Douche glasses

“…I was wondering how on earth I’d arrived at this point in my life.”

Many sports and activities encouraged you to buy the relevant clothing but absolutely nothing stops you from wearing your normal clothes to ride a bicycle. This is exactly what I did when I started, all the while making lots of noise about cycle clothing looking ridiculous. I accept that I did so mostly out of stubbornness and pride but sometimes this stance is perfectly correct. Not everyone is in a position to change clothes at the end of their journey and only a colossal tit would go full Lycra just to nip to the shops. Continue reading “Douche glasses”

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Are you sitting comfortably?

A tale of aching arses and numb sausages.

My pedal-power renaissance a little over a year ago has taught me a lot of new things. Most of these aren’t exactly interesting but are still useful to know. Eighteen months ago I couldn’t have told you what is meant by a compact chainset or the difference between flat and clipless pedals – and nor would I have cared. Nonetheless, some information is more important and directly useful such as understanding why cross-chaining is a bad thing or how to adjust your derailleur. With pretty much any adult hobby (I’m talking grown-up, not X-rated) you can immerse yourself in all manner of minutiae. Continue reading “Are you sitting comfortably?”

Do not adjust your set. Uh, computer.

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It has been quite some time since my last post and I must apologise to everyone that has been waiting on some new content. “Everyone” makes it sound rather more grand than the reality; what it really means is about three people. Seriously, a new post is extremely overdue. I’ve had ideas for topics and even been preparing content that I just haven’t got around to posting. It has been a hectic few months with other commitments keeping me distracted, but mostly because my wife has been seriously ill. The good news is that she’s on the mend. So now that I have a little more free time I can waste it writing a blog that nobody reads!

Normal service will resume shortly, though what counts as normal service on a blog with only three posts remains to be seen.

Motorsport safety and the Isle of Man TT

Note: I never intended for this article to get quite so long. Please bear with me even though it looks like I’ve gone off on a tangent!

So, TT 2016 is done and dusted and my goodness has it been eventful. The weather has generally been kind, the racing close (I know, it’s technically a time trial), records have tumbled and even a little controversy to boot. Unfortunately, once again the event has been somewhat overshadowed by the unfortunate deaths of four competitors:  Dwight Beare in Sidecar Race 1, Paul Shoesmith during Saturday evening practice, Ian Bell in Sidecar Race 2 and Andrew Soar in the Senior TT.

Each and every one of these is a tragedy, but the reality is that death is no stranger to the Snaefell mountain course, to give the 37.73 mile circuit its full name. The somewhat depressing fact is that you actually need to look more carefully to find the meetings at which a competitor did not lose their life; the last TT with no body count was 2012 and before that, 2008. Taking all of the events known to have used the circuit into account, over 250 competitors have lost their lives on the course since 1911. Bear in mind that this does not include the race officials, marshalls and spectators that have also lost their lives, nor the inevitable horrendous crashes at every race meeting that cause injury but no fatalities. In short, the TT course and riding around it at high speed is a phenomenally dangerous undertaking and this makes it a ridiculously easy target for the sensationalist media and the anti-motorcycle lobby.

However:

Don’t mistake the above as some sort of attack on the event; I am simply reporting the facts. Health and safety precautions in sports are of such paramount importance and the professionalism of participants so great that, even in these risk-averse times, extreme sports are now deemed to be well-enough managed to become mainstream corporate events. Pretty much anything for which Red Bull are the headline sponsor would serve as a case in point. We now appear to live in a world where BASE jumpers like Jeb Corliss can get it terribly wrong and live to tell the tale, or indeed events like the Valparaíso Cerro Abajo take place. If you haven’t already clicked on those two links, both are well worth a few minutes of your life to be amazed and terrified in equal measure. It is unsurprising that this  attitude has also spread to motorsport and, maybe, warped perspectives regarding safety.

Short circuit racetrack safety is today generally of such a high standard that a death in motorsport is, comparatively, an extremely rare occurrence. Formula One is the poster child for this safety record. Once a sport in which rarely a season would pass without one or more fatalities, it truly cleaned up its act and the figures speak for themselves: In over 30 years only three drivers have died at, or as a result of, Formula One race meetings. The most recent of those was  the death of Jules Bianchi in 2014. However, I feel that this was unrelated to any safety features on his car or the track but entirely down to very poor procedures and the decision to have several tons of loader working in a gravel trap during racing. The unfortunate reality is that human error, or more cycnically, the very human capacity for taking shortcuts in safe practice can undermine any amount of inherent physical safety precautions – and not just in sports. The travesty of Jules Bianchi aside and despite some incredible crashes (honourable mention to Robert Kubica’s spectacular crash at the Canadian GP in 2007 ), you have to go back 22 years to the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix race meeting at Imola and the double deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna to find deaths in F1 wholly attributable to inherent track safety and vehicle design.

It’s somewhat different for motorcycle racing for one obvious reason: A motorcyclist is exposed and does not have the benefit of crumple zones and carbon fibre survival cells. Nonetheless, technology marches on and we do now have such things as leathers with crash detection and airbags. Track furniture design has also changed to improve safety by improving protection from unyielding surfaces and capturing bikes that leave the track rather than allowing them to ricochet back into harm’s way. The most notable improvement surely has to be the increasing popularity of tarmac aprons on corners with sufficient room, allowing any rider that runs wide to stay shiny side up. Not only does this keep riders safe but more often than not allows them to rejoin a race and continue competing. The vulnerability of bikes and the inescapable nature of how they crash when things go wrong still poses the greatest, most unavoidable risk in that the rider will end up tumbling and sliding in a crash and at risk of colliding with their own stricken motorcycle or another competitor. Earlier this month Moto 2 rider Luis Salom was sadly killed in practice at the Circuit de Catalunya in just the circumstance I have described; he left the track at high speed and collided with his own bike. Going back further, Marco Simoncelli was killed in a shocking crash at the Malaysian GP in Sepang when he lost control of his bike and lowsided on a corner. In a freak circumstance that no amount of track safety could have prevented, his bike somehow regained grip and catapulted him directly into a collision with Colin Edwards and Valentino Rossi. Marco’s helmet was forcibly removed by the collision and, as anyone who had the misfortune to be watching live will have undoubtedly realised, he was quite clearly killed instantly.

My point? Modern motorsport may be extremely sanitised and presented as safe and unexceptional, but it is still an extreme sport. Racing vehicles, even human-powered ones,but particularly motorcycles, is inherently dangerous no matter how unremarkable it can seem. This leads me to one of the key differences between short-circuit and real road racing. No doubt the greatest taboo, the most humongous unspoken lie borne inevitably from superstition and the financial interests of race organisers: When it can be fudged, nobody ever officially dies at a racing circuit. Even when it is plain to see, the sad fact is that some race organisers will do their utmost to cloud the fact that somebody lost their life on the track and dysthanasia is now a common occurrence to help perpetuate this myth. This might sound like an outrageous claim, but bear with me.

From the examples I gave above, Marco Simoncelli was struck  in the back and the head by two motorbikes with enough force to throw him around and tear the helmet from his head. He had CPR administered continually and unsuccessfully for 45 minutes by medical staff yet he did not officially die until almost an hour later, by which time he was well away from the tarmac. Ayrton Senna is an even greater example of dysthanasia. In his crash he received three significant head injuries, each of which  in isolation would almost certainly have proven fatal. Once removed from the track his life was artifically extended despite there being no prospect of survival; he was declared dead over 4 hours after the crash. In the eyes of Italian Law and indeed in the reported opinion of several medical staff who treated Senna, he suffered cerebral death at 2:17pm, the point at which he struck the wall at Tamburello and not the 6.40pm of his “official” time  of death. At the same race meeting and in the qualifying session less than 24 hours previously the death of Roland Ratzenberger was similarly obfuscated until his body was safely removed from the track. Subsequent autopsy reports indicated that Ratzenberger’s injuries were such that death would have been instant in the collision. The significance of this being, under Italian legislation at the time, had he been declared dead within the confines of the circuit the whole San Marino GP race meeting would have to be cancelled and the organisers stood to lose millions. Read in to that what you will, but consider also that a man regarded as one of F1’s greatest drivers might otherwise still be alive.

Yet it is accepted that people die on course at the Isle of Man TT and Manx GP, and indeed at other road racing venues. Maybe the very reason is that these events take place on public roads and there is no racetrack to get a tainted reputation, but I believe that it primarily comes down to a difference in mindset between the racers and the organisers. Since 1976 everyone who competes at the Isle of Man does so entirely voluntarily, regardless of whether they are a professional racer in a top team or a self-funded amateur with little or no sponsorship. Each and every one of them goes into the event with a full understanding of the risks and nobody goes in unprepared. New entrants are given guided laps of the course and every rider will no doubt have have studied the course in minute detail in their own time. It is not like any other race and each hurdle the riders pass is a preparatory step, either physically or psychologically. The Nurburgring is probably the only other course that comes close to evoking the obsession and passion required to compete there successfully. The other thing that makes it, if not unique then at least very uncommon, is that it is an event that truly rewards experience. Motor racing generally has seen the age of competitors plummet in the last few decades as a sport that rewards both great reflexes and an ability to throw caution to the wind, making bold moves at the limits of a vehicle’s capabilities. The TT is hugely different in that it rewards experience, a considered approach and incremental improvements but severely punishes a lack of caution. Although younger rising stars like Michael Dunlop straddle these camps, compare the likes of Joey Dunlop and John McGuinness to Marc Marquez or Jorge Lorenzo and the age gap speaks volumes.

Most importantly, everyone who competes at the Isle of Man TT does so because they love it and in turn the fans love watching them. It is an event of passion, not recognition. Nobody will make their fortune by winning a TT, nor really receive any great fame or recognition outside of motorcycling circles. Those who finish a race get an award just for doing so, regardless of how they place, in recognition of their skill, their bravery and also the reliability of their motorbikes. It is still an honest event in that the competitors and the spectators fully realise and accept the danger faced. Whenever somebody does lose their life competing at the Isle of Man, immediate family and friends nearly always say some variant of “He died doing what he loved and would want the races to continue”. This would sound extremely cliché in most circumstances, but not for the fact that it is undoubtedly true. The danger and challenge of real road racing is what gives the event its honesty and makes it still seem fresh and exciting to viewers and appealing to entrants.

So what am I getting at?

If we’re being honest with ourselves as viewers, a great many motor sports are now only truly exciting when drivers or riders are locked in a red mist and fighting for position, or more often than not, when things go wrong. Nobody wants to see racers get hurt but the dynamic nature of the sport needs to be preserved or viewers will get bored. We’re now in the  ironic position with motor racing that a dangerous and exciting sport now frequently appears to be anything but. I’m not for one moment suggesting that the pursuit of safety should be curtailed but somehow the perception of danger needs to be maintained while still doing everything possible to minimise risks.

The greatest triumph of TT 2016 isn’t Dunlop’s multiple breaking of the lap record or Hutchy’s dominant form, but must surely be James Cowton’s crash in the Superstock TT. He misjudged a turn near the 11th milestone and hit a wall at high speed. A combination of the Recticel crash barrier and the timely reactions of  fellow racer Horst Saiger prevented what could have been an awful accident. That such a crash can happen and Cowton walk away with only bruises is testament to the efforts that are being made to reduce risks at the TT. There is no way that the Snaefell course can ever be made “completely safe”, as if such a thing were possible at any motor race, but the organisers are making efforts year on year to work towards that goal. And for that I applaud them because it is very  easy to shout about the risks, injuries and the deaths and demand the event be banned or cancelled. It is about time that they received some acknowledgement for the efforts that are made and the positive results.

Accessorise this!

It didn’t take me long to realise that motorcycling and cycling, whatever your relative disciplines in either have one very big thing in common: Both push you towards buying a lot of accessories, mostly clothing. Some of this will be rampant consumerism by a media promoting the wares of their advertisers but truthfully there is also a considerable degree of necessity. Whether you intend on motorbiking around the world, want to be as aero as possible on your next sportive or are just trying to get to work with a dry crotch the next time it rains, you will inevitably be buying clothing to support your hobby/sport/mode of transport.

When I first rediscovered cycling I was adamant that I had no need for any “special” clothing (I’m not sure I used such a polite expression at the time). I doggedly stuck to this principle until I discovered that sweaty polycotton t-shirts, flappy hoodies and wet jeans are about as far from a good time as you can get. That’ll be about a week, then.

Such an inverted snobbery is hardly a surprise because so much of the clothing, particularly the lycra, looks ridiculous to uninformed eyes. The same is just as true of motorcycle gear; there are plenty of other road users who think that all bikers are leather-clad perverts thrashing around like lunatics on their cock rockets. The simple fact is that someone with no need to wear such things will never understand that there is actually a good reason and will instead readily dismiss us all as attention-seeking gimps on wheels.

leather
Protection or fetish?
just-no
Lycra: Flatters all figures

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The adverts and supplements that come in lifestyle magazines for the two interests quickly reveal a “money no object” attitude that just seems to be out of touch with reality. I used to subscribe to Bike magazine and there would regularly be a supplement for a well-known motorcycle clothing manufacturer. I don’t doubt that some it was probably very good gear, but everything was extremely highly priced and much of it looked more like the sort of thing that suburban hipsters would wear to the coffee shop without the inconvenience of having a motorbike. Cycling is just as bad. I’ve regularly heard the expression that “Cycling is the new golf”. I can only presume that this means it has been discovered by people who realised that golf is shit old-fashioned and institutionally sexist but still wish to dress loudly and waste disposable income on one-upping Jones from  accounts with carbon fibre underpants and all the rest of the latest kit.

Don’t get me wrong, I have learned that you generally get what you pay for: £150 is not a sensible price for a new bicycle if you actually want to be able to use it, but can it really be a justified on a single piece of clothing or a short, hollow tube? There will always be someone who can answer “yes” to either of those, but for the rest of us that haven’t yet learned the art of defecating hard currency we make do with lower-spec and much lower priced kit. The downside is that making informed buying choices becomes more difficult because a lot of this kit doesn’t get independent promotion or reviews outside of the shops and websites that have an interest (a vested interest?) in selling to you.

Over the last nine months I’ve found myself buying quite a bit at this lower price point because genius that I am, I took up the ultimate fair weather hobby just in time for winter. I plan to start reviewing my kit because some has been really rather good. Other bits a little more underwhelming. The key is that everything was bought out of my own pocket and is used on a regular basis so it needs to be up to the job. I don’t have advertisers or sponsors to keep happy and I’ll make no money if you do buy anything I do recommend. But one thing I can guarantee is that you’ll get my honest opinion, even if that means admitting that I bought some complete and utter rubbish!

From there to here: Reflections on a decade

This wasn’t the plan at all. It’s my day off work and what I really want is to be out on my bike; motor, road or mountain, it doesn’t matter. The weather has taken an unexpected turn for the better and I can hear people chattering outside, the local children shrieking in delight as they enjoy the sunshine freed from their daily educational burden. Instead I’m laying on the living room floor shivering and aching, wrapped in a blanket and listening to the world pass me by. The cat is peering and chirrupping at me, no doubt puzzled by the latest strange behaviour from his human. Never mind going for a ride, the most strenuous thing I’ve succeeded in doing today is staggering to the kitchen for another glass of squash, blanket flapping like the phantom of the opera. Still, my mind seems to be working, albeit with that remarkable scattergun quality that a fever brings to the party and so I find myself mentally composing what you now read.

I realise that I can draw a line back almost exactly 10 years from where I find myself today regards my interests, this blog and my YouTube channel. It was a Sunday, the second week of August and the weekend of Bike Fest 2006 in Lincoln. I’d spent the day before staying with a friend experimenting with mounting an old camcorder to the tank of my motorbike (not that it actually captured much besides a great deal of rolling shutter and an incriminating speedometer). We were heading back to Lincoln and the weather had been very showery, leaving the roads quite greasy in places. As we turned off the A1 onto the A46 at Newark the alarm bells rang. As the slip road started the long left 200° turn back on itself, my mate and his family were leading in their car. I saw the back end step out briefly before snatching back into line. I wasn’t so lucky and the front wheel of my bike let go and washed out completely, leaving me in the hands of physics and sliding towards oncoming traffic trapped with my left leg under a motorcycle. The result: My clutch lever, gear selector, fairing and some of the lights were absolutely ruined and the occupants of the 4×4 that had beenheading towards me were probably all in need of fresh underpants.

Jump forward a few hours and I’d got my motorbike recovered but was now in the position of needing alternative transport for work for the forseeable future. Unable to rely on public transport I decided that a bicycle would get me out of this immediate pickle and probably also be a good investment. Cue a trip to that timeless choice of the ill-informed cycle buyer: Halfords!
My first mistake was in trying to judge the merits of bicycles when my only point of reference was motorbikes. Actually, it was probably dashing out to make a completely uninformed purchase, but the circumstances had dictated that. I looked around the bikes and was judging them on aesthetic and their apparent equipment level. I don’t recall, but no doubt I overlooked a great many reasonable rigid frames out of sheer ignorance until my eye was caught by something that looked like the business. Dual suspension? Oooh. 21 gears – that’ll be good for the big hill. Disc brakes? you can never have too much brake. Price… £150, down from £300? A bargain!

Oh dear.

And thus it was that a short time later I left the store with my brand new “Shockwave XT850”, a purchase that was to hang around my neck for the next decade not unlike the albatross of the ancient mariner. Aside from the ride home from the store it was first used in anger the following day on a work commute; a round trip of just under 9 miles. This is a distance I wouldn’t bat an eyelid at now but it seemed like a mammoth trek at the time. It boded well that the bike managed to break returning home on  that very first commute as the freehub gave up the ghost. Cue a log walk home and subsequently to the store to wave my receipt around. Had I any sense, I should have got a refund and walked away, but no – the freehub was replaced under warranty. As it was, my motorbike ended up getting fixed far sooner than anticipated and the mighty shockwave was soon relegated to hallway obstruction duties and pretty much forgotten.

A few house moves later and it continued to follow me around like a bad smell, somehow getting a reprieve on the basis of good intentions and the fact that to somebody who knows no better, it is a good-looking bike. Jump to 2015 and I’ve moved back into Lincoln. Commuting on the Sinnis Apache is no longer the easy thing that it used to be and I seem to spend more time than ever snarled up in traffic, especially in the evenings. Despite increasingly drastic filtering and overtakes it takes me longer than ever before to get home, despite no longer living ten miles outside of the city. Enough is enough and I take advantage of the nice weather to dig out the Shockwave and try commuting by bicycle.

Holy hell, was it always this heavy? the bike feels like it’s made from neutron stars. No wonder I stopped using it! The first few days and the effort just about kills me. My legs are like jelly after each ride and I’m a sweating, knackered mess but you can’t beat the feeling of getting around under your own power. The bike on the other hand is an absolute piece of shit – and that’s being generous. I might actually have to post a review of it on here just for a laugh. Googling “Shockwave XT 850” brings up mostly links to Ebay and the like, but the second link is instructive: What was your worst cycle and why? on cyclechat.net

After a few weeks of this I was starting to consider that a new bike might be in order. The Shockwave was needing constant maintenance and on one occasion tried to kill me by derailing the chain and jamming it betwixt cassette and frame*. This locked the wheel, warped the rear disc (how in the hell?) and threw me off the bike and squarely onto my head. This is one of the moments when I can truly say that a helmet has, if not outright saved my life, then at least spared me a serious head injury. Enough was enough and I decided that I needed to look into a new bike.

Oh, and a new helmet. 

 

 

*Yes, the derailleur limits were set. It pulled the same trick again a few weeks later but thankfully with less, uh, dynamic results.