisement’ in just as the magazine went to the printers. A ‘For Sale’ ad had been withdrawn, and it’s easier to drop in a few lines than adjust the line spacing right down the page. I should add that our normally vigilant proof-reading team didn’t see the offending lines.

The idea (in so far as there was an idea) was to provide a subliminal ‘feel-good’ message for the CYCLE 2003 show, but the ad had a bigger, and less positive, effect than anticipated. One very reasonable objection came from CYCLE, whose Michael Heal made the point that A to B is not taking a stand at the show, so what were we intending to do with the young ladies? In any event, why would we need a bevy of beauties when we have our own wonderful Jane?

This small ad caused more complaints (all from men, incidentally) than the full frontal nudity in issues 15 and 31 (both still available should anyone wish to research further). (David Henshaw)

While We’re on the Subject…

For some time now she’s been missing. In fact the last time we saw her was A to B 33. Where has that graceful lady flowing effortlessly from ‘A’ to ‘B’ gone from your cover? Has the poor woman gone in for a face lift or is she just another victim of the appaling state of the British transport system, and failed to make it to the publishers on time?

I think we should be told.

Steven Brandist
Birstall, Leicester

Our leaping lady was indeed removed from A to B 33 onwards – less quirky corporate image and all that.We’re quite prepared to change our minds, but would we dare put her back? (Eds)

Moving Swiftly to Virgin Trains…

Much as I like trains, British train companies are unfortunately heading the wrong way by eroding their natural space advantage by cramming more and more people into seats which are ‘ergonomically designed’, and therefore guaranteed to be uncomfortable for nearly everyone. Meanwhile, luggage space is shrinking to nothing. I can now get the same uncomfortable space more cheaply on a bus, or have the option to suffer it for less time (and often more cheaply) on a plane. And if you fancy insulation from other travellers, only a car can now provide it. Indeed, television advertisements for cars have started extolling the private personal space and comfort they provide compared to trains. I even saw one sick advert where a train has to stop at a level crossing to allow the ‘superior’ car to go past.

Recently my wife and I planned to take our recumbent tricycle tandem from Stafford to Edinburgh, but discovered this will not be possible because that route is now served by sardine-cans called ‘Voyagers’ which cannot take tandems or tricycles. My requirement may appear unreasonable because the cycle is almost 3.5 metres long and one metre wide, but it splits within minutes into two shorter sections making transport reasonably practical. I have carried it on buses in Saudi Arabia with hardly a raised eyebrow.

Even the cycle-friendly ScotRail is only able to accommodate cycles along the Far North lines in the summer by transporting them by road. Better than not transporting cycles at all, but it does rank alongside other crazy modern railway practices, like carrying train drivers to work by taxi over distances of more than 100 miles.

In Poland I still enjoy long distance train travel in carriages with compartments. My experience of First Class seats on Voyagers is that they’re no more comfortable than a long- distance bus. As for getting my tandem from Stafford to Edinburgh, I hired a van. It was against my principles, less convenient (I had to drive), and it contributed to air pollution, road congestion and the danger to cyclists. For all that it cost me less than the two First Class train tickets I had intended to buy, and it made me wonder if I can continue to justify my preference for rail over other forms of transport within Britain.

Wojtek Kawecki
Dhahran, Saudi Arabia

Thanks for the Info…

I am shortly going to cycle the Trans-Pennine Trail and was looking for information about whether I could take my bike on the train from Rochdale to Southport and return from Hull to Rochdale. I found your site through Google, and just wanted to say how extremely useful it is. I have bookmarked the site and will use it again in future to research getting to the start of other long distance cycle routes. It has all the information I could possibly want all in one place.

Paul Martin
Rochdale

For those who haven’t visited our web site, it’s full of information, including a comprehensive guide to carrying conventional bicycles and folders by National Rail, London Underground, ferries and privately-owned railways.Most of the information, covering the 25 key Train Operating Companies is also available as a leaflet published by Brompton, and available at all staffed railway stations. The A to B web site is at www.atob.org.uk (Eds)

Bus not Rail!

glastonbury-special-train

400 fewer cars - one of the Glastonbury specials fills up after the Festival

‘T in the Park’ (the Scottish equivalent of the Glastonbury Festival) operates coaches from both Edinburgh and Glasgow at ten minute intervals – very different to Glastonbury’s legendary traffic chaos, and coaches shuttling between Castle Cary rail station and the site. Simply another case of the Scots showing the English how to do something properly?

Dave Holiday
Glasgow

The Glastonbury Festival is three times bigger than T in the Park, attracting more than 100,000 visitors, most of whom arrive by car, causing utter chaos. But our public transport system does a remarkable job too:This year, 18,000 travelled by train to Castle Cary, then via the free connecting buses to the Festival. Our guess is that Castle Cary station could handle about 35,000 Festival-goers (a third of all visitors, in other words) given more trains and staff. Incidentally, the best route is train to Castle Cary, then by folding bike via quiet country lanes to nip in the back way, eliminating all queueing. If the organisers will allow us, we intend to provide a cycle route map next year. (Eds)

 

Bike Space Evaporating

I travelled to Normandy from Poole last week.With a limit of five bikes per train on the Wessex Electric services, and no reservations, there must already be problems, but the guards told us that with the new carriages there will be a maximum of two bikes per train, and only one if a disabled passenger needs the space.These carriages are coming into service next year and certainly raise concerns about family travel, for instance.

Mick Gardiner
via email

The guard could well be right, but the good news is that the older Wessex Electric trains will continue to run to Weymouth for the foreseeable future, and these account for half the services to Poole.We think the intention is to put the new trains to work on Southampton and Portsmouth services first. Either way, it’s yet another squeeze on limited bike space. Incidentally, South West Trains has failed to reply to our requests for information – not unusual. (Eds)

Vive la France!

With reference to Dave Minter’s letter in A to B 35. About this time last year I wanted to go to the Floriade display, between Haarlem and Amsterdam, but wished to spend a few days in Antwerp on the way. So I toddled down to Poole Station only to be told that they couldn’t sell me tickets either for the whole journey, or even from London to Antwerp. I pointed out that I had purchased tickets for Bournemouth to Paris a few years previously, so, ‘could I get the required service if I went over to Bournemouth station?’ Answer: ‘No, no longer’. ‘Where can I go then?’ Answer: ‘Try Bath Travel or Thomas Cook’. So, I did, but with equal lack off success; ‘We don’t do that any more’.

This confirmed my opinion that travel agents are probably infringing trade description legislation these days as all they seem to do is to flog packages of holidays without providing any ‘travel’ services. But I was surprised at Thomas Cook, bearing in mind that it produces the excellent European Train Timetable on a monthly basis (at £10 this must be the best value in the whole field of published material!). However, someone at Cooks did mention RailEurope.

At some stage I had obtained a quotation direct from Eurostar on a London to Brussels basis, but after one non-stressful phone call to RailEurope I obtained a ticket from London to Amsterdam (actually out to Antwerp where I alighted, but returning via Amsterdam, at minimal extra cost).

The astonishing thing was that the Eurostar trains both ways were identical to the ones in my earlier quote (dates and times) yet the overall fare through RailEurope was less than the Eurostar quotation for the London – Brussels section alone!

I was so amazed that despite the Europe thing and the existence of the channel tunnel, it had become more difficult to get such ticketing that I wrote to my MP, but she gave the predictable answer that these were private companies now and ‘what can you do?’

Anyway RailEurope got me sorted (tel: 08705 848848, web: www.raileurope.co.uk). I still had to buy a separate return ticket for the Poole to London stage.

Norman Payne
Broadstone, Dorset
normvel.payne@virgin.net

RailEurope is a division of SNCF, the nationally-owned French Railway operator, and has vowed to become, ‘…the consumer preferred choice for buying SNCF and Eurostar tickets and the No. 1 UK seller of rail-based travel and holidays in Europe.’ Remember when the UK had a cohesive national rail operator too? French and German railways seem able to sell tickets to and from any European destination, but only London and Ashford in the UK… Maybe we should invite SNCF to run the British railway system too? Incidentally, Eurostar offers some great deals on its own network, such as London to Avignon for £69 in September or October: see www.eurostar.com (Eds)

Lafreedom

My wife has been finding it too painful on her knees to tackle the hills around us recently, and we had begun to think about an electric bike, when a friend from our local Friends of the Earth group lent me his pile of A to B’s. After reading the favourable comments on the Giant Lafree, (and having already tried and rejected the Powabyke), we set off in search of one.We eventually tracked one down in Hereford and bought it after a brief trial. It proved up to the job of tackling our hills, but produced a horrible squealing of brakes on the way down. After the dealer tried without success to adjust the brakes, he replaced them with better quality Shimanos. Silence! Now my wife waits patiently for me at the top of each hill. She says it’s like being a child again, when all you had to do was get on the bike and go: no great effort and no fiddling with complicated gears. She did complain it made her face ache from grinning too much!

After showing it off to a group of friends on a family ride for Bike Week, one of them borrowed it to try up the impossibly long and steep hill that runs up to his house. It made it, and a couple of weeks later, he too is the proud owner of a Lafree, but he had to go to Hampshire to get one.

At a party last weekend, largely populated by bike riders, the bike was much discussed. It was admired, but there was a definite air of non-approval which compared with the cry of ‘Judas!’ when Bob Dylan also ‘went electric’ for the first time in the 60’s. So beware, buyers, prepare your moral case before admitting to your ownership.

Thanks to A to B for the detailed reviews and an amusing read to boot. So my beloved bike’s a ‘cumbersome’ is it?

Alan Terrill
Minsterley, Shropshire

Bob Dylan makes a rather apt comparison.The cycling world can be painfully conservative, but we’ve found the most vociferous antis are those who make 90% of their journeys by car, with a brisk workout by bike at the weekends. Somehow, that’s OK… it’s a funny old world.

No-one should feel defensive about riding an electric bike – particularly if they suffer from knee trouble. By the way, how about the acronym ‘sparkies’ or ‘sparklers’ for electric bicyclists? Cumbersome sparkies, folding sparkies, recumbent sparkies… (Eds)

End-to-End by Sparkie?

I am finding it difficult to obtain information on power-assisted bicycles in the UK. I want to go from Lands End to John O’ Groats. I was going to do it on an Aprilia Enjoy electric bike, but I don’t think it would have enough range, and when I rode it with the motor off (as I would have to do in the event of a flat battery) it was almost impossible to pedal, even up the slightest slope. So now I want to do it on a petrol-driven bicycle either like the Solex or Sachs. Here in Australia (and most other places) this is considered a bicycle. However in the UK it is something else, (I think they try to keep a straight face and call it a motor vehicle). If this is the case, how do I go about using one of these bicycles in the UK. I could buy one at home, in Europe or perhaps the UK.

Hugh Clark
via email

In Britain, internal combustion-assisted bicycles are covered by motorcycle legislation, so you’ll need a helmet, insurance, MOT and road tax. Unless you have a particular enthusiasm for the genre, you really would be better off with a small moped.

The woefully inefficient Aprilia has now been withdrawn – a relief to us all. But could a better electric bike do the end-to-end? We think the front runner would be the Giant Lafree: (a) it’s easy to pedal unassisted and, (b) it’s light, with a light, compact battery.Three batteries permanently plumbed in (it’s more efficient that way), would give a daily range of up to 70 miles, assuming a ten hour overnight charge, but you wouldn’t want to carry much camping gear… (Eds)

Great Swinging Chaincases

When it comes to ‘evolutionary dead ends’ the shaft drive bikes by Zero and Aurora are much more likely candidates than the admirable Ezee Forza in A to B 36. Shaft drive has been rediscovered every few years since the 1890s and has always failed to catch on for exactly the same reasons. It’s heavy and complicated, gear ratios are virtually impossible to change and it has more friction than a chain drive. Chains also help to absorb road shocks, limiting the unwanted feedback from rough road surfaces to the pedals which has been a problem for shaft drives in the past.

The latest systems may claim to have conquered friction, though it’s hard to see how two sets of skew gears with their associated oil seals and bearings could ever approach a chain drive for efficiency.Weight is clearly going to be a problem, judging by the apparent need for anything up to four chainstays. Previous versions have at least contrived to make the shaft casing substitute for one chainstay. Perhaps Zero could also explain how a simple klaprad with fixed rear triangle ‘compares well with the Brompton in terms of folding’?

suspension-chaincase-motorbike

Some 1950s motorcycles put the chain inside a combined suspension arm/chaincase. Suitable for bicycles?

As usual, the simple answer to the problems of oily trouser legs, dirty chains and rapid transmission wear can be found in any Dutch cycle shop – the fully enclosed chain guard. It’s lightweight, removable for maintenance and friction-free.

If budding engineers still feel the urge to borrow motorised technology, here’s an idea I just cobbled together: 1950s motor scooters pioneered a light alloy casting forming the chaincase and the swing arm of the single-sided suspension. Eminently suitable for bicycles, and it could even weigh less than the chain and seat stays it replaces. For folding it could easily be made  to swing underneath the frame, Brompton-style.

Dispensing with the traditional bottom bracket would leave ample room between the pedals for a multi-speed gear box. Is there any good reason why the output sprocket has to be concentric with the pedals? Variable gearing from the pedals to a separate sprocket could result in an ultra-compact chain drive with 18 or 20 teeth on both the chainwheel and rear sprocket. How about rear swinging arm bearings concentric with the output sprocket, for suspension without chain length variation?

Hugh Martin
Antingham, Norfolk
hughmartin@lineone.net

We agree about the shaft-drive – the good old chain is still king, for all sorts reasons.We don’t know if a hollow swing-arm has been used on a bicycle before, but it sounds perfectly feasible and the chain would last forever. By the way, Zero isn’t responsible for the claim that their folder compared well with the Brompton – that slightly dubious quote comes from the first owner… (Eds)

In praise of Derailleurs

In your review of the Orbit Orion (A to B 36), you criticise manufacturers for cramming more and more cogs into the rear wheel. Personally, I’m a fan, but what I can’t understand is why they keep selling the front derailleurs to ordinary mortals (racers really do need closely spaced gears).

A nine speed cassette now comes with smoothly spaced cogs from 11 to 34-teeth – a range of over 300% which puts all hub gears to shame, and plenty enough for utility cyclists. Moultons and Birdys have been sold with such gearing for ages, but anyone rediscovering a ‘normal’ bicycle still gets bamboozled with more gears and controls than they’ll ever need, or possibly ever bother to work out.

I don’t believe that your wonderful magazine is ‘anti-car’ (I’m not sure if anyone actually is), but you are coming across as distinctly anti-derailleur – shame on you!

Mark Candlish
Caversham

Our main argument against derailleurs is that hardly anyone understands them and uses them properly, particularly once two levers are involved. For most cyclists a hub system really would be better, and the SRAM and Shimano 7-speed hubs gives a range of very nearly 300%, albeit with some friction losses.Yes, a 9-speed derailleur (without front changer) can work well – we particularly liked the SRAM 9-speed on the Bike Friday Crusoe (A to B 25).There are some mild engineering arguments against – principally the rapid wear and (more controversially) reduced efficiency of the small sprockets needed on sub-24 inch bikes. (Eds)

Pavlovian Response

You’ve occasionally published my anecdotes on fitting a Currie electric drive to my ‘workbike’ (now much improved since the importer fitted a decent hub: the original kept snapping spokes) and I thought my latest ‘mods’ might be of interest to readers.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a teacher in a comprehensive school.While my electric bike has caused some interest and fascination with the pupils, its silent approach has caused some problems when crossing the school yard to park.

I tried the standard cycle bell. Unfortunately this is so seldom heard these days that youngsters just don’t take any notice. I tried an enormous (biggest I could find) ‘ding dong’ bell, but with no better results. Finally I taped a Halfords air horn to the frame.This gets RESULTS!!

Now my approach to those blocking my path is a couple of polite ‘ding dong’s’, followed by an almighty ‘BLAAART’ on the horn.This usually results in lots of swearing, diving for the bushes etc, to the point where pupils now ask me to blast the horn just so they can watch their mates jump. But the important thing is that they’re learning to move out of the way, so I rarely need the horn. It’s a bit like Pavlov and his dogs really – they’ve learned to respond to ‘ding dong’ to avoid the pain of ‘BLAAART’!

John Rutter
Hartlepool

Security Weakness

With a veritable plethora of new electric machines coming on the market, perhaps you could comment on the security aspect of these bikes, in particular, the batteries. I seriously considered an electric cycle some months ago, but as it would have meant leaving it on a cycle rack at Surbiton station all day, I was a bit worried about having bits filched from it – the battery mainly.The only cycle with a battery that appears to incorporate a moulded-in handle (thus capable of having a security cable passed through it) is the Powabyke. Some others do appear to be locked in place, but this is not necessarily commented on in your tests, and neither is the security of said locking arrangements.

As for a folding bikes, it’s obviously best to carry it with you, but there are times when you have to leave it chained to something. Perhaps I am paranoid, but if I leave the Brompton unattended for any length of time I remove the frame clamps. Manufacturers should be persuaded to offer decent built-in security or discounted locks with new cycles.

Ashley Needham
West Molesey, Surrey

Batteries are generally quite well protected, with locks on all of the major machines, although not many would deter a vandal or thief for very long. But we think the Giant Lafree and Viking are the only bikes with cycle locks fitted as standard.One alternative is to buy a grotty-looking old Powabyke, but the only real answer is bike lockers, and these are starting to appear.We’re told that secure bike storage is being considered for stations in the Surbiton area. (Eds)

Mad Dogs & Englishmen

I have done some travelling with a folding bike in Taiwan and intend to go back soon. Has anyone discovered how to deal with the problem of semi-wild dogs? It seems that dog ownership has now spread to Asia, and the animals are breeding and living in the suburbs of towns along the coast lines. Packs of four or five will close in on a cycle in an alarming hunting mode. An airline brochure carried an article about this problem and suggested ‘forcing its head into the ground’. Fighting with wild dogs is surely out of the question?

Peter Rawlin
Bath

We’ve recently received a sample personal alarm.Would this piercingly loud alarm make a practical dog deterrent, we wonder? See what you think – Radio Shack, Catalogue number 49-417. (Eds)

Priorities…

Browsing through Calderdale Council’s website today, I note that the following vacancy attracts a considerably higher rate of pay than that of a Calderdale Council Road Safety (including cycling) Trainer, which is £5.45p per hour:

Models – Post No ED098
£6.91p per hour (unclothed)
£6.59p per hour (clothed)

Applications are invited from persons interested in joining a pool of ancillary staff who are called on from time to time to support Adult & Family Learning at venues throughout Calderdale…Travel expenses would be paid…

Mieszek Konrad-Kosicki
Halifax

We suggest Calderdale employs the unclothed models to teach road safety, thus improving wages and increasing attendance at a stroke. (Eds)

The Final Word

In which you get your say… briefly

The best – no doubt! Excellent magazine . A delight to receive and a pleasure to read The astutely critical tone is refreshing . Sensible and thoughtful . A wonderful read As welcome as the monthly pay cheque . Should be monthly . I laughed so much I nearly fell off my chair . Look forward to it . A treat . Don’t change anything . Some of the best things come in small packages . I don’t need a folder or electric bike, but I love your style How about an article on touring by electric bike? Could you cover Moulton bikes too? More on folder expeditions, improving brakes and adapting gears . More on rail and trikes All power to your cranks . Just keep churning it out . Shine on, crazy diamonds!

Solar PV Panels

Solar Powered Bicycle – The Results

Professor PivotSolar Power Results

Readers may recall the launch of my solar vehicle experiments in the last issue. At the time – having made a number of purely theoretical calculations – I concluded that a 20 watt solar panel might just be viable on an electric bicycle. In the event, for reasons of panel size and cost, it was necessary to settle on a pair of five watt panels, reducing the potential gains, but keeping the apparatus down to a manageable size.Why two panels? It’s simply that most small solar panels provide a 12 volt output, but the Lafree (the subject of my experiment) is, like many other electric bicycles, 24 volt, requiring two smaller panels connected in series.

Fitting solar panels to the bicycle brings a number of advantages: greater range, a less traumatic life for the battery (thanks to the constant trickle charge, reduced peak loading, and ‘shallower’ charge cycle), plus greater efficiency, because of the direct motor supply. Batteries are around 90% efficient when charging and much the same when discharging. That’s pretty good as these things go, but a direct supply will still give a bonus.

The disadvantages are the weight and cumbersome nature of even the smallest panels, and the potential screening effect of roadside buildings and trees, the rider, and of course vehicle orientation. In other words, if the panels are not angled towards direct sunlight for most of the journey, there is little point in carrying them around.

Static panels are remote from the vehicle, so range is unimproved. On the positive side, the panels can be positioned to capture most of the available solar radiation from dawn to dusk and they’ll charge all day, every day, and even in the rain, when the bicycle might be under cover. A spare battery is not obligatory with this system, but it does mean charging can be undertaken continuously – more effective if the bicycle is away for most of the day.

The Roof Option

After a few measurements, and long hours weighing up the options, it became clear that even the smallest solar panels would be unsuitable for use on a conventional bicycle that has to be wheeled through narrow gaps, leant against shop windows, dumped on the ground, and so forth. A recumbent trike would be a different proposition, of course, and I hope to investigate this option in a later issue.

The A to B long-term test Lafree spends most of its life towing a trailer.The roof of a child trailer would make a good location for solar panels, but one would need to plug and unplug the panels whenever the trailer was connected, and charging would not be possible while riding solo.Trailer mounting could make sense for a long hilly touring holiday, or for a commercial bike/trailer outfit left connected all day, but not for typical ‘school-run’ or commuter applications.

…a roof of this size receives a steady eight kilowatts of power from the sun…

Taking all these factors into account, it became clear that static ‘base station’ panels were the best option, and such was the persuasiveness of this argument that no attempt was made to rig the panels to the bike or trailer, even on a temporary basis.

In this case, we were fortunate to have a building aligned east-west, giving eight square metres of south-facing roof at 20 degrees to the horizontal.That’s a good compromise in British latitudes, although a steeper angle would be more productive in winter, and a flatter roof slightly more efficient in summer.

A roof of this size receives a steady eight kilowatts of power from the sun on a bright day, which could generate around 800 watts, working on our 10% efficiency formula from the last issue. But would our tiny five watt panels provide enough power?

solar-powered-bicycle-1The answer depends on the time of year, the amount the bicycle is used, and the cloud cover.The solid line on the graph indicates solar charging on a typical June day. Recorded just a week before the summer solstice, daylight hours are obviously very long, although one should not assume that solar radiation is necessarily stronger in June than at other times in the summer.

Note that the panels begin to provide a small charge well before sunrise, and continue to work after sunset, albeit at a low rate of charge.The real current flow begins when the sun first strikes the panels at 9am, climbing rapidly to peak at 2pm, before falling equally rapidly until 6pm. Note the pronounced troughs in production during the afternoon, when the sun is obscured by passing clouds. Readers will hardly need reminding that this is a fairly typical pattern in the United Kingdom, as clouds bubble up in the heat of the day.

Solar PV PanelsIn ideal conditions, we can expect our two 5 watt panels to produce about 70 Watt/hours (Wh) of electricity, and in practice, our representative English early summer day produces just under 60 Watt-hours. One could expect to do a little better, or much, much worse, according to conditions. Angling the panels to follow the sun would produce a little more power, but certainly not enough to justify the complication involved.

Sixty Wh is not much, but it’s enough to propel the efficient Lafree for about seven miles with gentle pedal-assistance. In other words, if your daily range does not exceed that amount (or, for example, 14 miles every second day), a ten watt power station should keep you moving in fine summer weather without the need to plug into the mains supply.

Our test bike travels further than this – about ten miles four days a week towing a child trailer (an effective solo mileage of 13.3 miles per day), plus smaller variable distances on the other three days, so a conventional supplement is required.

And the weather is not always fine! The figures below cover a typical 16-day period in late June. Early summer 2003 will be remembered as a very dry period, but cloud cover was about average, so the figures can be regarded as typical:

Average Daily Mileage Daily Conventional Charge Daily Solar Charge Solar Charge %
9 miles* 28Wh 36.6Wh 57%

* The actual mileage of 6.8 miles per day has been multiplied by 1.33 to make allowance for the trailer. Nine miles would be a more realistic solo mileage.

In the summer, and with modest mileage, this basic system works well. By doubling the number of panels, we could either produce 100% of our power requirements, or double our daily mileage. Conventional rigid roof-panels are somewhat cheaper than the flexible panels we have used in this experiment, so for example, £300 should buy two 12 volt, 15 watt panels, providing a surplus of power under most conditions.

Rather than directly charging an expensive spare electric bike power pack, another option is to charge a cheap-and-cheerful 12 volt car battery direct from a single 12 volt panel, topping up the bike power pack through an inverter, which converts the 12 volts from the panel to 240 volts to run the conventional charger, which converts it back to the voltage used by the bicycle. One large panel is cheaper than two small ones; a second bike battery is unnecessary; and the car battery provides capacity of 500 watt/hours or more to carry the system through gloomy days. However, the efficiency of this multi-stage operation can prove alarmingly low, and there’s the extra cost to consider.

A 30 watt solar power station will cost around £300 for the solar panel and regulator, plus £100 for a basic car battery and inverter. In fine weather, such a system would easily generate enough power to give a daily solar range of 20 miles or more.This would also be the best solution for charging a 36 volt machine such as the Powabyke, for which three 12 volt solar panels would be too expensive and cumbersome. Note, though, that the Powabyke is a less efficient machine, so mileage would be rather less.

The Bottom Line

Sceptical readers may have noticed the accent on weather conditions throughout this article.The problem is that a ten watt panel will indeed provide a peak output of ten watts and a mean figure of five watts or so on a sunny day in June. But on an overcast day, these figures can be halved, and in really grim weather – even in high summer – output can fall to 20% of the rated figure, or even less. Note our average daily figure of 36.6Wh, which equates to about 3.6 watts over ten hours. And don’t expect to save any money: our ten watt system might produce eight kilowatt/hours per year, but at a cost of over £2 per Kwh (compared to £0.06 from the mains), assuming a ten-year panel life.

But if you have a hankering to run a solar vehicle, the means is clearly available.The Lafree/solar panel combination is relatively cheap, simple to use, and should provide 1,000 solar miles a year, even in temperate Britain, although we have yet to verify the winter figures… Despite all the talk of sustainability, no other vehicle or power system can match this sort of result for such a modest outlay.

Solar panels, inverters and other equipment are available from a number of specialist suppliers, principally yacht chandlers, such as Compass Watersports: www.compass24.com A guide to watts, amps and volts can be found on our web site: www.atob.org.uk

Leggero Twist

leggaro-twist-bicycle-trailer-1Child trailers come in all shapes and sizes, but the basic layout doesn’t vary much, with the majority being more or less based on early US examples, such as the Winchester. That means 20-inch wheels, a tubular frame of steel or aluminium, according to price, and a yellow and/or blue fabric cover.

The Leggero Twist, from Swiss manufacturer Brüggli, comprehensively breaks the mould.The Twist is built on a plastic shell, with a combination of steel and aluminium tubes forming a strong chassis and roll cage. For rainy days, a ventilated plastic cover clips over the top and sides, but in normal use there’s just an opaque flyscreen with open sides.

leggaro-twist-bicycle-trailer-2Although unusually tall, at 95cm overall, the Twist has a reasonably low seat height of 27cm and wide track of 84cm – a ratio of around three to one, making stability about average.While we’re toying with dimensions, the interior is 60cm wide, and provides some 63cm of headroom. It’s one of the roomiest designs we’ve seen and a comfortable ride for a pair of four-year-olds.The makers suggest that two five-year-olds can be carried, and for once, we’d say that was a reasonable claim.

Alexander, who knows a thing or two about trailers, was impressed with the fact that you climb in the side and sit in the Twist, rather than having a cover pulled down around you.Visibility is good too – the size and large  windows making most child trailers look distinctly claustrophobic. Occupants are restrained by a pair of three-point harnesses, with a spare centre buckle, enabling a larger single child to sit cuckoo-like in the middle.The impression is of a substantial safety cage – plastic shell below, and roll bars above.

…engineers will blanch in terror… the wheels are secured by one frail little allen bolt…

All this size and sophistication adds weight, but at 14kg the Twist is no heavier than average (for some reason, Brüggli claims a weight of 15kg, but our scales never lie).Where it loses out to most other designs is that folding involves at least 15 minutes wielding an Allen key, and for the space saved it’s barely worth the effort, so you need a lot of room to store it.

The tyres are yet another 37-406mm design called Mountain Tread, and they look just as one might expect. All we can say about their performance is that a tread-free centre section helps to keep noise down, they seem to roll fairly well, and they can be inflated to 70psi should conditions demand it.

Styling

leggaro-twist-bicycle-trailer-wheel-nut

This Allen bolt can drop out, allowing the wheel to come loose

It’s probably fair to say that the Leggero Twist is the most attractive trailer we’ve seen. In styling terms, it could be straight off the Terrence Conran drawing board (and may be so for all we know).The Twist comes in a variety of fruity opalescent colours, including blue, orange, lime green and yellow, with the sculpted curves of the plastic shell, the safety flag and even the go-faster hub caps colour coordinated.The effect is very striking.

Although a neat styling exercise, the hub caps have no more effect on the drag coefficient at 15mph than the go-faster colour scheme, and being secured by three little plastic widgets, they’re a devil of a job to get on and off.You shouldn’t need to do this too often because the bearing centre bolt is accessible through a little hole, and this single bolt removes the whole wheel assembly, making tyre repairs easy from behind.

leggaro-twist-bicycle-trailer-3

Goggles are optional, but without sidescreens heads and fingers must be kept inside - the wheel is very close

Engineers will blanch in terror at the thought, but the wheels really are secured with one frail little Allen bolt, and there’s no safety catch, locking compound or lock washer. On our loan bike – bought by mail order and assembled at home – one of the bolts had escaped in a few tens of miles, allowing the wheel to drop down but not quite off, thank goodness.We’d suggest Leggero looks seriously at a redesign here – either a quick-release hub cap, or a safety system securing the centre bolt.

Talking of safety, the hitch is only so-so. Like numerous cheapo jobbies, the Becco hitch involves clamping two steel plates around the rear triangle of your bike frame, so odd-shaped folders need not apply.The trailer attaches via a plastic thingy that engages with a similar shaped thingy attached to one of the plates.There’s a safety strip too, but it’s a bit slow to remove and refit. Against the world-beating Burley axle-mount we’re familiar with, it’s all rather cumbersome, but safe enough. Wealthy types can purchase the Twist with the more sophisticated Weber system, and that’s so good it needs no safety strap. Or so the manufacturers tell us.

Conclusion

When we first saw the Leggero Twist a few years ago, it cost the best part of £400 – much as one might expect. Leggero also produces the Cuatro, a single-child version that sells in Europe for E740 or £525. Sadly, neither has caught on here.The Cuatro never arrived, and Orbit Cycles is selling its remaining stock of Twists at £145 apiece – a great bargain. Even when the discounted trailers have gone, we think the Twist is good value for the current retail price of around £250. Provided you can live with a non-folding trailer, this unusual example is tough, practical and supremely stylish. Even if Switzerland is out of your price bracket, you can at least afford the trailer.

Thanks to Julia and Joseph Rice for the loan of the Leggero Trailer

Specification

Leggero Twist £250 approximately
Weight 14kg (30.8lb)
Maximum Load 60kg (132lb)
Dimensions Overall Width 84cm Overall Height 95cm Seat Width 60cm Headroom 63cm
Tyres Li Hsin Mountain Tread 47-406mm
UK Importer Two Plus Two tel 01273 480479 web www.twoplustwo.co.uk
Manufacturer Brüggli web www.leggero.com mail leggero@leggero.com

Giant Lafree Sport

Giant Lafree at 2,000 miles

giant-lafree-electric-bike-at-2000-milesRegular readers will know that we purchased our Giant Lafree primarily to undertake a regular play-school run. Barely three miles away, the school was some 50 metres higher than A to B Towers – a gentle climb riding solo on a spring morning, but a serious challenge towing a trailer into an icy headwind in February.

It would be no exaggeration to say that the Lafree proceeded to change our lives, just as the train-friendly nature of the Brompton had done almost a decade before. Overnight, the school run went from drudgery to almost unadulterated pleasure: faster and more consistent under all conditions.That’s not to say that the daily dollop of exercise wasn’t there, but the amount you got was more under your control. If you feel like a bit of a workout, you can turn the power off or (more usually) do the muscle-thing plus power and arrive when the neighbours were still strapping their kids into the car.The Lafree door-to-door journey time was a consistent 12 minutes, which compares well with a car over this sort of distance.

Talking of cars, an unexpected bonus with this sort of bike is the ability to drop someone off at the station. If one of us is travelling by train with Alexander, and doesn’t want a bike at the other end (or to lock one up at Castle Cary), one adult rides to the station on a Brompton, while the other tows the trailer with the Lafree. At the station, the Brompton is folded into the trailer for the haul home, and the exercise is repeated later in the day to bring everyone home. It’s an easy, quick and economical solution, but only really practical with a power-assisted bike if hills are involved.

Inevitably, the Lafree has found all sorts of other uses too – mainly absorbing the hard slog of ten- to twenty-mile cross-country jaunts, and carrying A to B magazines to the post office, but also for those nip-to-the-shop journeys where the consistent speed and load- carrying abilities are welcome.The trailer hitch (previously fitted primarily to the ‘mountain-drive’ Brompton) hardly ever leaves the Lafree these days.

We’ve covered 2,000 miles in ten months.With the benefit of hindsight, were our earlier test reports (A to B 27 & 31) fair? We’d say a little harsh. After initial bedding-in of brake rollers and chain, day-to-day maintenance has involved no more than occasional brake adjustments and tyre pressure checks.We’ve had only two punctures in the year, which is better than average on our thorny country roads, and the chain has been oiled only once, despite daily use in all weathers. Apart from adjusting the bearings on the Nexus hub and tightening the clamp on the sprung seat post (both bedding-in adjustments), everything else has survived without so much as a tweak.

Failures have been rare: both the inner-tube valves were faulty, snapping off during routine maintenance, which meant new tubes.We chose car type ‘Schraeder’ valves, as they’re compatible with our other bikes, which meant drilling the Presto-equipped rims to suit.

Removing the front wheel pulled the wires from the rather tacky connector block on the Nexus hub dynamo – a fault which inevitably only became apparent after dark and proved impossible to fix until daylight. Otherwise, the auto-lights have been superb, although the front continues to turn on a little late in the evening.Throughout the winter, we kept it on all the time, leaving the more reliable rear light switched to ‘auto’.

giant-lafree-electric-bike-at-2000-miles-2

The Esge stand is much better than the original

Despite trudging back and forth in all conditions, from well below freezing with two inches of snow and black ice, to a 32C furnace in July, the power system has worked well.The only fault on the bike has been dirty battery contacts, but a gentle clean solved the problem and it never recurred.The battery charger has fared less well, telling us with increasing regularity that the charge was complete when it clearly wasn’t. The charger was eventually replaced under warranty at eleven months.

Upgrades and Adaptations

Upgrades have been few and far between. An Esge dual-leg stand proved to be an excellent purchase, as the original simply wasn’t up to the job. Fitting a decent stand has made a rack-mounted child seat practical, so we could now tow and carry up to three children, should that, ahem, ever be necessary.The Esge is one of the best stands on the market and available in several sizes. Inevitably we ended up with the wrong one, so our advice is ‘buy long and cut to suit’. If you find the stand too short (the rear wheel should be just clear of the ground), it’s possible to drill and tap the legs to accept steel feet – a neat solution.

…enthusiastic cyclists faced with heavy loads or daunting hills will come to love this bicycle…

A Brompton pannier mounting solved luggage carrying (see A to B 35) and we fitted an oversize reflective rear mudflap to reduce mud spray over and into the trailer.

We’ve also found a second battery invaluable.This extends maximum range to a shade under 40 miles (30% less with a trailer on tow) and provides useful insurance on those mornings when you discover that the battery wasn’t plugged in the night before…

Any downsides? Range could be better, but it’s adequate for most things.We’ve also noticed that the bike is a bit sluggish on colder mornings, but aren’t we all? Incidentally, in cold weather, it’s a good idea to charge the battery indoors and fit it just before departure. One of the many automatic systems shuts the charger down below 0 C.

A common question is how often should the battery be ‘refreshed’? This option gives the battery a gentle and complete discharge before restarting the charge process. Giant suggests refreshing the battery every month, when something odd happens, or when range begins to suffer.We have settled on a regular refresh charge every two or three months, which seems to have kept things running nicely.

NiMH batteries are claimed to have a life of 500 to 1,000 charges. In the first nine months, our primary battery was charged 115 times and the spare 30 times, giving a mileage per charge (not all full charges, of course) of 9.3 miles. At this rate, we would expect the battery to fail at a little under 5,000 miles, or two and a half years. Continued observation will be difficult because of the solar charging system (see page 19), and also because Alexander has moved to the village school, which is well within walking distance.

There’s only one adaptation we would like to make to the Lafree – more gears. It’s a pleasant bike to ride unassisted, but a bottom gear of 45″ is just too high.With the trailer attached, the maximum assisted gradient is barely 1 in 7 with quite a bit of effort – lower gearing would make load-hauling much more practical.With the assistance of Sturmey Archer, we’re fitting a 5-speed hub and will report back in A to B 38.

The Future

So what will become of the Lafree? An interesting question.The bike is bound to see less use, but we may try some longer solo rides while Alexander is at school.Wells is 14 uppy-downy miles to the west and Sherborne, 13 equally hilly miles east – both would normally be a serious trek for a visit to friends, swimming baths, museum, or a concert, but safely within spare battery range for the Lafree. Are we getting lazy? The truth is that in the eight years prior to the arrival of the electric bike, we visited Wells once and Sherborne two or three times.Those young, carefree days when the sun always shone and every journey had a following breeze are pure fantasy.Today, with electric assistance, these towns have become relatively straightforward destinations.

An advantage of the growing Lafree population is that we now have friends and relatives nearby with the same bike, so it’s possible to go visiting without a charger or spare battery, and still top-up the battery for the journey home.

If you’re looking for gutsy muscular assistance, a Giant Lafree probably isn’t for you, but more enthusiastic cyclists faced with heavy loads or daunting hills will come to love this anonymous-looking bicycle just as we have.The Lafree has broken through into the cycling world in a way that other electric bikes have failed to do, and – like the Brompton – it’s fast becoming the transport professionals preferred car-free mode of transport. It isn’t cheap, but the Lafree is still the best electric bike there is.We recommend it.

For further information, contact Giant UK tel 0115 9775900 web www.giant-bicycle.com

kmx-recumbent-trike-braking

KMX Recumbent Trike

kmx-recumbent-trikeIt’s a common grumble amongst cycle-minded parents that children’s machines are largely unfit for purpose. Childrens bicycles tend to be crude MTB or BMX-style machines, garishly painted with trick non-functional suspension and a total weight in the almost unliftable region. Sadly, the accent – as with most bicycle-related activities in the UK – is on leisure, rather than practical A to B travel.Touring bikes and get-to-school machines are almost unknown for little people, which is a shame because you’re unlikely to get enthusiastic about riding a bike to school, shops, college and so on if you’re using the wrong tool for the job.The KMX Kart does nothing to improve the situation, because in form and function, it’s about as leisure-orientated as they come, but it’s different, and it might just help to break the mould, demonstrating that alternative and much more interesting HPVs exist.

…girls are excluded…and statistically unlikely ever to turn a pedal again…

What you get is a sharply-styled recumbent trike, broadly reminiscent of adult machines such as the Trice or Windcheetah, but built down to a realistic price tag of £350.We found the trike an instant hit amongst 12 year old boys, as one might expect, but also with younger children, and girls in particular – half the population, and largely excluded from the macho BMX cycling world. As a youngster excluded from BMX is statistically unlikely ever to turn a pedal again (very much the pattern for girls these days) we were interested to see if the KMX could help.

One very positive thing about the company is that although the advertising is inevitably aimed at 12-14 year old boys, girls have not been forgotten, thanks to the influence of designer Barry Smith’s daughter Jodie, for whom the initial prototype was designed.

What is it?

KMX is a new and small British business.The first trike was developed in a garage five years ago, and the company has gradually grown in size and ambition since then.The aim was to produce a junior fun machine in small batches, but one thing led to another and a trip to Taiwan yielded a mass-production deal and ambitious plans to sell 900 karts in the first year.

Far-Eastern manufacture may have brought the price down, but inevitably quality has suffered. For £350 you shouldn’t expect Windcheetah-style engineering, and you don’t get it.The KMX weighs a hefty 15.9kg (35lb), largely because it’s based around chunky BMX componentry and a crudely-welded and immensely solid steel frame.You can be confident that little Jimmy won’t appear in floods of tears on Day One because something crucial has dropped off, but for youngsters the KMX breaks the first A to B rule: never ride something you can’t lift.

Gearing is 5-speed Shimano SIS: as basic as they come, but chunky and reliable like everything else on the machine. Range is 30″ to 60″ which, as compromises go, is more or less perfect, giving a reasonable cruise of 12-14mph.

In recumbent terms, a machine with two wheels at the front and one at the rear is termed a ‘tadpole’ – we’re not sure why, but the recumbent folk love their terminology. It also comes with USS, or Under Seat Steering, as opposed to ASS, an acronym that should be self-evident. USS means keeping your hands down by your sides, but it leaves the trike admirably uncluttered and gives direct and reliable steering.

The wheels are nicely scaled down versions of the 26″ rear x 16″ front you might expect to find on dad’s trike.The rear is a chunky 20″ x 1.95″, with a pair of 12″ x 1.75″s on the front.The tyres are a bit dubious, and sit very untidily on the rims, but the names roll off the tongue like wayside halts on the Yangtze river: Lien Fu (rear) and Horng Fortune (front). Slips and slides are frequent, but a lack of grip is arguably a safety feature, because where quality rubber might dig in and flip the machine, the Horng Fortunes scrub over the surface in a safe and controlled manner. In extremis, the KMX understeers gently and predictably, cornering at considerable speed. Rolling resistance is high, but offset by the low wind-resistance to give an acceptable figure of 13mph on our test hill. Better than most BMX bikes, one would assume.

In popular mythology, trikes have a tendency to lift an inside wheel when cornering, but the KMX is so low (15cm at the seat) and wide (62cm) that you have to work very hard to do it. And that despite one or two inexperienced pilots leaning enthusiastically the wrong way into fast corners. Cornering isn’t something parents need to worry about, but there are plenty of more legitimate worries, such as the brakes.

For a while after the trike arrived we wondered why the kids were doing such skillful ‘handbrake turns’.They weren’t – they were just trying to stop.The brake system is rather interesting – a conventional V-brake on the back (including a useful and effective parking brake) and a pair of rather dodgy Chinese band brakes on the front.These look neat, but they bind, squeal, rub and don’t work if you’re rolling backwards. Ironically, they’re safer in the wet because a good dousing in water cures most of the problems, provided the water is evenly distributed between the two wheels, of which more below.

With little weight over the rear (just 20% with the seat forward), the single V-brake locks the rear wheel at a mere 0.2G, producing some entertaining skids. Conversely, with 80% of the weight above the front wheels, a modest front brake application will lift the rear wheel at 0.4G, threatening to dig the chainring into the road, and with such a short wheelbase, this all happens very quickly.

The crude band brakes ...

As is often the case with a ‘tadpole’ recumbent, the front brakes must be carefully balanced by hand, because if one of the bands grips slightly before the other, the machine will spin, particularly if the rear wheel is close to locking up anyway.The same occurs in the wet if you hit a puddle that throws water into one brake. It’s all made worse by the long travel, lack of ‘feel’ and ferocious grip of the front bands. if you buy a KMX, carefully chamfering the leading and trailing edges of the bands will improve matters, but nothing can cure the problem.

kmx-recumbent-trike-braking

...and poor weight distribution make ‘stoppies’ a common occurrence

The strange braking behaviour proved the biggest headache for our moderately experienced bicycle-owning test gang, and we’re not convinced that any of them really got to grips with the finer points of brake control.Three- wheeled machines need care anyway, but the quixotic band brakes, excessive nose weight and short wheelbase make the KMX a bit of a handful for newbies. Immensely entertaining if you’re mucking about in a car park, but not very helpful under ‘real’ road conditions. KMX is currently working on an adult machine, but we’d rather see a less skittish ‘touring’ version for children. Proper drum or roller brakes, longer wheelbase and front suspension would transform the trike.There’s room for rear panniers too, incidentally.

…the KMX will fit almost anyone from six to 60, provided they’re no taller than 5′ 2″…

Adjustment

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As Alexander demonstrates, a four-year-old can ride the KMX with the support of a car 'booster' seat

Both the seat and boom can be adjusted, giving a seat base to bottom bracket dimension of 59cm – 77cm, or anything up to 83cm with a few extra chain links and a bit of fiddling.The instructions don’t make it very clear, but we’d suggest that for all but the very smallest riders, the seat should be positioned as far back as possible, and a comfortable leg length found by adjusting the boom. Adjustment is not helped by the fact that there are no stops. If the seat is pushed too far forward, the base fouls the chain tube, squeezing it against the right-hand steering joint and knocking the chain off on corners. If the seat is pushed too far back, the mudguard rubs on the rear tyre.You soon learn the limits, but it can be annoying for those new to such things.

KMX suggests the trike is suitable for children from eight to 14, but both of our eight-year-olds were riding with the saddle up against the steering joint (ie, too far forward for stability), whereas at full stretch we easily squeezed an adult on board.With a queue of small people waiting to ride, we decided to cut 30mm (KMX suggest 25mm) off the boom and shorten the chain, which helped put everything in reach. Incidentally, when extending the boom, don’t pass the point where the end  of the boom is visible in the hole at the inboard end  of the clamp cutout (well, it makes sense when you’re looking at it).This will leave a nice safe 75mm overlap.With the 30mm mod, a six- year-old can ride the machine, and an eight-year-old should be comfortably inside the fitting envelope. Small boys of four would be fine with a seat extension and shorter cranks – something we rigged up by way of experimentation, just to show that it’s possible.The 165mm BMX cranks cause problems for most children under ten and result in older children hitting their heels on the ground. Quite why such a tiny tricycle has been fitted with adult cranks is a mystery. KMX is considering fitting 150mm cranks in future, and that’s something we’d very much welcome.

Children come in a bewildering variety of shapes and sizes, but the KMX will fit almost anyone from six to 60, provided they’re no taller than 5′ 2″ or thereabouts.This adaptability might explain the attraction for girls, who tend to have longer legs than boys in their pre-teen years and can look somewhat ungainly on a BMX bike, which is better suited to those of a more Neanderthal build.

Talking of cave dwellers, KMX suggest a weight limit of 60kg (132lb or 9 stone), but we exceeded this by 20kg without the slightest grumble from the machine. As we’ve said, it’s pretty tough.

On the road

kmx-recumbent-trike-5The KMX is a wind-cheating recumbent and – within the limitations of a 60″ gear and so-so tyres – deceptively fast. On modest downgrades, the KMX rapidly gathers pace into the 20+mph zone, even into a blustery headwind.Twenty mph may not sound much, but when you’re this close to the ground, it seems a lot faster, an impression heightened by the quick and responsive steering. At higher speeds, pilotage can get a bit hairy on ‘typical’ road surfaces – bumps being a big problem, with even minor pot-holes threatening to dislodge you from the seat.The sort of small kerbs that give a minor jolt on a bicycle will send kids bouncing out of the KMX, feet flailing the air.This is partly the result of having to relearn all the techniques for bump control that we instinctively learn on a bicycle, but it’s also an inherent disadvantage with 12″ tyres. Rough ground is not their forte.

Hill climbing is, perhaps, the weakest link of all.We’ve never heard a satisfactory explanation for the poor hill-climbing abilities of recumbents.Whatever the reason (or reasons), the KMX is reduced to a disappointing crawl on the sort of gradient that would barely affect a conventional bike, and the smiles and whoops of the descent are soon forgotten.We’d suggest a gentle start so as not to put the child off, before gradually introducing more challenging terrain. Riding a recumbent uses different muscles, so don’t give up if it seems hard work at first.

Another problem for ‘serious’ cycling is the lack of weather protection.The KMX has a vestigial rear mudguard designed to funnel every drop of water down the back of your neck, and there are no guards on the front.We couldn’t get anyone to ride it in seriously wet weather, but you’d obviously be in for a good soaking within a few metres. Incidentally, the lack of front mudguards raises quite a nasty safety issue.With your hands just a few centimetres from the wheels, and protected only by plastic shields, it would be all too easy to put a finger into the spokes when returning a hand to the grip, particularly in the dark.

Gradients, soakings and missing digits apart, is the KMX suitable for road use? We would never allow a child out alone on a machine like this, although we’d be happy enough for the KMX to set off amongst a party of cyclists. It all comes down to visibility (or complete lack of it) for both rider and motorists.

…forget the law – fit everything, including a fairy wearing a gold lamé tu-

You don’t appreciate quite how important height is until you’re sitting just inches above the tarmac – the ‘hedgehog’s viewpoint’ said one tester. Car drivers at side turnings cannot see you through the windows of parked cars or over low walls, and vis-a-versa – it’s difficult to check whether the road is clear when pulling out. Even when visibility is good, you’re at the wrong height to make the eye-contact upon which those split-second life-saving decisions are made. It’s difficult to look behind too, although a mirror could easily be fitted to the off-side handlebar.When indicating, you have to hold your hand up at 45 degrees just to hit the eyeline of motorists.The KMX has a flag, and although we generally dismiss such things, this one is essential.

kmx-recumbent-trike-6Lights are not provided, and although the KMX comes with front and rear reflectors, the rear example is too low to satisfy the vehicle lighting regulations. However, a few hours fiddling would produce suitable brackets to place front and rear reflectors and lamps at a legal height. If anything, it’s probably safer to ride a recumbent at night, provided it lights up like a Christmas tree. Forget the law – fit everything, including a fairy wearing a gold lamé tu-tu. If nothing else, it’ll give the Old Bill a laugh.

Is the KMX dangerous? Of course not, but cars are unpleasant things, and there are too many of them being driven too recklessly and too fast. All the same, with the right training and at least one experienced cyclist giving cover, we think the KMX could be used on quiet roads in perfect safety.

Conclusion

Yes, the KMX breaks the mould, and yes, it is already selling in big numbers, as one might expect. We have a few nagging doubts about safety, mainly in the braking department, but would otherwise say it’s one of the most entertaining velocipedes we’ve tested. Inevitably, most will get ridden around parks and housing estates, but we hope a few get to be road- equipped and taken out on longer rides. Recumbent trikes are fantastic machines and something completely new to most young people.The KMX deserves to run and run.

Thanks to the test team: Alexander, Alice, Benjamin, Molly, Nathan & Nicolas

Specification

KMX Kart recumbent £350
Weight 15.9kg (35lb)
Tyres Lien Fu 12″ x 1.75″ 35psi Front
Horng Fortune 20″ x 1.95″ 40psi Rear
Gears Shimano SIS 5-spd
Ratios 30″ 35″ 42″ 49″ 60″ Dimensions Seat – bottom bracket 59cm to 83cm (less if boom cut)
Manufacturers KMX Karts web www.kmxkarts.co.uk mail info@kmxkarts.co.uk tel 023 92 379333

Viking

viking-electric-bikeImagine an electric bicycle with scooter- quality lights. It also has direction indicators, a brake light, full instrumentation, mirrors, and even a radio! The lights work directly off the main battery supply, so there’s no need for a dynamo, while a U-lock and sprung forks are part of the deal too. It comes in a range of bright, cheerful colours and as icing on the cake, costs £70 less than the cheapest Giant Lafree.The Viking is all of these things, but does that make it worth buying? First impressions are certainly good – what with the indicators and massive headlight, plus that fully-equipped dashboard, the Viking looks like a serious commuter machine, not a bicycle with an electric motor tacked on.The first misgiving comes when you learn that drive is by a friction roller directly on the rear tyre.

Regular readers will know that A to B is no fan of friction drives, which either slip in the wet or wear the rear tyre rapidly, or both.The Viking claims to get around this with a twistgrip-device that varies the force with which the roller acts on the tyre – lots of force in wet, slippy conditions, not so much in the dry.This seems to work, and in fact there was no slippage powering up a steep hill on a wet day, and that on the ‘dry’ setting.What you can’t do is lift the roller clear of the tyre altogether, so despite the motor having a freewheel, there’s always some friction to pedal against.

But even though the friction drive works, it still places the heavy motor and twin lead-acid batteries high up, raising the bike’s centre of gravity. As any Giant or Yamaha pedelec owner will tell you, the best place for weight is as low as it can be. So anyone unused to the weight of electric bikes needs to take care when mounting up, especially as the Viking has a substantial crossbar to get your leg over – this is no stepthrough machine.

…save a little more and buy a Giant, or keep five hundred quid in the bank and ride a Thompson…

viking-electric-bike-2

The instruments will keep you entertained.

On the move, once you’ve sorted out the complication of juggling three twistgrip controls (throttle, friction roller and gears) the Viking goes pretty well, surging up steep hills like a Powabyke, though there is a two-second gap between twisting the throttle and power coming in. In the meantime, the instrument set keeps one entertained, with a speedometer, clock, battery condition and current meters. And the radio (complete with tiny speakers set into the mirrors has an autoseek function and actually works quite well (in Banbury, at any rate).

viking-electric-bike-3

too much weight, too high up

But behind its showroom appeal, the Viking is far from practical.The bicycles bits (Shimano SIS 6-speed derailleur, unbranded 40psi tyres and brakes) look and feel cheap, considering the bike costs almost £800. Luggage options are limited to a small rack on top of the battery box – again, high-mounted weight, not good news.The mountain-style front ‘mudguard’ allows water to spray right up to your chest and the indicators, which look so impressively large, house just a single LED apiece. Be warned: lights of this kind are not up to current European or British standards and should not be relied upon as turn indicators. Traffic is more likely to be alerted by the loud ‘beep’ that accompanies their flashing than that tiny LED.The multi-LED brake/rear light is very effective though.

The makers of the Viking (it’s from China, of course) claim an improbable 50-mile range, but the more honest (or, perhaps, heavier) dealer who lent us the bike said 15-20 miles would be more realistic, making full use of the power. He also pointed out that in six months, he hasn’t had to buy a single spare part, and he has sold plenty of bikes, so the Viking seems reliable at least.

But if you want our opinion (based admittedly on a short ride) then no, the Viking is not worth buying. Despite all the goodies, it feels like a pretty basic electric bike, and at £799, we’re not sure it’s worth £500 more than an entry-level machine. Save a little more and buy yourself a Giant, or keep five hundred quid in the bank and ride a Thompson…

Thanks to F2 Motorcycles tel 01295 712900 for loaning the test bike

Poole Harbour

Poole Harbour is a constant in this ride. As harbours go, it’s a tiddler, measuring only a few miles across, but thanks to countless inlets and hidden promontories, it claims to have the second longest coastline of any natural harbour in the world, after Sydney, Australia. Information that may or may not come in handy one day – we try to please.

poole-harbour-folding-bike-journey

Folding bikes make all sorts of journeys possible that simply couldn’t be accomplished by other means. If you prefer travelling to arriving, we guarantee you will enjoy our first expedition.

The most convenient place to begin is at Poole railway station – two hours from London and with direct trains from Southampton, Reading and most points northwards. A mile or so of fairly hectic town centre riding takes us to the entrance to Poole Park and a quick circuit on the Poole Park Miniature Railway.This 101/4″ line runs for half a mile around a lagoon fashioned from one of the Harbour inlets and has been a fixture since 1948.

The railway once carried 150,000 children and adults a year, but that figure had fallen to 60,000 by 1997. However, business is looking up, and plans are afoot to create a new station for 2004, allowing two trains to run simultaneously at peak times.The railway is well worth a visit, and Poole Park offers ample secure cycle parking, a cafe and toilets.

From the east end of the Park, cyclists can swing right, off the road and onto a waterside cycle path before joining the B3369 for the three mile ride to Sandbanks.This is a busy stretch, but reasonably wide, and who cares? The views across Poole Harbour to Brownsea Island are quite stunning if you’re not used to this sort of thing, and anyway, cars will soon be at a serious disadvantage.

poole-harbour-folding-bike-journey-2

Ferry captain Steven Bissex

Poole Harbour has only one outlet. So short of going all the way round, everyone is obliged to take the chain ferry to cross the short, but treacherous stretch of water from Sandbanks to Shell Bay in the Isle of Purbeck. Just for the record, Purbeck is not actually an island, but it’s bordered by Poole Harbour and the river Frome to the north, and the English Channel to the south, so it’s nearly there.With a bit more erosion it may eventually follow its easterly neighbour the Isle of Wight and become the real thing.

poole-harbour-folding-bike-journey-3

Arriving at Shell Bay

The Bramble Bush Bay chain ferry is operated by the quaintly-named

poole-harbour-folding-bike-journey-4

Ice cream at Studland Beach

Bournemouth- Swanage Motor Road & Ferry Company, and shuttles back and forth daily between 7am and 11pm, except for Christmas Day, when there’s a reduced service, and other occasions when the chains are disconnected and the ferry gets dragged off for overhaul.

With such long hours, the crew work to a shift system, and one of the select band of ferry captains is Steven Bissex, who just happens to subscribe to A to B. Parking is a major headache at Sandbanks (there isn’t any), so Steven often rides the 14 miles from his West Moors home on a custom-built electric bike. If you see an unusual and seemingly ownerless bike locked aboard the ferry, you can be fairly confident Steven is on duty up above. Do give him a wave.

For the residents of Purbeck, the ferry is a life-line, eliminating a lengthy detour via Wareham to reach the fleshpots of Poole and Bournemouth, but it also carries hoards of tourists – mainly from Bournemouth, and usually heading for the sandy beaches of Shell Bay and Studland.

Therein lies the problem, for this being Britain in 2003, almost everyone drives across, queuing for up to two hours, paying £2.20 each way for the crossing, parking up to a mile from the beach and trudging back down the road…Yet the sands begin right by the ferry slipway. Odd, but there you are.

poole-harbour-folding-bike-journey-5

The easy way – stop for an ice- cream, fold the bike (note the child seat) and flag down a bus for the climb over Ballard Down

On busy days, cyclists arrive in modest numbers, paying 80p each way, while the handful of pedestrians pay 90p outward from Poole and (as no-one lives the other side) nothing coming back.Travelling clockwise, as we are, you simply pay the bike fee. But if travelling back the same way, simply fold and cover your bike and go home for free.The really mean can do the entire circuit in reverse, and pay nothing at all.

Beyond Shell Bay, the road is owned by the ferry company for several straight- as-a-die miles and was once said to be beyond the jurisdiction of road traffic regulations.This has apparently been amended, so don’t even think of heading west with your electric scooter, petrol-fueled skateboard, can steam on up the 100 rocket-assist recumbent or other A to B oddity.

Pedestrians and leisure cyclists soon melt metre Ballard Down…” away, and with cars passing only in ferry-sized batches, there are lengthy quiet periods for the cyclist to enjoy the seclusion of Studland Heath, home to a number of rare scuttling things, including the sand lizard, one of our most endangered species, and much too shy to show itself by the roadside.

At Studland village, enthusiastic types can steam right on up the 100 metre (330 foot) Ballard Down, but it’s a busy road and a stiff climb, so the A to B recommendation is for an ice cream at Studland Beach (nudist or clothed, according to taste), followed by an open- top bus ride over the strenuous bit.

Do our cousins overseas go in for this sort of thing, or are these strange vehicles a peculiarly English form of masochism? Either way, rain or shine, the Wilts & Dorset service 150 runs to an hourly schedule linking Bournemouth and Swanage, so you can eliminate the folding bike altogether if you wish. As this includes a ride on the ferry, the company makes the unusual claim that, ‘… you will also have the excitement of going to sea on the open-top bus’. A rare treat. For the uninitiated, the upper deck is a bit like sitting on an armchair suspended three metres above a motorcycle.

poole-harbour-folding-bike-journey-6Excitement over, the bus wobbles into what would now be the Swanage bus station and town centre car park, were it not for the efforts of a band of dedicated volunteers, who have restored a working railway.

When Doctor Beeching turned his attention to the Swanage branch line in the early 1960s, he found one of the busiest seaside branches in the south of England.With the special circumstances of the ferry and the narrow Purbeck roads, Beeching recommended that the line should be retained, but relentless political pressure finally brought closure in early 1972, forcing rail traffic onto the roads. And I can vouch for that, having travelled on the last train.

swanage-station

Swanage station, back in business thirty-one years after closure, but still isolated from the network…

Over the next thirty years volunteers fought to reopen the line in stages and a connection was finally made to the national network earlier this year. But thanks to politics, inertia, vested interests, and all the other negative forces that seem to dominate the British transport scene, you can’t catch a train from here to a National Rail station. Actually, the isolated ‘preserved’ railway is not quite as useless as it might appear, because a busy park-&-ride terminal has been built at the western end, and many motorists leave their cars here, taking the train onward to Corfe Castle and Swanage.

Just for the record, in the 1960s, trains took about 50 minutes to potter from Swanage to Poole, against 70 minutes or more for the replacement buses. A modern train service would take about 35 minutes.With the stroke of a politician’s pen, trains could be running tomorrow, but don’t hold your breath…

Like most volunteer-run lines, the Swanage Railway includes a guard’s van in every train and carries bicycles, tandems and even tricycles for free, but space can be limited, so a folding bike is still useful.At Norden, it’s time to unfold the bike again, although the A351 from here to Wareham is strictly off-limits to all but the most foolhardy of cyclists. Soon after the railway closed, oil was discovered in Purbeck, in what was eventually to become Britain’s largest onshore oil field. In a grubby deal, not untypical of the times, the oil companies funded the ‘upgrading’ of the main road from Norden to Wareham, turning a dangerous stretch into a lethal racetrack. Still, that’s progress.

Fortunately, there is another quieter route via Middlebere, Slepe and Ridge, and very pleasant it is too, offering brief tantalising views across the Harbour to Poole. From Stoborough, a final mile and a half of busy B-class road takes us through Wareham to the station, where trains run every 30 minutes back to Poole.

For more information: Friends of Poole Park Rly, 2 Western Avenue, Branksome Park, POOLE BH13 7AL
Wilts & Dorset buses tel 01202 673555 www.wdbus.co.uk
Bournemouth-Swanage Motor Road & Ferry Co tel 01929 450203
Swanage Railway Co tel 01929 425800
www.swanagerailway.co.uk