Autumn Almanac

It being as fine an Autumn day as you could wish for, I set out on my hundred-year-old bicycle to take a turn about Perth, pausing only to admire the details that never fail to give me pleasure on my 1915 Golden Sunbeam, such as the parallel seat stays, the gold-leaf embellishment, the noble proportions of the 26″ frame:

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My chosen route has become a favourite – with only a slight climb at the start, it offers a circular tour round the outskirts of Perth in a clockwise direction, almost entirely off road and largely downhill or level – I first wrote about it here and the map can be found here: link.

Every season has its delights, but I suppose most people have their personal favourite; mine is Autumn. That may be because it’s the season of my birth, but I think it has more to do with leaving home for the first time to go to University – Edinburgh, in my case. Even now, a visit there at this time of year induces a powerful nostalgia.

One of the delights of Autumn is the lower angle of the light, which slants across paths and glances off the surface of streams, making strong contrasts between light and shade:

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The path runs round Craigie Hill then picks up the line of the Scouring Burn as it runs into Perth alongside the Glasgow Road; a well made path flanked by trees runs through a residential area to the splendidly-named Western Edge, where it turns North and you gain some fine views of the distant hills from the vicinity of the improbably titled Noah’s Ark golf-driving range and go-kart track.

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Past Noah’s Ark the track is rougher, in places at this season deeply puddled and thick with glaur, but that only serves as a reminder that imperial roadsters like the Sunbeam were  conceived at a time when roads were rougher as a rule and are well-equipped to cope, with their big 28 × 1½” tyres, fully-enclosed oil-bath chain cases, well-sprung saddles and relaxed frame-angles.

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after a little way travelling westward along the track of Old Gallows Road, we turn North towards the vale of the Almond, a steady descent by narrow paths overhung with trees and bushes:

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A pause at the signpost affords fine views across the Autumn fields to the distant hills

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while close at hand the brilliant colours in the hedgerow catch the light

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the path runs on in shadow for a time

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before opening up again to the West, with fine views of the hills and a distant moor burning, the sunlight striking a distant castle, and splendid autumn trees ahead

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the path now becomes a well-surfaced private road (albeit with grass down the middle, Stephanie Peppard!). There is a sign I really ought to have photographed, asking literate horses to keep off the verge. This track leads down to the main road, where you cross the A85 to Crieff and dive down a little side road leading to the Huntingtower Hotel, where a prominent clocktower draws the eye

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down nearer the clocktower the sound of running water suggests the proximity of the lade, and after initially overshooting, I turn back and find the narrowest navigable path running into the woods then over the waters by a wooden bridge

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The path emerges at the start of the lade, the little waterway that contributed so much to Perth’s fortunes – over eight centuries ago, someone had the shrewd idea of cutting a channel to take water from the Almond and running it through the town, powering several mills, before it debouched into the Tay.

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From here there is a very fine and pleasant cycle along the Almond towards its confluence with the Tay, so fine in fact that I scarcely stopped to take any pictures, though there are others that show this section in earlier posts

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Once the Tay is joined, the path runs alongside the river that is the longest in Scotland and the largest in Britain (by volume) with fine views across to the well-situated houses on the farther bank, while on the right hand side the North inch is an expanse of sunlit green

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From there, you pass under the bridge that was built before the United Sates came into existence, and along the broad pavement of Tay Street, with its interesting sculpture

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culminating in the fine John Duncan Fergusson Bronze  outside the old waterworks, now the Fergusson Gallery, dedicated to his works and those of his wife, Meg Morris

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Then home across the green expanse of the South Inch. An excellent excursion!

Out and about in October

It’s an odd thing: when I bought my 1915 Sunbeam (see here and here) I’d have thought I might spend the summer on it – yet here we are in Autumn and my rides have been few and far between. Of course, things have happened, but still…

So this morning, having slept in and missed my usual start to the day, I decided to make another change – instead of going for a walk (a regime I have been following faithfully of late) I would take that much-delayed cycle outing. It was Autumn weather as fine as you could wish for, the Michaelmas daisies in bloom

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and the low sun sidelighting trees and houses and casting long shadows on the road
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Does a sunbeam have a shadow? This one does:

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I had opted for a familiar route, a clockwise circular round the outskirts of Perth, but I varied the start a little, swooping down to join the path round Craigie Hill a little further on than is my wont – forgetting that where there is swooping down, there is often a need for climbing up; so I was reminded of that often-overlooked advantage of the bicycle, that you can always get off and walk if you have to:

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Probably the most pleasing thing about an Autumn run is the angle of the light and the effects it creates, especially combined with the changing colours of the trees

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Though sometimes black-and-white evokes the light conditions better – a curious phenomenon:

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I am becoming practised at using the phone-camera while under way, though I should perhaps look at some sort of handlebar mounting: there is a tension created between the desire to record the moment and the pleasure of cycling on.

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this path is already well-documented [here] and although much of it is fine well-metalled cyclepath of a good width, I rather like those parts that remind you how minimal a cycle path can be –

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Where the track broadened again (but with a pleasing central strip of grass) I came on a fine sight up ahead, a bar of sunlight lying across the path like fiery gold – sadly, the phone does not do it justice:

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After running much of the way by leafy paths hemmed in by trees, the route turns Northward, opening a pleasing vista of the distant hills:

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and the low-angled sun strikes pleasingly on the gold-leaf adornments of the Sunbeam:

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The path from here runs down an escarpment by way of a narrow lane much overhung by trees:

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till it opens out and you are confronted by a splendid glowing beech-tree:

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After crossing the Crieff Road, the downward trend continues, till the welcome landmark of the clocktower heaves into view:

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What seems an unpromising cul-de-sac actually leads to a narrow path that takes you almost at once onto the banks of the Almond, where if you are lucky, you might continually glimpse a great Grey Heron as you ride along, and if you are unlucky, never quite manage to capture it on camera:

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The path along the Almond makes such pleasant cycling that I am always loth to stop; so after diving under three bridges – the disused railway one that carries the cycle path North to Luncarty, then the one that carries the A9 North to Inverness, then the active railway line that carries the main line to the North, you come at last to the confluence of the Almond and the Tay, and see that the anglers are both out and in, some on the bank, some in the water, while on the far bank a little grey Fergie tractor sends up a plume of smoke:
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(rendered here in the style of Constable)
While on the water the fish make rings, rising to the flies
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A pause by a signpost marks the start of the next leg

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which takes us along the brilliant green of the North Inch

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In the direction of the Fair City, with the spires pointing heavenwards (the right hand one is St John’s Kirk; the old name for Perth is St John’s Toun, which is preserved in its football team, St Johnstone – they won the Scottish Cup this year)

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A swift passage along Tay St, past the old and new bridges and the railway bridge, and round by the old waterworks that is now the Fergusson Gallery, takes us to the South Inch, and the final leg of our journey, where on the pond we pass the swans and their cygnets sailing line ahead like battleships:

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and so home, exhilarated.

In just spring: impromptu circular

(for the map of this route, click here)
The best excursions, like the best parties, are impromptu.
When you are lazy and idleminded, and prone to melancholy (I am all of these things) then not having to do things generally means not doing them. I work at home (or not, as the case may be). Consequently I do not have to ride my bicycle and all too often I do not. But today it was self-evidently Spring – as ee cummings puts it
in Just-
                                      spring          when the world is mud-
luscious the little
 lame balloonman

 

                          whistles          far          and wee
So off I went without thinking too hard about it: the great thing is to get down there and get out, to take yourself by surprise, as it were. The mount of choice (the one nearest the door) was the 1934 Royal Sunbeam:
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I went by one of my usual routes, ducking down the little lane, through the tree-lined square, up the hill to the start of the path round Craigie hill:
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as I have remarked before, Perth is  well-provided with cycle paths. My plan today – as far as I had any –  was to pick up a path I had followed some way on foot the day before. This runs westward out of town, following the line of the Glasgow road, but screened from that busy thoroughfare by trees and bounded by the Scouring Burn, which runs in from the country and becomes a waterfall near the end of our street. Although the path runs at the foot of a hillside of housing (it was green fields when I was a boy) it retains a pleasingly rural feel, with wooden bridges at several points that give access to the houses across the stream:
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I had a dim recollection of having cycled this path before, but could not recall the details nor how far I had gone, so that gave it an adventurous feel. I was also (being a slothful sort) curious to see how far I could go without encountering any serious hills. I had a notion that the path ran for a good way alongside the burn, so skirting the hillside to the right, at the top of which is the house where I grew up; but I reckoned that sooner or later I would be in for a climb. However, I was wrong: when I eventually swung away from the burn in a northerly direction, I found myself in a little park with the ground falling steeply away from me:

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There was a fine view to the hills.

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I was now in familiar territory transformed: I  knew this area well as a boy, when it was very much a country walk, often enjoyed in the company of my father and immediate older brother; but now it is built up and residential – to the extent that what we had always known as ‘Old Gallows Road’ is now coyly renamed ‘West Mains Avenue’ – or at least the portion with houses is. I suppose addresses do matter to some people, but all the same, I feel such obliteration of history is a loss. When we were young I always supposed – for no better reason than that we walked that way setting out – that the gallows would have been at the end of the road somewhere out in the country; it was only on more mature reflection that I realised they must surely have towards the town, almost certainly on the Burgh Muir (Town Moor) that gave its name to the district where our house was, on top of the hill. (Must see if I can confirm that from a map.)

The metalled portion of Old Gallows Road takes you past an Electricity Sub Station, beyond which (of old) it became a rough track. Now it crosses the Western Edge Bypass that connects the Broxden and Inveralmond roundabouts, allowing the A9 to bypass Perth on its way North, and brings you to the improbably-named Noah’s Ark Golf Driving Range. However, the old track survives, a public right of way, a bit nearer to the rough condition I remember:

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I was curious to go out this way because some years ago (seven, in fact – eheu fugaces labuntur anni) I had mooted it as a possible entry to Perth, when I cycled down from Inverness (where I lived in those days) on my 1924 Royal Sunbeam. In the event I did not use it but turned eastward and came in via the North Inch; but I wanted to see how feasible it was.

Once you have followed the track some way, you come to a path branching off to the right: it took me some moments to recognise it as ‘the boreen’ of our childhood days, as my father christened it – it is now a very neat, trim thoroughfare, making up in rideability what it may have lost in character. This was the route I could have taken seven years before. It was at this point that I began to form a more definite plan: the sign said Huntingtower; beyond that, I knew I could connect with the path along the Almond, part of National Cycleroute N77 which I have often followed in the other direction.

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The quondam boreen takes you northward, descending steadily, with a fine open view to the hills. I paused to photograph a disintegrating mossy wall.

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After a bit, the boreen plunges down through a tunnel of trees and emerges on the level with a fine beech hedges on either side, a bit dry and withered just now – I must make a point of coming this way again in other seasons to see how it looks:

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A short run along a minor road takes you to the Crieff road, which you cross in the direction of the Huntingtower Hotel. Running down towards the Almond you find place names that do recall the history of the place, in particular its local industry, which had much to do with dyeing and bleaching: there is a Bleachers’ Way and a Dyers’ Close, as well as a Clocktower Road, which must be named for this striking building – a school? a church? a house? I’m not sure:

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Pressing on, I knew that I was near the Almond, but could find no obvious way; I nosed down a cul-de-sac and found a promising path heading off through the trees

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I took it, expecting to go some distance, but came abruptly on the muddy riverbank path:

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Proprioception – your sense of where you body is located in relation to its surroundings – accommodates itself to the vehicles we use: thus, in driving, we have the urge to shrink away if we pass close to another car, to duck if we go under a low bridge, to wince if we reverse into something (it isn’t just the thought of the repair bill – the slightest contact evinces it); it is as if we feel the limits of the car’s body as our own. Similarly, on a bicycle, there is an impulse to steer clear of mud and puddles as if we were stepping into them ourselves; I needed to remind myself that this was the very terrain the roadster bicycle was born to cope with. It is a common observation that the reason why French cars have such excellent suspension is that French roads were so bad at the time the motor car was evolving. Whether or not that is true of cars, it is certainly true of the roadster bicycle – its robust construction, large-diameter wheels, high bracket height and easy frame angles are all designed expressly to cope with the rough roads of late-Victorian and early-Edwardian Britain, in that brief golden age when cars were a rarity and the bicycle was the fastest way to travel on the road – easily tripling the range of a pedestrian and opening up whole new prospects of adventure.

It was not long before I found myself across the river from the cliff where in another season I had watched the martins flitting in and out, seen the toppled tree and wondered how soon its precariously-balanced companion at the top of the slop would join it; it hasn’t happened yet.

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Now that I was riding eastward with the sun at my back, the interesting shadows I cast encouraged me to test the Theory of Relativity by photographing them while under way (don’t try this at home, children – Mama will not be happy if you ride across the persian carpet in the living room). They also called to mind some lines of Eliot:

(The lengthened shadow of a man
Is history, said Emerson
Who had not seen the silhouette
Of Sweeney straddled in the sun).

(Sweeney Erect)

and

And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

(The Waste Land)

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here’s another, this time with a bridge: don’t arches always look pleasing?

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by the time the Almond met the Tay and the path turned South, I was becoming quite adept at the mounted shot:

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It has been a wet winter here, though fortunately for us not as wet as elsewhere – the flooding is picturesque rather than destructive, a nuisance only to golfers:

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The scene above is part of a curious experience: what prompted me to stop and photograph it was that it called to mind Walter de la Mare’s poem As Lucy went a-walking – the association was strong and immediate, yet if you had asked me to explain it, I could not pin it down – the poem has a numbers in it, and witches, and for some reason I linked these four trees, singled out by being in the water, with the witches; it is only now, looking up the text of the poem, that I find these lines:

And, by and by, she comes to seven shadows in one place
Stretched black by seven poplar-trees against the sun’s bright face.

She looks to left, she looks to right, and in the midst she sees
A little pool of water clear and frozen ‘neath the trees;

Interesting that the words do not correspond (only four trees, and not, I think, poplars) but the image is similar – trees against the sun with long shadows and a pool of water at their foot; yet though seeing the trees recalled the poem, it did not consciously evoke the image, which I had forgotten. Curious how the mind works – and poetry.

When I was young we used to walk along the North Inch by the Tay and admire the big houses across the water: at that time it would have been my ideal to live in one, and have a boat I could put on the water from my own boat-house. I expect now I’d find it too big; nice for parties in the Summer, though.

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From the Inch the path passes under the Old Bridge (which pre-dates the USA) and along Tay Street, where just before the railway bridge I came on an ominous site which I did not photograph: a clutch of emergency service vehicles – HM Coastguard, Fire Brigade, an ambulance command unit with a satellite dish – a quantity of red-and-white tape marking off the slipway to the river, numerous uniformed people milling about. Newspaper placards next day confirmed that a woman’s body had been recovered from the Tay near Moncreiffe Island. Alas! It is not easy to fall into the Tay accidentally round there. On such a beautiful day, too. Perhaps that was part of it.

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At the time, seeing a great number of other emergency vehicles in the Shore Road car park, I had hopes it might just be an exercise; but it was not.  After a brief halt outside the Fergusson Gallery, I headed home across the South Inch, turning once more towards the sun, with a final shot from in the saddle.

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Carefree car-free circular

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Today being a beautiful clear frosty November day I decided that a bike run was called for. In view of my recent unsatisfactory run on the Dream Roadster, I thought a change of bike was in order, so I decanted several from their hiding-place under the stairs (it’s remarkable just how many bicycles you can fit into a confined space – there are another half-dozen in there besides these, and a few frames to boot)

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I decided to take the 1934 Royal Sunbeam, but first I wanted to change the saddle.

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Its current saddle is a hybrid, using an old B66 cover (with my favourite keyhole slots and oval Brooks side-stamp) perched on a set of triple-wrought springs I’ve had for ages. Unfortunately, the cover (an eBay purchase) had suffered a makeshift repair, leaving it with a loose and awkward rivet at the rear (nearest the camera); it has also nearly reached the limits of its tension and begun to sag, so for all its handsome appearance, it is not the most comfortable ride.

Removing the old saddle revealed an interesting feature of the Sunbeam,  a closed-end seatpost. When were these introduced, I wonder? Presumably there is some notion of protecting the inside of the seat-tube.

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I decided to fit the mystery saddle, which has now been identified with some degree of certainty as a Lepper – originally a German firm, as I now know, so that finding a similar saddle on a pre-War Goricke bicycle (also a German make) was not so remarkable. Many thanks to Rona Dijkhuis of the Slow Bicycle Movement and Maarten Bokslag, Chairman of De Oude Fiets (whom I contacted at Rona’s suggestion) for their help in my quest to identify it, detailed here.

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I opted for a rather forward position for the new saddle, purely as an experiment – my older Sunbeam, a very comfortable bike to ride, has a ‘gallows’ type seat post which brings the seat a little further forward and more over the pedals, so I thought I might replicate that. In view of the new saddle and the experimental seat position, I reckoned a leisurely run was called for, with nothing too strenuous, so I decided to head into town and pick up the lade-side path. It was only when I paused for my first picture that I realised I had left my camera sitting on the garden seat at home (I had been distracted by fettling a loose rear mudguard).

I had ridden some way before I remembered that I had a camera anyway, in my phone. I was glad of it when I came to the point where the ladeside path has to cross the railway, because I was able to record this simple but effective aid to cyclists, an iron rail running up the side of the steps:

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it mounts up one side

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and down the other

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and does the job it was intended for admirably (though you need a firm restraining hand or even a touch of brake on the descent). I missed this turning the last time I was out this way, so it was a pleasure to find a lengthy new stretch of the ladeside path. Though it is generally well-maintained with a tarmac surface, there is a pleasingly rougher section a bit further on:

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However, after following this part, I lost my way again – I had hoped to pick up the N77 national cycle route at Almondbank, though this involves an unsatisfactory crossing of a motorway bypass; but the route I followed petered out among houses and an industrial estate (if you consult the map, you can see where I went wrong, round about Edradour Terrace) and I ended up going back towards town and joining the N77 route via North Muirton. Heading along the banks of the Tay, my eye was caught by a large dark bird perched out in mid-stream. From its distinctive beak and greenish-black sheen, I took it to be a cormorant, possibly one I had seen before on the South Inch pond some time ago and recorded in this rather poor picture:

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Unfortunately, the camera phone is not very good for this kind of thing – the bird can be seen here in the left middle ground, looking a bit like the celebrated ‘surgeon’s picture’ of the Loch Ness Monster:

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while here it makes rather a nice impressionist blur:

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This stretch of the Tay looks well at this time of year:

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Some way further on I posed the bike with some street furniture with the bridge in the background

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then headed off along the broad Tay St pavement and on to the South Inch, crossing by the fine diagonal avenue:

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and so home, after a largely car-free  seven-and-a-half mile circuit of Perth (see route here). All in all, a much more satisfactory and uplifting trip than the previous one, detailed here. How much was that due to me, how much to the choice of bike and route, how much to the absence of wind? it is hard to say; anyway, it was much better.

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And the new saddle? Already a firm favourite.

‘Blow, blow, thou winter wind!’

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‘Walking for exercise? Pah!’

My father had a way saying ‘Pah!’ that was peculiarly dismissive. He liked a good walk, so it seemed an odd thing for him to say,  but I think it was his very love of walking that made him say it. To walk ‘for exercise’ carries an overtone of duress, as if the person would sooner not be walking at all, but feels obliged to;  it is as if all possibility of enjoyment has been removed beforehand – ‘I only do this for the exercise, you know.’ It was the grudging attitude that my father contemned.

A recent excursion on the Dream Roadster  prompted that memory of my father:  it was a ride I did not enjoy, I think in part because it was undertaken grudgingly, out of a sense of duty. In an endeavour to bring some order to my chaotic existence I had resolved to adopt some regular habits, chiefly in relation to my writing. Among them was the resolution that I would make at least one cycle excursion per week and write it up here. By Thursday I still had not done it, and since the day seemed fair enough for the time of year, I forced myself out.

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Cycling is often, for me, a deliberate antidote to the melancholic lethargy to which I am prone, so it is not unusual to have to chide myself into it: ‘you’ll feel better for having done it; you know you’ll enjoy it once you’re out there.’  It generally works, but not always (and I was interested to find Lovely Bicycle blogging on much the same point, here – could it be the time of year?). The day was bright enough, with flaring Autumn colours

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and I went by the usual secret paths

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I rode up over the hill and down into Strathearn, pausing to admire the Earn on either side of the eponymous bridge:  SAM_0008 SAM_0011

but for all the beauty of the scenery the calmness of soul I was seeking (perhaps too determinedly) refused to manifest itself. Instead, I found myself annoyed with my bicycle: the saddle was not high enough, the handlebars were too low; it just didn’t seem right. Then there was the road: it was altogether too straight

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in both directions

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yet it was not easy cycling: for all the seemingly straight and level ground, I found I could not deploy my lordly hundred-and-fifty inch top gear and toiled along in the middle ranges.  Only gradually did it dawn on me that I was battling an invisible adversary: there was a steady headwind.

I am not a much of a man for getting wet – though there is a certain pleasure in defying the elements if you are dressed for it – but given the choice between wind and rain I think I would choose the latter. Rain is honest; wind is insidious. You know it more by its effects, as in this case, where a level ride seemed like toiling up a steady gradient. It is dispiriting; you are conscious of making less headway than you should, yet the cause is not apparent – it is not the wind you feel, so much as a resistance.

And having set out in what was not the best frame of mind, this soured my mood still further. Why was I doing this? Where was I going?

The answer to the second question was ‘nowhere in particular’ : I had resolved to investigate the road in the direction of Longforgan and Forteviot, partly as a scouting mission for some future attempt on the Ochil glens, though I did not think I would attempt the first opportunity for that, over the Path of Condie, which is steep and twisting.

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(While I was taking the picture (badly – I know) the white pick-up truck came past, stopped, then reversed to where I was. The driver peered out and laughed, saying he had mistaken me for someone else – ‘I thought I knew the only cyclist who would stop to take the picture of a road sign’. I assured him that every cyclist has the urge to take pictures of roadsigns. I wonder if that is true? I remember when we were young my brother and I mocked our father’s penchant for taking pictures of roadsigns on our Irish holidays; yet now it seems perfectly sensible: few views are so distinctive in themselves as to be instantly recognisable; there is nothing quite so local and particular as a roadsign)

I toyed with the notion of making a circuit by turning North across the railway line and joining the Aberdalgie-Craigend road that featured in my earlier excursions here  and here, but eventually I resolved that enough was enough: I would simply turn back. When the road swung round at the junction with the Invermay road,

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I decided that the splendid view of the distant hills that opened up was reward enough for any outing.

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Heading back with the wind behind me I was able at last to use my mighty top gear, and went bowling along at a swift pace while pedalling in a leisurely manner. An ample pavement allows traffic-free cycling from Bridge of Earn to the Craigton interchange, with magnificent Autumn colours

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And the Tay from the top of the Edinburgh road is one of the pleasantest approaches to Perth

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though in this case I was not quick enough to catch what had caught my eye, the unusual sight of a boat in mid-river – by the look of it, probably a semi-inflatable of the kind the fire service use.

So home at last, after a trip that seems pleasanter in remembrance than it was in reality, though that perhaps is because it is overlaid with the memory of one I have done since – just before writing this, in fact – which was altogether more satisfactory and uplifting.

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And later in the evening there was a splendid moonrise, pictured at the top.

The route for this journey is here.

The Dark Secret of Pottiehill

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All right, I can see you’re not convinced: how can a place called Pottiehill have a dark secret? Yet it does; I have seen it. I have pictures (though some of them are a little odd – an unfamiliar camera).

But first, the curious case of Benjamin Button. (you see what I am doing here? Suspense! The craft of fiction)

Some time ago I pondered the need for an improved gear set-up on my Dream Roadster. In a flurry of energy I actually obtained the necessary 14T cog,
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– which is a good deal smaller than the 18T it replaces –
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I fitted it (with the usual pantomime of levering off spring clips with screwdrivers and wondering where they will fly to – but at least I had the good sense to wear eye protection)

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and set out, only to find, to my chagrin, that somewhere in the few hundred yards I had travelled from the house I had lost the changer button on one side of my Schlumpf Mountain Drive.

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I retraced my steps several times, back and forth, but to no avail; so there was nothing for it but to ring Ben Cooper at Kinetics – a splendid shop in Glasgow where I got the Mountain Drive originally, many years ago now – to see if he could supply a replacement. He could, but of course that meant a further delay.

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The button comes with its own delicate Allen key, used to secure the tiny grub screw in the centre against the end of the changing rod, where it acts (as far as I can see) rather like a lock-nut.

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Though I tightened it vigorously as advised, I am still nervous of losing it again – I wonder if a set of natty leather gaiters (perhaps in matching red) designed to fit the top end of the crank would bring peace of mind? Something to ponder, perhaps even make, in the long winter nights.

In the meantime I obtained another replacement, for my Lucas Mileometer (or Odometer, if you will) which disappeared in the course of my last major excursion – the same one that convinced me my gear set-up needed changing.
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But to our tale: it being a fine class of Autumn day for the first of November – All Saints’ Day – I resolved to make an excursion. Not only did I rig the mileometer, I also transferred my ferociusly powerful Smart BL201 headlights (powered by a rechargeable lead-acid battery) from the 1923 Royal Sunbeam. Here we see them blazing futilely against the light of day, ‘crying like a fire in the sun’ as Bob Dylan might say:

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Why the lights? Well, if you are off delving into dark secrets, it is wise to have some; I also took a torch, being unsure that I would be able to take my bicycle where I was going. You may notice that I have repositioned my trusty Lidl handlebar bag behind the bars to accommodate the lights, but this proved impractical, as my knees hit against it, so after a short distance on the road I transferred it to the saddlebag position.

I set off over the hill by the Edinburgh Road and down into Strathearn. There had been a heavy shower of rain while I was working on the bike, but the weather was clearing steadily, with sunlight on the distant hills.

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In Bridge of Earn I paused to take some pictures, first of a signpost, then of a curious agricultural implement on display near by.

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Then off I went along the Wicks o’ Baiglie Road, which once upon a time was the smart route to take if you were driving to Edinburgh and there was a lot of slow-moving traffic ahead:  you knew you would never pass it in the tortuous passage of Glenfarg, but if you belted over the Wicks o’ Baiglie you might well beat it to the other side. These days are gone now, since the M90 motorway now bypasses Glenfarg altogether. But how was my new gear set-up, I hear you cry, plaintively. Very good, I am happy to say, though I did lose my chain very early on ascending the Edinburgh Road; the Mountain Drive in low gear under stress seems susceptible to any variation in chainline. Happily there was no repetition, and I found that I was glad of even my lowest gear ascending the Wicks o’ Baiglie Road, seen here looking back – a long steady mercilessly straight climb:

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Earlier, on the flat, I had tried out my Lord-of-Creation one-hundred-and-fifty-inch top gear and found it every bit as delightful as I hoped:  you bowl along at tremendous speed, yet pedalling in a slow and stately manner.  However, I was a little wary of the quantities of wet leaves – a notoriously tricky surface.  At another point there was a constant crepitation as I cycled through beech-mast:  the sounds of Autumn.

The first sign of my destination was the remains of what had been a railway over-bridge looming ahead:

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On the other side of it I found a gate which was locked, so I lifted the bike over but was content to duck myself through a large gap in the wire fence, as befitted my years and diminished athleticism.

And there I was, on what was once the North British Railway line from Mawcarse Junction to Bridge of Earn via Glenfarg.  A distant tree caught the sun and blazed out bright gold, which I took to be a happy augury;  there was also a rainbow, and a splendid buzzard which flew up from right to left, which the Romans would doubtless have deemed auspicious.

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The line was closed in January 1970, having evaded the Beeching axe, probably because of the proposed route of the M90, mentioned above. It must have been a pleasant one to travel, fairly high up one side of a broad valley at this point, with fine views across to the confluence of Strathearn and Strathtay.

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I cycled on through pleasant Autumn woodland, past a great stack of felled timber

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And then up ahead, there it was, the dark secret of Pottiehill:

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This is the northernmost of two tunnels, each about 500 metres in length, which took the line from Glen Farg across into Strathearn.
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I like tunnels. My first serious experience of them was not on the railway (though I have been through many, I am sure, but in a train it is just a darkness) but on the more ancient transport route of the English canals, where there are some splendid and very lengthy tunnels. Transiting a tunnel in a narrowboat is an eerie experience: you are surrounded by dark, with only a narrow horsehoe of light some sixty feet ahead, thrown out by the small bow light, which is not so much for illumination as to let others know you are coming.  The first few times I did it I suffered the consistent hallucination that I was actually in a much vaster space, and not the narrow confines of a tunnel just wide enough to let two boats pass one another and just high enough to give them clear passage.  (My canal tunnel experiences found their way into my writing – in my third published book, City of Desolation, my young hero Jake finds himself on a Dantesque journey through Hell, which has evolved somewhat since Dante’s day, having acquired (among other things) an underground canal system – see here)

The Pottiehill tunnel is a fine feat of engineering and the interior for the most part is dry and entirely sound; the ground is a little uneven, but is not difficult to cycle, though I was glad of my powerful lights, as the tunnel has a considerable bend so that you cannot see the far end and the near one at the same time.

I had heard tales that these tunnels had been used to store old steam locomotives as a precaution against nuclear war (the reasoning being that a steam engine would be easier to fuel than a diesel in the disruption that followed) but I think that is just wishful thinking on the part of old steam men and romantic civil servants.  In this case it would not be terribly practical, since the line has been taken up, and as far as I know, the tunnels (unlike some others) have never actually been closed off.

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I emerged from the North tunnel onto a pleasant stretch of overgrown trackbed running between autumn woods, but it was very muddy underwheel and for some distance was in fact the bed of a stream;  but this is the kind of thing that imperial roadsters take in their stride.  I would not attempt it on a narrow-tyred mount.  After some distance I came on a conundrum: the main path rose steeply to the right, with a more overgrown fork descending to the left.
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I dismounted and tried the upward path, but had not gone far before reason told me it was much too steep for any railway line. So I turned back, left the bike, and made my way ahead on foot.

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The path was not cyclable: it was criss-crossed with fallen trees, and in places was very boggy.

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But I persevered and was rewarded with a sight of the North portal of the South tunnel, though it did not look exactly like this:

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I went through with the aid of my torch, and again found the surface dry and sound.

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There is the rusted shell of a car at the Southern end; I was expecting it, as it is mentioned on various websites; but I still wondered how it got there.

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A little way beyond the tunnel, a fine viaduct crosses Glenfarg, and down the side you can glimpse (a good way below) the river Farg and the road running beside it.

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I crossed the viaduct and went as far as the gate that bars it; the line runs on invitingly,

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while looking back you have a fine view of the South Portal across the viaduct

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but for me it was time to turn back. At the South Portal, I came on a strange fellow hanging around:

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The South tunnel is straight enough to see both ends from the middle, though you need to stand to one side, so it clearly has a bend in it. I went back through without using the torch, just for the fun of it. It is surprising, once your eyes get used to the dark, just how much you can see, and one thing you notice is how any surface that faces the tunnel mouth behind you catches the light. In honour of my brother Brendan, who instituted a tradition of tunnel-singing on the canals, I tested the acoustic with a verse of the Tantum Ergo. Fortunately there was no-one else to hear.

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Emerged on the other side and reunited with my bike (I had chained it to a tree – doubtless an unnecessary precaution, but peace of mind is a great thing)

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I made my way back through mud, stream and tunnel,

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pausing to snap a harrow sheltering in the North portal, like the remains of some giant insect or alien creature

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I think that my attempts to take pictures in the tunnel must have confused the automatic settings, because the shots I took after I emerged had an odd sort of old-fashioned-postcard quality to them,  like this  vista of Strathearn meeting Strathtay.

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I saw that there was an alternative route off to the left and hoping to avoid the gate I took it, only to find I had miscalculated somewhat – to my surprise, instead of rejoining the road a little further up the hill than I left it, I found myself swinging right and passing under a substantial bridge that I had not realised was there;  yet I must in fact have crossed it. The reason for it was clearly the stream that I was now cycling alongside, with the road I wanted  on the farther side. However, I was not too perturbed, reasoning that a well-made track must lead somewhere, and it was heading in the right general direction.  A little way on I came on some substantial but derelict farm buildings, which had the haunting quality all such buildings have, enhanced in the picture by the weird colour setting, which nonetheless captures the atmosphere surprisingly well

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Carrying on for some way I emerged at last onto a side road; a sign at the point where the track debouched informed me that it was a private road with no vehicular access, so had I come on it at that end, I probably would not have gone up.  As a matter of fact, the way I went is more direct and easier, apart from negotiating the gate, but this was a very pleasant return route.

The light was failing rapidly, not so much from the onset of night as the weather, but as I had neglected to rig a rear light with my headlights, not thinking I would be out so late, I made one more stop for pictures then headed home.
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All in all, a most satisfactory excursion and a sovereign specific for driving away melancholy. The route can be seen here.

Gearing dreams and reality (another one for epicyclists)

Sometimes, you do not fully appreciate why something is the way it is till you try to do it differently (as a writer and a lover of books, I hope that may be the lasting effect of e-readers such as the Kindle:  they will make people appreciate just what a clever piece of technology a book is – but that is by the way). My Dream Roadster, as its name suggests, is an attempt to realise an ideal form of the Imperial Roadster bicycle by retaining its desirable features while overcoming its shortcomings, principally in gears and brakes.

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In practice, I have found that the Dream Roadster has served mainly to deepen my appreciation of the production Imperial Roadster, in particular the two versions of it that I own, a pair of Royal Sunbeams. The matter of braking systems I will consider another day (the Dream Roadster has drum brakes, where the standard Imperial has rod-operated rim brakes) – but my excursion earlier this week ,  which involved the strenuous ascent of Necessity Brae on my 1934 Sunbeam,

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revived a question I had asked before, how many gears does a man need?.  The Sunbeam’s low gear is around 54”. I had managed to climb the hill in that, though it took a deal of effort and determination – at several points I had thought about stopping, but had willed myself on.  Evidently, then, a lower gear would make things easier, but how much lower should it be? That was the question I set out to answer the next day, when I repeated the same route using the Dream Roadster.

The Dream Roadster has a five-speed rear hub (SRAM/Sachs P5) coupled to a two-speed bottom bracket gear, a Schlumpf Mountain Drive. On the present set-up, this gives nine distinct gears (two are duplicates) – a normal range of (approximately) 47”, 58”, 75”, 96” and 118” with a lower range of 19” 23” 30” 38” and 47”.  My guess, from previous experience, was that the lowest useful gear would be the 30” one so I resolved to put that to the test. Before setting out I made a couple of trial ascents of hills near by, Glenlyon Rd

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and Quarry Rd

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which confirmed my suspicions: the 19” is effectively useless – though it offers virtually no resistance, the speed at which it must be turned to make even the slightest headway requires a far greater effort than walking, for less return. The next gear up – 23” – is only marginally useful as it still requires to be spun at a higher rate than I find comfortable to achieve a forward progress less than walking pace.

So I set out to repeat the trip of the day before (map 4 here) with a minor variation at the start – a new secret way such as Craigie (the district of Perth where I live) abounds in

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My aim was to use 30’’ (the mid-gear of my lower five) as my lowest gear. The ascent of Necessity Brae was still strenuous,

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but less so than the day before, and at one point where the slope lessens I actually changed up to the 38” gear for a time. Though I already knew I could ascend the hill in a substantially higher gear, my aim was to find the most practical lowest gear for the Dream Roadster, and the answer to that appeared to be around 30”.

This was borne out by the fact that I continued without dismounting, save to record the occasional rarity –

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and some wild flowers here and there:

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(it’s nice, with the hedgerows so dominated by red, to find a touch blue and purple)

I even managed the sharp ascent to Craigend which had undone me the day before, though this time I was expecting it. I returned as I had previously, with occasional stops for blackberries and to record the onset of Autumn,

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(a sight that recalled a line from Eliot:  ‘the communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living’)

and so home via another secret way:

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The one casualty of the trip was my mileometer, which I must have shed somewhere along the way (I did have to stop at one point to adjust the front wheel, which had slipped, so I think it was some time after that – I retraced my route on foot next day, but to no avail).

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before setting out…

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…after returning home

So, the conclusion to be drawn (besides the obvious one of checking the tightness of all fixtures before setting out) is that around 30″ is as low a gear as I need. However, once I fell to my calculations, I found a familiar problem. An earlier version of the Dream Roadster had coupled the Mountain Drive to a 7-speed SRAM/Sachs hub, giving 14 gears with a spectacularly wide range of 763%. This setup was arrived at before I ever built the bike and sprang from a couple of simple-minded comparisons – the fabled (and fabulously expensive) Rohloff Speedhub had 14 speeds but a range of ‘only’ 526%, so an arrangement that was cheaper but offered the same number of gears over a wider range had to be better, surely?

In practice, I soon encountered the difficulty I describe above – the lower end of the gear range was something like 17, 20 and 24 inches – of which only the last was even marginally useful. This led me to conclude that the SRAM/Sachs 7 speed hub offered an adequate range in itself, so I swapped it for the SRAM/Sachs 5 speed I had installed in my daughter’s bike, giving us both (I hoped) a more useful range of gears.

However, setting 30” as a bottom gear with the P5/Mountain Drive combination and a 28” wheel implies a direct drive  of some 119”, not only ridiculously high in itself and giving an unfeasibly huge 188″ top gear, but requiring a gear ratio (front to back) of 4.25:1, meaning that a 48T chainwheel would need an 11T sprocket (impossible to obtain for a hub gear – 13T is the smallest I have come across). With 13T at the back a 55T chainwheel would be required to maintain the same ratio.

The upshot is that I have ordered a 14T sprocket which, with the present 48T chainwheel, would give a gear ratio of 3.4:1, meaning a direct drive of c95” and a lowest gear of c24” – still barely useful. The full range would be (approximately)

lower: 24, 30, 38, 49, 60        upper: 60, 75, 95, 122, 150

I look forward to testing that – the long-striding twelve-and-half foot top gear should be fun* but I have to admit that I am already toying with the notion that for my purposes six gears might be enough – using the same 14/48 set up with a typical 3 speed would give me approximately

lower: 28, 38.5, 52        upper: 70, 96, 131.

That gives a bottom gear much closer to my tested useful minimum and makes an interesting comparison with the fabled six-speed Sunbeam of 1908, which offered 49, 66, 72, 88, 96, 129:

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(photo by kind permission of Leon Wise)

Some might object to the increasingly wide gaps in my upper range but I think that is a matter of taste and cycling style. The justly-celebrated Rohloff offers 14 evenly-spaced gears (at 13.6% intervals) but for me that is an epicyclic hub brilliantly conceived to do the same job as a derailleur, only better – it’s all about maintaining cadence, keeping the same input and varying the gear to suit.

Riding a roadster bicycle is about varying input to suit the conditions: you are prepared to labour up a hill, or even dismount and walk, knowing that eventually you will reach the top and be able to freewheel down the other side; and on the flat, there is no more lordly feeling than to sweep along at great speed by turning a tall gear at a dignified, leisurely pace. Large steps between high gears are not a problem as you only use them when you are already travelling at speed; it is in the low gears that you want to avoid the jarring shock of too wide a gap.

Around 70 inches was the common single-speed gear for the Edwardians, who liked to calculate at 10 gear inches for each inch of crank, and regarded 7” cranks as the standard. I reckon that a future 6-speed Dream Roadster with the set-up above would give me in one bike the equivalent of two three-speeds, one well-suited to the hill country, the other formidable on the flat.

I have to say I’m sorely tempted…

* 13 yards on the road for a single turn of the pedals, or better than 26mph at a modest 60 rpm – though I expect wind-resistance would be a factor.