Saturday, 22 February 2014

Flash Fiction - The River

I've been dabbling in a bit of fiction writing over the last few years, very little has ever been worth even my re-reading but I've been working on a couple of things recently that might have slightly more to them. In the meantime I'm still putting words on the page just to get ideas out of my head so I can think about other stuff. 
For nothing more than curiousity's sake I've decided to start publishing these little bits of fiction (I think the term is "flash fiction") here. Feel free to comment or critique as you like.

The River

"Christ! Did you see that?"
"Someone just fell in!"
"What? Where?"
"By the bridge." I jump to my feet, looking across the scattered groups of people, lounging and sunbathing in the early heat.
"Maybe they've gone for a swim?"
"Fully clothed?" No-one else seems to have noticed. I scan around for a life ring, I've seen one already, I'm sure. There! I start towards it.
"No! Steve, that one!" She gestures to one further down the bank, "The current's going that way."
I set off towards the farther ring. People have started shouting and I am properly sprinting across the grass, shouting "Excuse me!" as loud as I can as I cut round (and sometimes though) the groups of people.
Always polite though, very British.
Someone has already got the ring off the stand when I get there, an older chap I realise as he looks up; knows what he should be doing, but struggling to work up the nerve.
“I’ll go,” I say, pulling my shirt off, “tie it on.” I’m already barefoot, I dump my phone and wallet on my shirt (I feel guilty about that fraction of a second delay, but I promise you it’s really quick). Grabbing the ring, I take two running steps and jump in.
Is this what it feels like to be a hero?
I hit the water hard and nearly lose the bloody ring. The drop is further than it looks but I snag the thin blue rope and start to swim out.
Fuck. I’m already being carried downstream, fast. The current is way stronger than I thought and how the hell are you supposed to swim with one of these things anyway? I wrap the rope around my arm and surge into the river.
I can’t see shit.
I look over my shoulder and she’s moving down the bank pointing. I’m already fifty metres downstream from where I jumped in. She’s on the tow path now, shouting at the old guy to untie the ring. It’s a good thing that she’s got the brains.
Change of plan, no point fighting this current, just cut across and try and intercept.
Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! The rope’s still tied on and now it’s hooked round my leg as well as my arm. A mouthful of water going down the wrong way. Coughing, spluttering, head going under again, rising sense of panic.
No. This is what it feels like to be a hero.
Released! The rope’s been untied. I roll onto my back and spew half-a-lungful of water out.
She’s still pointing where to go and I am unbelievably relieved to see the end of the rope in her hand.
Swim, check, swim, check, swim, check. I must be most of the way across? Why couldn’t the stupid bastard have fallen in on our side?
Suddenly her hands fly to her mouth and she’s not pointing any more. Must have gone under. I try to put on a spurt then check back. She’s pointing again, jumping up and down with frantic energy. Jabbing, not pointing now, I must be really close. I kick upwards as hard as I can to see further and catch a flash of something pale, something that might be an arm, as it disappears.
I’m tiring and desperate now and fling myself under the water, eyes wide, wide open.
There! Yellow t-shirt!
Grab. Slip. Grab. Slip. Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Grab… got it.
Up, not far, gasping for breath. One arm through the ring, one under his armpits. He’s twitching thank fuck.
Suddenly I am surging through the water. Twisting, I can see that a bunch of people have taken the rope from her and there must be a dozen of them pulling me in. He’s slipping though, stupid bastards are pulling to fast and I’m struggling to hold him.
I kick and strain and heave and get my other arm down and under his arms; desperately I lock my fingers together, squeezing until my forearms are on fire.
There are people in the water now, taking the weight, untying the rope from my numb left arm.
She’s smiling at me and crying; I think I might be too.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

A better city bike

I have three* bicycles, a road bike, a mountain bike and a town / hack bike**.
The one that is used most frequently (as opposed to the one that does the most miles or takes the hardest knocks) is the oldest, cheapest and ugliest of the three, a hack bike in the classic sense. It has mudguards, a rack, 28mm semi-slick tyres, a single-speed converter and security bolts on the axles. It also has a coating of grime so thick that it serves its own anti-theft protection purposes, but it's a few things away from a perfect city bike.
So what might a perfect city bike look like?
Well, one thing you can guarantee is that it would look nothing like the various ridiculous concepts that get splashed around every now and then. Take this one. Please just take it. With that much fancy carbon-fibre on show you can guarantee that if you don't someone else will. As long as it's not raining of course, because there are no mudguards. And as long as there's nothing to carry (no rack). And it's full daylight (no lights). And...
I'll stop there, you get the picture.

So, again, what might a perfect city bike look like?
I think there are a few constants that would be welcome anywhere:
Integrated lights. Good ones, one that will do a job both to be seen by and to be seen, built into the bike so as to be theft-proof and running off a dynamo with a back-up battery for the traffic lights.
An integrated lock. I don't want a d-lock swinging off my handlebars and taking chips out of the paintwork, worse I don't want to arrive and realise that I've left my lock at home.
A belt drive. Whether linking to a hub-gear or a single-speed (we'll come back to that) a good city bike is one that you arrive on clean and presentable (or at least as much as you left the house). I want a nice clean belt-drive (this at least the bad-example above does get right) and I want it enclosed as much as practical. If I forget my bicycle clips I don't want that to mean that I need to buy a new set of trousers because of chain marks all down the right leg.
Some kind of secure compartment on the bike where my emergency toolkit can live without needing to stuff my multi-tool, pump etc into my pockets every time I go to the pub.
Integrated mudguards. This should be optional, not everyone lives in such a god-forsaken climate, but if you're selling a town bike in northern Europe then full guards, with mud-flaps should be there as an option.
An integrated rack. Again optional, but a key job of a proper city bike is to be able to transport stuff around. Personally I don't like cycling with a rucksack, give me somewhere for my stuff.
Security bolts on the wheel QRs. I don't want to be un-hitching a wheel every time I lock up, sorry, I just don't.
Tubeless tyres. Possibly a bit controversial this one, at the moment there isn't a lot of choice in road tubeless road tyres but, having switched to tubeless on the mountain bike about 5 years ago and not having had a puncture since, I'd like that same confidence in my city bike please.
Disc brakes. Again this is potentially a bit controversial but better modulation and more consistent braking in the wet is worth, to me at least, a slight weight penalty. Also brake pads are much cheaper to replace after a crappy winter than rims...

So if those are the constants, what are the variables?
Firstly I see two types of geometry being required; a sit-up-and-beg Amsterdam-style option for those who prefer to be upright and relaxed, and a more aggressive, compact set-up for those who like to go and play in the traffic and take a faster route (my preferred approach).
Secondly there is the variable of local geography; places like Cambridge, or York, or Amsterdam can be easily tackled on a single-speed bike. The topographies of Sheffield and Durham however, require gears.
Finally there is the matter of climate and all-year cycling; for some a full set of racks and mudguards is essential, for some lucky buggers (living in LA or Seville perhaps) rain is simply not worth worrying about and wet-weather protection is simply unnecessary mass.

From these variables I see a line of 8 bicycles being derived: two geometries, each offered in a hub-geared and single-speed version, with all 4 of these available in a fair-weather*** or all-weather flavour.

Below are some sketches suggesting how such a machine might look and work. Feel free to criticise the artwork but know that in doing so you are missing the point...

Integrated lights:

Front and rear would have two LEDs, a flasher and a constant. Both rears and the front flasher would be set up to disperse as much light as possible, the front constant beam would be correctly set up to light-up the road and not on-coming traffic. I think a 300 Lumen high-power and 150 lumen low-power should be sufficient for open roads and lit roads respectively.

Integrated lock and retention point:

A cable lock permanently attached at one end with a spring-retention mechanism to help with re-coiling the cable. The lock is designed to loop around a fixed object and lock on itself. I know it's not as secure as a D-lock but it has practical benefits and the lock you have with you is always better than the one you left at home. The rubber strap on the top-tube stops the lock head rattling around and is designed to be replaceable in the event of  it perishing.

Bottom-bracket locker:

Simple bit of bent aluminium, attached to the frame with some security-head torx or allen-bolts. The lid lock is the same as the one on the main cycle lock so only one key is required. Large enough compartment for a spare-tube, a multi-tool, some instant patches and a couple of CO2 cannisters with an adaptor. Again not perfectly secure, but nothing is.

Initial thinking, Frame options and seat-tube cluster:

A basic upright frame and a compact variant. The kick up at the back of the compact top-tube is to ensure the rear light remains clear of any panniers or racks. The seat-tube cluster is designed so that the frame has a naturally compliant nature to offset the necessary size of the bottom-bracket area. Heavy use of hydro-forming is required but this can be done quite affordably now.
Throughout I have attempted to balance the requirements of integration with use of standard components, hence the lighting wiring doesn't go through the bars and stem, the rear light isn't built into the seat-post and the option remains to have a version without mudguards and rack so that standard after-market parts can be used.
I suspect you might not be able to hubs that have a dynamo / disc and gear / disc combo yet but I believe this will come along fairly quickly.

Looking at what's currently easily available it seems that Gazelle appear to be the closest I can find to this kind of approach but some bits really don't feel that integrated and the locks aren't really fit for purpose. They do seem like nice bikes though.

Anyway, that's my thoughts, what are yours?

* Well, 3 1/2 if you count my share of the tandem.
** This is widely recognised as the minimum number of bicycles by the way, if you were wondering.
*** N.B. Mounting points would still be included on the frame and forks of course.