Sunday, 23 November 2008

Finding a Good Bike Mechanic

Part of the joy of owning a bike is being able to understand how it works, and be able to fix it when it goes wrong.

There's a lot more to looking after a bike than there is a car. Every week the chain needs to be tested - too loose and it could come off, too tight and it could snap. Both options end in a horrible mess.

It needs to be kept lubricated (much easier with a ScottOiler). If you plan to carry a pillion, everything needs adjusting to the extra weight. Tyre's need to be inflated properly at all times. Brakes need to be able to stop in time. Rust can be a pain (and it shows more than a car!).

If like me you're not yet confident enough to carry out the more complicated tasks, you need to be able to find a good garage that can do it for you.

Bad Experience

Just before moving down to university in London, I made sure everything on my bike was in top condition. After all, I'd be riding 100 or more miles in one trip, every week now.

Everything was fine until 2 days before I was due to leave. Then my back brake started playing up. With my usual garage unable to find space, I had to use someone else.

I took it to the only place I could find that had time to look at it and fix it. They told me the brake disc needed changing - but when I asked about the pads, I was told they should last another 6 months at the very least.

I paid up and had to work done. Everything was fine until about two weeks ago when I noticed a sound coming from the back wheel.

It turns out my pads have worn through, right to the metal, and have been rubbing on the new disc. I now need not only new pads, but new seals and another new brake disc - just two months after it was done.

Trust the Professional

I know if I'd known enough about my bike to understand what was going wrong then there would have been a chance this wouldn't have happened.

I am learning, but only as things come up that need to be looked at. My mistake was to trust the guy who seemed to know much more than me: and after all, he did work on bikes for a living.

The total cost to me for having a new disc, pads and seals was £205. I had to get it fixed while down in London, as by the time I realised what was happening, the back brake had become dangerous to use, and certainly not up to a 100 mile trip.

When I had my new brake disc fitted the first time around, it cost me around £100. As a student, I can tell you that £100 goes a long way. That's about two months of food shopping, with change to spare!

Good Garages

This time however, I made sure the garage I went to had a good reputation. I took it to Grays Moto Bikes in Harrow: not the closest garage to where I am living but the one I felt most confident going to.

I also looked into ways to tell what kind of a reputation motorbike garages around you have. I found a website that allows you to search for garages that have signed up to a code of practice - hopefully meaning they are more trustworthy.

The best way to find a good garage is by word of mouth. When I first moved down to London and didn't know any bikers, I headed to the Ace Cafe one day on a ride out and asked around. The garage I took my bike to was one of the ones mentioned.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Celebrities In The Headlines

It was recently announced that John Sergeant had decided to quit 'Strictly Come Dancing' so as to avoid winning. What was more surprising was the way in which this made the main news headlines.

There are many newsworthy topics at the moment: with the financial crisis, it seems there are always companies and banks in trouble.

The American presidential election has only recently taken place, and what plans the Present-elect Barack Obama has in store for the US are in many people's minds.

Somalian pirates have recently hijacked a super ship carrying 2 million barrells of crude oil, and we don't know as yet how the situation will be resolved.

Yet John Sergeant quitting Strictly Come Dancing has become headline news. Not only was his decision featured prominently in newspapers and websites, but it also made the BBC's evening news bulletin.

Front Page News

While surfing YouTube, I found that I'm not the only one who thinks that the story, while newsworthy, is not front page news:

However, Sergeant quitting the show was just the start of it. The story was dragged out over the next few days, as he and his dancing partner gave interview after interview on their reasons for leaving.

Reality TV Shows

The fact that he had been a bad dancer and should not have got as far as he did then sparked it's own story, with the press asking 'is this the end of reality TV? Are the public showing that they've had enough?'

Celebrities who had been on the show previously or had taken part on other reality television shows were dragged in to have their say on John leaving.

The consensus was finally reached that 'Strictly' was just a reality show and in fact not a dance show, so the public we allowed to have their joke. A consensus that most of the public had already figured out years ago.

BBC Bashing

You would think that would be the end of it, but in true Daily Mail style, the paper found an angle that meant they could carry out their favourite BBC bashing pasttime.

The suggested that the BBC had forced the political commentator to quit, as he was turning their show into a joke by always getting through.

They couldn't get a good quote out of Sergeant however, and had to report that he was:

Seemingly bemused by the lines of reporters gathered, he said: 'It is quite absurd that I should be in this position having a news conference.

'The reasons for leaving; well it is like, when do you leave a party? You leave before the fighting starts and I think that is what has happened on this occasion.

'We had fun dancing and dancing is a wonderfully enjoyable thing, but if the joke wears thin, if people begin to take things very seriously and if people are getting so wound up that is very difficult to carry on the joke, then it is time to go.'

It seems Sergeant himself couldn't understand how he had managed to get himself into such a position.

The story continued as polls and petitions were set up asking whether he should have left or not, and campaigning to get him back onto the show.

Politicians intervened to give their views on the whole issue: and not just any politicians, both David Cameron and Gordon Brown made sure they had their say.

'Public Fury'

According to Sky News, the BBC were being swamped by complaints that the director general Mark Thompson had let this disaster happen.

The public were furious at what had happened, and were planning to march to Broadcasting House with a petition demanding that he was reinstated on the show.

It became an issue that was discussed on Question Time, with everyone eager to make sure the public knew they were as against Sergeant leaving as the rest of the country.

The whole issue begs the question, if it had not been front page news in the first place, would the 'public fury' been as harsh?

Friday, 21 November 2008

Bike Safety And The Law

By law, once you have a bike license and road-legal bike, all you need to be legal is a helmet. Yet is this safe enough? Should the law be changed to enforce more safety clothing?

According to the DSA website, all the safety gear you need to get out on the road is a helmet, while visors, gloves, boots and other protective clothing is only recommended.

During training, both on a CBT course and a full license course, instructors are expected to explain the importance of other safety equipment while the actual purchasing of it it left up to your own disgression.

Common Sense

The majority of serious bikers take the safety talks into consideration, and wear at least gloves and a jacket, as well as boots and padded trousers on longer rides.

You would be unlikely to see a biker come past you on the motorway wearing no more than shorts and a T-shirt to go with the helmet. You might see it on slow roads, through villages or country lanes in the summer.

It's common sense; every biker who's come off knows what it feels like, and every biker that hasn't can imagine what it would be like.

New Riders

For new riders however; those on 'L' plates and on nothing bigger than a 125cc engine, you will often see out in basic clothing: and especially in warmer weather.

For riders who have only taken the CBT in order to get out and about before they can drive a car: they often don't want to spend more than they need to and will buy only the helmet as a safety measure.

In these instances, safety is not the most important issue. Should the law be changed so that new learners are expected to buy extra safety clothing?

The downside

Introducing such a law would of course mean that the cost of starting out learning to ride would rise, as learners would be expected to buy gloves or a jacket, or both.

Such a requirement may stop would-be serious riders from starting the process. Although many young riders will eventually give up riding in favour of driving, there is a number that would 'go the whole distance'.

It is these new riders who might be dissuaded from learning to ride so early on. Yet if you have a passion for something, surely nothing will stop you from getting there eventually?

At what point are riders considered able to make their own decision regarding clothing? Riding 2 miles through a village or very slow traffic is different to 100 miles on motorways and A roads.

Imposing such a regulation could suggest that riders aren't mature or skilled enough to know what's the safest option, thereby mollycoddling bikers.

The upside

The most important arguement for introducing stricter safety regulations for new riders is that it would result in a safer riders, and could also lead to a reduction in serious injuries for bikers.

The cost could also put off those that don't plan to ride safely once legal on the road. Those who do decide to take the test, and eventually go on the

There are many arguements both for and against stricter regulations on protective clothing. Surely the possibility of safer riders is an issue worth considering?

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Getting There...The Basics

Sitting in the kitchen in Halls last night, conversation turned to biking and one of my flatmates asked how easy and what it cost to get up and running on a bike.

After trying to explain the various tests and rules he still had a confused look on his face. So I thought I'd go back to the basics and use my experience as an example.

Provisional License

First thing is to get a provisional license, which is the first step for both car and bike tests. You can apply online through the DVLA, and it costs £50. If you want to start out on a moped you can get a license from 16.

As I had already passed my car test when I started learning to ride I didn't need a provisional license as a full car license can also be used.

Compulsory Basic Training

The next stage is the Compulsory Basic Training, or CBT as it's usually called. This is a one day course (but can be longer if you don't finish) and covers mopeds up to 50cc, 125cc mopeds and 125cc motorbikes.

A CBT is not a test and it's up to the disgression of the instructor if you pass or not. It means you can ride on the road with a learner badge on front and back.

Doing a CBT on a 50cc moped is all you can do if you're under 17. Once you've completed it you can ride a moped up to 50cc, and only on a Learner plate. Once you hit 17, you'll have to do it again on a 125cc motorbike if you want to get a full license.

A CBT costs around £100 including bike and equipment (helmet etc loan) and lasts two years. If you haven't passed the next stage in the 2 years you have to retake the CBT.

My first CBT ran out before I had a chance to take the next stage, and I had to retake the course. It meant I had all my own equipment and my own bike though, so it only cost around £80.

Theory Test

This is pretty straightforward; you need to pass both parts of the Theory test - the questions and the new hazard perception part.

The questions come first and are different for cars and bikes. Even if you've got a car license you still have to do the Theory Test again for bikes. You get 57 minutes and you have to get 43 out of 50 to pass.

The hazard perception test is currently 14 clips of road senarios. You have to get 44 out of 75 to pass. The whole test costs £30 and you'll get told if you passed or not straight after.

Standard Access Test

If you're under 21, have your CBT and theory test, you can do your standard access test. You can just book the test and do it yourself, but the chances of passing are much higher if you get training off an instructor first.

Training is usually between 3 and 5 days (depending on your experience) and you get the test on the last day. It can cost anything between £300 to £600 depending on how long you need, and if you need to borrow a bike and gear.

Once you've passed you can ride any bike as long as it's restricted to 25kw. This restriction lasts for 2 years; after that you can ride any bike without the restriction and you have a full license!

Direct Access Test

Finally; if you are over 21 you can do the Direct Access test. This is the same as the standard access test except its done on bigger bikes (usually 500cc's). Again it'll cost around £300 to £600 for the training.

If you reach 21 before your standard accest restriction is over, you can also take this test if you don't want to wait for the 2 years are up.

I took the standard access test and although I'm over 21 I've decided to wait till the 2 years are up instead of doing another test. After all it's just more money and as a student that's something I'm lacking!

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Somalia Pirates Biggest Haul Yet

Pirates off the coast of Kenya have hijacked the MV Sirius Star, a 'super tanker' with 2 million barrels of oil on board.

According to BBC News, it is thought to be the biggest ship that has been hijacked by pirates so far.

The ship was boarded at the weekend, and it is thought to have taken less than 16 minutes for the pirates to take control of the ship.

There are currently 25 crew members still on board, two of which are Britons.

Earlier today, negotiations with the pirates started, and Vela International, who are leading the negotiations, have stated that all crew members are safe.

The ship is classified as a VLCC (very large cude carrier) and is owned by the Saudi oil company, Saudi Aramco.


Pirates are not people you expect to exist in the modern-day world, and are usually relagated to children's stories and blockbuster films.

It seems that as technology has advanced for the world, so has the equipment that the pirates carry also advanced.

It is being reported that instead of swords and cannons, the pirates were armed with rifles and grenade launchers; and instead of a wooden ship with a skull and crossbones flag, they arrived in speedboats.

Biggest Yet

The super tanker is over 330 metres long, or around 1,080 feet, which is as long as an aircraft carrier. Its total depth is around 31 metres.

The ship can carry up to 2 million barrels of oil, and it is though that the cargo the MV Sirius Star was carrying is worth around $100 million.

The boat was owned by Vela International, the group that are dealing with the current negotiations, and was one of 19 other VLCC's.

On board were 25 crew members, and apart from the 2 Britons there were sailors from the Phillippines, Poland, Croatia and Saudia Arabia.

Impossible Attack

You would think that an attack on a ship this large would be impossible, especially from a small group of pirates.

However, none of the crew were armed with anything that they could have used to combat the pirates, and it is not common practice to take security members as crew on baord ship such as these.

Talking to Sky News, the US Navy said that they 'have been warning shipping companies to do more to protect their vessels and their crew but to no avail'.

Once the ship was fully loaded, the depth from deck to sea level would have been around 3.5 metres, which would have made climbing up the side of the boat simple, and possible in a matter of seconds.

The ship was also much further north of the area that is being patrolled by anti-piracy ships, around the Gulf of Aden, and therefore lacked protection. This report gives an insight into what pirates look for in a ship.


Despite this incident being the first major piracy attack that has hit the headlines, it seems that piracy is actually a common occurrence, especially around the Gulf of Aden.

According to this website, there were over 200 recorded attacks last year, and this year the number has already reached 199. And that's only the reported attacks.

After an incident like this where everyone is waiting to hear what will happen to the boat and the crew, it begs the question, will security on board boats this size soon become a neccessity instead of a luxury?

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Riding In The Rain

My commute from home to university takes about an hour, with the roads being winding, smooth and traffic free. It's a great ride: except that is, when it's raining.

It seems a bit of rain can turn the nicest of rides into the journey from hell. However smooth and traffic free the roads, with a bit of rain there's suddenly twice as many dangers to look out for.

Riding in the rain takes a lot more effort than it would do if it was a nice, dry day. However, I know there are things I can do to make sure not only it's a safe ride, but that I even enjoy it.

Keep Warm

Staying warm and dry is a pretty important factor. We all know the dangers of riding when you've lost the feeling in your fingers, your head hurts from trying to concentrate on the road and you can feel cold water running down your back.

Waterproof trousers are a must, and preferably thick: there's nothing worse than feeling the rain hit your legs like pinpricks through thin trousers. I usually wear my padded combat-style Joe-Rocket's over jeans: it keeps you warm and means you can change later.

To keep extra warm, try wearing a pair of tights underneath it all. It may sound like it only applies to girls, but I was actually given this tip by a male biker friend. Just buy extra large!

I was reading this article that has some great suggestions on warm clothing and waterproofs, and is worth a read.

Ride Safe

The most obvious thing to do is to ride safer, though there is a suggestion that you shouldn't change how you ride in the rain to riding in the dry.

There are plenty of guides on the internet offering suggestions on changing the tyres, suspension, cornering and more. There's plenty of things you can do to your bike to make it safer to ride on wet roads.

Most of time however, I just want to get on my bike and go, not spend my time checking everything is ok before I even start the bike, and I'm sure there are plenty of riders out there who feel the same.

So the basics I try and remember are to take it a little slower, keep back from cars who sometimes decide to slam on the brakes, concentrate harder and avoid all painted lines and pot-holes like the plague.

Keep Dry

You can buy waterproof covers to fit over boots. I still ride in trainers or fashion boots, so for the wet I just slip the boot covers over the top. I use Weise covers, which have elastic at the top, and can be pulled up over trousers for even more protection.

Waterproof jackets are pretty useful, but in my wisdom I currently only have a leather jacket. It keeps out the cold and most of the rain, but in a downpour it's not all that helpful. I try and wear a cheap kagool over the top to help a bit. I've never tried an oversuit: any input on their usefullness would be most appreciated!

I've got a lovely pair of Spada Chill Factor gloves to go under my normal gloves, and they do the job very well. Though I have been known to cheat and turn the grip heaters on!

The one area I've always struggled with is my helmet. Wearing a neck guard helps a little, but on long rides my visor has to stay open so I can see the road. I always know I'm going to arrive with no feeling in my nose and having eaten at least one fly!

Friday, 14 November 2008

Road Tax and Impatient Cars

There seems to be an expectation of bikers to annoy other road users by flying past cars and zooming off into the distance. So why is it when you try to take it slow, you still annoy the driver behind you?

Part of the joy of riding comes from not having to hang about in traffic jams, of being able to get places quicker than others. But sometimes, the joy is in taking it slow and enjoying whats around you.

However, it's not often you get the chance to enjoy it for long before an impatient driver appears behind you trying to force you into moving faster. Having a car close to the back of you gets quite unsettling and the choice is to pull over or give it some gas.


You can see them trying to get past you, and you can feel the frustration that you don't move over shooting from their eyes. But why should you? Every biker pays Road Tax, so why not use the whole road?

Being forced to ride on the left of the road so someone can pass leaves the rider in a dangerous position. After all, there's less protection on a bike and riding at the edge means more chance of hitting those potholes.

There is an assumption that because a bike is smaller, they're not entitled to the same amount of road as others. Drivers are willing to take the chance that if a rider comes off, they will more than likely end up hitting their car, all to get a bit further up the road.

Dangerous Manoeuvre

Even if a bike doesn't move over, cars will inevitably use part of your side of the road to squeeze past. Yet when they overtake another car they'll move right into the opposite lane to avoid a collision.

If there's something on the road that needs avoiding; such as roadkill, potholes or water, we're going to swerve towards the car. At best the car gets scratched; at worst we're on your bonnet. And there's no one to blame but the driver.

Drivers should try treating a bike like just another car. Give us space when your behind, give us space if you overtake and please make up your mind; either get annoyed at slow riders or fast riders, not both. You've gotta let us win sometimes.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Barack Obama President - But Not For Three Months

Barack Obama was named the next President of the United States last Tuesday - but he won't take power until January.

This seems like a very dangerous position to leave the country in; especially considering the difficult financial times the country, and indeed the world is facing.

The current President George W Bush has become nothing more than the face of the country, and although he holds the power, there's not much he can do with it.

During the election race between McCain and Obama, George Bush even invited both to the White House to discuss what to do about the imminent recession.

End of Bush

The President-elect has already announced today that he is planning to scrap some of Bush's newer policies.

In fact they have very different views on many issues, such as the the Iraq war: one started it and the other wants to end it.

Barack Obama has said previously that if he was elected, he would

Call my attourney general in and review every single executive order issued by George Bush and overturn those laws or executive decisions that I feel violate the Constitution.

Surely now it's just a waiting game for the rest of the world? If Bush was to try and run a world conference, no one would take him seriously.

Bush has however said that he wants to make the transition from his leadership to Obama's as smooth as possible.


Obama isn't handed the keys to the White House until January 20th 2009. Between his election and his inauguration, there's nothing but paperwork to be done.

There's the official votes from the Electoral College, which isn't until the 15th December. Then there's the new Congress session to begin, and finally Congress will formally count the votes, on the 6th January.

Obama started to recieve the President's Daily Brief from the 6th November, ensuring that he was kept up to date with everything going on in Washington.

He is in effect, the man with the power. He is the man who will inherit the financial crisis, and it will probably be stabalised while he is in office.

So why does the world need to wait until January to be allowed to recognise it?

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Bus Lanes in London

According to MCN, London Mayor Boris Johnson is planning to allow motorbikes to use bus lanes in London.

Starting from the 5th of January 2009, an 18th month trial run will start, and if the scheme is successful then the decision could be made permanent.

Cyclists are already allowed to use the lanes, and allowing motorbikes to do the same will hopefully reduce traffic and congestion in the city.

Across the rest of the country, bikes are already allowed to use the bus lanes in other cities. Boris Johnson said he has "long been staggered that while motorcyclists can use bus lanes in many other cities and some of our Boroughs they were not allowed to use the Transport for London red routes".

Boris Johnson is head of Transport for London and as a keen cyclist he says that "one of the ways we can ease congestion is by encouraging more people to get on their bike, whether pedal or powered".

Strong opposition

Even though the Mayor made the idea part of his manifesto, he has faced strong opposition from the London Cycling Campaign (LCC) who, according to BBC News, presented him with a 3,000 strong petition asking him to reconsider.

The previous Mayor, Ken Livingstone, decided against allowing motorcyclists to use bus lanes in March this year, after a report said there were no conclusive benefits.

However, he was later accused of doctoring the report to show a lack of conclusive support for the scheme, as MCN reported.

New Resident

Having recently moved to London from an area that is usually free from masses of traffic, it's a shock to suddenly find myself constantly on the clutch trying to to battle the congestion.

Not being able to use the bus lanes seems like a waste of a perfectly good bit of road. The area of London I live in has many bus lanes but a lack of buses, and allowing someone to use the lanes seems like a sensible idea.

However, head further into the centre of London and you find plenty of buses all happily taking up space in the bus lanes. Surely by using the lanes in these areas of the city you're not only disadvantaging those on the bus, but also yourself as you fight to pass busses.

The idea that motorcyclists will endanger cyclists, who are already allowed to use the lanes seems like an idea based on stereotypes. Surely the majority of bikers will respect cyclists, and not aim to knock them into the road?