Tag Archives: A to B 46

Swiss Train

Europe by Bike – Switzerland

Railways through mountains - the Glacier Express

Railways through mountains – the Glacier Express J & N Forsyth

Europe with Bike – Switzerland

The Swiss are amazing. Their country is not a natural place to build railways, so they build them up and through mountains.
The Swiss rail network is spread evenly on the country. There are 3,787 km of standard gauge tracks spread across the country and 509 km of metre gauge tracks in the south of the country. The main operator is Swiss Federal Railways (SBB/CFF/FFS). The other operators such as BLS (Bern-Löschtberg-Simplon) appear to be privately owned but are in fact owned by the cantons and the federal government. There are connections to Austria, France, Germany and Italy, some of which carry bicycles, both DB and SNCF run trains into Switzerland. The only major cross border rail connection that does nor accept bicycles is the narrow gauge Locarno to Domodossola FART (Ferrovie Autolinee Regionali Ticinesi – Regional Bus and Rail Company of Canton Ticino) line over the Centovalli.

switzerland
Some but not all of the distinctive yellow Post Buses take bicycles.
The railway system is cyclist-friendly, but not cheap. The majority of trains carry bicycles without reservation. This does mean that on public holidays problems can arise. You load the bikes yourself. The exception being the InterCity-Neigezügen (ICN) tilting Intercity trains where reservations are necessary between 21 March to 31 October at a cost of 5CHF per bicycle. These reservations can be made online. Short distance bicycle tickets cost half the single second class fare. A day tickets costs 12CHF for passengers with rail cards and 18CHF for passengers paying the full price for their tickets.
Travelling to Switzerland overland with your bicycle is described in “Taking your bicycle by bus, train and ship across Europe”.

Adequate bike parking (Romanshorn)

Adequate bike parking (Romanshorn). J & N Forsyth

Popular Cycling Areas in Switzerland
The Swiss authorities have invested heavily in cycle routes over the last twenty years or so with the result that the country now has nine national routes criss crossing the country and a large number of regional routes. Signposting and track quality is superb. Readers can find much more information about Swiss cycling in “Cycle Touring in Switzerland” by Judith and Neil Forsyth, published by Cicerone ISBN: 9781852845261 as a printed book or as an e-book. One can also buy descriptions of individual routes.
On weekends in summer with a good weather forecast, increased numbers of cyclists can be expected between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. and between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. on trains to Ticino, Valais, the Bernese Oberland, Pays des trois lacs – near Neuchatel, Jura, Grisons and Lake Constance, i.e. much of Switzerland, meaning there may be a shortage of space on these trains.

Wide bicycle access on Swiss doubledecker rolling stock

Wide bicycle access on Swiss doubledecker rolling stock J & N Forsyth

Train Types
This matter is largely irrelevant, because trains that take bicycles are shown in the timetable, allowing cyclists to choose which trains they take. There do not appear to be surcharges or extra charges for certain trains. There is the usual mix of local, regional and express trains. Bicycles are forbidden during the evening rush on Zurich S-Bahn (suburban trains) during the evening rush Mondays to Fridays (4pm-7pm).
One very good idea is that capacity forecasts for each train is shown online and on station indicators which allows route planning to use trains that are not as full.

Tickets
Railway tickets are expensive. Most inhabitants of Switzerland invest in a Half-Fare travel card which gives you half price travel and reduced prices for bicycle transport, but as it costs 185CHF, it does not really pay unless you live there or visit often. We bought two when we wrote the Cycling in Switzerland book as we spent several months there. There are also cards for tourists – the Swiss Pass, etc. but one needs to calculate carefully if cycling and expecting to travel by bicycle with the odd trip by public transport.
Getting you and your bike on the bus, ship or train

Buses
Many but not all Post Buses carry bicycles and E-bikes. Details can be found under: http://tinyurl.com/jsrkftb.
You put the bike on a rack or on a trailer yourself.

Typical ramp on a Swiss station

Typical ramp on a Swiss station J Forsyth

Trains
Tandems are not carried by the SBB. Bike trailers can only be transported if they are no wider than 80 cm.
Select your route and journey time in the online timetable which allows searching in all public transport systems in Switzerland:
•    In the online timetable, select “Advanced search” and then “carriage of bicycles required (Switzerland only)” to see the routes on which you can take your bike yourself.
Bike on train•    Trains that do not have space for bicycles are marked on the timetable and departure boards with a bike logo with a bar across. Cyclists are not allowed to take their bikes on these trains.
•    A bicycle reservation symbol or reference number on the timetable indicates a train or Post Bus for which reservation is required.
•    The capacity forecast is a useful indicator of which trains are likely to have capacity bottlenecks and whether another train or a different route might be less busy and thus better suited to transport bikes.
•    Passengers can check which section of the platform the coaches with bicycle spaces (bicycle hooks, bicycle platforms) will arrive in as early as three hours before departure in the online timetable or in the SBB Mobile smartphone app.
One good feature of Swiss stations is the provision of ramps to the platforms. There is no fiddling about trying to persuade loaded bicycles to get into narrow lifts. You will know roughly where the bike carrying carriages will stop. Go to the correct area of the platform. Take the bags off the bike. Put all the bags together. When the train arrives enter the train through a door with a bike logo. Just prop the bike up and return to the platform to pick up your bags. Leaving your passport and camera on the platform could probably spoil your day. Get back on the train and hang the bike up. Find a seat and collapse.
When you get off the train, push your bike along the platform. It is strictly forbidden to ride bikes on platforms.

Ferries and Steamers
There are ferries and ships on the larger lakes. There is normally no problem getting your bike on board. Just tell the person in the booking office. A bungee or a strap is a useful accessory to fasten the bike to the mainmast or similar, so everything is shipshape and Bristol fashion.

Diversions
Our favourite trip is from Andermatt over the Oberalp Pass and then down the Rhine Valley to Lake Constance with good mountain views all the way.

A to B 46 – Rail Special!

A to B 46 CoverWe live in interesting times. As bits of Antarctica drop off, and global meltdown accelerates goodness knows where, it’s business as usual in the UK – more and bigger cars doing more miles, renewed talk of a railway closure programme, and low-impact cycling right off the political agenda. Meanwhile, the chairman of Shell is riding a Brompton to work and making some very anti- oil comments. Whatever next!

Fear not! A to B brings you the usual eclectic mix to reverse the trends: half price bicycles, Routemaster buses, all the usual technical bits, plus gripping tests of bicycles and accessories. And to get you in the mood for a CO2-lite holiday this summer, we have reports on folding bike breaks in Switzerland and Wales.

A to B 46 Contents

Panasonic WiLL

Panasonic Will Electric Folding BikeORIGINAL ARTICLE FROM FEBRUARY 2005.
The Panasonic Will has been out of production for some years.

We’re often told that folding electric bicycles are the next big thing, but the technology always seems to be just around the corner, in a container on the high seas or being re-evaluated somewhere far away. In other words, it just isn’t ready.

Why would anyone want a folding electric bike? Sad to relate, there is growing demand – we kid you not – for electric folders that can be carried to the local park in a car boot and toodled around, giving the rider some virtual exercise. A frightening vision of the future if ever there was one: herds of doddery greys ripping up the ozone layer for a bit of fresh air.

But every new technology has its frivolous applications. Somerset is big country and some towns are relatively inaccessible without a car. If we wanted to get to, say, Radstock (not that we ever do), we’d take a folding bike 18 miles on the train to Frome and cycle the remaining eight miles. Actually, Sustrans is working on a level-ish path, but otherwise, think serious hills. An electric-assist folding bike would make a lot of difference.

Similarly, for someone living in the South Hams of Devon, or just about anywhere in the Peak District, this sort of technology would make a Home Counties-style train/bike commute more practical. It sounds easy, but to get our business, and break into the touring/folder, commuting/folder markets, the bike would have to outclass an enthusias- tically-ridden Brompton or Birdy, and to date, there’s no sign of this happening.We’ve seen nothing that can be swung easily onto the train, and/or manage our archetypal 16- mile round journey, but year on year they improve.

WiLL-Power

State-of-the-art in early 2005 is the Panasonic WiLL. Actually, the WiLL has been around for a while, and is  in any event based on the older Porta-Ranger model that was already knocking on a bit when we tested it in 2001.There aren’t many similarities though.The staid Porta-Potty frame has been replaced with one of the prettiest alloy designs you could hope to make the acquaintance of, complete with strangely unmatched wheel sizes – 20-inch rear and 18-inch front.

The power unit is lithium-ion, but this isn’t new either, having first made an appearance in Japan in December 2003, arriving in Europe on the Swiss-made Biketec six months later. Significantly (or perhaps not), Giant came very close to upgrading its Lafree to the lithium system in 2004, but changed its mind. Just to recap, lithium-ion batteries are light, but they need some clever electronics.The Panasonic system has two battery options, one of 160Wh (about the same capacity as the Lafree, but at 1.6kg, less than half the weight), and a smaller unit of 80Wh, weighing just a kilogram. In other words, the weight of the battery is of no real significance in the greater scheme of things.

Panasonic has made the bigger battery available to other manufacturers, but its own folder comes with the one-kilogram job, so don’t expect to go very far.

On the Road

First impression on the road is that the Shimano SIS 7-speed derailleur is missing at least one gear at the top end.This is quite common with Japanese folders, which leaves you wondering how they ride ‘em over there. Do all cyclists wobble along at 12mph? Or is it just the folding bikes that get left in the gutter when bicycles, mopeds, car and trucks roar away from the lights? We’d love to know.

The result of limited gearing is a strictly limited top speed. You can cruise at around 12mph, but even in a knee-spinning emergency, you won’t go much over 14mph with a 61-inch top gear. This is seriously debilitating stuff and leaves the Panasonic floundering in the wake of all but the humblest unassisted folding bikes on the flat. We wouldn’t even attempt to storm the rolling Somerset downs with gears like this. More usefully, bottom gear is low too. At 28 inches, it would be low by any standards, but on a crank-driven electric bike, a gear like this will climb any hill South Somerset can produce, albeit at a snail’s pace. Again, we’re confused. Are Japanese suburbs very, very hilly?

Rolling resistance is acceptable, rather than exciting.The 40psi Cheng Shin tyres are a ‘trad’ design, so don’t expect sparkling performance. Actually, they roll quite well at 50psi, hitting 13.3mph on our test hill, but this is a big bike, and these days we expect 20-inch machines of this size to coast a good 1mph faster than that.

The 107cm wheelbase and handlebar height of 97cm are acceptable, but at 79cm – 94.5cm (plus another centimetre or two for the daring) the saddle height is a shade low. The general impression, from the low saddle, uninspiring gear ratios and lethargic tyres is that the Panasonic would be blown away by most unassisted folders in the traffic light Grand Prix. Not a very good start.

Power Assistance

In common with all the best electric bikes, the Panasonic drive system is almost invisible. The motor is part of the bottom bracket, and more or less hidden by an oversize chainguard. The tiny battery sits above it, but you could mistake it for a bit of frame tube or a water bottle.

The power switch is on the handlebars, offering two levels of assistance, or nothing if you prefer.The ‘Off’ setting leaves you with a typical, under-geared folding bike as one might expect, and ‘Lo’ is too Zen-like to be worth discussing. It sort of whispers encouragement. ‘Hi’, on the other hand, offers quite  perky acceleration, as a torque-sensor engages the motor to match your pedal strokes.This feels exciting, but it’s all over very quickly. Above 10mph in top gear, the motor begins to run out of steam, and by 12mph, your legs are whizzing a shade faster than most of us would prefer, and you’re on your own. Progress continues thus until you confront a steepish hill, which the bike saunters up in one of its higher ratios, only dipping into the 300 watt peak power reserves on the steepest bits. Our meanest, cruellest gradient is 17% (1:6) and the Panasonic rasped gently up in 2nd gear – we never found an opportunity to use 1st in anger.

This steady, but rather tedious progress continues for about three miles, at which point the first of three ‘fuel’ warning lights flicks off (the separate battery gauge still showing four out of five lights, incidentally). At seven miles the second instrument light is extinguished, with the battery still displaying two out of five. Rather disturbingly, the battery meter then goes from half to empty in less than a mile, and by 7.8 miles, both gauges are flashing, indicating reserve. It then changes its mind, and does another three miles before conking out at 10.8 miles. Average speed is a woeful 10.6mph.

This sounds rather dismal against electric bikes that can run for twenty miles or more at 17-18mph, but at 17.3kg, the Panasonic is the lightest electric bike on the market. Not that long ago, we were testing conventional folders weighing that much, so it’s quite a good performance all things considered. And in hilly country, 10.6mph is better than it sounds.

Panasonic Will Power Consumption

The peaks correspond with power consumption in the different gears. The grey area is wasted power

Charging is excellent. Lithium-ion batteries need clever technology to stop them going pop, and the same mysterious electronics give an uneventful and rapid charge of about one hour 40 minutes – the fastest we’ve seen (Panasonic suggests 40 minutes longer). Mind you, it’s also the smallest battery we’ve seen. Efficiency, both charging and running, is similar to the NiMH-powered Lafree. Power consumption is a nominal 7.4Wh per mile, or 10.7Wh if charging losses are taken into account, as they must be, unless you have your own solar/wind/hydro power plant. Just for the record, there are few powered vehicles (except of course, for the traditional bicycle) that can beat that.

Accessories

Strangely, for a machine with a state-of-the-art alloy frame, and lithium-something-or-other battery, the WiLL is equipped with some frightful accessories. The brake blocks, callipers and cables are cheap and profoundly ineffective.The front manages a best stop of 0.54G, which is tolerable, but even with a mighty heave, the rear brake only scrapes up to 0.22G. If you’re wondering how to interpret these G-force readings, 1.0G is the force of gravity, which is a bit difficult to achieve horizontally. A good stop is 0.7G, a reasonable one 0.5G, and 0.22G is pathetic. In practical terms, the WiLL comes with one functioning brake.

The bottom-of-the-range Shimano derailleur we’ve already mentioned, there are no lights or rack, but the WiLL has a little stand, and a bell. Mudguards are those floppy plastic things, which prove better than nothing, but not much. All a bit disappointing on a machine costing £1,200, give or take an exchange rate fluctuation.

…Why, oh why, oh why, do manufacturers never listen?

Folding

Panasonic Will Folding Electric Bike - FoldedRemarkably good. The electrical bits cause no complications, so folding the WiLL is much the same as any other 20-inch job.The handlebar stem has an elegant catch, rather like a convex version of the Brompton U-clamp (a round bar, in other words). Once released, the handlebars fold down and clip into place, something that always gets top marks in our book.The mainframe hinge is a bit trickier, and you need strong fingers to push back the safety catch, heave the lever, and winkle the locking bar from its lair in the frame. Once done, the bike folds in a trice, and with the attractive MKS FD6 pedals folded (best accessories on the bike), it’s done. As usual, one of the folding pedals is superfluous, so they could have saved a few quid there, and in contrast to the handlebar stem, the frame doesn’t clip together, so the package continuously falls apart.Why, oh why, oh why, do these manufacturers never listen?

Folded size is 41cm wide, 69cm tall (or 67.5cm with the useless saddle stem rear reflector removed), and 88cm long. Folded volume is 249 litres or 8.9 cubic feet.That should be acceptable on all but the busiest trains, but it’s a little bulkier than the Dahon Roo/Sparc and much bigger than Honda’s little Compo, formerly the WiLL’s sworn enemy, but now apparently withdrawn.

Conclusion

We don’t think £1,200 bicycles should have rubbish brakes and indifferent tyres, but the Panasonic WiLL is also the lightest electric bike around, and it narrowly outperforms the other two super-lightweights: the Dahon Roo and Honda Step Compo.

With another gear, lighter, more effective tyres and brakes, and a bigger battery, the WiLL would weigh about the same but go nearly twice as far at a sensible speed. It’s not for us to tell Japanese multinational corporations how to run their affairs, but those changes would make it a jolly interesting machine.

Specification

Panasonic WiLL £1,200 . Weight Bicycle 16.3kg Battery 1kg Total 17.3kg (38lb) . Gears Shimano SIS 7-spd . Ratios 28″ – 61″ . Batteries Lithium-ion . Capacity 73Wh . Range 10.8 miles . Full charge 1hr 40m . Fuel consumption Overall 10.7Wh/mile . Running costs 8.8p per mile . Manufacturer Panasonic of Japan . UK distributor Electric Bikes Direct tel 0870 345 0775 mail info@electricbikesdirect.co.uk web www.electricbikesdirect.co.uk

ITchair

The ITChairThere’s a real demand for carrying children on the Brompton, something we can vouch for from personal experience. It’s also probably the most common question we get asked. Integrating the bike itself with rail or bus is straightforward, but children make life much more complicated.Trailers are great, but even the most compact takes up more space than a folding bike designed for an adult, so they present a bit of a challenge on public transport.

When Alexander was two, we solved the problem by adapting a conventional child seat to fit on a Brompton seat pillar, a device that went on to give four years of priceless service.Wonderful for long trips, the child seat was nevertheless a bit clumsy for shorter journeys to shops, and later, to school. Fitting and removing it required an allen key, which was invariably at the bottom of a bag, in the wrong pocket, or worst of all, on the kitchen table at home. Strapped on top of the folded bike, the seat produced a small package, but the operation required a strap, which was invariably at the bottom of the bag, on the kitchen table, etc.

Our SP Brompton trailer bike proved to be a practical alternative – great for longer rides, but in terms of folded size, effectively two Bromptons. And guess who gets to carry the two Bromptons and the bag?

…ten minutes later, wife battles through traffic to deliver child…

The ITChair

When we first came across the ITchair, it seemed to promise a practical tool-free solution for short trips, although we were sceptical that a Brompton was roomy enough for two, or that the device could be fitted and removed as quickly as was claimed.

Note the folding footrests and frame yoke

Who is it aimed at? Leisure seems the obvious market, but we’ve heard from several readers who long to eliminate that daily school-run nonsense: dad rides Brompton past school to station, ten minutes later wife battles through traffic in Volvo to deliver child, then runs home empty.The ITchair promises to carry a smallish child a modest distance, then fold away more or less out of sight, with the exercise being repeated in the evening, or not, as the case may be – it sounds like a flexible solution.There are a few complications and traps for the unwary, but by and large, it really does what it’s supposed to do.

The device is disarmingly simple.You get a steel tube (aluminium is in development), fitted with a yoke at one end and a clamp at the other.To fit it to the bike, you slide the cushioned yoke over the frame tube and push it up against the frame hinge plate, where a hook on one of the yoke arms engages with the plate, to prevent the ITchair from lifting off again. At the other end, the clamp goes round the seat post and is secured with a standard hinge clamp lever borrowed from the Brompton parts bin.

The ITchair can even be used as a temporary seat on the train

Newer Bromptons have a subtly different hinge, but the ITchair cleverly gets around this with a reversible yoke, giving two alternative hooks.This operation needs an allen key, but unless you regularly swap Bromptons of mixed vintage, you will only need to do it when initially setting the ITchair up.

From the top of the tube, a seat post protrudes horizontally, giving about 10cm fore and aft adjustment to the child saddle, and a pair of neat motorcycle footrests pop out lower down.

In Use

Alexander is slightly taller and slimmer than the average very-nearly-six year old, and as he can ride the ITchair with reasonable ease, we’d say it was suitable for children of up to six. Climbing aboard will be a problem for a nervous child (some refused to even consider it), but the more outward bound types scramble on and off like monkeys, an operation made easier if the adult is already firmly aboard.

The clamp has to do a lot of work, but looks strong enough

The ITchair adds virtually nothing to the size of the folded package

Once in the seat, Alexander’s knees nestled comfortably below the handlebars.You might think handgrips would be useful, but in practice the child either holds the bars, puts his hands in his pockets, scratches his head or does a Mexican wave. The saddle and footrests give plenty of stability, and the rider’s arms tend to cradle the child, so they really would find it hard to fall off.With a bit of experimentation we found it was surprisingly easy to take three hands off the handlebars, so indicating is not the problem you might expect. One word of warning – if the child holds the gear shift and you change up unexpectedly, you will squidge a tiny finger.

For younger children, this central position feels secure, and there’s a perceived advantage in keeping an eye on the child too. In theory, you can carry a baby in a suitable carrier, but for the sake of your knees, you’ll need to find something very narrow. Sadly, we had neither baby nor carrier to hand, but it’s clearly possible.

Disadvantages

The primary disadvantage for the rider is pedalling with your knees further apart than normal.This has little effect on power output, but we wouldn’t recommend putting knee joints through too much of this sort of stress.With a large five-year-old and an old short-frame Brompton, we’re looking at a worst-case scenario. Any combination of a smaller child, a post-2004 bike and a saddle set well back will make life much easier. A narrow child saddle would help too – we used a conventional saddle and found it annoyingly wide even without a child on board.

Whilst looking for disadvantages, the increased weight over the front wheel might encourage a slide on gratings and low kerbs.We didn’t experience any problems, but would certainly suggest riding with more care than usual.That’s obviously a matter of common sense with any child carrier, but our lower rear-mounted child seat handled superbly even at high speed – something we wouldn’t recommend with the child upfront.

…with 10kg in the bag, an 85kg rider and a 20kg child, we’re on the limit…

Staying with weight, Brompton suggest a gross bicycle load of about 115kg.With 10kg in the front bag, an 85kg rider and a 20kg child, we’re right on the limit.This might be all right, and it might not – we certainly noticed some slight fretting where the ITchair pushes up against the hinge, indicating that the bicycle frame and saddle stem had been bowing slightly under the stress. Once again, this is an extreme example – most adult/child combinations would be safe enough.

Folding

Folding takes just a few seconds: release the clamp, lift off the ITchair, fold the bike, and reclamp the ITchair to the lowered seat pillar, sticking out and down along the left side of the bicycle frame. This leaves a folded package little bigger than normal. It’s a bit heavier, adding 1.6kg in this case, but lighter and smaller than the alternatives. Incidentally, Alexander rather enjoys carrying the ITchair himself, but you have to watch five-year-olds – they’re liable to put things down and wander off. Luckily, you’ve got the bike. Another useful feature, as we discovered on a busy post-Christmas train, is that the ITchair can be clamped to any suitable vertical post, making an extra seat. Small boys love this kind of thing.

Conclusion

The ITchair is far from ideal, but it’s a brilliant bit of lateral thinking, and within reasonable limits of child size and weight, journey length and so on, it really does perform well. The real proof is whether we use it ourselves. In practice, the ITchair proved hard work on our steeply inclined school run, but has been used almost without exception on rail trips, where compact size and folding speed are more important.To date, we must have used the chair on a dozen trains (some quite busy) and ridden 50 miles or so.We very much wish it had been around three years ago, but we’re delighted to have found it now.

ITchair E199 (£135) inc European airmail delivery . mail info@bike-tech.net . web www.itchair.info

Bigfoot Brompton Bag

Bigfoot Brompton Bag

Bigfoot Brompton BagWe’re not actually that keen on bags since the railway companies got folder-friendly, but they have their uses.Yachtsfolk need to protect their bikes from salt spray and flying bowsprites, whatever they might be, and the same principle applies to those regularly checking a bike in as anonymous luggage, whether at the airport, the restaurant or even (particularly even) Mrs Hampton’s Bordello & Old Time Massage Parlour. Of course, you may think you need a bike bag for another reason; whatever, it will leave your wallet thirty quid lighter and your Brompton nearly a kilogram heavier.

The Bigfoot Bag is made in Britain, from grey, green, navy blue or red cordura. It’s a waterproof fabric, but you can expect the untaped seams and very long zip to leak under extreme conditions.The bag has carrying handles and a shoulder strap, makes a nice snug fit around a typical Brompton and will just accept a bike fitted with the extended seat pillar too.The bag also comes without branding to reduce the risk of theft. Maybe, but that’s not much use if the thief is working on the lucky dip principle.

At 910g, the Bigfoot is mid-range in the Brompton bag world – somewhere between the Brompton cover and the ‘B’ bag reviewed in A to B 44. Just for the record, the ‘B’ weighs 2.3kg and gives serious protection; the basic Brompton cover weighs 290g and gives very little protection; and the super-lightweight cover we use ourselves for libraries and the like, weighs 100g and gives no protection at all. Horses for courses.

We wouldn’t recommend buying a bag unless you’re sure you need one, but for certain applications,something of this weight could be quite useful.The downside is the 910g of extra baggage, and a packed size of about 40cm x 10cm x 10cm.

Bigfoot Brompton Bag £30 (trade enquires welcome) . Bigfoot Bikes 50 Hayes Street, Bromley, Kent BR2 7LD . tel 0208 462 5004 mail bigfootbikes@yahoo.com

Letter from America – Who Buys Those Folders?

Folding Bikes in the USAThe story of folding bicycles in the USA is unusual. In the UK and Europe, folders are everywhere.They appear every working day on buses and trains during commuting hours, and are seen tucked away in offices and other workplaces in all major cities.They are, as our saying goes, ‘as common as crabgrass’.

Not true in the USA. Folders are seldom seen on American buses and trains. Almost every American bus now has a rack on its front which will carry two cumbersomes, and full-size bikes are allowed on most trains whenever they do not inconvenience other passengers. A visitor from the UK could ride an American bus or train for months without ever seeing a folder in use during commuter hours or any other time.

Folding bicycles do sell here.Well-stocked bike shops will carry at least a couple of models, usually Dahons, and they are also sold by catalogue retailers like L. L. Bean & Co. So where are they?

Welcome to the world of recreational vehicles (RVs). All over the USA, these vehicles lumber along American highways and streets.They come in all sizes and types, from small collapsible trailer-campers which cost the average worker a month’s wages, to luxurious behemoths as large as an intercity bus which cost more than the average house.

These RVs, at least the larger ones, are considered one of the common pests of America’s roads and suburbs.There are millions of them and they are everywhere.They block streets, clog driveways, create road hazards on freeways, and are driven and loved by millions of Americans.

Some are trailers which are designed to be towed by standard cars and trucks. Most, especially the larger ones, are built on truck or bus frames and are fully self-powered and self-contained. A whole industry has developed to support these vehicles.There are literally thousands of campgrounds for them. Some are publicly owned, but most are privately operated.They can welcome either a few or a few hundred of the RVs.The largest RV campgrounds operate like small towns, and one can stop there for a night or a month or longer.

It is in these campgrounds that folding bicycles are so useful.The traveller with a trailer can hook it up to water, gas and electricity sources, and then use the towing car or truck for local transportation. But the owner of a self-propelled RV needs a compact and dependable personal vehicle for use around the campground and for trips to nearby shops, etc.The folding bike has become such a natural part of RV life that some dealers supply a free bike with every purchase.

Most of these RVs are kept at home and used for weekend or vacation trips, but there is a new species of RV owners who have no home.These are the ‘full-timers’ who have sold their homes and live in their RVs all year long.They have their own clubs, such as the Good Sam Club (www.goodsamclub.com), Escapees (www.escapees.com), and Loners On Wheels (www.lonersonwheels.com).

The RVers are the modern American nomads.The clubs can provide insurance, travel information, mail forwarding, medical referrals and anything else that the club member might need and be willing to pay for.The full-timers also have a magazine (www.workamper.com) that matches RVers with part-time jobs so that they can show some income during their travels.The usual agreement is an exchange of a free campsite (with all amenities provided) in return for perhaps 16 hours of work per week. Some arrangements pay an hourly wage in addition to the free facilities, and others do not.The RVers make their own agreements with the employers, and many follow an annual circuit and return to the same jobs year after year.

There are also many volunteer opportunities in our National Parks and National Forests.The government provides campsites in return for a few hours of volunteer work each week and all the beautiful scenery one can absorb. Thousands of RVers take advantage of these opportunities every year.

It would be wrong to give the impression that these ‘full-timers’ are people who have nothing better to do than to rumble around going from nowhere in general to nowhere in particular. Many RVers are highly skilled in a particular field and need to relocate from project to project. Here in Southern California we often see RVs in use on movie and TV locations in a variety of support activities.The most luxurious ones are used by actors as homes in less salubrious locations.

There are millions of RVs on the road, and not all of them are vacation toys.They perform many useful functions and provide travelling homes for thousands of workers. Kay Peterson described it best in her book, Home is Where You Park it.

When I take my Brompton L5 for an early morning ride through the local neighbourhoods, I usually count 10-15 large RVs per hour, and at least as many smaller ones. I have no idea how many folding bikes are hiding in those vehicles, but I do know that the RVers are probably the largest group of folder buyers in the USA. So don’t despair if you visit the USA and do not see folders where you expect to see them.There are many thousands at large, but one has to look inside the RVs to find them. As the old- time salesmen used to say, ‘Ya gotta know the territory’.

The SP Brompton


Produce any interesting machine and someone will want to customise it. Engineer Steve Parry has been producing custom folding bikes to order for over a decade – concentrating on the Brompton in recent years.

In practice, you can order a Brompton from Mr Parry with just about any choice of parts and accessories, from the single-speed on this page to the all- singing, all-dancing 14-speed overleaf.

The basic single speed weighs 9.7kg (21.3lb) – around two kilograms lighter than a standard L3. This weight saving is achieved largely with high-tech materials: titanium/carbon fibre telescopic seat pillar, carbon fibre forks, stem and cranks, with MKS demountable pedals.

The single-speed rear hub is a Shimano freehub with all but the 11-tooth sprocket removed to save weight. Unusually, the bike is fitted with slightly oversize Birdy 18-inch wheels and Schwalbe Stelvio tyres. Price is £1,200 – broadly the same as the equivalent Bike Friday, Airnimal or Bridgestone Moulton.

In contrast, the Rohloff version features every conceivable accessory and weighs 13.9kg (30.5lb).The seat pillar is the same, but the lightweight saddle has been replaced with a Brookes leather item, and the cranks are Shimano 105.The handlebar stem is carbon fibre again, but this time with integral suspension. Brakes are superb – Hope hydraulic discs front and rear, giving a best stop of around 0.75G before lifting the rear wheel.The Brompton rear rollers are replaced with SP narrow discs and the rear suspension is fitted with a hook to prevent involuntary folding. Finally, there’s that hub… Steve fabricates his own rear frames to accommodate the much wider 14-speed Rohloff, but the folded size of the bike is little changed, and the system works well. Price? About £2,000 depending on the exact spec.That’s about the same as the Birdy Grey or Airnimal Ultima.

SP Bicycles
tel 01934 516158
mail spbicycles@btopenworld.com

Lower gears on a folder?

“Could you tell us the options for putting very low (sub 30-inch) gears in a folding bike? Which folding bikes will accept a Rohloff hub gear? It’s very hilly around here.”

Margaret Lunnon, Coulsdon, Surrey

Alot depends on whether you are prepared to put up with a general lowering of the gears, or are hoping to keep the high gears as they are.The simplest and easiest solution, common to most small-wheeled bikes, is to fit a smaller chain ring.These are cheap and available in a variety of sizes. An even cheaper answer with hub geared bikes, is to fit a larger sprocket. Most small machines come with 13- or 14-tooth sprockets and most will accept a much larger sprocket, giving an instant and cheap gear reduction. Bear in mind, though, that these solutions lower all the gears and have no effect on the gear ‘range’ – the difference between first and top gear.

Schlumpf Mountain Drive

Schlumpf Mountain Drive - the assembly fits into the bottom bracket

There are many options to increase the gear range, some more practical than others. On a derailleur bike, larger sprockets and long-arm derailleurs tend to be impractical with small wheels, but the other extreme of fitting a small top-gear sprocket and smaller chainring is fine, if a little complex.The Shimano Capreo system is specifically designed for small wheel bikes and gives a gear range of almost 290% from a very neat little unit. Assuming a just practical 80-inch top gear, the Capreo would give ratios down to 28-inch, just inside your requirement.This system is available on the Birdy White and the new Mezzo D9, and can be retro-fitted to most derailleur machines at a price.

An easier solution open to just about every folder is the Schlumpf Mountain Drive.This is a little hub-style gear set that fits inside the chainring. In direct drive, it has no effect, but click your heel on the little control button and the bike changes down to a low ‘hill-climbing’ set of gears.The Mountain Drive gives a reduction of 2.5:1 and the similar Speed Drive a more reasonable 1.65:1. Assuming a top gear of 80 inches, and a 3-speed hub, the Speed would give a bottom gear of 27 inches and the Mountain an almost unusably low 18-inch gear.With a wider range hub, the effect is even more pronounced. The nice thing about this system is that there are no cables to worry about, but it’s heavy, quite expensive and somewhat inefficient in the more extreme ratios.

Brompton Wide Ratio Conversion

Brompton Wide Ratio Conversion - 12/18t sprockets squeezed onto a standard 6- speed hub

My personal favourite is a wide-range conversion of the Brompton 6-speed.The standard 6-speed has a range of only 215%, so try as you might, you won’t get anywhere near your 30-inch target and keep a decent top gear. But fit 12- and 18-tooth sprockets to the Brompton hub and the range increases to 282%.This is wide enough to give a range from 80 down to 28 inches, with good efficiency. Unfortunately, there are technical issues involved, and no one produces a kit at present, although I understand this omission is being rectified. More in a later issue.

Particularly fashionable at the moment are the 8-speed hubs from Sturmey Archer and Shimano.The Sturmey is designed around very large sprockets and is thus too cumbersome for most small bikes.The Shimano is much more practical, and its gear range of 307%, would give a bottom gear of 26 inches with our 80-inch top gear. Several small- wheelers are available with this hub, including the Airframe, and conversions are available for most small-wheelers. Even the Brompton can be adapted, although the extra weight and folded width would be a disincentive for regular commuters.

Rohloff 14-speed hub

Rohloff 14-speed - the widest range of any hub gear

Finally, we come to the Rohloff 14-speed hub. This offers an enormous gear range of 526%, but it’s a big, brutal device, and more or less doubles the price of a typical high-end folding bike.The range is as much as most people could ever use, from a wobbly walking pace, to a flat-out down hill top gear. Using our example of a bicycle with an 80-inch top gear, the Rohloff would reach Margaret’s 30-inch criteria in gear 4, and go as low as 15 inches in bottom gear! The hub is fitted as standard on the £1,880 Birdy Grey, the £2,000 Brompton- based SP and can be shoe-horned into most other bikes if your budget extends to that sort of thing.

Elsewhere: Puncture-resistant tubes A to B 35 Brompton Wide-Ratio Conversion A to B 31 Brompton Mountain Drive Conversion A to B 21 PBW/Rohloff Speedhub A to B 31

Schwalbe Marathon Plus Tyres

Puncture-Resistant Tyres

No More Punctures, Please!

Professor Pivot“I have had three punctures on my Brompton since Christmas.The first in the front Marathon, the second in the rear Brompton tyre, prompting me to change it for a Marathon.The third was in the front Marathon again, causing me to regret spending on the rear tyre change. Just to make it worse, Mosquito Bikes fitted a 5/8in (16mm) Schwalbe 4a AV tube that is supposed to stretch to 13/8in (37mm). When it’s stretched that thin, how long will it last?

What BSI tests, if any, apply to kevlar-reinforced tyres? If there are none, what are the closest applicable to motorcycle tyres?”

Mike Hargaden, London

Punctures are a big problem for some people, under some conditions, while others hardly get to see a flat tyre these days. In general, any solution that prevents foreign bodies penetrating the tube (and there are many) will increase rolling resistance, because tough or springy extra layers don’t like to flex, as a tyre must.They obviously increase weight too, and extra weight in the tyre can result in a less sprightly ride and slower response, making the bike feel turgid and heavy. So, even when they work, it’s not all good news.

As for 16-inch (349mm) tyres, the A to B readers’ tyre survey (see A to B 40) suggests that the standard Brompton tyre punctures about every thousand miles, the ‘Green Flash’ kevlar-banded Brompton tyre a little more frequently, and the kevlar-banded Marathon about every 860 miles.This tends to back up my own observations, so taking weight, price and poor rolling resistance into account, I simply wouldn’t recommend kevlar tyres. It may well be that certain types of band perform better than others, but I have yet to see published research on the matter.

Puncture Resistant Inner TubePuncture-proof, at a terrible cost, are the so-called ‘solid’ tyres.These may be just tolerable on a 26-inch wheel, but at 16-inch the high rolling resistance and ‘wooden’ feel make these things more trouble than they’re worth.The same goes for ‘solid’ foam inner tubes, about which the less said the better.

Raleigh extra-thick Puncture-Resistant inner tubes provide a good low-tech compromise, but these may no longer be available in small sizes. I fitted a pair to a Brompton two years ago and I’m still waiting for the tyres to deflate. Schwalbe uses a similar technique on its Marathon Plus tyre, which has a 5mm thick flexible india rubber belt under the tread. These tyres are heavy and only produced down to 20- inch (47x406mm), but a 349mm variant should be available soon. I am currently testing a pair of 20-inch examples and will release data in future issues.

Schwalbe Marathon Tyres

Schwalbe Marathon Plus - the thick rubber band prevents penetration

Many proprietory tyre liners are available, but if wrongly fitted these can cause more trouble than they’re worth. As for the tube, Schwalbe does indeed offer a simplified line- up, with typically four or five similar tyres sharing the same tube. However, you should have been offered the 4AV, which is designed to stretch from 28mm to 37mm. I can find no record of the 16mm Schwalbe 4a, which sounds very tiny, and would be quite unsuitable for stretching to 37mm.

Motorcycles do, indeed, puncture less frequently than bicycles, but they also have a lot more power available to roll the tyres, which can thus be made a lot thicker. As minimum horsepower machines, bicycles will always require lightweight and thus vulnerable tyres.

A to B 46 Blog, February 2005 – Wessex Trains

FIRST PUBLISHED February 2005
Wessex Trains, Bike-in-a-Bag

Try as they might to look corporate and glossy, privatized railway companies have a fundamental ineptitude that makes them easy targets for mirth. Take for example, Wessex Trains, the scourge of Bogworthy Junction.

When dear grey Mr Major hit on the idea of privatizing the railways, his aim was to turn the clock back to the 1930s, a generally positive era for trains, although hardly a golden one. In those happy days before Hitler and post-war transport planners went and spoilt everything, the railways were split into four large regional companies, each one responsible for railway services and infrastructure: hotels, ferries, buses, a few air services, freight, parcels, pork pies, and so on. The system had its faults, but by and large it made money and provided rather well integrated transport. Had one been fortunate enough to catch a Great Western train from Paddington to Bogworthy Junction, for example, one would have found a Great Western branch line train providing the connection for Little Piddlington and Hampton Gusset. This well proven technique of making trains, buses and other vehicles connect with each other seems alien today, but it provided effortless transfers.

Come privatization, and forces in the Treasury and other departments engineered a rather different arrangement, where a multitude of intercity and regional train operators would contract to run services against each other. This had the transparent objective of making the industry more competitive (ignoring the fact that the railway was already engaged in a cut-throat battle with cars, planes, coaches and indeed bicycles), and the less transparent objective of isolating the minor and regional lines from their wealthier brethren, clearing the way for wholesale closures.

Busy Bogworthy became part of the lame duck Wales & West franchise, running the smaller Great Western lines at a substantial loss, whilst most of the trains actually stopping at Bogworthy were provided by the wealthy (but oddly, not very profitable) First Great Western.

Great Western had been briefed to ignore the local trains and experiment with its own buses, the general understanding being that local services would rapidly fail. Meanwhile,Wales & West was dismembered, the Bogworthy zone becoming part of Wessex Trains, a strange animal, neither clearly private nor state-owned, but heavily subsidised.

The awfulness of the ensuing decade is too frightful to record in detail. Suffice to say trains grew older and less reliable, arcane industry rules became more cumbersome and Byzantine, but traffic volumes grew, putting the creaking regional system under strain. Most Wessex services were now too busy to close, but the extra passengers were only increasing the problems.

In practice, Wessex, like most regional railway companies, has very little say in how and when its trains are run. Take for example the peak summer services from Bogworthy to Budmouth-on-Sea. With the normal two-coach trains often overwhelmed, Wessex decided to lease some ‘proper’ coaches and a pair of wheezing historic diesel locomotives, one at each end. The principle behind sending a train out with two engines – where Brunel et al might have considered one more than sufficient – was to cover for the all too frequent breakdowns, and make the train easier to reverse. Budmouth is blessed with a ‘run-round’ loop from the days when single engines were the norm, but following the absurd break-up of the industry, Wessex staff were no longer allowed to use it.

A to B magazine, Wessex Trains

The mayor of Caster-bridgeshire meets his namesake, withdrawn from service weeks later

Thus, the oil-belching ‘heritage’ train duly rumbled back and forth to a somewhat hit-and-miss schedule until the Strategic Rail Authority or some such body (one is never quite sure) instructed Wessex to withdraw it. Unfortunately, this bombshell arrived after arrangements had been made to name one of the arthritic locomotives ‘Mayor of Casterbridgeshire’. In a wonderfully Doctor Beeching-esque moment, the mayors and other dignitaries had barely digested their chicken vol-au- vent and fromage surprise, before the locomotives and carriages were quietly withdrawn, this less satisfactory twist being the subject of an ongoing news embargo.

One final ‘Santa Special’ was run in December, apparently in defiance of the SRA, but Wessex has no spare rolling stock to handle the 2005 traffic peak, and no clear idea how to get around the problem.

…the dignitaries had barely digested their vol-au-vent before the locomotives and coaches were withdrawn…

One would have more sympathy for the management team, where it not so adept at shooting itself in the corporate foot. At Bogworthy, access to two of the three platforms is by way of a narrow and rather steep footbridge. In theory (and in practice, not so long ago) staff were available from 6.30am to 10pm to assist disabled passengers over a level railway crossing. But under the Wessex regime, morale has fallen to such an extent that staff are frequently absent. When cross-examined about this by a rightly indignant wheelchair-bound visitor, the regional manager suggested proceeding to the next station down the line, and catching another train back. But as even the station cat could have told them, this time-consuming manoeuvre would merely bring the customer back to Platform Three, at the bottom of the same steps.

A to B magazine, Bike-in-a-BagBicycle carriage policy has deteriorated too. Bicycles were already banned on busy commuter trains into major cities, but Wessex tried to extend the ban to cover most of its peak-hour trains, some of which had plenty of space for bikes. After a few months, the company backed down and rescinded the bike ban, then attempted to mitigate this PR disaster by encouraging commuters to purchase a ‘Bike-in-a-Bag’ folding bike. But as even the importers of the machine would have to admit, the Bike-in-a-Bag is hardly designed for daily use, and – more crucially for Wessex – it makes a large and unwieldy folded package on the train.

At Bogworthy, the perfectly adequate cycle racks were secure and undercover on Platform One, but without so much as a by your leave, Wessex decided to scrap them and put new ones ‘somewhere more convenient’. Needless to say, the old racks went, but nothing arrived, leaving no cycle parking at all.

Staff were then told to expect smart new uniforms. When they arrived, they were two sizes too big. Replacements are now lost in the system.

None of this would matter too much if the trains ran on time, but they don’t. A quick survey reveals only 59% running with what one might describe as Brunellian precision – the remainder running up to 36 minutes late.

The general impression is of an industry in deep crisis. Costs and confusion have run out of control, but management has lost the ability to consult, to plan for the future, or make the simplest day-to-day decisions. For regional franchisees like Wessex, even basic procedures, such as clearing a few nettles to make way for a car park extension, can cost thousands of pounds, months of negotiation, and planning on a military scale. This is not entirely the company’s fault, of course – it’s just that the industry is unworkable.

The real tragedy of this gentle rural farce is that the wolves are already gathering at the door. New Labour is no friend of the railway industry and is now so deeply distrusted in the shires that it would have little to lose by backing closure plans. A substantial majority for Labour at the next election could mean a round of rural rail closures, forcing more people onto the roads, just as the twin futurist nightmares of declining oil production and global warming make their presence felt.

…the real tragedy of this gentle rural farce is that the wolves are already at the door.

And why does one suddenly feel tempted to take global meltdown seriously? Rather disturbingly, it seems that Lord Oxburgh, chairman of Shell, is riding a Brompton to work and making apocalyptic predictions about climate change. At home, we are told, he has persuaded his wife and son to ride bicycles too, keeping a 60mpg diesel car in the garage just for ‘trips to the supermarket’. Could he know something we don’t?

But all may not be lost. Younger readers may need reminding that Jim McGurn once ran a cycle publishing empire that over-stretched itself, resulting in ignominious receivership and lost nest-eggs for hundreds of innocent backers.

McGurn went on to pilot a small-scale bicycle try-out concession at the doomed Earth Centre near Doncaster, until that too went into administration on New Year’s Eve 2004. Not Jim’s fault, of course, but one begins to sense a pattern. Our hero now proposes to bounce back with Bikeland, a £33 million Disney-style cycling theme park to be based in Derby.

One hates to be sceptical, but £33 million of lottery money would fund an awful lot of cycle paths, safe Toucan crossings, secure cycle parking, and other practical day-to-day measures to get people out of their cars and onto their bikes. One suspects that if the Lottery Commission is misguided enough to support it, Bikeland will go the same way as all the other grand projects. In any event, it wouldn’t open before 2008.

Scarily, that may be too late.

Cycle Scheme

Tax-Free ‘Green’ Transport

Cycle SchemeHere at A to B we can be a bit sceptical about government schemes to boost cycling. Don’t forget, this is the same bunch that imposed on- the-spot fines on elderly ladies riding sedately on the pavement, but wouldn’t fund the cycle facilities to keep riders safe; that built more and bigger roads, when they claimed to be reversing the trend, painted speed cameras bright yellow, so motorists could avoid the fines, and promised to quadruple cycling, but oversaw the biggest decline in cycle use ever recorded. Why would we take any notice of a government scheme?

We should have noticed this one. Last year, the Chancellor announced that ‘green’ travel to work initiatives would be allowable as tax-free incentives for company employees, provided certain conditions were observed.The list of qualifying ‘Travel Plans’ included free or subsidised works buses, occasional lunchtime use of said bus, subsidies paid by employers to public bus services, season tickets, up to six cyclists’ breakfasts a year (big deal), workplace cycle parking, and – more crucially – bicycles and equipment.

Initial take-up was slow, because the conditions sounded complex, and few people had looked into the small-print of what appeared to be a routine announcement about bus subsidies. But things were moving, and soon Halfords, Giant, Specialized and Trek had coalesced around an agency called Booost – already providing computer equipment in a similar scheme. Under the guidance of the Association of Cycle Traders, the bicycle bit was soon up and running, and the early participants were joined by Gary Fisher.

All very cosy. In theory anyone could set up a scheme, but these big multi-national companies had made all the running, and they were understandably less than willing to share this profitable new business with other cycle manufacturers or small retailers.

…the scheme is for the mass-market, and the mass-market is happy with Halfords bikes…

Booost blames government demands that tax payers’ money should not be spent on BMX and childrens’ bikes, forcing it (rather oddly) to stick with the biggest manufacturers and retailers. Somehow, this bias towards big business all sounds very New Labour. Booost reassured us that bikes could be bought through independent cycle retailers too, and the Association of Cycle Traders has been skirmishing with Halfords to bring this about. It claims that ‘several hundred’ bike shops have expressed an interest, but to date, few have made sales.

In theory, Halfords can source bikes from any manufacturer, but in practice… well, you get the picture. According to a Halfords representative, ‘The scheme is for the mass market, and the mass market is happy with Halfords bikes.’ Well, maybe, but mass market bikes are not necessarily the best commuter machines. More importantly, folding bikes are hardly represented at all.

Trek and Specialized market reasonable Dahon-based folders, and the Giant Halfway is a neat little bike, but there’s not much else. Dahon bikes are sold in some Halfords branches, and should thus be admissible, but the really specialised folders, such as Bike Friday, Birdy, and particularly, Brompton, are excluded. Halfords is not authorised to sell any of these, and although the company will endeavour to source one by fair means or foul, it is not in a position to honour the warranty or provide servicing.With the notable exception of the Giant Lafree, electric bikes are excluded too. Meanwhile, Brompton has tried hard to get on the scheme, but been repeatedly rebuffed.

How does it Work?

Like all government schemes, it’s a bit complicated.The employer agrees to lease a number of bicycles (plus safety equipment, accessories and arguably even trailers – there’s no limit) chosen by its employees.When the purchases are made, the employer claims back the VAT, effectively knocking 17.5% off the purchase price, with the saving (hopefully) being passed to the employee.The bike is now owned by the employer, and loaned to the employee for a set period; the interest-free loan payments are deducted at source, effectively making the purchase free of income tax and National Insurance too. After a set period, the employee can purchase the bicycle for a nominal ‘fair market value’, and it becomes their property. Payments can be made over any period, but twelve months is typical – this interest-free loan being a useful bonus in itself.

Brompton L6

Brompton L6 £322

Got that? The details of individual schemes vary, and the tax band of the participant has an effect too, so it’s hard to be precise about the savings involved, but most tax payers would expect to pay around half of the normal retail price – higher rate tax payers even less. Obviously, the more you earn, and the more expensive your cycling tastes, the greater the advantage.

The only loser is the bicycle retailer, obliged to pay a small administration fee to Booost.The employer saves 12.8% in National Insurance contributions, which can be passed on or used to cover administration costs. Of course, participating employers also get a useful recruitment incentive and happier, healthier employees.

According to the Inland Revenue, the bicycles can, like company cars, be used for leisure purposes, provided they are used ‘mainly for travelling to and from work’.And as with any other bicycle, if the machines are used for work-related journeys (not commuting, unfortunately), employers can also pay employees up to 20p per mile free of tax to cover depreciation.

Where’s the Catch?

At the moment there are a whole set of problems. Halfords says it will do business with small employers, but Booost is generally only willing to talk if you’re in the market for hundreds of bikes.The perception for many smaller employers and cycle retailers is that the whole thing is just too much trouble.

Birdy Red

Birdy Red £490

Fortunately, there’s no need to deal with Booost or Halfords if you don’t want to. Frustrated with the current schemes, independent cycle retailers are setting up their own. One of the first is the ‘CycleScheme’, launched by Avon Valley Cyclery of Bath. Avon is a key supplier of folding bikes, including Moulton, Dahon, Brompton, Airnimal and Birdy.The company also specialises in racing and mountain bikes from Giant, Marin, Gary Fisher, LeMond and Klein.Thus CycleScheme will cover some classic commuters, plus the sort of rare and specialist bicycles that you really wouldn’t want delivered to the back door of your local Halfords. And despite being a division of a retail outlet, CycleScheme claims to work with other independent shops – the intention is to rival the national coverage of Booost itself.

Larger employers are starting to do their own thing too. Company ‘A’ with 350 employees was rejected as too small by Booost, but set up its own scheme, negotiating discounts with individual cycle shops, which get a nice simple cash sale. Company ‘A’ also saved on leasing fees by arranging a short 3 month lease period and paying cash for the bikes. In the first month, 20 employees have signed up.

The Future

Unless the government changes its mind and withdraws the bike scheme, the impact on top-end bicycle sales will be huge. Bike to work programmes are particularly well suited to folding bikes, because employers are also allowed to provide tax-friendly loans to cover season tickets up to a £5,000 ceiling. So the means exists to subsidise every part of an employee’s rail/cycle commute, from the bicycle and accessories, through the train fare, to cycle storage at work, and even the occasional breakfast!

Booost web www.booost.co.uk
CycleScheme tel 01225 448933
web www.cyclescheme.co.uk mail info@cyclescheme.co.uk

The Routemaster Bus

Routemaster BusWith most British products now designed and made elsewhere (albeit by British designers very often), we sometimes have to be reminded that we once built rather good vehicles. Every nation could unearth a few classics, but our little islands have produced a whole encyclopedia: beautiful ocean liners, graceful steam engines, grand cars, aircraft, motorcycles and of course buses.The theory behind Britain’s long love affair with the double-decker bus is that our narrow city streets made it necessary to build upwards. Perhaps, although the same could be said for any number of European cities. More likely, we just enjoyed being different.

How did London’s Routemaster bus become such an enduring icon – a symbol of the capital, recognised the world over? Although comparatively recent, the design successfully combined old and new in an alluringly British way: the open rear platform and steep stairs had their origins in the horse-drawn omnibuses of the Victorian era, but the running gear and general space-efficiency of the machine were right up to date. In terms of overall dimensions versus passenger capacity, it was a remarkable bit of packaging that may never be surpassed, and although designed and built in the 1950s and ‘60s, the Routemaster – like all the best icons – remains a strangely timeless machine.

RM1, the Routemaster prototype, was built at London Transport’s Chiswick garage in 1954, and was followed by a further three as the details were refined. In 1956 an order was placed for 850 production machines, the mechanical bits being assembled at lorry maker AEC’s factory in Southall, and the bodywork at the company’s nearby Park Royal plant. Buses gradually came into service from June 1959.

…it was a remarkable bit of packaging that may never be surpassed…

Several variants were made over the years, but the classic Routemaster was bright red (naturally), 27′ 6″ long, eight feet wide and just over fourteen feet tall. Access was via an open platform at the rear kerbside, leading to a flight of steeply curved stairs to the top deck, or a single step up to the bottom deck. Early examples had 64 seats, but from 1965, an extra centre section was added to create the RML; a shade over 30 feet long, with 72 seats.

Routemaster bus platform

The open platform was a bonus in congested central London, but the free and easy access also made them dangerous for cyclists nipping up the inside

The Routemaster may look timeless, but beneath the surface, the design was seriously cutting edge. Previous double-deckers had been built of steel and wood around a substantial steel chassis.They could be prohibitively heavy, and the Routemaster’s predecessor, the RT, was limited to 56 seats to keep the weight within limits.

Instead, the Routemaster was built around a strong, but lightweight ‘monocoque’ aluminium body, doing away with the heavy chassis altogether, at a time when such technology was considered adventurous in the car world. The AEC 115hp engine, 4- speed gearbox and suspension were bolted to subframes under the body. At 73/4 tons, the Routemaster was incredibly light for its day, and remains smaller, some two tons lighter, and more economical than similar modern buses.

The best bit for large and small boys alike was the driver’s  cab. Once again, there were Edwardian echoes, with the driver sitting in stately isolation up front, to the right of the engine. But beneath the surface, the cab bristled with innovation – independent front suspension, power steering, power-assisted hydraulic brakes, and a fully automatic gearbox. All very conventional today, but state-of-the-art for the 1950s.

Rise & Fall

Numerous design changes were made over the years. Most were very minor, but a Leyland diesel engine was tried for a while, and a faster RMC coach derivative with fewer seats and electrically-operated doors, was built in quite large numbers to race rather incongruously in and out of London, notably to Heathrow Airport.

Altogether, more than 2,800 Routemasters were produced, mainly for use in London, but with a small number going elsewhere.The last of the series of development prototypes, unveiled in 1966, was as strikingly modern as RM1, with front platform doors and a rear engine, but for political and practical reasons, the design was never put into production.Another option put forward by the design team was to put the engine under the front stairs, a brilliant bit of packaging, but nothing more was heard of the idea.

…the buses were just too cost-effective to be withdrawn en masse…

From then, as with so much of British innovation, the story was one of gradual decline, although the Routemaster, designed for a life of twenty years, was to outlive its contemporaries by a considerable margin.

Withdrawals began in the late 1970s, but the buses were just too practical and cost-effective to be withdrawn en masse. Newer one-man- operated buses saved on manpower, but caused traffic delays and were unable to dispense change or cheerful cockney travel advice like the Routemaster conductors. Although losing ground in the suburbs, the old buses clung tenaciously to the congested inner urban routes.

In the following thirty years, some 1,500 Routemasters were scrapped, but many cast-offs found a new lease of life with provincial bus companies, particularly in the cut- throat post-deregulation world, where the space- and fuel-efficiency of the design often outclassed newer machines.

In London, Routemasters were even being upgraded, 600 of them receiving new Cummins and Iveco diesel engines in the early 1990s. Privatization came and went, and still the Routemasters kept rolling. Confidence was boosted with yet another refurbishment programme between 2001 and 2004, when mayor Ken Livingstone reiterated that the Routemaster was an essential part of the London scene.There was an anniversary party in 2004, featuring numerous early examples of the marque, including RM1, still in revenue service after an astonishing 50 years. But a few months later, the mood suddenly changed, and Transport for London announced that the last buses would be withdrawn and sold by the end of 2005.

Why? It seems that buses with open platforms are becoming increasingly difficult to insure in this litigious age, and the Routemaster’s high platform was never, ever going to be wheelchair accessible. Ironically, this most space-efficient of vehicles is being replaced with so-called ‘bendy buses’ – cumbersome articulated single-deckers that occupy a great deal more of London’s precious road space.

Now past its half-century, there’s no doubt the Routemaster needs updating. As one Londoner puts it, ‘Don’t get too misty-eyed: they’re good fun if you’re fit, childless and enjoy excitement and (very) cool breezes. Everyone else is better off on the new buses.’

cotterill-routemaster-new

Blake Cotterill’s updated Routemaster design

Like most older vehicles, the Routemaster is hardly folding bike-friendly either.The tiny luggage space under the stairs is small and often jealously guarded by the conductor. Modern low-floor designs, most of which incorporate a spacious wheelchair/buggy area, are much more practical in this respect.

New Routemaster

The updated Routemaster would be broadly similar in layout, but front-wheel drive

Could a new Routemaster still emerge? One interesting proposal is the Q-Master, a strong, low-floor Routemaster update, but as with the railways (see High Speed Train, A to B 27) www.atob.org.uk 11 A to B 46 the funding mechanisms and political will just don’t seem to be there any more. But a generation of young British designers is refusing to go quietly. Blake Cotterill, a student at Coventry University, has proposed an updated driver-only-operated Routemaster with front doors and a host of new technologies.This ‘hybrid’ diesel/electric machine would feature an internal combustion engine in the classic front position to aid accessibility, but the engine would drive the front wheels, giving a low floor throughout.Acceleration would be boosted by an electric motor fed from a fuel cell and/or batteries, providing regenerative braking and – once again – class-leading fuel economy.

Routemasters are set to disappear completely in the next few months unless a ‘heritage route’ reprieve is announced. At the time of writing (January 2005) the buses were still operating on seven routes:

No 13 Aldwych – Golders Green
No 14 Putney – Tottenham Court Road
No 19 Finsbury Park – Battersea Bridge
No 22 Putney – Piccadilly Circus
No 36 Queen’s Park – New Cross
No 38 Clapton Ponds – Victoria
No 159 Streatham – Marble Arch

You can help save the Routemaster.There’s plenty of information at www.routemaster.org.uk or www.savetheroutemaster.moonfruit.com where more than 10,000 people have signed the online petition to date. Meanwhile, do take a last ride (preferably without a folding bike).

Fancy that!

“ What Walkmans did for music, folding bicycles may be poised to do for cycling. The bikes… collapse into a bundle small enough to be carried on a bus, stowed under a desk or packed into a suitcase. They are common in Europe, Japan and China, but have been slow to catch on in this country…

‘There are times when a full-sized bike doesn’t work,’ said Eric Sundin, president of Folding Bikes West… He’s guessing that in five years, sales of folding bikes will be huge, and transit projects, such as the Monorail and Sound Transit’s light rail, may make them more attractive to commuters… Among the young and fashion-conscious, the ingenious contraptions have begun to be touted as accessories to the chic urban lifestyle. But their true path to fame and fortune may lie with commuters.

With fuel costs hovering around $2 [£1.06] a gallon, folding bikes can be an inexpensive cog in the wheel of ‘multimodal’ transportation, in which people may drive part-way to work then switch to a bike, or ride to a transit station and then take a train. Bob Lovejoy, 51, owns a British-made Brompton bike and can hardly wait for a light-rail line to open near his home so he can use his bike part-way to get to his job as a computer systems administrator. ‘It’s not what you’d want if you were going to ride 50 miles. But for going five to seven miles, or riding to a transit station, it’s perfect,’ he says. ‘You just fold it up when you get on, and unfold it when you get off.’”

Seattle Post-Intelligencer 24th January 2005