the redoubtable beast has had pegasus pills

Following that time back in January I managed to write five hundred words about a backpack, A Materialistic Love-Letter to a Physical Object II: THE BICYCLE.



I’ve never actually had a new new bike. Various second-hand/hand-me-down/shared family bikes (and the tandem) have done me for most of my life and family cycling holidays, with a brief, memorable ride to the Giant’s Causeway on some ankle-shredding pieces of crap we hired from some Ulster wide boy, and a characterful little clunker once borrowed for a few euros to pootle around Tempelhof.  For the first year of uni, I borrowed my dad’s zippy Marin, but he took it back in the end.

At the start of second year, I was given a nearly-new second hand bike by my wonderful un-godparents, which served very well for nipping around campus and taking me to various hellish corners of Birmingham for my census work. It was my mainstay for a long time, the first machine I as an adult felt any ownership of, with aftermarket aluminium pedals I fitted when the plastic ones fell apart, and a little green zip-tie round the headtube identifying my right to lock it to things around Mason Halls. But it was quite heavy, and was never really the same after Dad jammed it into the back of the car when shipping out for third year: the derailleurs clicked in spite of endless fiddling with the levers and cables, and the brakes seemed to be useless despite one replacement after another. But it served well (if decreasingly frequently) over the next couple of years, until I locked it up in the city centre when going off to Ukraine, and came back to find it missing.

Feeling a bike-shaped hole in my life, I went around shops and poked listlessly at the internet – there’s a strong second-hand market on Gumtree, but it seems to move very fast, when the one thing I don’t want to do is rush. Demand moves fast at the various second-hand places in Bristol, too – everything I could find was some combination of the wrong size, the wrong shape, rather expensive, or fitted with those stupid sodding frame-mounted gear levers for racing hipsters. If I were feeling somewhat flush, my choice would have been a Bristol Bicycle, from local legends Jake’s Bikes, a wonderful setup which also happens to be right next door to my current office. They’re designed as city bikes, rather than mountain bikes or racers, and have a real thought-through appeal to them: you get a very strong sense that some blokes who work at a bike workshop have been making notes of issues their customers have for a long time, and set out to put together a bike which addresses them.

Not long after Ukraine, I started my temp job at the bank, and when I got made permanent recently one of the Proper Employee benefits I was keen to take advantage of was the Cycle Scheme, which lets you buy a new bike from pre-tax salary sacrifice – ie, you avoid paying income tax or NI (so savings north of 30%) – and which Jake’s happily offer. The process developed into a massive struggle, with repeated problems with their online form and, once I’d actually ordered the bike and attendant lock, pannier rack and mudguards, our idiotic work systems cancelled the whole thing and demanded I go through the process again – so, feeling a) flush from a tax refund, b) thoroughly cheesed off at the whole silly system, I just went down to the shop and bought the thing outright.


The new toy, now with mudguards and pannier rack
The new toy, now with mudguards and pannier rack.

It’s a “Park Street”, crisp black and silver,* with smaller wheels than I’m used to but excellent gears and a light, compact aluminium frame; the brakes are superb, the posture natural. I was struck on my first ride how odd it felt to have a bike all tuned up and silent, with no clicking or rattling anywhere, no stick in the controls or idiosyncrasies in the gear levers. It felt… nice. I don’t actually need it for my current trip to work – which is fairly hilly and takes exactly half an hour, my cutoff point for where the extra faff of cycling (especially needing extra clothes and kit, which you really do with these cold dark winter afternoons) outweighs the travel time saved. But it’s very nice to have, for the future, a machine which absolutely fits my spec and feels right, one which is, for the first time, something just for me.


* The Bristol Bikes are matte black with plain metal fittings, and no fancy or show-offy bits; Jake explained to me that he wanted them to be very un-flashy, to avoid attracting thieves’ attention. While I agree with the rationale, I think it’s gorgeous and would totally nick it.


but our glitter days are coming soon


It is with great sadness that today I bid goodbye to My Backpack, faithful companion all over the world for the last six or seven years. I don’t tend to get that hung up on physical objects, but it is the best bag I’ve ever had, a perfect 32 litres of black and grubby feldgrau, with a padded central pocket for laptops, a spacious mainbay for general goods, and a little top pocket right at my shoulders for wallets, phones, keys, headphones, batteries, memory sticks, train tickets and all those other little things. It’s been with me on every one of the travelogues I’ve written; it’s probably spent more time with me than any other person or object in the last decade. Friends, phones, countries, pairs of spectacles have all gone and come, but the bag has remained, eternal.

It has hauled heavy sixth-form textbooks with a heavy heart and university materials with a joyful one; it has taken laptop, charger, spare shoes and spare tie to Her Majesty’s crown courts and hard drives full of declassified material back from military archives.Its side pocket has carried Christmas presents from one end of Britain to the other, water bottles across warm days in Budapest, Vienna, Copenhagen and Delhi, and my dinged-up steel thermos flask to and from the University of Birmingham campus day in, day out. Its grey-green fabric has carried the dust of Rajasthan and Alpha, been stained by the grime of the Moscow Metro and the Berlin U-bahn, and washed back more-or-less presentable by the midsummer rains of Cairns, the snows of Yamagata prefecture and the endless drizzle of Yorkshire. It has taken bro-picnics to Lenin’s tomb, and carried my material life out into the lonely heart of the Queensland outback and back out again.

It’s falling apart now, has been for a while; the interior lining is going to pieces, the shoulder seams are strained, a couple of the zip toggles are missing. So when my mum presented me with a bigger, blacker replacement this un-Christmas, I looked sadly at The Bag and agreed that, well, it really did need replacing. The new bag was perfectly nice: spacious, well-made and chosen with love… but it didn’t have the laptop enclosure, or the shoulder pocket, or even the bottle holder, and when I started packing everything up to go back to Harrogate it was clear that it wasn’t exactly ideal; we could both tell what I really wanted was the same again.

And after a little googling and a phone call it turned out the Kathmandu at the top of Park Street had a “V3” of the exact same bag, with some very slight improvements (new zip toggles, a little internal sub-pocket, fewer dangly straps), only in black, and half price in the January sales.

So hopefully that’s me sorted for the next few years and countries.