Saturday, 1 November 2014

A sideways glance


I don't know how much thought you give to the environment you are cycling through. Perhaps if it is for the first time, your senses and interest are piqued and you take more of your surroundings in. Cycling through the same environment on a regular basis, whether transiting through, to get to an area you wish to ride in, or just using your bicycle as transport to get from A to B, the familiar just blurs into the background. It is after an absence of decades and the many changes wrought to the landscape in the intervening years, that you begin to notice the landscape again, this time seeking the familiar in all the many changes. This is how I found myself in the urban landscape of summer, enjoying riding my bicycle in Belfast. I fondly remember the school visit to the Harland and Wolff shipyard as part of my Engineering Drawing studies decades ago. A guided tour through the yard to see the erecting shops, foundry and the dock under the giant cranes 'Goliath' and 'Samson' where the sections of ship's hull were transported to be welded into position, the quayside from which the hulls were moored for fitting out. Several bulk oil carriers, christened 'Supertankers' at the time, were under construction. Shipbuilding on such a scale is now only a fading memory. I was intrigued to see how much of Belfast's maritime past still exists. 

Riding along Duncrue Street towards Belfast city centre from the direction of Fortwilliam you pass through much of the old dock area. The old N.C.C. concrete railway gate posts mark where railway lines once entered the docks. The wooden gates have long gone, now replaced with steel fencing. Much of the old port has gone, due, in part, to the migration of the port towards the deeper water of the Victoria Channel, Belfast Lough, the containerisation of cargo and increasing size of modern vessels. This has moved the port away from the city centre. The once familiar quays, warehouse and grain stores have gone, demolished and replaced by modern office blocks. 

The development known as Clarendon Dock at the bottom of Princes Dock St and can be accessed as part of NCN 91/9. Cheek by jowl with the little square as you enter the gate is the Rotterdam Bar. 


This tiny bit of old Belfast is is very much down at heel, but is mentioned by the author Eric Newby in his 1956 book 'The Last Grain Race', published by Secker & Warburg Ltd, about his 1938 voyage on the Gustav Erikson owned S.V. Moshulu. The crew went to the Rotterdam Bar for a 'liddle trink' to say goodbye to the crewmen returning to Moshulu's home port of Mariehamn, Finland. There are some photographs of the old port of Belfast taken in 1938 by Eric Newby which were published in his 1999 book, 'Learning the Ropes: An Apprentice in the last of the Windjammers'. The Moshulu sailed from Belfast on 18th October 1938 just after the Munich Crisis of the month previous and harbinger of the impending world war. 
Further along the route are the twin graving docks of Clarendon Dock and then the Belfast Harbour Commissioners Offices. The route then rejoins the road, past the Royal Mail sorting Office at Tomb Street, before continuing towards the substantial Custom House. 


The back of the building faces the River Lagan and the front steps have been a meeting place for demonstration and protest for over a century. The Custom House Square is now used each year for an open air pop music festival. As you continue towards the Queen's Bridge the premises of James Tedford, Ship Chandlers, Sail and Tent Makers,  is located on the right hand side. 
The sail loft was located at the top of the building, parts of which is believed to date back to the 18th century. The business is one of the last long established Ship Chandlers in existence in the UK and Ireland and in 1991 vacated the building to move to a new premises. The original building is now an up-market restaurant. The community of Dockers who worked in the port, lived in the terraced streets off Corporation Street. The area was known as 'Sailortown' and has largely gone in the re-development of Belfast. The old terraced housing, the hard graft, uncertain pay, of the stevedore was not mourned by many, but rather the break up and loss of the small, self reliant, tight knit community forged in adversity has been a source of regret. Such is the march of 'progress'. Time and tide wait for no man.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Are cycle paths necessarily a good thing?



Are cycle paths really a good thing? The reason I pose this question is based on a recent experience. In my misguided and limited understanding of the National Cycle Network, I believed that the development of cycle routes and the work by the Sustrans charity was a good thing. I have to confess that most of my experience of riding some of the Sustrans routes has been in the countryside, not in a urban environment. I had occasion to use part of NCN9/91 from Whiteabbey to Belfast over the summer. The problem for me, was that part of the cycle route uses a footpath into Belfast. The idea behind the development of cycle routes seems to be to encourage more people to cycle, by moving bicycles off busy roads onto quieter byways and out of potential conflict with motor vehicles. A laudable notion, but as worked out on the ground in local areas, does this represent best practice acting in the best interests for cyclists? In this instance, by moving cyclists off the public highway and onto footpaths replaces one type of hazard with another. My experience of using the cycle route from Whiteabbey to Belfast was unpleasant to say the least – I would rather ride a bicycle again through Paris. 

In the first instance, I encountered a pensioners walking group who had just emerged onto the cycle path and filled the width of the path like a herd of bullocks. The walk leader (?) was engrossed deep in conversation, as was most of the group of largely female members. A loud bell (Lion Works) rung repeatedly as I approached brought no response until I drew close to the front of the group, when a warning shout of 'bike' was given. It had little effect on the group. Rather than keep to one side of the path, the group panicked and split up, so it was like a reverse game of skittles, trying hard not to be brought off the bike. I am not against older people being active, nor meeting up socially to exercise together. It is a win, win situation. However Newtownabbey Borough Council actively promote the cycle route locally for walking, so are increasing the number of pedestrians on the route. Try negotiating this with a loaded touring bike, panniers etc – should create a favourable impression for visiting cycle tourists who want to enjoy the views over Belfast Lough, but find themselves having to try and dodge pedestrians. The question I have for Sustrans is this, how does this policy adopted by one of their partners encourage cycling and develop the cycle route for commuting into Belfast? Is this the best way of increasing the number of bicycle journeys, which is meant to be part of a sustainable transport policy?


Another problem is dogs running loose off the lead and dog fouling. The law was changed in Northern Ireland to make it an offence not to have your dog on a lead on a public road.  (This should prevent you being chased and bitten by a dog while riding on the road!)  The local councils were given responsibility for this legislation and have also designated other public areas where dogs must be walked on a lead. Newtownabbey Borough Council have responsibility for the Whiteabbey end of the cycle route, but have decreed that you don't have to walk your dog on a lead on the cycle route??? My sister is currently nursing cracked ribs having been brought off her bike by a dog running loose on her local cycle route riding to a meeting place for her usual Saturday morning club run.  I must point out, this was not in Newtownabbey Borough Council area, but I use it as an illustration as to what can so easily happen. It is hardly safe practice and not conducive to making the shared footpath safer for cyclists. How many of the people who took this decision actually use a bicycle for transport? - Is the Northern Ireland transport policy really joined up?

A further problem is that many pedestrians/joggers using the footpath use an MP3 type player or mobile phone to listen to music.....they are tuned in to their music, but not much else, so can't hear a bicycle bell or warning shout. Again, I speak from experience. I prefer to ride on the left, as this is the norm on the road in this part of the world, but using these footpaths you have to learn to weave to avoid other users of the path. (A definite need for spatial awareness software upgrades). 

I contacted both Sustrans the charity responsible for the cycle route and Newtownabbey Borough Council about the incident with the walking group. Sustrans response to my email was in my humble opinion pathetic. The Sustrans 'Code of Conduct' for using their footpath cycle routes which formed the main part of their reply, is available on the link. The Borough Council stated they would investigate the walking group incident and get back to me, only didn't, hence the blog post months after the incident. They did however respond to my enquiry about the dogs legislation and confirm there was no legal requirement to have a dog on a lead on the cycle routes in their Borough, nor are there any council bye-laws governing the use of these footpath cycle routes. 

From the available evidence it would appear that Sustrans in obtaining funding and working with partner agencies to develop 'cycle routes', are creating some routes which are less than ideal for cyclists and from Sustrans own policy, cyclists appear to have few if any rights, rather all the responsibility is placed onto the cyclist. (Is this really a realistic way of encouraging cycling and how are you meant to "relax and unwind"?) These cycle routes replace the hazard from motor vehicles with another real hazard from pedestrians and dogs running loose. I think that the idea of developing cycle routes is very commendable, but I would much prefer to see this done in a meaningful cyclist-centric way, that supports and protects the interests of cyclists but does not endanger or alienate other interest groups.

Encouraging bicycle use for transport and recreation, by reducing hazards on public roads - using bus lanes etc, ensuring that bicycles as vehicles are not marginalised and pushed off the public highway, seems to me a better solution. A bicycle is a vehicle and where it is deemed necessary to share a footpath, it should be clearly segregated to protect and ensure the safety of all the users of that space. Common sense really.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

1940s Alex Singer - Une Belle Chanteuse


There are some ambitions in life which you may hold in hope, but never reasonably expect to fulfil. I held one in this category for many years, never believing it would ever be fulfilled, but by a unexpected turn of fate over the summer, I was able to realise it. I refer to riding a machine made by the great Parisian constructeur, Alex Singer. I have been fortunate to ride quite a few different hand made British and Irish lightweight steel frames over the years. My curiosity was aroused from childhood, listening to the cycling stories of my parents and the various marques of bicycle ridden by their siblings, friends and clubmates. As my cycling horizon broadened, I became aware of the great tradition of randonneuring in France and the top of the range 'constructeur' built machines. Paris was famous for the 'constructeurs' like Cycles Alex Singer, Cycles René Herse and Cycles Goéland- Louis Moire to name some of the more well known. There was debate amongst owners of Cycles Alex Singer and Cycles René Herse as to who was the better maker, with many favouring René Herse. The closest Britain got to a 'constructeur' was the Taylor brothers from Stockton-on-Tees who had some connection with Goéland-Louis Moire. These beautiful hand crafted French bicycles had mudguards, often had integrated lights, derailleur gears and were fast and light according to what I read. Were they that good I wondered? How did they differ from a British hand made frame? It has taken me decades to find out. I have some experience of riding a 1960 650B Goéland Randonneur built from Reynolds 531, which rides much better than many machines I had ridden up to that point. It was my first real experience of the 650B wheel size on a proper constructeur built randonneuring bicycle and I was very impressed with the integrated bike and it's responsiveness. 


I then unexpectedly had the chance to try a 1940s Alex Singer with 700C wheels. The machine came with some history and was beautifully made, yet understated. The bicycle was originally a full chrome model, but over it's long life, with it's original owner, it was enamelled black in the 1970s and fitted with top of the range all French components from the same era. Perhaps some may consider the bike changes to be negative, as the machine was altered from the original constructeur's spec, however, the bike was used and ridden by the original owner and he considered the changes made to have been an upgrade. Many of the components are unique to this machine and were custom made for the owner with a gold anodised finish. 


My first impression was the beauty of the understated paint finish of the frame carried over onto the mudguards, complete with gold lining. The highly polished cranks of the triple chainset gleamed in the sunlight, before lifting the bike equipped with decaleur and sacoche, which was a revelation at how light the machine was. 


After checking the saddle height I got on the bike and from the first input of the pedals it was a joy to ride and just glided along. It looked right and it rode as well, if not better, than it looked. Of all the 27 inch/700c wheel touring/audax bikes I have ever ridden this is without doubt the best to date.


It has the performance and is close to the weight of a top drawer steel competition racing bike but with touring bike frame geometry, and mudguards. Everything just works together so well, no creaks, no movement of the decaleur even on pavé, no chain rub on the front derailleur, the responsiveness of the bike to input and the rock steady handling. The only drawback I found was riding it over pavé. The surface vibration is bearable, however, I found it not as comfortable as the 650B wheel size, transmitting much more of the road vibration. However, my interest has been stirred and I would love to try out a pre 1980 Cycles Alex Singer in 650B wheel size to see how the two machines would compare. I don't wish to denigrate in any way, other artisan frame builders, but can say the Alex Singer is the most joyous 700C wheeled machine I have ridden to date. It is a bit like Edith Piaf singing 'Je ne regrette rien', how do you isolate one element which you can say makes the performance so special? I don't believe you can, it is the sum of the whole. I think the Alex Singer is like that, hard to define one outstanding unique quality, rather it is the sum of the constructuer's skill, attention to detail and experience, all brought to bare in the creation of an individual machine. I always had a smile on my face after riding the Alex Singer.  

Singer in English has a different meaning to French. I think a wordplay on the English meaning, in French, sums up my impression of this 'petite reine' very well - une belle chanteuse.



Saturday, 11 October 2014

1952 Rudge Ulster Tourist


I spotted this bike for sale on the web locally. The machine appeared complete and original from the photos. I watched it for a few days before deciding to check if it was still for sale, before arranging a viewing of the bike. A quick phone call to the seller and the bike was still unsold. A leisurely drive in the autumn sunshine to view the bike and the deal was done. The bike was loaded into the back of the car and returned home with me. I have hankered after one of these Rudge 'Ulster' models for quite a while because of the association with this particular province of Ireland. Unfortunately the machine is too small for me, but I had a new owner in mind anyway. 
This machine is a 1952 Rudge Ulster Tourist Gent's roadster bicycle with a 21” frame, complete with tired original paint and transfers. 




It is fitted with an alloy Sturmey Archer FW 4 speed hub and 26 x 1 3/8” (650A) wheels.
The machine dates from when Raleigh owned Rudge and the headbadge still fitted on the head tube and the Raleigh 23-28 High Tensile steel tubing transfer confirms this.

According to the only 1950s Rudge catalogue on line in the V-CC library (1959), this particular machine was model 129. It had an entirely brazed frame with a brazed on pulley boss on the Gent's model only. 

The 1959 model had celluloid mudguards, but the 1952 has Raleigh pattern metal ones. 

The 1959 price for Rudge Ulster Tourist was £20. 4/-. 4d. with a further £2. 16/-. 4d payable for a Sturmey Archer dynohub . The frame was also Spra-Bonderized rust proofed. The paint finish was very similar with similar specification contrasting head panel colours and frame box lining This process was well regarded by cyclists of the time and in later years as one of the best available rust inhibiting processes. A lot of the artisan framebuilders such as Holdsworth and Bob Jackson used the process on their frames. The 1959 Rudge catalogue lists this model as having a Brooks leather saddle, however, the catalogue illustration shows the machine with a sprung type mattress saddle which the 1952 model has. The same image was obviously used in the catalogue for a number of years, despite the machine specification changing.
The chainring on the 1952 model incorporates the 'Red Hand of Ulster'. The machine is still very original down to the perished 'John Bull' tyre. The frame angles are more relaxed and the fork rake is much bigger than modern machines, but then many byways and minor roads were still to see tar in the early 1950s, It is a quality machine as evidenced by the more expensive alloy Sturmey Archer hub gear. The bicycle will need a complete strip down and new grease in all the bearings. Both of the original Dunlop pattern Endrick steel rims have acquired flats and from an assessment of the damage the rims will need replacement. Other than that, a good service and clean, this old Rudge should be ready for the road. Even the overhaul and service of the Sturmey Archer FW hub should present none of the problems associated with the FM or FC hubs. I hope the new owner is delighted with it. I'm looking forward to seeing it out on the road next year.





Saturday, 4 October 2014

In the Pink - the Grande Partenza



The autumn has well and truly arrived as the good weather during the month of September recedes into memory. It has been a record breaking month for dry weather here with only 5% of the expected monthly rainfall. It has been a year of contrasts with the weather changing from month to month. August was cold and wet and May started in a disappointing fashion. Dreary grey leaden skies and heavy showers greeted the Grande Partenza of the Giro d'Italia here in Northern Ireland from 9-11 May. Despite the disappointing weather the local support and enthusiasm for the start of one of three major European cycle races was something to witness. The local cycling fraternity sported special 'Giro' pink race jerseys. 


Pink bicycles appeared outside shops and local business premises, some councils like Newtownabbey near Belfast, repainted public art pink in honour of the race. The three days the race was in Northern Ireland was something of a cycling festival and the live TV coverage of the stages on the local TV network was every bit as special. 

I got to see something of the 196km Saturday 10th May 'Causeway Coastal Route' stage as it drew near to Belfast for the stage finish. I waited to see the result of the 4th category climb at 'the Bla'hole' between Whitehead and Eden on the live TV feed before making my way to the Shore Road. Despite the weather, the crowds packed the roadside of the route, a greater proportion sporting pink of the 'Maglia Rosa'. Patience and good humour was much in evidence with small children being perched on adult's shoulders to get a better view of the race. The tension began to build as the group of police motorcycle outriders appeared ahead of the race lead car. 




A short delay before the riders appeared and the excited shout of 'Here they come' as the lead group ahead of the peloton came into view and quickly flashed by. Anticipation built as the crowd strained to see the whereabouts of the chasing peloton, then the advancing bunch hove into view, intent on chasing down the breakaway. They were by in an instant with a flash of muted colour, rider's begrimed faces grim with determination and effort. The team cars and broom wagon quickly followed before the police started marshalling the crowd off the road to re-open it to normal traffic. Being swept along with the crowd, it took around 15 minutes to get back to where I was staying, just in time to see the close of the stage. The race leaders had got to Fortwilliam Park on the Shore Road. The route then turned right, up North Queen Street, Upper Library Street, Millfield to Belfast Tech College before turning left to finish in front of Belfast City Hall. The sprint finish was won by the German rider Marcel Kittel riding in his first Giro d'Italia, who would also feature later in the Tour de France. The weather was a little kinder the following day for stage three from Armagh to Dublin and the crowds were in no way diminished once the race route crossed into the Irish Republic. 

So what effect has the appearance of a major European 'tour' had in this part of the world? It has been interesting to see how many local businesses used the appearance of the race in their marketing, one bakery running a competition to win a carbon race bike with special packs of bread.  I had to suspend my cynicism and actually purchase a current cycling mag from the news stand, something I have not done for years.   It was curious to see how the British cycling media reacted to the race being here, as generally Northern Ireland rarely if ever gets a mention in the normal run of things. 'Cyclist' magazine ran a Giro d'Italia special issue and even sent a journalist on his first ever visit to Northern Ireland to ride some of the stage 2 route. 
Perhaps the photographs will encourage others to come and ride the route themselves? The hosting of the race was well done by the local organizers and the Italian race promoters seemed very pleased with the engagement and support they received from the local public. The only thing that couldn't be helped was the weather, but rain is a fact of life of riding a bike here in Ireland, along with a headwind. The Giro had both!

Friday, 26 September 2014

Public Art beside Lagan & Lough Cycleway


It has been some decades since I last cycled in Belfast. As a teenager I regularly cycled into Belfast to my summer job during the school holidays. Many things have changed, the heavy security presence has now thankfully been consigned to history, but many of the older once familiar buildings have been swept away, in the planner's vision for a brighter, more modern city. One of the new things that stand out as unfamiliar to me was the public art which is displayed either on cycle route NCN9/93 or close to it, as it traces it's course along the northern bank of Belfast Lough/River Lagan into Belfast.



The first piece of sculpture I came across by accident, when I cycled down towards the Harbour entrance from the direction of Fortwilliam roundabout. There is a large silver seahorse displayed on a plinth. 


The seahorse is represented on the city of Belfast's coat of arms and is a testament to Belfast's maritime role as a major Irish seaport, as well as a former centre of shipbuilding. Anyone familiar with the old Belfast Corporation trolleybuses/buses will remember the seahorse from the crest on the side of the vehicles. Belfast by the late 19th Century boasted three shipyards, with one, McIlwaine & Coll having closed by the turn of the 20th Century. The second to close was Workman Clark in 1935, with Harland & Wolff still surviving today as a ship repair and marine engineering business. Part of the former shipyard Harland & Wolff shipyard is now probably more famous for the production and filming of the TV series 'Game of Thrones'.


The next sculpture is also beside the Dock Street entrance to Belfast Harbour in Princes Dock Street. It is located at the side of the Harbour gate and represents the bow of a ship complete with a figurehead. 


It is easily missed and I have to say that I didn't notice it on my ride into Belfast. I only really noticed it on my ride back. Another interesting feature of Princes Dock Street is that there is also another tangible reminder of Belfast as a major port. There are still some of the harbour railway lines in the road surface. 




Many of the harbour roads also had rails, as much of the freight going in and out of the Harbour was moved by rail. These lines would have been originally worked by the Belfast & Northern Counties Railway on behalf of the Belfast Harbour Commissioners. Those on the other side of the River Lagan would have been worked by the Belfast & County Down Railway. Princes Dock Street leads down to a gateway giving access to Clarendon Dock.







At the back of the Clarendon Dock building and twin graving docks stands a large sculpture of a set of ship's dividers formerly used in navigation in the days of paper charts. The sculpture stands in square between the two entrance gates to the the old graving docks. 


The older buildings are cheek by jowl with new corporate development. This modern style of architecture in my humble opinion lacks any of the panache or architectural statement of the older Victorian buildings.

Beside the Lagan Weir and near the Custom House is the last and biggest sculpture along the cycle route into Belfast -  Belfast 'Bigfish'. This was the first piece of sculpture that I was aware of and has been there since 1999 and even has it's own Wikipedia entry! 







The most striking new sculptured building to appear in Belfast is the Titanic building on the south bank of the River Lagan. The building when viewed from certain angles is meant to represent the bow of the ill fated White Star liner RMS Titanic and is probably the best Titanic exhibition in the world and a fitting memorial in the city in which she was built and launched.