Sunday 24 October 2010

Improving braking efficiency

My Mango velomobile has been a really wonderful thing to ride, but for one thing: the brakes. The Sturmey Archer drum brakes never seemed to quite have the stopping power required. An attempt to stop suddenly was met with a slightly too gradual deceleration and locking the wheels to skid was impossible.

Almost all velomobiles use these same brakes. The Alleweder, Go-One, Milan, Quest, Strada and WAW all also have the same brakes. So do many open recumbent trikes. It's been obvious to me for a while that there was a lot of variation in the performance of the brakes amongst different bikes fitted with these drum brakes. The problem was clearly not inherent in the Sturmey Archer drums themselves as at their best they work very well. I first assumed that the problem was variation in the brakes themselves, and tried changing them, but it made little if any difference. Other people reported improvements by changing the brake cable outers. As a result of this I took a close look at how the cables behaved on my Mango when I pulled the brake lever.

The brake cables on the Mango take the most direct route they could under the circumstances, but relative to the average upright bike it is still quite a circuitous route with a lot of relatively tight bends. The curvature of the cables changes quite noticeably when you pull on the brake lever, and that represents lost braking effort.

Also, these tight bends lead to more friction than normal between the inner and outer cables.

Together, these two things add up to an effect where the inner cable moves a greater distance at the brake lever than at the brake. Much of your effort in pulling on the lever goes into compressing the cable and overcoming friction rather than applying the brakes. They also mean that the springs in the brakes themselves are only just about strong enough to pull the cable back when you let go of the brake lever.

Potentially this could happen on any bike with any type of mechanical brakes, but because cable runs are typically less direct on recumbents than upright bikes, and less direct again on velomobiles vs. open recumbents, I suspect it is more frequently a problem on velomobiles, recumbent trikes and recumbent bikes than on uprights.

A couple of weeks ago I made a change to the brake cables on my Mango which significantly improved this situation. I can stop very quickly with my front wheels skidding. This is how it was achieved:

Good cables are the key to the transformation. I used low compression outer cables to solve the first problem, combined with Teflon coated inner cables for low friction.

Note that while gear shifter outer cable offers low compression it should never be used for brakes. It is constructed differently from brake cable and is not strong in compression. For this reason, it can fail under hard braking, resulting in little or no braking just when you need it.

A tip given to me by a colleague at the Ligfietsgarage a year ago was to remove the rough swarf on new brake cables so that they can rotate more easily within the brake levers. This reduces the chance of the brake cables breaking in the levers, as they often do.

Before and after use of the file.

And the other side...

The wheels are removed with a 5 mm Allen key, giving access to the brake mechanisms. It is a good idea to lubricate the pivots in the mechanisms, but make sure that no oil or grease gets onto the braking surfaces as this will drastically reduce the power of your brakes.

Low compressibility outer cable, with a low friction liner. To make a good job of cutting this you need the proper tool. For the Mango or Quest, the new outer cable needs to be 1.03 m in length.

The easiest way of making sure that the new outer cable takes the same route as the old, including through the hard to reach parts under the bridge, is to use the old inner cable as a guide.

I used a little white grease on the adjusters for the brakes, and also an additional nut to fit against the brake lever for additional rigidity at the lever end. These adjustments should be screwed all the way in. The wheels should then be re-fitted and the brakes adjusted so that they are just free when the brake lever is not pulled. This means that later adjustments can be made, even while riding, if the brake performance drops a little in the first few km after fitting the new cables.

Finally, refit tyres (in this case I have fitted Schwalbe Marathons ready for winter) and pump the tyres up to pressure (the Schwalbe pressure gauge gives an accurate reading of the pressure in your tyres).

Afterwards, it is much easier to pull on the brake lever, with much less obvious friction, the brake lever returns much quicker to being fully "off" when I release it, and the braking is very much improved. I can now lock the front wheels and skid to a halt, stopping in a much shorter distance than I could stop previously. This removes a slight doubt I had with the Mango over whether I would stop in an emergency situation. Here's the evidence:

A slow motion view of the skid. Note how in every frame the label on the tyre is in the same place:

The total list of parts that you need for doing this job is as follows:
All the parts can be bought individually in our webshop, or we can send you a kit of the parts you need with the brake outer cable already cut to the correct length, at a slightly lower price than buying the parts individually.

Total cost for a Mango or Quest (1.03 m outer cables) is €16.50 + postage (+ 19% tax if you live within the EU). If you've a different bike/trike/velomobile with weak brakes, please check what lengths of cable you require and let me know. I'll add them to the menu.
Read my review of the Sinner Mango Velomobile.

Thursday 21 October 2010

After the demise of Cycling England, what now in the UK ?

A few days ago I wrote about my experiences on a short visit to England. The vast majority of the British population do not use cycling as a means of transport. Many people simply don't understand it. They don't see cycling as having anything to do with them. Most British people never, ever cycle at all, not even once a year. 79% of women are in that category. The main reason why is that they are simply scared of the conditions which await them. I know I've mentioned it all before, but it's really the reason why cycling in Britain continues to flatline.

My country of birth has for a very long time done nothing of any real substance to encourage cycling.

And then, suddenly everything got worse...

"Cycling England," the organisation which was supposed to promote cycling in England, has been scrapped as part of measures to help Britain's struggling economy. So, "Cycling England" is soon to join the ranks of other abandoned initiatives. While the Dutch see cycling as partly a fiscal measure due to its many financial benefits, Britain still sees everything to do with cycling as being "too expensive."

I'm hoping for the best, but at the moment it's all rather sad to see. I'm not the only one to think so. Here are links to a few blog posts from the UK written by people who are trying to make sense of it. If you want to know what's going on there, please read these links:

What the government’s spending review means for transport and cycling
Goodbye ‘Cycling England’ – and the CfIT

Department for Transport – Spending Review 2010 Press Release
Who Do You Think You Are Kidding Mr Hammond?

The dog that barks the loudest gets the bone; is it time for a cycling lobby?

The photos are from Weston-super-Mare - a very nice seaside town, but British. It's not been picked out because it's particularly bad, but because I was there a couple of weeks back and could take photos, and because what I saw is quite normal for Britain: The town is unfriendly to cyclists. The pedestrianized shopping streets exclude cyclists and force them to take less direct, less pleasant detours. As a result, it doesn't really matter that there is little cycle parking, because there is little demand for what is there. I could also have taken photos of inadequate cycle lanes on busy roads, and unconvincing off-road shared use paths. Compare with the centre of Assen (before and after stills).

Monday 18 October 2010

Lelystad Enkhuizen Lelystad time-trial

Yesterday was the last competition of the summer season of races with the NVHPV - a time trial over 51 km, crossing 25.5 km of a dyke from Lelystad to Enkhuizen, and riding back again to the start place.

The start point is on the edge of Lelystad, a city established in 1967 as the capital of the province of Flevoland, which is the world's largest artificial island. Enkhuizen, in the province of North Holland at the other end of the dyke, is a smaller city, but also much older. It was given city rights in 1355.

The port of Enkhuizen used to open onto the sea, but now borders two huge artificial freshwater lakes, the Markermeer and the IJsselmeer. These are divided by the Houtribdijk - the dyke along which the time trial took place.

As you might expect in such an exposed place, the wind is very strong. Sailing is less important now for trade, but it remains a popular pass-time locally. There is also much evidence of electricity generation from the wind. On Sunday, the wind was coming from the North East, so there was a tailwind only for the very last stretch on the return run.

Having set the scene, here's the video, which due to my camera battery running out after a few minutes only includes edited highlights of the first few minutes of racing:

I didn't do all that well. 27th out of 39 competitors. I've had a pain down my right side for over a week now, and it's really not helpful for cycling, not that I'd be anywhere near the winners if I didn't have it. It took me nearly 80 minutes to ride the 51 km with an average of under 39 km/h, a long way behind the winner's speed of 59 km/h. However, it was a lot of fun.

A video made by Cees at the far side of the dyke, where help was on hand to turn people around. I'm in this video at 4:30, where you'll also see how I ended up cycling under a sailing ship at the start my return run.

At this point, I think thanks are in order to the many people in the NVHPV involved in organising these events. It's been a great year of racing, very enjoyable every time. The official story about the race, with more links, is here.

Relative to other places, there are several things notable about the cycle path along the dyke. First of all that the dyke was built with a cycle path at all. That would always be the case in NL. It's not classed as a "superhighway", or given any other fancy name. While it's an extraordinary facility compared with what is on offer in many other places, it's not been the subject of any hype at all. It's just a normal cycle path, joining up with other normal cycle paths to every other destination at either end of the dyke. Also note the wide demographics of people using it, not only those of us involved in sport, but both teenagers and pensioners were using the dyke cycle path. In this case, they were presumably making their journeys for pleasure given that it was a Sunday, but it's there for anyone to use at any time. Including, in our case, for a time-trial, with people riding in safety at high speed.

My Mango a day before the race, newly fitted with Continental Grand Prix tyres on the front, and an Avocet on the rear.

2011 Update - the Grand Prix tyres didn't last all that long.

Many thanks to Martin Merkelbag for the photo of me taking part in the time-trial. The small black thing taped on the front of the Mango is the camera which took most of the video. The Houtribdijk isn't actually the longest dyke in the Netherlands. I rode across the Afsluitdijk on a previous occasion. Read my review of the Sinner Mango Velomobile.

Saturday 16 October 2010

Reflections on England

The Morris Minor is a classic British car. Over a million were produced between 1948 and 1971 and they are still sometimes seen in use, including this example.
I just spent a week in England, visiting my family. It was great to be back. I had crumpets for breakfast, curry for lunch, and can report that English beer remains much tastier than Dutch beer. I enjoyed it very much, and even visiting it as a "foreigner" I found much to enjoy. It does help that my family live in one of the nicest corners of the country.

However, not everything is wonderful. I read in a newspaper while over there that the number of cars on Britain's roads have increased from just over 26 million in 2005 to more than 31 million in 2009, a rise of nearly 20% in just four years - a period only slightly longer than we've lived in the Netherlands. Considerable growth since the last time I looked at car ownership rates in Britain.

This growth was obvious on the roads themselves, and not only at school time, as in this photo, or rush hour. It didn't seem to matter what time of day or night it was, the roads had lots of cars on them. Often enough to cause a bit of a traffic jam, even at the most unlikely of times. For instance, we even found ourselves in a jam on the way to small a market town in the west country at 7 o'clock on a Sunday evening.

The UK's current transport secretary recently reminded us "that over 80% of all journeys are undertaken by car." He's absolutely right, and it will likely remain the case. It's the only means of transport which he, and the rest of the government, actually encourage in the UK at present. While it's not necessarily convenient due to the number of other motor vehicles on the roads, in very many cases it's the least bad option open to people.

I flew to Bristol and my mother came to meet me at the airport. As a pensioner, she is entitled to a free bus pass, so she left home in Burnham-on-Sea just after 2 pm to arrive over three hours later on the last bus to go to the airport from that direction. She covered 30 km in a fair bit over 3 hours, or an average of under 10 km/h.

I, on the other hand, left home in Assen somewhat after 3 pm, taking one of the regular trains (every 30 minutes) from Assen to Schiphol airport 200 km away in order to arrive a long time before the flight. I waited, got bored, bought a book, ate some food and eventually boarded the aeroplane and flew to Bristol Airport for 19:30. Just over four hours in all, and 800 km covered at an average of 200 km/h.

On the map: I started at A, my mother started at B and we met after comparable journey times at the white dot somewhat closer to B than to A.

In fact, transport remains a complete pain in England... unless you have a car. My original intention had been to make the entire journey between our home in Assen and my Mother's home in Burnham by public transport. However, while it's easy to cover the 200 km distance from Assen to Schiphol Airport (trains run every 30 minutes), it's not easy to cover the 30 km distance between Bristol Airport and Burnham on Sea. While my flight was to land at 19:30, the last bus running in the correct direction was the one my mother got off of at around 17:30, so I'd have had to find some other way of making the journey.

I checked out the other options and found nothing which wouldn't be expensive, take a long time and in at least one option would leave me waiting at a remote unmanned railway station at which I could easily miss the very last train of the evening. Not attractive at all as something to rely on, especially with the risk of delays. A taxi was an option, but it cost a good percentage of the price of a hire car for the week, so I arranged a hire car.

Having a hire car was interesting in itself. Naturally I picked the cheapest option available on the website, as they all do the same thing: roll along on four wheels at the speed of the same traffic jam, and the cheapest being the smallest it also is the most economical on offer.

However, the car was of interest to many people, who asked me the same question: "What hire car did you get ?" If it'd been "interesting" like the old Morris Minor at the top of this blog post perhaps I might have known what it was. There it is to the left, Small and blue. Not worth too large a photo. It worked well enough.

It seems to me that British people are on average rather more interested in cars than is good for them. In one sense this is understandable. On hearing that I normally drive rather infrequently, more than one person responded by saying that they "couldn't manage without a car". It's easy to see why people believe this, given the way the country's transport infrastructure is arranged. For many people it is genuinely difficult to imagine living without a car in the UK. Given the ubiquity of the car as the only way of getting about, it's perhaps also not surprising that the most popular TV programme in Britain is now the execrable Top Gear, the presenters of which, and presentation style of which, seem to have taken over many other BBC programmes.

I did a small amount of cycling myself, around Burnham on Sea where I lived with my family as a teenager. I used my father's old bike, and rode as I always did in the UK: "vehicularly" (as the American's put it). i.e. big and bold and taking the lane when I needed to. It's not particularly pleasant, and conditions which require such behaviour from cyclists lead to cycling only ever being a minority pursuit, as could be seen by the small amount of cycling in the area, and its domination by a young adult demographic. However, this is the only way to survive in such conditions. Few people see this as something they want their loved ones to do. It's part of the reason why 70% of the British population never ride a bicycle at all.

Burnham is still a nice little seaside town, but as it's in Britain it's also still a nice seaside town which is dedicated to cars. There's plenty of car parking, and while the area at the sea front is wide and could be quite pleasant to cycle along it is still out of bounds for cyclists. This photo shows the spot where on an out of season day in the 1980s, with almost no-one around, a teenager version of myself was assaulted by an angry local Conservative councillor who pushed me off my bike to uphold his personal idea of what "the law" ought to be.

The neighbouring towns of Bridgwater and Weston-super-Mare are just 9 and 11 miles away (14 and 17 km) from Burnham. These are easy distances by bicycle in the Netherlands. Distances which many school children cycle to school and back again every day. However, not so in the UK. By bike, these neighbouring towns remain unreachable to any but the brave, as getting to them requires riding on narrow A-roads with 60 mph (100 km/h) speed limits and heavy traffic. Almost no-one ever makes such a journey of such a distance by bicycle. My mother, my sister and her teenage children have never done this. It's not safe by any definition.

Conditions for cyclists have not improved. Cycle paths remain almost non-existent, or very compromised in the few places where they do exist. Where on road cycle lanes exist, they remain narrow strips at the edge of the road which lead cyclists to ride through potholes while positioning themselves too far to the left around awkward "traffic calming" obstacles. Unsurprisingly, cyclists remain a very rare sight. Some youths cycle, and apart from that I saw a handful of utility cyclists (mostly riding the ubiquitous "mountain bikes") on the move during my week in England and three or four quite "serious" types on racing cycles.

On returning home I found out that the government in the UK has (as I mentioned in passing was likely a few weeks back) now decided to definitely scrap funding of Cycling England, the organisation in charge of promotion of cycling in the country, saving enough to build just 5 metres of motorway. The UK government instead seems to want to promote electric cars, the buyers of which are having their purchases subsidized. As ever, Britain is ignoring lessons from the Netherlands, even ones which you might think would fit in with the demands of Britain's pro-motoring policies, such as that encouraging cycling improves conditions for drivers.

And then there is the CCTV. There is masses of it, everywhere, on the streets, in shopping centres, in shops, all "for your safety" of course. Some of it even claims to make the town "brighter safer." Mind you, apparently the French are providing pretty good competition on installing CCTV these days.

Yes, there is even CCTV in the pub. But let's finish on a more positive note:

Brown, warm, completely non fizzy. The best beer in the world.

Veggie curry pub lunch.

Onion Bhajis and Mango Chutney.

I know it is counter to the reputation that many people think it deserves, but Britain is actually quite a good place to eat and drink.

A week or so later, it got worse. Read another post reflecting on the demise of "Cycling England."

Thanks to freewheeler for the tip about the Independent article. He also has more on the demolition of Cycling England. In case you're wondering, the ominous grey buildings in the middle of the blog post are Hinkley Point nuclear power station, which is visible from the sea front at Burnham. Electric cars are the future, apparently, so expect more of these.

Monday 11 October 2010

Utrecht's pedestrianized shopping centre

It is not only cyclists, but also pedestrians who have benefited from the work which has been done in the Netherlands. The world's first deliberately car free street was the Lijnbaan in Rotterdam which opened in 1953.

This video from Mark Wagenbuur shows the way that the shopping streets in the centre of Utrecht have been transformed.

Mark says: The Utrecht pedestrian zone is a large area of car free streets in the historic city center. First in 1965 and from November 1968 on a larger scale, the narrow streets were closed to car traffic on the busiest shopping days. This experiment made the streets car free on Wednesdays and Saturdays which were -and still are- important market days. There was a lot of opposition from shop owners but the city went through with the plans for a permanent car ban. From 1971 the streets were permanently car free and they were redesigned. Side walks were removed and the streets were transformed to streets for pedestrians only. All opposition has since vanished. The area has been car free for 40 years now. The area is livable and a commercial success. It is one of the most attractive inner city shopping areas of the country. Best reached by public transport and bicycle. Deliveries to shops take place in the early hours of the day.

When private car ownership increased dramatically from the 1950s in the Netherlands, it was soon clear that the historic city centers could not handle that much traffic. Streets could not be widened without demolishing many historic buildings. It took about 20 years before the public and the cities knew that it could not go on like this. From the early 1970s many cities in the Netherlands created car free zones in the city centers. From that same time the use of the bicycle was on the increase again too.

On these streets, cycling is banned between 6:00 and 18:00. However, there are perfectly good, virtually car free, routes for cyclists which avoid these streets. Some can be seen in the other posts about Utrecht. Pedestrianization in the Netherlands works with cyclists, not against them.

Utrecht is not unique in having done this. In fact, virtually all towns in the Netherlands have made similar transformations.

Tuesday 5 October 2010

Now that was fun... again.

In October last year, when my new Mango was two days old, I raced it in Groningen. This Sunday was the time for the same race again, a few days earlier in October than last year.

I think there's some significance in that the lighter velomobiles did particularly well. In the timed lap, for instance, Ymte Sijbrandij and Hans Wessels took first and second place by both riding Ymte's 25 kg custom made light Quest. Harry was in third place in his (standard) Mango Sport (26 kg), Stefan van Duijvenboden was fourth in his old 20" rear wheel Quest (the internals are like a Mango with an intermediate drive, and these older Quests weighed around 32 kg), and Peter Haan was fifth in his 29 kg Mango Sport RE. In the overall rating, Harry Lieben came third in his Mango Sport. That's the highest result in the race for a standard machine that anyone can buy right now.

Of course, these are all also very strong riders.

A few of my photos can be seen below, including one of the car that someone had inconsiderately left parked part on the track for us to swerve around... (I rarely have complaints, but this was really not a clever thing to do)

Full results can be found here, the official writeup is here and Peter also made a blog post, a video and took photos.

Read my review of the Sinner Mango Velomobile.

Monday 4 October 2010

Mobility man - cycle superhighway

This is one of a series of promotional films about transport produced by the Nijmegen / Arnhem region.

The action largely takes place on the snelbinder cycling bridge in Nijmegen.

The man at the start is asking about a "fietssnelweg" between Nijmegen and Arnhem. The two cities are roughly 18 km / 11 miles apart. The presenter goes on to explain that when distances are greater than around 15 km, this can be offputting to a lot of cyclists, so the conditions need to be made better for cycling, so that the route is more attractive for cycling, and that's the way to get more people to cycle. They also need to encourage bicycles more suitable for longer distances.

This fietssnelweg is still in development. It is expected to be complete in 2012. There is a website for it and currently a competition is being held where people can contribute their ideas for how the route can be made better.

At the end you see a glimpse of what is claimed to be the fastest cycle courier service in the world - a velomobile used daily to take packets between Nijmegen and Arnhem. However, it appears that the local government actually wants to promote electric vehicles.

Friday 1 October 2010

A change in direction

A few times in my life I've worked on things which were a bit futuristic. In the 1980s I'd tell people about how useful email was and they'd mostly look at me a bit odd.

The world's first smartphone. EO440.
In 1993 I worked on a device which really wasn't so different to the iPad you can buy today: A flat portable computer which communicated using (analogue) cell phone technology, could send emails and faxes, and was operated with a stylus on the screen.

Rather more recently, I've worked for 18 months on the Sinner Mango velomobile. Truly a vehicle from the future.

I'm very proud to have been associated with both of these products.

Sinner Mango velomoble
I started at Sinner in order to help with increasing production in order to reduce the long waiting list for a Mango. My colleagues and I have worked hard over the last year to make Mangos better than ever before. A few larger changes, but many small details which are not necessarily visible to the customer, result in the current production being better finished both inside and out, lighter and faster. I suggested the Mango Sport and the Red Edition as products, and these successfully increased demand for Mangos. However... not quite enough to support or warrant an extra employee.

Yesterday was the last day of my contract with Sinner at the Ligfietsgarage in Groningen. Mango production is continuing, of course, and I'll probably still be involved from time to time, but not as a regular employee.

So to summarise: I have no complaints. I had wonderful colleagues for 18 months, building Mangos for customers, and Sinner is a very good company run by hard working, honest people. Never before have I so much enjoyed working for minimum wage. The Mango is a wonderful velomobile. As a product, it's better now than ever, and as the waiting list will probably now start to slowly get longer again this is perhaps the best time ever to order one - and I'm not paid a cent to say that.

For me it's now time for a slight change of direction. I'll be able to put a bit more time into making baskets, the production of which slowed dramatically over the last 18 months, and we'll plan a wider range of cycling holiday destinations for next year's customers.

In addition, we're starting a new venture. A web shop selling bicycle parts. It will be a bit different in content from many cycling web shops. We're not looking to stock "everything" but only cycling products which we believe in. These are products which have a good reputation for a reason. Many are commonly used in the Netherlands though less common elsewhere. They all work very well. Most of them we've used ourselves, and some others are products which friends use and recommend. Good useful stuff, and no money wasting things which don't work

For instance, you won't find us offering to sell you the Mighty Amsterdam Lock in our web shop, but you will find the excellent AXA Defender Lock.

This coming Sunday I'll be racing my Mango in Groningen again. I'm very much looking forward to it.