Battles with bicycle maintenance (and a ghost)

When it comes to bicycle maintenance, I am, by my calculations, precisely halfway between heroic competance and its hapless opposite.

I am competant enough to be technically able to replace worn brake blocks (those rubber things that stop the bike) (not the soles of your shoes), and yet incompetant enough to be incapable of fitting them so that they both:

a) stop the bike when I squeeze the brake levers

AND

b) don’t rub against the wheel when I’m not squeezing the brake levers.

This second feature of my brake adjustments turns every bike ride into some kind of resistance training. Great for fitness, not so great for getting anywhere faster than a mobility scooter.

The fact that I was able to cycle over 4,000 miles around the coast of Britain (not to mention another 1,500 around Tunisia) is testament more to the robust design of the modern bicycle than to my own skills as roadside mechanic.

Wheeling Adventure

Why do I mention this? Well, in the British Library the other day, I came across a wonderful little pamphlet called Wheeling Adventure, written over sixty years ago by a chap called Frank Urry (the ghost in this tale).

Frank was, at the time of publication in 1951, in his 70s and could justly claim to lived through the very beginnings of what we now know as cycle touring. When he first sat on a bike it scarcely had pedals, let alone brake blocks.

To read his words from beyond the grave, gleaned from over sixty years of cycling, is to recall what a wonder the bicycle is and what joys we spurn when we “motor” instead.

“Why should I want to go swiftly from place to place with but a glimpse at the going? The day is no longer, nor do you crowd more into its hours, except miles, and what use are they if you have missed the sights along them, the music of the winds and birds, the gossip of the wayside people, and the satisfaction of the perfect achievement of your body?”

I couldn’t agree more, I thought, as I smugly sat in the library, thighs still warm from the morning cycling up to King’s Cross, surrounded by academics who’d braved instead the morning rush hour.

But my smugness was not to last.

Chattering of neglect

For there followed a passage that really stung my attention, concerning bicycle maintenance:

“Oh! the thousands of bicycles that pass me – that I pass – squeaking, groaning and chattering of neglect, that were once the pride of their owners and are now wrecks of inattention, and all for the want of a little oil and five minutes of time.”

Yes, my poor bicycle, the same beast that had carried me gamefully around the coast for two months without so much as a squeak, is now an old nag, scuffling about the streets of London, a bolt or a bearing or a brake or a bracket always only moments from breaking.

Frank’s spirit gently chastises me from across the chasm of years that separates us: “even with disregard and neglect the bicycle still runs, which is surely a proof of its marvellous design and simplicity of construction.

Ouch.

The handicap of this neglect ” he adds, with hint of disdain in his tone, “is the rider’s.

And how right he is! Every time I take to the roads, I am frighteningly aware of a slight antagonism between my chain and my gears. Perhaps one in every hundred turns of the pedal grinds with a nasty gnashing of teeth as the chain skips a link or two, my foot slips forward, the momentum shifts in my hands and I lose momentarily my line on the road. Surely it is only a matter of time before a passing bus or a rubbish lorry decides to take a terminal interest in this careless instability.

Frank talks frankly: “It is so simple and so much neglected, that I often wonder why such a priceless property – or rather a property giving such priceless pleasure – should be so abused.”

I feel quite ashamed that, for my bicycle to whom I owe so much, I do so little. I vow to address its quiet complaints. Tonight.

Bicycle Workshop, Interior, Night

As things stand, I am aware that my bicycle has the following running problems:

  1. The rear wheel wobbles laterally. This, I have been informed by someone less hapless, is a problem with “the cones”. I thought “the cones” were what they put on the side of the road when they’re doing roadworks. I have no idea why or where they might be on a bicycle.
  2. The rear brakes are rubbing against the rear wheel. (When they shouldn’t be.) I am optimistic that this problem might be resolved when I’ve dealt with the cones.
  3. The chain skips too often for my liking (or safety).

Not having a diagnosis for #3 and being optimistic about #2, I decide to tackle #1.

With the help of a bike maintenance manual, some spanners and no little brute force, I successfully dismantle the rear cassette (gears) and get right down to the cones. These are little nuts that keep the all the bits of the axle together and spinning freely, but not too freely. They just need a little tightening, I’m assured, to eliminate that wheel wobble.

So I tighten the non-drive side cone. I can’t get to the other one because something else is in the way. I put the wheel back together and back on the bike. I give it a test spin. Nothing happens. No wobble: good. No spin: bad. I’ve over-tightened the cone.

I pull the whole thing apart again, slightly loosen the cone and put it all back together again. This time the wheel spins: good. And wobbles: bad.

This pattern repeats several times over until eventually the Goblins of Bicycle Maintenance get bored of tormenting me and I have both a spinning and non-wobbling wheel.

I am pleased with myself.

For exactly 30 seconds.

That’s how long it takes for me to realise:

  1. My brakes are still rubbing when they shouldn’t.
  2. My wheel is misaligned to the right hand side.
  3. Some of the spokes are loose.
  4. The tyre is wearing so thin that you can see strands of fabric poking through the rubber from the inside.

It is at this moment that I recall Frank Urry’s words: “…all for the want of a little oil and five minutes of time.”

I have been working on my bike now for well over an hour and, not only is it still a wreck of inattention, it is far more of a wreck of inattention for all the attention that I’ve given it.

Thanks to my lavish attention, I am now fully cognizant of the fact that my bike is a death trap. That tyre is so thin that it would puncture on a cotton bud.

Life after Frank

You must, by now, be wondering at my deluded sense of self-awareness: Halfway between heroic competance and its hapless opposite! With a tyre no thicker than a housemaid’s pinnafore? Pah.

But, dear reader, may I draw your attention to my bed. For lodged neath said furniture, until now only gathering dust, is my answer to the ghost of Frank Urry, tutting and head shaking:

One spare rear wheel – cassette, cones and all.

Which brings me to the lesson of the day: half the battle of competance is carrying spares. Or, as Blue Peter would have it: “Here’s one I made earlier.”

Adventures in Approach and Avoidant Motivation

Have you ever read about approach and avoidant personalities?

This is the idea from psychology that people are born with a tendency to motivate themselves either positively (approaching a goal for its benefits) or negatively (avoiding the harms associated with failure).

Approach: “Cycling around Britain will be the greatest thing that I ever do, I’m going to enjoy every moment!”

Avoidant: “I’d better not screw up this round Britain cycle ride because then I’d look really stupid!”

Stumbling across this concept made me realise that, although I set myself and sometime achieve ambitious goals, I tend to tackle those goals in an avoidant manner.

Cycling around Britain… Really fast.

In 2011, I cycled around Britain. This was, as you can imagine, a stunning experience; rarely a day goes past without a glorious memory or three dropping in to say hi. However: I cycled the 4,110 miles in less than two months, at a frankly absurd speed of over 70 miles a day. I took four rest days and resented each one.

Why? Because I was terrified, all the way around, that I would fail. I wanted to get it done ASAP, so that I could enjoy not having failed!

Cycling to the Sahara… Really slowly

Slightly disturbed by this realisation, the following year I cycled around Tunisia, forcing myself to cycle much more slowly and to really relish the adventure.

As a result, I cycled at about half the speed and took a whopping nine days off in the month. Giving myself that time meant that I fell into all sorts of adventures:

By switching off the avoidant voice in my head, I allowed myself the time to have more adventures, which meant I had a lot more FUN too.

I was successful on this trip, but a lifelong tendency for avoidant motivation is not so easily overturned! It’s something that I have to work at every day.

Do you have an Approach or Avoidant personality?

If you’re approach motivated, then you probably rush into things and get excited by all the great things that will doubtless happen.

If you’re avoidant motivated, then you probably dwell on the things that might go wrong. Like me, you might rush things because you’re scared that you’ll fail.

Other signs that you’re avoidant motivated might include:

  • You dwell on criticism, failure or rejection.
  • You feel shy or anxious, even though you have a strong desire to achieve your goal.
  • You feel inadequate or inferior to others.
  • You’re self-conscious and tend to be self-critical.
  • You use fantasy to evade doing what you meant to do.

If you are avoidant – don’t panic! Me too.

Avoidants of the world unite!

Approachers might be the go-getters of this world, but they’re also the ones whose ancesters ended up between the jaws of a sabre-toothed tiger. They’re the stupid, fools-rush-in kinds of people. Avoidants, on the other hand are thoughtful, cautious and good-looking.

It’s also worth pointing out that approach-avoidance is a spectrum; it’s not black and white, either/or. Although I do a really good job at avoiding girls, blazing rows and sabre-toothed tigers, I will approach that Vienetta with all the recklessness of a Neolithic tiger dentist.

So, if you think you’re a tad more avoidant than approach, don’t beat yourself up about how nervous, worried or fearful you get about your goals. It is possible, as I proved with Tunisia, to reframe your adventures away from a focus on avoidance alone. I really had to force myself to slow down, relax and enjoy the weird situations I’d cycled myself into.

Yes, it will always be more difficult for us than for people who were born with approach personalities, but that just means that success will be all the more satisfying for us, glorious avoidants!

Smilodon head
This sabre-toothed cat was not an avoidant personality. And see what happened to him. From Wikipedia so it must be true.

 

The Literary Consultancy Manuscript Assessment Review

I know some of you are writers or would like to become writers, whatever that means. One of the problems with writing is that it’s almost entirely subjective. I say almost because there comes a point when the mass of subjectivity is so overwhelming as to become objective. Subjectively, I wasn’t entertained by the first dozen pages of the Harry Potter fiasco. 450 million book sales tells me I’m wrong. Objectively, Harry Potter and his minions are the very definition of excellent writing, writing that captures and holds an audience.

The only problem with this form of objectivity is that it requires a mass, a horde, of subjects. And this horde is precisely what the becoming writer does not, by definition, have. So we have to seek out other subjectivities, expert subjectivities, in the hope that they add up to something like a stab at objectivity.

(I should note that publishers have this exact same problem. Their decision on the worth of a new submission is taken on the basis of a dozen subjective opinions. That’s nowhere near good enough to match the objective opinion of the mass audience out there. Hence why many, many books fail, despite getting the seal of approval from an expert publisher.)

But to get back to the becoming writer. After friends and family, one of the places we can turn for a stab at objectivity is a manuscript assessment service, like The Literary Consultancy. In the spirit of scientific enquiry, I handed over my 257 page manuscript, along with a cheque for £449.75. And I held my breath.

Now, bearing in mind that I’ve scarcely earned £449.75 from my writing ever, that’s an awful lot of money to spend. Why did I do it? Because I had to know. The testimonials from writers who had used the service were glowing. I had to know if The Literary Consultancy could sprinkle the same gold dust on my manuscript as they had on Bruno Cassidy’s. “I can honestly say,” Bruce gushes, “that I received more engaged and positive criticism from him on this story than at any time during a two year part time Creative Writing MA.” I suppose £449.75 is a small price to pay in comparison to funding a two year part time Creative Writing MA.

I waited six weeks for the report. It arrived precisely on time, straight into my email inbox.

It was a touch over ten pages long, as promised – but some of those pages were not filled. It was double spaced. The whole thing totalled 3643 words, each one costing twelve pence. My first thought, on reading, was Have I wasted half a grand on this? I felt blood rush to my cheeks. I closed the email and forgot about it for a week.

After I got back from Calais, I printed the whole thing out and re-read it, with a pen in my hand. There must be some treasure to be found between these pricey pages. It was written by a man who had published books. He had won Wales Book of the Year. The Independent on Sunday had even called his most recent travel book “thorough”. So I dug deep down into his report, determined to uncover the treasure.

NB: From this point onwards, non-serious writers may get bored. Sorry. This isn’t really written for you. For the serious writer, wondering if it’s time to shell out for professional objectivity, I hope you find this report summary useful.


Approach (0.25 pages)

This was a short précis of my story, useful to ensure that he got the gist of what I was trying to do. He did. Phew.

Where am I coming from as a critic? (0.25 pages)

A short biography of the critic, establishing his bone fides as both a writer and a traveller. This made me feel more comfortable that he was a suitable critic for my book. I should say that The Literary Consultancy had given me a choice of two critics, so I had already done some research on the man. This put me at ease.

Opening Remarks (1 page)

This section addressed my cover letter and synopsis, as well as the title and the fact that I look young in my photograph. On the plus side, the manuscript was well laid out and “very professional”. Neither of us liked the title and he suggested a couple of alternatives.

Concept (0.5 pages)

This section placed the manuscript within the wider world of publishing. This is where the central problem with the manuscript was first addressed: “you have to offer something distinctive in delivering the story, to make it a commercially marketable book”. Storm clouds gathering on the horizon.

Technique (1 page)

General comments on style and structure. I have a “breezy no-nonsense prose style”, combined with a very good ear for speech. I’m particularly proud that he says: “There were no significant passages where my interest flagged.” Now there’s a review for the front cover! However, he is right when he says that there is precious little description of landscape and culture in the book. That is a weakness.

The Narrative (3 pages)

This is the meat of the report. Here he gets into more detail about the manuscript, its achievements and its failings. He addresses story-telling style, dialogue, characterisation, use of detail and description. He gives advice on how I could increase the reader’s emotional involvement and interest, through use of more encounters and personal reflection. He even raised the possibility of importing characters from elsewhere, à la Paul Theroux and Bruce Chatwin… By my honour!

Details (0.5 pages)

This addressed half a dozen typos, factual inaccuracies and general puzzlements. He missed several that I’ve later caught, but this wasn’t supposed to be a proof-reading.

Conclusions (2.5 pages)

Here he tackles the root problem of the manuscript and offers ideas for its development. The question is: “Will your book force its way to the front of the queue?” His answer is no, despite enjoying the story and seeing that I have the skills to write a publishable book. The manuscript as it stands is “a little short of rounded interest”. He urges me to “be more ambitious”, believing that I have “the potential to write at a higher level”. He finishes with a reading list of published books that could hand me the key to this higher plane.


Overall, I would say that the Literary Consultancy report told me nothing of the manuscript that I hadn’t already suspected myself. But I think that is a good sign: it would have been terrible if he’d hated all the parts that I thought were brilliant and vice versa. It shows, at least, that I have an honest eye for my own work.

Where the report hides its genius is in how it has inspired me to go back to the manuscript and improve it. That is what I have paid for, not the words of the report, but the encouragement. That encouragement, from an independent, experienced writer is invaluable.

I have since read and re-read the critic’s words many times and they have been an invaluable guide in my most recent edit of the book. I feel now that I have the thematic structure of a richer dish. The light shone by the report has improved my writing.

Was The Literary Consultancy worth £449.75?

In short: Yes.

Of course, I couldn’t afford to pay this every time I write a book, but perhaps I won’t have to. The report confirmed my suspicions of my literary weaknesses and affirmed the skills I do have as a writer, so perhaps all I will need next time is more confidence in myself.

HELP! Cycling Around Britain Book Title Poll

As you may know, I have recently “finished” my book about cycling 4,110 miles around Britain. The only problem is that I haven’t got a title for it yet. And that’s where YOU come in!

Hopefully you’ve read a bit about the book, but in case you haven’t – it’s a book about cycling that is more about lost love and finding myself again after the death of my grandmother. It was she who inspired me to go on this journey, with the words: “Do it while you can.”

So please give us two seconds of your time and click on as many of the titles below as grab your interest.

[poll id=”2″]

I’ll probably slap in a sub-title as well, probably something like “Four Thousand Miles Cycling Around Britain”.

If you can come up with anything better (I know you can!), then please post them in the comments. You’re the best.

10 things you learn when you cycle 4,110 miles around Britain

Cycling right around the coast of Britain is unquestionably the single most rewarding thing I have done in my life. The wonder of it is that I didn’t do something like it sooner.

1. You can do anything, if you just take it one wheel at a time. 4,110 miles is nothing but 1 mile done 4,110 times. Nothing is impossible when you break it down.

2. You’re not special. Anyone can do this. Anyone can buy a bike and cycle from their front door, to god knows where. Don’t imagine that you’re not fit enough to try: fitness comes with every mile you pedal.

3. Rain isn’t an excuse. Rain is a circumstance out of your control, like the condition of the roads, or the terrible music on CapitalFM. You’ll just ride through it.

4. Cycling is addictive. One mile breeds another, seeing the numbers click forward on your odometer turns every stretch of road into a game to be beaten. Make sure you spend enough time sleeping, eating and sight-seeing, though!

5. Ever fancied sending the waiter back for a second main course – and then having dessert? Ever wished you could eat a Full English every morning? Ever fancied seeing how long it takes you to burn off the calories contained in a full bag of Jelly Babies? Welcome to the cycling diet.

6. Britain is stunningly beautiful. You need never go to another country as long as you live. There is an infinite supply of fascination and adventure right here for us.

7. Cycling isn’t complicated. Modern bikes don’t break much. Modern tyres don’t get punctures. Absence of a degree in bike mechanics is no excuse.

8. The hardest part of doing anything is starting. Once the wheels have started turning forwards, they don’t turn back.

9. Achievement is the surest way to courage and confidence. All you have to remember is: 4,110 miles.

10. Nothing will be the same again. You will always have cycled around Britain. Your conception of the possible is transformed.

11. One day you will cycle around Britain – the other way!

Blue NCN 1 sign
You will play “Spot the blue sign” a lot.

Start an ambitious physical challenge, or die not knowing!