Tuesday, November 1, 2011

99 Problems and a Bicycle Shop Proprietor is one.

The journey into madness begins with a ridiculous thought, 'What if I had...two bicycles?'

Actually if we're going to be accurate, it begins with Googling things you don't currently own, knowing full well that in this material age, constantly looking at pictures of things you don't own is the fastest way to wake up owning them. Thus, many pages of upright bicycle pornography later I decided to buy a bicycle with a fully enclosed chain case and hub gears and the capacity to carry an extra heavy load. For 'all weathers', you see. Though Perth winters are ludicrously like Summer in other parts of the world, I was knee deep in a plan to move to Tasmania and thought only of my bicycle future. Cough. Honestly. A super sturdy, all weather, upright tank of a bicycle was what I needed. The hunt for a proper Dutch bike in Perth was ON.

Even before I'd bought the Schwinn I'd desperately wanted to try out a Gazelle and this time, I found a stockist. Ginger and I hopped to the four-wheel and went forth to this wonderland of imported delights. It was here that I had the most uncomfortable bicycle shop experience of my life. So far as I knew, this was the only Perth stockist. The shop was crammed with bicycles and unfortunately for me, the SINGLE Gazelle was right in a corner behind some other bikes and the front door. There was also a Lekker, which I was interested in trying. The Proprietor made a bit of a fuss about us wanting to see such 'difficult to reach' bikes but at this point we thought it was good natured grumbling, shop banter. He spoke highly of Gazelles and said his wife had an old one that kept on keeping on. I was eager to try it out despite reading of some recent 'downgrading' of parts in the manufacturing. It was the traditional Dutch geometry and weight that I wanted to experience. I politely requested a test ride. The Proprietor stared at me as though I had asked him for a reach-around. He thought his declaration that his wife was very happy with her Gazelle should have been sufficient evidence for us to purchase one. The thing is, Gazelles are not as cheap as Schwinns. The bikes I was about to test still retailed for well over $1000. They are by no means an impulse purchase (Not that any bicycle should be an impulse purchase!) and certainly not one to be made without getting a proper feel for the bicycle. His grumbles followed us into the alley behind the shop. Realising what kind of guy we were dealing with, I then politely asked if the seat could be adjusted to height before test-riding. He complained out loud as he went to get a spanner and he didn't even do it himself, he asked the shop mechanic to do it. We were the only customers in the shop. It was with relief that I watched him retreat back inside to complain to nobody in particular about our inconveniencing him. We were left with the mutely apologetic mechanic.

Crimes against Bicycle Shop Proprietors: Asking for the seat to be adjusted.

Once I was permitted to ride the Gazelle I found it was (to me) a radically different geometry to the Schwinn. To make a car comparison, it was like being in a monster 4WD designed to have a 'high driving position'. I felt as though I towered above everyone around me. The seat was tilted back thanks to the different post angle. Though it doesn't look it, my feet were quite high off the ground so if I wanted to stop I had to dismount the saddle completely. You can see in the picture below that though the distance between peddle and ground is small, the way the seat is positioned means I could not put my toe down directly in line with the saddle, not without titling the Gazelle a lot and its weight made that a difficult proposition. The handlebars felt almost too close (I was told they did not height adjust, although that might have been bollocks.) and I had to mind where they intersected with my knee on tight corners. Mostly, the bike felt both lighter than I expected (in motion, it weighed a tonne at rest) yet simultaneously rooted to the bitumen. I was surprised by how unstable I felt at times, having grown accustomed to the comparatively featherweight Schwinn following every sway of my hips as I cornered, the Gazelle felt like a beast independently deciding how we would turn. It required more conscious control of weight distribution. Clearly, Dutch bikes needed a tweaking of my skills.

"Young Man, are you photographing my person? How fucking impertinent!"

Next, I tried out the Lekker. With seat adjustment of course. Similar geometry but cornering was dicier, at lower speeds I wobbled and when turning, the handlebar grips physically touched my leg and blocked my turning motion. I considered asking for the handlebars to be raised but as I was already leaning towards the Gazelle, I decided it wasn't worth it. Again, I was surprised at how 'fast' the bicycle felt for its weight. I could see that once I understood them and levelled up my skills ever so slightly, either would be a pleasant ride. They both had the fantastic Dutch stand, solid rear racks with bungee cords and skirt guards. Overall I spent about 15 minutes examining and riding the bikes up and down the alley (combined). They were worth exploring and I was seriously considering the Gazelle despite it being an older model, severely shop-soiled and the chain case and skirt guard being soft. (Only a problem because I wasn't sure I could get replacement parts in the event of catastrophic tearing.) I asked the mechanic if I could have one more go on the Gazelle to confirm my preference. (Again, there's no other customers and it's a Saturday. Not even near closing time.) Unfortunately The Proprietor heard me and said with disgust, "You'll wear out the tires, I've got to sell those, you know," and it was at this point I decided he would not be selling 'those' to me.

Showing my fat bottom to a pair of bins, examining a Lekker.

I smiled, thanked them both for their time and promptly left, ignoring the complaints about us not buying anything ringing in the air behind us and mentally sending The Proprietor to blazes. That was it for Dutch bikes in Perth so we drove to the only Pashley stockist in town where I was ultimately to buy my 'all weather' bike, albeit not a Dutch one. We've since been to many an independent Perth bicycle shop and discovered that The Proprietor is infamously rude to everybody all the time and a local joke amongst other bicycle shop proprietors. Ginger later saw him on a train, being rude to a tourist. No wonder the shop was crammed to the point of stock damage, I doubt he sells much with that kind of service.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

How many roads must a Roadie ride down before you can call him a Man?

NONE! He already has more balls than you! (And if you don't believe it, you can easily count them.)

At a highly manageable 15ish kilometres round trip and one of the most sheltered bike paths, the East Perth route makes a great 'For the Hell of it' ride. Leading to the fashionable inner city, there is a café strip, drink fountains and public toilets at the halfway mark and because it runs next to the train line, any mechanical trouble or injury and you simply put yourself and your bicycle on the next train home.

Arrival at East Perth.
Beyond the bridge lies coffee, restaurants and all the banter about property investment you can stand.

The first time I took the East Perth path without Spouse was the first time I had leisure to notice the effect my bicycle had upon other cyclists. It was a long, hot summer and evening rides to East Perth were a relaxing way to exercise without overheating. Waiting for the sun to ease off, I regularly ended up riding with commuters as I reacquainted myself with cycling. It confirmed what I had long suspected: Bicycle infrastructure was dominated by speed-racers to the detriment of making cycling more palatable to 'the rest of us'. There was a distinct Roadie Rush Hour along the cycleway which brought me into direct contact with the type of cyclist most likely to put me off cycling. (If I were made of less contrary stuff, that is.) Remembering the subtle yet penetrating atmosphere of intimidation the first few times we rode this particular path, I can only imagine what more timid cyclists feel when subjected to the sneers and jeers of the average Roadie. Especially if they've been testing out their bike in the more welcoming surrounds of the 'real' world.

The East Perth route runs with the train tracks, swooping above, below and mostly out of sight of the roads.
Coasting past these billboards when cars are at a red light suffuses me
with enough Smug™ to power 6 small wind turbines or half a Volvo driver.

At this stage in our collective socio-cycle evolution, there are only two responses to a woman on an upright bicycle. Delight or Disdain. My journey to the start of the bike path takes me past a busy train station and is routinely filled with smiles from disembarking passengers. More than once I've seen young women exclaim and point at the Schwinn (Especially since the addition of the basket), declaring their desire for such a bicycle. Once, a woman actually jumped up and down as she tugged on her boyfriend's arm and cried, "Like that! That's the kind of bike I want!" The market is definitely there, the retailers just have to catch up. So does the majority of the cycling community. Which brings me to disdain. Outside of the bike path, the world is sunshine and smiles and rainbows pouring out of my wicker basket. Inside the labyrinth of a major commuter trail, the Minotaur waits with his epilepsy light cranked to 'Grand Mal Seizure' and his padded bottom steaming in the evening air. That first time I rode alone, it was at the heart of Roadie Rush Hour. I was the recipient of a fair few glares as I pedalled my steel framed slowcycle through the not so cool air. Of the many Roadies who overtook me (Which is fine, please do if you are faster!) not one of them signalled his presence by way of spoken word, bell or pointed coughing. The first indication of their presence was usually also the last - A sonic boom as they flew by accompanied by an over the shoulder sneer, particularly if they were riding in pairs. I consider myself a mostly polite cyclist - I keep left of my lane when I know somebody faster is approaching from behind, I slow right down and ready my brakes when encountering unleashed dogs or small children, I ring my bell even when I can see that the jogger in front of me has headphones on and I always thank anybody I overtake whether they're on foot or bicycle. The lack of civility from most commuters was and is disappointing. Without a change in this attitude, cycle paths will never live up to their full community potential.

If cycling is just not enough fitness there are also exercise machines along the East Perth path and
a newly installed drink fountain offering filtered water. No pleb water here.

Fortunately, it wasn't all sneers and vague sexual harassment (Yes, the one positive experience I had with Roadie Pairs that first ride was some general 'Woo!'-ing as they sped past). Riding a bicycle is inherently joyful even if you're not entirely welcome and my enjoyment was so great that it eventually began to win over the other denizens of the cycle path. I travelled frequently along the East Perth route that summer, regaining skills and smiling like a lunatic. Sometimes I would see female commuters and as they dashed past they would actually smile at my bicycle and then at me. After a while, I was even blessed with smiles from a couple of the more hardcore male roadies and I didn't even have to show them both tits. Best of all, by the end of the summer I started to see more upright bicycles on the path, some of my friends bought bicycles and we took weekend jaunts to the cafés of East Perth where an upright bicycle oasis was germinating. One place in particular called 'Toast' always had bicycles outside. There was no official bike parking but as the café tables were right next to the bicycles, nobody bothered to lock their bikes.

Last time I was there I spotted the low-brow humour Mens version of my Schwinn 'Jenny' Bicycle.
The Schwinn 'Willy'.
The inverted commas just make it worse.

Almost a year later and I'm pleased to report that a few types of bicycles piloted by people in everyday clothing can now be seen around East Perth and further along the bike path where it feeds into the city-proper. I went last week to take these photographs and saw two separate families with child seats attached to upright bicycles, a man on a dutch style bike and a Grade 1 fixie infection complete with hoodies, 'kicks' and fluro rims which cost more than both of my bicycles combined. It's still East Perth after all. But really - Any bicycle is good bicycle.

Spring afternoon down by the river.
Do not underestimate the anger of a nesting swan.

If trends continue, in time I hope we'll learn to politely share bicycle infrastructure whether Roadie, Fixie or Recumbent. And this is where I'd put a link to 'Imagine' if I wasn't a a broken cynic choking on my on bitterness - but I am, so instead, put your hand on your triple crank and please be upstanding (But not Upright!) for The National Roadie Anthem.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Schwinn Jenny 7 Speed 2011 (From the block.)

UPDATE: As of mid 2012, Schwinn ceased production of the Jenny.
As of mid 2017 the Schwinn Traveler Womens is closest equivalent.

Don't be fooled by the rocks that she's got, this Jenny is a solid and reliable entry level bicycle wrapped up in a pleasingly understated package. Amongst 'real' cyclists, Schwinns lost all of their cachet once they ceased production in the U.S. but from the moment I pressed down on her pedals after an almost 15 year absence from the bicycling world, I was won over by the Jenny's modest, mass market charms.

Schwinn 'Jenny' 7 Speed - Retails between AU$400-$600.
As photographed in the exotic locale of the Fat-Bottom Household Lounge Room.

I'm not really risk-averse but I'm no bungee candidate either so I was slightly nervous when first I test-rode the Jenny. Firstly, it had been over a decade and it wasn't my bicycle so I feared a 'you break it, you bought it' situation. Secondly, the saddle had been properly adjusted to my leg length and it was a higher position than my memory of bicycle seat heights, probably at the direction of my parents either out of ignorance or safety concerns. I fully expected disaster on the hot gravel of Canning Bridge Cycles rear car park, particularly as there was a gym next door and it appeared to be 'Gymnasium Hour'. Everywhere I looked there were monster 4WDs birthing tank-topped, micro fibre towel toting gym bunnies. There was also an abrupt descent at one end of the car park which ended in something semi-industrial involving metal detritus.

I needn't have worried. The Jenny was comfortable and stable to me from the first push to the final, exuberant stop thanks to her sturdy steel frame, instantly responsive front and rear caliper brakes and broad, soft saddle more like you'd expect on a beach cruiser. (It's actually the Schwinn 'Downtown' model.) The upright position gave me a wide view of the cars trying to kill me and made a significant psychological difference to the amount of control I felt I had over the bicycle. Not that it was all in my head: The 7 speed Shimano gears are operated by the novice friendly 'revo shifter', something I hadn't even heard of at that point let alone personally encountered. The last time I'd seen gears they'd been thumb shifters on late 20th century bicycles so the smooth rotating action of the revo shifter seemed miraculous. Once I had established which number gear I had set off in, I didn't have to look at the shifter to turn it or keep track and a reassuring 'click' told me I was on target.

Shimano 'Megarange' 7 speed, 'Super-low' 14-34.
The numbers mean the smallest cog has 14 teeth, the largest 34. The larger the cog, the easier the gear.
(Yes, this is 'Bicycle Gears for Dummies' because I am still a dummy but I intend to be a dummy who learns.)

A Shimano 'Revo' shifter. (Image from Shimano website)
It sits in a seamless fashion above the handle bar grip and shifts by a rotating action using the rubber section.
Your hand barely moves from the normal riding position so it's a great system for less confident riders.

Surprisingly, there's not really a wasted gear on the Jenny when it comes to traversing the somewhat erratic topography of suburban Perth. Bike paths are as smooth as it's possible to make them but even they cannot escape passing through suburbs with the prefix 'Mount'. As it was built over everything from sand dunes to swamps, Perth can be delightfully flat and then suddenly slap you with a hefty slope, requiring a very speedy transition from seventh gear down to first. The no-brainer revo shifter excels under these conditions where other types of more 'mindful' shifting might find you reaching the base of the same hill still in third if you've had to stop for traffic as well. At times like that, I rather wish both my bicycles had revo shifters. I probably spend the least amount of time in 6th gear but there's no single setting I shun, they all have a job to do.

Your money goes on smooth shifting rather than metal head-badges.
And I'm fine with that.

The Jenny is relatively light for a steel bicycle with such a 'big' feeling frame, I have no problems lifting it up my front steps even after a particularly tiring ride. At 175cm (5ft 9"), I am at the taller end of the average height for an Australian woman (Most women I know are over 5ft 6", under 5ft 10".) yet my Schwinn Jenny is a size 'S' frame. The 700c wheels add to the 'large' feeling but if not for a later discarded sticker indicating the frame was for up to and including 175cm I wouldn't have believed I'd get away with a small. Schwinns are obviously sized large.

Pieces of Flair? The 2011 model Jenny is so deliciously downplayed that the only bit of
extra decoration went entirely unnoticed by me until I took this photo.

The other features of the Jenny that attracted me were the chain guard and pannier rack. Other than the generous gears and the very plush saddle (Even a fat bottom needs some cushioning) these are the two 'at market' features which really made this bicycle an excellent re/introduction for me to transportation cycling for the price. When researching I found many entry level steel frame bicycles that offered either a chain guard or an appropriate number of gears. Not many included a back rack though a lot had cute but flimsy front baskets which were clearly meant to appeal to a certain demographic. (Hipsterettes. The demographic is Hipsterettes.) Unfortunately the 'vintage look' market also means vintage amounts of gears (3 or 1 speed), manufacturers counting on the fact that most of these bicycles will be used for very short journeys made purely to impress other Hipsters at inner-suburban pubs or 'pine crates for chairs' cafés. I admit: I'm partial to a wicker basket but I also wanted to carry things weighing more than two baguettes or a litre of that Hilo slop which dares to masquerade as milk. I wanted to go further than my local deli and I wanted to do it dressed as myself. The rack was a must.

The Jenny's back rack has a fiercely sprung trap with a good range of motion. So far I have used the rack alone to relocate a boxed cheesecake (That time I used a belt as well because it was my first time trusting the rack), a biscuit tin full of my own dinner and an esky full of dinner for five. I purchased the front basket from the bicycle shop, it's only rated to hold 5kg so it's strictly for my handbag and any layers of clothing I might jettison during a ride. The chain guard means I can travel without getting grease on my leg and it offers a reasonable level of protection against the chain chewing on my pants. (It's probably still advisable to secure any 'Vintage Clothing Market' flares with a hair elastic.) The Schwinn Jenny also comes with a basic hammer strike style bell, a tiny gong to announce your presence as you circumnavigate your fellow man and any excitable dogs your fellow man may not wish to be interacting with your spokes. I eventually purchased three Knog lights (Two front and one rear) to complete the Jenny, happy to support an Australian design even though the people behind it are Category 5 Hipsters (Their ad campaign features a woman about to engage in sexual congress with the 'Boomer' front light).

Australian law requires a helmet,
a red rear light
and a front light.
Although to be honest,
I can kind of see why she does.
Knog Rear light saves me from wearing
my LED knickers.

Not only do Knog lights look nicer than the thrusting, metallic POWER BEAMS!!! aimed at the Roadie commuter market, they come in a range of nice colours and feature a rubbery and clever quick-release attachment system which solved my personal problem of Basket Vs Headlight positioning by allowing me to attach them to the fork without using any tools. It also allows me to swiftly remove them to my handbag in the event of Shifty Hipster sightings in those more 'troubled' areas. You know, the ones with Porsches.

Post lights and basket, I think the Schwinn Jenny 7 Speed has reached her full potential as a fair weather transport bike/leisure ride and has provided the perfect level of coddling to regain my confidence as a cyclist. She's dependable, practical and fun. For an entry level upright bicycle, I wouldn't ask for more.

I've since retired the wicker front basket and fitted the Jenny with Basil Memories Bottle baskets, my review and photos here.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Desperately seeking Bicycle. (Been through the desert on a bike with no name.)

As an Official Pedestrian, making the decision to return to cycling as a mode of transport was easy. Deciding which bicycle to purchase was an eye-straining nightmare. I knew I wanted something low-tech, something 'easy' to ride, something functional. I knew I wanted one like my long lost Indi 500 but with a hint of 21st century pampering. Like gears. What I wanted was a 'Bicycle shaped' bike; but fifteen years had passed, mainstream bicycle culture in Perth had evolved enough to warrant infrastructure but it had also evolved into an alien landscape of carbon fibre speed machines ferrying a cargo of sweaty, lycra wrapped balls. One of the busiest city-bound cycle paths was near my residence so I'd personally observed the archetypal Perth commuter and it didn't look promising. Overwhelmingly they were bright green synthetic fabric covered men aged between 18 and 60, their helmets were designed to look like they were going very fast even when they were standing still, their bug-eyed sports Raybans were permanently attached to their faces and they rode hunched over their handlebars not quite kneeing themselves in the chest like only those who have never been tit-punched can. I found this Praying Mantis parade of testosterone bleak. Where were the people just riding their bicycles, not racing them? Where were the women? And children? And retirees? Where was Everybody Else and was there even a bicycle for the rest of us? (I was at this stage unaware of www.bikesfortherestofus.com)

And just when you think there can't possibly be a stock photo image for 'Praying Mantis on a bicycle'...

I had already suffered a disappointment after a bicycle shop opened right near my house. It had the word 'Bespoke' in curling font and a picture of a Penny Farthing on the sign. 'Wow!' I thought with predictable ignorance, 'They must make their own bicycles and they must not be road bikes!' Just after they opened, I excitedly peered through the window. Every wall was covered with wafer thin wheel rims and dynamic looking frames. There was carbon. There was fluoro. There were drop-bars. I was bummed out. It wasn't what I was looking for. I determined that instead of wandering around hitting up random bicycle retailers I should first Google my brains out. Immediately I ran into a problem: What was the official term for a 'Bicycle shaped' bicycle? I Googled 'Traditional bicycle' but it turned out the search engine bonanza was waiting behind the door marked 'Vintage Bicycle'. I soon learned that Vintage and Retro were now interchangeable terms and thanks to an international deficit of language (and people calling them whatever would get the most hits) my dream bicycle went by many names, each requiring their own search to get an idea of what was out there.

Cycles Bespoke - Does not contain actual Penny-Farthings.

(But does contain people who will make you an awesome road bike if that's what you wish for.)

There was Upright bike, Town bike, Loop frame bike, Dutch bike, Cruiser bike, Comfort bike, Vintage bike and Retro. Each search brought success. Even the mislabelled ones (Cruiser, Comfort). You could buy a brand spanking new 'Vintage' bicycle online but I didn't want that. I wanted to view one in person, test ride and see if it lit up my soul like I remembered. Through bicycle blogs I found the names of manufacturers, searched the companies and then if they stocked in Australia. I discovered that Melbourne was the slow bike capital of Australia, thanks to also being the Hipster capital. They were on a serious 'Vintage bike' kick. (And if you think American Hipsters are ridiculous, you haven't seen one in 45 degree heat.) As usual, Perth was behind (and 2720 kms away) but had enough local Hipsters to cause a ripple effect of fashionable things to filter across to our side of the country. By this point my eyes were bleeding but I knew I wanted a basic loop frame, steel bicycle at a relatively cheap (But not budget department store, designed to be ridden only thrice a year cheap) price, with at least 5 gears, a chain guard and mud guards. And at age 28 I would finally have a basket. Come hell or high water. In an ideal world my bicycle would also be a charming shade of blue.

Much like I imagine is inside a 'Roadie's' shorts after hunching on that razor saddle.

I found exactly what I was looking for in the 2011 model 'Jenny 7 Speed' from Schwinn. I saw it on the Schwinn website and HAD TO POSSESS IT. My fervor was such that the car-worshipping Spouse became infected. He saw a picture of a Schwinn Cruiser and wondered if it would be the gentle reintroduction to cycling that he was now craving. (We have matching rusted mountain bikes in the shed from our respective 90s follies.) It was December, almost Christmas 2010 so a lot of the 2011 models had already sold but Spouse found the Jenny by... randomly hitting up a bike shop. In a Hipster friendly area. We went there ASAP. Acutely aware that I hadn't touched a bike for over a decade and that this was not actually my bicycle, I took the Jenny for a nervous test ride on the baking hot, tarmac coated slope behind Canning Bridge Cycles. In Normal Clothes! Sandals and a dress! It was magical. I didn't fall off. I hadn't forgotten how to balance! Although I did go up an insane incline in 5th gear, much to the amusement of the Proprietor. She and her husband were excellent the whole way through. They knew we were rusty and not 'real' cyclists (...yet) but they never mocked us. There was proper seat adjustment and kind correction of any technique I had forgotten, like which side of the bike to mount from and how to officially dismount. Spouse tried out the cruiser and was hooked. He wasn't intending to buy himself a bicycle (Mine was a Christmas/Birthday present) but we discovered he could get a slightly damaged aluminium model at a discount. We put a deposit down and quickly took onanistic phone pictures to satisfy us until collection:

Schwinn Jenny 7 Speed 2011


Schwinn Classic Al Beach Cruiser

We were now set up to simultaneously descend into madness and revolutionise our lives. We just didn't know it.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Just a Small Town Girl: Living in a bikeless world.

Let me tell you my Bicycling Story. It began last century, with one of these:

Picture found on this blog by way of Google image search.*

Or at least something almost exactly like it. The city was Perth, Australia - Most isolated Capital city in the World with parochial attitudes to match. A car-centric city forged by the vast distances surrounding it, the sprawl of suburbs with enormous backyards to hold many a shed, the shunning of inner city living and a flimsy national identity tied to Holdens, Fords and beer. The year was 1994 and I was 12 years old. The Mountain Bike craze was an invisible dot on the horizon and I was at last tall enough to warrant an adult sized frame purchase. It would be my first 'real' bicycle and one for an important purpose - The end of primary school camp on Rottnest Island.

For those not acquainted with Rottnest, it is a small paradise off the coast of Western Australia famous for its blue swimming lagoons, bakery and complete lack of cars. The only cars on the island belong to the skeleton crew of island residents who keep things running. Nobody else can live there and everybody visiting must cycle. This trip was the mirage at the end of the primary education desert. You spent many of your school years fundraising for it, you took bicycle safety classes beforehand, you were made to pass cycling proficiency tests! Looking back, it's astonishing that an underfunded public school in a then working class area was able to offer this to students. A week without parents in an island paradise at minimal expense, being trusted not to create lawsuits with our bicycles. (Although I'm sure the Army barracks accommodation and mess-hall meals helped cut costs and I doubt our parents would have recognised a lawsuit.) In short, I needed a sturdy and reliable bike for the many hours of cycling ahead of me.

The general standard of natural beauty on Rottnest. Photo from this travel blog with basic information about the island.

My family had a small income so my parents scoured newspapers for garage sales or people selling old bikes. Old bikes were not Vintage at that time. Old bikes were simply OLD. New was still King, call it a hangover from the 1980s but despite recession there was a distinct lack of nostalgia when it came to consumer goods. My 12th birthday was at the beginning of the year, camp was at the end. All I wanted in the world was a pink bicycle. Through some kind of miraculous parental powers (I believe it's called 'Saving') my Mother and Father managed to produce one. A 1970s/80s Indi 500 bicycle. Looking very much like the one pictured above. And therein lay its downfall. It did not have the pump, cute saddle and grips as pictured but it certainly had the steel lugged frame, paintwork and decals - all immaculate. It had three entire gears, I had never known such luxury. My parents must have got it in a job lot from somebody clearing out their shed because my Mother got a different shaped, white Indi 500 with three gears, back rack and wire basket (I was desperately jealous) and my Father got a three speed blue one with rear rack. A little bit of surface rust here and there on Mum's bike. Saddles and grips a bit tired but every vehicle functional and nothing damaged. We could not afford to 'improve' them aesthetically nor did it even occur to us to do so. Thus the bicycles remained in their raw state, my Father applying his magical mechanical Dad-skills over the chains and various different brakes (between the three there was a mixture of back-pedal aka coaster-brake and caliper rim brakes) to ensure that they rode smooth.

I loved my Indi 500, I repeatedly rode it round the block. Sometimes with an off-brand portable cassette player on my hip, my one cassette pumping 'Ace of Base' through the cheap foam headphones. For the first time I cycled unsupervised up and down local suburban streets, thrilling at the feeling of being alone and in charge of myself, imprinting every neighbourhood house as I passed them again and again. I did not cycle for a reason. I cycled for joy. By the time camp was imminent I had cycled to school and passed my proficiency test with flying colours. My only memory of the test itself (apart from the hand signals and road rules we learned in the sessions leading up to it) is bicycling zig-zag through a long line of witches hats. By that stage it was a laughable challenge, I'd been riding the Indi on curbs round the block at high speed - a sort of balance beam for upright bicycle. There was a solitary student in my year who had never before ridden a bicycle but by camp she was on a bike too, although wobbly. We rode in an excited flock from one end of the island to the other and everywhere besides. I flew up and down hills, raced my friends (and enemies), triumphed when I beat an athletic boy on a brand new mountain bike with a proliferation of gears. Girls can do anything! I mentally rejoiced - even though Girl Power! hadn't been invented. Then. I can still remember his scorn when he cried, "I can't believe I just got beaten by a shitty Indi 500!" And with that, the poor Indi's fate was sealed.

How's my Father's bicycle today? Pretty good.
And my Mother? A little rusty from being rode hard and put away wet.
Don't know about her bike... ZING!

The awkward teen years were mere months away, waiting to sucker-punch my sense of identity. One day I was suddenly 13 and about to start high school when with horror I realised that my once beloved bicycle was not cool. It was old! It was pink! Only little girls like pink! All of my friends had discarded their upright bicycles seemingly overnight (but it was probably just over Christmas) and obtained shiny new MOUNTAIN BIKES! How EMBARRASSING! My older brother had possessed a mountain bike all along, he used it to do achingly cool teenage things like go places alone and see friends without asking for a lift. I had no idea of bicycle geometry or function but I was sure that if I just had a mountain bike then I could love it as I had loved the Indi 500, with the added bonus that I would have my first new bicycle and be cool. It's shameful now to revisit my discarding of the Indi. It was the shortest time I've ever owned a major purchase and the only time my parents ever permitted something so wasteful. Of course, they were not wasteful - they were sensible adults and so the mountain bike - bought from a bike shop and not a newspaper! - was partly funded by the sale of the pink Indi. It had always been the best preserved of the three but I doubt they got a lot for it because Perth was in the iron (Or should it be aluminium?) grip of THE MID-90S MOUNTAIN BIKE CRAZE.

It was a dark time. The lone bike shop in our area was full to the brim with trendy mountain bikes of all sizes and colours. (And hopefully price-points - Guilt guilt guilt.) Upright bicycles, already out of fashion even before the trend hit were now considered antiquated pieces of junk. It wasn't about buying a bike suitable for your specific needs or activities - it was all about chunky tires and straight handlebars. It was about the shape of the bike - end of story. And end of my cycling career. Within two years I had grown, my centre of gravity had changed and the mountain bike became my enemy. I hated the saddle, I couldn't ride it in the rain because water flicked up off the wheels, I felt unbalanced and it seemed to have a mind of its own. Strangely, I don't remember a single journey I took on that bike. All that remains is the feeling of regret. I put it in the shed and concluded that if this was what bicycles were supposed to be like then I was no longer fit for cycling. By then I was old enough to solo-navigate Perth's relatively comprehensive public transport system and my high school had a bus run with the cooperation of the same. Besides, I didn't need to go far. And there was nothing to do. It was Perth.

The hated mountain bike. I literally cannot give this thing away so it lingers in my shed.
Why, yes. That is the word 'RADICAL!' on a bi-coloured ellipse excreting fluoro triangles.
It couldn't be more 1990s if it was being ridden by a Ninja Turtle off a milk crate and plywood
ramp and landing on the entire cast of 'Saved By the Bell'.

My friends soon learned to drive. Just like everyone around me, it was all they'd ever wanted. Bicycles, buses and trains were to them a frustrating delay to 'real' transportation. For the shimmering promise of Freedom with a capital F. Not being able to drive was oppression of the worst order. Owning your own car was the ultimate statement of independence. We were turning 16 and my sense of identity, like so much jelly only a few years ago had been busy solidifying. I once more discovered that I enjoyed having my own opinions. An independence of mind. If it coincided with my peers, great! If not, too bad! They were my thoughts and feelings and they didn't exist without consideration - I could rationally explain them all. And my overwhelming feeling was that driving a car did not give us freedom. That it was being arbitrarily viewed as a compulsory right of passage. That just because everybody else does something was not a good enough reason to do it without first stopping to ask, "Do I actually want to do this?" So I asked myself if I wanted a car. Surprisingly, the answer was, "No."

Thanks to geography, outside of my home I was completely surrounded by car culture and I had just assumed that when I was old enough I would wake up with a hunger for automobile ownership. I was genuinely taken aback not to feel it. Of course, when I tell you that my Mother does not drive, my brother didn't drive, one Perth aunt and my maternal grandparents didn't drive it is of course less surprising but I did reach my decision independent of those circumstances. Nobody ever expressed displeasure with the concept of cars or told me not to drive. But they didn't ever speak of cars in the slightly erotic way other Australians do. They only served as real world examples of people living without driving cars. People using public transport or walking. True, they all lived in a household where there was one car and one driver so that if they did need to go a long distance with a large cargo they could but the one thing I saw and retained was the idea that it was POSSIBLE. But what of the Freedom? They didn't seem inhibited by their lack of car. My Mother still had her Indi 500. She rode it to work. There were buses and trains near our house. She took us on school holiday excursions into town, the beach, to smaller settlements outside of Perth. Every trip was still an adventure. She could still go wherever she wanted with or without us. They all could. By golly - they were free. And that's when I realised I had felt free all along. I'd never thought, 'Can't go there. Don't have a car' and so I didn't need to generate Freedom. I could only conclude that I in fact didn't ever want to drive a car, let alone go out and buy one. And more powerfully, I realised that I didn't have to.

Either this is deeply symbolic or there's nothing which can usefully illustrate the epiphany that one is a pedestrian. Not without a dangerous Google search, anyway. Everyone had those locks in 90s Perth and nobody used them because nobody wanted to steal a bicycle when they could steal a car.

I enjoyed public transport, I continued to use it throughout high school and into my tertiary studies. I was independent and I was free but I noticed that I spent an awful lot of time having to justify my 'freakish' refusal to drive a car. Sometimes to complete strangers. Once, a 30-something man selling a defensive driving course verbally abused me and insisted I must have had a horrible car accident to scare me off automobiles because I had dared to cheerfully respond, "No thanks, I don't drive!" to his offer of a pamphlet. I had never been in a car accident. Ever. Nor had my Perth family. He pressed me on it for a full ten minutes before becoming quite aggressive and demanding to know the real reason I didn't drive. Psychological problem or criminal conviction? He declared it impossible for me to genuinely have zero interest in a thing which everybody loved. He was almost hysterical by the end, invading my personal space and demanding answers. I was 18. That was the most extreme reaction. The more common ones were, "What if there's an emergency and somebody needs to get to hospital?!" (I'll call an ambulance, thanks.), "You'll change your mind!" (I might but probably not and if I ever do it will be entirely my business.), "But don't you want the Freedom of having your own car?!" (Again with the Freedom - you'd think we lived in East Germany.), "The fun of driving around with your friends while you're all teenagers?!" (Which I still got. And paid petrol money for.) "When I was your age…[insert reminiscence about getting away from parents and feeling like a grownup]" (I can still physically leave the house, I have feet.) and the classic peer pressure response of, "Everybody else does, what's wrong with you?!" And so it went until I was about 21.

By now it was the 21st century, the Human race had come down hard off it's Woo-Millennium-Age of Aquarius-Buy the World a Coke trip and had changed in inconceivable ways, life was every kind of complicated, there were wars for oil and environmental consciousness had reached even Perth's shores. Now when I revealed that I did not drive, people politely assumed some kind of disability disqualifying me from driving. I corrected them, they were confused, I calmly replied that I just never wanted to and that was usually the end of it. But every now and then, I would meet another Gen-Y who would look at me with a mixture of shock and delight before confiding in hushed tones - "I don't drive either." But none of us rode bicycles. We had a collective case of Velo-Amnesia.

All the while, Indis rusted faithfully at the back of sheds everywhere, waiting for the invention of Hipsters.

Flash forward to last year - I am 28, married and still not driving. My brother has been forced to drive (eventually getting his licence at 30 years of age) for his specific industry of choice but unless he needs the car for his job on a particular day, he just drives to the train station. He still cycles, going long distances for recreation. Most of my non-driving peers also have drivers licences but it was again an employment requirement they wouldn't need to adhere to if they didn't do those exact jobs. They still don't actively engage in car culture. I still meet non-drivers, mainly in more urban areas, though the suburbs of Perth are still spreading after a population and housing boom but with another economic downturn and the price of petrol people are returning to inner city living or taking the new train line to work (An electric commuter train goes all the way to one of the towns we used to visit on holiday). One non-driving friend decided she should probably learn to drive, bought a car and then moved to London where the concept of everybody driving everywhere is implausible and once more she is car-free, she just catches the tube. There are Australians in Melbourne who go without using cars (Melbourne is famed for a fabulous network of city trams) and public transport is now part of the city's cultural identity and 'Brand' in marketing campaigns.

I am still in car obsessed Perth, married (happily) to an ironically car culture-centric Ginger Man from a car crazed family who always have more cars parked outside a house than people resident inside but I am still not 'A Driver' and he respects that. Good cycling infrastructure exists, bike shops and even bike themed cafés abound but the scene is dominated by a small population segment of men aged 18-60 commuting in lycra as fast as they can or riding in large groups on weekends. But something wonderful strange is taking hold of me. I'm remembering bicycles are vehicles. I'm recalling my Indi 500 transporting me from one end of an island to the other. I'm remembering how lovely upright cycling was, what a mistake a mountain bike in the suburbs was. And I'm noticing online that other people seem to be thinking about bicycles being transport too. Even upright bicycles. They're talking about finding ways to get out of their cars. About the environment and petrol costs, commuting and touring and leisure cycling. About finding their old bicycles in backyard sheds and giving them some 21st century upgrades. And some of those people are even in Perth: Bicycle Backwater. And so my research began…


*Turns out the blog is from Perth. Due to the 'small town' nature of Perth, for all I know that could actually be my former bicycle. Regardless - I hope it's being loved and that it hasn't fallen in with the wrong crowd and become a fixed gear.

But What About Helmets?

Australian law requires cyclists to wear a helmet. So I wear a helmet.

The end.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Australian Bicycles for Beginners.

Salutations from Perth: Bicycle Backwater of Australia.
It's been a bicycle wasteland but this decade, things are looking up and I'm looking to ride. And learn.
Typographic Anatomy of a Bicycle from HOTaar.
Let's learn about bicycles together, shall we?

Note: It seems I have unknowingly paid 'an homage' (a wankish way of saying 'ripped off') to BikeSnobNYC. That'll teach me to not read his book. As this is Australia specific and regards bikes rather than riders, I can be forgiven?

And now…

Types of Bicycles and the Australian Bike Ecosystem.
 (Images from Wikipedia, Observations more biased than your racist Granny meeting your Japanese exchange student.)

'Traditional' road bike.
  • Road Bike - A 'Serious' bicycle for travelling at efficient speed on sealed surfaces such as roads, pavements, cycle paths and in your face; The commuting bike of choice. Typically characterised by a diamond frame with 'drop' handlebars, thinner tyres and a narrow, occasionally Freudian shaped saddle designed to be splayed over in an aerodynamic position rather than firmly and luxuriously sat on. Modern road bikes are light and without 'comfort' features such as mudguards, bells, chain covers, provision for portage (baskets, racks etc) or even kick-stands. They can range in price from an entry level sporty look aluminium frame (around AU$700) to a traditional, pared back heavier steel (Which can be hand fabricated by a frame maker for thousands of dollars) to the kind of feather-weight carbon fibre, sell your kidney on the black market, decal covered monstrosity you see burning past you during rush hour with the headlight set to 'Epilepsy' and the rider's powerful glutes inescapably defined by logo covered synthetic fabrics.

    'Modern' style road bike.
    Up Yours attitude not included.
    Road bikes have the potential to go very fast depending upon how light and/or expensive they are - we're talking paying over $100 for a carbon drink bottle cage because it's a few grams lighter than the aluminium one. They are as close to the dick-measuring car culture as you can get without adding two more wheels and a roof. Thus they are the most popular everyday bike in Perth and have evolved to become largely the domain of the middle-aged Y chromosome. Just like not all Ferrari convertible drivers are pricks… Anyway, there are indeed pleasant 'Roadies' of all shapes, ages and genders out there. Some of my best friends are roadies, I swear! But the sad majority are speed driven commuter-bots secretly racing every other object on the road in an invisible Tour de France inside their pants. If they ever slow down enough to heap scorn upon less 'serious' cyclists it's only really because their sports Raybans need adjusting.
Those bottle cages cost him an inch.
  •  Touring Bike - A rare beast in Suburban Perth. Take a road bike. Add all the things that you wish your road bike had if every 50 grams didn't deduct a centimetre from your knob. Mudguards, front and back racks, a more comfortable saddle and maybe even more upright handlebars. Treat yourself and buy that aluminium bottle cage. Touring bikes are designed for longer distance travel with varying amounts of luggage so they have to be strong, reliable and potentially able to take a beating. Perhaps the journey itself is your destination - like cycling around Australia to justify all the money you just spent on waterproof panniers. Or perhaps you're only going for a discounted 'mini-break' in your state's wine country but you still want to bring back as much Shiraz as it takes to forget your wasted life. Either way, the touring bike is there to carry your junk. In all senses.

    Touring bikes don't have to be diamond frames, any bicycle you'd feel comfortable riding continuously that is rated strong enough to carry your luggage can be classed as a touring bike but the most popular frames for touring are usually diamond due to their inherent speed, strength and extra space between tubes for attaching things. Mixte frames are also used, their geometry makes them more sturdy than a loop frame, combining road bike like speed along with the more upright position. I've never seen an official touring bike in the wild but there are plenty of ZZ Top escapees pedalling around my neighbourhood with scrap metal tied to their handlebars and 25 plastic bags hung off their pannier racks.

The elusive Mixte.
  • Mixte Frame - A more 'serious' (Read: Men are willing to ride them) step-through frame configured as though the top tube of a diamond frame fell down and became lodged on the back wheel. And sometimes split in half. Just look at the damn picture. Although all basic bicycle frame shapes are technically unisex, Mixte is French for 'Mixed' indicating the frame was deliberately intended for mixed use. Basically, men who require a step-through frame are less embarrassed by the straight lines of the mixte than they would be by the girly associations of the 'loop' frame. Unless they're Dutch and then they don't give a fuck. When it comes to bicycles as pure transportation and not a warring fringe culture, the Dutch don't play. And if you ain't Dutch, you ain't much.

    If mixte frames exist in Perth then their owners are clearly hoarding them inside underground bunkers in preparation for the zombie apocalypse when we cyclists will really come into our own. The petrol reliant will be eaten by the inevitable zombie hiding in the back seat of their Toyota Prado, spraying brains all over their custom 'My Family' window stickers while we bicycle the hell out of dodge. I can only confirm that mixtes exist in Australia at all because I saw some on eBay for sale in Melbourne. Of course.

Cruiser style.
Going Dutch.
  • Upright Bike - Also known as Town Bike, City Bike, Loop Frame, Dutch Frame, Granny Bike, Step Through Frame, Oma or Vintage Bike. Enjoying a Hipsterette led resurgence (but if that means I can actually buy a bicycle from a shop then carry on, Hipsters). With their medium to fat tyres, wider saddles and high, swooped back handlebars - this is quintessential bicycle. Different models may include coat/skirt guards, chain guards, mud guards, cruiser saddles, pannier racks, baskets, lights, bells... Every classic bicycle cliché involving women starts here. Mary Poppins, bagettes and cycling in floral skirts. The common feature of these bicycles is their feeling of stability thanks to their chair-like geometry, extra weight (Dutch bikes in particular will dislocate your shoulder taking them up stairs.) and wide view of the road. This makes them feel safer as well as giving the ability to ride in 'Everyday' clothes and on varied surfaces in most weather conditions. The permutations of the upright bike are endless and personal choice should be made dependent upon your requirements and geography although there's plenty of room for personal style. Perth is slowly amassing upright bike distributors, although it's still only a little corner of particular bike shops and asking to buy one in most of them guarantees you a sneer and a heaping spoonful of head-patting. Nobody specialises in only selling these types of bikes (unlike road bikes) so more exotic made in America models are unheard of but a couple of Dutch and the occasional English model make it out here. Of course, anything made in Asia is abundant and most major mass market brands have one upright offering, like the 'Giant Via'. Melbourne decided to bypass the indignity of relying on imports and opened their own Hipster bike shops. Of course. Some of their bikes are starting to appear here as shop display items.

  • "I nicked the socket set out of
    your shed while doing a sick 360!"
  •  BMX Bike - 'Bicycle Motocross' Bike, small and low for doing tricks off sweet ramps in your backyard or in official competition but more likely being ridden around the neighbourhood by greasily dodgy teenage boys. The skateboard of bicycles. Owned by every 15 year old scrote from 1990 onwards. If you see a BMX near your house you've probably just been burgled.

"This is not a BMX bike, how DARE you!"
  • Mountain Bike - Bike for stupidly flinging yourself down the side of a hill while doing complex tricks like avoiding trees, avoiding animals and avoiding rocks. For people who believe they are superior to BMX bikers because a) Their bike has suspension and cost more and b) They're doing it OUT IN NATURE. If you gather more than one Mountain Biker in a room it will take less than 3 minutes for them to start exchanging gruesome stories about various fractures.

  • Somebody devolve that thing.
    Hybrid Bike - A Road Bike and a Mountain Bike had a hideous baby. Aesthetically (and I hear to an extent functionally) this is the worst of all bicycles crammed into one. That is if you're an everyday person trying to recapture the pleasure of cycling. This is what Perth bike shops were selling to anyone who wasn't a Roadie and wanted a leisure ride around the local park. Then the Hipster bike trend brought back the classic frame shape. I've never seen anybody smile on a hybrid bike except in a bike catalogue.

    "I'm fucking ridiculous!
  • Fixies - Fixed Gear Bicycle. Once known as the shitty bike you had before you were old enough to be trusted with expensive gears, single and fixed gear bicycles have reemerged at 30 times the price of your childhood wheels. To make a Fixie: Take one road bike. Remove anything vaguely useful. Voila! Now you are trapped in your house because Perth has hills. Australian suburbs have hills. Only inner city Melbourne is flat enough and contains enough Hipsters to even make the concept of fixed gear as transport possible. If you aren't currently cycling in a continuous loop around a velodrome and you don't live in inner city Melbourne (and if you do, it's actually designed for walking! Why aren't you walking? That tram is going to send you and your pointless status symbol to a hook-turn grave!) then you've just wasted a lot of money. And will soon have legs like tree trunks. I hope you like Scottish dancing because you're going to be good at it.