For months now we’ve been terribly short of space, but at last we’ve progressed our master plan to add extra pages – four this time, but there may be more in 2005. More space means more expense, but we’re hoping to keep the cover price unchanged for the time being, and we’re grateful to our past and present advertisers who’s continued support has made this possible.A very jolly and prosperous Christmas to the cycle shops and manufacturers big and small that have backed us over the years, and to each and every subscriber. In such a specialist area, and with a relatively small subscription base, individuals really do count Thank you! Oops, almost forgot… bike of the month. We’re tempted to opt for the BionX. It’s certainly one of the most unusual bicycles we’ve seen.
Oh dear, the Bickerton lives on. A long aluminium tube surmounted by some wobbly looking handlebars – it’s all horribly familiar. Actually, the iXi looks a lot more elegant than any Bickerton ever was. But I ask you, belt drive! I have memories of an early belt-drive Birdy of almost legendary inefficiency. ‘Like cycling through treacle,’ was one of the kinder verdicts on this ‘clean, grease-free’ system. And why does the iXi split in half instead of folding down properly? The ‘impact resistant’ drinks holder looks very swish, but will your tea be impact resistant too? The in-frame storage could be handy if you need to carry a banana. And here’s the punchline: £999 for the split-apart version, with not much change from £1,200 if you specify the optional lights, luggage, mudguards and key fob. Still, the website is very nice.
VERDICT – MISS
…carefully thought out, but they used all the wrong thoughts…
For – step-thru frame, carrying handle and front disk brake (no rim wear). Against – heavy aluminium frame with no rear suspension and 100 psi balloon tyres, which must give a harsh bumpy ride.The bike does not fold, but separates (eventually) into too many unmanageable bits. And quick releases everywhere mean any of these parts can be stolen by passing criminals.
The oil-free belt drive is nice, but this system will give no positive feel. It needs a chain fully enclosed in a lightweight chaincase (this would be possible, because the rear end does not fold).There aren’t enough gears either (five or six hub gears should be the minimum), and the back-pedalling coaster brake is not up to busy stop-go urban commuter traffic in my opinion.
Surprisingly on such an expensive bike, there are no mudguards or lights as standard, and the basket system – although adequate – seems to have to stay on the bike once fitted. It looks as though it would seriously inhibit the separation of the bike for storage. The price is outrageous – £1,130 as I would equip it. I would expect to pay nearer £380 for this sort of machine.
This bike has been very carefully thought out, but they used all the wrong thoughts. I’m confused as to what it is actually for. I can only think it is suitable as a very short-haul shopping bike.
VERDICT – MISS
iXi Breakaway UK £999 (plus £40 p&p) . USA $1,289 (plus shipping) .Weight (claimed) 12.3kg (27lb) Folded dimensions (claimed) 91cm x 61cm x 38cm . Folded volume(estimated) 211 litres (7.5 cu ft) . Gear system Nexus 4-spd hub (with belt drive) . Gear Ratios (estimated) 49″ – 91″ Manufacturer Delta Cycle Corp. tel +1 800 474 6615 mail email@example.com
Cyclists with busy schedules and a folding bike can get from Leeds to most parts of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, as there is a weekly bus service as far as Hawes in Wensleydale.The 804 departs from Leeds Bus Station at 9.40 on a Sunday morning.The fare is £3.60 single, but a ‘Day Rover’ return ticket costs only £4. However, do check the times and fares before you go! Here’s an account of my recent trip.
The bus was a single-decker and about two-thirds full.The other passengers were mainly hikers and those who noticed the Brompton were delighted with the ease of folding and carrying. As a Brompton owner you get many opportunities to show off, as you demonstrate the 12-second fold. Even the T5 touring version with dynamo lights, a rack, saddlebag, tools and puncture repair kit only weighs around 13.6kg (30lb).
With a fully-loaded front touring pannier and a 50 litre rucksack on the rear carrier it weighs a bit more.When the bike is folded and carried (or wheeled along) using your right arm, you can carry a touring pannier in your left hand and the rucksack on your back.When riding, straps secure the rucksack to the underside of the saddle and the top of the rear carrier. I have no trouble fitting all the gear needed for a cycle-camping tour into the front pannier and the rucksack.
The advantage of a rucksack as cycle luggage on a folding bike, over conventional panniers on a traditional touring cycle, are that if desired, you can roam off over the hills and footpaths with the rucksack whilst the bike is locked up safely back at the campsite or hostel. A decent-sized rucksack fits neatly between saddle and rear carrier on the Brompton.
…a fine feast, with more pudding and custard…Bakewell tart this time…
I got off the bus in Grassington and had a pleasant breakfast at the Cobblestones Café. After buying some provisions in the shops I then cycled on to Kettlewell; it’s about six miles and very pleasant on the old back road. Stopping to talk to some walkers resting on a convenient wooden bench we had a chat about the wonders of the Dales.
At Kettlewell I registered in the Youth Hostel, which was almost empty. After a delicious evening meal (followed by a Portly-ish sponge pudding and custard for afters!), I rode up onto the moors on the Leyburn road.There are two very steep 1:4 hills, which were fun, but hair-raising, to descend. I came across some friends on my return who were in Kettlewell for the day and had arrived by car, with two small toddlers.We chatted until night began to fall, when I locked my trusty folder in the shed next to the hostel and waved goodbye to my friends. Back inside, I found a fellow resident, so we retired to the friendly King’s Head for a drink and a game of dominoes.
Next day I walked up Great Whernside in bright sunshine and got soaked to the skin when the weather changed – I had to navigate off the hill through the mist and clouds with a compass.What a fine adventure! The following day I climbed Buckden Pike. Two sheepdogs, one a young puppy, left their owner building a wall and accompanied me up the hill. It was very windy and cold, but sunny and warm in the shelter of a drystone wall. I returned to the hostel with the aid of a head torch as night was falling and had a fine feast, with more pudding and custard… Bakewell tart this time.
On the third day I rode back to Grassington on a fine crisp spring morning, and on to Skipton, where the market was in full swing. After an interesting look round I bought some shoes, some fine cheeses and pies and a Derby Tweed jacket! My loaded Brompton was safe, locked up in a largely crime-free Skipton and so I went to look round the antiques and bric-a-brac fair in the Town Hall.
My stay eventually ran its course and I caught the hourly bus back to Leeds – a very reasonable off-peak fare of only £1.70.When I first returned to bus travel after scrapping my car I was pleasantly surprised to discover how friendly other passengers usually are. As a car driver one frequently experiences other drivers as ‘competitors’ trying to overtake, even when it is not safe, and a continual struggle for road space takes place.The road was busy with traffic and I was glad to be ‘chauffeur driven’.The bus driver deals with all the stresses of the journey. Sometimes it’s fun being a cyclist!
A number of special buses (including one with a trailer for conventional bikes) run into the Yorkshire Dales from Leeds,York and elsewhere on summer Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holidays.There’s also a basic winter service. Special offers include a £1 discount at Malham Youth Hostel (look after t’pennies, lad’) on production of your bus ticket. Full details of the 2005 services can be found at www.dalesbus.org
Bicycles can carry astonishing loads, but there’s a limit to the amount you can pile on the bicycle itself.That’s where trailers come in. Living without a car, we’d be severely disadvantaged without a bike trailer – they are wonderful things. Alexander usually trailer- bikes to school these days, but in a typical week, our trailer still ferries heavy loads to the local tip, recycling to the bottle bank, collects shopping from the town, meets rail passengers carrying a spare folder, and numerous other tasks. It’s hard to say how many miles it does, but it’s probably two-thirds of our total electric bike mileage.We use a two-wheeled trailer exclusively – they’re easier to hitch and unhitch than a single-wheeler, carry more and can be wiggled through surprisingly small gaps.
We’re great advocates of child trailers for all purposes, partly because they keep sleepy motorists awake. As a general rule, cars will give a child trailer a wide berth – we’ve certainly had fewer ‘incidents’ with a trailer attached than riding without.
The best all-round designs fold quickly, carry two children plus a couple of shopping bags, or 40 to 50kg of freight. Many such trailers exist.We’re still using a US-made Winchester of 1997 vintage (better known today as the Kool Stop Original Mark 2). These cost nearly £300, but there are a number of Far Eastern alternatives for less than £100.The cheaper trailers can be heavy, but if you don’t expect to lift it, that may not matter.There are an increasing number of freight-specific and dog-specific trailers available too – worth considering if you only expect to use a trailer for one task, but a child-trailer does most things quite well.
For public transport, light weight and compact folded size are the primary requirements. By far the best is the little Burley Solo which used to weigh just 7.3kg (16lb), but is probably a little heavier in its new guise (tinted windows, etc).The Solo is small enough and light enough to take just about anywhere and has no real competition, but for buses, in particular, do use a bag or cover. Bus drivers and railway guards can refuse to carry trailers if they think they might be a nuisance. Enough already – for a full list of all the trailers on the UK market, see our web site www.atob.org.uk
The use of trailers with motor vehicles is heavily regulated, but surprisingly, cyclists are free to pull any weight on one, two… even a train of trailers, provided they are reasonably sensible about it. Common sense suggests a few basic rules.
It stands to reason that the towing bicycle should be in good condition. Brakes must be powerful, but not overly fierce, and the wheel, steering and suspension bearings must be free of play (looseness to non-engineers).The extra stress from a laden trailer can turn an old, but apparently rideable, bicycle into a wobbly jelly, so do check the machine over carefully.
Power assistance makes a great difference to the viability of pulling big loads in hilly areas.With muscle power alone, it’s deceptively easy to tow your own weight or more on the flat, but the slightest gradient will knock your speed back to a walking pace. Even limited power assistance can make a big difference – for years we used a Zap friction- drive kit to help pull big loads, and these days our heaviest trailer-fulls (primarily A to B magazines from the printers and to the Post Office) are shifted behind our Giant Lafree. This isn’t the most powerful electric bike around, but for towing you need slogging ability rather than outright performance.The same applies to muscles and indeed diesel engines.
Many types of tow-hitch exist, but not all are up to dealing with heavy loads.The least satisfactory design for heavy hauling is the seat post hitch, and as a general rule, the higher the connection, the worse it gets. As the trailer pulls back and forth and from side to side, this type will try its hardest to push you off the bike.We’ve towed unlikely weights with the wrong type of hitch fitted in the wrong place, but this is something of an acquired art.
In our experience, a hitch that mounts on, or close to the rear axle is the best kind, and our favourite is the Burley ‘alternative hitch’, available in quick-release or hub gear variants.These are quick and easy to swap from bike to bike, rigid, and easy to use. Other good hitches exist, such as the Weber, but look for something that allows movement in all planes without flexing. Some use a spring or flexible tube, which can work well with light loads, but may oscillate or ‘snake’ from side to side at speed with heavier loads. As with a car, you generally don’t discover that your ‘outfit’ is prone to snaking until you’re travelling fast enough for it to be a problem. If oscillation gets out of hand, particularly on a corner or while braking, the towing vehicle can be flipped off the road.
The best way to prevent calamities is to load heavy objects as low down, and as close to the centre of the trailer as possible – preferably just in front of the wheels.The idea is to have a small percentage of the trailer load supported by the rear of the bike, which helps to improve adhesion when cornering or braking.Too much weight may cause the tow-hitch to bend or flex, which can start the trailer snaking.Too little – or worse still, negative weight (a load behind the trailer axle) – may cause the rear wheel of the bicycle to leave the ground. In motoring terms, the general rule is to put 10% of the trailer weight on the tow hitch, and that sort of ratio is about right for a bicycle trailer too.
Another cause of instability is a long load. Most trailers will safely carry 40kg packed tightly in the middle of the vehicle, but try towing 40kg as a pile of three-metre timbers, and most bike trailers will become very unstable. If you intend to carry long loads (such as a canoe) on a regular basis, you’ll need a trailer with wheels further back than normal and a very rigid hitch – this combination will put more weight on the back of the bicycle, which is inconvenient, but generally more stable.
…a 33kg payload – two smallish children or quite a hefty supermarket shop…
For cars, the safe maximum weight for an unbraked trailer is considered to be half the weight of the towing vehicle, and for most purposes this is a useful guide to the weight a bicycle can tow in safety. If we take a bicycle and rider weighing 90kg, the total trailer weight should be kept below 45kg. Assuming a trailer weight of 12kg, that leaves us with a 33kg payload – two smallish children or quite a hefty supermarket shop.With a trailing load of half the rider/bike weight, you should barely notice the trailer is there, provided you take account of the greater stopping distance, width and lack of acceleration when pulling out into traffic.
We regularly tow a lot more with our long-suffering Winchester – up to around the same weight as the rider and bike – and with a bit of care, anyone can do the same.With a trailing load of 90kg, you need to read the road with some care. Riding uphill will always improve stability, because the tow-hitch is pulled straight and rigid.Without power-assistance, hill-climbing can be painfully slow, but you’ll get there in the end with the right gearing.
Going downhill or braking (worst of all, both) is more complicated, because now the trailer is trying its hardest to overtake, and if over weight or poorly balanced, it may begin to oscillate. Fortunately, you’ve put the load just forward of the axle (you did remember to do this, didn’t you?), and this carefully positioned load allows you to make heavier rear brake applications without skidding. By contrast, the front brake should be used with real caution, because a front brake application will take weight off the back wheel. Similarly, keep your bottom firmly rooted in the saddle to put your weight over that crucial tyre contact patch.
…Children should be…instructed not to stand up and wave at passers by…
As a general guide, loads of 50% to 100% of the bike/rider are permissible with care, but beyond that, you’re on your own. In theory, a bicycle trailer can be fitted with over-run brakes just like a large car trailer. This would make heavy loads safer, but we’d still advise keeping gross weight below that of the rider and bike.
Finally, when you pull up at journey’s end in front of an appreciative crowd, do remember that the load may have shifted, turning a positive towbar weight into a negative one.This is fine until you hop off, causing the rear of the bicycle to leap up and everything to fall into a heap.
As most bicycle trailers are designed for the litigious US market, manufacturer’s advice can sound extremely cautious.Take no notice – in many years of doing stupid things with over-loaded trailers, we’ve never, ever so much as lifted a wheel on a corner. Obviously common sense plays a role here. Avoid clipping kerbs with the inside wheel whilst cornering hard, in fact, avoid bumps generally. Children should be strapped in, or at least instructed not to stand up and wave at passers by. As roll-overs are rare, the primary purpose of a child safety harness is to keep the occupants still, making the trailer (and children) easier to handle. Do the same with freight – we use a pair of small 25mm ratchet straps, designed for car roof-rack or motorcycle loads. Bind everything down firmly, because if it can move, it will fall over or blow off at speed. Always check the and recheck after a mile or two if going any distance.You are entirely responsible for the load, and despite the lack of cycle trailer legislation, if the police really want a conviction, they can draw on a number of archaic laws from the days when penny-farthings frightened the horses.
…even the best trailers come with nasty cheap tyres that attract thorns like magnets…
If you’re not familiar with trailers, it’s worth practising riding techniques before venturing out, especially with children on board. Road positioning will be slightly different to normal, and you’ll need a lot more room to clear kerbs and posts.Try riding with a critical companion behind to give a running commentary. As a general rule, a well made and properly loaded trailer will do anything the towing bike can do in perfect safety.
Bumps & Rebounds
Cyclists are hard-wired to avoid pot-holes, or lift their weight out of the saddle if a bump is unavoidable. Believe it or not, it wasn’t until Alexander was old enough to complain that we realised the trailer occupant was unable to see the bump and thus unable to brace himself.We made life easier by fitting suspension – the previously rigid Winchester axle now pivoting against the spring force of a pair of bungee cords. Although rather crude, this system has excellent anti-roll characteristics (‘proper’ independent suspension would allow the trailer to lean outwards when cornering) and gives plenty of suspension movement. Manufacturers please take note and listen to what children are saying.The same applies to dumb loads. Carry a laptop in an unsuspended bicycle trailer and you’re asking for trouble. Place frail items on cushions, and lower the tyre pressures…
Another lesson we took years to absorb is that very light trailers require very little tyre pressure. Forget what it says on the side of the tyre – choose a pressure that will allow the tyres to absorb the worst bumps without going so low that the trailer begins to ‘wallow’ or becomes hard to pull. For a very small child, you may be looking at a pressure too low to register on the gauge. If you’re carrying gran home from the pub, you’ll need maximum and a bit more. And do try to remember just how boring a long trailer ride can be. As a cyclist, you can see over hedges and round corners, but the occupant of the trailer sees nothing but wheels passing by, which can become tedious very quickly. Alexander can survive a maximum of about an hour and a half without a break. A radio or cassette player works wonders, but don’t overdo the endurance thing.
One final point – even the best trailers come with cheap nasty tyres that attract thorns like magnets. Punctures are much easier to deal with on a stub axle (the tyre can be slipped straight off), but it’s still worth fitting decent hard-wearing tyres. As a last resort, a lightly loaded trailer can be ridden for miles with a flat tyre, ride too harsh.
You may feel strongly to the contrary, but we’ve never used trailer flags.The annoying fiddly bits take ages to put together, the shaft whips about, threatening to thwack pedestrians, and there’s quite an increase in drag. Our general view is that flags are more trouble than they’re worth. On the other hand, we’re very strict about reflectors and lights – a trailer should have two well spaced reflectors and at least one powerful LED rear light on the offside (away from the kerb).The slim and ultra-bright Cateye LD600 is perfect. Twin lights are better, of course, and it’s quite legal (and probably advisable) to use flashing LEDs.There’s a theory that twin lights could be confused with the lights of a car much further away, but this may be a modern myth. Use light(s) at dusk, during heavy rain and any other time you feel vulnerable. If you habitually tow a large trailer after dark, there’s a good argument for fitting a front-facing white LED on the offside too.
You can tow almost any sort of trailer with almost any sort of bike, but some combinations can be hard work.When we had nothing more suitable, we pulled our big heavy home-made trailer with an old (and poorly braked) Brompton L3, using a hitch right under the saddle. No one ever fell off, but hills were hard work.These days, we generally use the Giant Lafree for heavier work, but it very much depends where you live. An electric-assist bike makes hills and road junctions a lot easier, and of course, safer.
Key trailer stockists & distributors
5-in-1 Orbit Cycles tel 0114 275 6567
Bike Hod Two Plus Two tel 01273 480479
Burley Fisher Outdoor Leisure tel 0208 805 3088
Chariot Amba Marketing tel 01392 840030
Christiania ZERO tel 020 7486 0379
Mission Mission Cycles & Components tel 01622 815615
Phillips Raleigh Parts & Accessories tel 01623 688383
The message from Brompton is one of incremental changes, some small, but others of real importance, or at least, interesting enough to report.Weight is unchanged, as is price, but there have been subtle improvements. To recap briefly, the Brompton has been around since the late 1980s. Although never officially designated as such, early hand-built bike are usually called Mark 1s, the 1991 – 1999 bikes the Mark 2 and more recent machines Mark 3.The post-1999 Mark 3 looked much like its forbears, but was rebuilt almost from scratch, resulting in a lighter, faster and more rugged machine.The only big change since has been from Sturmey Archer 3- or 5-speed hubs to a SRAM 3-speed with the option of a Brompton 2-speed derailleur, giving six gears.
History has come full circle. Five years ago, Sturmey Archer was driven into bankruptcy, later re-emerged as part of the Sunrace group, which is now manufacturing a full range of hubs from a factory in Taiwan.Wary of being tied to SRAM alone, Brompton has redesigned the rear frame of its bikes to accept either type of hub gear. In practice, this means that 3-speed bikes will be equipped with Sturmey Archer hubs, but the 6-speed will continue to use SRAM, because the Sturmey Archer is unable to accommodate the two-speed sprocket assembly used on the 6-speed. Still with us?
These changes raise several questions and answers. If you buy a 3-speed, you will no longer be able to upgrade to a 6-speed without buying a SRAM hub. On the other hand, you can now upgrade to a Sturmey 5-speed hub, should you really want to (there’s a small gear range advantage of the 6-speed). If you have an older bike, with either a Sturmey or SRAM hub, the new rear frame will allow you to fit either hub. Useful for globe-trotters expecting calamity in the Gobi Desert. Incidentally, the new Sturmey 3- speed, like the last Nottingham- built hubs, features ‘ball-locking’ positive engagement – in other words, it should be impossible to wind up in neutral, as occasionally happened when the old hubs where out of adjustment.The Sturmey also has a better reputation for keeping out dirt and grime, so it’s very much a positive step.
The old Sturmey 3-speed shifter was much loved, but has been showing its age (it was designed 70 years ago).The SRAM design is less positive and liable to all sorts of minor niggles, so Brompton designed its own to coincide with the reintroduction of the Sturmey hub, and it will be fitted to all 3-speed bikes.The shifter has a long travel, but to keep it nice and ergonomic there are two levers, one above the other.To change down from 3rd to 2nd, you flick down the lower lever.To change from 2nd to 1st, the upper lever will be in exactly the same place.The lever has to be carefully positioned to work well, but when it does, it’s superb – comfortable and easy to use. Like the rear frame, the new shifter will work with either SRAM or Sturmey hubs, so you can upgrade an older bike if you want.
A perennial grumble from high mileage owners is rim wear. Brompton isn’t promising to eradicate the problem, but the new ZX1000 rims are better quality, more precisely machined and including a wear indicator slot – when the slot disappears it’s time to change. Anodised (but not on the wearing faces) the rims certainly look smarter, but we’ll have to wait a few months to discover whether they really are tougher in service.
These changes don’t sound very exciting, but there might be a tiny clue in the following exchange: ‘Is this the 2005 Brompton?’, we asked. ‘No’, they replied. Make of that what you will.
The Canadian-made EPS power system was introduced as long ago as 1998, but has only just arrived here in Europe. If it looks familiar, yes, it is the same system shown in A to B once or twice on a bike called the Amigo.The manufacturer is now called Bionx EPS (Energy & Propulsion System, if you hadn’t guessed), but the technology is exactly the same, either in kit form, or fitted to a proprietory bicycle, in this case a Miele Tivoli.
Beneath the surface, the bike is seething with technology, but you would never know, because it’s a more or less conventional- looking machine: the rear hub is slightly larger than normal, there’s a discrete streamlined battery box in the frame, and an instrument pod, but no obvious stray wires or switches.
If you’re one of the many readers totally averse to electric bikes, you really should read on.We’re not suggesting this sort of machine will suit every rider in every eventuality, but if you regularly grind your way up a nagging gradient, only to blow away all that hard-won effort braking down the other side, you might be interested, because this is a regenerative system.Yes, you really can recharge the battery by pedalling if you wish, and you can also recharge it by putting the brakes on. In other words, an EPS-equipped bike will recycle some of the energy you put into accelerating and climbing hills.There are a few complications, both good and bad, but more of that later. Meanwhile, we’ll use the Giant Lafree as a reference point, because the Bionx is the first bike that can seriously claim to be a natural competitor. Price is expected to be around £1,000.
We don’t see many conventional bicycles at A to B, so it’s all rather exotic to us. It may be to you too, because these Canadian bikes are quite rare in Britain. An unusual brand, perhaps, but the Tivoli is the sort of hybrid-style, suspended bicycle that most commuters will recognise. It has an alloy frame, 3 x 7 Shimano Acera gear set, straight handlebars, Suntour CR870 suspension forks, suspended seatpost, mudguards and (to us) enormous 28-inch wheels.
The gear range starts with a nice 28″ ‘near Granny’ gear, and extends to a reasonably high cruise of 96″ – dead conventional in other words. It may be our fault, but we found the Acera change rather noisy and crude. Adjustment is critical, and we were unable to completely tune out the odd grunt and bang from both the front and rear mechanicals. Otherwise, there’s little to report.The frame is rigid, the riding position good, the narrowish 700 x 38C tyres cover ground quite well, and the suspension does a workmanlike job of ironing out the bumps. Rather better than the Lafree Comfort, in fact.
The only thing slightly out of the ordinary is weight.Without the battery, the Bionx- equipped Tivoli tips the scales at 19.7kg, which is a bit heavy for a suspension hybrid, but one of the lightest electric bikes we’ve come across. Only the three-speed Lafree Lite weighs less, but a fairer comparison is the 5-speed Lafree Comfort, which has suspension and more gears, and weighs a couple of kilograms more than the Tivoli.Add batteries (3.9kg for the Lafree, and 4.4kg for the Tivoli) and you hit gross weights of 25.6kg and 24.1kg respectively, so Round One goes to the Canadians.
As usual these days, energy comes from a nickel metal-hydride battery, with a claimed capacity, in this case, of 192Wh. At the business end, the hub motor is unusually narrow and large in diameter. Its also a bit special.
If you were to delve inside most electric hubs, you’d find a fast running direct current motor (or its more efficient cousin, the brushless ‘Hall Effect’ motor), driving the hub through gears and a freewheel.The helical gears tend to be noisy and inefficient, but they’re needed to bring the motor speed down to a practical level.The freewheel allows the bicycle to be pedalled normally without pointlessly spinning the motor – some are quiet, but cheaper units can make quite a racket.
…we have a simpler, lighter, quieter and more efficient system…
The Bionx has a Hall Effect motor, but it has been configured to run very slowly, which has allowed the engineers to eliminate those noisy gears and drive the wheel direct.With no gears or brushes, there’s no friction, so the freewheel can go too. With no freewheel, the motor can be programmed to run as a generator, putting power back just as easily as it takes it out.
All brilliant news so far – we have a simpler, lighter, quieter and more efficient system. However, as Professor Pivot likes to point out, the opportunities for regenerating power on a bicycle are rather limited, because most of the power consumed in climbing and accelerating is lost through wind and rolling resistance.The other small problem is that electric motors are never really comfortable running slowly, and when you’re inching up a hill with a system like this, the bicycle wheel (and thus the motor) is revolving very slowly indeed. Anyway, that’s the theory, plus some cautionary small print to stop you getting too excited. How does the Bionx actually perform on the road?
There are four buttons in the handlebar-mounted pod: an on-off switch, another for setting the odometer and other things, and the two power controls: ‘+A’ and ‘-G’.There are four power steps and four regeneration steps, with a neutral position in the middle. Prod the +A button and power increases, press -G and it reduces, or starts to regenerate if you go far enough.The liquid crystal display includes a speedometer (only in kilometres, the swine), a resettable odometer, and a regenerate/power meter. There’s also a very effective backlight and an alarm. Being a pedelec, the Bionx doesn’t have a throttle control, because power comes in only when sensors register pedal effort. Quite right too.
Ever since we began grinding, whining and occasionally smouldering up hills on these machines, we’ve grappled with describing power-assist sensations. In this case, you start to pedal and – without a sound – there’s a gentle push, rather like sitting behind a powerful but silent locomotive.The power meter confirms that something is going on, as the onboard computer matches the assistance to your pedal effort. Just once in a while, it changes it’s mind, and you feel a gentle nudge. Otherwise, you’re only really aware that the ground is moving by more rapidly than normal. In heavy traffic, it’s impossible to tell that the motor is doing its stuff without checking the meter, but on a quiet road, those with excellent hearing may detect a tiny hum at full power. Subtle stuff.
On the flat, or gentle gradients up to about 7% (1:15), the bike glides effortlessly up to a maximum of 20mph with just a whisper of power assistance (rate 1 or 2). On steeper hills you need full power (rate 4).This is a useful 480 watts, but you still have to make good use of the gears because the motor is only really chirpy above 12mph, and rapidly wilts below 6mph.Thus a 12% (1:8) hill might need the 2nd chainring, and 17% (1:6) will probably need the 1st. At very low speeds, there’s a gentle vibration from the motor, but it’s still near silent.
Obviously steep hills are not its forte, but to be fair, our test bike is a US/Canadian model, electrically ‘geared’ to give a top speed of 20mph (don’t they have hills?). European production bikes will be reconfigured to assist below 15mph, which should boost hill-climbing torque by nearly a third. Either way, the Lafree’s crank motor wins on gradients.
Stop pedalling, and after a decent interval, the computer silently turns the motor off. If you so wish, you can now turn the motor into a brake by setting one of the four regeneration levels with the -G button, or by touching the front brake lever, which gives a higher braking force. Actually it should be the back brake lever, but we’ve dutifully reversed the cables for British use – the levers will have to be reversed for production. The effect is slightly noisier than power – a gentle vibration, rather like poorly set brake blocks rubbing on the tyre.With a bit of experience, you learn to (for example) dial in a low background braking level on a long descent, then gently touch the brake lever for extra stopping force on the corners.The trick is to avoid using the conventional brakes, and if you enjoy playing these sort of games, ‘driving’ the Bionx is very satisfying. If you don’t, just preset a power level, ride as normal, and the computer will do its best to smooth your progress.With eight buttons and levers to play with, it’s more like piloting a space shuttle than riding a bicycle, but that’s progress. And we should point out that power-assist involves only two buttons… it’s the derailleur that gets us really confused.
Watching power funnel back into the battery is very satisfying, although really high rates tend to be short-lived. Plummet down a 17% gradient with the electric brake full on, and speed will stabilise at about 20mph, at which “…don’t get too point you will be generating 200 watts or more. excited about the perpetual Sadly, 100 watts is more realistic during a typical stop, and at low speed, even though the braking effect might feel quite fierce, the output is actually pitifully low. Don’t get too motion idea. Results depend on the territory, and getting the best from the system is quite an art.You’ll be lucky to salvage 25% of the outgoing power, even under ideal conditions. Still, it’s better than a poke in the eye with a blunt stick.
…don’t get too excited about the perpetual motion idea…
If you’re feeling really enthusiastic, you can keep the electronic brake lightly engaged on the flat and recharge the battery with your muscles.Why on earth would you want to do that? Bionx craftily claims that this gives your body a better work out, which is true enough if you’re looking for a workout, and more sensible than loading the bike down with weights.We tended to regenerate and pedal on those long, gradual descents that are too shallow to get up any real speed.You know the sort of thing. On the flat, even a modest 50 watts is quite hard work, but serious athletes will no doubt be pounding round the block, putting away enough energy to run the telly for the rest of the evening.
One rather unlikely side effect of this system is that you hardly ever use the brakes, except when coming to a halt in traffic. If you suffer from rim wear and smouldering brake blocks, this characteristic alone might sway you.True, there isn’t enough oomph in the battery to power all the way up that alpine pass, but you won’t need to touch the brakes going down the other side, and the battery will be nearly full again at the bottom.
How are we doing against the Lafree? Well, the Giant has a very efficient motor, but it doesn’t regenerate on descents, so it’s Bionx again.
Range & charging
With so many variables at work, range can be pretty much whatever you want it to be, depending on the level of power, and the amount you’re able (or willing) to regenerate.We’re usually quite brutal in our testing regime, but the Bionx responds best to a gentle touch. so we opted for power rate 1 or 2 where the undulations were generally upward, and regeneration rate 1 or 2 where the going was easier. Hills of 10% and above demand full power to keep momentum up.
As you ride, the power gauge moves down the scale with alarming speed, but the motor continues to run for long after the gauge has given up and gone home. It’s hard to put a precise figure on the range because downhill runs keep restoring the status quo, and the computer gradually turns down the gas, rather than cutting the motor off.
Blast along on full power without a care in the world, and range can be as little as ten miles, but 15 miles is easy with a bit of care, and if you work hard at your regeneration, 22 miles is possible. Obviously, the battery will last all day if you don’t use it much (Bionx claim up to 50 miles), but then you wouldn’t be averaging 14.3mph in hilly country – a respectable rather than blistering pace.
The detuned European model will certainly go further, although quite how much further is hard to judge.We’d hazard a guess that 25 miles should be within reach on our hilly test route, but you might do better.
Charging is satisfactory rather than exciting.Weighing less than 400g, the little charger is almost pocket-size, but still manages to fill the battery in five hours, turning off thereafter, so there’s no point in leaving it connected.
At 7.2p per mile, running costs are almost identical to the Lafree, but we can’t say for sure until the price of the bike and spare batteries has been fixed. Range is about the same, but speed (from this US model at least) is quite a bit higher. Charging time is slowish, but the charger is more portable. Sounds like a draw.
…the prospect of everlasting wheel rims might be tempting too…
We tend to use electric bikes for slogging up steep hills with trailer-fulls of rubbish, so we’d be less likely to opt for a low-key, low-torque machine like the Bionx. On the other hand, if you commute through rolling hills and you want a conventional bike with a subtle boost, this Rolls-Royce system could be for you.The prospect of everlasting wheel rims might be tempting too.
There’s no need to buy the Tivoli, as the Bionx will also be available as a kit, but you’ll need a donor bike with plenty of derailleur gears, because hub gears are incompatible with the motor.There’s no price yet, but we’d guess at around £700, which would put the Bionx kit at the top end of Heinzmann territory. It’s not as powerful, but it’s much, much more sophisticated.
Does it outclass the Lafree? That all depends where you live and how you ride.We only had a chance to show the Bionx to one dedicated Lafree enthusiast, but she was absolutely delighted with the riding position and the quiet, effortless power.There is no distributor in the UK as yet, but the company is open to offers from aspiring importers, and hopes to have direct and/or dealer sales established very soon.
BionX Miele Tivoli £1,000 approx .Weight Bike 19.7kg Battery 4.4kg Total 24.1kg (53lb) . Gears Shimano Acera 3×7 . Ratios 28″ – 96″ . Batteries NiMH . Capacity192Wh . Range 22 miles Full charge 5 hours . Fuel consumption Overall 12.5Wh/mile . Running costs 7.2p per mile Manufacturer BionX (EPS Inc) www.bionx.ca firstname.lastname@example.org fax +1 819 879 0084 tel +1 819 879 0041 ext. 235
If you read the Oyama Victor test in A to B 44 you may have noticed our brief mention of the Xerama folding pedals (‘similar to, but neater than the better- known VP117’).We rarely have space to say much about accessories in these bike tests, but we were quite impressed with the Xerama. Once upon a time, the Chinese produced heavy, ugly (or even dangerous) copies of Western or Taiwanese products, but the tendency now is to copy foreign ideas, improve them, and still send them round the world at knock-down prices.
The Xerama folding pedal is typical. Pull outwards on a spring-loaded locking tongue in the middle of the pedal, and the platform folds down, leaving a relatively small bearing block protruding. It’s easy to do with gloved hands, or in the dark, even for the terminally mechanically inept, and there’s little risk of slicing a hole in your finger as with some similar designs. Unfolding the pedal is a simple reversal of the procedure, the platform coming back together with a nice satisfying clonk.
The useable pedal area is 95mm x 70mm (about average), the stickey-outey bit when folded 55mm long (average again), and the ratio of folded/unfolded size is 2 to 1 – again, more or less typical. But the Xerama pedals weigh only 205g each, making them the second lightest on the market, and they cost £10 a pair in the UK.When you consider that not so long ago, a pair of nondescript folding pedals cost £30, that really is quite a bargain.
We can’t say how long they’ll last in service, but the pedals have ‘proper’ cup and cone adjustable bearings, and (as far as we can judge) reasonably well engineered components elsewhere. The weak point of this design is usually the sliding tongue:VP produced one a while back and were forced to replace the plastic tongue with aluminium after a few months. This one is plastic, but looks up to the job.
Just to encourage you to buy loads and loads (they must have a container-full), the importer is offering a further £1 discount to A to B subscribers. Now if that isn’t the perfect Christmas stocking filler for a folding bike owner, we don’t know what is.
Xerama folding pedals . £10 per pair (£9 to subscribers) + £2.60 p&p . Bigfoot Bikes 50 Hayes Street, Bromley, Kent BR2 7LD . tel 0208 462 5004 mail email@example.com
Goodness gracious.There we were, getting used to the idea of bicycle lights with three ultra-bright white LEDs, when a single much brighter LED came along (see A to B 43). A few weeks later, and that light has already been overtaken by events, because power has trebled once again.Yes, the future has arrived, and rather more rapidly than we would have dared predict a few months ago.
Why join this candle-power arms race at all? The problem (if you haven’t noticed) is that car lights have become more effective in recent years, while bicycle lights are stuck in the 1970s, thanks in part to archaic regulations, of which more below. Bright lights make it easier to see and be seen, particularly when you’re moving fast and have just been blinded by 200 watts of quartz-halogen.
The Solidlights range are produced and marketed as a cottage industry, so this small British company has been able to gear up to introduce new technology while the big Japanese manufacturers are still bartering over wholesale prices.Two options are currently available – the 1103, with a single three watt LED, and the 1303, with three similar ‘bulbs’ and three times the power output.
We’ve decided to test the smaller 1103, because it’s cheaper, lighter, and more than adequate for most purposes. Unlike the chunky Cateye EL500 tested in A to B 43, the 1103 is tiny, measuring just 40mm square if viewed from the front, by 62mm deep.The mounting bracket (similar to, but incompatible with, the Cateye bracket) more or less doubles the size.
…taste the forbidden fruits of full power, and there’s no going back…
Solidlights has achieved this compact package by putting the battery elsewhere, not that it’s particularly large or heavy. Like the Powabyke on page 20, power comes from Lithium-ion rechargeable batteries.The capacity is nominally 16.5 watt/hours, from a pack measuring 90mm by 42mm by 26mm and weighing 130g (Solidlight’s figures are refreshingly accurate). By comparison, a typical set of four ye olde AA NiCd rechargeable batteries weigh only 100g, but deliver a less than devastating three watt/hour punch. Or a set of the very latest, sexiest NiMH AA batteries weigh a similar 100g and can achieve 6.3 watt/hours. So, as a rule of thumb, the Li-ion pack is about five times as effective weight for weight as typical rechargeables, and twice as good as the very best.
How does it work? We haven’t the faintest idea, but you clip the lamp bracket to your handlebars, velcro the battery pack to something suitable (it comes with a non-slip silicon rubber pad) and plug in. Everything is neatly and functionally designed – one long press on the big waterproof switch ignites the LED, and another long press turns it off, which should make it difficult to turn on or off by mistake with frozen fingers.
The lamp has three power settings that can be found in sequence with quick prods at the button.The lowest setting gives the sort of output you might have expected from a cutting edge lamp back in 2003, such as the Cateye EL200. It’s a soft blue light, bright enough to ride by, but not really up to illuminating pot-holes and other nasties.The mid setting is similar to one of those quaint old-fashioned halogen dynamo lamps, or the LED star of last summer, the EL500, but the beam is broader, giving a softer, more even spread of light, without the sharply focussed centre spot.
Those who don’t know any better (poor innocent darlings) could live quite happily with this mid-power setting. But, once you’ve tasted the forbidden fruits of full power, there’s no going back.The beam is completely round in shape, comparatively broad in reach, and of an intensely cold blue-white light. Illumination is good enough to read the road with confidence, and about the same brightness as a pair of halogen lamps.With this sort of light output, ignorant motorists dart for cover, presumably expecting a Kawasaki G-1300 turbo to spring at them out of the dusk.The lack of a central bright spot leaves you a little short on long- range information when riding fast on really dark roads, but for most other purposes, the light is superb. One of the strange quirks of LED lights is that you might not be able to see the road at a great distance, but the lamp will pick out reflective signs far beyond your ability to actually read the small print. Perhaps more importantly, it demands attention from oncoming traffic at a kilometre or more.
…German approval makes them legal in our own sad, forgotten little country…
Up to now, this sort of power meant great big lead-acid batteries, and/or rather limited battery life. But with its LED ‘bulb’ and tiddly, but efficient, Li-ion battery pack, the 1103 is claimed to run for 33/4 hours on full brightness (we did a little better – about four hours), or double that on the middle power setting.When the battery is almost flat, the lamp flashes three times and reverts to low power, giving a further twenty minutes on ‘reserve’.
The charger is equally compact (35mm x 42mm x 90mm), lightweight (230g) and intelligent. It will run from any mains power source worldwide, and gives a full charge in three hours 20 minutes (on Castle Cary voltage, at least), reaching 90% capacity in less than two hours, which is worth knowing.The downside of a separate battery is that everything has to be disconnected and reconnected to charge it.The tiny three-way connector is a bit fiddly, and would be difficult to fit with cold hands.
A compact and powerful front light would suit a folding bike very well, mounted either on the handlebars or bolted permanently above the front brake caliper. Fitted as such to a Brompton, there’s still plenty of room to fold as normal, although whether you’d want to leave something this special on the bike is another matter.The battery lead is only 50cm long, so you have to find somewhere close to the light, but the velcro fixing works well.
If you’re not keen on batteries, we’re told a dynamo-powered kit is on the way.Team this tiny, indestructible lamp with a good hub dynamo and – for a price – you have created one of the toughest and brightest bicycle lights around.
Ah yes, price. As tested, complete with Li-ion battery and charger, the Solidlights 1103 costs £195. If you want to use your own batteries (5 x AA cells should last nearly two hours), the light alone costs £120. It’s difficult to put these sort of figures into perspective. A Schmidt hub dynamo plus B&M halogen headlamp will cost you about £150, but give rather less light.The Cateye EL500 one watt LED costs £45, but lacks a plug-in charger and is similarly lacking in oomph against the 1103.You pays your money and takes your choice.
Incidentally, if you’re one of these annoying people who can’t live without the biggest and best of everything, the triple LED 1303 is bigger, brighter and more expensive. It’s hard to see why anyone would need this sort of power on-road, but boys will be boys.
We should also point out that LED lamps are technically illegal in the UK – well, probably. The Germans, eons ahead of us as usual, are now approving individual products, including the new Trelock LS-600 and the Cateye EL500 (look for the EL500G if you can find it).As far as anyone can tell, German approval makes them legal in our own sad, forgotten little country, provided of course, your local judiciary are Euro-friendly.At three watts, the Solidlights 1103 just scrapes in under the power limit, but it’s still an LED and it hasn’t passed those German tests.Thus, ironically, you could be riding with one of the most eye- catching lamps available, get mown down by a dumb motorist and end up losing all hope of compensation because your front light hadn’t passed some test in Germany, and our own legislators are dithering in the 1950s.Take our advice and go for powerful lights.
Solidlights 1103 LED Complete kit £195 Lamp only £120 .Weight Lamp 130g Battery 130g Total 260g Battery Lithium-ion . Battery Capacity 16.5Wh . Run time full-power 4 hours . Charge time 3 hours 20 mins . Manufacturer Martin-Jones Technology Ltd mail firstname.lastname@example.org web www.solidlights.co.uk
Technological developments often arrive unexpectedly. No offence intended, but we were surprised to see Dahon taking (and still, to date, holding) the honours for lightest production folding bike, and we were equally surprised when a lithium-ion Powabyke Shopper turned up on our doorstep.
For those unfamiliar with such things, Powabyke build reliable, if rather lumbering electric bikes, and the 24-inch Shopper is probably the least exciting of the lot. Lithium- ion batteries were expected to revolutionise traction applications a few years ago, but they didn’t, largely because charging complications made the larger batteries liable to set afire, resulting in some high profile conflagrations. At least one manufacturing plant has burned down, and computers, cameras and electric bikes have exploded – notably the EV Global Mini E-Bike, 2,000 of which were recalled in America.
Without getting too technical, Li-ion batteries don’t like being over-charged, over- discharged or over-heated. Make a mistake (let’s face it, we all make mistakes) and the battery is liable to tip over the abyss into thermal meltdown – the sort of thing that used to happen to the engines on the Star Ship Enterprise. As lithium reacts violently with water, the only course of action at this stage is to run away as fast as possible.
…This is neither the most fashionable nor effective of bicycles…
Problems are rare with individual cells (in digital cameras, for example), but a 36 volt electric bike like the Powabyke needs ten large 3.7 volt lithium cells, and each one must be charged, discharged and monitored for temperature individually.This sort of thing needs a lot of control circuitry, but as usual the Chinese have driven down prices, which are now low enough for Powabyke to offer a Li-ion battery pack and charger as an upgrade option. If all goes well, it will soon be available on new bikes, and the intention is to offer a retrofittable upgrade on older models too.
So why bother? It’s all about energy density, or the amount of energy available in a battery of a given weight. Powabyke uses old-fashioned lead-acid batteries, which deliver around 30 watt/hours (Wh) per kilogram. In the 1990s, nickel-cadmium batteries became available, supplying 50 Wh/kg, and a few years later, nickel-metal hydride did better still, at 70 Wh/kg.Today, lithium- ion batteries with a capacity of 130 Wh/kg are coming on stream. Comparing like with like is a bit difficult, because different types of battery are tested in different ways, and casings, wires and electronics tend to level the playing field a bit, but weight-for-weight, lithium-ion should be at least two or three times as effective as lead-acid.The 36 volt lead-acid battery fitted to the Shopper weighs 14.1kg, and its Li- ion replacement, 6.4kg, despite being assembled into the same heavy casing. As we shall see, it goes further too.
First a quick look over the Shopper. This is neither the most fashionable, nor effective of bicycles, but it’s cheap (£539 single -speed, or £595 with a basic 6-speed derailleur), well equipped (battery lights, rear rack, front basket and mudguards), and it offers a low step-thru height of 37cm. In other words, it’s just the job for those who’re finding it difficult to get their leg over, but still want to ride to the Post Office and pick up a bit of shopping on the way home. If you can remember where you were when nice Mr Chamberlain met Herr Hitler, you will be in the target audience.
Complete with accessories, the 6-speed Shopper weighs some 25.9kg. Heave the 14.1kg lead/acid battery on board, and you’re looking at 40kg overall, which just happens to be the legal ceiling for electric bikes. Another gram and you’re nicked.
By comparison, the class-leading Lafree weighs from 22.2kg complete with delicately- crafted NiMH battery, and the chunkier Ezee Forza 25-29kg in NiMH form. Equipped with the new lithium-ion battery, the Powabyke still weighs over 32kg.
At 31″ to 62″, gearing is severely limited.That’s a reasonable bottom gear, but 62″ is only good for about 12mph at the top end, so your typical Powabyke Shopper will be passed by just about everything else on two wheels. Speed is not the object with this sort of machine, of course, but the lack of gearing makes it difficult to provide much human input when cruising along under power, because the motor runs up to about 14mph. That’s fine if you don’t want to pedal, but it will have a serious effect on range if you were hoping to. And sitting still in November means dicing with frost-bite, as we can testify.
Generally speaking, progress is noisy and slow. If you pedal with the motor turned off, it makes a loud tick-tick-tick noise like the cheapest sort of freewheel (presumably that’s exactly what it is) – turn the motor on and it whines loudly. Either way, progress is relatively laboured. But we don’t mean to be negative – the Shopper does what it does very well, and is currently Powabyke’s biggest seller.
Charging & Range
Powabyke claims the lithium battery will give a ‘non-pedalling’ range of 25 miles, and they’re dead right, because we managed 25.1 miles at 13mph, which is not half bad. Actually, it’s the furthest we’ve gone without pedalling by a fair margin. It’s a bit difficult to find the pedal-assisted range with a bike like this because long- distance rides are neither pleasant nor practical at 11mph. A reasonable guestimate for a more sensibly-geared bike would be 40 miles or even more.
Hill-climbing is a bit limited on the prototype, because Powabyke has restricted peak power to 250 watts, claiming that hill climbing is unaffected.Well, yes and no.We managed a 7% (1:14) gradient, but were disappointed to fail 10% without pedalling. Of course, the gears are so low that modest pedalling allows you to twiddle up 12% (1:8) or more without too much effort, provided you’re not in a hurry. Actually there’s plenty of grunt available – we’ve tested the lithium battery pack to 650 watts on another bike without meltdown, so it obviously works. And Powabyke promises that whatever output is chosen, hill-climbing will be the same as the conventional bike.
The charger is effectively ten little chargers in one, so it’s as big as a dinner plate, as noisy as a vacuum cleaner, and it weighs 2.6kg – definitely not a portable device. Charging is quite rapid – about 31/2 hours from empty to a full charge.Thereafter the power to the battery is cut off, but don’t leave the charger connected overnight, because the roaring noise doesn’t let up and it consumes an astonishing amount of power on standby. Look at it this way: charging the battery consumes a reasonably modest 600Wh, but leaving the charger plugged in for the rest of the night would add another 1,000Wh.
…at 26kg without a battery, the Shopper might be the wrong machine…
As the capacity of the battery is around 430Wh, charging is clearly a rather inefficient process, but we’ve seen worse, and the chargers are bound to improve.We should also point out that because of the way capacity is measured, those 430 Li-ion watts are much perkier than other types – think of it as a very big battery.
Powabyke expects to sell Lithium-ion versions of its everyday bikes for a premium of less than £150. If they can do this, the technology suddenly looks very attractive, because this battery will not only extend your range but give more charges. Lithium-ion batteries are claimed to recharge 1,000 times, against 300 or so for lead-acid. However, we think lithium-ion batteries only really make sense on a lightweight bike. At 26kg without a battery, the Powabyke Shopper might be the wrong machine to put it on.
The retro-fit battery and charger kit is expected to sell for £200, which makes sense if you want to upgrade a cherished Powabyke. But be warned, for technical reasons the control circuitry on an older bike may not allow the Li-ion battery to discharge fully, so you may not get the full benefit.
Now that the technology has been tamed, it seems inevitable that lithium-ion batteries will start to appear on lighter, smarter bikes (Powabyke clams to have a 25kg model in the pipeline). In theory, at least, this battery would give a really efficient electric bikes a cross-country range of 55 miles, with a recharge time of only 31/2 hours. In all fairness, the Powabyke Shopper is unlikely to be at the vanguard of the coming revolution, but it has broken new ground, nonetheless.
Powabyke Li-ion Shopper estimated cost £750 . Weight bicycle 25.9kg battery 14.1kg total 40kg Gear System Shimano 6-speed SIS . Gear Ratios 31″ – 62″ .Manufacturer Powabyke tel 01225 443737 mail email@example.com web www.powabyke.com
The subject of tyre technology comes up rather frequently on these pages, mainly because their inherently higher rolling resistance tends to put small-wheelers at the cutting edge.
In the mid-1990s, small tyres were at a considerable disadvantage against their bigger cousins in terms of rolling efficiency, but this was much reduced with the arrival of the Primo and Brompton tyres, whose paper-thin sidewalls flexed more easily as the tyre rolled, reducing rolling resistance. Ever since, the boffins have been burning the midnight oil searching for further gains, with the primary work being carried out at Greenspeed, the Australian recumbent manufacturer, and Brompton. Folding bikes need small wheels for reasons of folded size, of course, but recumbent designers are showing an interest in the same tyres, primarily looking for a small frontal area and reduced wind resistance. As we saw in A to B 39, Greenspeed is starting to adopt the 16-inch (more correctly 349mm) tyre on its recumbent trikes for just these reasons, and I am indebted to the company for access to its latest research in reducing the already small rolling penalty inherent with these tyres.
Why does a tyre experience rolling resistance? Most of the energy is absorbed around the contact patch, the crucial zone where the doughnut-shaped tyre and inner tube mould themselves briefly to the flat road surface. If tyres were 100% springy, this wouldn’t matter (although the rider would probably fly off on the first bump), but rubber exhibits a useful self-damping characteristic known as ‘hysteresis’, which effectively means that not all the deformation energy is recovered when the tyre resumes its shape. This damping effect turns motion into heat, and the process takes place continuously as a tyre rolls. In really bad cases, the tyre will feel warm after a hard ride. Small tyres offer greater resistance than larger ones, because the more sharply curved tyre has to bend more acutely to become flat, and visa-versa when reassuming the curve.
As every cyclist, motorcyclist, and indeed motorist, should be aware, the easiest way to reduce the size of the contact patch, and thus the rolling resistance, is to put more air pressure in the tyres.This seems to work in two ways – firstly by reducing the circumference of the contact patch – the ‘battle front’ of rubber doing the work – and secondly by reducing the angle through which the rubber has to flex when it hits the road. Watch an old chap ride past on a Raleigh Shopper with half-inflated tyres, and you will see all the negative factors at work: a small diameter tyre, large contact patch and extreme angles of flex. One is sometimes tempted to offer a few pump-fulls of air.
There is, however, a limit to the improvement that can be made through air pressure alone, particularly on a bicycle without suspension. Pneumatic rubber tyres have been so very successful because they absorb lumps, bumps and vibrations from the road surface. Inflate a tyre really hard and it begins to act like a rigid disc, which would only be good news if the road were as flat and smooth as a mirror. In practice, roads are more or less corrugated, and a solid tyre will pass these surface irregularities to the vehicle and rider. This is not only uncomfortable, but wasteful, because energy is thrown away as the bike vibrates – effectively lifting and dropping the mass of the bike and rider.
Tyre shape seems to be worth looking at. Conventional orthodoxy has it that a narrow high-pressure tyre rolls better than a wider low-pressure example.We need only compare the performance of the original Moulton, with its narrow high- pressure tyres, and the frightful Raleigh RSW, equipped with wide low- pressure tyres. Narrow tyres do have advantages – low weight primarily, plus reduced frontal area (and thus wind resistance) – but do they really roll better than wide tyres?
Whatever theoretical disadvantages wide tyres might have, it seems that when we compare like with like (the Raleigh tyres were not only low-pressure, but had heavy, stiff sidewalls) they actually perform rather well. Regular readers may recall my slight disappointment with the narrow high-pressure Schwalbe Stelvio, launched in the 349mm size in early 2003.This 28mm wide tyre rolled slightly worse than the ‘cooking’ 37mm Brompton tyre and gave an inferior ride. In that case, might a wider tyre not roll even better?
Observing that wide tyres, even cheap ones, sometimes rolled better than narrow tyres, Ian Sims of Greenspeed decided to develop his own. Like the Primo and Brompton, the tyre has thin, supple sidewalls, but with a completely slick tread and a width of 40mm (against 37mm).Weight is 280g, against 200-250g for the 37mm tyres.
Greenspeed was kind enough to supply a pair of these new ‘Scorchers’, which I fitted to a Brompton – easy enough on the front, but a rather complex operation on the back, due to the tight clearances. After a period of running-in, the tyres proved surprisingly fast on my standard roll-down test, beating the Primo and Brompton tyres by a small but identifiable margin. Intriguingly, they were also more comfortable than the narrow tyres, under identical conditions.Why?
It is widely assumed that – for a given tyre pressure, loading and wheel diameter – the area of the contact patch will always be the same, irrespective of tyre width: a long and thin patch on a narrow tyre, and a short fat one on a wide tyre. As the crucial dimension is generally assumed to be the patch circumference, it seemed to make sense to aim for a round contact patch, with the shortest possible circumference. Hence the move towards wider tyres.
Perhaps surprisingly, this turns out not to be case, or at least, not with tyres of conventional construction in the 16- inch size. Comparing the 28mm Schwalbe Stelvio, 37mm Primo Comet and 40mm Greenspeed Scorcher, with the same loading and tyre pressure, I found the length of the tyre contact patch to be a function of tyre diameter, irrespective of tyre width. But the width of the contact patch varied according to the tyre width.Thus, the most free rolling 349mm tyres have the greatest contact patch circumference and tyre/road contact area, and those with the highest rolling resistance have the shortest circumference and smallest contact area.
That the wide tyres should be more comfortable seems easy to explain.The extra width is bound to ‘average out’ the pits and bumps in the road, and we now know that the ‘point pressure’ is less with the broader tyres, presumably allowing the tyre to mould itself around obstacles, rather than deflecting. And as all the tyres share the same aspect (ie, height to width) ratio, the broader tyre is also taller, putting a greater expanse of rubber between the road and rim. All these factors might be expected to iron out bumps, but they don’t really explain the improved rolling performance.
Two possible answers spring to mind. Looking again at the illustration, it’s clear that the narrow tyre comes almost to a point at front and rear, suggesting a fairly acute degree of flexure at the front and rear of the contact patch as the tyre assumes the flat shape then springs back. On the wide tyre, the more gently rounded tyre shoulder suggests that the rubber is bending more easily to assume the flat contact patch. As one observer commented on seeing the illustration, the wider tyre displays a ‘cleaner’ ellipse, and this cleaner shape results in lower hysteresis. Presumably too, the improved shock absorption of the wide tyre reduces vibration, and thus rolling resistance.
Whatever the explanation, it looks as though a new generation of small tyres is on the way. Can we expect to see broad, slick designs on everyday bikes? Another widely held belief is that tread somehow improves grip. Obviously, this is true enough on soft or loose surfaces, but on tarmac, a slick tyre can be expected to grip better, roll better, and shrug off debris, reducing punctures, compared to a similar treaded tyre.Whether slicks gain widespread acceptance with the general public remains to be seen.
Unfortunately, most small-wheeled machines are designed for narrow tyres, and weight is important too, so it’s unlikely that wider (and taller) designs will be adopted, unless a considerable performance advantage can be demonstrated. For recumbents, on the other hand, the only downside seems to be the slightly increased frontal area.
As we have seen with the Primo (see Folders 17 & 18), another solution is to make the tyre sidewalls more flexible, thus reducing the effort needed to overcome rolling resistance without compromising (probably improving) the shock absorbing characteristics of the tyre. But where do we go next? One long overlooked solution is to eliminate the inner-tube.There’s little point in fitting a tyre with paper-thin sidewalls backed up by a stiff, inflexible inner-tube. In practice, most good quality tubes flex quite well, but Greenspeed rig tests have found a reduction in rolling resistance of around 20% by eliminating the tube, so in theory, it’s well worth doing.
If you want to experiment yourself, simply slice open an old inner-tube around the circumference, splay the tube out flat and fit it to a wheel, followed by a tyre. Inflate as usual (not easy) and trim off any excess tube. Provided the tyre is in good condition (you may need to add some sealing gunge), this home-made solution should work well enough.
Tubeless bicycle tyres are not a new idea, although most designs have required a special rim and/or tyre profile, none of which have caught on.The advantages include easy puncture repair (a soft pencil of rubber can be inserted into a hole from the outside, without disturbing the wheel or tyre), lower weight and lower rolling resistance. On the negative side, tubeless tyres are probably more prone to puncture, more difficult to inflate when off the rim, and they require some sort of sealing system Black Primo Comet around the spoke holes.
But what of the future? Greenspeed is currently fine- tuning the composition of the Scorcher tyre, a process that will no doubt yield another small performance gain.The first production examples should be available early in 2005.
Further information from Greenspeed
Jaundiced and Amateurish
The consensus here is that you have not done yourself any favours with the recent Birdy Black test (A to B 44).Whilst we know people will form their own opinions, the feel of the test is both jaundiced and amateurish for what is normally a very professional publication.
Our main bone of contention is the tyre issue.You could have brought the bike back, or at least phoned so we could mail you a replacement tyre. According to our mechanics, this is the only incident of a Birdy tyre coming off the rim.With 10,000 Birdies produced a year, I think we would have heard of any large-scale problems.With respect to the test bike, we also tried and failed to seat the troublesome tyre and fitted a new one.We agree that what happened to the test bike is potentially serious, but it doesn’t deserve the bad press.
The other issue is the taller Comfort stem: we equip 90% of our Birdies with Comfort stems, as purchasers are either female or prefer a more upright riding position. In our opinion this adds negligible weight and cost and adds no complication to the folding procedure. As for carrying long, heavy objects under your arm – we would advise using a trailer.We could go on, but we would end up criticising 75% of your test.
Richard and Gary
Avon Valley Cyclery, Bath
Good in Parts
Thanks for the interesting and insightful review of the Birdy Black. Although you have some valid concerns about the tyres, and value-for-money against the competition, there is one feature that I particularly admire on the Birdy that received little attention: the rear suspension protects the rack, as well as the rider, from road bumps.This might seem a strange concern, since groceries don’t usually mind being jostled, but less stress on the cargo also means less stress on the bike. I’ve experienced pinch flats, broken spokes, and even a cracked frame, as a result of heavy loads on the rear rack. Almost all of Riese and Muller’s bikes offer this feature, perhaps most elegantly on the Avenue city bike.
On most full suspension bikes, one could only obtain this advantage by clamping a rack to the seatpost, but that would be marginal for loads heavy enough to make this an issue. The new Tubus Vega rear rack mounts on the suspended portion of the frame, but it only works with bikes that have special mounting points. Several German bike manufacturers are now making bikes with these mounting points, but I haven’t found any outside Germany.
New Hampshire, USA
Dahon is Better
I’d go along with your comments on the Birdy Black. My commuting problems have been solved with a Dahon – cheaper, better equipped, and with better road tyres. I’m getting a second set of wheels so that I can use it both for the commute (partly towpath in winter) and for fun on the road. It actually handles the towpath very well, and is certainly better than the Birdy on the road, and even at list price it would be cheaper than the Birdy Black (though not the Red). Actually in standard form it makes a lot of Bike Fridays look pretty silly too, at UK prices at least.
The recent tragic level crossing crash near Newbury lead to my revisiting a personal piece of lateral thinking.Why not treat the at-grade crossing just as you would a waterway crossing, where the road or railway is swung, lifted or slid clear of the boats? On reflection I opted for a ‘lifting’ design, allowing the deck surface to rest on the track foundation.This design would suit most one or two-track high speed lines including those with overhead electrification.The essence is a counterweighted lightweight platform which sits across the line, and has to be powered into the down position, presenting a positive means of ensuring the rail route cannot be occupied by a vehicle when the road is raised. Naturally, the signalling would show ‘line blocked’ until the platforms were in the ‘up’ position (much as the current system indicates if the barriers have failed to lower, or other warnings to activate, by maintaining the rail signal at danger). Swing bridges exist on the A82 and A9 trunk roads and there is a very famous lifting bascule bridge on the A2…Tower Bridge.
There are many advantages – cars cannot turn onto the tracks (surprisingly common), small objects will be thrown clear as the bridge lifts, while larger ones will prevent it from lifting, keeping rail signals at danger.Two-wheelers would no longer have to negotiate slippery rails, and the weight of HGVs would be transferred away from the track, reducing maintenance. (Eds)
Another Weighty Problem
After reading about weighty riders in A to B 44, I wonder if I’m unique. Over the space of around six years heavy commuting from Oxford to London, I’ve managed to break almost every bit of my first Brompton, so much so that the company replaced the frame, handlebars (twice), handlebar stem, gear sprocket (three times), gear casing (once), folding pedal…. and I’m not that hefty (88 to 90 kg).
Some people break things and others don’t. I weigh 85kg (big bones, you see), but have never broken anything on a Brompton (or anything else) apart from a pair of very old handlebars that gently sagged at the traffic lights (I rode on carefully).That might imply that I’m a heavy but gentle rider, but my 1991 Brompton managed to hold off a large field at Cyclefest a few years back (for half a lap at least), so we can’t be that lethargic. It must come down to riding style. (David Henshaw)
Just wondering about trailers for a Brompton, as I am about to replace my 1994 bike. Ideally, I’d like a trailer that could carry quite a bit of shopping and also firewood from the local sawmill.
This is probably a crazy idea, but I’ll throw it in anyway! I am going to buy a kayak early in 2005, as I feel the need to work on my upper body as well as the lower half, which benefits from cycling and running. I intend to use it on the Oxford to Banbury canal which is about seven miles away, along a mainly shared-use path. Is there any way I could tow a kayak behind a Brompton, or one of our bigger bikes? They are eight feet long I believe.
See page 36 for general advice on trailers. As for the kayak, we’d say you have two choices – either an inflatable (it can be carried on a Brompton, see www.geocities.com/amfoldarover/red_rover.html), but you’ll need some puff, or a ‘spine’ trailer, such as the one produced by Bikes at Work in the USA.This useful and adaptable vehicle – see www.bikesatwork.com – can be extended in sections from 50cm (20″) to a maximum length of 295cm (116″) and is suitable for canoes of up to 5.5 metres long and 150lb on weight. At current exchange rates this costs a reasonable £195, plus shipping of £49 (surface mail) or £78 (airmail). Every home should have one. (Eds)
Watching the 6 o’clock news on BBC1 on Wednesday 10th November I was distracted from Andrew Marr by a man stepping out of 10 Downing Street carrying a folded green Brompton. Surely he must be an A to B reader? Does anyone know who he is and what he was doing there?
Maltby, South Yorkshire
Several other letters on this momentous event. Sir, you have been unearthed. (Eds)
Regarding the letter ‘Two-Child Transport’ (A to B 44), our children Daisy and Anders are now three and five respectively. From about the age of six months, we used a Rhode Gear carrier on a Dawes Galaxy touring bike.Then when Anders was two we fitted a crossbar seat, with foot rest on the down tube and loops to stop his feet slipping.
Now the children are older, Anders rides a Tag-along trailerbike.We got one without gears for about £100, but you can buy a Trek for £120 which is a lot more like a real bike. I preferred the crossbar seat, as it is great for talking to the child while we are riding, and I can explain when we stop to cross roads, and ask him if it’s clear to proceed. I’m hoping that will be useful for road safety awareness!
Now Daisy can ride with stabilisers, we’ve got a Trail-gator for my wife’s bike.When they both go to school (two miles), we’re planning to get one of those Bike Friday Family Triple tandems.
Adrian L Mills Walton-on-Thames, Surrey
The Bike Friday Family Triple seems to be the favourite solution for carrying older children. (Eds)
On Your Doorstep?
Regarding the letter ‘Utopia’ (Letters, A to B 44), we would recommend Morag jumps on the train to visit Edinburgh Bicycle Co-op at 8 Alvaney Terrace (near Whitehouse Loan). My catalogue is out of date, but they design their own hybrid/town bikes and would certainly advise on a suitable bike for around £200.Their prices are competitive, and they are a workers’ co-operative.
Alex & Val Lawson
Cowes, Isle of Wight
Thanks to those who recommended the Bicycle Co-op.The shop did once supply ‘proper’ bicycles, but it no longer seems to, and has yet to respond to our request for information. (Eds)
…has Morag thought of buying German bikes for herself and friends? They could hire a van and bring back ten bikes, complete with dynamo lights, mudguards, propstand, pump etc. The German bikes we saw are slightly lower quality than Dutch bikes, but a lot cheaper, starting at around £200. My German bike (a Goericke Dorada) is the one I ride most in the winter. It is extremely comfortable and the totally dependable back-pedal rear brake works well even in the rain. I don’t think anything similar is available in the UK. I can recommend: www.goericke-rad.de . www.gudereit.de . www.winora.de
Re: ‘An Electrifying Practice’, could I say that the best advice is probably to buy a new moped! We have found over long experience that there are usually only one or two car- free solutions to each transport problem, and if you find one that works, stick to it! I also combine scooter and bicycle transport daily, as we could find no other solution other than to buy a car. I take the kids to school on foot and then have 25 minutes to do nine miles to work, and often have to go back to work in the evening, making 36 miles each day, cross- country.There are no nearer jobs! However, I always try to fit in an hour on the bicycle for shopping and exercise, before fetching the children again. A scooter will, I hate to say, get you further and faster than an electric bike but only costs a quarter as much as a car to buy and run, and doesn’t block up the roads.
And no, we still have not needed to buy a four-wheeled gas guzzler!
Fiona Le Ny
We find the best electric bikes are just adequate for our longest regular cross-country journeys of 18 miles, but the technology is a bit marginal. On the positive side, we have the exercise and all the freedom of a bicycle, without the hassle of helmets, insurance, road tax and so on. (Eds)
Out of Stock…
After your glowing report on the Giant Lafree ST we went out to try and buy one, but everyone must have had the same idea! We checked the Giant website for local stockists, but had to go to Cambridge just to try the 4-speed Comfort, as there were no bikes in Norfolk.We ordered the 5-speed ST, only to get a phone call to say it will be at least March 2005 before any come on stream from Giant. Gosh – do they take that long to make? Or are they not making any at the moment.What’s the problem?
Phyll Hardie Norwich, Norfolk
Giant has had problems persuading cycle shops to stock the Lafree, which caused a shortage when demand inevitably took off. Full marks to those shops that ordered the Lafree in 2002, when we first said it was something special, and commiserations to those who waited until potential customers were queueing out of the door.The bike trade in the UK needs to be more proactive – it’s no use grumbling that big discount stores are selling all the MTBs when you don’t back the specialist products.We hope Giant will favour those who had the faith to order early on. (Eds)
Chargers & Stands
Some while ago you made a recommendation for a centre stand for the Lafree electric bicycle. Can you please provide the details and, if possible, a retailer (preferably in Dorset)? I have owned a Lafree Comfort for two years and apart from wishing that I had taken your advice and bought the basic model and an extra battery, I have been pretty much satisfied. I only have one gripe and that is the battery charger… I am now on my third one as well as my second battery, the latter I suspect, being changed as it was felt that the charger could not have failed… again.The bike is used daily (Monday to Friday) on a 14-mile round trip to work, as well as numerous lunchtime trips and is an ideal workhorse – comfortable, safe and, apart from the charger, extremely reliable.
I am a tad over 16 stone and carry my Jack Russell in a specially-designed container on the rear carrier, so we’re no light load, which probably explains why I have to charge the battery almost daily. I usually ride on the ‘eco’ setting, deliberately making hard work of it for the sake of exercise, but when I’ve had a bad day I can take it as easy as I like.
All in all, I’m happy having just the one car and the Lafree, and value both the exercise and the economy… I would however, appreciate any comments from other regular users who have also found a problem with the charger as I’m sure that I’m not the only one.
The stand is a Swiss-made Esge dual-leg device – make sure to ask for the one with long legs (the stand, not the assistant). Some mild adaptation is needed to clear the Lafree motor, but it’s worth all the trouble. If the excellent Dorchester Cycles doesn’t keep these, we’ll be very surprised. (Eds)
Charged in Error
Having suffered the oft-reported failure (Lafree Long-term test, A to B 44) of my 2003 Giant Lafree charger, I ordered a replacement in May and was surprised to receive a different unit made by Metco, which seems much more positive in operation. Charge time is about the same and the LED system similar, but after reaching full charge it turns off, then cycles on and off, staying on for roughly two seconds in every 64.With my old Panasonic unit it was hard to tell if it was trickle charging or not and the cut-out time was always rather vague and variable.
If your charger has failed, you’re clearly not alone, but hopefully the problem is now resolved. Giant has confirmed that the Panasonic charger has been replaced. (Eds)
In a recent (last 12 months) issue of your excellent magazine you ran a picture of a Brompton with a bar running from the seat post to the front of the frame with a small child seat on it, the child sitting between the arms of the rider. Please could you let me know something more about this device. Is it an official Brompton product or a bit of clever Heath Robinson engineering on the part of the owner? I have a Birdy Blue and would like to try something similar for myself and my five-year-old daughter.
Also, do you know of any trailerbike product or adaptor that would allow me to safely and securely fit a trailerbike to the seat post of my Birdy without compromising the manoeu- vrability of either bit? I have found a Trek unit that fits, but it is a snug fit, and any attempt at shimming it makes the connection too tight to turn effectively.
Richard Marks Oldham, Lancashire
The ITchair was designed in Spain and adopted by the Spanish Brompton distributor Bike-Tech. We’ve heard that production seats should be ready by Christmas.These will be in light alloy, complete with a saddle or baby seat (as shown).We think the ITchair could be adapted to fit the Birdy and other folding bikes. More information at www.itchair.com or firstname.lastname@example.org (Eds)
The Final Word
In which you get your say… briefly
Top of the pile . Superb in every way . An oasis of good sense . Small, but perfectly formed A beacon of sanity amidst the encroaching madness . Interesting, intelligent and literate A refreshing lack of spin . Important, amazing and informing . Well presented and informative . The only mag for Mr Everyman with an interest in day-to-day cycle usage Excellent, at a time when most decent bike magazines have folded . The ‘Folder’ events are missed! Always read first in this house . The style of writing makes all articles an enjoyable read . I do not like the anti-car attitude: there is a place for bikes and cars Carrying bikes by car should be covered . Don’t be afraid to be ‘in the face’ of car culture! The only magazine about minimalist transport and against government/big business transport policies . More on car-free living, please . More about campaigning and political developments Keep highlighting the widening gap between government targets and reality . Too blinkered in some reviews . Less Brompton bias please . As Brompton owners, we find technical information, improvements and modifications interesting . Brilliant – I’m not that interested in electric and folding bikes, but they’re significant socially [a social scientist] Professor Pivot is right on my wavelength [a scientist] . Inspiring, especially cycle trailers I completely endorse your appeal to reason and sound engineering versus fashion and ‘lifestyle’ . I like the train articles .Any electric folders? What is an electric bike when it runs out of battery? More folding touring and travel would make a fabby read even fabbier A to B remains a crucial read – I still love the humour . Love the slightly eccentric style Reading it is all over too quickly .A cracking good read . I enjoy it all – especially the humour Please publish a list of all bikes! [It’s at www.atob.org.uk – Eds] . Even more please! Bring back Mr Portly . Please bring back Mr Portly . Mr Portly reminds me of an acquaintance, but I have never let him read it . Cheaper than Penthouse . Love it! Great fun – up the Establishment
We have to admit to a soft-spot for Moulton bicycles. In historical terms, their manufacture spanned a brief era, but what an era! Dr Moulton rethought the bicycle from fundamental principles, creating a unique machine that helped to define the 1960s. Small wheels, suspension, fitted luggage, and one-size-fits- all monotube frame… The Moulton was both radical and practical, and for a brief period it overwhelmed the cumbersome clunkers of the day.
Nasty corporate suits soon conspired to destroy the Moulton, and by the mid-70s it had gone, although the good Doctor still builds a few rarefied models for gentlemen with bottomless wallets.Today, your average punter thinks small wheels are bad news, rather like his dad in the 1950s. And that’s why we keep a candle burning for the ‘classic’ Moulton.
We reviewed the first edition of this book in October 2002 and the hard back reprint is broadly the same – painstaking research, exquisite illustrations, and helpful if rather dry text.This concoction is livened up with a few contemporary advertisements, which are becoming interesting sociological documents in themselves: ‘The smooth one’ (aimed at men), ‘The lookable one’ (aimed, one assumes, at women), ‘a with it move!’, (young people) and so on. The ‘Classic’ Moulton is more a directory than a history book: every model, and every part is identified, enabling us – for example – to pin down Grandpa Henshaw’s Moulton as a Deluxe M2.Wonder what happened to it?
New in this revised edition is a fascinating chapter drawn from rare photographs and factory archives, explaining how the bicycles were made. It’s all priceless stuff for Moulton buffs, historians, and anyone else with a love of nice bicycling things.
The ‘Classic’ Moulton . Paul Grogan . ISBN 0-9543265-0-4 . 80 Pages . Hardback UK price £28.50 Europe £29.50 Elsewhere £33 . Credit card sales 0121 743 8646
FIRST PUBLISHED December 2004
Interbike Las Vegas Special
Las Vegas is a decidedly odd venue for a cycle show, as anyone who has attempted to ride a bicycle there will appreciate. American cycle activists, if that is not a contradictory term, have been pushing for the Interbike trade show to become a roving affair, visiting a different metropolis each year and spreading the non-motorised message far and wide. Ah, would that it were so! The organisers have had other ideas, signing up with the Sands Convention Centre in Las Vegas for years to come, or at least until the oil runs out and they are forced to hold it somewhere more sensible.
The city can only really be reached in two ways – driving from Los Angeles (a trifling 300 miles across the desert), or flying in from just about anywhere else. One would think a car something of a hindrance in a small city dedicated to gambling, drinking and other sinful but primarily static pleasures, but this has not prevented car-bound tourists cruising Las Vegas Boulevard by night and day – a pointless activity generating more or less continuous congestion.
Actually, just for the record, cycling from the airport is by no means inconvenient.The only really serious error one can make is to follow the Mole’s example and head east on Interstate 215, a singularly unpleasant highway, necessitating an awkward cross-desert escape manoeuvre. One should, instead, turn left onto Kitty Hawk Way, slip quietly onto the sidewalk east of Paradise (thus avoiding a six- lane one-way cataclysm), and left on the Tropicana sidewalk to Koval Lane, from whence access can be made to most areas in relative safety.
Until very recently, Amtrak trans-continental trains stopped in Las Vegas, but in one of those bouts of blood-letting to which public transport is periodically exposed in the USA, the trains were withdrawn and the downtown railroad station demolished. Ever since, there have been calls to reinstate the trains, a scheme that would be craftily funded by on-board casinos ready to swing into action as the cars cross the Nevada border. With our own Dear Leader taking an unhealthy interest in gambling and other unwholesome things, it can surely only be a matter of time before some New Labour policy-wonk suggests just such a scheme for subsidy reduction on the crumbling relic formerly known as British Rail. It’s hard to imagine a warm welcome for casinos aboard the 7.47 from Bogworthy Junction, even if they do stay under wraps as far as the Berkshire border.
Generally speaking, Las Vegas tends to be a step or two ahead of Bogworthy in the transport stakes. The city (Vegas, not Bogworthy) boasts no fewer than three private monorails, all of which are free, but oddly enough (or perhaps not) each line stops only at casinos run by a particular mob. This crafty free enterprise system could, of course, be adapted to suit London conditions when the Super Casinos arrive, by building the gambling establishments close to centres of employment. A win-win situation! Or perhaps not.
Las Vegas has tried to alleviate its own transport frightfulness by building a super-slick public monorail, neglecting in its haste to build stations at any of the places people might like to go, such as the airport or the downtown district. For a few weeks last summer, the cars of the Robert N Broadbent monorail dutifully pottered from nowhere to a point several miles distant, until a wheel fell off one train, and a drive-shaft fell off another, these calamities causing the system to be shut down; ‘indefinitely’, say the critics.
Accepting the advance publicity for the monorail at face value, the Mole arrived without a folding bicycle this year, an error soon rectified with a borrowed bike. One or two other brave fellows made good use of their wheels, including Richard ‘cycle everywhere’ Locke, designer of the Airnimal, who proceeded to cycle everywhere as promised. One was particularly impressed to find Richard wearing non-cycle friendly footwear and loaded down with carrier bags at the Designer Discount Mall off Highway 15. Hmm, quite a ride.
But what of the Interbike show? Brompton, Airnimal and Carradice had cobbled together a little Brit corner (aka the British Pavilion), decorated with a few brave, if slightly moth- eaten, Union flags. Nothing very exciting to offer, but all very British and ‘business as usual’.
…arguing with Bernard Git proves as futile as snail baiting, but entertaining nonetheless…
As one might expect, the French gave better value for money, an outfit called Twister Bike marketing the ProRace, an epicyclic-geared bottom bracket device, rather like the Mountain Drive, but with the net result of, er, only one gear. Claimed to require ‘less muscular contractions’ (sic), the ProRace is also said to produce ‘More power for less effort’, resulting in a ‘lower heart rate’. For non-engineering types, the ProRace actually performs the same function as a larger chainring, but at much greater cost, and with added friction. Arguing with the delightfully named Bernard Git, the charming Frenchman behind the ProRace, proves as futile as snail-baiting, but entertaining nonetheless.
Not far away, the equally charming French-Canadian ladies and gentlemen of Bionx (formerly EPS) were demonstrating their gearless, brushless, bionically-powered and braked electric-assist bicycle. Although a bit expensive, this magic device performs the near ‘perpetual motion’ feat of storing cycling puff that would otherwise be blown away on long descents.
So much for Europe. Korean company Bikevalley was exhibiting the TaRa shaft drive, a practical sort of device, that may or may not be genuinely new, as is the way with bicycle innovations. Unlike the bevel gears fitted to most shaft-drive machines, the Chilsung gear developed by Bikevalley uses rollers in place of pinion drive teeth, which reduces friction and eases maintenance. In the company’s own words, ‘…the distinguishing part of the central driving the special toothed shape curve of sprocket adapting a rolling movement friction and rotating the power, emerging from previous traditional chain sprocket and bevel gear and this Chilsung gear using shall change the history of traditional inconvenient chain Bike…’ Eh?
Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? And watch out – Bikevalley is working on the rather alarming ‘Z-pump black hole’ whatever that might prove to be.
Home-brewed US innovation proved altogether sexier, if a little weak in the practicality stakes. The Mole’s favourite was the Double D Chopper, said to be the longest pedal-powered chopper on the market, with a claimed ten-foot wheelbase.This monstrous device is easier to ride than it looks, which is fortunate because it has only one gear, and a single back-pedal brake. One begins to grasp the value of advance stop lines…
Staying with the motorcycle theme, Electrodrive is producing a neat electric bicycle based loosely on the Harley-Davidson, with a battery in each cylinder barrel and chain drive to the rear wheel. Are they serious? Well, they seem to be. Of course, one must bear in mind that the Double D’s, Harley replicas and sumptous Manhattan cruisers are no more likely to venture onto Las Vegas Boulevard in the rush hour than fly to the moon, which explains how they get by without gears or brakes. Still, you have to hand the Yanks full marks for style.
Folding bikes were less well represented at Interbike than in previous years. Yet another new Birdy distributor was trying to pick up dealers, with a slight air of desperation. The company has been unlucky in America, with both Jeep and Burley, failing to make a success of the venture. One wishes the current incumbent luck.
Not far away, the Mole arrives on the Breezer stand just as CEO John Doidge explains to a passing TV crew that the folding bikes concept really is a little passé. Oh, yeah? But then Breezer did adopt the less-than-scintillating Oyama range, which might explain the rumours that the company has decided to pull out of folding bikes altogether. One wonders whether Uncle Joe Breeze might not have done better to take A to B’s advice before getting into the market, but there we are. The Birdy, for example, would have made a lovely Breezer.
Finally, if you haven’t heard of the Giatex, be prepared for something rather odd. Described as a ‘stretching bike’, the Giatex features a telescopic frame tube that brings the wheels somewhat closer together for storage. It’s actually not quite as daft as it sounds, but hardly compact when folded, or indeed full-size when stretched. As the publicity has it, the Giatex will expand to fit the kids as they grow, which sounds jolly practical. But the time has come to wave a fond farewell to the whopping choppers, expanding frames and useless accessories for yet another year and pedal back up the freeway to the airport. Viva Las Vegas!