unleashing the beast

unleashing the beast

The Beast has been hanging menacingly in my cellar for over a year.

 Used once (and not in anger) and only then because my 8 year old daughter finds it funny (she’s not the only 1) and made my riding it a precondition of her joining me for a Sunday afternoon ride in Richmond Park (she’s mastered the art of negotiation at a young age).

Late on Saturday night as I was preparing my kit for Sunday morning’s MTB ride (MTB involves a lot more kit preparation than Road), for no discernible reason I decided the time was right to unleash the Beast.  The oversized tyres – some might say ‘Fat’ – were squeezed into the back of my car and the light as air but freakish-looking frame gently thrown in on top.

It was time to let my tank-like Tomac Hesperus Fat Bike loose on the single-track of the military lands at Tunnel Hill.

When riding a Fat Bike the first thing you need to get used to is being looked at, stared at, sometimes even pointed at.  This is the most uncomfortable aspect of riding a Fatty.  They’re a rare site in the UK and best ridden with dark glasses if you find excessive eye contact uncomfortable.  

The second thing is the grip, lots of grip – not a grippiness that slows you down – quite the opposite.  Grip that makes winter slop a non-issue, cornering more stable than ever experienced before and riding across frozen puddles a hoot.  The third thing is that the centre of gravity is low, without the risk of pedal strikes that full suspension bikes often suffer.

Sounds pretty good. It is.  Even as the novelty factor of riding a bike with HUGE tyres starts to fade it stays fun.  Fun but different.  Here’s how:

  • No pressure: Fatty has tonnes of grip, if you get the tyre pressure right (I was riding with 8 psi which was probably too much.  If I deflated anymore I was worried that I’d have a negative psi.  
  • Too much of a good thing: that grip made it hard to steer at high speeds.  Think barge.  The Fatty wants to straight-line the trail whether the trail is straight or not.  Rather than riding technically, looking for the sweetest route, I (well Fatty) just blasted through the middle.  I’m sure if I rode Fatty enough it would change my riding style and make me brave enough to ride the most direct route on my Full-Suss, rather than pussy-footing about.
  • Back to basics:  The tyres are the suspension.  No heavy suspension components, just a stiff but light carbon frame on top of tyres that could grace a truck.  The wheels and 4” tyres put the weight low but if the tyres are blown up too high – say with a mighty 10psi – then expect a bumpy, body-thumping ride.  I woke Monday morning not to the ‘run over by a bus feeling’ (of my 26” days) but more a ‘hit by a sizeable van’. That said, removing suspension from the equation the ride felt more planted, more stable, less floaty.
  • The Tree Root Whip:  Maybe I successfully road over more damn slippy tree roots than I would on a 650b but when I didn’t it felt epic.  In slow motion I could watch all 4 inches of tyre slide sideways, slowly at first before whipping me over on my back like an unfortunate beetle.  Once the slide had started there was no stopping it.  Equally if those tyres got caught between parallel tree roots – say eaxactly 4” inches apart, and that seemed to happen a lot, there was no escaping the rail road and wherever that might take me.  
  • What goes up:  Fatty climbed well on shorter, steeper climbs, with momentum easily maintained without the sapping suspension-bob of a Full-Suss when you need to haul yourself out of trouble.  Longer, medium to steep climbs and the front wheel would start to pick up a sensation bigger than vibration, more an oscillation, that bumped the wheel up/down until it was actually moving sideways and if not caught will,have you at 90 degreees to the slope at risk of falling over (which is apparently is very funny to watch).

The Fatty was at its best on the less technical trail or the long steep downwards shute where it felt planted and stable. It was surprisingly quick to pick up speed and hold it, adding to the desire to straight-line.  It might be my lack of skills but where it was difficult was the lack of last minute pop your wheel up/over/out of trouble-ability of the giant tyres.

Will I be riding my Fat Bike instead of my Full-Suss?  No, not unless it snows (which is what its designed for) or I’m cruising around with my daughters or feeling like I need lots of attention.

Did I enjoy it?  Yes – it’s 11 speed directness (I would argue that it only needs 3 gears: L/M/H), its rigid frame giving direct feedback, the fearlessness it encourages to roll over anything.  Where it lacks is manoeuvrability, flickiness and a bit more flow.

Maybe it will come into it’s own in a post-Trump Apocolypse where the only way to travel through the apocalyptic deserts is by Fat bike.

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safety in numbers

safety in numbers

Yesterday London celebrated the first of its Tube Strikes – there are sure to be more when 2017 really gets going.  In response London got active: walking, running, cycling.  

Every cloud has a silver lining.

Maybe in the interests of public health (if we ignore the increased pollution from gridlocked traffic) the Tube should be shut down for 1 day a month with a corresponding hike in the Congestion Charge to deter commuters from jumping in their cars.  1 day a month to fix / improve the Tube funded by 12 days less pay a year for striking workers who swap strike days for 12 extra days holiday (or be paid for valuable fix / improvement duties thus providing in-job variety and new skills).  Who isn’t winning?

The London economy is said to lose between £10-300m from each Tube Strike (which seems an equally worthless estimate I.e. nobody really knows!) but if we harness the famed London Spirit that was evident yesterday as London’s plucky commuters got to work by any means available, surely a monthly Tube-break could be made into a key differentiator for London.

What’s this got to do with cycling?

I often cringe-inwardly at the behaviour of my fellow cyclo-commuters as they(we) swarm through the traffic taking unnecessary risks and concluded that there were just too many cyclists on London roads.  Over the last few weeks whilst I’ve been ‘working’ my Notice I’ve been riding home before peak-commuting hours.  It’s been great right?  Free to enjoy the freedom of the open roads?

 Well no. It’s frequently been terrifying.

Without safety in numbers, not being safely within the bunch, I’ve ridden home alone in the dark and experienced Taxi-flybys, cars pulling across/through/out and pedestrians throwing themselves in front of my wheels.  It’s been a relief to get home with only near misses to trouble me.

Without the bad influence of the unofficial commuter peloton my cycling has been calmer, slower and less invasive of the traffic so why the increased near-misses?   Maybe drivers/pedestrians using the roads outside of peak-commuting hours aren’t use to ‘sharing’ the roads with cyclists.  Maybe I’m experiencing their bottled up wrath from when they have to and being picked-off as I ride outside of the safety of the pack – like a lone gazelle (small buffalo might be a more accurate description).

Perversely I began to yearn for a return to normal, longer work hours, getting up early / staying in the office later, when I’m forced to ride at peak times safely with my fellow cyclo-commuters.

That was until Yesterday – Tube Strike Day – multiply the number of peak-commute cyclists by 4 at least, on any manner of bikes, riding at varied speeds with varied control. It was chaos.  Dangerous.  Just on the London Embankment Cycle Super Highway alone I must have seen double-figure near head-on collisions.

Which is where a monthly Tube Closure could help, by forcing (I mean ‘encouraging’) more people to commute by bike more often will improve their skills and awareness, increase the number of riders and demand more of London’s Transport £££ being spent on cycling infrastructure.

No longer would a Tube Workers strike be regarded as a near Armageddon type event. 

Just another way cycling (walking, running and River Boats) can save the world’s problems.

(Even as the headwind buffeted me, the rain soaked me I was still pleased I chose to cycle yesterday especially when I saw the mass-overcrowding at stations and unruly queues at bus stops. Velominati Rule #5).