Hell is other cyclists

I’ve been mingling with a lot of students recently, and it’s been rather enlightening.  I’ve experienced the suicidal nature of students before, as my wife was still a student at Manchester university when I first met her (she’s a doctor now!), and the hospital where my son was born is right next to Manchester university, so I’ve spent lots of time driving around the area in a car, having to be constantly on the lookout for people obliviously wandering into moving traffic.  It’s as if the students think they have a force field that vehicles can’t penetrate, and apparently that force field is still with them when they cycle!

When I first started commuting in Manchester, I found red light jumpers annoying, but there wasn’t many of them.  On the A6/A34, there was maybe a 1 in 10 chance of a fellow cyclist jumping a red light.  Sometimes I’d shake my head or try to visibly tut, hoping a motorist might notice and ponder that not all cyclists are RLJing cretins.  I don’t like people who get motorists riled up – a raging motorist is a bad thing for all cyclists.

If I tried that on Wilmslow Road/Oxford Road, I’d do my neck in from the continuous shaking, and my tongue would fall out from the tutting.  On this road, the chances of a cyclist RLJing is more like 2 in 3, and unlike the cyclists on the bigger roads, these people are doing it without thinking.  They RLJ through moving traffic, they RLJ through pedestrians.. they’d probably RLJ a train crossing if there were any on the route!

If it were just students doing it, I’d put it down to inexperience, but there are plenty of other cyclist sub-groups doing the same thing.  I guess when you’re stopped at a light, and 3 people cycle straight through it, it must be hard to fight the urge to do the same.  The more people do it, the more it becomes a “but everyone does it” grey area, like ignoring box junctions, or driving at 80mph on a motorway.

When they’re not jumping red lights, the inexperienced are stopping at them, but that doesn’t mean they’ve lost the urge to get ahead – they prefer to shoal.  Shoaling is a term for cyclists who, when required to stop at a junction or a red light, will amass at the line with no order or respect for ability.  If someone’s at the line before them, they’ll stop ahead of them and the line.  If people are already ahead of the line, they’ll stop next to them.  If that area’s full, they stop behind them  This means that the poor soul who got there first is now surrounded by other cyclists, and it’s guaranteed that the people who pushed to the front are the slowest and wobbliest of the group.  Being a well mannered softy, I tend to be the one who’s trapped, and I start to realise why some people risk death to ignore red lights.  The risk is probably worth it if it means not getting stuck in a shoal of wobbly bikes!

Shoaling isn’t specific to cyclists, of course.  I’m quite a fast walker, so this also happens to me while I wait at pedestrian crossings.

I hate other people!

Helmets!
So, in one post I suggested that everyone should have life insurance, and in the next one I confessed to being quite glad that I had an excuse to not wear a helmet.  It took a couple of days for the logic to seep in and propogate an idea, but eventually I realised that I should probably be protecting my head!

I mentioned that I prefered ‘rock climber-ish’ helmets, which are apparently BMX helmets, so I searched for one of those first.  The one that seemed to fit the bill was a Lazer Armor; the size (58-61cm) sounded like it would match my head, the manufacturer was well respected, and the helmet looked alright, without too many graphics (none, in fact), so I bought it.

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It seemed to fit alright at first, and I wore it for a few days on my commute, but my opinion of it started going downhill, and not in a good way.  The helmet has no proper adjustments in it – it’s just polystyrene and some padding.  It fitted a bit tight on the front and back of my head, leaving a triangular indentation on my forehead whenever I wore it, but the sides of the helmet were almost an inch away from my actual head, meaning it tended to wobble from side to side, using my head as some kind of axle.  It often felt like the chin strap was the only thing keeping it on.

On top of that, the white line that runs around the edge of the helmet started to crack and flake off after only a day!  I didn’t like the line too much anyway, so removability is probably a plus rather than a minus, but it was a bit disconcerting.

Finally, the helmet was just too silly looking, due to the width.  Not as bad as most helmets I’ve tried on in the past, but still pretty ridiculous.

So much for internet shopping, and so much for BMX helmets.

After that failure, I tried to find out if other people have the same problem as me.  It turns out, they do!  I’ve got what’s known in motorcyclist terms as a long-oval head; my head is long from front to back, but relatively narrow from side to side.  Most helmets are designed with a more rounded head profile in mind, so when someone like me puts one on, I get the problem that I mentioned above.  I found several posts across different forums, with people recommending brands that make more elongated helmets, but there was some contradictory advice going on.  The only companies that were consistently mentioned as being suitable were Rudy Project, Lazer (errr..), and Specialized.

I’d gone off Lazer somewhat, and Rudy Project were way outside my price range, so Specialized were my only hope. I decided to find a bike store that stocked Specialized helmets and had a large showroom.  It just so happened that such a place was on my commute, and so I paid a visit to the Edinburgh Bicycle Cooperative.  I’d been there once before, to get my bike serviced in less enlightened times, and their service had been a bit sloppy.  Thankfully, I didn’t need them to do anything to me or my bike – they just had to have a selection of half-decent helmets, and I can’t fault them in that regard.

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The helmet I’d had my eye on was a Specialized Echelon II. Much like my bike, it’s was pretty much a bottom-of-the-range model, but much better than unbranded or low-aiming brands.  The medium (54-60cm) helmet that was on display wouldn’t even get past the top of my head, so the assistant got out a large (57-63cm) model, in black.  It was initially too big, which is a new experience for me!  A few twists of the adjustment dial sorted that out, and I found myself wearing a helmet that actually fitted, and didn’t look particularly silly!

So, I’m now a helmet wearer.  You’re not gonna catch me wearing lycra, tho.  A man’s got to know his limitations!

The New Forest

The New Forest has been hitting bicycle-related headlines a bit lately.  It was the usual thing.. someone with a chip on their shoulder about cyclists and a loud mouth somehow gets their voice in a paper, and drivel ensues.

I guess the Commoners Defence Association don’t care about the tourism that all the cyclists bring, then?  Or that most of the cyclists of the New Forest are actually families rather than hoards of mamils?  This time, some people took it into their own hands to go a step further, and dropped pins on the road and took down signs that were for directing the cyclists.  Think about that for a sec..  pins that are more likely to hurt animals than anyone else, and sign changes that’ll make cyclists get lost and probably slow down..  doesn’t that just make all the percieved problems even worse?  The stupidity involved makes me think it was probably local kids wot done it.  At least it stopped them from crank-calling 999 for a bit.

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The New Forest isn’t far from Southampton – it’s right next door!  A 15 minute drive will get you to the outskirts of the forest, but that’s the slow way of doing it.  The roads of the New Forest mostly converge on Lyndhurst, which is a lovely little town that’s ruined by being more like a giant roundabout than a town, due to it’s one-way system.  The result of that is that when the weather is nice, and people decide to go visit the ponies or go camping or something, they almost all have to get through Lyndhurst, and they get stuck in a massive queue of traffic.  It’s no wonder Lyndhurst has a bit of a pollution issue..

My preferred method of visiting the forest is/was to go via the Hythe Ferry.

It’s a ferry service that runs between Southampton and the village of Hythe, just across the river Test. The ferries are small affairs, designed for a couple of dozen foot passengers, but the river Test is no small stream.. it’s the route that all ships entering and leaving Southampton have to use, so there’s a good chance you’ll see a few container ships on the way, and possibly even a liner. You’ll almost certainly see one or more of the Red Funnel ferries, on their way to the Isle of Wight.

At the Hythe end, the boats dock at a pier, which has a little train to take passengers to land.  Apparently the train is the oldest pier train in the world, although I’m not sure how many pier trains there are in the world – it’s probably pretty close to being the only pier train in the world!

Hythe is technically in the New Forest, but it’s a bit too far on the outskirts to be of too much interest.  On lazy days (most days), I used to cycle to Fawley power station to stand in awe of the chimbley for a bit, then I headed across to Lepe Country Park to skim stones on the beach and read a book while eating an ice cream..  On not-so-lazy days, I used to head toward Brockenhurst, and then cycle through the singletrack paths of the forest for a bit, followed by paddling my feet in the river (no idea what river it was) before heading back.  oh, and I had an ice cream. You can’t go into the New Forest and not have an ice cream – it’s against the law!  (if you ever come across a store selling New Forest ice cream, buy it – it’s lovely stuff, especially the rum & raisin!)

On some days, I skipped the boat ride and just headed straight to Lyndhurst (going via Hythe was a bit too out of the way).  If you can blot out or avoid the traffic, it’s a lovely place, with lots of paths into various bits of the forest. The town itself looks quite nice, but I’ve never investigated it.  It’s a shame someone can’t sort the traffic out, but I imagine people would rather have traffic jams than have new roads built across a national park.  It sucks to be stuck in the traffic, but at least it’s confined.

I often ponder what it is about the New Forest, and the south generally, that doesn’t seem to be emulated up here.  There’s one thing that I keep hitting on, but it’s so weird that I think I’m going nuts, or maybe I’m remembering things wrong, or maybe it’s me, and I’m getting old..

I think the sun is more oppressive up here.

I can’t explain how.. it just is.  I don’t mean the heat (although that’s also different), I mean the light.  Down south, the sun seems kind’ve passive, and the scenery eats it up and throws out colours of it’s own.  Up here, it seems like the sun overrides everything.  It blazes in the sky, and instead of making colours more vibrant, it makes them more washed-out.  It’s like there’s an invisible white haze in the air that sends light in all the wrong directions.  Maybe there really is a haze, caused by the Peak District’s micro climate or something, which is acting like a polarizing filter.

I’m going to see if I can capture the effect with my camera.  If I compare a photo of the New Forest to a similar scene up here, my eyes won’t be able to lie to me.  I’m not sure if I’d prefer it to be my eyes or the location. :s

Hello, old man. Hello, heron.

That pesky camera
I don’t wear a helmet.  This is mainly because I can’t find one that fits me, but I confess that I’m really rather glad that they don’t fit.

It’s easy to ridicule the helmet companies for not making helmets that fit everyone, but head shapes are more varied than boob shapes, and look at how many differently shaped bra’s you can buy!  You don’t have to have spent hours wandering behind a partner, wishing you could sneak off to HMV or Currys or ANYWHERE, to tell how many there are – massive areas of department stores are dedicated to them, whereas the helmet range in bike stores is tiny.  Admittedly, I don’t think there’s much call for helmets that actively try to shape people’s heads differently.. lift and separate?

Also, helmets generally look stupid.  I’m sure all the contours and vents do something snazzy, but they look like capsized catermarans.  I’m more of a fan of the simple rock climber-ish helmets that you can get, but so far I haven’t found one big enough, or that doesn’t jab into my cerebellum like a woodpecker hunting for grubs.  Maybe I should look for helmets in a rock climbing equipment store (do they exist?).. they’ll probably have a big range, and a helmet designed for protection when falling off a cliff should be okay for falling off a bike, I would imagine.

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Anyway, why was I talking about helmets?  oh yeah – my helmet camera!  Without a helmet, there’s no good place to mount it.  I was hoping I could get away with mounting it on my bag, so it looks out from my shoulder, but my choice of clothing has scuppered that plan.  All the video footage I’ve had so far has been of the hood of my red hoodie, and looks rather a lot like a colonoscopy.  It’s not ideal for observing the traffic and ducks of my commute..  The bag I use has sturdy waist strap thingies for hiking, so last night I tried attaching it to one of those, but the flaps don’t half flap about when they’re not being used properly, so the picture quality turned out a bit rubbish, and mostly looked out too far to the left to be of any use.  Tonight, I’ll try attaching it to the frame of my bike, but I suspect it’ll be too bumpy.  The next plan is to attach it to my glasses, which might make people think I’ve got a Google Glass (or whatever it’s called) headset on, especially with the USB cable poking out of it, and disappearing into my bag (to the battery).  Failing that, I might have to have another look for a helmet!  😮

Is this even a commute anymore?

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I forgot to mention something about my new approach to commuting; I’m not trying to be as fast as possible anymore!  Last year, I always tried to go flat out, especially when I was on the singlespeed (it was harder not to).  Now, I’m trying to be more relaxed and enjoy the ride.  It was difficult to do on the old commute, because keeping up with traffic was essential, and the route itself was so annoying that I just wanted to get it over and done with ASAP.

The new route cures all those ills!  While I’m in the suburbs, there’s so little traffic that I don’t have to worry about keeping up with it.  I don’t have to worry so much about being squished by people turning, because they can see me coming a lot more easily.  There’s no buses or taxis on the route, so I don’t have them suddenly turning in/out in front of me.  There’s no HGVs, so I don’t have to worry about them not seeing me, and the road is so wide and quiet that anyone overtaking can give me a ton of room.  I don’t even see many other cyclists, so I don’t have to fight the urge to keep up or overtake them too often.  All in all, I wish I’d tried this a year ago.  It’s adding an extra 20 minutes to my commute, but that’s a small price to pay for a relaxing pootle.

oh, and I saw a heron and some coal tits (I only ever see greats and blues normally) on my way home last night, and an old man on a pushbike said hello to me this morning.  I’m pretty sure an ice cream van is lurking in Edgeley Park somewhere, so the journey home might start taking even longer sometime soon.  Hooray!  😀

Even softer

UPDATE: For people searching for Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis blogs, I’ve got a dedicated PSC blog called Pesky PSC (which doesn’t seem to have gotten to Google yet). Go have a look!

I’m back!  Did you miss me?  Does anyone even read this blog?  HELLO?!

Well, if that’s how you’re all going to be, you’re going to miss the following advice: If you have a dependent, a wife, or pay a mortgage, get life insurance NOW.  Don’t think about it.  Don’t plan it for when you’re a bit older.  DO IT NOW!!

Life insurance costs summat like £10 a month if you’re a non-smoker.  £2.50 a week.  Not much more than it costs to buy a lottery ticket.  The chances of winning more than a grand in the lottery (5 balls) is 1 in 55,491. 5 balls plus the bonus is 1 in 2,000,000! From my own perspective, the chances of anyone having PSC is 1 in 16,666.  The chances of having cancer are even lower – something like 1 in 100.  That’s not even including the chances of being in an accident..

I can’t get life insurance now – no-one will cover me.  That means that when I die, my family are going to be financially screwed.  If I’d taken the time to get life insurance, they would’ve been fine.  My biggest regret about this whole thing is that life insurance was on ‘the list’ at the time that I first went to the GP with jaundice, but I’d been delaying it.  My only hope is that I can get to retirement age without dying, but that’s pretty unlikely.

Back to bikes!

But enough about that!  I’ll only mention PSC again if it’s related to cycling.  Speaking of which; my jaundice went away a month ago, and my chest infection has finally cleared up!  I’m practically healthy, although I’m now weedier and thinner than I used to be.  My only remaining excuse for not cycling into the icy cold wind was that I was too out of practice to jump onto a singlespeed bike – I needed to start slow, which meant using gears.

My geared racer was still out of action, as it turned out the seat tube was indeed eliptical.  I didn’t really want to start out on a racer anyway, and something else had been bothering me; why on earth had I ever thought that single-speeding my MTB was a good idea, and why did I continue buying puke-green parts when it should’ve been obvious that they looked shit?  Had my illness also affected my brain?  Maybe the yellow hue of my eyes had masked the true nature of my ‘upgrades’?  What I do know is that when I opened the shed door, my MTB was practically begging to be put out of it’s misery.  Fear not, faithful steed – I shall save you!

A few days later, and the parts arrived – Alivio shifters, brakes, both mechs, a new cassette, and some red cable outers.  Cheap stuff, but still better than the Altus stuff that it’d had before.  First, I swapped the seatpost for the original, then I took off the green handlebar with the brake levers and their cables still attached (but not to the brakes, obviously), then I took off the chain device and the chain.  They now all live under the stairs, awaiting a day when I can be bothered to clean them up and put them on ebay.  Maybe next year!

All the bits went on easily enough, but then came the cables.  I know brakes – brakes are easy, so they went on first, but gears.. When I mess with gears, it usually ends up with only one or two of them working, and the chain frequently trying to escape.  😛  This time, I consulted the interweb, and followed the instructions of 3 different websites at the same time, to make sure I was definitely doing it right.  Put the chain on, this goes here, that goes there, tighten, tighten, adjust, adjust, tighten some more, turn the bike over, change the gears to test, aaaand..  they’re both shifting backwards??  aaargh!

It turned out that I’d had the rear shifter set to high instead of low (or the other way around – I can’t remember), and I’d skipped a load of routing for the front mech, which meant it was pulling down instead of up.  More adjusting, and…  it worked!  Unfortunately, the chainwheels are bent out of shape from when I last tried to remove the crank, and didn’t think I’d need them (I never did manage to remove it), so I can only use the biggest gear on the front, but the rear gears are all working fine.  Better than they used to, in fact.  I think I might even understand their workings enough to be able to adjust them on the fly!  🙂

I’ve now cycled into work a total of 4 times, with gaps in between to let my legs recover.  The commutes were okay during the Easter holiday, but the traffic always seems to increase to above-normal levels after holidays.  It’s always the same; a week or so of free flowing traffic during the holiday, followed by 2 weeks of solid traffic, followed by several weeks of dense but moving traffic until the next school holiday.  There’s so many HGVs involved that I can’t cycle any faster than the traffic around me.  I have a rule about not going around HGVs or buses if I don’t think I can keep ahead of them for a decent amount of time.  Life’s too short to be dicing with death in that way.  In fact, life is too short in general, and my fun with PSC has caused me to think about things a bit differently lately.  It’s made me want to try and enjoy life more, wherever possible, and there’s one big thing that’s been bugging me since I moved to Manchester: how bleak everything is.

A rant
Manchester city centre is a natureless hellhole.  There are a few tiny green bits, where there’s consecrated ground, but most of it is concrete.  There used to be a ‘peace garden’ outside the town hall, which barely counted as a green area, and was really just the last refuge of the homeless, but they bulldozed it last month. Years ago, there used to be a nice-looking (in photos) bit of park near Picadilly (hence the area being called Picadilly Gardens, despite the lack of gardens), but they bulldozed it after the IRA bombs, with the excuse that it was run down and only used by drug dealers (every councils favourite excuse).

I came from Southampton, where half the city centre is greenery, and parks and greenzones spread off to the outer limits.  Portsmouth was similar.  Less large parks, but the sea was never far away.  A proper sea, with waves that move and crash.  Not like the so-called sea you get on the West coast, which is phoning it in (when it can be bothered to appear).  Northampton was quite small, so didn’t have much room for parks.  Maybe that’s why I never liked living there, although I couldn’t put my finger on the reason at the time.

So, I think I must be some kind of nature boy at heart, which means I need more nature!  I’ve tried visiting nearby places at weekends, like Bramall Park, Poynton Park, Lyme Park, Etherow, Tatton Park, the Ladybower reservoir, and many other places, but somehow they fail to fill the hole in my heart.  If I can find a place that’s even half as beautiful as the crappest part of the New Forest, then I’ll be happy.  I’m sure something like that must exist somewhere around here – I just need to find it! Until then, I’ll have to make do, so I’ve adapted my commute!

A change of commute
My old commute was up the A6 from Hazel Grove to Longsight, then down Plymouth Grove and across the A34 to get to Oxford Road and work.  The only greenery on that journey is an empty playing field behind the Plymouth Grove pub.

My new commute takes me through the back streets of Davenport, to Cheadle Heath via Edgely Park, then onto the Trans-Pennine Trail to Parrs Wood, then down Parrs Wood Road to Fallowfield, and onto Oxford Road.  It adds 2 miles to the journey, but also adds a metric shedload of greenery!

I tried it for the first time yesterday evening, and it was sooooo much better than the old commute!  The initial battle with buses, students, and the mad drivers of Rusholme was a bit worrying, but no worse than getting through Longsight and Levenshulme.  Edgerton Road and Parrs Wood Road are much quieter than the A6, and have a barely-needed cycle lane, which made for quite a relaxing cycle.  Then there was the Trans-Pennine Trail, which took me through fields to the litter-strewn banks of what I assume is the Mersey river, which I followed for quite a while until finding a bridge to get across to Cheadle Heath.  There’s some posh houses in Cheadle Heath!  I’d never been to Edgely Park before – it never looked too great on Google Maps, but it’s now definitely on the ‘to visit with son’ list, as it has a cool looking playground, and a pond with ducks and geese.  The rest of the journey was so-so, just through the suburbs of Stockport which I’d travelled through on countless occasions.

I wanted to try it this morning, but I left too late and had to get the train.  I’m looking forward to the journey home, though!  Maybe this time I’ll adjust my camera so that it’s not just filming the hood of my hoodie, so that I can add some photos!  😀

Be safe!