Touring tip #3: Pump me up!

As a young cycle tourist in the late 80s and early 90s I used to get a lot of punctures. Fortunately, at that time the charts were full of tunes featuring lyrics about pumping this or that up and I was able to pass the time while fixing punctures by singing them to myself.

Pump it up a little more
Get the party going on the dance floor
See cos that’s where the party’s at
And you’ll find out if you’re too bad

These days, the recording industry seems a lot less occupied with pumping stuff up. This is because good quality modern bicycle tyres mean that we’re all getting far fewer flats. Yet a puncture remains a minor inconvenience for which every bicyclist should be prepared. Commuter cyclists can always jump on a train or hail a taxi to get home, but if you’re touring, you’re on your own.

Besides a couple of spare tubes and a repair kit, it is definitely worth carrying with a good pump so that you can get your tyres back up to the correct pressure. A minipump is a nice thing to find inside a Christmas cracker but you will find it very hard work to inflate your tyres to anywhere near high enough pressure using a minipump. The best pump for the touring cyclist is a frame mounted pump. Because it’s mounted securely on the frame, it’s always right there so you can keep your tyres topped up as necessary and it frees up some space in your bags for carrying flapjacks.

Frame pumps have a reverse spring action that keeps them firmly wedged in the frame, either along the top tube or the seat tube. I would recommend using a velcro cable tie (the stuff sold to gardeners is the best value) to ensure the pump is even more securely fastened to the frame, just in case it’s dislodged. While some manufacturers recommend mounting on the seat tube, this takes up space that could be used for a water bottle cage. So it’s usually best to mount the pump on the top tube, thus:

Ellis Briggs Randonneur Tiagra Brunswick Green with Zefal HPX pump

The best frame pump is made by Zefal. It’s the HPX model, made from aluminium, not flimsy plastic. It can reach a tyre pressure of 160 psi. As a touring cyclist you will never pump your tyres to anywhere near such a high pressure, but it’s good to know you’ve a pump with plenty of power in reserve. In the unlikely event that any part of the pump breaks, replacement parts are available.

There are lots of other pumps, but this is the best one. For some reason it’s now called the Zefal HPX ‘Vintage’ Frame Pump. I am taking this to mean vintage as in vintage champagne (i.e. better than non-vintage champagne), not vintage as in old-fashioned or retro. Mind you, the Zefal company has an impeccable retro lineage, having been making pumps since inflatable tyres were invented. The company even employed Tour de France stars Octave Lapize and Eugène Christophe as technical advisors. Eugène Christophe is one the greatest cycle tourists ever to have competed in the Tour de France. According to Jock Wadley,

He said not the first time during my visit that he was not a rich man in the monetary sense but had a wealth of happy memories and good health to show from his racing exertions. He still rides a lot, is at most of the touring rallies in the Parisian area, but likes to take it easy. ‘I have suffered enough on a vélo,’ he said, but last year he did 115 miles in 8½ hours, with 12lb of luggage, stopping 10 minutes every two hours to eat biscuits, pears and grapes and drink a glass of Vichy water.

The Zefal HPX comes in four sizes for different sized frames. Make sure you get the right one. At £20 this pump is less than half the price of a bottle of vintage champagne and less than a quarter of the price of certain other top end pumps. It’s a bargain.

Selected tracks from Jack’s pumping teenage jukebox:

Pump Me Up – Trouble Funk
Pump It Up – Elvis Costello & the Attractions
Pump Up the Volume – M/A/R/R/S
Pump Up the Jam – Technotronic
Pump, Pump – Snoop Doggy Dogg

Touring tip #2: the Lifeventure insulated mug

When you’re heading off on a cycle camping trip, you’ll need some kind of cup to drink from. Unless, of course, you prefer the rugged Bear Ghrylls drinking-from-waterfall-with-cupped-hands look or you take your inspiration from Ray Mears and prefer to fashion a sturdy and sustainable container for your beverage by weaving together a mess of dock leaves picked from the hedgerows.

But if you disregard the TV survivalists and get serious for a moment you’ll want to pay attention to this recommendation: if your intention is libation and you have an appreciation of insulation, there’s no better creation than… the Lifeventure thermal mug.

The merits of this mug were first demonstrated to me by Dixe Wills, a sturdy cyclist and author of the highly original and deliciously mirthful Places to Hide, as well as a very handy guide to Britain’s best tiny campsites. Dixe is a very moral man and a strict vegan. He won’t even drink a pint of beer unless he knows for certain it was brewed without the slightest harm to a sentient being. Before I met Dixe, I was ignorant of many things. I knew nothing of the Lifeventure insulated mug and I had know idea that some beer was vegan and some contained ground up sheep pancreas or some other unspeakable horror of industrialised food production. Spend a few days with Dixe and I’m certain you’ll learn many new things about the world. Alternatively, you can follow him on twitter.

Given his lefty leanings and vegan ways, I was somewhat surprised by the the eagerness with which Dixe told me the that very same Lifeventure mug as was cupped in his mitts is widely used by the British armed forces: a group not known for an anarcho-syndicalist Weltanschauung nor an aversion to violence (killing is part of the job description, after all). Anyway, Dixe told me that it’s common for soldiers to discard the crummy standard-issue Army drinking vessel and fork out for their own Lifeventure insulated mug.

If a piece of equipment meets with the approval of both a bicycling vegan who scrapes a living writing books about visiting tiny islands and towns and villages that begin with the letter Z and a bunch of tattooed hard nuts who scrape a living promoting peace and justice down the barrel of a gun in the Hindu Kush, then it must be worthy of consideration on any cycle tourist’s packing list.

So what does it do? Well, perhaps a better question is what it doesn’t do. It has a lid that doesn’t leak. It’s vacuum insulated so it doesn’t burn your hands. It’s made of stainless steel so it doesn’t break if dropped. Most importantly it will keep your  tea / coffee / hot chocolate / soup / hot toddy / mulled wine (delete as appropriate) hot for nearly half a day.

So how do I use it? Well, it goes something like this. When I’m camping I’ll usually boil some water first thing in the morning, perhaps to make some porridge and a hot drink, to have a shave or do the washing up from the night before. Call me a effete sophisticate but I draw the line a using the same water for washing up and shaving, though I imagine residual grease in the water could provide some additional lubrication for the shave and an interesting eau de cologne for the rest of the day. I’ll leave such antics to the TV survivalists.

It’s a trifle to fill my mug with a hot drink for later in the morning. A couple of hours down the road I’ll stop, sit myself down in a flower meadow, inna Laurie Lee stylee, dig a flapjack out from the deepest recess of my pannier and partake of the fine British tradition of elevenses, or as our Italian cousins call it, la merenda.

The Lifeventure insulated mug costs less than £10 and is available in no fewer than eleven colourways including the eye-catching US Navy Seals “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Special Edition (pictured, right).

This post is part of an ongoing series in which I share what I’ve learned in half a lifetime’s cycle touring adventure and misadventure.

To Coventry: Birthplace of the Bicycle

Coventry has a very good claim to be the birthplace of the modern bicycle, the “Rover Safety” invented in the 1880s by John Kemp Starley, one of the city’s many bicycle makers. Someone very happy to make that claim is Steve Bagley, Head of Collections at the Coventry Transport Museum. We go for a ride around the city and a trip back in time. The museum has an excellent programme of cycling-related talks and exhibitions this summer. Music buffs will know that Coventry’s great contribution was the “2 Tone” ska revival scene of the late 1970s, led by The Specials and The Selecter.

And do make a date for Velonotte, a night time architectural themed night time bicycle tour of the City of London and the East End, on the night of Saturday 23rd June through to the early hours of Sunday morning. More information at the London Festival of Architecture.

Touring tip #1: Why Ordnance Survey maps are best and how to get them for free

The British Isles are blessed with the world’s best maps for travel and adventure, made by the expert cartographers of the Ordnance Survey. There’s nothing like stopping by the side of the road, leaning your bicycle up against a dry stone wall and wrestling with a rapidly, uncontrollably unfolding paper map, like a waiter at a windy seaside restaurant fighting a losing battle with a large tablecloth. Eventually, you get the map under control, pinpoint your location and are filled with joy to discover that just a few yards away, in the field on the other side of the dry stone wall, is a neolithic hut circle!

Of course, proponents of the wiki-democratic Open Street Map loath the Ordnance Survey with a passion. It stands for everything they’re against: closed systems, the tyranny of the professional and paying for stuff. The Open Street Map is a marvel of internet technology and collective, volunteer action. In many ways, it is far more powerful than a paper map. But there is such a thing as too much information. And too little. On my travels I have found whole villages absent from OSM (I dutifully added them to the OSM database when I returned home).

If maps are works of art, I find the Open Street Map less attractive to look at and less easily comprehensible than an OS map. Open Street Map feels cold and computer-generated when compared to the subtle craft of the Ordnance Survey’s cartography.

Ordnance Survey Landranger Series (1:50,000)

Andy Allan's Open Cycle Map (a version of the Open Street Map), for comparison

More importantly, the Open Street Map is only available on a computer screen. Call me a Luddite but I like a nice, big paper map where I can gaze, like Gulliver in Lilliput, over an entire landscape laid out before me. With a computer map I get lost scrolling back and forward and zooming in and out. And once you’re on the road, what use is a computer map?

That’s all very well, I hear you say, if you’ve got deep pockets. It’s true, OS paper maps are expensive. OS Landranger maps are 40km x 40km, and an enthusiastic cyclist with a decent tailwind could well travel across a whole sheet in a single afternoon. At £6.99 (less on Amazon) the costs for a tour can mount up. Some might quibble that the optimum scale for the touring cyclist is 1:80,000 rather than the 1:50,000 of the OS Landranger series and they might have a point.

But help is at hand in the form of your nearest public library. Most keep a complete range of OS maps: both 1:25:000 (best for walking or for scoping out possible wild camping spots) and the more cyclist-friendly 1:50,000 as well as the somewhat rough-and-ready Touring Series. They’re usually the more expensive, laminated, weather-proof, fold-resistant versions too.

My local library allows me to borrow up to twelve maps for three weeks at a time. I can even renew them online. Even if you prefer to use a GPS device for navigating – and there’ll be a post on digital mapping and GPS to follow – for general route planning, there’s nothing like sitting down at a gigantic table in a library map room with a chaotic expanse of OS maps to make you feel like a real, bonafide adventurer. On a rainy day such as today, can there be any better way to prepare for a bicycle tour?

This is the first in a series of articles, tips and notes about cycle touring.