Friday, September 07, 2007


We're off for some more adventures.

We are riding west for a two week tour. We're aiming for Cornwall with our camping gear and the intention of actually camping and cooking for ourselves this time.

After that, I'm leaving dgym at home and heading off on a long ride to Corsica.

Right now we're in a bit of a last minute panic getting everything ready. I managed to break one of the screws attaching my front rack to my bike, it's never pretty when a rack breaks on tour so I'm glad I discovered the problem before leaving. After a quick trip to the bike shop, my bike is happy again.

We're trying to decide what goes best in a camping kitchen without weighing ourselves down too much. I have been making little bags of herbs and spices, a little squeezy bottle of olive oil, and a little pot of sugar to sprinkle on porridge.

There won't be much blogging while we're travelling this time, due to limited supplies of electricity. Instead, we will be using what is known as "pen and paper" to write about our travels, followed by a lot of typing when we get back.

We look forward to telling you all about it.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Une Housse

Later this month, after dgym and I have spent a couple of weeks biking around Cornwall and re-building our hill muscles, I will be starting out on a ride to Corsica. This will take me down through Dorset to Poole ferry port, across the sea to Cherbourg and down through France to Marseille, from which I will take the ferry to Corsica. However, I am due in Normandy at the end of October for a family holiday so will be needing to travel back up the length of France at a rate which my poor little legs cannot possibly achieve. This means I will be travelling from Marseille to Paris on the lovely speedy TGV, and then taking a further train up into Normandy.

It is well documented on sites such as Bike Access that, whereas France's roads are among the most bike-friendly in the world, its railway system is the exact opposite and the best way to get around this is to partially disassemble the bike, bag it up in an housse and treat it as luggage. Unfortunately, commercially-sold bike bags tend to be bulky, heavy and expensive, not really suitable for carrying around in a pannier for four weeks.

I quite enjoyed our last sewing project, which was making litle padded travel cases for our laptops so, having ready access to the best fabric shop in the universe, and being a bit low in the funds department and keen to carry as little as possible around France, it made sense to follow Q May's excellent instructions for making your own housse.

Measuring up

I started out by measuring up my lovely machine. Strictly speaking, the bike in its housse should fit within 120cm x 90cm - however, commercial housses which are sold specificically to take on the TGV, are often larger than this, and according to the instructions it should be possible to get away with 140cm x 110cm.

Fully assembled, my bike measures 178cm x 95cm. The height is fine, but it is clearly far too long.

Minus the wheels, it would be 155 x 75cm. Still too long. I then measured how much length various components added to the bike...
Minus Front rack - 143cm
Minus rear fender - 135cm
Minus rear rack - 120cm

So I could probably get away with just removing the wheels, front rack and rear fender - however, I could take off the rear rack to get it down to the strictly required size.

Since I am going to have to reassemble it to get across Paris from one train to another (as various people have pointed out, I could get a taxi but I have never been to Paris before, I have a 2hr 20min changeover and I think it'd be nice to have a ride across town and quickly see some sights), I want the option of taking off as little as I can get away with, so I decided to go for the recommended 140cm x 110cm. I can always take more off and fold away the excess fabric to make the bag smaller.


I rode over to Sturminster Newton, which where my parents live, to make my housse. This was for two very good reasons:
  1. Stur is the home of the best fabric shop in the universe.
  2. My mum has a sewing machine and I don't.


Hanson's has everything you could ever want for a sewing project. It certainly had everything I could want.

I knew from the beginning that ripstop nylon would be my fabric of choice for this project. It's strong, light, water resistant and, like the name says, it doesn't rip. If the chainring gets caught up in the fabric and makes a hole, hopefully damage will be limited and I can simply patch it up with duct tape. I chose the darkest colour they had as it's going to end up with oil stains on the inside.

I also decided that I wanted a zipper along the top and sides. I was a little worried I wouldn't be able to find a long enough zipper, but was delighted to learn that Hanson's sells it by the metre.

I wasn't able to find the exact weight of thread suggested by the instructions but did find upholstery thread which seems pretty tough, and a set of machine needles tough enough to take it.


2.3m ripstop @ £5.99/metre - £13.78
2.6m of zipper @ 90p / metre - £2.25
1 zip slider - 29p
6.5m of webbing for the strap @ 60p/metre - £3.90
2 reels of navy blue upholstery thread - £5.70
1 pack of size 18 sewing machine needles - £3.25

Total cost £29.17
Minus 5% discount for purchase over £25: £27.71

I bought slightly more than the required amount of everything to allow for mistakes.

The making

The instructions were easy to follow. In summary:
  1. cut the fabric to size
  2. create a 1-inch hem around the edges.
  3. sew on the zipper along the top and (optionally) down one side
  4. optionally, attach the webbing.
  5. seam up the remaining open side(s).
See the original page for full details.

It was fairly easy to make once I'd remembered how to use a sewing machine! There's a lot of fabric there, take care not to get anything caught under the needle that shouldn't be there, or you'll end up unpicking as I did at one point. There is quite a lot of sewing here, what with all the hems, and especially if you choose to add the webbing and put the zip along two sides. I'm glad I bought two reels of thread as I did end up starting on the second - and I still have leftovers of everything for repairs / enhancements. I'm not sure whether I made the straps the right length, they may be too long, but I guess I will find that out.

One word of advice: if you have attached an open ended zipper, please don't spend ages trying to get the slider on at one end, then delightedly zip up your creation, only to zip it straight off the other end! A few stitches or a blob of glue at each end should stop the slider coming off.

The finished product

I'm rather pleased with it. It zips and unzips nicely (although there is quite a lot of hem on the inside which sometimes gets caught in the zipper, it may be worth trimming this. Here it is, zipped and unzipped.

It weighs in at 280g, 100g lighter than the one described in the instructions. It would be even lighter if you only zippered the top, and didn't bother with the webbing. It also rolls up nicely to about the size of a bike bottle (it looks slightly bigger in the picture but can easily be further compressed). It measures 109x135cm, slightly smaller than I have aimed for, I think I may have made the hems a little too wide.

It's a good idea to test out the disassembly of your bicycle, both to check it will fit the bag and to make sure there are no problems with taking things apart. When I tried removing my front rack, one of the screws holding it on turned out to be stuck, and ended up snapped. I also found I didn't know how to rotate the handlebars. However, I did learn that it fits the bag just fine with the front rack and rear fender removed.

I look forward to testing the bag out properly, hopefully there will be more to report in a couple of months time when my bike has travelled the length of France inside it.

[Update 2007-12-01: It worked really well. See here for the full story]

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Solar Power

On our next trip down to Cornwall we will be trying to save a bit of money by camping and doing our own cooking. One of the downsides of this is that we probably won't have a ready supply of electricity to recharge anything. Since there are quite a few things I would like to be able to recharge I decided to do some research and see what might be practical.

The first priority was a phone charger because I want to be able to speak to Hel while she is traveling France on her own. She bought a wind up charger just in case but it is quite noisy, heavy and very tedious. Most phones, ours included, need 5 volts to charge. Because my Zaurus (cross between a PDA and a laptop) also needs 5V so this setup would keep me programming on our travels too.

There are several commercially available solar chargers, such as the Solio or Freeloader that would do the trick. I bought a Solio a while back and was very disappointed as it came with a voucher for a free charging tip which not only took several months to arrive but didn't come with the cable necessary to use it. After spending £50 and waiting for months I had hoped to have something that could at least be used for something, anything really. I eventually took the plunge and ripped apart the iPod cable that did come with it and put it to some use but I'm still not impressed.

The other things that we really want to be able to charge are batteries. The lights on my bike are all AA powered and although you can find them pretty much anywhere I don't like using disposables. The battery in Hel's camera is more of a problem as it is a custom design and can only be charged by the mains charger. The Solio and Freeloader are very good for charging devices, but not batteries, and the custom battery was going to require a custom charger.

Thankfully during my search I happened upon which not only has several articles explaining how to build a fixed voltage solar charger for the devices, and a current limiting circuit for charging batteries, but also sells everything required to build them.

The most basic circuit is the 4 AA battery recharger consisting of a solar panel, the battery holders and a single diode. This is very easy to assemble and makes for an excellent starting project and costs around £20 including postage. I can now use rechargeable batteries in my lights, and I can also use the 4 AA batteries to charge my phone or Zaurus, but this indirect charging is very inefficient. The other problem with this setup is that the solar panel and batteries have to match each other so it isn't a very versatile solution.

The slightly more complicated circuit involves a diode, a resistor and an LM317 which are used to limit the amount of current in a circuit. According to the site it is safe to recharge batteries with quite a high source voltage but to stop the batteries from being damaged (or exploding) it is necessary to limit the current to a tenth of their capacity rating (e.g. if you have a 1500mAh battery charge it with at most 150mA). I used a 9V panel as the camera battery is 7.2V.

The final circuit I made was the voltage regulator so I could use the 9V panel to provide a steady 5V output to directly charge the phone or Zaurus. This used a diode, two resistors and an LM317.

By driving both this circuit and the custom battery charger from the same 9V panel Hel now has a nice travel package weighing less than the wind up charger and spare batteries she was going to carry and costing under £25.

I am very happy with my battery recharger and am now considering a slightly bigger setup so we can recharge our laptops. I just hope the sun sees fit to come out from time to time.