Friday, February 26, 2010


Yesterday on the radio (I like to keep you all abreast of Pacific affairs) the CEO of Telecom Retail, one Alan Gourdie, apologised for the most recent failure of their dismal phone system, telling the country

'Some of our consumer customers and some of our business customers have had multiple outages and we have to appraise them of their options'.

One can write the usual sonorous letter to the Radio authorities but it saves a lot of bother just to telephone Radio New Zealand's helpline 0800KILLBUSINESSSPEAK whenever you hear a marketing CEO broadcast junk like that, and they promptly send round an operative to shoot him dead on the spot. - This has been found to be consistently more effective than the Plain English Campaign, and also saves buying a dictionary for all the businessmen who use big words like 'appraise' without knowing what they mean. Anyway there's a dictionary shortage. Not enough are being printed. Yesterday a truck pulled over in front of me and the driver climbed out and put his hand up to stop me.

'You're really low and dangerous. I mistook you for the grass verge.'

His understanding of the word 'dangerous' differed from mine: I think I was more in danger than dangerous.

He was an ugly man. He looked like Rhodes Boyson. I should quite like to have had him shot for purely aesthetic reasons and never mind the fact that he was a road menace. But I thanked him politely. There isn't an 0800KILLATROCIOUSDRIVERS number but it probably doesn't matter. Frankly, if your eyesight is such that you struggle to differentiate between a person and the wayside pasture then lorry-driving isn't the best career choice because sooner or later you're going to be unable to differentiate between the road and a tree.

However the immediate issue for me as a cyclist is that blindness and advanced stupidity don't prevent people from driving a truck. Given that the only sensible solution isn't yet likely to engage public enthusiasm, perhaps I'd be more visible, if not safer, on my penny farthing.

A grass verge, and sundry items possibly visible to truck drivers

A worrying thing about penny farthings is that the front tyre isn't far from the backbone when resting, and every bump in the road, every pedal thrust, changes this gap backwards and forwards by a good 1.0295276 inches(1). I hadn't thought about this till the other day when Mr Knight pointed out that should the backbone momentarily make contact with the tyre it acts as the most powerful brake in the world, and if you're riding a penny down a hill and wisely standing on the step above the back wheel, you don't want to apply the front spoon brake because your momentum will bring the backbone forwards and it'll jam on the tyre, and then you really will be lofted up and over the handlebar to the consternation of all your neck bones.

Watching penny farthings at speed brings home the variable wheelbase, and my spies report that at the next Waimate TT the penny farthing chaps propose another race presumably for this purpose. There has been talk of breaking the existing penny farthing records and Mr Knight has been consulted as to what they are (he knew instantly, muy bien) but he rather thinks they will not in fact be broken.

The records are listed under "America and other colonies" and are as follows

1/4 mile 41 1/5 secs (21.84mph)

1/2 mile 1 min 19 2/5 secs (22.67mph)

1 mile 2 mins 43 2/5 secs (22.03mph)

5 miles 14 mins 55 3/5 secs (20.10mph)

10 miles 29 mins 23 1/5 secs (20.42mph)

all correct as of 1st July 1891 which was the end of the penny era anyway.I have gently tried to suggest exactly how fast those records are and how unfit *all* today's riders are. Most records are held by one Nathaniel Hall who was a professional rider of the highest calibre. I couldn't get close to those records even when I was fit and young. Also the NZ records are slow compared to the English ones, probably due to poor track quality in NZ. It's a mistake to assume that we are betterer, fasterer and cleverer than our ancestors; we are not. - Bob

I'm inclined to agree. I can't always manage those speeds on my recumbent.

1. The Danish inch, a perky measurement the cycle industry ought to adopt by way of further perverting standardization.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Penny farthings

Mr Knight has been here again. He came on this.

I shall not say what it was because if I pretend omniscience by referring to it as a 53-inch Humber 1883 with a Trigwell Ball Bearing Head and Bown's (sic.) Back-wheel Balls then he will immediately inform me, curtly, that it was a 52 inch Coventry Machinists' 1875 with an Andrew's Patent Head and they're Club Dust-proof Cones and anyway how come I didn't notice the Arab Cradle Spring? (Just keep your eye on the Comments. See?- See?) For Mr Knight knows more about obscure bicycle parts from 120 years ago than anyone else in New Zealand apart from Mr Robin Willan, who is seen here

departing, rather rapidly, from both my house and the photograph. Mr Willan makes penny farthings. He makes them so accurately that he has to engrave each component with his name lest they are mistaken by enthusiastic auctioneers for originals. Mr Willan's penny farthings are works of utter craftsmanship and as soon as I heard he was coming I hid my penny farthing in the deepest recesses of the garage. I built my penny farthing. It is as bad as all the other things I build. It doesn't have a Trigwell Ball Bearing Head; it has a Sawn-off Shopper From Sileby Dump Head, and instead of an Arab Cradle Spring it's got a seat I found, inexplicably, in a hole in the road in Berlin one day.

I copied the spoking from one I saw in Berlin Transport Museum, in a moment's inattention to the German road pothole situation, where each spoke doubles upon itself in the flange and so is actually two spokes at once.

It's a cunning and simple way of spoking a penny but overnight each spoke transmits tension to its partner and you come out in the morning to find a four foot potato crisp sitting on the Workmate. Took me two weeks to true my wheel. Even now it's half an inch out of round and three-eighths out sideways. I forgive it, though, because Mike West in York took it off another machine and said 'Nobody'll ever ride this rim again' because it had been rewelded in at least two places.

Dr John Hain gave me the rim-and-tyre as a mildly malicious birthday present, a good 12 years ago. 'Here you are, a challenge for you.' I expect if Mr Knight had been the grateful recipient he'd immediately have replied 'Not a Challenge, a Singer, and 1875 judging by the rim profile.' (But he'd be wrong because it was an 1872 Rudge.)
Now I'll let you into a little secret. Whenever I show it to elderly engineers, county archivists or the mountain-bike-riding wives of social workers, they all exclaim smugly 'Oh! An Ordinary!' just to show that they've read up on bicycle history. Well, no. Every single person I know who's actually got one of these bicycles calls it - and this is not what dementing engineers archivists or worthy bespectacled wives think - a penny farthing.