Saturday 18 December 2004

A Journey to the turning of the year

Have you ever considered how nice it must be to live in Iceland? I mean, apart from the spectacular scenery and the friendly people. Just think, if I lived in Iceland I could have lounged in bed this morning. I could have slept in till the back of eleven, got up, had a leisurely breakfast, cycled round the block, and come home for a well earned bath in free geothermal hot water with the satisfaction of something significant achieved.

Unfortunately I don't.

I mean, the idea of cycling from sunrise until sunset is the sort of thing which sounds like a cool idea in the balmy days of September. It was a cool idea. Indeed, in parts, it was a shockingly cold idea, but I get ahead of myself. Back in September I had the idea of cycling from sunrise to sunset, and if you're going to cycle from sunrise to sunset the sensible time to do it is on the shortest day of the year. OK, so today wasn't quite the shortest day of the year, but let's not sweat the small stuff.

It wasn't my intention to do this on my own. Indeed, having announced it to my club back in September, I sent an email to the club's mailing list last week:

I'm looking for some very, very stupid people.

I'm looking for some very stupid people because, primarily, I'm even more stupid myself: I'm planning to go for a bike ride on Saturday. From the moment the sun comes up, to the moment the sun  sets. That's 8.43 am to 3.41 pm. It is going to be cold. It is going to be tough. It is going to be a long day. If you're really, really stupid, please come with me...

Surprisingly, I had a volunteer. Unsurprisingly, it wasn't for the whole distance. So when I arrived at the appointed meeting place in Castle Douglas at half past eight this morning I wasn't hugely surprised to find nobody there. I waited around for ten minutes in the cold and the rain, and then, knowing no-one else was coming, set off.

It was fairly light and growing lighter fast, which was just as well because within half a mile my headlight fell off and smashed (it was a cheap old one, so no huge loss - I hadn't taken my lumicycles on the grounds of weight). Within two miles the rain had cleared, and I was cycling along at a nice easy pace, crossing the Dee for the first time at Glenlochar. By Laurieston I was warmed up enough to stop and swap my big padded winter gloves for track mits. Down the shores of Woodhall it was a really beautiful morning, and just past Mossdale there was the most superb complete rainbow, spanning the landscape from horizon to horizon. Of course, a rainbow meant another shower, but once again it was light, thin, not very wetting, and soon past. And at fourteen miles out along the shore of Loch Ken I met Chris coming the other way to meet me.

This was a slightly mixed blessing. He was extremely good company, and we enjoyed pleasant conversation, but he was also significantly quicker than me up hill - and, indeed, the steeper the climb the greater the difference. I plead in mitigation that he had sensible hill-climbing gears on his bike, and I, errm, didn't.  But despite the fact that the route took us from below the 50 metre contour to above the 250 metre, the climb is on the whole gradual - with a few short, sharp shocks. At New Galloway we went straight on out by the kirk for the first of those short, sharp shocks, and thence up the west side of the river to the Earlstoun Loch dam for the second. The high hills were white with snow - the whole ridge of the Rhinns of Kells looked properly arctic, and the Cairnsmore of Carsphairn was a great white spike pointed at the sky. And thus to the long, slow, gruelling climb up to Carsphairn. But we reached Carsphairn much earlier than I had expected, and went straight on through, heading for what had been my personal goal - the Green Well of Scotland, allegedly the last place in Britain where pagan religion was openly practised, as late as the eighteenth century. We got there, and were going well, and were still ahead of schedule, so we headed on up towards the watershed. By now there was a little bit of snow down to the roadside - not a lot, but enough to make it bitterly cold. And by about 11:30 we got to the point where we were clicking up onto our big rings as the climb levelled out.

At the Ayrshire border we turned and blasted back down towards Carsphairn. Climbing, we'd had a north wind against us which hadn't felt strong enough to be much nuisance, but now with both wind and gradient helping we made exceedingly good speed, and were down into Carsphairn again about twelve. Carsphairn is not, let's face it, the world's most bustling metropolis, but it does boast a bar with a large sign inscribed 'meals served all day'. The sign lies. Fortunately - and remarkably for a place so small  - Carsphairn also boasts a tiny shop, which sold us rolls and polystyrene beakers of instant soup. We drank these sitting on a bench at the roadside; but we didn't sit for long, because if cycling in these conditions was cold, just sitting was colder.

Heading south we took the Moniaive road down the East bank of the river. The weather was getting decidedly colder, and Chris stopped to put his warmer gloves on. This struck me as a good idea, and I put mine on, too. Shortly we came to the junction where the Dalry road splits off, and Chris had planned to go home down this. I had sort of planned to cross the watershed down to Lochinvar and thus down the Urr, but neither of us were particularly keen to be cycling alone on those lonely upland roads, so I turned right with Chris.

And within a couple of miles we got a sharp lesson on why it's not clever to cycle them alone. The High Bridge of Ken is a narrow stone bridge, about three metres wide between its high stone parapets, and about fifty metres long. It sits at the bottom of a steep-sided east-west glen, with a sharp turn onto it and a sharp turn off it. Steep sided glen, high parapets, very cold day: you're ahead of me, aren't you? At the same time, face with a nice swoopy descent onto the bridge and a nice tight turn off it, what would you have done?

It was just as I cranked the bike over into the turn off the bridge at about twenty five miles an hour that both tyres let go, suddenly, together, and I had that awful moment of knowing.

Oh, shit, this is going to hurt - a lot.

Curiously, it helped that I was cranking into the bend. The back wheel tried to overtake the front, spinning the bike around to about 45 degrees to its direction of travel, and long after I thought I was at the point of no return got enough grip to bring me back towards upright. I steered into the skid and got the bike under control again, but for the next several miles I felt decidedly shaky and took it a lot slower. Which was a shame because we were dropping down through a series of deliciously swoopy back roads towards Ealstoun.

On one of these - which would have been a stiffish climb the other way - Chris stopped to show me a little roadside memorial, nicely kept with flowers:

'In memory of Johnny Stirling, who died here while cycling   in Bonny Galloway'

Looking at the hill, one could see how one might; but looking out over the glen with the lochs in the bottom and the high snow covered hills on the far side, it felt as though it would not be a bad way - or a bad place - to go.

And thus down to Earlstoun, and into St John's Town of Dalry, and to Chris's house, where I stopped for coffee. I left at three o'clock, and considered my onward route. It's 14 miles down the A713 into Castle Douglas, and I had been averaging 12 miles per hour. I was due to finish at 3:41. Chris advised me against riding down the A713 on the basis that it's busy; but busy is relative and busy by Galloway standards is not busy as understood elsewhere, and by Galloway standards the A 713 down Loch Ken is relatively flat. Also, I had come up the west side of Loch Ken, so going back down the west side didn't feel particularly interesting. So I started off down the A713 thinking I might cut across the watershed into the Urr valley later. However, when I reached the junction at Balmaclellan, it said Corsock 9 miles, and I knew those were nine pretty hilly miles. I didn't feel like it. I cycled on down Loch Ken, past the sailing centre, past the viaduct, through Parton, down through Crossmichael.

By now I was into the home stretch, with only a few miles to go. But I was also feeling it. There were a couple of little detours I could make to add a few miles to the route and get me closer to the magic 3:41, but I didn't take them partly because my legs didn't want to and partly because, as my speed was dropping off, it was beginning to look as if I wouldn't need to. At some point - way later than I should have - I realised I was just running out of blood sugar to burn, and stopped to switch on my lights and get a cereal bar out of my bag.

There's a state you get into (or at least, I get into) where you are just cycling, not doing anything else. I remember watching the trip click up to 63.59 miles, expecting it to change to 64.00 and being completely bewildered when it instead went to 63.60 and then to 63.61; I was so chilled and tired I was confusing miles with minutes. But miles and minutes both rolled on and very soon I was passing under the bypass, onto urban streets, track-standing in the congested traffic of King Street as motorists jostled for parking spaces, getting off the bike stumbling tired and practically staggering into the bike shop, to be greeted with hot sweet tea and a compulsory mince pie and scone. Which were most welcome.

OK, so I finished all of eight minutes early. So sue me. Total distance, just over 65 miles by my computer, or, in morale-boosting metric speak, 104 Km. Total time actually cycling, about six hours. And, despite my whingeing, I enjoyed it, and I'm glad I did it.

And thus back home to a bath with water heated with very expensive oil. I suppose I'd better get on the phone to the Icelandic consulate and talk to them about emigration...

Thursday 16 December 2004

Let's hear it for the Mullwarchar!

Radio 4's 'Today' programme has been asking for nominations for a 'listeners peer', and I've been listening with half an ear to the suggestions. And what I've been hearing is more of the same old same old; the soi disant great and good, and, more particularly, the metropolitan great and good. So I thought I'd make a nomination completely outside the London box.

The Mullwarchar, admittedly, doesn't say a lot. The Mullwarchar is notoriously neither clubbable nor friendly; not a particularly sociable being. But the Mullwarchar has made a great contribution to our public life, taking a leading role in the campaign against the dumping of nuclear materials and a number of other environmental campaigns. The Mullwarchar has also made a significant contribution to leisure activities and to appreciation of wilderness, and thus to the spiritual life of the nation.

But the most important reason for nominating the Mullwarchar is this: this mountain will not come to Mahomet. The House of Lords is comprised entirely of urban people, of people not merely prepared but happy to spend their working lives in the most crowded, the  most polluted, the most unpleasant place on the island of Britain. Such people are by definition abnormal and unrepresentative.

It would do our parliamentarians good once a year to go to the mountain: to lift up their collective eyes to the hills, to be in a place where man and all his works are utterly insignificant. To get some sense of scale.

And perhaps, on their way into the wilderness and on their way out again, they would have the opportunity to pass through places where the people of Britin - the people they make the laws for - actually live.

So let's hear it for the Mullwarchar: certainly the most noble, unquestionably the most ancient, without doubt the most puissant lord ever nominated to the House. And very probably the wisest.

Let's hear it for the Mullwarchar!

Radio 4's 'Today' programme has been asking for nominations for a 'listeners peer', and I've been listening with half an ear to the suggestions. And what I've been hearing is more of the same old same old; the soi disant great and good, and, more particularly, the metropolitan great and good. So I thought I'd make a nomination completely outside the London box.

The Mullwarchar, admittedly, doesn't say a lot. The Mullwarchar is notoriously neither clubbable nor friendly; not a particularly sociable being. But the Mullwarchar has made a great contribution to our public life, taking a leading role in the campaign against the dumping of nuclear materials and a number of other environmental campaigns. The Mullwarchar has also made a significant contribution to leisure activities and to appreciation of wilderness, and thus to the spiritual life of the nation.

But the most important reason for nominating the Mullwarchar is this: this mountain will not come to Mahomet. The House of Lords is comprised entirely of urban people, of people not merely prepared but happy to spend their working lives in the most crowded, the most polluted, the most unpleasant place on the island of Britain. Such people are by definition abnormal and unrepresentative.
It would do our parliamentarians good once a year to go to the mountain: to lift up their collective eyes to the hills, to be in a place where man and all his works are utterly insignificant. To get some sense of scale.

And perhaps, on their way into the wilderness and on their way out again, they would have the opportunity to pass through places where the people of Britin - the people they make the laws for - actually live.

So let's hear it for the Mullwarchar: certainly the most noble, unquestionably the most ancient, without doubt the most puissant lord ever nominated to the House. And very probably the wisest.

Monday 13 December 2004

Spectacle and courage

In trying to write a concise review of the extended edition of Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Return of the King, one is faced with three different topics each worthy of consideration. The first is this cut of The Return of the King as a movie; the second is the package with its appendices; the third is the total achievement of the whole project, which this set completes. It's going to be very hard to do justice to all three in just a thousand words.

The Movie

So firstly: The Return of the King, or more precisely this cut, as a movie. Consistently Peter Jackson's extended cuts have been, in my opinion, better movies as movies than the 'theatrical' cuts. There's a lot of new material here - not just extending scenes, but many scenes which were left out of the theatrical cut altogether, which add to characterisation, pacing and story telling.

So: the movie. It does not, of course, religiously follow Tolkien's text - nor could it. On the whole, however, it is reasonably true to the overall themes of Tolkien's text. The story-telling here is fine, and is worked on with great care. The acting, too, is fine. Among so many very fine performances, in this movie I particularly admired Billy Boyd's Pippin, Miranda Otto's Eowyn, Bernard Hill's Theoden. This is, however, very much an ensemble production. The general level of acting is high. People put their all into making this.

And not just into the acting. The costumes are spectacularly gorgeous, the sets spectacular and very largely believable, the scenery very much in keeping. In particular the presentation of the city of Minas Tirith is a tour de force, achieved by actually building quite a substantial part of the city at full scale.

But not all of that you see is real. What is particularly impressive in the CGI in this film (and there's a great deal of it) is the extent to which one simply does not notice it. Gollum, for example, is just there. The fell beasts which the Nazgul ride, and the 'great beasts' which draw Grond, are similarly so seamlessly in the piece that it is hard to believe they weren't there on the set when the camera rolled. With a critical eye you can see the CGI work in the great horse charge, and when the Rohirrim fight the Haradrim on their mumakil - but it isn't sufficiently obvious to be distracting. Indeed the one location in this book which seemed to me 'obviously' CGI - the Hall of Denethor, which seemd to me to have that hyper-reality that comes of ray-tracing - turned out to be a real (but beautifully constructed) set.

Finally, the score and sound design are again excellent.

In summary, this is a beautiful looking movie, telling a classic story and telling it well.

The package

Then the package. The Extended Edition pack comes with two disks of 'appendices', just as the extended editions of The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers did; and they follow very much in the format already established in the earlier appendices, a series of documentary pieces about the background to the story and the making of the film. They don't strike me with the force that the earlier appendices did, but that is not, I think, because these are less good, simply because the format has been established and has lost its freshness. The fact remains that this is not space-filler material; for me, the 'appendices' disks of the Lord of the Rings extended editions set the standards by which all other DVD extra content is judged.

And in this case, you don't just get four disks, you get five. The fifth is about turning the film score into a symphony. Frankly, for me, that was less value for money; it didn't really work either as documentary (too much of it was simply the music) or as music (too often interrupted with commentary). But seeing it's a thrown in extra I wasn't disappointed.

The achievment

So, finally, the whole achievement. The scale and ambition of this project are staggering. Tolkien justifiably thought the Lord of the Rings unfilmable; Jackson has filmed the unfilmable and done it well. I don't quite think it's a masterpiece, but it is a very fine work of craftsmanship, with a coherent vision which produces a believable world.

Why not a masterpiece? Well, some aspects of the plot were clumsily handled. Jackson never really knew what to do with the character of Arwen, for example; and a number of the plot decisions in The Two Towers particularly just don't seem to make any sense (why drop the Grey Company and then import a whole bunch of Lothlorien elves? Why?). Part of this, of course, is a consequence of the need to cut the story into three chunks in order to be manageably marketable. I suspect that one of these days someone - perhaps even Jackson - will reshape this material into a single twelve hour of more movie which will correct some of the plot difficulties. But even so it will be flawed, because the plot really wallows around the problem of Arwen.

Finally, there are too many ham bits of movie cliche. I'd be the first to admit that Tolkien himself it rather given to having things that had lasted millenia destroyed as the fellowship passes through. You can forgive Jackson the collapse of the bridge of Khazad Dum, with Gandalf literally doing a cliff-hanger off the end. It's in the book. But to then repeat the same hammy cliche with Frodo dangling over the abyss in Sammath Naur is unforgivable. And why - why? - does the floor of the causeway in Sammath Naur collapse just behind the running feet of our heroes? Because that's the way it's been done in every hammy adventure film you've ever seen, and Jackson is too in much love with the B movie genre to rise above it.

And yet... what one remembers above all is spectacle and courage. The halls of Khazad Dum; the Argonath; Boromir's last fight on the slopes of Amon Hen; Edoras with its Golden Hall; the thunderous might of the Uruk Hai before Helm's Deep; the charge of the Mumakil; Eowyn standing alone against the Witch King of Angmar. What one remembers, despite the minor flaws, is a great piece of story-telling, telling a great story about friendship and courage.

Tuesday 23 November 2004

A lightweight 100% Java RDBMS


IBM have a 100% pure Java relational database management system which  has been called at various stages in its history SQL/J, Cloudscape and Derby. IBM are now eagerly pushing the system to open source developers under the 'Cloudscape' label. I downloaded it to evaluate for use with PRES and other Jacquard applications.


I'm used to using (and creating) things which are open source. IBM claims Cloudscape is now 'open source', but if so it's some bizarre new definition of open source which is opaque to me. If you download Cloudscape from IBM you in fact have to click through (and it comes with) a software license file which looks as intimidating and onerous as any conventional software license. In fact what is going on here is that IBM have given a snapshot of the Cloudscape codebase to the Apache foundation, from which you may download it here. The Apache license is much more straightforward and less onerous than the IBM one.  The version of Cloudbase you can get from IBM appears to be based on the Apache version, but if you download from Apache you don't get the nice installer. To avoid confusion, I shall refer to the RDBMS throughout this review as 'Cloudscape'. I did not, this morning, find any significant difference in use between the IBM ('Cloudscape') and the Apache ('Derby') versions of the system.

First impressions

You can download Cloudscape from IBM in three different packages: a Linux installer which is huge and includes IBM's Java 1.4.2 for Linux; a Windows version which is similarly huge and includes IBM's Java 1.4.2 for Windows; and a 100% pure Java installer, which is sensibly small (9Mb) and sensibly assumes you wouldn't be interested if you didn't already have a JVM. This was the version I tried.

The pure Java installer (InstallShield) worked very nicely on Linux, offering sensible defaults. By contrast to so many open source projects, it looked very polished. Similarly, the PDF documentation looked very polished, very IBM. However - and this is a common gripe - the page numbering in the PDF was off, because the topmatter of the paper document uses a different numbering schema to the body and this different schema is not reflected in the PDF. So, for example, page 132 in the PDF maps onto page 120 of the document, which makes consulting the index or table of contents pretty frustrating. Hey, IBM, this is a small point but very easy to get right. Also of course you can't search the PDFs. What on earth is the point of distributing documentation in a digital format if it can't be searched? And a final gripe on documentation; the documentation index page has a link to online documentation, which I followed in the hope it would lead to searchable documentation. Unfortunately that was '404 not found'. And that, IBM, is simply incompetent.

Fortunately the documentation is available online at Apache:

Following the instructions in the documentation, I then tried to start the Cloudscape executive, a program called 'ij'. The startup scripts had been automatically created and set up for me with the paths I had chosen for the installation.

But they didn't work.

Well, OK, that needs a bit of amplification. AIX, IBM's own UNIX, uses as its default shell the Korn shell, ksh. Debian Linux, which I use, uses as its default shell the Bourne Again shell, bash. Generally the syntax used by the two shells is so similar that that isn't a problem, but when I tried to invoke the ij script I got a class not found exception:

-[simon]-> /opt/ibm/Cloudscape_10.0/frameworks/NetworkServer/bin/ij.ksh

Bizarrely, when I manually executed each of the commands in the scripts in turn, the ij executive started without problem. Clearly there is something in the scripts that bash does not like, but I haven't yet investigated what.


Because of problems with the documentation discussed above, I can't be very definite about missing features; the features I sought may be present but I simply failed to find them in the documentation.

Users, groups and roles

Cloudscape clearly has the concept of a 'user', since it's possible to request the value of the current user; however you don't seem to be able to grant privileges to users, nor to revoke them:

ij> create user simon with password 'xyzzy';
ERROR 42X01: Syntax error: Encountered "user" at line 1, column 8.
ij> grant select on foo to app;
ERROR 42X01: Syntax error: Encountered "grant" at line 1, column 1.

You can pass in a username token and a password in the database URL. User validation is not performed by cloudscape, but cloudscape can be configured to co-operate with external validators. In practice, all using a different username appears to do is to select a different default schema.

The system appears to have no concept of a group or role.


Cloudscape has views but not, it appears, view ordering:

ij> create view froboz as select ban from foo;
0 rows inserted/updated/deleted
ij> select * from froboz;

ij> drop view froboz;
0 rows inserted/updated/deleted
ij> create view froboz as select ban from foo order by ban;
ERROR 42X01: Syntax error: Encountered "order" at line 1, column 43.
ij> select ban from foo order by ban;

1 row selected

Constraints and Integrity

Cloudscape appears to have a remarkably full constraint syntax. I haven't verified that the constraints actually work. Provided they do, we can work with these data constraints

ij> alter table word
        add constraint word_head foreign key (head)
        references word
        on delete set null;
0 rows inserted/updated/deleted


There appears to be no BOOLEAN data type or equivalent, but we can work round this using CHAR(1) and the values 't' and 'f'; there is no MEMO or TEXT datatype, but there is a CLOB. There is a full set of DATE, TIME and TIMESTAMP datatypes; date format is 'yyyy-mm-dd'.


Cloudscape's big weakness from my point of view was security. There appears no way of setting different access permissions for different users. This means that all security must be in the application layer. Generally Jacquard applications are not built that way; instead, they're built on a database layer security model. Of course, security isn't always critical, and for many users of a PRES system, for example, HTTP authentication of the admin directory would be sufficient.

On the positive side, the system is very easy to install, reasonably easy to set up, and consumes relatively little in the way of machine resources.

The IBM version (Cloudscape) offered no benefit over the Apache version (Derby). Although Cloudscape comes with a slick and polished installer, what it installed did not actually work out-of-the-box; the documentation was in an inconvenient format which was hard to work with and the license terms were onerous. By contrast the Apache version (Derby) was a smaller download, in practice just as easy to set up and get running, and the Apache documentation although apparently based on the same source was constructed in HTML and much easier to use.

There appeared to be little functional difference between the two versions.

Saturday 20 November 2004

Using, not losing, your head

Cycle helmets are a good thing, aren't they? It's obvious. They protect your head. They must be a good thing: it's common sense. Why then is the cycling community, in the face of proposed mandatory helmet legislation, fighting internecine helmet wars?

Don't panic

Before going into the details of this argument, let's start by putting this into perspective. Cycling is actually a very safe activity. Nothing, of course, is absolutely safe. Last year, in Britain, 114 cyclists were killed. Of those, 95 (83%) died as a result of collisions with motor vehicles. But that's out of millions of cyclists, covering billions of miles. In fact, according to the National Statistics Office, there is on average one fatal accident for every twenty one and a half million miles cycled. Twenty one and a half million. If you were to cycle ten miles every single day, it would be nearly six thousand years before you had a fatal accident.

At the same time as those 114 cyclists died, over three thousand people died from accidents and mishaps in their own homes. Do you think your home is a dangerous place to be?

Of course, in the modern world, there are dangers other than accidents. We live highly stressed lives in which opportunities for exercise get fewer and fewer, and opportunities to eat and drink become more and more available. We get fat. We get unfit. And our health suffers in consequence, with the incidence of illnesses such as obesity, heart disease, osteoporosis and diabetes increasing rapidly. Cycling is a good general exercise both for the cardiovascular system and for the limbs. Unlike walking, jogging or running, the movement is smooth and so does not cause impact damage to the ankles, knees and hips. Yes, there is a finite risk of accident when cycling but it is nevertheless undoubted that if you cycle regularly not only are you likely to live longer but you're more likely to enjoy a fit, active and healthy old age.

Got that? Good. Now let's talk about helmets.

Use no hooks: or, A box for a computer

In the more tragic and more bloody wars of the Democratic Republic Congo, many warriors wear or carry lucky charms which they believe will protect them against bullets. We sophisticated westerners read stories of this and we think 'how quaint, and sad, and ignorant, are these uneducated child soldiers going into battle, believing superstitiously in the protection of lucky charms'. And then we cycle off into the traffic, wearing our cycle helmets.

This note was written as a web page. If you're reading it on a web page, you're reading it on a computer. I'd like you to stop for a moment and think about that computer. When it arrived from its maker - possibly when you bought it - it was packed in a strong cardboard box. Inside the strong cardboard box was almost certainly some polystyrene foam packaging material. Probably at least 40mm of it, surrounding and protecting your computer from the inevitable bumps it would incur in transit - bumps like being dropped from someone's hands onto the warehouse floor, or thumped up against another, similarly packaged computer.

By and large, for these sort of bumps, the packaging works, and your computer probably arrived home safe and sound.

Now think about your bicycle helmet. Like the packaging your computer came in, it is worn to protect a very valuable object - your brain. Like the packaging your computer came in, it is made of polystyrene foam - and typically it's a good bit less than 40mm thick.

Putting the boot in

I would like you to stop again, and think about the box your computer came in. I'd like you, as a thought experiment, to imagine taking your computer, putting it back it in its original box, and placing the box in the middle of the street. Now I want you to imagine getting into a car and driving into the box at just thirty miles an hour. You've imagined that? Good. Now do you think you would be able to use the computer afterwards?

Polystyrene foam is just polystyrene foam. Polystyrene foam is a light, weak, compressible solid which rapidly becomes brittle with age and is easily damaged by solvents. It doesn't become magically stronger just because it's formed into a cycle helmet. The same foam that didn't protect the computer in the thought experiment is equally not going to protect your head in similar circumstances.

Ticking the box

Nor do the manufacturers, nor the standards writers, believe it should. The European test for cycle helmets involves dropping the helmet, containing a dummy head weighing not more than 6Kg, onto a flat surface from a height of 1.5 metres. I don't know about you, but I'm 1.88 metres tall and I weigh 82Kg. If I just fall over from standing upright, I already exceed the impact which cycle helmets sold in Europe are tested to protect against - and exceed it by a very substantial margin. And that's before I've even got on my bicycle and started moving.

In practice, cycle helmets are expected to be helpful in accidents up to about 15mph (24Km/h). You might (common sense) expect a 30mph impact to be only twice as bad as a 15mph impact, and you might think that something which offered reasonable protection at 15mph would offer some degree of protection at 30mph. Unfortunately, it doesn't work like that. Firstly, the force of the impact scales with the square of the speed, so your 30mph impact is four times, not twice, as severe as your 15mph one. But secondly, and even more scarily, it is widely accepted that the probability of injury scales with the fourth power of the speed. So your 30mph impact is sixteen times as likely to cause injury than your 15mph impact.

And that's before you consider what happens to polystyrene foam when its design load is exceeded. It snaps. It suffers 'brittle failure'. You can do this experiment quite easily with the foam packing your computer came in. Take a piece of the foam about as long as your helmet, and about as thick as your helmet. Try to crush it between your finger and thumb. It's surprisingly strong, isn't it? You can squeeze it very hard and it doesn't deform a lot. Polystyrene foam is quite strong in compression, that's why it is used. Now take your piece of foam and snap it between your two hands. That's amazingly easy, isn't it? It takes far less force than crushing it does... which means it has absorbed far less force. When a helmet breaks, it offers no further protection. The more an impact exceeds the helmet's design parameters, the more likely it is to break, and the less likely it is to offer any protection.

You saw the whole of the moon

But let's step back a bit. Let's suppose, for the moment, a helmet provides 100% protection for the part of the body it covers. Because, let's face it, the part of the body a cycle helmet protects is the scalp. What happens to the rest of the body in a 30mph, or in a 60mph accident? Is it really going to be much comfort to your grieving relatives to learn that your hair-do survived OK? Do you believe that because your scalp is protected, your neck and your chest will be protected, too? Or, if not, that your magically preserved brain can be magically plugged into a new heart and lungs? Of course you don't. And of course you know that an impact which has enough force to do severe damage to your skull is likely to do severe damage to other vital systems too. In thinking about protection it is no use protecting one part. It's not enough to see the crescent: you have to look at the whole of the moon.

He's dead, Jim

But it's worse than that. Not only do helmets not provide adequate protection in road speed accidents: they may actually make things worse. In fact they must do so, because in whole populations, as helmet wearing rises, so does the rate of cyclist deaths. Yes, you read that right: the more cyclists wear helmets, the more get killed.
 I don't know why. No-one knows why. Two main mechanisms have been suggested: 'risk compensation', the willingness of people to do more risky things when they believe themselves protected, and rotational injury.

The fact that people do do riskier things when they think they're protected is to some extent obvious. Indeed, Bell cycle helmets have been sold with the slogan 'Courage for the Head'. Could cyclists really be using up all of the safety benefit that helmets provide by taking more risks? It's possible. Could drivers, thinking helmeted cyclists are protected, take more risks around them? That's possible too.

But the more worrying possibility is this: wearing a helmet makes your head bigger. It increases the diameter by about 50%, which means it increases the area by about 125%. Now, is it easier to hit a target if it's more than twice as big? You bet it is. Your head being effectively bigger means that it's more likely to get hit; but again it may be still worse than this. Because we have evolved over millions of years of falling to tuck our heads in. We have reflexes which know - without our thinking about it - just how far we need to tuck our heads in to avoid an impact. By making the head bigger we may possibly defeat that instinctive protection mechanism. And it gets worse: larger diameter means more leverage, more angular acceleration. It has been suggested - and so far this is no more than a suggestion - that helmet wearing may increase rotational injuries to the brain. Rotational acceleration tears brain tissue and causes much more severe brain damage than linear accelerations of the same magnitude.

So not only do helmets make you (very slightly) more likely to get injured; they may also - but this is not proven - significantly increase your risk of the most frightening sort of injury, brain damage.

So: it's junk, then?

Does all this mean you shouldn't wear a helmet? Not in my opinion, no. I have a helmet, a MET Parachute, and I do wear it. When I think it will do some good.

Accidents of the sort cycle helmets won't help with - high speed impacts with something solid - are, fortunately, incredibly rare. When people fall off bicycles, they mostly do so at low speed and very often on tricky, off-road tracks. On tricky, off-road tracks you're very rarely travelling at very high speed and what you hit usually isn't moving at all. Indeed, you mostly fall off in the trickiest sections (or at least, I do) and that's when you're going slowest. Of course, such a fall is unlikely to kill you, but it can leave you with nasty bruising, grazes or even concussion. And a cycle helmet will protect you from bruising and grazing on the part of the body it covers, and may help a bit with concussion, too. So I wear my helmet when I'm doing tricky off-road stuff, particularly if I haven't ridden the particular route before. I should say here that although I've fallen off mountain bikes by now literally thousands of times, I've never hit my head at all - it's almost always my hips and elbows that get it. So even on a mountain bike a helmet isn't essential, and I often don't wear one.

And I don't wear one on the road. Ever. There really isn't any point. I haven't fallen off a bike on the road since I was sixteen, and that's thirty-three years ago. I'm an experienced road rider, and I ride with good awareness of traffic; I know how to protect myself from many of the ways motorists can kill you. Of course I can't protect myself against a motorist who is driving too fast and genuinely doesn't see me, but in that case I do not believe a helmet offers any useful protection. Indeed, on the basis of the available statistics and the simple physics I've described above, I know it cannot.

So cycle helmets are not junk. They are genuinely useful under some circumstances. But pretending they can save your life in traffic accidents is at best mistaken and at worst dishonest. To be fair, helmet makers do not pretend this; but there are still ignorant or misguided people who do - indeed, the opinion that it isn't safe to cycle on the road without one is very common. This common misapprehension is what leads to occasional campaigns for the wearing
of cycle helmets to be made compulsory, by law. It's to counter this misapprehension that I've written this article.

Thursday 18 November 2004

Lies, damned lies, and cycle helmets

I've just been moved to write to the British Medical Association, a thing which doesn't often happen. The BMA had a critical role to play in the recent campaign to make cycle helmets compulsory in the United Kingdom; they have long had a well thought out policy on cycle helmets - on the whole favouring them, but aware of the ambiguous nature of the evidence in favour of them and siding against compulsion. Their position helped persuade MPs not to vote for compulsion. It seems the pro-compulsionists have seen the BMA as a key target to convert, and recent press releases have announced a policy change, apparently by fiat at the top. The papers the BMA have published in support of their new policies are masterpieces of dishonesty and sloppy thinking. So here is my first, brief, critique, as expressed in an email to, the address they cite for comments.

My attention has been drawn to your web pages published at
<URL:> and <URL:>.

In the first you quote: "Each year over 50 people aged 15 years and under are killed by cycling  accidents, with 70-80 per cent of these resulting from traumatic brain  injury."

As I'm sure you are well aware, the figure recorded for the UK for 2002 as a whole is nineteen deaths, of which only ten involved head injury[1], so the figure you quote is a gross exaggeration. Indeed in no year in the past decade have 50 children died in the UK in cycling accidents, so you cannot even pretend that this figure is historically correct.

In the second you start with the statement: "Action should be taken to both reduce the high rate of fatal and  serious accidents suffered by cyclists..."

In fact, there is no 'high rate of fatal and serious accidents suffered by cyclists'. The fatal accident rate for cyclists is only 75% as high as that for pedestrians (29.5 per billion kilometers as opposed to 44.8 per billion kilometers), and less than a third of that for motorcyclists who do have to wear helmets[2]. Cycling is not only safer than walking, it is getting safer faster, with a steady and healthy downward trend in casualties[3].

Finally, of 114 cyclists of all ages killed in 2003, 61 were involved in collisions with cars, while 25 were involved in collisions with heavy goods vehicles; in total 95 deaths resulted from collisions with motor vehicles.[4] No-one pretends that a cycle helmet would make any useful difference in accidents of this kind.

In summary, these two documents taken together represent irresponsible scaremongering, composed of phoney data completely at variance with the facts. Scaremongering has the inevitable effect of reducing cycling, and reducing cycling has been shown to increase the risk per cyclist. So not only are these papers dishonest in their content, they are also misguided and counter productive in their intent. By reducing the number of people cycling the BMA will not only increase the number of people dying through illnesses related to obesity and lack of exercise, it will also increase the risk of injury and death to people who do cycle.

I am horrified that the BMA should express views on a public policy matter on the basis of such shoddy and dishonest research and without, I understand, bothering to consult its members.

Yours sincerely

Simon Brooke

Wednesday 3 November 2004

This United Satrapy

Sometimes some things make one more angry than it is easy to express. This morning I am faced with one of these.

The issue

First, a bit of background. There is an organisation called 'indymedia'; it is a journalists collective, which reports stories not generally covered by the mainstream press, specifically including reporting on the demonstrations at G8 summits and such things. On October 7th this year, officers of the United States of America's Federal Bureau of Investigations, acting on behalf of the Italian Government, entered RackSpace's supposedly secure colocation facility in London and removed two servers belonging to indymedia.


Yes, just as I say. The servers have been returned, but that is rather beside the point; and in any case, who is to say what was copied off them (or loaded onto them) in the mean time?

An exchange of notes

So on the 14th October I wrote the following email to my MP:

On Thursday of last week, two computers belonging to an organisation called 'Indymedia' were removed from the premises of a London ISP, Rackspace, apparently by
 the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation, allegedly following a request by the Swiss government. Further detail of this action may be found here:

I should be grateful if you could ask the Home Secretary:

  1. On what legal theory was it proper for the agents of one foreign power, whether or not acting at the behest of another foreign power, to seize property within the United Kingdom?

  • What UK court, or other UK legal authority, authorised this seizure?

  • If it is the case that the seizure was made under the 'Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty', what terrorist information was supposed to have been held on these computers?

  • What evidence of such supposed terrorist information was supplied to the UK authorities in order to justify this seizure?

  • What action is he taking to prevent such seizures or property by agents of foreign powers in future?

  • This action cuts to the very heart of civil society in Britain: to the right of
    free speech, of citizens to publish news and opinion. Without this, democratic governance is impossible. For foreign powers to thus interfere in the democratic
    process in the United Kingdom is utterly intolerable, and wholly undermines the theory of a sovereign UK government.

    My MP duly forwarded this to the Home Office and this morning I received via him a response from Caroline Flint MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Home Office, doubtless dictated with a tongue still brown from licking American arses. I shall quote it in full:

    Thank you for your letter dated 18 October 2004  addressed to the Home Secretary, stating concerns expressed by one of your constituents regarding Indymedia. I have been asked to reply as the Minister responsible for international crime.

    Unfortunately, I am not in a position to comment on this particular matter, but I can provide general information. It is standard Home Office policy neither to confirm nor deny the existence or receipt of a mutual legal assistance request. I can also make the following observation to clarify the non-case specific issues raised.

    Mutual legal assistance treaties are not just restricted to cases of international terrorism, kidnapping and money laundering. They can cover all types of crime or be crime specific. For example many states have treaties that relate solely to the issue of combating drug trafficking. Others, have all crime treaties, which provides a basis for mutual legal assistance generally. The treaty between the UK and the US is an all crimes treaty.

    I hope you find this useful

    Yours, Caroline

    Why does this matter?

    Qui bono?

    I'd like you to just pause a minute, hold onto your anger, and consider the things the Minister did feel able to write. She wrote "The treaty between the UK and the US is an all crimes treaty". Well, it may be. Blair's poodles may feel that it is fine for US government agents to walk jackbooted into any home in the United Kingdom in order to sieze such property as they see fit. But - allegedly - the FBI were not acting on behalf of the US government.

    Initial reports say that the FBI was acting on behalf of the Swiss government; later reports said, on behalf of an Italian court in Bologna. It scarcely matters. The point is that the Americans were not acting on their own behalf, so a treaty between the US and the UK should be moot.

    If the request came from a fellow member of the EC, why did the Metropolitan Police not not make the raid? If it was not legal for the Metropolitan Police, how could it be legal for a foreign power? And if it was legal for a foreign power, how come it was the FBI and not the Polizia?

    The suspicion in my mind is that there is no treaty in place which allows the police forces of fellow EU states to force their way into premises in the UK in order to sieze property. It would be intolerable if there were. And, indeed, can you imagine the headlines in the Daily Mail if it were even suggested?

    What recourse?

    As you'll know, I host on my personal website mirrors of censored documents which I consider important or valuable. I am my own ISP, and the server which hosts those documents is behind me as I write this, in my home. The documents I serve are censored in various jurisdictions around the world but inevitably the majority of them are censored in the United States. Suppose, at 4am one dark morning, I get a knock on the door and find myself faced with half a dozen burly Americans claiming to be from the FBI, what am I expected to do? What recourse have I if they choose to sieze my property? Who do I call to resist the invasion of my home by foreign forces? To whom do I complain?

    Civil and uncivil society

    Britain is, at least in theory, a democracy. Citizens (yes, my passport explicitly states I'm a 'British Citizen', not a 'British Subject') in theory freely discuss matters of politics and freely elect representatives to our national parliaments. Indymedia and organisations like it are a vital part of that process; they provide an means for unpopular opinions to be expressed, for events the mainstream media chooses to ignore to be reported. They give a voice to sections of our body politic which otherwise might not have one.

    We don't know, of course, why Indymedia's servers were seized. Caroline Flint won't even confirm (or deny) that they were seized. We can't see the order which authorised their seizure, because it's secret.

    But allegedly Indymedia's offence was that it published a photograph of an Italian policeman taking photographs of protesters at a G8 summit.

    So this is a very clear story about press freedom and press harassment; about an attempt by a foreign power to suppress free speech within the United Kingdom. We cannot conduct a civil society if we cannot freely communicate.

    The myth of sovereignty

    Part of the popular myth of Britain is that Britain is a sovereign nation. We cannot, we are repeatedly told, surrender that sovereignty to Brussels. Well, no, we can't; not now. We don't have it to surrender. What possible use are the civil protections of Scottish (or English) law if an American agent acting on behalf of an Italian court, without any due process in any United Kingdom court, without any warrant issued by any United Kingdom authority, can simply walk into my home and sieze my property? What possible protection can a United Kingdom government offer its people if a Minister of the Crown is unable even to 'confirm or deny' that this has happened?

    The truth is that Blair's Britain is not a sovereign nation. Not when the US President can order a movement of the Black Watch - a regiment of the British army - in order to help with his election campaign. Not when FBI agents can kick down any door in Britain without authorisation from the British courts and without a murmer - without a whimper - of protest from the UK 'government'. The truth is that Blair's Britain is no more than a satrapy of the American Imperium. Not so much a poodle as a cur to be kicked when it won't behave. A cur to be kicked when it won't grovel.

    Saturday 30 October 2004

    My longbow

    This week I have been mostly making a longbow. Yes, that's the one I
    made, in the picture. What? Show-off? Moi?

    At this time of year, for the past several years, we (where for these
    purposes 'we' is Southwest Community Woodlands Trust) have put on
    courses on making this or that out of the products of the forest, and
    this autumn one of the things we'd decided to make was longbows. And
    as soon as the idea was mooted I thought I definitely wanted to give
    that a go. In the way of things, somebody knew a bowyer, a man called
    Dave Cotterill, who turned out to be a gentle, competent man and a
    most excellent teacher.

    We started with an ash pole of about eight inches diameter which had
    been cleft into four and left to season for three months (a year would
    have been better). We also had some sawn staves which were better
    seasoned, but all but one of us chose to use the cleft. So each bow
    was made out of a quarter section of log. The bark was stripped to
    expose the cambium. A centre line was then marked on the cambium, and
    the front elevation of the bow maked out from this. The bows were made
    to the measurements of the maker, so no two were intended to be
    exactly alike.

    Obviously with such large section staves there was a lot of waste to
    remove. Had we been doing this modern fashion we would have used a
    bandsaw, but we didn't have electricity (I should say that we were
    working, as usual, under canvas in the meadow at Taliesin amid the
    most glorious show of autumn colour), so we used sideaxes, billhooks
    and hatchets for initial rough shaping, and then draw knives for the
    next stage of shaping. I even removed a fair bit of waste from my
    stave with a froe, which took a bit of courage!

    As we removed waste the staves started to curve outwards naturally
    like sections of a stick of celery. It was extremely rewarding working
    with these cloven staves of straight grained timber - all the grain
    problems you get with sawn timber simply did not arise. It was
    beatiful to cut and work. The waste was all removed from the heart of
    the log, working from the side that would become the belly of the bow;
    the cambium layer which would become the back of the bow was left
    untouched.  During this shaping the handle section of the bow was made
    square, the rest roughly shaped into the D section curve it would
    eventually have - although we intentionally left the bows a little

    Once we had something which looked roughly like a bow, we cut nocks in
    the ends and made our bowstrings. Now I had thought in my ignorance
    that a bowstring was just a piece of cord. Not so; the construction is
    intricate. The string was made up of twelve lengths of waxed terylene
    cord. These were laid together simply by hand twisting (definitely a knack to this) for the top few
    inches, and the eye formed using a splicing technique I had never seen
    before. Then the main length of the string was simply loosely twisted,
    but the bottom ten or so inches were again hand twisted into a
    cable. The strings were later served around the section where the
    arrow nock sits. The spliced eye was then slipped into the upper nock,
    and tail of the string secured to the lower nock with a timber hitch -
    a neat form of slip knot.

    With the strings made we were ready to 'tiller' or 'train' the
    bows. The tillers were posts about six feet tall, with a notch near the
    top in which the handle of the bow sat. A rope through a pully at the
    foot of the post was then hooked onto the string, and pulled to begin
    bending the bow.

    The object of the next stage of the exercise was two fold: to
    progressively shape the bow to achieve a strong, even curve,
    essentially by removing material from where the bow was too strong;
    and to get the stave used to bending. We were told (and I'll believe)
    that if you drew a new stave back to full draw first go without
    initially drawing it first to gentler curves and then progressively
    deeper curves it would be likely to break, whereas if it was
    progressively drawn over a fair number of cycles to deeper and deeper
    curves it would accept them.

    In shaping, we'd sit the bow on a tiller, pull it (at first all fairly
    gingerly), note sections which weren't bending smoothly, take it back
    to the shave horse, shave a little off, and then back to the tiller to
    try again. I early learned that it is easy to be too enthusiastic in
    the 'shaving a little off' stage - I turned a strong spot on the lower
    limb of my bow into a weak point, and spent the next several hours
    carefully correcting this, and almost certainly ended up with a weaker
    bow in consequence.

    In this final shaping process the one bow which had been made from a
    sawn stave - fortunately not mine - developed a crack, precisely where
    the saw cut had cut through a grain line, allowing the grain to
    lift. This was the only disappointment of the course, and I felt
    intensely sorry for the woman whose bow cracked.

    However, remarkably quickly, the rest of us had usable bows and the
    first arrows were being shot. My bow ended up with a draw weight of
    about 37 pounds - not, frankly, as much as I'd hoped, but it certainly
    makes it easy for an inexperienced archer to draw. And it shot
    remarkably well. Initially I was putting arrows a little above and to
    the left of where I wanted them, but with a little practice I was
    hitting close to the centre of the target with every shot. Very

    It isn't the best bow in the world. Being made of fairly green timber,
    it has already developed quite a lot of 'string follow' - that is, it
    retains much of its curve even when unstrung. This is undesirable - it
    weakens the bow. The finish is a little rough (although I can probably
    improve tht with the judicious application of fine sandpaper). And the
    upper limb is a little weaker than the lower, so it could do with more
    tillering and adjustment yet. But it is still a thing of beauty and it
    works remarkably well. And one of these days I may make another, which
    will be better.

    Sunday 17 October 2004

    Journey to the Roof of the World

    The longest continuous climb in Britain, according to a website which categorises european cycling climbs, is up Mennock Water to Wanlockhead and thence up to the radio mast on the
    Green Lowther. We did not do that climb today...

    Sometime last week Big Dougie phoned up and asked if I fancied a ride up to Wanlockhead, saying he and Andrew were planning to do the run today, both being off work. I swithered. I did want to do the run. I thought it would be a good test of both me and the bike. But I also seriously doubted whether I was fit for it. Eventually at yesterday's club run (Dalbeattie Forest, bits of Red Route and bits of mucking around - great fun) I committed to going. So at 9.45 this morning Dougie's van rolled up at my front door, we loaded the Dolan in, and set of for Andrew's house in Dumfries. At twenty past ten we rolled out from Andrew's house, heading north. Big Dougie, the time trial animal, also known locally as 'the bus'; Andrew, former Scottish Junior Champion; and me, who am at best a leisure cyclist, and who had never taken part in any organised ride before this year. Ooops.

    Fit the first: To the Birthplace of the Bicycle

    Andrew didn't want to cycle the A76 (and small blame to him - it is ridiculously narrow and twisty for the amount of very fast HGV traffic it carries) so we went out by back roads through mostly rolling countryside via Terregles and Dunscore. On the flat I was keeping up fine but on the climbs - as I has expected - I could not keep up. That was OK partly because Dougie and Andrew were good about waiting for me at the tops but also because I was descending faster than they were. Even when we were all free wheeling the Dolan seemed to pull ahead, which is a credit to Mavic hubs; but on steeper descents I was also braking less. At Keir Mill we stopped to pay homage at the forge where Kirkpatrick Macmillan built the first pedal powered bicycle.  This section was also notable for wonderful autumn colours. We saw two red squirrels and interrupted a middle sized raptor (not a buzzard or a kite and definitely not an eagle; possibly a harrier) stooping on a pheasant.

    Fit the second: To the Roof of the World

    Past Penpont we hit some fairly noticeable climbs and I was beginning to think I couldn't do it, and ought to peel off to give the other two a chance. And then quite suddenly my legs started to work; and for several miles of (admittedly fairly gentle) climb I was leading the group at a steady 18mph. Then down a tearing descent, across the river, and up onto the A76. Apart from one wazzock in a gold Citroen Saxo the traffic wasn't a problem, and very soon we came to the right turn over the railway and up onto the Mennock Pass.

    Well, I had been expecting it to be tough. And sections of it were tough; but not actually that tough. Certainly there were quite long sections where I was down to six miles per hour, down in my 39x26
    lowest gear; certainly there were corners I went round dreading I might find it steeper the other side; and certainly Dougie and Andrew were climbing faster than I was. But the Mennock is a sort of stepped ascent, with quite short severe bits interspersed with much longer, much less severe bits on which I was quickly up to 18mph again - which is a high speed for me, and when Wanlockhead came over the ridge I was surprised and almost indignant. It wasn't supposed to be so easy. It ought to have been further. It should have been harder.

    I broke the speed limit coming into Wanlockhead and quickly caught up with Dougie and Andrew. Through the village and right onto the road to Leadhills, which quickly led us up to the Lanarkshire border, where we stopped briefly for pictures and I put my buff on. It was decidedly cold up there. We looked up at the radio mast which marked the real top of the climb; it didn't look far and it didn't look that much higher (although it is in fact another 250 metres). But none of us felt it was our day to go up there.

    Fit the third: Across the Backside of the Moon

    There was a time when you went over the border from Dumfrieshire into Lanarkshire and the roads got worse; not any more. The road through Leadhills to Elvanfoot, though a curious red colour, was extremely well made for a little used high mountain road. The scenery was amazing in a completely different way - a lunar sub-arctic tundra littered with the spoil and wreckage of four thousand years of mining, very wild, rugged and bleak. We passed through it surprisingly quickly; past Leadhills, although the descents weren't steep, we were holding 40mph for considerable distances. Somewhere in this section my seat wedge bag fell off, nearly taking out Andrew... Ooops oooops!

    At Elvanfoot, with the M74 in sight, the question was whether to go down the Dalveen Pass or go through under the motorway to Greenhill Stairs and down by the Devil's Beeftub. I voted for Dalveen, and the others agreed. And as we turned right towards Dalveen, the reason for the last section being so fast and so easy came quickly apparent. We had a wind. Not a wind of the sort Jon and I encountered on our Journey to the Bottom of the Sea , but sapping nonetheless and remarkably cold. Once again I was not able to stay with the others and dropped back. The first time they stopped for me to catch up Andrew commented that the sooner we got down out of the wind the better, and I uttered the
    immortal words 'it's not far now'. The second time they stopped for me to catch up (when I put on the windproof fleece gilet Juliette made for me) he was asking me were we nearly there yet?

    Fit the fourth: What Goes Up, Must Come Down

    And thus to the top of Dalveen, where the road rolls over and plunges 200 metres down across the face of the hill in under three miles, down to a valley floor so deep it never sees the sun. I had been looking
    forward to it, building up to it. This had been, in my mind, the high point of the trip. I tucked. I spun. I put everything I had in to it, everything I know about making a bike go fast, and at the first steeply
    downhill corner I had just managed to get the bike up to 20 mph. Dougie powered past with his steam engine pile driver rhythm, pumping down the hill at least two or three miles an hour faster than I could achieve. For the first time in the day I couldn't stay with him on a descent. I burned my legs trying to get a little more, and as the altitude reeled down and the wind grew less somehow managed to find 26 mph. And then Andrew went past in a ridiculously low tuck, his legs practically blurring.

    I felt, frankly, gutted. I'd also badly burned my legs. I eased up, dug out a hanky, blew my nose, and settled down to the sort of 17mph I could sustain. There really wasn't any point in doing anything else.

    Once off the hill and into the bottom of the valley I settled down into a comfortable 18-19 and quickly came up with the others. As we rode down through Durrisdeer Andrew was listening to the remarkable rattling that the Dolan has made since I assembled it, and which was now noticeably worse. Once I'd said I was confident it was transmission related and demonstrated it went away when I free wheeled he was quickly able to diagnose an insufficiently tight cassette.

    Fit the fifth: Catching the Bus Home

    And thus back down to the A76. The plan there had been to cross and go back over Keir and thus by the back roads down to Dumfries but Dougie and Andrew were concerned that I was running out of legs (which was pretty much true). I was confident that I could make it back to Dumfries along the A76, which is mostly fairly flat and overall slightly downhill, without difficulty, at probably about 10mph, which seeing it was only sixteen miles would see me into Dumfries before dark.

    So I suggested to them that they go on and I'd meet them back at Andrew's. They both rejected this solution and agreed to accompany me back along the A76 (a road which, as I've said earlier, Andrew very reasonably dislikes). Once we were on a clear open section of the road they started teaching me to chaingang, something I hadn't done before, and soon I was pedalling along concentrating so hard on Dougie's red rear tyre that I was really unaware of artics hurtling by my elbow, while Andrew followed behind as tail-gunner. After we'd been doing this for a while I gained sufficient confidence to glance down at my speedometer... to see 24 mph. I was staggered. I had been really struggling for legs and twenty-four miles an hour is a speed I simply cannot sustain for any length of time. And yet here we were, sustaining it, on an undulating road, for mile after mile. Admittedly I sometimes couldn't hold Dougie's wheel, particularly on slight rises - he has an amazing ability to hold the same speed almost irrespective of gradient; but once up the rise I would get back on the back of the bus, and we'd go hurtling on.

    It couldn't last though - I was out of water and getting low on energy. Eventually in Closeburn I pulled up, and bought a bottle of coke and had my water bottle refilled by a very pretty and cheerful lass in a
    little shop. And then on for three of four more miles to Amisfield, where we turned off onto back roads and slowed down. I was still managing 17mph on the flat section, but on every least rise my speed was down to ten or twelve while the others accelerated up trying to outsprint each other.

    And thus back into Dumfries just at rush hour. I've always been an 'assertive' rider in urban traffic, but probably due to sheer tiredness I was having trouble unclipping my pedals, so I negotiated the roundabouts and traffic lights using techniques learned in days before clipless pedals - engage low gear, coast up until you can see a gap developing, sprint like buggery and be quite prepared to just intimidate motorists out of the way. At the roundabout where we crossed the ringroad there is apparently now a cyclists underpass but I didn't know about this and I wasn't going to risk trying to unclip in heavy traffic so I just muscled through...

    And thus back to Andrew's and some most welcome cake and tea, and a fair bit of mutual joshing. Distance 77.9 miles, average speed 13.6mph, time rolling 5 hours 43 minutes, and seeing we scarcely stopped at all, elapsed time under six hours. The climb up the Mennock alone was 360 metres vertical; total climb on the whole trip cannot have been less than 500. And, apart from the headwind on the top, the weather was fine - excellent in the morning, not bad in the afternoon, and despite forecast rain, apart from a few drops south of Elvanfoot, dry.

    A most excellent day.

    Wednesday 8 September 2004

    My first time trial

    I'm not really a club sort of person - I'm much too shy and solitary in real life - and I'm certainly not a competitive person. So I've never
    been in a cycle club before, and I've certainly never cycled
    competitively. But a few weeks ago a cycling friend dropped by and told
    me about a proposal for a new local cycling club, and a few days later
    Janet at my LBS told me about it as well, so this time last week I went
    along to an inaugural meeting at which about twenty people turned up.

    At that meeting we agreed that to kick things off we'd do a club run
    every Sunday, and a time trial every Wednesday evening as long as the
    light held - which won't be long with the equinox approaching. On Sunday about twenty people turned up for a very pleasant run up round Balmaghie and Laurieston.

    And tonight was the time trial. Juliette and I left the house together,
    she on her Juliana and my on my Dolan. Juliette wasn't going to time
    trial - she's even more unclubable than me - but we rode together out
    to Douganhill through the most gorgeous evening, sun blazing through
    every gap in the ridge, sky clear deep blue, wind more or less still.
    At Douganhill Juliette pealed off, and I carried on. Within a few
    hundred yards I saw another rider ahead, and so I started to chase -
    not too seriously, because I didn't want to use up my legs too soon.
    But coming past Barlochan I caught him, and it turned out to be someone
    I'd met on Sunday whose name I don't yet know and we rode on together to
    Craignair, where we found cyclists gathering in the quarry yard.

    There was a wee bit of joshing and banter and a few photos taken, and
    the Kelly Anne marshalled us all down to Butterhole road end for the
    start. I was assigned to start eleventh out of thirteen. I watched
    people start, learning the technique. Most people got clipped in at the
    thirty second count, with Marcus holding the bike upright as Kelly Anne
    counted down. I didn't feel confident about that... Then the tenth man was gone and it was my turn to go up to the line.

    I said I'd just go from a standing start. To my surprise the adrenaline
    was definitely going as Kelly Anne counted down 5... 4... 3... 2... 1... And we were rolling.

    Typically I made a horrible start, missing my cleat not once but twice. But then I quickly wound up to a good roll, not pushing too hard because I didn't want to blow my legs up early. I don't yet have instrumentation on the Dolan so I couldn't tell my speed, but my aim was to settle at about 17 miles per hour, wait for the man behind me to
    come past, and try to grab his wheel. Down the level leafy avenue past Munches and on towards Kirkennan everything felt to be going well. I felt I was making a reasonable speed, one I could sustain. And no-one had passed me yet.

    By Kirkennan the road twists away up through a rocky defile to avoid the garden of the Big Hoose; and just as I clicked down a gear to climb through the defile there was a whoosh and a blur... Shit. Absolutely no way could I catch that wheel. Within two or three hundred yards he was a bend ahead of me and I knew wouldn't see him again. Never mind, I was expecting to be passed. Now there was only big Dougie behind me.

    I knew big Dougie when we were lads; I wouldn't say I knew him that well, although I fancied his sister something rotten... but we're not that different in age, and he doesn't look like an athlete. However, he had turned up with the one bike which made my Dolan look second rate:
    all carbon, all aero, Mavic carbon disk wheel, aggressively aero-rimmed front wheel.

    Down past Barlochan, past Palnackie, and by then there was definitely a
    rider behind me. Coming through the dips past Lochhill a vicious
    whirring came up behind and I dropped two cogs and got out of the
    saddle to sprint.

    Some chance!

    Dougie must have had at least five miles per hour on me, probably more.
    He was pushing an impossibly tall gear with a cadence no more than two
    thirds mine but he was belting along. But then we were into the long
    Douganhill straights, over the flat coastal plain from Douganhill past
    Potterland to the Gelston road end. I was keeping a good roll on, my
    legs were feeling OK, breathing was OK, and Dougie was still visible
    ahead. I started to pass riders coming the other way. Then the rise up
    past Fred's, down past Screel Farm and the turning mark - Orchardton
    road end. And there's big Dougie apparently chatting to the marshal!

    I made my turn and accelerated back up the gentle rise to Fred's. As I
    crested it that vicious whirring came by again, this time with less of
    a speed advantage but I still didn't have the legs to stay with him.
    And then there was - shall we say - a bit of a morale gap. I was now
    last man on the road, and I'd burned my legs a bit trying to hold
    Dougie's wheel. But fortunately I was on the long flat Douganhill
    straights and I built my rhythm back. Coming through past Kirkennan
    again, through the twisty lumpy section round the garden wall, my legs
    were definitely hurting, and the Marshal's car coming past rubbed in
    the fact that there was no-one else behind me. Still, my lungs were
    working fine - I wasn't even breathing hard - and the bike was running
    well. I used the downhill out of Kirkennan to get the speed back up to
    a decent roll and pushed on down the last two miles. Now it didn't feel
    too bad - my legs were working smoothly, they could do it, and the end
    was in sight. My head stayed down for longer and longer periods, just
    watching the chain pour through the front deraileur, my glances up less
    frequent and shorter. The group on the road ahead started to resolve
    into individual figures and there was still some left in my legs so it
    was out of the saddle again and sprint, changing up a couple of gears
    as the speed built. And then the awful feeling that I'd started the
    sprint too early and my legs just couldn't do it and then I was across
    the line, braking, doing a figure of eight turn across the road back to the finish line.

    Later, in the quarry yard, Kelly Anne read out the results. There was a thirty five, some thirty twos, a couple of thirties, one twenty seven, and then...

    "S Brooke, thirty one fifty one"

    Wow! I was really surprised. I hadn't expected to come last, but I hadn't expected to average better than seventeen miles per hour, and 31:51 must be nearer nineteen. It's a lot faster than I knew I could
    do, and makes a sub-thirty minute run an achievable target, which I didn't really think it ever would be. And what's even more surprising is I actually enjoyed it. Next Wednesday we're to wear light coloured
    jerseys and have tail lights on our bikes. And next Wednesday I shall be there, in my light coloured jersey and with my tail light, seeing if I can edge a second or two faster.

    And big Dougie? He did twenty five minutes. Despite a slow puncture and having stopped at the turn to check he wasn't knackering that beautiful disk wheel.

    Sunday 5 September 2004

    I make Amazon's top 1000!

    I've been reviewing fiction for quite a while. I review books because, privately, I want to write them. So when I read a book, I try to analyse where the author succeeded and where the author failed, and in trying to analyse it I often write it down. It's a good exercise. It helps me to read with attention.

    I used to have a little database system on this site which organised my review, and I may revive it one of these days; but while it's been down I've been posting the occasional review to Amazon - mostly, but not all, of books I've been impressed with.

    And last night, browsing Amazon, I noticed that I've got the rank of 'Top 1000 reviewer'. It turns out to be absurdly easy to reach this rank; I've only posted 12 reviews. But I'm never the less pleased and not a little proud of my achievement.

    Next goal? Top 500, of course. I suspect that may be just a little harder.

    Thursday 26 August 2004

    Oh, I completely give up!

    Since 2001 I've used a standard stylesheet for my home page which has the navigation panel fixed to the right hand side of the browser so it doesn't scroll with the page but is always available. It's a nice trick. When I wrote this stylesheet, there were two browsers available which rendered it corectly. One was Konqueror, and the other was a late beta for Microsoft Internet Explorer 6.

    That beta was really very, very good indeed. It correctly dealt with all the interesting test stylesheets I threw at it. So I was really frustrated and annoyed when the final version of Internet Explorer 6 - the one which actually got released - had a very broken CSS engine.

    Now, three years later, most of the available browsers render my stylesheet correctly. Mozilla does, and consequently, so of course does Netscape, which uses Mozilla's rendering engine. Konqueror does, and consequently so does Safari, which uses Konqueror's rendering engine. Opera, naturally, does. But one browser notably does not: Internet Explorer.

    And what is really irritating is it isn't because they can't. It isn't because poor ickle Microsoft don't have sufficiently skilled software people to manage it. Not only is Microsoft the biggest and richest software house on the planet, they have already done it - as the IE6 beta proved. They know how to do this. They choose not to.

    For years I've put up with the fact that Microsoft's customers could not see my home page as I intended it. It shouldn't matter, of course, because my page is designed to degrade gracefully, so they get the full functionality even if it doesn't look as good as it could. But over the past couple of days I decided to work up a new stylesheet which would look good with every browser. I did away with the fixed right hand nav panel and instead floated it left. I kept the visuals simple and attempted just one visual trick: using a fixed background graphic for the body text, and a the inverse of that graphic as a fixed background for the sidebar.

    On standards compliant browsers the result looks simple but elegant, and I was extremely pleased with it... until I tried it on Internet Explorer.

    And Internet Explorer, of course, naturally, doesn't use the same graphic origin for the backgrounds of embedded elements as it does for the background of the page. And also it doesn't compute relative widths correctly. So the headers which in the new stylesheet should line up exactly with the edge of the sidebar don't do so. And the graphic, which should flow seamlessly from a positive image under the body to a negative image under the sidebar doesn't marry up correctly.

    So why do Microsoft choose to distribute a broken browser? Is it because they think the World Wide Web is not important enough for them to bother with?

    It could be, but frankly I don't think so.

    I think it's another example of 'embrace and extend'. Microsoft, I think, hopes to force people either to code their pages and stylesheets twice - once for standards compliant browsers and once for Internet Explorer - or else put up with the fact that their pages are going to look pretty crummy either on Internet Explorer or on standards compliant browsers. Microsoft hopes also that naiive customers, looking at websites which are coded for Internet Explorer with other browsers, will assume it's the other browsers which are broken.

    Allegedly Microsoft are now getting a little rattled by the success of the new Mozilla browsers. Allegedly they plan to do something about how far behind on technology Internet Explorer is getting. Allegedly there will be a new version out soon.

    Perhaps this new version will fix Microsoft's broken rendering engine. Perhaps. I'm not holding my breath. And furthermore, I am not changing my stylesheet, either. If this page looks crap to you, just consider whether it's my fault. Or yours, for choosing to support a monopoly which is deliberately breaking standards.

    Friday 20 August 2004

    #1 Road C


    It was my partner who first drew my attention to Terry Dolan's bicycles. My partner inherited my sister's Raleigh Royale when my sister died; it's a thoroughly nice bike quite apart from the sentimental attachment, but it bears the scars of twenty two years and she was thinking of having it professionally repainted, so she went trawling round websites looking for people who could make a good job of repainting a precious bicycle.

    Terry Dolan, among other things, paints bicycles. But he chiefly paints bicycles because he makes bicycles, and he makes some very nice bicycles indeed. The first time I looked at his site my attention was caught by his carbon monocoque frames, which look almost organic with their flowing curves. And ever since I'd had a sort of distant fantasy of having a new road bike built on one of those frames.

    It was a distant fantasy, frankly, because my Number 1 Road Iron was (is) perfectly good, so I didn't actually need another road bike, and any money I did have for another bike was supposed to be going on a recumbent. So when the subject of 'what would be your dream roadbike be' came up in conversation I mentioned the Dolan monocoques, but that was really all there was to it.


    Sometimes in the evenings I find myself sitting in front of my computer idly browsing the Web because I'm frankly too tired to go to bed. And on such an evening a couple of weeks ago I was idly browsing bike frames on eBay, frankly looking for interesting mountain bike frames. There was a link without a picture: 'EX DISPLAY DOLAN CARBON FRAME'. And I looked, and there it was: a Dolan frame, in my size, with no bids on it. It wasn't actually the frame I'd been seduced by on his website - slightly less swoopy and organic - but gorgeous, and if the price didn't rise much I could afford it.

    I watched that auction obsessively, and for days there were no bids. 10 minutes before the end someone put in a bid which was just ten pounds over the start price. I waited until two minutes from the end and put on twice the start price... but the other bidder didn't bid again and I got the frame for just twenty pounds over the start price - a very good bargain indeed.

    When I spoke to Dolan's they agreed to throw in a carbon wing fork for half retail price, which made it even more of a bargain. And two days later it was here.

    The next decision was the groupset. I don't know if you, like me, spent hours as a broke young man gazing into bike shop windows at kit you could not possibly afford. I still have memories of utterly gorgeous chainsets and brakes which I lusted after painfully (yes, I know, sad). And the name on the box was almost always the same: Campagnolo. For me that was the ultimate aspirational brand. Consequently, I've been riding around with a Campagnolo logo on my jersey without having a scrap of real Campagnolo kit on my bike.

    But it would be a crime to put inferior kit on a frame like this: Campagnolo it had to be. I phoned Oldham Cycle Centre (who'd been recommended to me as Campagnolo specialists, and I'd had good service from before) and ordered a Centaur groupset; after some agonising I ordered it without hubs, and ordered a set of prebuilt Mavic wheels. I wanted to get the bike ridable as soon as possible.

    The Saga of the Headset

    When I spoke to Oldham, I asked them about what headset to get. Their answer was unambiguous: get it from Dolan. So I phoned Dolan and asked what headset I needed. They said it was a Cane Creek integrated, but they didn't have any in stock. They recommended I phone a particular bike shop, who they had regular dealings with, and get it from them. So I phoned the shop and they said, ooh, no, don't get a Cane Creek, what you want is a Campagnolo. Well, as explained above, I'm predisposed to think that what I want is a Campagnolo, so I ordered it.

    And on Wednesday of this week the headset arrived. Then the frame and forks arrived. And finally the groupset and wheels arrived. and I could start playing. Now, putting the crown race of a headset onto the forks is a specialist job, so I took it into my local bike shop, and Marcus the proprietor kindly fitted it for me. And I took it home and started to build up the bike... and it quite quickly became obvious that the headset was not going to fit, no way, no how. Panic. My partner looked up Cane Creek headsets on the Web, and found one called an S2. It was by this time five to five in the afternoon, and I rang Dolan's. Yes, they said, I definitely needed a Cane Creek. Is it an S2, I asked. Yes, the person said, that sounds familiar.

    So I went over to Wiggle's site, where my partner had found it, and ordered an S2.

    And then, in the middle of the night. I woke up with just one thought in my head: the picture on the website was wrong. The headset in the picture was the wrong shape to fit in the frame; it would not work. In the morning, further phoning revealed that the headset I needed was a Cane Creek IS2, and that none of the suppliers I usually use had one in stock. Google came to the rescue with a list of shops which listed the IS2 in their catalogues, so I rang them one by one; and one by one they said they had none in stock, but two said they had the IS6 - identical in size and shape but twice the price. Having run out of options I phoned one of these back to order an IS6. And the salesman at the other end said that since putting the phone down on my first call he'd had another look, and he did have an IS2. In one and an eighth inch, which I needed. In black, which I wanted. Bless you, I said, put it in the post.

    So the next morning - yesterday morning - the headset arrived, and I was able to complete the bike. All up, including my old but comfortable Brooks saddle, it weighs just twenty one pounds. With a lighter saddle it would be under twenty. That's still quite a lot above the UCI limit, of course, but it's far and away the lightest bike I've had.

    When I'd finished the build it was, of course, raining. But I had to go for a ride anyway.


    I've ridden so far only about fifty miles on it. It's not far. But it already tells me I've got something pretty wonderful. The frame first: it has the very short angles which I like, which make for a responsive and engaging ride. It is, essentially, designed to be a professional time trial frame. But at the same time carbon fibre is quite obviously far more compliant than aluminium - more compliant even than good Reynolds steel. It is just so comfortable. Very little roadshock gets though either to the bars or to the saddle. At the same time it accelerates easily and climbs well.

    And the transmission is just so crisp. Every gear change is precise and immediate. I've never ridden a good road transmissions before, but it's far crisper than the high-end Shimano transmissions I have on my hill bikes. I'm very impressed. I'm impressed with the brakes, as well. I had thought until recently that road bike brakes were just fairly crap and you had to put up with it. But less than a month ago I upgraded my road bike to Centaur callipers, and I had been amazed by the difference. But when you team Campagnolo callipers with Campagnolo levers, the brakes are not merely very powerful but also very light. And last but not least, those levers. I've never ridden a road bike with integrated levers before, either; always before I've had downtube shifters. But the ergopower levers instantly felt natural and comfortable and easy to use.

    A weirdly enjoyable afternoon

    I was doing a bit of fettling on my new bike yesterday evening, and my neighbour came round and asked me for advice on fettling his bike.

    It was a mess. Both deraileur cables had frayed under the bottom bracket, and the front one had snapped entirely. The deraileurs were caked in dirt and not working. The brakes weren't working. And the tyres were utterly perished - the worst I've ever seen on a bike.
    The frame had minor cosmetic rust everywhere, but no obvious major rust.  He's a very good neighbour; I owe him a lot of favours.

    So this afternoon I collected it and started to strip it, dismantling and cleaning virtually everything (I didn't strip the bottom bracket - it felt very good and given the time I had I thought best to leave alone).

    It was weirdly like stripping and cleaning bikes I did when I was a lad - because it was in many ways very like the bikes we had in those days. Indeed, just stripping it was a journey of exploration and memory - and some surprises.

    The rear deraileur was an indexed Shimano - but it didn't have a slant parallelogram. I had thought that slant parallelograms came before indexing, but obviously not. The brakes were also Shimano, single pivot callipers. They, too, were covered in filth, and the once-chromed nuts utterly rusty. But once upon a time they'd been quite nice callipers, with nice little release levers to slack the cable for getting tyres out. The frame had a label 'Reynolds 500' which I'd never heard of before -  but it doesn't look like a great frame; minimal lug-work and rather sturdy seat stays. The wheels are 700C, but with steel rims - again, I've never seen steel rimmed 700C before.

    I couldn't get the cassette off, which was a nuisance because it made servicing the drive side bearing of the rear wheel decidedly tricky. But apart from that it all went pretty smoothly. I fitted all new cables, new tubes and tyres. I thoroughly cleaned and lubricated the deraileurs. I put it all back together and got the deraileurs set just so, so it changed crisply click, click, click. I put new bar tape on just to finish the job. I got the brakes working effectively, although as I haven't trued the back wheel and it isn't perfect they're not as good as I'd like.

    It was utterly different from the maintenance I do on my own bikes these days - they are, by comparison, effete machines. And I utterly enjoyed every minute of it. And the best bit of all was not so much when I sent my neighbour off for a test ride and he came back saying it was really nice, but when I got in from my own ride later he came and chapped on the back door and said he'd just been out for another ride and really enjoyed it.

    Tuesday 17 August 2004

    Review: Cannondale Jekyll 700

    In the beginning: Lust and Longing

    Long, long time ago, I can still remember when... I walked into Alan Dent's shop in Lancaster, and saw something beautiful. I knew about mountain bikes, of course; I even had one (and had shedloads of fun on it). Mountain bikes were crude, heavy gas pipe things with straight bars, wide gear ranges, tandem-style brakes, huge, knobbly tyres, and garish paint jobs. But what I saw that day was something different. Yes, it was a mountain bike, but in place of that crude, heavy gas pipe frame was an elegant confection of aluminium tubes, so cleanly welded you couldn't see the joins. In place of the garish paint job was plain, simple colour - a slightly muted green. In place of fancy graphics was a simple makers name in a simple bold sans-serif font: cannondale. It oozed quality. It begged to be ridden. But - it cost an arm and a leg, and I needed all mine for riding.

    In due course, as happens in Lancaster, both my bikes - my hill bike and my beautiful custom framed road bike - were stolen, and I went down to Alan's shop to get myself a new one. The Cannondales were still there and I still lusted after one, but there was no way I could afford one and I walked out with a Scott Sawtooth, a huge, heavy, ungainly gas pipe contraption in swamp-monster-vomit green with purple and shocking pink banding - but at a third of the price.

    It's not that I didn't like the Scott. It's not that I don't like the Scott - I've had it for fourteen years now, and it's taken me many thousands of miles - across floating bogs, up to the peaks of mountains, through literally pathless bits of wilderness, and down hundreds of forest tracks and paths. It's a lovely bike to ride; I still have it, and I still ride it for choice; but not very often any more, because this year I bought my Cannondale.

    Every time I have to go up to Edinburgh I allow myself an hour extra to go and visit Edinburgh Bicycle Co-op. All bike shops are good, but the co-op is one of my favourites, partly because I knew the people who founded it, partly because I identify with politics but, mostly because it s'a big spacious its place full of goodies, where you have plenty of room to see the goodies. And it's mostly there that I have watched the Cannondale marque develop. Front suspension came first. I appreciated the engineering of the fatty fork - a single suspension unit on the axis of the suspension travel, highly resistant to twist and allowing the fork legs to be strong and rigid against flex. So much better thought out than the systems with twin suspension units mounted at the ends of stansions which were poorly supported at their upper ends. I watched the development of the Y frame, and its eventual demise in favour of the more elegant Jekyll. I watched, and I admired, and I lusted.

    But still, I didn't need another bike, I didn't need suspension, and I couldn't afford a Cannondale. So I'd buy some little bit of jewelry for the Scott, and go home again.

    It was on a visit to the co-op last spring that I first actually saw a Lefty. It was such an outrageous piece of engineering that I was immediately intrigued. I saw what the designer was seeking to achieve: the single, large diameter stansion would be so much stiffer than a pair of smaller ones, but could at the same time be lighter. It just struck me as so elegant and at the same time so jaw-droppingly radical. The build quality of the bikes was as good as it had always been - no pigeon shit welds on a Cannondale, unlike most other aluminium bikes; the designs still as clean and elegant. The aura of fine engineering, of quality, still hung about them, even if the beautiful glossy paint work was now slightly marred by irrelevant stickers. The only slight problem is that the price was still scarily high.

    But the itch was under my skin: I wanted one. The choice, then, was between the hardtail F800 and the full suspension Jekyll (yes, I know I could also have had a Scalpel but frankly it didn't appeal for aesthetic reasons). I'd never actually ridden a mountain bike with suspension - with any suspension at all - so I hadn't really anything to go on to make my decision. Friends I knew who'd ridden full suspension bikes had said that they were great fun down hill, maybe not so good on the climbs. And heavy.

    But the thing was, not for me they weren't. The Jekyll would weigh, all up, about 27lbs. What a terrible thing! My Scott, which I was used to, weighed 31. So the weight didn't feel like a big issue - although I knew lighter was better. But full suspension intrigued me; and slowly the feeling coalesced. I wanted a Jekyll.

    First Love

    I suppose I must have been a boring nuisance agonising over them through the summer, because finally one morning my long suffering partner asked why I didn't just get one then? I phoned the co-op then and there and said I was interested in a large Jekyll 700 in black, and the person who took my call said they just happened to have such a beast in stock. Two hours and a hundred and four miles of driving later I was sitting on it, riding across the gentle lumps and hollows of - cycling strictly verboten - Bruntsfield links. In a sense it was ludicrous. I'd never even sat on a full suspension bike before, and a neatly coiffured inner city parkland is scarcely a test of seventeen hundred pounds worth of cross country machine. But instantly it was a gas. The bike felt lighter than my Scott. It felt more responsive. It felt more fun. And I was confident I could cope with the suspension. I bullied the poor salesman into giving up his lunchtime to getting the bike through its pre-delivery checks that day (it was, fortunately, already built up) pleading my hundred mile drive. I (of course - this was Edinburgh) picked up a parking ticket waiting around for it to be finished. I loaded it onto the back of the truck and drove home.

    The next day at Dalbeattie one thing was immediately obvious. I was faster - quite a lot faster - than I'd ever been before. I was faster downhill, which I'd sort of expected (or at least hoped). But what I hadn't expected was that I was also - and equally - faster on the climbs. This was mostly good, although it caused some ructions in the household and ultimately led to the Jekyll not being - by quite a long way - the most expensive bike under this roof, but that's another story. The bike was better than even I'd expected, and I was enjoying it more.

    In fact the first month or so of Jekyll ownership was pretty much unalloyed bliss. Oh - the saddle (a Fizik Nicene) was awful, at least for my anatomy. It was replaced within a fortnight with a Brooks Professional, which I always find comfortable. And, as supplied, the remote rear lockout cable ran into the front of the suspension unit, fouling the upper (and only really useful) bottle cage. However, the documentation which came with the bike showed the remote rear lockout cable running in from the rear of the suspension unit, so I made up a new longer cable and turned the lockout mechanism round, and that cured that.

    But apart from these little things the bike was just great: I was going faster, having more fun, and sailing cleanly through places I hadn't been able to ride previously. I remember one ride in particular: after a frustrating day at work I took the bike out and just blasted up the hill behind the house to the two hundred metre contour; up out of the valley farmland, up through the steeply climbing woods, out onto the high moorland of Bengairn's long shoulder. And then I turned round and blasted down again, down the track, down through the hairpins, lumps of rock spitting and jumping out from under the tyres. I remember thinking, OK, this is when you soften the front damping, taking my hand off the jumping and shuddering handlebar and turning the dial on the top of the leg as far as it would go to the soft end, feeling the difference at once.

    I remember powering down the track through the wood. I remember making a balls-up of one corner, losing my line completely, knowing I was going to run out of track and then the oh-oh, this is going to hurt moment. I remember that wonderful leg coping, soaking up the huge bang of the edge of the track, carrying me through, allowing me to pull the line back, to recover, to hurl the bike into the next bend and the next, leaping over boulders, hurling smaller rocks aside, burning off the frustration of the day.

    The Morning After

    And then, the niggles. Once you'd got used to it being so good, you started to fret about how it should be better. The thing that niggled first was climbing steep loose stuff. The bike had even wider gears than anything I'd ever ridden before, and the lowest ones seemed stupidly low. But when I came to a steep loose bank, I just lost traction. I tried it with the rear shock locked; I tried it with the rear shock active; but I still couldn't get traction. I blamed the bike.

    The Scott, with it's ancient Biopace set up, actually did this better, or so it seemed. I even thought seriously of getting a Biopace crankset for the Jekyll.

    And the Lefty - that glorious piece of outrageous engineering that I had so much wanted - didn't seem to like steep climbs either. It would pant and wheeze like an asthmatic as I struggled up them. The lack of front lockout seemed such a loss. I felt I'd bought the wrong bike, that I should have forked out the extra money for the 1000 with the DLR Lefty and front lockout.

    The downhills, too, had their problems. Of course you're out of the saddle most of the time on a downhill. But if you hit a bump too hard when you were in the saddle, the single bolt Ritchey seatpost which was supplied with the bike would slip. No matter how much you tightened it, just when you least wanted it your saddle would be pointing at the sky. Also, to get comfortable on the bike, I found I had the seatpost just on the safe limit mark, and I actually wanted it higher. The fact that the downhills I was riding were both faster and more difficult than I'd ever done before sort of slipped past me in my frustration.

    Finally, the tyres which came with the bike, Hutchinson Scorpions, didn't seem to like any surface I tried them on. They didn't like mud. They didn't like loose gravel. They didn't like wet roots. They didn't much like bare rock, and they definitely didn't like tarmac. And if you so much as showed them a hawthorn bush they'd break out spontaneously in a rash of punctures.

    Altogether, I felt a little out of love with the bike, a little disappointed. I even wondered whether I had got the right size, whether I should actually have gone for an extra large.

    The Sinner Repenteth

    And then gradually I realised I was trying to apply skills I'd learnt in years of riding a rigid bike to a completely different machine, and it wasn't going to work. I actually needed to adapt my technique to get the best out of the bike. Facing a steep loose bank, instead of getting out of the saddle and stomping, as I was used to, I tried staying sat down and spinning. And it worked like magic. Suddenly I saw what those apparently absurdly low gears were for: to allow you to spin up ridiculous gradients. Because you were spinning you weren't pumping the bike forward in irregular spurts, and the bike didn't break traction. Also, of course, just as you weren't pumping it forwards, so you weren't pumping it up and down. It didn't bob; the Lefty didn't pant; the remote rear lockout, which I had thought such a wonderful feature when I'd bought the bike, revealed itself to be more or less irrelevant - indeed, I've now removed the remote lockout lever and now only use lockout when going fast on flat, smooth surfaces.

    There's a side benefit of this. When I got the Jekyll I could not ride it no hands - a thing which very much surprised me, because I've never before had a bike I couldn't ride no hands, and on the whole mountain bikes with their slacker angles are easier to 'no hands' than road bikes. It would persistently pull left, although not enough to upset you when riding normally. I put this down to the lefty. After all, in the folklore (the folklore that also believes against all the evidence that aluminium bikes 'crack and fail'), lefties are supposed to pull left, so I just believed the folklore. As soon as the cable for the remote lockout was removed, however, the bike was easy to ride no hands - it had been the spring in the lockout cable that had been upsetting its balance.

    Two small changes helped in my change of understanding about the bike. With advice from Rik of Rik's Bike Shed I changed the seatpost for a longer, two bolt one. Saddle troubles are now a thing of the past. And also from Rik, I bought a pair of Velociraptor tyres, the modern equivalent of the Panaracer Smoke/Dart setup that I learned to love on my Scott. The Velociraptors love every surface the Scorpions hated, with the exception of wet roots. They're a bit heavier and I think they're maybe a teansie bit slower, but I'll forgive them that for their excellent grip.


    I've had the Jekyll a year now. The paintwork isn't quite to pristine, with small scratches where I've fallen on rocky ground, and from rubbing on the car rack. Otherwise, it's good as new. I've changed some stuff - most of which I've detailed above, but here's the list:

    • Saddle: the fizik nicene just didn't suit me; now it's a Brooks Professional, which is all day comfortable (later changed to a Selle Italia SLR, which is equally comfortable but one fifth the weight).
    • Seatpost: The Ritchey single bolt post wasn't quite long enough and kept slipping. Replaced with a BBB two bolt, which is long enough and doesn't slip (later changed to a USE Alien which is lighter and also doesn't slip).
    • Bar Bag: Added a KlikFix mount for a Carradice Super C bar bag, the same one I use on all my bikes (now removed).
    • Bar Ends: Added Cane Creek Ergo bar ends - very nice indeed (I've also, over the years, cut about four inches off the length of the handlebars).
    • Remote Rear Lockout lever and cable: gone, not lamented.
    • Stem: replaced with a slightly longer one, otherwise identical - improves my fit on the bike.
    • Bottle cages: two. What more need I say?
    • Pedals: replaced with Time ATAC, which shed mud better than SPDs.

    There's still some stuff I may change. I'd like to upgrade the Lefty, and one of these days I may do so. I had a cycle computer bodged on for a while, but the bodge failed - fitting a computer pickup to a lefty isn't easy. There's a swiss firm who make an adaptor, but it doesn't really look any better a bodge than my own. This does need more thought because I would like the computer back.

    So, is it as good a bike as I thought it would be?

    Well, firstly, yes it is as good a bike as I'd hoped, and I'm enjoying it as much as I'd hoped. It's made me think much more analytically about my mountain biking; it's allowed me to do things which previously I couldn't have done; it's encouraged me to ride much more - and to ride much more difficult sections - than before. A few nights ago, soloing in the dark through a twisty bit of red route singletrack, I had the sudden feeling that the Jekyll had come with a whole pack of 'get out of jail free' cards: it allows me to get away with things which I otherwise could not. It is quite simply the nicest bike, and probably the nicest physical object of any kind, that I've ever owned.

    Furthermore, the 'all mountain' marketing tag means exactly what it says. In a period when mountain bikes are getting more specialised the Jekyll is still a go anywhere, do anything bike, as happy with climbing up hills as blasting down, as happy with tight twisting singletrack as with broader, easier trails.

    Secondly, would I advise anyone else to buy the same model? The answer is no. The Lefty is a great concept; the bottom of the range Lefty Jake, which is what you get on the Jekyll 700, is slightly flawed execution. It is worth paying a little extra, not particularly for the lockout which three months ago I would have told you it desperately needed, but for more adjustability (I have since bought a DLR Lefty, and it is a considerable improvement).

    Also, the Lefty is quite complex and appears to need quite a lot of complicated maintenance. In theory you're supposed to take it into a Cannondale dealer every forty hours for a strip and rebuild, and there's simply no way I can afford to take a day off work every month to drive the bike up to Edinburgh (or down to Keswick), sit twiddling my thumbs all day, and bring it home again - quite apart from what it would cost every month. So I'm just keeping it well lubricated, making sure it gets properly dried after wet rides, and frankly hoping for the best. And, to be fair, it's stood up to a year's moderately intensive use very well, and is still as buttery smooth and forgiving as it was on day one.


    Cannondale's 2005 model range is out, and the Jekyll is retained only at the very bottom of the 'all mountain' model range. The bike which replaces it, the Prophet, is in many ways a logical development of the Jekyll.

    Like the Jekyll, it has a single pivot rear swing arm pivoting in line with the top of the middle chainring. The front triangle is considerably simpler, lacking the adjustable geometry of the Jekyll and the rather complex basket of tubes that required. Suspension travel at both ends is longer, too.

    Do I plan to get one? No. My Jekyll is doing me just fine.

    Creative Commons Licence
    The fool on the hill by Simon Brooke is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License