Tag Archives: A to B 40

A to B 40 – Sturmey Archer 8-speed hub

A to B 40A few price adjustments for overseas subscribers. In the current jargon, this might be described as enhanced customer choice, but all it really means is a price increase. Due to unreliable delivery and increased costs, we’re no longer sending magazines by surface mail. However, economies of scale have enabled us to reduce the airmail rate from £19 to £17.50. Great news if you’re buying in pounds, but not so good in US dollars, because the current exchange rate puts the price right back up again. Ah well, it’ll all come out in the wash.

A particularly full magazine this time – revised Brompton, new Sturmey Archer 8-speed hub, new folding electric bike (don’t get too excited), a review of 16-inch tyres and a great deal more, naturally. How do we do it for £12/£17.50?

Several problems with renewals lately – if yours is due, it should say so on the envelope, and there should be a little form inside the magazine. This time, we’ve also enclosed a red subscription flyer for everyone.This does not mean your subscription is due, but do please pass it on to someone who would appreciate the A to B message!

A to B 40 Contents

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

Rail Privatisation, Cycle Helmets.

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

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

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

Compulsory Cycle Helmets

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

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

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

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

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

High and Mighty: SUVs – The world’s most dangerous vehicles and how they got that way – Keith Bradsher

High & Mighty - SUVs: The World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How they Got That WayThe image of the school-run 4×4 is an enduring one. Range Rovers, Shoguns and Land Cruisers may seem like gas- guzzling bad jokes, but as this book by American journalist Keith Bradsher shows, the laugh is on all other road users, not to mention the entire planet. Working as The New York Times’ man in Detroit, Bradsher was well placed to knock down a few SUV myths. Like safety. SUVs have four-wheel-drive and are built like small trucks, so it stands to reason they are safer than flimsy economy cars (not to mention cycles and scooters).The reality is that they’re less stable than cars, so are more prone to roll-over accidents. And if they hit a smaller vehicle, they can crush it, and its occupants. Pedestrians and cyclists get sucked underneath. For every life saved by an SUV calculates Bradsher, five are lost.

But that’s just part of the story.The author explains how the SUV came about – in the 1960s, Jeep was a lame duck, until it had the bright idea of selling four-wheel-drive to trendy surburbanites instead of farmers and backwoodsmen. Better still, SUVs could be based on small truck chassis, so they were cheap to build. And in a massive scam, the US motor industry lobbied to have them classed as trucks, making them exempt from increasingly strict economy, emissions and safety laws. Bradsher also looks into the psychology of SUV buyers and points out that older, cheaper 4x4s are getting into the hands of young, inexperienced drivers, which is a scary combination.

All of this is based on US experience, but it’s just as applicable to Europe, where SUVs are taking to the roads in increasing numbers. High and Mighty is an eye opening book, based on solid research – if you care about road safety, please read it.

High and Mighty: SUVs – The world’s most dangerous vehicles and how they got that way Keith Bradsher . Public Affairs . ISBN 1 58648 123 1

Train seat reservations & industrial action

The road from A to B can be strewn with legal hurdles. Send your queries to Russell Jones & Walker, Solicitors, c/o A to B magazine

EXHIBIT A: “A few weeks ago I arrived at Birmingham New Street station to catch a Virgin Cross-Country train home after a hard day’s work. At 6pm, the train was packed, but I was lucky enough to find an un-booked seat at a table with three other commuters from Birmingham. At the next stop, a group of girls got on and said they had reserved our seats. Sure enough they had reservation tickets with our coach and seat numbers on, but the electronic seat displays still very clearly said that our seats were not booked. When we refused to move, the guard gave the girls complimentary First Class seats, but who was in the right?”

William Johnson, Banbury

EDITOR’S NOTE: Unlike other systems,Virgin’s at-seat electronic display is updated by satellite while the train is underway. According to staff we’ve spoken to, it ‘often goes wrong’.

Fortunately it appears that everyone affected by this mix-up managed to get a seat and did not have to stand for the entire length of the journey.

A ticket with a seat number gives no more guarantee of a seat than an ordinary ticket.Virgin says that where a person does have a seat reservation, but that seat has not been reserved for them, they will issue some form of compensation to the inconvenienced passenger, provided the passenger retains their ticket.Virgin regard the seat reservation service as a complimentary service but does not consider their passengers to be entitled to those seats, even when the seat has been reserved.

Point 3.3 of Virgin’s Passenger’s Charter states the following:

“If, for any reason, we cannot honour your seat reservation, we will try to find you another seat on the train. If this is not possible and you have to stand for more than fifteen minutes of the journey, we will give you National Rail vouchers to the value of 5% or more of the price paid for that journey which you can use when you make a future train journey.”

So whilst they do not guarantee to give you the seat that you specifically booked, they do promise to make every effort to provide you with a seat of some kind when a reservation has been made.You were therefore right not to move from your seat. Since the seat did not give any indication of the reservation, you were entitled to sit in what you believed to be an unreserved seat.

EXHIBIT B: “Earlier this year we were due to travel by Scotrail Sleeper to Fort William. At 4pm on the day before we were due to travel, we got a phone call to say there would be no service because of a guard’s strike. It was quite an upsetting experience having to sort out other travel arrangements for us all: me (six months pregnant), my husband, and our five-year-old daughter.

In the event, we had to buy extra train tickets and stay an extra night in a b&b, or we would have lost our entire holiday. On our return we wrote to Scotrail to see if we could reclaim the extra expenses – a total of £82.50. Scotrail said they were not liable for disruption caused by industrial action. Is this right?”

Allison Taylor, Norwich

…they would be prepared to refund you for any unused tickets… and review claims in a fair minded way…

Unfortunately it does appear that Scotrail is right. By purchasing your ticket from Scotrail you effectively agreed to their terms and conditions of travel.These terms and conditions are contained in Scotrail’s Passenger Charter, a copy of which can be found at all stations, or on the internet.The charter includes the following term:

“If the train you planned to catch is delayed or cancelled and you decide not to travel, we will give you a full refund if you return your ticket to any ticket office, if the ticket office is in a position to do so.”

I spoke to the Scotrail Customer Relations Department who said that in a situation like the one described above, they would be prepared to refund you for any unused tickets. In addition to this, Scotrail offer to do the following:

“Over and above fulfiling our obligation under our Passenger Charter, we will review claims as a result of delays, disruptions or poor service in a fair minded way.”

Although they therefore offer to review your situation, they are not required to provide any form of compensation for cancelled trains resulting from industrial action. This does not mean that you are precluded from claiming back your expenses, but it does mean that the only guarantee that you are entitled to is that your claim will be reviewed in a fair minded way. Unfortunately you are therefore unlikely to obtain the remedy that you are looking for.

Your legal enquiries are answered by Russell Jones & Walker, Solicitors – the best national firm servicing the needs of individual people, with branches in London, Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Sheffield, Cardiff and Bristol. For further information call Jeremy Clarke-Williams on 020 7837 2808


Letters A to B 40 – Lights . Pavements . SolarTracker . Statistics . Trikes

Statistics & Damn Statistics

I would like to throw a little light on the understandable confusion regarding the DfT’s cycling statistics that you discussed in the December issue (Mole, A to B 39).The recent change from showing a decline to a rise in cycle use, as I understand it, is related to the emphasis put by Government statisticians on trunk roads.With the tremendous rise in traffic over the last few decades it’s not surprising that cyclists have been forced away from congested trunk roads onto smaller roads.This didn’t mean that there were fewer cyclists, just that there were fewer using trunk roads.The recent change has come about by the statisticians being convinced of this displacement and a change in the emphasis between data sets.

The optimism that Sustrans has relates to our own statistics gathered on the National Cycle Network.The biggest rise here (around 18% last year) comes on the traffic-free sections. Sustrans has been trying to convince the DfT that such cycle journeys should be included in the national figures, but we have not yet won that argument, so the national statistics still fail to include trips made on dedicated cycle routes.This is a shame for several reasons, and the issue of funding you raise is potentially significant. It also means that the increase in cycling that we are witnessing on traffic-free routes is not adding to Government figures, which one would have thought would be in its own interest, and that the more cycling is transferred to such routes (though I would emphasise that a lot is actually new and inexperienced cyclists) the less the rise in cycling is officially recognised.

Kevin Saunders
Senior Press Officer
Sustrans, Bristol

That’s a very polite way of saying the DfT is concerned that cycling might be mistaken for a serious mode of transport and thus attract funding from road construction. Suspicious folk that we are, we tend to assume that Sustrans’ figures relate mainly to car-born leisure cyclists, but ridership surveys do not seem to reflect this. According to Sustrans, 41% of cyclists on their routes are there for ‘utility’ purposes and 35% are making a car-replacement journey. Only 13% used a car to access the Network. (Eds)

Double Your Lumens

With reference to the article on the Lightspin dynamo (A to B 39), I have been running two x 2.6w Lumotec Oval lamps from a Lightspin dynamo.Two lamps seem to work better on a trike – one mounted on each kingpin and illuminating immediately ahead of each wheel. They also turn around corners like a handlebar-mounted lamp, which helps on twisty lanes.

I checked with Werner Stettler of Lightspin, and he said that the dynamo would cope, but to please limit the top speed to 30mph to avoid overcooking the electronics. I left the lights running all year because, as you say, the resistance is minimal. Never had a bulb blow.

Rob Hague
Westcountry Recumbents

A great solution if you want really powerful lights with minimal rolling resistance. And according to Simon Korn, the Brompton importer for the Netherlands, the Lightspin can supply a single four, or even five watt bulb, although as far as we know, these sizes are not available in the UK. However, Simon tells us the Lightspin will not reliably supply these higher outputs when driven from a small tyre. Something to do with the curvature of the sidewall apparently…(Eds)

Vicious Criminals


Which route would you take during the rush-hour? The A16 near West Deeping

I thought I had better write to you and inform you of a vicious crime that took place today. My wife and her friend both cycled to work today, on the footpath. A policeman quite rightly stopped his van to tell them to cycle on the road.The fact that they were on the path  alongside the A16 between Market Deeping and West Deeping is no excuse for their behaviour.They should have been on the road, risking death and not endangering the (non-existent) pedestrians.

It is nice to know that crime in this area is so low that the police have nothing better to do. In fact the crime rate is so low, the policeman had time to drive back again just to make sure they were still on the road. I mean we can’t have cyclists being safe can we?

We contacted the local highways authority to check the actual status of the path and they couldn’t believe the story.The A16 (a designated Red Route) is not a road you cycle on at 9am unless you are a) stupid, b) desperate or c) bloody minded.

Paul Foster

When the law punishes innocent people like this and – quite frankly – puts ordinary respectable citizens in fear of their lives, it comes into disrepute.We would have no hesitation in cycling along this lonely rural footpath and would ignore any police request to rejoin the A16. (Eds).

Bikes by Air

There’s no point in taking the ‘legalistic’ approach when carrying a folder by air (pages 8 and 11, A to B 38).This will head straight for conflict and you will loose! The airline can charge you a kilo rate of 1% of the First Class fare. I was quoted £350 for a single flight from Singapore to Heathrow with a 30lb ‘cumbersome’ bicycle.

Arrive early and choose your check-in desk carefully. Male personnel are less prone to histrionics [! Eds], more prepared to bend the rules, etc.With a folder, just make sure that it is packed so that, if a weight is placed on top of it, the parts that graunch together are protected. Properly covered in a bag, I have never experienced a problem.

Cumbersomes or recumbents are ‘oversize’ and ‘fragile’ items. All the airlines have a system for this, which usually involves hand-carrying (i.e. pushing) to the aircraft. Do not deflate the tyres, merely making them soft is enough.The reason is to make the cycle more stable – nothing to do with exploding at altitude. Sometimes you will be required to removed the pedals, or turn the handlebar, but packing is self-defeating. In a naked state, special care is ensured. Many airlines carry ‘sports equipment’ such as cycles, surf boards, diving gear etc for free, subject to space, but you must declared it in advance.

If travelling to or via the USA, you now have a baggage allowance of two items each weighing 32kg. And if you’re flying Business or First Class, the interpretation of the baggage limits will be very flexible. But since 9/11 you will have to clear your cycle through U.S. Customs and then personally take it to any connecting flight… quite a task!

Finally, since 9/11, quite lowly mortals working at the check-in have assumed God-like powers, which can go as far as not allowing a person on a flight. A calm, non-confrontational approach is best, and if possible, arrange things in advance by email, and carry written proof.

John Prince

No Trikes Please

Di Blasi Trike

The Di Blasi folding trike - not for bridleways

In the conclusion to your review of the Pedicab (A to B 39) you say ‘…even the Lynch-powered machine is legally a pedal tricycle… so it can go anywhere a bicycle can go’.This is incorrect – it cannot legally be used on public bridleways, where bicycles can go. Cycling on bridleways was legalised by the Countryside Act 1968, an Act which specifically permits the use of bicycles. But unlike all other highway legislation, which says that ‘bicycles, tricycles and pedal cycles with four or more wheels’ are carriages under the law, the Countryside Act only allows two-wheeled cycles on public bridleways.

Di Blasi Trike

I have had a bee in my bonnet ever since I bought a Longstaff tricycle, and have been more concerned since Sustrans started designing its network on the assumption that bridleways could play a useful role. Unfortunately, those who cycle on three wheels, (whether through choice or  to cater for a disability), now have to avoid certain sections of the National Cycle Network, because Sustrans didn’t negotiate with the landowners for permissive cycling rights for three-wheelers on the bridleway sections. Sustrans knows of this problem, but does not consider it worth addressing.

I appreciate that one has to be a bit of a nerd to know these legal details, but as an enthusiastic reader of A to B, (including the nerdiest bits), I wanted to draw your attention to your error, so that multi-wheeled cyclists do not accidentally trespass on bridleways.

As a footnote, you may notice that the definition of a cycle does not include unicycles. As a result of this legal definition, single-wheeled cycles do not count as ‘carriages’ (or vehicles in modern terms), and so are not caught by any highways legislation on vehicle use. So feel free to use your unicycle the wrong way up one-way streets, ignore all traffic signs, ride at night without lights, etc. Perhaps A to B should review a unicycle – small in volume, and easy to take onto a bus or train? I regret to say that I neither own one, nor possess the skill to ride one.

Graham Lansdell

We’re often asked for folding trikes, of which the Di Blasi is a rare example.We don’t think much of their bikes, but the trike looks rather neat. At 21kg (46lb), it isn’t light, but the claimed folded size is 113 litres (3.9cu ft) – smaller than most bicycles. Concept Edge, tel: 0208 9925352 (Eds)

Our Greatest Joy

Thank you for another brilliant magazine – every article was fascinating! Regarding electric bikes (Editorial, A to B 39), it may only be because we live on an in-village section of Sustrans Route 6, but we’ve seen half a dozen electric bikes in our small village alone (plus one that is used to get to work).

A few weeks ago I was cycling Lincolnshire’s quiet country lanes without any difficulty (albeit on an AnthroTech recumbent trike), yet today I’m having difficulty even walking, due to arthritis of one kind or another.This makes me so worried that at some point I won’t be able to cycle any more, giving another good reason for you to keep telling us all about the benefits of electrically-assisted bikes, trikes and load-carriers.

We none of us know what may hit us quite suddenly and possibly take away our greatest joy in life. So please do keep giving us something positive to think about, rather than old age and increasing disability.WE certainly appreciate it, and who knows how many of us will need some assistance in the future!

Brenda Swain
Mansfield, Nottinghamshire

Electric Bike V Hatchback

Your defence of electric bikes (Editorial,A to B 39) is strongly supported by my own experiences. Due to advancing age and living in a hilly area, I had reduced my utility cycling to ‘ideal’ conditions only, with a resulting loss of fitness and increased car use. But I was missing cycling, and I finally overcame my feeling that electric-assist might be considered cheating.

I found A to B a ready source of information and purchased a Giant Lafree Lite.The effective mudguards and occasional use of the electric-assist meant that inclement weather, headwinds and shopping loads no longer put me off, leading to a marked increase in cycling and fitness.The Lafree also made it possible to use a large cycle trailer for the recycling run and the ‘large waste’ disposal I’d been carrying out for 54 working neighbours since retirement.This was formerly done with my hatchback!

The trailer has completely replaced these car journeys, even where hills are involved, and in the first four months the car has covered just 79 miles, whilst the bike has done 1,135 miles, making the car virtually redundant.

Would those who oppose electric-assist cycling wish to deny me your advice, and prefer me to do that 3,000 miles a year in my car instead?

Tony Flecchia

Escaping Balls

I have just returned after spending two months with my Brompton in Tournon-sur-Rhone, France. It was nice to be there, but not such a nice trip. Just as I was leaving Valence Ville, my folding left-hand pedal dropped off on the road, when all the ball bearings escaped! This took place at 18.10 hours. I photographed the pedal at 18.16 and still managed to get to the station a mile away, and catch the 18.38 train!

I would like to know what you consider to be the best folding pedal? I need one because the bike is awkward to carry on public transport with a pedal sticking out.

Dianna Hamilton

You won’t find another folding pedal that combines the lightness, ease of use and compactness of the Brompton design. Some people get through them at quite a rate, but we’ve never broken or replaced one in some 30,000 Brompton miles (admittedly spread over four bikes and pedals). When the bearing gets a bit loose, start injecting oil at regular intervals.When it gets very loose, pick up a rebuilt exchange pedal from a Brompton dealer before something goes wrong. (Eds)

Not the Best

solartracker-electric-bikeMy wife owns a SolarTracker SLB electric bike – a special model with 20-inch wheels introduced for riders of smaller stature. She’s a volunteer helper at Age Concern and once, sometimes twice, a week, is a DJ/night leader for hospital radio in King’s Lynn, which necessitates riding home very late at night. She does the twenty-mile round trip into King’s Lynn several times a week and at first was delighted with the bike, but now we’re not so pleased.

When the bike experienced problems in the first year, she was charged labour and for replacement parts. On Day One the cones, cups and balls in the front wheel were damaged, and within eleven months the rear tyre was – quite literally – worn down to the canvas, but only on one side…The dealer fitted a new £20 tyre and claimed the unusual wear was due to road camber! The battery connection system was abysmal – a brass pillar protruding through the bottom of the battery box, making contact through the weight of the batteries! The arcing as the batteries bounced up and down was burning the contacts away.

Soon after, one of the batteries failed. A replacement set would have cost £140, but I found a cheaper source of larger batteries at Screwfix [www.screwfix.com].This increased the range, enabling her to visit her mother 27 miles away, recharge there and return home.

The machine is too low-geared to realistically pedal-assist, but it’s too heavy to pedal now anyway. My wife recently arrived home exhausted because the batteries had failed, due to water getting into the battery box. No sooner had I sorted this than the new rear tyre had worn out even faster than the first. My wife has now done nearly 4,000 miles.

Joseph Hemmings
Watlington, Norfolk

We’ve been a bit suspicious of the SolarTracker since the importers refused to let us test one, although we did manage to borrow a bike for a morning (see A to B 21).There are lots of similar machines – most are adequate for light use, but if you expect to ride any distance, you really have to spend a little more. In our experience, the Heinzmann, Giant Lafree and (arguably) Powabyke Commuter are the best options for more serious use. (Eds)

Minifold Mystery

minifold-folding-bikeI’ve recently come across a ‘Minifold’ bike. It measures little more than 36 inches in length, has a cast aluminium frame, and tyres and wheels from a Raleigh kids bike circa 1960. I suspect this is an expensive and sophisticated prototype – the wheelbase is too short, and the ride terrible. I think it has a Swindon connection, possibly from the Vickers aircraft factory. If anyone has any information, could they please contact me at Cyclecare Purton.

minifold-folding-bikeTim Whitty, Cyclecare

Auto Boxes


The Hagen Variable-diameter Chainwheel - similar to the Deal Drive

I was interested to read Michael Bartlett’s letter about the Azip bike with its automatic transmission (A to B 39). I logged on to an American cycling website a few years ago and the contributors were quite scathing about the Azip, ‘…a $200 bike for $400’. As for the automatic gears, they work by centrifugal force causing weights on the rear spokes to travel outwards, this being linked to the derailleur mechanism.Thus, the gear ratio is determined by speed alone. As one person on the site said, ‘Great for cyclists from Florida rest homes’.

Generally speaking, bike autotrannies need to be sensitive to both speed and throttle opening, ie pedal force. It can be done! On Tomorrow’s World a few years ago, there was a device that worked on the chainwheel, composed of a lot of little sprockets on spring-loaded arms, such that they were pulled inwards under chain tension, thus effectively reducing the radius of the chainwheel. Now, with this on the chainwheel and an Azip arrangement on the back, we might have a worthwhile arrangement.

My other half, who isn’t a keen cyclist, has a bike called a ‘Real Breeze’ with a more sophisticated Shimano auto system, linked to a computer-type speed sensor on the rear wheel and powered by a lithium battery changing a hub gear via a solenoid. Unfortunately the Florida principle applies to this, too – don’t even look at a hill, unless you want to override the auto. In which case, why bother…

John Ramsey

All very true. Shimano has recently introduced a 3-speed automatic with some degree of tuneability and a power feed from the hub dynamo, but still no torque sensor.The chainring device sounds like the Deal Drive, developed by Michael Deal of Bath University a few years ago.We thought this was a great idea, but it doesn’t seem to have gone any further. (Eds)

Shorter = Faster

With regard to the Zero folding bike test (A to B 39), if you had told me a few years ago that 150mm cranks were for children, I would have agreed entirely. Now I would have to disagree. It started with some German recumbent builders putting on short cranks (down to 110mm) as a way of reducing the size of the fairings, to improve the aerodynamics, but they discovered that they were going, if anything, better with the short cranks, even on their training bikes without fairings.

This has caught on in the recumbent world, and I now run 150mm on all my bikes. It is better for your knees, lighter, and the higher RPM is easier on the transmission, and your heart and lungs.You should also get more power when going flat out. Small really is beautiful!

Mike Burrows

We were amazed by this revelation, because (certainly if you have longer legs) standard cranks can feel on the short side, suggesting that longer ones might give more power. Even if you are not looking for maximum performance, it’s worth noting that shorter cranks and a higher cadence (spin rate) might help to alleviate knee damage. Any more observations received with interest. (Eds)

Zinc-Air or Magnesium-Air?


The Magpower cell. The magnesium plates can be seen protruding from the top. The breathable membrane on the surface is kept saturated with salt water from a reservoir in the base.

Recently I stumbled upon a web site showing an electric bicycle powered by a zinc-air fuel cell [see www.powerzinc.com].The company claims a range of up to 200km (120 miles), with a recharge time of five minutes. And zinc is environmentally benign compared to some of the other substances that power electric bikes.

Assuming this isn’t vaporware, could this be the Holy Grail we e-bike enthusiasts have been waiting for? Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find much information on cost, nor about how one goes about ‘re-charging’ the fuel cell exactly. Long live A2B!

Steve Wirzylo
Toledo, Ohio, USA

This is not quite as practical as it sounds. Apparently zinc-air cells are difficult (but not impossible) to recharge, so this system uses a replaceable battery cassette that gets shipped back to the works and rebuilt. Hence the five minute recharge claim – a bit cheeky that one! You can imagine that the energy required to post the heavy battery back, rebuild it and post it out again must far exceed the energy content of the thing.

We think the magnesium/air fuel cell shows more promise – you put in salt water and magnesium plates, which gradually dissolve, producing electricity and milk of magnesia, which can be safely disposed of. Apparently, the reaction usually produces hydrogen too, but this rather unnerving tendency has been suppressed.To recharge, you just slot in new magnesium plates every now and again – a genuine five minute affair.We’ve been trying to persuade the Canadian manufacturers, Magpower, to let us do Land’s End – John O’ Groats with one of these – so far without success. For details, tel: +1 604 940 3232 (Eds)

The Final Word

In which you get your say… briefly

Inspiring . Brilliant . Informative, humourous magazine . Only a large premium bond win affords such pleasure . As much fun as riding a bike… well almost . Fun, lively, informative Interesting, informative, witty . I especially enjoy folding bikes and technical matters Especially like info on trailers and how to make the most of our public transport fiasco . Love the pro-public transport stance . Balance of articles is about right . More on accessories, racks, lights, brakes, pedals and clothing . More on the latest battery developments please Too many [sic] electric rubbish and too political, Iraq etc . Excellent, but don’t go too electric please . Please do another test of load-carrying trailers . Glad you appear to have given up the word ‘cumbersome’ [conventional diamond-frame bike] . More off-road and folding hybrids . I’m 74, and find the shiny cover tends to slip off onto the floor when I drop off

Solar Rickshaw

Professor Pivot“I was interested to see the solar electric recumbent in A to B 38. It occurred to me that if you could power a recumbent tricycle with two solar panels, one could probably power an electric rickshaw with three or four such panels?”

Felicity Wright

With the oil supply/demand crisis on the way, this may well become a fascinating question. At present, rickshaws are being replaced by internal combustion machines of various kinds, and that will have to change. But is a solar-powered rickshaw viable? We have all the data we need from past A to B magazines – issue 37, on solar power, and issue 39 featuring an electric-assist rickshaw.

As a rule of thumb, the sun supplies around one kilowatt of energy per square metre, which just happens to be the roof area of a typical rickshaw. Unfortunately, another rather more depressing rule of thumb suggests that commercial panel efficiency is somewhere in the region of 10%, reducing peak power to 100 watts. In practice, our Unisolar flexible panels did even worse with British solar radiation, achieving a peak output equivalent to 65 watts per square metre, or 390watt/hours (or Wh) per day.


Cycles Maximus solar- powered pedicab

The roof of the Cycles Maximus rickshaw featured in A to B 39, measures approximately 100cm by 110cm, giving a practical collection area of about 1.1 square metres, or 7.2 times the size of the panels in our previous experiment.Thus, provided our rickshaw was always in the open – something hard to arrange in a cityscape, for example – we could reasonably expect to see peak power of 72 watts, and daily output of 430Wh.

…future developments will depend on the price and availability of oil…

One immediate problem – in UK climes at least – is that our roof-mounted panels were angled towards the south at 20 degrees because at our latitude, a horizontal panel would never be fully effective. Another problem is cloud cover – even in June, the average panel output was cut almost by half, to 36.6watt/hours per day.Taking these factors into account, it’s unlikely that our rickshaw would generate more than 200Wh per day in fine weather, and virtually nothing on an overcast winters day.

The powerful Lynch motor on the Cycles Maximus rickshaw had a battery of 828Wh, giving about two hours power-assistance, well loaded in hilly country. So again, rather depressingly, we are brought to the conclusion that four days, or 40 hours, constant charging in mid-summer would give only two hour’s use…With the less power- hungry Heinzmann motor, the equations become a little more favourable – somewhere in the region of ten hours charging per motor/hour.

Of course, the power consumed depends on the terrain. In a relatively flat city, an hour’s power-assistance per day might well be sufficient, but in this case, we are really looking at a human-powered vehicle with occasional motor assistance, rather than the other way around!

Naturally, once we get close to the equator, we have a great deal more sunlight to play with.With more powerful solar radiation and no cloud cover, we could reasonably expect to generate peak power of up to 100 watts, or perhaps 600Wh per day, giving some three hours motor-assistance.There are other incidental advantages – the solar panels would help to keep the occupants cool by absorbing (and reflecting) solar radiation, and although a battery would be required to deal with the peaks and troughs of production and use, it could be quite small, itself reducing the weight of the machine.

Several experimental solar rickshaws have been trialled in India, one impractical monster weighing 300kg, or nearly three times the weight of the British-designed Maximus! Some have been built with access to prodigious overseas aid, such as the rickshaw claiming to carry panels with an output of 850 watts – clearly either satellite- grade technology, or a surface area of a great deal more than one square metre…There are also a number of ‘exhibition’ solar machines around, but these are a long way from earning a living day-to-day. As with so many other things, future developments will depend on the price and availability of oil. State of the art panels, with an efficiency of 30% or more, would make a lightweight solar vehicle perfectly viable, but only in a sunny area!

Solar-Powered Bicycle Lights?

Professor Pivot“I think A to B should do a review of existing options for solar powered bicycle lights. I found one at www.energycapture.co.uk and the Alternative Energy Centre in Wales [www.cat.org.uk] sells a solar-powered 6 LED red emergency light which is sold with a bracket to attach to a bicycle.”

Jonathan Pattison

cateye-el300Clearly, in this case, we’re looking at a very much smaller power requirement, from a correspondingly small solar panel. First let’s look a bit more closely at the power demands of a bicycle front light. A typical conventional or halogen filament bulb for a bicycle front lamp consumes two watts.That’s manageable, but realistically, few people would want to carry around a solar panel large enough to provide that sort of power, so we need slightly cleverer technology to reduce the energy demand. Fortunately, as regular readers will be aware, Light Emitting Diodes are advancing very rapidly and can now provide an adequate light output with much lower power consumption.

The only front LED lamp currently available to German (and by default, British) standards is the Cateye EL300G, although the situation is changing rapidly, so this may already be out of date.When we tested its predecessor, the EL300 (A to B 33), we found power consumption of 0.58 – 0.89 watts, depending on battery voltage. Consumption is claimed to have fallen since, so we’ll generously base our calculations on the lower figure.

“…the solid-state LED solar torch is perfectly viable and will no doubt be available soon…”

To provide 0.58 watts for, let us say, two hours each evening would require 0.58 watts x 2 hours = 1.16 watt/hours. If we reckon on twelve hours charging time each day in summer, the charge rate would thus need to be 1.16 watt/hours divided by 12 = 0.097 watts.With peak power of 65 watts per square metre of solar panel (see above), each square centimetre will provide 0.0065 watts, so a panel of 15 square centimetres would more than cover our requirement of 0.097 watts.

This raw data suggests that a panel measuring just four square centimetres would provide two hours of light output per day – if only it were thus! The problem, of course, is that our panels provide a peak output of 65 watts per square metre. In reality, the mean figure over the course of a bright sunny day is about half this, increasing the panel requirement to 30 square centimetres.

The Cateye EL300 is one of the few cycle lights efficient enough to run from solar power

Unfortunately, even in June, the sun is often partially or completely overcast, and during my experiments last summer I recorded an even lower mean figure over a 16-day period of 20 watts per square metre, giving a panel size of nearly 50 square centimetres to work our low-consumption front light.

Nevertheless, the figures suggest that a square panel measuring just 7cms across would provide up to two hours light each night throughout a typical English summer, and a panel of double that size would be physically possible, making a light of this kind practical for most of the spring and autumn too. One proviso – the panel must be angled towards direct sunlight throughout most of the day, something that’s hard to arrange in practice, as we discovered during our experiments.

But what of the Energy Capture cycle light Jonathan found on the internet? Armed with our raw data, we can tell quite a lot:The solar panel measures a reasonable 88 square centimetres, and is rather optimistically claimed to have a 1.1 watt output.That may be attainable in a test lab, but working on our 20 watts/square metre average figure, I would suggest 0.17 watts in practice.That would certainly power an LED front light, but unfortunately the Solar Light is fitted with a filament bulb drawing four times as much power as the Cateye EL300!

For occasional use (say 30 minutes per day) a lamp of this kind might suffice, but for nearly £50 you really would be better off buying a conventional light with rechargeable batteries, and recharging a spare set each day by mounting a small solar panel on a south- facing window sill. However, the solid-state LED solar torch is perfectly viable and will no doubt be available soon. Regrettably, it seems Energy Capture has ceased trading, demonstrating that this example might have been an idea ahead of its time.

Sturmey Archer X-RD8

sturmey-archer-x-rd8-hub-gearMulti-speed hubs have a long, and not particularly glorious past. Just about every bicycle hub gear (and most automatic cars, trucks and trains) involves an epicyclic gear system – a set of ‘planet’ gears whirling about a central gear, called the ‘sun’ for equally obvious reasons.

This arrangement is compact, light and in its simplest form, provides direct drive, plus a gear up and a gear down, making three per epicyclic (sometimes only two gears are used). Join two or three together and you produce a ‘compound’ epicyclic, producing 5 or 7 gears, as in earlier Sturmey hubs. Feed power through one epicyclic, then through another, and the number of gears is multiplied, producing anything up to, er, nine gears – the limiting factor being the complexity of the gear shifter mechanisms. Manufacturers are increasingly choosing this more complex route, using a group of two or more epicyclic gears in all sorts of odd arrangements.Typical is Shimano’s Nexus Inter-7 (seven gears from two compound epicyclics), or the Rohloff Speedhub (14 gears from three compound epicyclics).The details are a bit of a head-scratcher, but all we end users need to know is that modern hubs give plenty of gears and a wide range.With some complicated engineering, they can also be set up to give evenly-spaced gear steps, or relatively close ratios in the middle gears, and broad steps at either end – probably a more useful arrangement. However, the more complex the gear train, the greater the internal friction.

If you want to know more about how and why hub gears do what they do, we’d recommend Tony Hadland’s excellent Sturmey Archer Story [hadland@globalnet.co.uk].

Beyond the 5-speed

Seven speed hubs began to appear in the 1990s, first from Sachs (now SRAM), then Shimano (these hubs are confusingly called Nexus), and finally Sturmey Archer, which first dipped a corporate toe into the multi-gear world with the Sprinter 7. Of the three, we much preferred the Sturmey, because it was light, cheap, simple, and user-friendly. Unfortunately, despite a lengthy gestation period, reliability problems persisted and the hub never really found its feet.

The Japanese and German hubs remain in production, but neither has really caught on in a big way, thanks to servicing complications and other flaws – odd gear ratios and unreliable shifting on the Sachs, and a rather limited gear range on the Nexus. Others have come and gone – Sachs produced a dinner-plate sized 12-speed a few years ago, but this monster was quietly forgotten, and Rohloff, a small German engineering company, build a 14-speed, but it’s a bit pricey. Most of these hubs are pretty good, but not quite up to killing off the derailleur just yet.


sturmey-archer-x-rd8-hub-gear-1Although Sturmey held some key 8-speed patents, development work was shunted into a siding following the company’s collapse and eventual acquisition by Taiwanese company Sunrace. Consequently, Shimano was first out of the starting blocks with an 8- speed hub in 2003.

We haven’t had much experience with Shimano’s Nexus Inter-8, but it certainly looks smart and offers a wide 307% range.That’s about the same as a medium-tech 24-speed derailleur, but without the complexity of twin levers and overlapping gear ratios.The gaps between gears are all 17%, except for 1st to 2nd and 5th to 6th, which are both 22%.

Right from the beginning, Sturmey aimed for what might be termed a close-ratio six speed, plus a crawler gear for hills, and an overdrive top for long sweeping descents. And they’ve been true to their word: First to second is a 28% leap (the sort of gap you’d find on a three-speed, for example), all the intermediate gaps are 13%, and gear seven to gear eight is, once again, 28%.This is all achieved with three epicyclics, connected in increasingly complex ways as the ratios get higher.

We fitted the Sturmey RX8 to our Ezee Forza test bike. Two reasons for this – it’s the only conventional-ish ‘cumbersome’ bike at A to B Towers, and it desperately needs more gears. Like many utility machines, the Forza is fitted with the Nexus 3-speed, a user-friendly, light, reliable workhorse, but offering rather limited gear ratios of 46″, 62″ and 85″. Obviously Sturmey will want to snatch discontented 3-speed owners from Shimano, before they trade up to the Nexus 8-speed hub.

Fitting & Removal


Note the unusually large 25- tooth sprocket and concentric gear-change cable drum.The adjustment marks are arrowed

Fitting the 8-speed is straightforward, and most of our observations would apply to any Shimano hub-geared bike. For a variety of reasons (including nervousness, it must be said), we kept the original Shimano outer cables, changing only the inner brake cable, gear cable and twistgrip. One point to watch is that the standard kit is designed for bikes with a horizontal rear drop-out. If your drop-out does anything else (ouch!), you will need an alternative fulcrum lever (that’s the bit you and I might call the cable guide).

The Forza has a Nexus roller brake at the rear, but the conversion to Sturmey drum brake went smoothly. In theory, this sort of swap is best avoided, but the ‘feel’ of these very different brake systems is not wildly different and we left the brake levers unchanged.

Wheel removal is easier than the nail-breakingly frustrating Nexus system, but you still have to winkle the cable off its drum.The dear old Sturmey 7 featured a cable quick- release – a much neater solution.

Multi-gear hubs usually offer direct drive in the middle gear, but the X-RD8 provides direct drive in 1st; the gears rising thereafter to the maximum of 305% in gear 8.What this means in practice is that the wheel is spinning three times faster than the drive sprocket, so the bike only needs a tiny chainring – 33-tooth in this case.This upwardly mobile gearing would, of course, suit small-wheeled folders rather well, as would the concentric cable drum… So will the X-RD8 fit the Brompton? Our drum brake version is too wide, but Sturmey tells us a 116mm version is set to follow next month, and this probably could be shoe-horned in.The only disadvantage is that the X-RD8 has very large input splines, so sprockets are only available with 25- or 23-teeth. If you’re floating away on a sea of confusing figures, this simply means that a small-wheeled bike will need a conventional large chainring, whereas a big-wheeler will not.

More positively, the hub is particularly light – only 340g heavier than the Sturmey 5- speed, itself a light hub, and a full 224g lighter than the chunky clunky Nexus 4-speed.

On the Road



From this angle the chainring looks smaller than the rear sprocket - it actually has 33 teeth, against 25 teeth on the sprocket

Gear adjustment is one of the strong points of the X- RD8. Like the Sturmey 7- speed, Nexus 7 and others, the cable runs straight back to the hub, wrapping around a drum concentric with, and adjacent to, the giant drive sprocket. Adjustment is dead easy – as with the Shimano multi-speed hubs, you simply align a yellow arrow between a pair of pointers in gear four. Mind you, it needs to be easy, because with so many gears, adjustment is critical, and a turn or two on the adjuster is enough to cause knocks and bangs in certain gears. Incidentally, tolerances in the components biased the perfect adjustment point towards the forward- most pointer, rather than between the two – these few millimetres make a lot of difference. But once the cables and connectors have bedded down (and you’ve got acclimatised to being positive, but not over-positive, with the shifter) the hub settles down nicely. Like most Sturmey hubs, the X-RD8 also prefers a momentary pedal- pause between gears.

With the standard 33-tooth chainring, 25-tooth sprocket, and a typical 559mm wheel, we ended up with ratios of 34″, 44″, 49″, 56″, 63″, 72″, 81″ and 104″.That’s perfect for an electric-assist machine like the Forza, but on a conventional bike, we’d probably aim a bit lower. A smaller 30-tooth chainring would give 31″ to 95″, and so on with other chainrings, if your maths is up to it.

On the road, we couldn’t detect any roughness or noise from the hub, and gear spacing proved excellent, although under certain tailwind conditions it’s possible to find yourself ‘hunting’ awkwardly between gears 7 and 8 – quite a big leap, of course. At the other end of the scale, the big gap between 1st and 2nd is fine. Between these two extremes, gears pop up more or less wherever you need ‘em, just as they should.


There seems to be little to choose between the Sturmey and the Nexus. Unfortunately, Shimano got the Nexus Inter-8 out first, and with their usual marketing flair, the Japanese company has already schnozzled up most of the OEM (original equipment) business. But the Sturmey seems to have the edge in terms of weight and gear steps (the overall range is almost identical). And the 116mm version promises to fit into all sorts of places a Nexus wouldn’t go. Price is expected to be a very reasonable £144 complete with sprocket, twistgrip and other assembly parts, or £159 for the complete drum brake version.The very neat little chainwheel and crankset would add about another £8.85.

349mm Tyres

Forty years ago, Doctor Moulton demonstrated that 16-inch tyres offered lower rolling resistance than anyone thought. Controversially, he went on to prove that his own 17- inch tyre rolled as well (or even better) than its 27-inch equivalent. For many years, the ‘cooking’ Moultons were sold with smaller 16-inch tyres, or to be more precise, 16″ x 13/8″. Incidentally, there are three slightly different 16-inch formats, so its safer to use the international metric rim size: 349mm. Look on the tyre and you’ll usually see 37-349.The 37 refers to the width in millimetres (that’s the 13/8″ bit).

349mm tyres - power vs tyre pressure

While sales of the Moulton were strong, these tyres became widely available, but with the decline in Moulton sales at the end of the 1960s, tyre companies lost interest, and the 349mm format began to fade away.

Fortunately, as we’ve recounted numerous times, this ‘ideal’ folding bike tyre size was saved – initially by the Bickerton (fitted only at the rear, of course), then the Micro, and from the late 1980s, the Brompton and later the Airframe. It might have been an ideal size, but by this time there was only one half-decent tyre left in mass production – the Raleigh Record.

In 1996, with the arrival of the race-bred Primo Comet, 349mm tyres were back at the cutting edge.The better tyres helped to sell bikes, and more bikes brought better tyres…There are now four main choices, and a number of interesting developments on the horizon.

Most of these tyres are available with or without a tough kevlar under-layer to resist punctures. Kevlar increases rolling resistance, but we’re not convinced it reduced punctures.The results of our small reader’s survey (sent out with December 2003 renewals) seems to confirm this.

Raleigh Record (37-349mm)

Are we serious? Well, they’re cheap, but thereafter it’s all negatives: the Record is heavier than the new breed, it punctures more frequently, rolls less well and is more difficult to remove from the rim. For very mean people who don’t mind mending a few punctures, a pair of Records will last 3,000-4,000 miles. But life’s too short, surely?

Points to watch: Prone to punctures, particularly when badly worn, but may outlive you.
Weight: 338g
Puncture resistance: Mediocre
Rolling resistance: Poor
Price: £5
Outlets: Less glamourous cycle shops

Primo Comet (37-349mm)

primo-cometThe story has it that American recumbent manufacturer Vision developed a small race- bred tyre, and licensed the technology to Cheng Shin in Taiwan, who succeeded in producing an everyday racing tyre for an everyday road price.The magic ingredients were a near-slick tread, and strong, but paper-thin reinforced sidewalls that rolled and flexed much better than the conventional kind, yet lasted almost as long.What also impressed about the Primo was its strikingly low weight of 201g a tyre – a saving of no less than 137g over a Raleigh Record. As if by magic, small wheeled bikes started to go much, much faster, and weigh less too. Strangely enough, considering the Primo’s light, supple construction, the tyres proved to be relatively puncture-proof, and (on tarmac, at least) the lack of tread has no negative effects. Needless to say, this is not a tyre for muddy or loose surfaces, and the sidewalls will be damaged if used with a dynamo, but the Primo remains a firm favourite with some.They’re surprisingly hard wearing too. With care (ie, no dynamo and no riding whilst flat), a Primo should last up to 3,000 miles and puncture around every 1,000. Eventually, the sidewalls become a bit frail, and cuts in the tread harbour glass and flint shards, causing more regular punctures.

Early Primo tyres had natural brown sidewalls that soon looked shabby, but later examples were all-black, and some have reflective sidewalls too.There’s a kevlar option, but we’ve seen no evidence that it’s worth paying extra for.

Points to watch: Rolling resistance is so low that you may not notice a puncture before the rim hits the ground. And avoid the ultra-light 19mm (19-349) Primo unless you’re building a one-race special. Although light and free-running, it is unsuitable for road use and can fail rapidly.
Weight: 201g
Puncture resistance: Good
Rolling resistance: Excellent
Price: £15
Outlets: Rarer now, but try Avon Valley Cyclery or St John Street Cycles (see ads in back pages).

Brompton (yellow flash) (37-349mm)

brompton-tyreBy the late 1990s so many Brompton customers were fitting their own Primo tyres that Brompton decided to develop a road version for themselves. After a number of experiments, the now familiar ‘snakeskin’ tread pattern first appeared in early 2000 and was soon standard on all Brompton models, apart from the lowly C3.

With thin supple Primo-style sidewalls, and a tougher, but equally flexible (possibly more flexible) tread, the tyre was expected to have slightly inferior rolling performance to its racing forebear, but our tests found little difference, and engineers at Greenspeed (see graph) have actually recorded a modest improvement.This may be down to the rubber compound chosen – the Brompton tyre is quite hard, making it relatively puncture resistant and very long lasting. According to our reader’s survey, Brompton tyres have a life of 1,000 to 8,000 miles, with a mean figure of about 4,000 miles; something we’d agree with from experience. Puncture resistance seems to vary a great deal, but the mean figure is 1,060 miles – far in excess of any other tyre. Indeed, almost half our respondents had never experienced a puncture.The downside appears to be a lack of grip in the wet, particularly when running obliquely to white lines and low kerbs. The evidence for this is quite patchy, but sufficiently widespread to cause concern.

If the standard Brompton tyre is so good, surely the ‘green flash’ kevlar-lined version is even better? We don’t think it is. Our reader’s sample was small, but together with the evidence we’ve seen over the years, it suggests the kevlar tyre has a shorter life and is actually more vulnerable to punctures.

Points to watch: May lack grip in wet weather, particularly when new. Either ‘run in’ with care for a few weeks, or try buffing the tread with sandpaper before use!
Weight: 248g
Puncture resistance: Excellent
Rolling resistance: Excellent
Typical Price: £9.99 (kevlar ‘green flash’ tyre, about £16.25)
Stockists: All Brompton dealers

Schwalbe Marathon (37-349mm)

schwalbe-marathonThe Marathon is a newish tyre, allegedly developed from the long-established Swallow, which sold here back in the days when the Brits were a bit suspicious of the Germans and preferred to buy products with British-sounding names. Still, we’re all friends now, eh?

This is the only modern 16-inch tyre relying on ‘old-fashioned’ tyre construction, but the Marathon incorporates plenty of clever technology, including rubber with a high silica content to improve grip and a kevlar belt for puncture resistance.

The general consensus is that the Schwalbe is relatively puncture-proof compared to the lighter tyres, but our reader’s experiences seem to tell a different story.Your figures suggest average tyre life in the region of 2,300 miles, and punctures every 860 miles.There are many reasons why our results might not be scientific – for example, a tougher looking tyre is more likely to be fitted to a hard-ridden machine – but the evidence appears to suggest that they have a shorter service life and more punctures than their lighter (and cheaper) cousins.They can also be a tight fit on the rim, making punctures even more annoying. And according to the Greenspeed data (see graph), rolling resistance is rather higher – the Schwalbe absorbing as much as ten watts more per tyre than the Brompton. At18mph (the speed at which the tyres were tested) that relates to around 16% extra effort.Whatever the truth (and Greenspeed believes its test methods may exaggerate the differential) the Marathon is a safe, grippy tyre that looks effective, and it has rightly settled down as a popular option. For tough conditions and off-road use, it is probably the best choice.

The seriously puncture-proof Marathon Plus should also be available in this size soon, but Bohle UK was unable to confirm a date.

Points to watch: Vice-free, but stodgy performer
Weight: 340g
Puncture resistance: Good
Rolling resistance: Fair
Typical Price: £15
Stockists: Most small-wheeled bike dealers (see advertisements)

Schwalbe Stelvio (28-349mm)

schwalbe-stelvioThe Stelvio is considerably narrower than the 37mm tyres, but as it retains the same ‘aspect ratio’ (ie, ratio of width to height), it also has a smaller overall diameter.The tyre will stretch to fit the 20mm rims fitted to the Brompton and most other 16-inch bikes these days, but the reduced tyre diameter means you’ll have to recalibrate your speedometer, and accept slightly lower gearing.

The tyres feature just about every technology going – the sidewalls are paper thin, Primo- style, the centre of the tread is a slick, low-friction rubber, and the shoulders a grippy silica mix. Overall weight is marginally the lightest on the market at 196g.

Are they worth the money and the trouble? Being such a small tyre, the Stelvio is vulnerable to incorrect tyre pressures – Schwalbe recommends 85psi – 120psi, figures that most tyre pumps simply can’t reach. If run at too low a pressure, the tubes are liable to suffer from pinch punctures on bumps. Punctures do seem to be a problem generally, but there simply isn’t enough evidence to say for sure.

On a Brompton or Micro, the Stelvio serves only to give a spine-jarring ride and over-light steering for no detectable benefit, but this light, fast 120psi tyre might make sense on a fully-suspended bike such as the Moulton – preferably with the correct narrow rims. Provided you look after the tyres, and fit them to the right sort of machine, they may be the fastest 16-inch option.

Points to watch: Some potential for faster machines
Weight: 196g (you can save a further 9g per tyre by fitting Schwalbe 32mm inner tubes)
Puncture resistance: Poor
Rolling resistance: Excellent
Price: £13.50 (including UK postage)
Stockist: Westcountry Recumbents [rob@wrhpv.com]


If weight really matters, the Primo still has much to offer, although you’d be well advised to stock up while they’re still widely available. For racing, it’s probably fair to say that the Schwalbe Stelvio is the best, although we’d hesitate to recommend it for road use.The overall winner, in terms of value for money, life, puncture resistance and rolling resistance, just has to be the standard Brompton tyre.The only question mark seems to be wet weather grip – in all other respects, this is a remarkable tyre.

Incidentally, the tyres tested above are rated at all sorts of pressures, but please ignore such phrases as ‘inflate to 100psi’ (Brompton, in this example).Whatever the graph might seem to indicate, these figures are maximum pressures, and will only give the results indicated on a perfectly smooth surface. For most riders, on typical road surfaces, a lower pressure will give both lower rolling resistance and greater comfort.

A good general guide is to sit on the bike and adjust the tyre pressures front and rear until the tyre just begins to bulge out above the road contact patch.That pressure (always higher for the rear tyre, of course) might be 100psi, 80, 60 or even less, but it will be close to ideal for you, your bicycle and your tyres. On the road, high frequency vibration means too much pressure, and a ‘wallowing’ ride, too little. If this all sounds like hard work, aim for about 65psi front and 75psi at the rear.

2004 Brompton

We’ve been known to refer to the Brompton as the best folding bike in the world – a rash statement that annoys some other manufacturers, but not all, because it’s broadly true…

2004-brompton-folding-bikeBriefly, nothing folds smaller (without exception), no other 16-inch folder rides so well (without exception, unless the Russians have produced something we haven’t seen yet), and nothing folds so neatly and so fast.These are the killer attributes that have made the Brompton the commuter bike par excellence and kept the order books full for this small British company, now possibly the largest bicycle manufacturer (as opposed to assembler – ie, bolting on bits) in the UK. One could argue that Pashley still has the Post Office bike contract and the Taiwanese claim to be making things, rather than assembling them, in the Welsh valleys these days, but enough hair-splitting.

The Brompton started life in 1981, as a rather heavy, but essentially hand-fettled machine, known today as the Mark 1. After a long pause, the classic Brompton finally arrived in 1987, with the ‘production line-friendly’ Mark 2 – essentially much the same as the modern bike. Small refinements have been introduced over the years, culminating in a complete revamp in early 2000, when the machine was unofficially designated the Mark 3. Since then, a change to SRAM hubs has altered the gear options, and just about every component has been altered, upgraded or replaced yet again. In other words, a 2003 machine looks similar to a 1993 machine, but they differ in almost every respect.

Now, for the first time in 16 years, the bike looks different too. It came about almost by chance. A couple of years ago, the factory adopted an auto-brazing machine to fix the handlebar hinge into the stem (yes, everything else is brazed by hand).Without getting too involved with brazings, forgings and castings, it made sense to fit the frame hinge the same way, but this involved a substantial redesign, and one of the side-effects was a 30mm longer unfolded frame, but no change in the folded size. And in a world where success is measured in terms of the difference between folded and unfolded dimensions, those few measly millimetres are quite big news.

The 2004 Brompton

brompton-bike-frame-clampWe thought we’d need a micrometer to spot the change, but with the bike unfolded, it leaps out at you.Where the curved section of the frame tube used to reach almost to the handlebar stem, the straight bits either side of the hinge give the bike a noticeably different form.

Instead of being cheekily banana-shaped, it’s longer and more elegant, making the whole machine look bigger and a little more grown- up. For smaller folk, this will mean little, but for those who previously looked like spindly stick-insects on the Brompton, knee-room is noticeably increased.

Wheelbase has grown to about 105cm – just over 41 inches.Whether you can feel the difference on the road is debatable, but an increase in wheelbase is always welcome, and it seems reasonable to assume that a 3% increase is going to reduce the choppiness of the ride and the tendency to lift a front or rear wheel by at least the same sort of margin.

Despite the extra length and a smaller, neater frame hinge (that’s Computer Aided Design for you), the whole assembly is noticeably more rigid. Useful if you like to ride out of the saddle, and generally put a folding bike to work.Weight has gone up in some areas and down in others – our fully equipped T6 test bike came out at a shade under 12.6kg (28lb).That’s a little more than the official weight of the Mark 3, but our bike had heavy Schwalbe Marathon tyres, which would more or less account for the difference.

Folded size depends on saddle height, handlebar position and whether the saddle stem clamp is placed forward or back. Brompton (naturally enough) quotes the smallest possible size of 77 litres, or 2.7 cubic feet. More realistically, the bike occupies about 90 litres or 3.2 cubic feet, and with the saddle at maximum height on the standard seat pillar and positioned right back, our test bike measured 101 litres, or 3.6 cubic feet.We were hoping that the longer frame would make it possible to ride with the saddle forward, and although that might be the case for smaller people, it was not for us.

Front carrier frame

brompton-folding-bike-front-carrierWe mentioned this back in October, and although it may not sound the most exciting advance, CAD techniques have enabled the Brompton boffins to reduce the weight of the front pannier bag frame from 690g to 400g.This substantial cut has been achieved through a mixture of light alloy tubes and nylon castings. It’s all very high-tech and Bromptonesque, and makes a noticeable difference to the weight of the pannier bag.With the panniers down in price to £40 – £70 (according to spec, and including the new frame) there’s never been a better time to upgrade that front luggage. If you have a serviceable bag already, the new frame costs about £25.50 on its own.


axa-hr-traction-dynamoThe dynamo lights on the Brompton have changed out of all recognition in the last few years. Early dynamos whined and seized, while dim bulbs fought to provide illumination.The arrival of a Basta LED rear light and halogen front lamp brought a dramatic improvement a few years ago, and there’s now an Axa HR dynamo too. It’s hard to say how useful this is, but it’s quiet, it rolls easily, and light output, even at low speed, is excellent.

You still have to own a ‘T’ type with a rear rack to fit this excellent dynamo set (£18.64, plus £10 for the halogen lamp as an upgrade).We’d prefer to see a front dynamo feeding a larger three watt headlight and completely separate battery LED at the rear.This would eliminate the wiring loom and provide a rear standlight.The dynamo could then be optional on both the ‘T’ or lighter ‘L’ models.

Brake cable gaiters

brompton-folding-bike-brake-cable-coverAnother small, but worthwhile development. A tiny plastic rod is fixed into the brake calliper and the previously exposed inner cable is protected from the elements by a flexible rubber gaiter. Brompton brake cables are prone to water ingress because the cables point upwards, so this tiny change should help improve cable life and braking performance on all-weather bikes. Unfortunately, older bikes can only be upgraded by drilling the calliper, but the gaiters cost only £1.50 each.

Handlebar catch

brompton-folding-bike-handlebar-clipA long long overdue change – the handlebar locking catch has been replaced with a new design that should help to keep the folded handlebars under control, and prevent them flying open at inconvenient moments. A great safety upgrade for older bikes at £3.71, and highly recommended.

Another change that arrived without fanfare a few months ago is a proper catch for locking the wheels together when the bike is folded.

Previously, the front mudguard stay doubled as a hook, but often got bent on older bikes, allowing the front wheel to unfold involuntarily.The new stay can be fitted to older bikes and costs £3, or £10 if a new mudguard stay is needed.


Once upon a time you could have a Brompton in any colour you liked as long as it was black for the expensive jobs or red for the cheapo models, but the range has blossomed in the last few years. Current thinking is to continue with the well-established basic colours, but provide a list of special optional finishes for an extra £35, the selection being changed every year.The 2004 list includes Baby Pink, Cobalt Blue, Aquamarine Blue and Apple Green.We were longing to see the pink bike, but had to settle for Aquamarine Blue with Ivory extremities. In our opinion this is a rather unhappy combination – the sort of thing that appeared briefly with fins on US cars in the 1950s.The other colours have been delayed, so we can’t venture an opinion, but the principle is great. Brompton dealers will be supplied with a computerised illustrated brochure, updated with accurate renditions of the new colours.

Carry bag

After numerous false starts from both Brompton and others, it looks as though a good air or coach carry bag solution is on the way. Brompton has designed a soft, but thickly padded bag that should protect against most handling disasters, yet fold small enough to carry with you at journey’s end (a hard case gives full protection, but how do you carry it?).The prototype we saw was bristling with extras, such as wheels and a neat shoulder-strap, and is expected to sell for £85 or thereabouts. A great advance, but not likely to be in the shops for a few weeks yet.

Brompton tel 0208 232 8484 web www.bromptonbicycle.co.uk

DIY Lafree Trailer

Large capacity cycle goods trailers are generally rather ugly contraptions, particularly if home-constructed, so I thought you might like to see the matching trailer I made for my Giant Lafree.The basis is a 13kg French Vantly cargo trailer bought from discounter Cycle King of Croydon for just £79! The original steel surround was removed, and this much larger aluminium frame attached with four coachbolts.The materials used were two Beldray 7-tread step ladders on offer at Do-it-All for £15 each, plus an old 2-step ladder.


Step ladders sound an unlikely raw material for trailer construction, but if you think about it, they're cheap, well-finished and light. Tony has since produced a longer body using the same construction. Several suitable cheap trailer chassis have come onto the market recently

The ladder’s rubber feet were attached at the rear, so the trailer stands on it’s tail whether loaded or not.The construction is pop-rivetted and amazingly strong.

The weight with the hitch is 14kg – only 1kg more than the original trailer, despite the huge increase in capacity.The hitch is designed to put the trailer directly behind the bike to help negotiate the many combined pedestrian/cycle paths in my heavily-trafficked home town of Croydon.The low pulling point and accurate tracking make the trailer a pleasure to use. On the bike, the load is spread between several points on the rack – I expected to add a frame brace, but in two months, carrying loads of up to 70kg in this hilly area, it hasn’t proved necessary.

Incidentally, I fitted the non-standard crossbar (a length of chromed-steel tubing) on the Lafree because dealers only had stocks of the step-thru ‘ladies’ bike when I bought it. One operational point – the Lafree’s rear ‘horseshoe’ lock makes an excellent handbrake when parking the outfit on hills.

Total cost of the trailer was £120 – completely out of proportion to the interest attracted by its co-ordinated appearance. I’ve ruled out a matching silver lurex leotard though! (Shame. Eds)


Bliss Electric Folding BikeThis review was published in February 2004. The Bliss has long since disappeared, and electric bikes have changed a great deal. Interesting historical item though!
Sooner or later, someone will produce a practical folding electric bike. Unfortunately, the Bliss isn’t it, but intriguingly, we think this dog’s-breakfast of a machine points the way to the future.

The Bliss

The Bliss is a dumpy little aluminium 305mm (16″) wheeled folding bike with a central frame hinge, and fold- down bars, producing a relatively compact folded package.Whatever its dynamic qualities, (or lack thereof), it’s a cute-looking little machine, sold – rather absurdly – in City,Touring and Extreme (ie, off-road) versions. Unusually, it features full suspension and a relatively state-of-the-art electric drive system. At 22.9kg (50lb) it’s extremely heavy by folding bike standards, but a clear leader amongst folding electric bikes, which just goes to show how impractical these machines still are.

With a height range of 64cm – 98cm, the standard saddle stem (there are alternatives, apparently) provides a reasonable adjustment range, and thanks to a rigid alloy frame, the front end of the bike is quite solid. Unfortunately, the handlebar stem is tall and flexible, an effect made worse on our sample by a poorly-machined and wobbly hinge.


The protruding suspension arms can be a nuisance

For these reasons, you wouldn’t want to pull on the bars, so gears are important.The Bliss has gears, but the 6-speed Shimano SIS derailleur is the sort of dodgy equipment fitted to cheapo children’s bikes, so most eight-year-olds would sneer at the 29″-58″ ratios.That’s neither low enough nor high enough to make any sort of sensible progress. Fortunately, power-assistance lends a hand up hill, but the motor is geared to give a top whack of only 11mph, and with a 58″ top gear, human power tops out soon after.Yes, 14mph is attainable, but 12mph is more realistic. Incidentally, one Bliss owner has fitted a slightly more realistic Sachs 13-21 tooth gear set (with some machining), giving a 62″ top gear – a small increase, but a transformation in terms of practicality.

Rolling resistance is so poor that higher gearing doesn’t give the benefit one would expect. A combination of wide, squidgy 16”x1.95” low-pressure tyres, tight bearings, wonky rims (causing binding brakes), and a strange friction-box movement sensor on the crank, combined to give a non-result on our test hill. In other words, it failed to complete the descent, the first bicycle ever to fail.

Looking rather desperately for the positive, the rack looks quite solid, and the dinky front suspension forks work rather well, although without damping, so watch out for motion- sickness. On the other hand, the rear suspension is virtually immovable, and the width of the brutish rear frame forces you to ride with a bow-legged gate. Suspension is largely unnecessary anyway, because the squidgy tyres wallow cheerfully through most road shocks.They’re rated at 35psi, but 36- spoke, deep section rims mean it’s a bit of a wrestling match getting air into them.


We won’t dwell overlong on folding, because it’s a dismal affair.With the saddle stem removed and plonked in the middle, the Bliss makes a package of around 52cm wide, 57cm tall, and 75cm long. Much of the width is caused by the handlebars and suspension forks failing to come together.

Given the short wheelbase (yes, it’s prone to wheelies in the lower gears), it hardly seems worth folding the Bliss at all. Any other grumbles? Well, the VP112 folding pedals are years out of date and positively dangerous, and there’s no securing strap, so this ungainly 22 litre (7.8 cubic foot) package has to be held together as you heave it into a car boot, for example.

Get the feeling we don’t like it? The problem is that we know folding bikes rather well, and this simply isn’t a good folding bike.The Bliss appears to be designed in China to appeal to overweight overly- wealthy Westerners who want something to chuck in the car boot – all shiny alloy and go- faster coil springs, but a functional disaster area. If you have very low expectations of folders (or electric bikes, for that matter), you might be happy with something like this, but if you’ve ridden something better, you’ll be extremely disappointed.

…If you have very low expectations… you might be happy with something like this…

The Drive System

bliss-electric-bike-motorThis is the neat bit.The brushless DC motor measures only 130mm in diameter, and 100mm in width. So if the engineers at Pashley, Brompton or Dahon are reading, yes, this sort of thing could be squeezed into the front wheel of your folding bikes. At a rated output of 180 watts, it’s not particularly powerful, but the peak power of 288 watts at 8mph is useful enough, and combined with the low gearing, gives the Bliss a capacity to climb just about anything, albeit at a fairly sedate speed. The motor doesn’t so much buzz or whine, as emit a pleasantly high-tech harmonic, just like state-of-the-art Millennial machines are supposed to do.

Speed control is switchable to avoid the legislative morass. In ‘pedelec’ mode the bike cranks gently up to full power when you pedal, but the ‘e-bike’ mode is much better, providing full control via a sensitive and responsive twistgrip throttle. As is so often the case, we tested the pedelec mode and never used it again, so if we were buying the bike, we’d dump the friction box straight in the bin, Euro- regs or no Euro-regs.

Elsewhere, the battery box is claimed to contain a Nickel-Metal Hydride pack of 192Wh, 216Wh, 240Wh, or 312Wh, depending who you believe. Our test equipment suggests a true figure of 170Wh or even less, making the claims look a bit naughty.With a range of 11 miles at a rather lethargic 10mph, overall fuel consumption (including charger losses) comes out at 19 watts/mile. That’s one of the worst figures we’ve seen, but it’s probably not the fault of the motor – most of those watts are being absorbed by the tyres, the wonky wobbly bits, the see-sawing suspension and so on. If pedalling isn’t your style, the Bliss will motor for about seven miles, provided you keep clear of hills (it won’t quite climb a 10% gradient). We should point out that the manufacturer claims the bike will climb a 10% gradient without assistance, and run for 20 to 30 miles. These claims are clearly as inaccurate as the battery capacity.

The battery includes a multi-LED fuel gauge, but you can’t see it when on the move, and it’s pretty useless anyway, zipping up and down the scale according to throttle position. When stationary, it gives some useful data – the 1st light goes out at three miles, the 2nd at 4.5, third at 5.7 and forth at nine miles. As the battery conks out two miles down the road, the remaining half dozen LEDs are superfluous. The good news is that the battery weighs only 3.8kg (8lb 6oz), and a full charge takes less than three hours, after which the charger maintains a safe ‘trickle’ charge.

If you’re thinking of buying any electric bike, always test ride it with the power off for at least a kilometre to make sure you can get home with a flat battery. Riding unassisted, you realise just how unpleasant the Bliss really is – pedalling is a bit like treading treacle.

The way Forward…

Now, we must apply a bit of imagination. Let’s take an ordinary Brompton or Dahon, costing £250-£500. As standard, the bike might weigh 11kg or so, and be capable of a good 15mph cruise on the flat and reasonable progress in mildly hilly country. It’s a good compact folding bike, but not really up to 600 foot ascents.

Now factor in a decent NiMH battery pack, Bliss-style brushless motor and a few other bits, and you have a bike weighing about 17kg, that folds well, nips along at 15mph on the flat, but can also climb gradients of 10% with relative ease, and much steeper hills for short periods. Bring all these elements together and you’d have a viable machine.


We’re told that the Bliss is selling well to motorists evading the congestion charge. That’s great news, of course, but we still think it’s a poor purchase. Electric bikes dwell in a fairly well defined viability envelope – step outside it and they cease to serve any purpose.The best are light enough, free-running enough and efficient enough to thoroughly outclass their non-powered equivalents, but the Bliss simply cannot compete with a human-powered folding bike. In other words, you really would be better off buying a conventional Dahon (a third of the price) or a Brompton (anything up to the same price, but faster, lighter and a sheer delight to ride).

The Bliss costs £700, and to be perfectly honest, we wouldn’t recommend buying one if it cost half that. If you can live without the fold, the far superior Giant Lafree costs about the same to run, because it goes further and faster on a charge. Are there any better electric folders around? In a word, no, because most of the alternatives are heavier and even cruder. If you really want one, go for a Heinzmann-powered Fold-it or Brompton.This option is expensive, but you’ll have a proper folding bike with decent equipment and a near 20-mile assisted range.


Bliss £699
Weight Bicycle 19.1kg (42lb) Battery 3.8kg (8lb) Total 22.9kg (50lb)
Gears Shimano SIS 6-spd
Ratios 29″ -58″
Batteries Nickel Metal-Hydride
Estimated Capacity 170Wh
Maximum Range Pedelec 11 miles Motor-only 7 miles
Fuel Consumption Pedelec 19Wh/mile Motor-only 30Wh/mile
Full charge 21/2 hours
Running costs 7.5p per mile
UK distributor Bliss Bikes tel 0870 241 8446 web www.blissbikes.co.uk mail sales@blissbikes.co.uk

The Caledonian Sleeper

‘Green Tourism’ is a rather hackneyed phrase these days, but the bottom line is that large number of tourists almost always end up destroying the things they’ve come to gawp at. Fortunately, there are a few enjoyable, relaxing holidays that won’t perforate the ozone layer (or your wallet), and we think this is a superb example.

The Highlands

Scotland is a great holiday destination, but if you drive there, you’re committed to long tedious hours on the M6, with all the pollution and unpleasantness that entails, or fly north, and either wrestle with airport buses or hire a car to reach your destination. Neither option is particularly enjoyable, but there is another way – Scotrail’s Caledonian Sleeper.To avoid awkward transfers, we took the train theme even further, hiring a holiday coach at Rogart station on the Far North railway line, reached by a simple cross-platform connection from the sleeper at Inverness station.

The golden era of the holiday carriage was more or less over by the 1950s, making the privately-owned examples at Rogart amongst the last in the country, but if you think sleeper trains are a thing of the past, think again.The only real casualty in recent years has been the West of England-Scotland service (which would have suited us very well), leaving trains from London to Scotland only. Some of the more tenuous Highland services were threatened by railway privatisation in the early ‘90s, but all survived, and Scotrail runs trains from London Euston every night (except Saturdays), to Glasgow & Edinburgh (the Lowlander), and Fort William, Aberdeen, and our destination, Inverness (the Highlander). The company provides 800 berths, plus around 240 seats, six nights a week, removing some 500 cars and 250,000 car miles from the over-stressed motorway network nightly. That’s more than 77 million car-miles each year.

…800 berths, six nights a week… That’s more than 77 million car-miles each year…

caledonian-sleeper-2The Lowlander leaves London at close to midnight, splitting and arriving in both Glasgow and Edinburgh just after 7am, while the Highland portions leave London at 9.05pm as one massive 16-coach train (currently the longest scheduled passenger service on Britain’s railways) before splitting at Edinburgh into more manageable chunks. Despite a leisurely schedule, arrival times are 7.35 in Aberdeen, 8.30 in Inverness, and 9.43am in Fort William. Coming the other way, all trains are scheduled to arrive in London between 7.30 and 8am, making the sleeper something of a favourite with businessmen facing an early meeting in the capital.

If you’re unfamiliar with sleeping on the move, the motion (including occasional jolts from the locomotive) can be unsettling at first, but we dropped off relatively quickly and slept quite well. Air- conditioning in the berths is very responsive, and the subtle lighting and efficient sound-proofing would help to get most people in the mood for a kip.



We had no problem fitting four Bromptons and luggage into three sleeper berths, with three bikes and a child seat in one berth alone

The Caledonian Sleepers include a reasonable-sized luggage area for skis, bags and/or up to six bicycles.We would have been pretty nervous about taking full-size bikes on a multi-train journey of this kind anyway, but the Inverness portion of the Sleeper carries containers of fresh shellfish to select London restaurants (yes, honestly) and thus offers space for only three bicycles. In any event, the Class 158 trains from Inverness northwards only carry two bikes on a good day, so we’d strongly recommend leaving the cumbersome at home.

…In the south, Rogart would be considered a hamlet, but it’s quite a regional centre…

In practice, a couple of Bromptons (plus a child seat) fitted easily onto the spare bed in our 4-bed family berth. For two travelling together in a single berth, one compact folding machine will fit on the floor and another on the shelf, although this can make late-night tooth-brushing a bit of a Houdini job. Although the cabin attendants hardly raised on eyebrow at the bikes (and we’d guess a fully dismembered Bike Friday or Airnimal would be no problem in a travel case), anything larger would have to take it’s chances in the luggage area.

Actually, a bicycle is very much an option for this holiday, because the pair of 8-berth holiday coaches at Rogart are situated in the station yard, less than 100 metres from the platform. Accommodation is fairly basic, but with weekly rates of £195 to £225 for eight (cheaper mid-week deals are available off- season), extremely good value.The coaches have retained their full-length corridor, with original toilet and additional shower at each end. Four of the former 1st-class compartments have been converted into two-berth sleepers, one into a sitting room, another into a dining room, and the last making a practical kitchen. For serious rail enthusiasts, a fully functioning Class 127 DMU will be converted later in the year.The coaches also provide hostel accommodation at a reasonable £10 per night (under 12s £7.50), with a further 10% discount for cyclists and/or rail users.

The Highlands

caledonian-sleeper-4In the south of England, Rogart would be considered a hamlet, but in Highland terms, it’s quite a regional centre, with a good pub/restaurant and the sort of general store that stocks everything from bootlaces to smoked salmon. For walkers, the moors and peaks are just off the station platform, and we spent many happy hours dodging sleet showers to peer down at our tiny carriage from wind-blasted peaks with unpronounceable names. For cyclists, all roads except the A9 are quiet, back roads virtually car-free, and the local drivers courteous without exception.The easiest ride of all is to take the train ten miles up the valley to Lairg and cruise back: down hill all the way, with a prevailing tailwind.

For more serious on or off-road types, the Far North offers great opportunities for adventure. Our favourite was 60 miles up the line to Altnabreac, surely one of the loneliest railway stations in Britain, with no electricity, and some miles from the nearest tarmacadam road, followed by a swift ride north on well surfaced trails to the slightly less remote Scotscalder station, for the train home. As if this trip weren’t surreal enough, Scotscalder has been restored to the way it might have looked in around 1930, although rather disappointingly, the stationmaster has been replaced by a track ganger from Jarvis with a Ford Escort and a mobile phone.

Altnabreac’s lonely shelter has a phone, which is fortunate, because if you normally commute on the 5.11pm, you’ll be facing a 14 hour wait for the next train if you happen to miss it.The Far North line has only three trains a day, so trips must be planned around the scanty timetable. Fortunately, the timings from Rogart are perfect for leisure journeys – outward on the 8.36 (south) or 9.07 (north), and back for lunch or supper.

The Dornoch Firth road crossing and (dotted line) the rail crossing that never was

There are buses along the coast too, and unusually the bus south can be faster than the train.When the Dornoch Firth was bridged in the 1980s, the A9 road took the short-cut, but funding was refused for a combined rail/road bridge, leaving the railway wiggling and squiggling inland for twenty miles, while the road coaches head due north.This very British scandal has caused mutterings in Highland transport circles ever since, but a rail bridge looks unlikely in the current climate. It’s the usual story: the Department for Transport refused to allow investment in track and rolling stock to give the line a long-term future, but – quite frankly – hasn’t got the guts to close it either.These days, of course, they’ll tell you that improvements are ‘a commercial decision for the operator’.That’s funny, we thought the taxpayer was funding the railways – we must have misunderstood. Nevertheless, Far North rail services are well-patronised, particularly in the summer, and since 2002 Scotrail has taken the unusual step of providing a road van to carry overflow bicycles at peak times.

Against all the odds, the line also has a new (and very successful) commuter service into Inverness and occasional freight trains, including timber and a daily train for Safeway supermarkets. If you want to know more about such things (and anything relating to trains, tractors or bicycles in the Highlands) you’ll need to talk to our hosts at Rogart, Katy and Frank Roach.When he’s not helping with the sleeper carriage business, Frank Roach is Rail Development Manager for the Highland Rail Partnership.

How does the sleeper compare?

The daily Safeway train passing Rogart

Cheap flights abound to Edinburgh and Glasgow – albeit at slightly odd hours – but flying is more problematic than you might think, and Inverness can be expensive.To start with, most departures are from Heathrow or Gatwick, necessitating quite a trek out of London, and many flights stop-over in Glasgow, giving a four-hour plus journey time.


We found return Inverness air tickets from £170 to £500 per person (yes, four-year- old Alexander would pay too), but we couldn’t find an arrival time before 12.30, to which you must add a couple more hours for hiring a car, and driving the remaining 80 miles to Rogart. All things considered, we would have been lucky to get much change from a grand, including transfers. Driving from London means a journey of 621 miles each way, which the Automobile Association reckon will take you about 12 hours, but you’d need some sort of rest break too, unless you’re completely potty. On the AA’s figures, the cost of the journey would be £500 to £600 in a typical car.


Waiting at Scotscalder

Scotrail offers a bewildering array of fares aboard the Highland Sleeper. Looking only at return packages, fares start at £38 per person (effectively a standby fare, booked via the internet up to 12 noon the day before travel, but you need to be flexible about dates) to £215 for a 1st class return.The ‘normal’ fares are £149 return for a 2nd class sleeper berth (solitary travellers may have to share with someone of the same sex), or £90 return for a seat, albeit the comfy reclining kind. That could prove good value if you find sleep impossible on the move. Advance Apex tickets cost £99 in a sleeper berth or £55 seated. Our Family ticket, for up to four people in two inter-linked cabins (at least one occupant must be a child), cost £290 for the return journey – quite a bargain against the alternatives.

Sleeper tips:

 – Try to avoid travelling on a Sunday while the West Coast engineering works continue. Until 21st March, Glasgow and Edinburgh trains will be diverted on Sundays, but the Highland portions will not run. Discussions are underway to keep disruption to a minimum during the busy summer period.

– If taking a folding bike, make sure it’s bagged and well-disguised prior to departure.There’s usually plenty of room in the guard’s van, but choose the right van

– the Highland train starts out with three! – The lounge cars are a popular (if smoky) destination for a nightcap, but regular travellers tend to grab the best seats early on. Send someone straight along to get the pints in.


The advantage of the sleeper is that it sets you down refreshed and ready to start enjoying yourself, then whisks you away at the end of a hard day’s entertainment, depositing you back in the capital in time for (and ready to face) work or leisure. But travelling the length of the United Kingdom at night, the Scotrail sleeper is vulnerable to delays and disruption from engineering works, and when we travelled in October, the West Coast mainline was in total disarray, resulting in an arrival in Inverness over an hour late. Fortunately, there’s a generous ‘connection’ for the Far North trains.

Coming home, the promised eight o’clock arrival in London eventually stretched to eleven-something – awkward if you’ve arranged onward travel. None of this can be blamed on Scotrail, of course, but you’ll know our view by now:The problems will only really be over when the rail industry is stitched back together. Delays aside, the sleeper is enormous fun, especially for four-year-olds, but then isn’t everything?

Sleeper info & Reservations: Scotrail web www.scotrail.co.uk mail enquiries@scotrail.co.uk The Rogart Railway Carriage Co: Kate Roach tel/fax 01408 641343
mail kate@sleeperzzz.com web www.sleeperzzz.com

Recommended night reading: Iron Roads to the Far North & Kyle. A fully illustrated guide book to the Far North line, full of railway and background historical information. Good value for £4.99. Michael Pearson . ISBN 0 907864 98 8
Publisher Wayzgoose web www.wayzgoose.org.uk tel 01283 713674

Letter from America – The Party’s Over

letter-from-america-the-party-is-overHow do you explain Jan Lundberg? He isn’t at all what one would expect from his family background. What do you say about a man who has torn up his driveway and planted a vegetable garden in its place? Perhaps he is just odd, or maybe it is because he lives in Arcata, California, a small town in the far northern part of the state. Arcata is in redwood country – cool, damp and foggy. Life among the redwood trees takes some strange turns for some people. It has happened before.

In 1855, about 12 miles down the road from where Mr. Lundberg lives now, U.S. Army Captain Sam Grant was busily destroying his Army career. He was stationed at an obscure Army post, far from home, lonely and thoroughly miserable. He spent most of his days wandering around the post in an alcoholic haze. Captain Grant’s dereliction of duty was so clear that his commanding officer strongly ‘encouraged’ him to resign his commission and leave the Army. He did, and returned, defeated and humiliated, to his family roots in the Midwest. For the next five years, former Captain Grant failed at just about every profession and occupation available to him.

In 1861 the American Civil War erupted while Sam Grant was working as a clerk in his father-in-law’s leather goods store.The Federal government was desperate for any sort of military experience in its drive to suppress the Southern Confederacy and Sam Grant managed to talk his way back into the military life.Two years later, in 1863, after a series of small victories and then the destruction of an entire Confederate army at Vicksburg, Mississippi, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was appointed commander of all Federal armies by President Lincoln. As far as General Grant’s ‘difficulty’ with certain beverages was concerned, Mr. Lincoln’s answer was: ‘I can’t spare this man. He fights.’

…world oil output will peak around 2015, and after that will enter a long decline…

For the next 20 months, General Grant – Unconditional Surrender Grant to the Northern states, and Butcher Grant to the Confederates – directed a series of ferocious campaigns against the failing Confederacy. By the summer of 1865, the Confederacy had been wrecked, the war had sputtered to a close, President Lincoln had been murdered, and former Captain Grant found himself hailed in the victorious Northern states as the Saviour of the Union. In November 1868, Sam Grant was elected President of the United States. Life takes some strange turns in the redwood country.

Jan Lundberg’s life, though not nearly as important or as dramatic as General Grant’s, has taken some strange turns as well. For many years his family has published The Lundberg Letter, which still advertises itself as ‘The Bible of the Oil Industry’. Mr. Lundberg’s roots in the oil business are wide and deep, and yet he has turned away from all that.These days he operates the Sustainable Energy Institute from his headquarters in Arcata, and publishes articles like ‘The Fall of Petroleum Civilization’ and ‘Peak Oil: A Turning Point For Humankind’. His website [www.culturechange.org] is stacked with articles like these, both about oil and related subjects. Jan Lundberg does not like a lot about modern life. He does not like cars. He does not like roads. He considers our dependence on oil, especially foreign oil, as a gigantic dead-end. He has been singing this song for about 15 years now, and lately many other voices from the oil industry have joined the choir.The general consensus among the oil experts is that all of the world’s oil supplies, with the exception of the fields of the Middle East, have reached and passed their peak. American oil production peaked in 1970, and has been declining ever since.The best estimates these days are that world oil production will peak sometime around the year 2015, and after that will enter a long and irreversible decline.The title of Richard Heinberg’s book on the subject tells the story – The Party’s Over.What happens then?

A to B readers would probably think in terms of the effects on transportation.That may be the least of our problems. One expert has calculated that if petroleum were to disappear tomorrow, world food production would drop by two-thirds. Every area of modern life will surely be affected, and we cannot even begin to see the total picture.The USA is well positioned to make the transition away from the Age of Oil, but it will be vastly expensive and difficult.We have huge reserves of coal in America, but then coal is dirty and rather inefficient. Nuclear energy is available – and lethal.The American Southwest has good potential for solar energy production, and the American Midwest has enormous potential for wind power.The Age of Oil came into existence over several decades, and will fade out the same way, if current projections can be trusted.

The governments of the world are of course well aware of these projections, but have chosen not to publicise them, so far. Such estimates in the past have proven too pessimistic, and no government is interested in stirring up needless panic.What looks different this time is that the pessimism is coming from the oil industry itself, not from the usual collection of eco-buffs. It appears that we of the 21st century will once again learn the truth of the ancient Chinese curse.We are going to be living in interesting times.

Sam Grant and Jan Lundberg – two lives separated by 12 miles and 150 years.Yet they are tied together by more than redwood trees.The American Age of Oil began around 1870 with the operations of an obscure Ohio businessman. His name was John D. Rockefeller, and in those years he began to put together the American colossus of oil, the Standard Oil Corporation. It happened during the White House years of President Grant, and with his enthusiastic encouragement. Now, in our time, clear notice comes from Jan Lundberg and others that the Age of Oil is about to peak.

For the young, this transition will probably be the great event of their lives. How will we cope? We will surely be brave. As one of John Steinbeck’s characters said in The Grapes of Wrath, ‘It’s easy to be brave when you have no other choice’.