Sunday, 27 April 2014

High visibility target

There's an aspect of motorcycling known as 'target fixation'. What this basically means is that you end up going towards the thing you're looking at, which is why you'll notice that when you watch motorcycle racing, the riders are never looking straight ahead in the bends but at the bend's exit. If you're out for a ride and find yourself going into a corner a bit too hot thinking "Ooh fuck I'm gonna hit that tree", then if you stare at it then you most certainly will. The key is to look at where you want to go rather than where you're afraid you will go, and the chances are that you'll make it - unless of course you've grossly overestimated the laws of physics in which case you're stuffed anyway, but at least you would have made a brave effort to rescue the situation.
As time has gone by I've come to wonder whether the same sort of rule applies in other areas.
For example, I generally make sure I wear something very bright when I'm cycling so that I can be seen by drivers from further away, allowing them more time to plan their evasive manoeuvres and denying them the excuse of "Sorry mate, didn't see you" should the worst happen.
I'm beginning to wonder though if this is a bit counterproductive. Catching someone's attention is all well and good, but if their eyes are being drawn too strongly towards a retina-burning orange Hi-Viz shirt then maybe they're actually more likely to hit you than if you were wearing something a little more subdued. It's just a guess of course, but I suspect this may be the reason for so many people finding it necessary to pass so close that I could easily punch their door mirror off even when there's no oncoming traffic around.
Another example of this would be the Fiat Seicento I had a few years ago. It was the Abarth model with all the body kit and alloys (no more powerful or faster than the normal one, but it did look as if it ought to be) and it was possibly the most livid shade of bright yellow it's possible to be without venturing into the realms of 'dayglo'. Seemingly as a consequence of this, every other car that came near it felt obliged to drive within six inches of the back bumper, almost to the point of trying to barge it off the road. It didn't matter if I was in a queue of traffic with everyone sitting at a constant speed and nowhere for anyone to overtake or make faster progress - the idiot behind would be trying to park in my boot. Now either this was due to people's attention being so focussed on what appeared to be a bright yellow running shoe that they didn't realise what they were doing, or that they were simply enraged by the colour (in addition to the hatred usually received by anyone driving a very small car) and therefore hated me with a venom normally reserved (quite rightly) for kiddy fiddlers.
I think this may have had a lot to do with the decision to sell that car because even though it was enormous fun to drive, with the ability to put a silly grin on my face every time I drove it, the pay-off in terms of the way I got treated by other motorists on the road was too much to tolerate.
And it wasn't only me. Talking with one of the tutors at one of the local advanced drivers meetings, he said that he and a friend both bought a Skoda Octavia VRS at around the same time. He bought one in an anonymous dark blue and went about his business with no aggravation whatsoever. His mate bought one in yellow and suddenly found himself on the receiving end of aggressive behaviour wherever he went.
Perhaps this explains the massive popularity in the hordes of dull monochrome cars on the road today. Most people buying a new car seem to choose it in some shade of grey that blends in with the sea of other grey cars - presumably in the hope of not being noticed.
On my cycle ride today I saw a few other riders taking advantage of the early Sunday morning with its lack of traffic, and none of them was wearing bright clothing. Maybe they'd come to the same conclusion as me - only somewhat earlier - that any sort of attention you draw to yourself is highly likely to be of the negative variety and therefore to be avoided. So I think I'll ditch the Hi-Viz orange shirt and just wear black stuff while keeping my fingers crossed that I don't get mown down because someone hasn't seen me.

'Yellow Peril' - the unfortunate hate magnet.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Hooked on classics

Like most people, getting my driving license and my first car was like finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Suddenly being faced with more freedom than I knew what to do with, and the delight in the feeling of being in control (mostly) of a car was an amazing feeling. As these were the days when petrol was actually affordable, it seemed perfectly acceptable - nay, obligatory - to go out for a drive just for the sake of it. Not going anywhere in particular, just there and back to see how far it is via the most interesting and invariably wiggly route possible, just for the sheer pleasure of driving.
By contrast, these days I drive because I have to. The pleasure and enthusiasm has been swept away on a tide of repetitive and tedious commuting and overcrowded roads, compounded by the fact that modern cars are so dull and lacking in character that choosing your next one is about as exciting as choosing a new washing machine. Cars have become boring. Just like white goods, except a shit-load more expensive to own.
With the rose-tinted spectacles firmly installed, I consider that the older cars I've owned were infinitely more entertaining and bursting with character, but in reality it's quite likely that this could be simply translated as 'unreliable'.
The old cars were a labour of love, but at the time the countless weekends spent under the bonnet fixing the latest fault didn't really seem to matter because the more I worked on them, the more I learned about them and the more I became attached to them. The nagging problems, the bad cold starting, reluctant gearboxes, blown gaskets, leaks, and that annoying rattle I could never locate the source of all lent each vehicle a character all of its own, which made me like them all the more. Whatever you pick from the incredible range of cars available today, you can be pretty confident of getting something which will start every time you turn the key regardless of the weather, and perform faultlessly day in day out with just a once yearly service at which point it will have consumed no oil whatsoever. Reliable, dependable, predictable. And boring. Unless of course you've got deep enough pockets to afford something as utterly mind-blowing as a Pagani Zonda or similar, then maybe you will manage to get a big silly grin on your face provided you can find an empty road free of potholes, speed cameras and horse shit....
There's a certain element of excitement about getting in a car in the morning and having to cross your fingers that the damp hasn't got into the distributor cap (remember those?) preventing the bugger from getting a spark. You feel a connection with the car when it splutters to a halt on a cold dark night in the middle of nowhere with a blocked carburettor jet, even if that connection is just the one between the radiator grille and your foot. You can dice with death, wondering if the overpowering smell of petrol will prevent you from reaching your destination; disappearing from this life in a spectacular explosion that propels you into oblivion with your arse on fire. And you can throw an old car into a series of bends not knowing for certain what combination of skill, courage, and sheer luck will see you emerge unscathed, having put youself at the mercy of a chassis and suspension setup that was specifically designed to kill you. Now that is exciting. You may be able to hustle a Focus RS through a series of twisties at insane speeds and still come out the other side both calm and alive, but try doing the same thing in a Morris Ital even at significantly lower speeds and if you live to tell the tale you will have significantly honed your skills and probably be on the lookout for a drive-through laundrette and some air freshener.
This may make it look as if old cars were nothing more than unreliable death traps, and there may be an element of truth in that. After one awful winter evening when I fought my way from Sutton to Haverhill and back on unlit backroads riding an ancient Suzuki 250 in the pissing rain with a headlamp that had only slightly less power than a candle, to get a replacement distributor for my stricken (again) Austin Metro so that I could get it running again before work the following day, I decided that I'd had enough and it was time to invest in something rather less demanding on my dirt and grease ingrained fingers and my frazzled nerves.
These days I rarely need to touch the cars for anything more than cleaning them and topping up the windscreen washer fluid, which in its own way is wonderful. But the hankering to have an old classic sat on the drive that needs regular care and attention lavished on it to stop it being carted off to the big scrapyard in the sky is still strong, and if I can get to the stage that my only need for a car is the occasional run out somewhere unimportant at the weekend, then perhaps I'll give in to temptation.

Morris Ital. Design, built and possessed by Satan.
But at least the paint matched my trousers after a 'spirited' drive.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Just like all the rest - but different

In July the Tour De France is coming to Cambridge, and a great many people seem to be getting a bit excited about it. So much so that cycling appears to be going through something of a surge in popularity, with a noticeable increase in the number of budding yellow jersey wearers out on the road. This always happens when there's a big sporting event. When Wimbledon is on, lots of people get all enthusiastic about tennis, go out and buy an expensive tennis racket and go off to join the local tennis club; then once the fuss and hype is all over the racket gets put on top of the wardrobe to gather dust.
Not being of a particularly sporty persuasion I don't tend to suffer this affliction, but I suppose it would be easy for an outsider to get the impression that maybe I am - especially when I pick up my new bike next week when people might assume that I've been caught up in the whole Tour De France thing.
The point though is that for the sort of riding I'm aiming for, the bike I have is a bit of a blunt instrument - a bit like trying to use a shotgun for sniping - I just felt I wanted something a tad lighter and quicker. Taller gearing is needed as the days when I was able to make my legs thrash around like two-stroke pistons have long gone, and it's frustrating to be in top gear and run out of revs when you know you could be going quicker. Hence the choice of a road bike which I know will mean having to be extra wary of potholes, but I figured the upsides outweigh the downsides.
One downside I'm very conscious of is the whole lycra-clad dickhead element who have a tendency to give cyclists as bad a name as the suicidal fuckwits who proliferate Cambridge - the ones who ride flat-out at night through red traffic lights on a black bike with no lights wearing black clothing and big headphones.
Lycra gear is very good at its job, but I just don't want to be associated with those people in the same way I don't want to drive an Audi and it be assumed that I'm a complete road-rage demon buzzing on coffee and stress.
The padded shorts are pretty much essential, but I think the best ploy is to wear them under something rather less figure-hugging. Lycra shorts look OK if you're a pro cyclist with thighs like a thoroughbred race horse, but on a skinny middle aged numpty like me they'd look ridiculous.
So it's off to Sports Direct for a cheapo pair of three quarter length shorts and a couple of bright tee-shirts and quite frankly that'll do. I know it will ensure that the lycra-clad club will look upon me with disdain but I see that as something of a bonus. Although deliberately doing things that many would consider to be unusual can be immensely entertaining, much fun can be had by doing something that lots of other people do, but doing it in such a way that it sticks two fingers up at the elitist elements. Whether it's riding a road bike wearing baggy clothes and being considerate of other road users, driving an Audi within the speed limit and keeping the correct stopping distance ahead, or serving a full English breakfast where not a single item has been fried.


Sunday, 13 April 2014

Its been a while since Ant & Bee

It was rather sad this week to hear of the passing of Sue Townsend. 'The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole' and 'The Growing Pains Of Adrian Mole' are two of the books that helped me most through the teenage years of angst - reassuring me that perhaps I wasn't particularly weird or anything.
In fact, reading has been one of those things that has been pretty consistent in my life. Before I'd even started school mum was teaching me to read and the library was one of my favourite places, along with the local shop (reliable source of 1/2p 'fruit salad' and 'black jack' chewy sweets).
Earliest recollections of reading centre around the 'Ant & Bee' books, followed by the likes of 'Topsy & Tim' before discovering the delights of the 'Thomas The Tank Engine' books. Being the early seventies these were the original stories by Rev Awdry, and quite some time before Ringo Starr had found them to be a useful way to supplement the income from his Beatles royalties.
I suppose the next phase was when I moved on to Enid Blyton's 'Famous Five' books - adventure stories set in a time when England was all about private schools, cricket, no swearing and of course the inevitable lashings of ginger beer.
Then came the grey teenage wilderness that was assisted by the likes of 'Adrian Mole', 'Thunder and Lightnings', and 'Codename Icarus', after which I was introduced to authors such as James Herbert and Shaun Hutson, leaving me to spend many years indulging in assorted twisted and gory fantasies. However there's only so many times you can read stories of hauntings, demonic posessions and dismemberment before you get a wee bit jaded and in need of something a bit different.
I'm happy to say that over the years my literary tastes have become increasingly varied, although I do still go through phases where I'll focus on either fantasy, crime fiction, or sci-fi. These phases are generally interspersed with a random selection of oddities including the odd bit of classic literature, although I still hold the firm opinion that Thomas Hardy is an overrated purveyor of tedious mind-numbing drivel.

Looking back at what I've written so far I'm wondering why I'm bothering really. I wrote nothing last week due to a complete lack of ideas, and I suppose having had a week off work my mind is now in a relaxed enough state to ponder the more trivial aspects of my past. There's been little going on over the past week to provoke much in the way of bile with the possible exception of the discovery that Audi man has a cousin. He's just as much of an arrogant shit-bag and he goes by the title of 'rambler'.
Don't be surprised if at some point in the not too distant future there's a rant about these self-righteous arseholes and their firm belief that anyone not wearing a rucksack and who could in any way be perceived to be impeding their 'right of way' (even when the path is in fact a National Cycle Route) is evil personified. Even now I can feel the bile rising once again.....