Pecha Kucha – a Philosophy of Coffee in under 7 minutes

A recent trip back to Cambridge happened to co-incide with the latest volume of Pecha Kucha taking place at Espresso Library. It’s an event were a few people each give a talk made up of 20 slides, each of which automatically moves on after 20 seconds. It’s a fast, concise format that exposes both the speaker and the audience to new experiences.

I could talk about the viture of being concise for days.

On The Track

Way back in June I went out on the boards for the first time. I’ve ridden fixed gear bikes for more than 5 years, both for daily commuting and longer fitness rides. I can skid, track stand and get a high gear up to speed pretty quickly. I have even own a full blooded track bike for several years without riding on a track. My trip to the London Olympic Velodrome was long overdue and become something of a pilgrimage.

The first stop in London was the Rapha Cycle Club, where the first of many coffees was consumed. Bike kit was purchased. A stage of the Giro and the latest edition of Rouleur were also absorbed before heading relocating to Speakeasy to top up the caffeine levels. By the time I headed out of central London, towards the Olympic Park, I was vibrating.


After months of meticulous planning, the not so grand departure to the airport was exciting, with a tinge of stress. As a group of 5, mostly graduated but pathologically lazy school friends a 2 week trip from Bordeaux to Marseilles by bike was an unexpected holiday choice. Two members of the group had only taken up cycling recently in order to be a part of the trip leading to questions about performance. The rest of us had never done any touring and were determined that the the entire expedition be completed on fixed gear bikes, although this decision most mostly due to the facet that we couldn’t afford tourers.

Ride Fixed

The trend of hipsters manically peddling round town on a fixed gear bike appears to have reached its peak. Predominantly inspired by the couriers of San Francisco and New York, hipsters have inserted themselves into many urban landscapes via fixed gear bikes. For the last 5 or so years in the UK there has seen a surge of interest in building fixed gear bikes. So much so that large bike companies have gone to the effort of mass producing complete bikes for those to lazy or incompetent to do so. This is a fad that may have lost its novelty as a fashion statement but there are still large numbers of fixed gear fanatics who show no sign of giving up on these bikes. I consider myself to be one such fanatic, if not a particularly good one. But the trend has not died yet and I am still regularly involved in building bikes for myself or friends so shall therefore expound on the matter.

Fixies are still appealing on the grounds that they are still relatively cheap and incredibly customisable. For me, the process of building a fixed gear bike is a huge pleasure in itself so in outlining this marvellous process I am perhaps creating an ode to bike design as much as I hope to provide a practical guide to building a fixie. One of the key benefits of building a fixed gear bike is the attachment to the bike that develops throughout this process. Having an intimate relationship and complete understanding of the role of each part leads to a greater appreciate of the bike when riding. In striving to improve all aspects of the ride, the bike must be intensely focused on. Even when ones best intentions are to only to hold a functional appreciation of the bike the activity of selecting each piece of the machine can be unexpectedly satisfying. If you have already decided to build or purchase it is still essential that all of the potential benefits of riding fixed are being taken into account through the duration of the building process. Whether the goals include making a bike that looks good, rides well or is an economical form of transport these requirements must be held at the forefront of each decision that is made.

Fixed gear bikes differ from other bikes primarily in that they are much more simple. This is the essence of their beauty. Fewer parts means that there is less to go wrong. When it does go wrong the simplicity of the mechanics allow fixies to be repaired more easily, with fewer tools and less training than conventional road bikes. As there are fewer parts these bikes are much cheaper than road bikes, or rather, you can get much higher quality parts than if you spent the same money on a road bike. For example you will be spending a proportionally larger amount of your fixed budget on the cranks for a fixie than for a road bike, better cranks are stiffer and therefore lose less energy when accelerating and decelerating while keeping the weight of the bike to a minimum. The simplicity of the drive train allows for sturdier parts than on road bikes which massively increases the life of parts. Fewer parts of course also means less weight which means going faster. From an engineering perspective the is success in that functionality is improved through simplification.

The simplicity of the bike goes some way to reduce compatibility issues thereby massively increasing the customisability of the bike. The recent popularity of fixies has seen a surge in the colour and variety of custom bike parts that are available but fixies are also advantageous in that they can accommodate a wide variety of old and second hand parts. This can keep costs down and allows for a retro look if so desired. This is not to say that every part fits every bike, in fact most modern parts such as A-head stems and over sized bars can’t be used on traditional threaded forks and head sets. Aesthetically, it is often advisable to stick to using only modern or only retro style parts on a bike. This is a personal opinion and very much an over generalisation but probably a useful guild line to keep in mind for complete beginners. However many parts do not fit neatly into either category and there are a number of ingenious solutions to modern/retro compatibility issues. A classic lugged frame looks great with a quill stem perched adjacent to simple brake levers on the drops that just control just the brakes. A chunky modern frame with carbon forks, deep V section wheels and a very thin saddle has a consistent style as well and utilises technological developments to maximise performance. There is certainly an aesthetic value to be found in function, modern time trial bikes look like stealth bombers and that is very cool.Team Sky’s time machine of choice.

Team Sky’s time machine of choice.
To contaminate the beauty of a retro bike with modern, performance orientated parts, for me, fails to achieve either good looks or an efficient bike rendering the product useless. Many people have experimented with mixing the old and the new but in my opinion this has not achieved enough success to be a desirable methodology to pursue. Some exceptions may be permissible, for example a brooks saddles look good on pretty much anything and its presence can always justified purely on the basis that they are fucking comfy.

As I have immersed myself more deeply in the culture and tradition of cycling, retro and fixed gear bikes have become more appealing on the basis that they hark back to the heroes and history of simpler times. With the tint of hindsight it is easy to pick out riders and rides that accomplished astonishing feats, especially considering their lack of modern technology.Eddy Merckx didn’t need carbon fibre to be a badarse on a bike.

Eddy Merckx didn’t need carbon fibre to be a badarse on a bike.
The Tour de France was first raced on fixed gear bikes requiring riders to remove and flip the wheel round to select the lower gear ratio for climbing hills. Perhaps, in reverting to past technologies we are in some way displaying solidarity with the hard men of the tales of yore. This is certainly not something I was aware of when building my first or even my third bike yet the technology and economics of days gone by often required bikes to be built by true craftsmen who spent decades honing their expertise and produced machines that cannot be considered to be technically or aesthetically inferior to many great works of art. Perhaps in riding fixed we are demonstrating that appreciation of bike craft should held in higher regard than the convenience of mass production.

Above all, the reason to go fixed is for the ride. It may not be the most efficient way to get up a hill or maintain a high average speed but its a hell of a lot more fun. The smooth acceleration from a taught drive train instantaneously propels one into the future. “Flying” is certainly the best word to describe the experience. Whether one is grinding up a steep incline wishing a large sprocket had been selected or cruising past hybrids in traffic, there is a greater awareness that motion is being achieved through the union of rider and bike. The symbiosis of man and machine can only be truly achieved when riding a fixed gear bike where every pedal stroke directly informs the rider of speed and momentum by virtue of the beautiful bicycle.

Clipped Wings

Last weekend I got some of those clippy-in cycling shoes. I guess it’s surprising its taken this long. I’ve been using fixed gear bikes as my main form of transport for the best part of 5 years but the last summer has signalled a decisive turning point from hipster courier to hardcore roadie wannabe.

I think its fair to say that to begin with the building of a fixed gear bike was as much about the novelty of building a unique bike choosing all the shiny parts as it was about creating a machine that could swoop round traffic jams. It was the sensation of riding that really struck home, not long after my first complete build (and more than a few upgrades) I embarked on a more ambitious project. After 8 months of meticulous planning and the consideration of a multitude of factors I created a bike that was perfect in every way. It still hangs on my bedroom wall when not being ridden. This was my fully NJS Panasonic keirin bike. A custom steel frame built up with classically styled Japanese parts designed and certified for use in the notoriously combative tack discipline of Keirin racing. It is still my proudest achievement to date. This showed a marked step away from the aggressively urban style of bike I had started with and was more purist in the sense that it was designed to have a dramatic effect on all the senses. The aesthetic impact was carefully considered. It is a very beautiful bike to look at. Being fixed gear allows for a beautifully responsive and smooth acceleration as well a ride that subtly melds mind, bike and asphalt. The contact points between body and bike are taut with power and an awareness of balance and motion. The overall experience is sublime but the point is that performance was not the primary object here. This was very much a conscious decision. When choosing to go for classic track pedals with metal cages and leather straps this was to keep with the traditionalist approach. I am still in love with the pedals, they turn slickly and look stunningly minimalistic but admittedly do not offer the full level of efficiency that more modern components are capable of. Also, I had no intention of waddling around

The conscious decision to prioritise performance over looks is almost certainly due to time spent in the gym over the last year and a half. An interest in fitness lead me to experiment with High Intensity Interval Training. It’s amazing. The sheer quantity of pain that is achievable on a spin bike is astounding. It made exercise addictive. It was an incredibly easy and enjoyable way of achieving the physiological overload, the mental buzz, the burning body, the breathless grin that made cycling so much fun outside. The ease at which I was able to stick in a pair of headphones playing drum and bass on full volume and then convince my body that it was still capable of producing more power and pain week after week was a revaluation. Having never been a particularly athletic person I loved that for the first time in my life I was doing exercise and getting fitter. The gym offered an environment with no distractions and clear objectives so progress was quick and quantifiable. Even more amazingly this progress transferred to the real world. I found I could effortlessly cruise for longer and longer. When I got to the biggest hills Cambridgeshire has to offer (admittedly these are little more than lumps) my legs simply kept on outputting power all the way up and down the other side.

My third and final year an university also included a number of unrelated factors that influenced the change of direction. Last winter my beloved first build tragically and catastrophically failed as the result of a seemingly benign accident. The replacement, chosen by necessity more than anything else, was constructed around a much more modern Leader frame. Salvaging a large number of parts from the corpse of my old bike gave it a rather jarring contrast of modern and classical styles. Moving out of London eventually allowed me to prioritise speed over survival so it ended up with a pair of contemporary drops to go with the retro saddle and pedals. But of course a student budget limited advancements. Studying, or rather, procrastinating gave me the time and motivation to sink my teeth into watching road racing for the first time. Having gotten the hang of causing myself pain on a bike I started to appreciate the tactical masochism of the pro peloton.

It would seem that a few months of watching men and women wearing sweaty lycra has also had an impact on my fasion sense. Hours of watching sweaty men and women (note: there isnt much womens pro cycling, let alone on TV) in lycra meant I didn’t think it looked as bad. this summer I got my first proper cycling attire. It was not an easy choice but the time I was clocking on the bike required clothing fit for purpose. It just so happens that I think my Rapha Classic jersey and bib shorts look amazing. At last, despite my wardrobe ready consisting only of cycling optimised “casual clothing” (all my jeans are from Levi’s commuter range), I can proudly don kit that is without compromise. It’s so comfy its hard to take off after a ride.

The culmination of these various influences and constraints has certainly shifted my focus in the direction of a performance obsessed road cyclist. A moderate commute to a new job provided the need and means to switch to cleated pedals and shoes but it was a switch I was very excited to make. And once made (at the same time as replacing a very worn drive train) I re-lived feelings that got me into cycling in the first place. The clips allow for so much more power to be squeezed onto the tarmac and the contact with the bike creates an even stronger sense of symbiosis. This reached, for me, completely new heights whilst dodging bike traffic going across Cambridge’s parks. Heading off road to dodge pedestrians is so much fun when clipped in, the undulating bumps and bounces mean you just flow with the bike as one wheel and then the other tries to regain contact with the ground. The clarity of motion as the peddles wind up and the combined speed of person and machine flow through the air is sensational. Its certainly the case that paying a bit more attention to the scientific side of cycling doesn’t detract from its intrinsic emotional excitement. Cycling offers the astounding opportunity to value outright speed and performance yet when these are achieved or even reached at you keep on having a better time.

Riding Lots

It’s not a hobby, it’s a lifestyle. This is the reason that I have not even attempted to write on cycling as my interest in it has developed over the last few years. Any intention to try and convey the experience and significance of cycling crashes into a brick wall of cliche, or worse, condescending pretentiousness. The notion that I could use the medium of writing to sufficiently convey any aspect of this phenomenologically exquisite activity is daunting and seems unlikely to succeed. It would, at best, only be possible to provide a small anecdote or insight that is only of meaning to a cyclist who has a similar level of passion (or disillusionment). Nothing would be captured by the writing here, simply referred to. The philosophical implications of this issue alone are worthy of an entire book so where is the starting point? It is difficult to make even basic assertions such as this without a feeling that they are completely incapable of expressing the breadth, depth and difficulty of the task. It would be devastatingly over simplistic to try and make generalisations about even one small section of the cycling world, it is not obvious what even road cycling, BMX riding, and urban commuting have in common. Each discipline has it’s own stereotypes and sub-culture but outlining these provides little more than caricature. Having said this, many have succeeded in recording and expounding on the, nearly mythological, world of cycling. The intellect and skill behind many works, from the articles of the great William Fotheringham to the short film adverts of Rapha, prove it is possible to create a genuinely moving piece of art that conveys something about cycling. Daring to compete with such talent only adds to the pressure of talking about a sport were nothing less than full hearted commitment and super-human performance are expected. So, for some years now, the task of writing about cycling has been looming over me, posing an unconquerable peak, one too dangerous to even attempt climbing.

To write about cycling then, is a distressingly large challenge but to explain why it is appealing is also to explain, in part, why cycling is appealing. Unsurprisingly, the climbing of a metaphorical mountain of writing correlates well with the climbing of an actual mountain by means of a bicycle. In both cases the seemingly unpleasant work, whether it it intellectual or physical, generates great satisfaction when completed. The work done is also of value in itself, this may be the quantifiable increase in cycling ability or the more qualitative improvement in writing skills. These skills are created or improved through the desire and necessity of attaining a new level of achievement. The problem is that using this kind of language makes cycling sound like a job interview. There is certainly a place and a need for this kind of rational and formulaic thinking in cycling. Planning routes and training programmes require a scientific mind-set as does repairing the bike itself. These are practices that are essential and can be pleasurable in themselves but mostly because they enable the indescribable experience of cycling.

The decision to cycle harder, better, faster and stronger is not a calculated decision that one makes. Cycling is defiantly irrational and self-contradictory. Lance Armstrong succinctly stated, “I didn’t do it for the pleasure, I did it for the pain”. These words can perhaps start to reveal the underlying paradox of the sport. This is not to say that cycling is a logically circular or pointless endeavour. Instead, it seems that the only way to try and convey the simplicity and sensation of cycling is through linguistic paradoxes. As in poetry, two juxtaposed words can create a wave of ideas and thoughts that transcend literal interpretation. Cycling is both pleasurable and painful, these words do not negate one another, an attempt to provide clear definitions will help to account for some aspects of what it is like to be in love with cycling and yet it is the combined effect from the contradiction that seems to convey more. A cyclist winding their way along the numerous hairpins of Alpe d’Huez may appear to be expending the majority of their effort travelling in a direction that is perpendicular to the destination. But this is the most practical way of getting closer to the top. Likewise, the dichotomy of pain and pleasure does not immediately help describe cycling but the lateral progression of thought from one to the other creates more than the sum of the parts. Strong currents are formed where two bodies of water meet, in the mind of a cyclist, the concepts of pleasure and pain fiercely clash and invoke the strong feelings associated with being on a bike.

For me, to talk about cycling as something that transcends language and logic does not quite sit right either. The kind of poetic language that is used sounds too spiritual, almost mystical. By changing only a few words one could turn a work on cycling into the manifesto for a new age religion. I have found that one of the most fitting words for describing cycling is “meditative” but as someone who prides themselves on being empirically grounded I feel that this may be misinterpreted as meaning something supernatural. Once again there appears to be a paradox. To objectively and scientifically dissect cycling is too cold and clinical, on the other hand to allude to the experience itself will easily become a bad parody of mysticism. I think that writing about cycling cannot take wholly either one of these approaches. The distinction I have made is an artificial one itself but hopefully it will help to show how cycling can only be understood holistically but can only be explained through reference to its (artificially segmented) parts.

Doing, not thinking.

Recently I ranted about how I (and at least a few of my peers) struggle to motivate myself to engage with content of an intellectual value over something that takes less investment but is essential not satisfying. I’m starting to think that the solution to this is to start doing rather than thinking. Things are so much simpler at the gym.

I only started going to the gym in January with the meagre expectations of going once a week or so for a month then giving up. Now I am going around 4 or 5 times a week, have drastically changed my diet and have realised that I am actually capable of getting into good shape. This was not expected. It has been a slow but constant progression. It has not been easy but I never thought I would be capable of doing so at all. Seeing as I have never thought that I was doing anything against my own will or interests I guess it has been easy in the sense that I never tried harder than my motivation enabled.

The main appeal of the gym is that is completely the opposite mental activity of doing philosophy (my chosen topic of study at university). Philosophy leaves one’s mind in a constant state of analysis and paranoia. Characters such as Sherlock Holmes show his genius drives people away don’t seem very far from the truth that constantly questioning and reassessing fundamental beliefs won’t be healthy.

After several years of studying philosophy I was was reaching a stage where all philosophical theories were false, as soon as a new convincing one was demonstrated it was torn down. The constant snatching away of any attempt at a coherent world view tends towards nihilism. But this only hones the skill of philosophy, of analysis, of finding problems in arguments after exposing the hidden premises, of (naively) assuming that everything is wrong. Exercise came as a flooding relief.

The clarity of exercise is something I’ve experienced form the physical activities of skating and cycling in the past but nothing brings complete focus and lack of distraction like a session at the gym. Pounding at the treadmill or pumping iron forces your mind to completely focus on making the correct muscles move as hard possible for as long as possible. This is fairly simple but completely absorbing. Time slows down. But when you take a break your mind is blank. If you are questioning the purpose of the exercise or anything else you simply aren’t working hard enough. Cycling has always given me the most amazing sense of intellectual freedom, being out in the countryside elevates the experience to being almost spiritual. But cycling is not fun in London. And you are less likely to die in the gym. And there are fewer distractions in the gym.