Holy Bagels bike business, Brussels

P1050165I’m living in Brussels, Belgium until June and researching bicycle cultures and workshops (links to our blog).
This an inventive use of bike technology, spotted in the Place Fagey market, Ixcelles (my pic second; first pic source https://leplusbelage.files.wordpress.com). The Holy Bagels rig consists of a cargo bike with a grill and a coffee machine, and a trailer on the back that contains a gas bottle for the grill. There are batteries to power the coffee machine. I see a hub motor on the back of the trailer too (probably not the ideal place for it). I did not see any gears, and I have not seen it in action, but here is a video and it gets towed since it must be a hard pedal. Good coffee and bagels from this mobile family business.

More discussion on another blog here (in french) and photos here. Continue reading

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Brompton vs. Birdy – the folding bike wars

Bickerton, 1970s – the handlebars collapsed

Raleigh RSW

Raleigh RSW – inefficient balloon tyres and weighed a ton

Folding bikes are icons of sustainable transportation, and of great personal interest to me. We grew up in the transport-deficient London suburbs, and a folding bike was very handy. My Dad had a couple of Raleigh RSW folders with small balloon tyres in the 1970s (see left) – they were too heavy, folded badly, and not really very workable. I snapped the front fork on a grey 3speed one. I  also had a purple Raleigh 18 as a teenager in the 1970s.  We also had a Bickerton, the extremely lightweight 1970s aluminium bike that tended to bend under stress, collapse, and even break under duress (left). I inherited that one, and broke it in the 1990s.

One of my Mk 1 Birdys, which lives in the UK

Birdy Mk 1 – one of mine

Since 1995 I have had an R&M Birdy (photo right, my one). I bought one of the very first Birdys, and now own a current model as well. The point of all of these bikes was to allow some degree of portability and thus more flexible use. In the rather small world of folding bike enthusiasts, there is a never-ending search for the ‘gold standard’ – a bike that weighs very little, rides comfortably and fast, and folds up nicely so you can store it easily in a building, on a bus, train or in a car.

Brompton from Wiki Commons


Folders require more technological ingenuity than a ‘cumbersome’ but the big money in the cycling industry has never really supported them – folders tend to be the domain of a few eccentric shoestring designers, and also some larger companies based in China or Taiwan than have a mix of cheap and passable designs for the global market.There are some top-end models produced by these bigger companies, currently dominated by Dahon and Tern (my Dahon Jetstream SP, like the one on the left, is passable and currently ridden by my 11 year old).Dahon Jetstream But purchasers with money to spend on a good folder (currently, let’s say US$1300 or so minimum) have been, for two decades or more, attracted by R&M’s Birdy and the Brompton.

Andrew Richie

Andrew Richie with early folded Brompton

For supporters of these two machines, every other brand is a distraction. Both were designed by backyard budding engineers with scant resources.  Andrew Richie (photo, Wiki Commons) borrowed money from 10 friends to get his 1976 Brompton prototype into operation, but by 1982 had ceased production pending a further capital injection. Alex Moulton and Harry Bickerton were the other lone British bike inventors (the Bickerton was a particular influence on Richie, who thought he could do a better job). Moultons do not fold. The Birdy was built by 2 students in a garage in Germany in the early 1990s. In the last couple of years, Brompton seems to be winning decisively in the marketplace. I move between countries a fair bit, and I see far more Bromptons now in London and the UK (understandable since the bikes are made there), Australia, Belgium, France and even in the USA. A Birdy is a rare sighting although I will soon travel to Berlin, and I will be looking out for this German brand (sorry guys-more Bromptons there too). The success of the Brompton is due  in part to marketing and supply – after a rocky supply chain since the mid 2000s they have become very efficient in their London operation, while R&M, based in Germany, have made some effort to supply outlets in important western world markets, but with less success except Japan. Discussion of the changing market for folders can be found at AtoB magazine, who are currently (2015) running a series of articles comparing folders in different price bands. You would think that the quality of the bike itself would also determine consumer choice, not just the ease of purchase and the supply chain.  If anything, quality should be the main determinant of market success. But I am unconvinced this is really true, as is Dave Henshaw in AtoB whose articles include reliable bike testing.  I think Bromptons are rather like Apple products – they are good but they also encourage loyalty and lock-in. Like Apple, Bromptons have a lot of unique parts. And customers return, sometimes to trade in for a superior model after a few years. They rarely choose to swap to anything better, including a Birdy. I don’t know enough Birdy owners to say if the reverse is true, but it probably is.

birdy folding

Birdy folding

In my view the Birdy is a far superior machine, but it is overpriced in some countries and has lost the marketing battle with the Brompton. The debate on their relative merits has been hashed out online a fair bit, but here is my perspective. On quality of build, both bikes were not so great back in the 1990s when the back end and stem of a Birdy would get stress fractures in the aluminium, and so would Brompton handlebars (earlier in time). All this has been ironed out – current Birdies, particularly the MkIII  are built to last, and with standard headsets, derailleur gears and cranks, even disc brakes, that you can source almost anywhere. Brompton bits, however, are a bit more specialised since many are made in the factory and the firm does not like outsourcing more than necessary. In terms of gearsBirdys have far more, up to 10 speeds on the standard models and even a Rohloff option, and the standard derailleurs work well. Brompton relied on a narrow Sturmey Archer hub for its 3/5 speeds (5 speed gearchange not always good), then used SRam after SA went bust in 2000, now offering a mix of hub and 2 derailleur options, very inferior to the Birdy. Hub gears don’t get grime in them, but changing the back tyre is more tricky and a lot of fuss is made about getting gear ratios right on an odd 2 lever system. They also have 2 speed and single speed models, but nothing beats a proper gear range with the least friction. On suspension, always desirable on a bike with small wheels, the Birdy is the gold standard. The front suspension is no-dive and pretty unique; the back is similar to a Brompton. The Birdy wins hands down with its dual setup. No front suspension on a Brompton has predictable effects on rough roads. On speed, all my trials – and others except AtoB’s downhill rolling tests- suggest the Birdy is the clear winner. You can put slick tyres on both which make a huge difference with small wheels, but the Birdy is light and with its gear range it pulls away uphill. Weight is about equal between the two, say 10.5-12.5kg on average, and both have titanium options and so-on that most people cannot afford. The Brompton is made of steel, the Birdy aluminium.  On luggage, the Brompton is better – it has a special bag. You can adapt those to a Birdy or get panniers front or rear, but most will not bother and just use a rucksack. On folding up, the Brompton is better (smaller) although not necessarily quicker – I can fold both in the same number of seconds. On the Birdy you have to get the gears and pedal in the right places before starting, and the package is bigger (MkIIIs are smaller than before).

My summation is that if you want to go fast in a city or a rural environment, buy a Birdy. You can go for kms before you get tired and the engineering is fantastic, especially if you are tall. The handlebars adjust up and down on a Birdy – not on a Brompton. The disadvantage is the folded package size, the creaks you often get from the suspension, and needing to tighten things up if you are heavy like me.  I think the Birdy is undersold. It is not in enough shops. It could be that the company needs to innovate its supply chain and list of models, but it looks like they do release attractive new variants. A major major supplier in the US, NYCEwheels, has pulled out from stocking Birdys and now promotes its Bromptons. The change in language since this has happened in 2014 is interesting, and perhaps this is replicated elsewhere. Initially they promoted and sold both machines, and branded the Birdy as an excellent deluxe option (see the comparative review here).  Now it is all about the Brompton. A similar thing happened in Australia with St. Kilda cycles and also Cheeky Transport in Sydney, but now St.Kilda are selling Birdys again. Velo Cycles in Melbourne say that if they stocked Birdys they would sell only 1-2 a year – but their 3 speed Bromptons are now up at AU$2000. For less than that you can get a 9 speed Birdy at St.Kilda Cycles across town- I have one of those -customers would better to try both.

The point being – if Birdys are not available in the same shops as the Bromptons, it is obvious which customers will buy. The most comprehensive review, of a budget Birdy model, is here – hardly inferior to a Brompton.

Anyway as I travel the world with Birdys, I have concluded I will stick with them. You can go fast and in comfort. Take-off speed is excellent. Speed is less important at my age, but effort and comfort, with those bigger wheels, full suspension and adjustable bars, does matter and Bromptons just do not have those things. I have in any event, after 40 years on folders, probably saved thousands of dollars in public transport fares, hundreds of hours in waiting and walking times, beaten transportation strikes and carriage restrictions on trains, trams and buses, and intrigued a few university students who see the Birdy propped up against the lectern every week. I am not one of those academics that drives to work to then lecture about sustainability.

New Birdy frame June 2015 http://en.r-m.de/news/riese-mueller-introduce-the-new-birdy/ From Pacific Cycles


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The Movie Reel, Northcote comes to an end

movie reelI was very sad indeed to see that our very local video store, The Movie Reel, is closing in April 2015 after 17 years. The sell-off of DVDs at the store starts on March 17.

The shop is in Westgarth, Northcote, Melbourne. We moved to a house close by in 2004 and it has been one of the absolute highlights of ten years in the area. Rob and his crew always made the store ‘different’ with their eclectic selections of VHS and latterly DVDs. We started renting a lot of kids movies, with Thomas the Tank Engine in heavy rotation, and have moved on from there.  The selection of new films has always been a hit, and very much part of our existence in this rapidly (too rapidly) gentrifying suburb. Rare, international,and entertaining stuff filled the store.

Why are they closing? Simple. As I walk past, I see fewer and fewer customers in the store, although there were ten when I went tonight. And Westgarth is a landlord’s delight, I presume. It is to do with all of us. Rather than continue to support video stores, and renting dvds, people have moved on to downloading films and streaming them.  We have never downloaded anything in our house, but I guess we are in a tiny minority these days.  I grew up with VHS players and dvds, and I have no idea how to get a film from a computer to the television screen, how to choose a film online, how to store them in a way that resembles our dvd cabinet so you can see them to choose what to watch, or any of that stuff.

I guess the demise of the store is really an inevitable outcome of the internet age. I quite like the fact that the internet permitted open access publishing, including my own journal. But multimedia downloads have never appealed to me, especially the illegal variety. Nothing will replace going to the store and surveying the shelves. But it is striking to think that a business that was absolutely heaving with people all weekend, as recently as two to three years ago, and situated close to an excellent cinema giving us a real wealth of moviedom, is now an unviable commercial proposition. This is a technological nightmare. A lot of people are going to be very sad.

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My sister


She is now a student again.

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Useful set of pics for University of Melbourne


This is where I work, Although not in any of the nice buildings. S

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Academics anonymous, and Fred Inglis, open letter to university leaders

In the spirit of this,

Fred Inglis “Today’s intellectuals: too obedient?” Times Higher, 28 Aug 2014


somebody also wrote this.


These days I do ask a lot of questions before acting. But ‘restructuring’ of universities is one of a couple of issues that never ceases to amaze me. Whole groups of friends, Departments, teaching, professional staff, all decimated to raise prestige, save costs, or pursue a top-down vision.  The current situation in Australia is catching up with the UK’s  very fast. This is not good:-


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Return to the University of Reading after 29 years

I  graduated with a degree in Human and Physical Geography from the University of Reading in 1985, which is 29 years ago. This UK summer I returned to the campus for my first proper visit, to attend the Norma Wilkinson Memorial Lecture. I have forgotten who Norma Wilkinson was, but lots of well known geographers have given the lecture over the years, including David Harvey. Returning was a strange experience. I attended the University in 1982 after having got an “E” (the lowest pass) for geography in my British school A-levels in 1981, and therefore working in a factory during a gap year. I retook  the A-level at a crammer college in London with much greater success. Without that effort and expense  I could not have gone to Reading and not become an academic later on. The first year at uni was miserable, but the second and third were great, and I learned enough to set me up for life – initially in urban consultancy in London at PMA, and then a PhD program in the USA. You can read one of my undergrad student essays here – a rather un-radical but empiricist account of contributions to public policy written in 1984. For the geographers among the readership, I was taught by John Short, Andrew Kirby, John Townshend, Andy Millington, Sir Peter Hall who died just a week ago, Mike Breheny, John Soussan, Paul Longley,  Sophie Bowlby, John Silk and several others. There were fieldtrips to Tunisia, the Netherlands, Dorset, and various freezing and waterlogged quarries and ‘exposures’ of sediments around south east UK. If this cast of characters was submitted to the UK’s contemporary infernal ‘research ranking exercises’   today (The RQF), I am sure the Department  would come out very well. Hall seemed to produce a major work almost every year, Mike Breheny too. John Short has continued to do so.  The physical geographers were excellent and most moved to top positions elsewhere. At the time, Cambridge was dominant as a geography Department in the UK  but it focussed on cultural and historical work and the various lecturers, whose work we absorbed in our own seminars, were too scholarly for my interests at the time.  Oxford was still teaching old-school regional geography – the Department was later reinvigorated considerably. Reading’s work was more contemporary than these, akin to Leeds or Bristol – understanding contemporary change in the white heat of S.E. UK’s technologically driven industrial change (Reading was situated in the middle of it) and there was a good deal of applied work on sustainability issues and international development. As students, we went to the Library (yes the physical library show right – it is still there) and I became expert at pulling references and ideas together for essays and reports, and ‘surveying a field’ of study and what is going on within it. Useful skills, 30 yrs later, and reflected in the fact that I still work on many things at once.  I attended all the lectures over the three years, bar about two. I did all the readings. I felt part of the Department, even as an undergrad. I got a first class degree, much to my surprise. I was one of three from that cohort to go onto a PhD. Return to place is always bittersweet. I vary rarely go down memory lane – it is cluttered and bypassed. On campus, I discovered the basic layout of the place unchanged. Some rather objectionable 60s-80s buildings are still there (like this, the

Lego building) I went to the old Geography building I remember well, but it was deserted – Geography has just moved out to relocate elsewhere on campus (I think the Geog building opened in 1983 next to Geology, because in my first year we still had some portacabins). There are more shops and cafés on campus (we did not have much in the 1980s except a Student Union with a beer-stained carpet and a shop) and it seems there are plans for more construction. The Norma Wilkinson lecture was held in the old Geology building (Geology was a Department that was later axed at some stage), in which I had to take lectures on regional science back in 1983. Little had changed in the theatre – it still had an overhead projector and whiteboard, and uncomfortable seats. I reflected that my own university in Australia is far better endowed, with some excellent teaching facilities, for which we are grateful. It is also much larger and has high fees, of course. None of my former lecturers are currently on the permanent staff.  The Professoriate in the Department today were promoted far younger than the people I remember there from the 1980s, except Peter Hall (who was a Professor at 37!) –– and I am sure they are doing a good job and probably re-inventing whatever ‘traditions’ the Department had from previous decades – if these are even acknowledged. I wish them well. They do make me feel old, though. My overwhelming sense is of misplaced memories. As an undergrad, the campus seems large, super-modern, and situated at the centre of things in SE England. We really thought we were in some sort of ‘core’ location. Today the university feels smaller to me and less central, and the town centre, which was never very nice, has grown in its density and capital investment. Certainly the university has had to cut back – closing Schools, Departments and even campuses over the years (all phrased positively as ‘consolidation’, of course). The town now has many more commercial office developments and high street shopping, and the railway station on the main line to the West Country and London has  grown massively in size. The town still feels like an unfinished project – still some building sites and empty offices. But it has changed in other ways – I noticed a Bike Kitchen, a voluntary sector phenomenon I have been studying elsewhere, and a ‘Global Cafe & Bar‘ linked to a  social solidarity centre – countercultural elements we did not have in the 1980s at all. The hastily built housing estate where we rented a place in in Lower Earley seems to have  survived (Woodmere Close, where a group of us had a variety of decrepit vehicles, upsetting the upwardly mobile neighbours – I even started building a Dutton kit car in the garage). What I took from Reading, I suppose,  was a combined interest in assisting equitable transitions in the world (this entered the field of applied geography we were taught in those days, but not all we learned in the 1980s was actually progressive) and international environmental and development in Africa. Lectures were detailed and well prepared. I’m grateful for what I learned, and I actually saw through the sentiments gained through study in my own projects later on. Life may have been very different without having gone there. Having parked my bike on memory lane for an afternoon in July, it is now time to head back to the present.

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