Friday, December 3, 2010

Commuting - the first month

WELL, I've been commuting to work on the Pro Cruiser for over a month now and everything seems to be going well.

MY initial route was fairly roundabout as I wanted to stick to cycle paths and car free streets. I wanted to get a feel for just how visible I was in rush hour traffic, and what reaction I would get from the grumpy commuters and school-run mothers. Over the weeks I slowly adjusted and shortened the route, steadily adding more road time, until I settled on a similar one I would use on my mountain bike. The only place I still compromised was crossing the coastal road Quay Street as this involves traversing two or three lanes of frantic traffic to reach a right hand filter lane at a traffic light - which would then never change as it runs off a sensor triggered by weight - the weight of a car. On my upright I would handle this junction by sitting right at the stop line and darting across at the point when the lights changed, but on the trike this just felt too exposed so I would cheat and use the pedestrian crossing - this is generally against my rules, but I justified it on the grounds of not getting squashed by container truck.

AS it turned out the reception I received was similar to my test rides; the drivers were incredibly polite, to the extent were it almost became irritating - I know that sounds ungrateful, but the recumbent is so comfortable that I'd often find myself pondering some thought while waiting for a line of traffic to pass, before realising they had all stopped and were waiting for me to turn.

ONE of the more bizarre moments involved the attitude of other cyclists. I was heading home on the coastal cycle path and coming in the other direction, three abreast on the road were a pack of tour wannabes - carbon fibre road bikes, coordinated lycra covered in company names, wraparound sunglasses and utility belts of bottled techno-water and power drinks. One of the lead riders looked at me, turned to his companions and said in a loud voice "I'd NEVER ride something like THAT!". This is a fairly common reaction in my experience so far, but what made it such a perfect moment, was that the pack was being gamely tailed by a intrepid individual on a large wheeled unicycle.

GENERALLY though, I have now reached a point that I am using the trike much as I would my upright. After many years of cycling in London I have become an extremely careful cyclist. By all rational argument, the onus should be on the drivers of the heavier and more dangerous vehicles to avoid injuring the less well protected; pedestrians, cyclists, scooterists, boarders and the like. In reality this can't be relied upon, and it is your own responsibility to keep yourself safe. A cycle helmet and a fluorescent jacket will not keep you alive anywhere near as effectively as not allowing yourself into the situation where a motorised vehicle can knock you off or run you over.

WE'VE recently had a terrible run of cyclist deaths in New Zealand, roughly one a day in the past few weeks. This is an appalling statistic for such a small and underpopulated country. Things like cycle paths, junction improvements and traffic calming can help, bit in the end I think you just have to be careful and assume the worst; as Joseph Heller said in Catch 22, "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you.".

Friday, October 29, 2010

Second test ride

WHEN I returned from the first test ride I had a look at the trike and confirmed my suspicions regarding the dérailleur. When mounting it I hadn't engaged the lug correctly so there wasn't enough tension. This was a very quick fix with the large allen key, and a spin round the car park proved I now had a the full range of gears.

SETTING up the Cateye speedo was also a cinch, so I was now travelling at what seemed like a more reasonable speed.

SINCE everything seemed to be working well I decided to head off on a more extensive test run. A quick elevator journey to the wharf level proved that I was also becoming more adept at folding the front boom. The boom is held in it's operational and folded positions by engaging a latch into a slot in the main fame and securing with two quick release clamps. At first this seemed fiddly, but I quickly got the hang of it - I am of course a black belt master of the origami-like Brompton folding process from my commuting years in London.

THIS time I decided to head East towards Mission Bay - this is the closest beach to central Auckland and would be extremely busy since it was turning into an unnaturally sunny Labour Day weekend. The huge advantage of this route is that there is a shared cycle and pedestrian path 99% of the way, and since it runs along the coast there are no hills to speak of.

I wound through the crowds in front of the lovely old Ferry Building, carefully crossed the access roads to the airport bus terminal and sped off down the shared pavement along Quay Street. You certainly do get a lot of looks when you ride a trike; once again a mixture of interest, puzzlement, mirth and pity. A lot of the pedestrians on the shared path didn't seem to see me at first; probably because being so low, I am below their eyeline - so perhaps I should consider using the flagpole supplied by Sidewinder. On the other hand, drivers seemed to notice me far more than when I used my upright - eye contact would be made from vehicles on both sides of the road .The first time I came to a marina access road that crossed the cycle route, the pickup (a 'ute' over here) that was already waiting to turn onto the main road actually reversed to let me through.

CYCLE routes in Auckland are a very mixed bag, often they are simply pavements that have been re-designated as shared space, so there are some very odd cambers and tight corners; especially where the drop-curb occurs at road junctions. These little challenges really showed off the manoeuvrability advantage of the rear-wheel steering system. I could nip round these tight and peculiarly angled corners with ease - so much so that my speed resulted often in me lifting the inside wheel. Interestingly this never felt at all dangerous and there was absolutely no indication that the trike would ever tip over; it all just felt a brilliantly exciting part of the handling.

MY speed on this fairly flat route seemed to average about 20kph with no noticeable effort, and I could easily  push to 25kph when I wanted to. On one downward incline I was up to 28kph before I had to make a turn and slow down and so far all handling has proved smooth, fun and predictable. Wind resistance is noticeably lower even than my two wheel recumbent, and I am intrigued to see what it will be like when I mount a nose fairing.

THE eight kilometre trip to Mission Bay went by without mishap. I heard loads of comments from pedestrians as I travelled; the only derogatory one being from four lads in a muscle-car, which considering the source I can also reclassify as a positive remark. I especially liked the one I received when I finally crossed the Millennium Bridge into Mission bay and slid to a halt on the sandy foreshore. A young mauri guy with his 5 year old son walked over - "Hey, way cool bike, bro!"

The Pro-Cruiser at Mission Bay with Rangitoto volcano in the background

THE trip back to Auckland was just as much fun. I really noticed how much more easily you can look at the scenery when sitting relaxed in the recumbent seat. I was so comfortable and in control I even experimented with taking some 30 second video shots with my old Olympus Mju camera - of course these mainly consisted of views of my knees going up and down.

I was quite intrigued when I finished the trip as my upper body was very relaxed, but my legs were finally starting to get tired. When I was travelling it was clear that I was using some different muscles than on my upright - so I would expect this to improve the more I use the trike. There was none of the neck or wrist strain from the forward leaning position of the upright, and I may have been imagining it, but also seemed to have been using my lungs to better effect with my open posture.

SO, everything's going well so far. next I'll see how the trike and I handle my daily commute to work through busy rush-hour Auckland.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

First test ride

WELL it was too late when I finished on Saturday to go for the first test ride, so I folded the trike up on the balcony and waited for Sunday morning.

ANOTHER sunny say dawned, and this time I didn't have a hangover, so all in all a great improvement. First things first, I had to get the trike out of the apartment. This involved wheeling it across the living room from the balcony, bumping it slowly down a dozen stairs, turning it on the tiny landing then down the next stairs to our front door.

I grabbed my camera, a hat and some emergency tools and then found the first problem. The trike is slightly too wide to fit through the door, so I had to put it on end and drag it sideways; all in all a very tight fit. Thankfully this isn't a particularly big issue as I intend to store it on the car park level two floors down, but it convinced me I won't be bringing it upstairs for maintenance very often.

THE rest of the journey to the outside world went without hitch as I took the lift down the two floors to the car park, then over to another lift to take me down three floors to the wharf. The trike fitted in the lift easily if I folded up the front boom; this folding action was one of the reasons I picked a Sidewinder trike in the first place so it was nice to see it coming in handy so soon.

ONCE outside I climbed aboard and tentatively set off. My first impression was how amazingly different this was from my first ride on the two wheeled recumbent a few years ago, which felt like learning to ride a bike all over again. The trike is immediately fun! The position is very low and feels quite like a go-cart; this also gives the impression of speed as you can see the ground travelling past very close to you.

THE rear wheel steering at first seems a little odd as you can feel the tail move from side to side at low speeds, but very quickly the advantage over two wheel recumbents and front wheel steer tadpoles becomes clear; the Sidewinder is incredibly manoeuvrable. It's amazingly entertaining just to slalom between poles or pull very tight turns. I kept expecting it to lose traction and drift, but the huge fat tires seem to grip the road wonderfully and you just zip tightly round the corners.

I headed off the wharf and through the Viaduct Harbour area attracting lots of odd looks; recumbents are incredibly rare in NZ and trikes obviously even more so. At one point I was hailed by an older chap who was heading the same way on his upright town bike. "How are you finding the recumbent?", he asked. We had a short chat about the advantages and disadvantages which ended with the familiar one about visibility and the likelihood of being squashed by a truck that never even notices you. I explained my theory, gleaned from the internet I admit, that tadpole trikes are so odd drivers couldn't help but notice them.

I carried on to do a circuit of the old tank farm which is now being redeveloped as 'next big thing'; seafood restaurants, tree lines boulevards and the like. I noticed two things as soon as I was on the roads; drivers were extremely polite, hanging back rather than overtaking, and I seemed to be suffering from a distinct lack of gears. For the first point, I decided the drivers thought I was either A: Cool, or B: Disabled; in the absence of any other evidence I went with option A. For the second issue, I guessed that I had messed up the mounting of the dérailleur, it was working but only in a short range which implied there wasn't enough tension on the return spring..

OH yeah, and a third thing. According to the Cateye speedometer I seemed to be travelling amazingly fast - I had a strong suspicion that I needed to adjust the setting for the wheel size.

ON the return trip I stopped the trike briefly to snap a picture in front of one of Auckland's most recognisable landmarks, the Sky Tower. This showed up one other little thing I would have to remember; the trike doesn't have a locking brake so you have to be careful when you stop even on a slight slope that it doesn't wander off by itself.

Even on this unnoticeable slope the trike had to be placed on a drain cover to stop it charging off

Assembly day

UP and about bright and early on the Saturday in spite of a Guinness fuelled hangover. Amazingly it looked like it was going to be a gloriously sunny long weekend. I sat down with a good supply of tea and a printout of the assembly instructions; I felt vaguely guilty about ignoring Jim's directions about opening the box and resolved to follow everything else to the letter.

ONCE I was sure I'd managed to absorb the initial steps I collected my socket set and hat, and dragged the carton out on to the balcony; I figured Fiona wouldn't be too happy about me constructing the trike in the living room.

ANOTHER quick check of the instruction sheet, then I closed up the box and flipped it over and proceeded to extremely carefully cut around what was now the base with a serrated blade.

THIS took several minutes as I didn't want to scratch the paint or catch a tire with the knife. The whole process was a bit worrying, and afterwards it occurred to me that I could have opened the top (well bottom) of the box and would have had a much clearer idea of what I was doing.

ANYWAY, all went well, and when I finished the cut I lifted away the bulk of the shipping carton to reveal the chrysalis that was hopefully going to shortly become my trike. I sliced this open equally carefully and soon had a pile of components and wheels.

JIM's next instruction was to find the two stub axles, slightly different lengths, and fix them in place.

A little side note here: one of the best purchases I ever made was a good quality, comprehensive socket set including hex as well as bihex sockets. I've used it countless times, and it always makes the job seem much easier if you'e using a decent tool.

THE next step was to assemble the the fork stem. At first glance I was worried that that not enough parts had been shipped as the exploded view in the instructions included far more components than were in the small bag attached to the alternate steering cable. After rereading the instructions though I realised that bearing cups were already installed, and all I had to add were the races and nuts.

ONCE I'd understood the assembly steps correctly the fork slotted together and fitted onto the frame without a problem.

THE steering rods that clip into each side of the bell crank were a little harder to align and resulted in some fiddling and choice language before they clicked into place with a very satisfying solidity.

AFTER the detailed instructions so far I was a little surprised to find just one more short paragraph simply saying to now put on the wheels and the differential cover. During my scan of the owners manual I remembered something slightly more detailed about installing the wheels, and I found it under the 'Unfolding' section. The rear wheel with it's quick release hub was installed in seconds, but the two front wheels were more troublesome.

THE wheel hub unscrewed easily, and I caught the pin as it dropped out of the axle; so far so good. I slipped the wheel into place and lined up the holes in the wheel and axle as described in the manual. The problem came when I tried to put in the pin; it would go in one side perfectly, but the alignment was so tight I couldn't get it to come out the other side. I tried swapping wheels to see if this was simply a left/right issue, but found the same problem. Now, I never try to force anything mechanical just in case I'm being stupid or not following instructions correctly, but try as I might I couldn't find a configuration that let the pin slip in easily. In the end I opted for some gentle persuasion; I placed a male hex drive with the same diameter as the pin, held it against the pin head and tapped with a hammer until the pin was securely in place. I then screwed on the hub cover and all seemed fine.

THE dérailleur seemed to have been fully set up and adjusted, then detached from it's frame mounting for shipping. There's wasn't anything I could see in the instruction manual about this so I simply fiddled about with able and chain routing until it could be manoeuvred into position and screwed into place using the larger of the two allen keys supplied with the trike.

AT last it was time to flip the trike the right way up. The trike is surprisingly light, and thankfully nothing seemed to fall off or go twang as a result of the process. I attached the extremely cool steering handles to the other end of the steering rods and tested the movement. Everything seemed fine, so I attached the differential cover plate and spent a frustrating ten minutes removing all the taped on bubble wrap from the seat frame. The mesh seat cover seemed very tight at first, but I assumed that this was to accommodate some stretching once my 100 kilos had been sitting in it for a while.

FINALLY I lined up the front and rear reflectors and I was done.

I don't know why I wasn't looking happier at this point. Possibly because I still had my hangover.

The Pro-Cruiser has landed

FRIDAY afternoon, the 22nd of October. I got the call I'd been waiting for; the trike had successfully crossed the Pacific, cleared NZ customs and was now in a truck heading for my apartment.

FIONA understandably expressed doubts about being able to to carry the box up to the fifth floor by herself, and she asked me to nip home to be there for the delivery. So I prevailed upon Tim to give me a lift home, with the promise of a beer to make it worth his while, and we arrived at the wharf with 5 minutes to spare.

Tim watches my delicate box-surgery
THE box the Pro-Cruiser shipped in is surprisingly small and the delivery driver commented that he had trouble convincing customs that it contained a 'bicycle'. I thanked him for his amazingly accurate delivery estimate, and Tim and I grabbed the box. It wasn't too heavy, but it would have been very cumbersome for one person to move, so I was very glad that I had both bribed Tim to help, and that there was an elevator almost all the way up to the apartment.

NOW, I know it says in Jim's instructions that I should open the box by turning it upside down and then cutting the sides two inches from the bottom, but I just had to see the contents before I returned to work. I eagerly sliced the tape and popped the staples down the length and opened it up to get my first view of my Pro-Cruiser. It was wrapped in so much shipping cling-film it looked like it had been attacked by a giant spider, and had survived the air journey from California perfectly. Very carefully I slit open the cocoon with my Swiss multi tool and revealed the cherry red trike.

WOW, just as cool as I'd hoped. Grudgingly I closed up the box and headed back to work; I had the long and hopefully sunny Labour Day weekend ahead to assemble and try out the trike.

Monday, October 18, 2010

So close...

WELL, it looked like the trike would arrive on my birthday, but it wasn't to be. Apparently air freight is very busy on the run up to Christmas (?!) so the Pro-Cruiser was unloaded again at LAX and delayed a couple of days. Latest estimate is the 21st now.

I'M sure somebody once said that anticipation is half the fun. Hmmmmmm...

Friday, October 15, 2010