The Folding Society

Blaenau Ffestiniog to Wolverhampton - a short tour with folding and separable cycles

Introduction - the route and the cycles{Ride}

The idea of a ride to Llangollen using canal towpaths was first suggested late last year (1998) by John Pinkerton. The original idea was to ride from Wolverhampton by towpath to the Nantwich area, stop overnight, then ride by towpath to Llangollen, stop for the night and ride to Chirk for the return journey by train. When I looked at the map, I suggested that having got as far as Llangollen, it might be nice to go on to Bala, spend a night there, and then cycle, via Lake Vyrnwy, to Welshpool and catch a train from there. The principal drawback of this suggestion was that the last day would be rather arduous, with quite a long ride in hilly country, though in very attractive scenery. After studying this idea, John came up with a better suggestion, which was to reverse the direction of travel and modify the route, so that we would travel by train to Blaenau Ffestiniog, cycle to Bala, stay the night there, then cycle to Llangollen, stay the night, cycle to somewhere around Nantwich by towpath for the next night and then cycle by towpath back to Wolverhampton. Not only would this avoid the hilliest part of the route, but it would save the (possibly) muddiest and roughest stretch of the ride till last. Once we had agreed on this route, we just needed to finalise the dates, originally proposed for the first full week in May. To ensure that we would be back in time for the Origami Ride on 8th May we decided to start on 4 May, which would get us back on 7th May.

Next we had to decide which bikes to use. Since the journey to the start point would be by train, folders or separables obviously were going to have advantages, and since half the journey would be on canal towpaths, which a preliminary recce suggested in parts might be quite rough and/or muddy, suspension would also make the journey much more comfortable. The plan to use B&B meant that the amount of luggage to be carried for 3 nights away need not be too great, but would require some luggage capacity on the bike. John has a much longer ride planned for later in the year with some friends, and had received a very kind offer from Richard Hutchins (of 'Quite Wind Assisted Cycle Rides' fame) to borrow his Moulton ATB for that ride, and Richard was also happy to let John try the bike out on this shorter ride, so his choice had been made. Looking at my stable, the Brompton was ruled out on the grounds of the ride comfort and riding position, plus the gearing, the gaps in which I find rather a strain over a longer ride. I could undoubtedly do the ride on the Brompton if I had to, but I am fortunate enough to have lots of bikes, so I could choose something more appropriate. My Bike Friday Pocket Rocket is set up as a road bike, with narrow tyres, and highish gears, and lacking suspension it too would not be very suitable. The Bike Friday New World Tourist would be ideal in may respects, but the very harsh unsuspended ride would be uncomfortable, so I had this marked as a possible, but not ideal. The Moultons (AM7 and APB) would be perfect in all respects except ease of getting them to the start point, and anyway as John would be on a Moulton, it would be more interesting to use something else. At the time of doing the original planning, I did not have a Micro, but even when I obtained this in early April, I did not seriously consider it for this ride - need I explain why? The Moulton Stowaway, with its single gear, was also obviously not a contender. So that left the Birdy. The suspension would be ideal, and with the new gearing I had fitted there should be plenty of range. The main doubt was over luggage capacity - a weak point in the design. However, I would not need to carry much for this trip, and two suitable options were available - a Steve Parry rear carrier with Brompton bag, or an old fashioned saddlebag. I don't currently have one of Steve's rear carriers, so I decided to go for the saddlebag option. Saddlebags are currently regarded as low tech and unfashionable, but actually they are a very effective means of carrying a small to medium load of smaller items on a bike. Unfortunately not many people make them now, the main supplier being Carradice. I find the main drawback is that the Carradice bags are rather heavy, and it does not seem possible to get the smaller sizes, suitable for day use, with side pockets for tools. Incidentally, the Moulton Day Bag, designed for the AM series (though with a Steve Parry rear rack it can also be used on an APB) is exceptionally useful and stylish, and almost made me change my mind and use a Moulton for this ride. Fortunately I have an old Karrimor saddlebag - at least 10 years old - made from a light material called Silvaguard, which is quite large, light and just the job for this ride. I very rarely use this bag in the past, but many of you will have seen an example as Chris Dent often has one fitted on the back of his Birdy - great minds think alike!

As the date of the ride came closer, I was using the Moulton AM7 for my regular rides, and was enjoying it so much that I was very tempted to switch to it for the Llangollen ride. The two things that dissuaded me in the end were that it would be rather less easy to get it on the train, and more importantly if we both rode Moultons there would be less to write about in an article on how the bikes performed - you see I have to plan my life around what the members of The Folding Society may want!

Final preparation

Little in the way of special preparation of the Birdy was required, other than fitting a Carradice bag uplift/quick release to the Flite Titanium saddle. I did try fitting the bag direct to the saddle via add-on loops, but it tended to bump uncomfortably against the back of my legs, so I opted for the attachment, despite its substantial weight. I found the method of attachment to the saddle of the fixed part of the system rather awkward, and not very secure - more on this later. The rear carrier was left in place, despite the fact that I would not be using it, as it provides a more stable base on which to stand the bike when it is folded. This Birdy Red, upgraded to a 9-speed Shimano LX system, with 11-34 rear sprockets driven by the original 54 tooth chainwheel, is normally used with the soft, yellow, rear suspension elastomer. I did consider replacing this with the medium hard red elastomer, but I decided to keep my normal configuration as the additional luggage was not very heavy, I am under 9 stone, and the canal towpath riding might be rough.

Day 1 - Tuesday 4th May, 46 miles

Not only was the weather good when I got up the first morning, but the forecast for the next few days, at least to Thursday, was also encouraging. In view of the train departure time in Wolverhampton, I decided to catch a local train from Tipton to Wolverhampton, thus avoiding the rush hour traffic. Like all the subsequent trains on this trip, this arrived exactly on time, which meant that I had plenty of time to walk to the platform at Wolverhampton from which the next train would leave - John was catching the train at its previous stop at Birmingham New Street. This train was made up of a class 37 diesel hauling some rather elderly rolling stock, which had the advantage of having a large luggage van. I had folded the Birdy, but I put it in this luggage van to join the ATB, which had not been folded, and then found John on the train. A very smooth journey took us to Llandudno Junction, where we unloaded the bikes, and after a short wait we joined a very elderly diesel railcar to travel to Blaenau Ffestiniog. This was a very pleasant journey, apart from the fact that the train generated rather a strong smell of diesel. Being an old train, there was a large luggage space in which the bikes were put - as on the first leg of the journey none of the rail staff enquired about cycle reservations or even asked for cycle tickets for the unfolded ATB.

{Arrival at Blaenau}We arrived at Blaenau Ffestiniog a little before 12.00, but as we would be riding through an unpopulated area to Bala we made our first priority a light lunch. After a couple of flattish miles the ascent into the hills began in earnest, and this became the first serious test of the new gearing on my Birdy. The lighter weight of the Birdy compared with the ATB, and the narrower tyres (standard Birdy 18 inch high pressure tyres versus the 406-37 knobblies on the ATB) put it at a clear advantage in these conditions. The simple single chainwheel and 9-speed Shimano LX gearing also changed much more cleanly than the 3 (oval!) chainwheel and 6-speed sprockets on the ATB - after all, that system is over 10 years old. About half way up the first serious incline there was a loud explosion and one of the ATBs tyres went down, so we had an excuse for a break while this was repaired. The problem seemed to be caused by the state of the tyre itself, the rubber of which was showing signs of perishing in places, despite having plenty of tread, and with one quite bad hole which had exposed the inner tube to road wear, resulting in the puncture. John moved the tyre round and wrapped thick plastic sheet around the tube where this hole had created the damage, to prevent any recurrence of the problem. Overall the gearing of the bikes was probably similar, but the Birdy continued to make lighter work of the road riding due to the more suitable tyres and lighter weight. It did also feel much lighter and more responsive - in fact with the additional load in the saddlebag I would describe the handling as being nervous - over-sensitive. Increasing front loading merely made the steering rather unstable, reinforcing my previous opinions that the Birdy is not a good bike for touring, since it has limited provision for luggage carrying and does not handle well if means are found to load it.

After some miles of climbing we were looking forward to the descent into Bala, but in the event this turned out to be less exhilarating than we had hoped, as the wind was against us. By using some back roads we managed a much more pleasant ride than by simply following the main roads, but it did result in rather more climbing than would otherwise have been the case. Arriving in Bala in the late afternoon we first stopped for tea, and then went to the local cycle shop, Roberts Cycles, to see if we could get another tyre for the ATB, as we were rather nervous about the condition of the one that had punctured earlier. Although we in The Folding Society tend to regard the 20 inch 406 size as common, and easy to get replacements, this size was unobtainable in Bala, so we kept our fingers crossed, and hoped that if there were a further tube failure we could get by with the spare Birdy tube - not much help though if the tyre itself failed.

As we rode down to the lake, we saw a B&B with a CTC sign in the window, so we quickly booked ourselves in there and left our luggage before setting off for a circuit of the lake. I had suggested an anti-clockwise lap, but John pointed out that the main road section would probably have a better road surface, and given the prevailing wind direction it would therefore be better to go round clockwise. The circuit, about 11 miles was very enjoyable, but in fact the main road had a very coarse road surface while the minor road was a good fine surface, so we would probably have done better going the other way round. In fact at the end of the circuit, I decided to try going round the other way, and confirmed that at least on this occasion this was the more pleasant direction of travel.

{Bala Station In early May there were no trains running on the Bala Lake railway or on most of the other small railways we passed. It would be nice to have a ride some time with the theme of visiting as many of these railways as possible over a few days while they are running.

Day 2 - Bala - Llangollen - Hordley

Our overnight stay in Bala was very good, and we were made very welcome at the B&B, with the bicycles being kept secure and under cover - Mrs Eirwen Jones in Tegid Street.

View 1To avoid traffic we delayed our start the next morning until soon after 9.00am, and then set out on the next leg of the journey, to Llangollen, using minor roads as far as possible. This resulted in a fair amount of climbing, but some beautiful views. Once again in these road conditions the Birdy performed rather better, as much due to its tyres and more modern equipment as for any other reason. We swapped bikes for a while during this stage, and our opinions agreed on their characteristics - but more on this at the end of this report. A long, quite steep, descent towards the end of the morning ride to Llangollen was very exhilarating, but made us glad we had been travelling to rather than from Llangollen - our ascent must have involved much the same height, but was done more gradually. We picked up the Llangollen canal before entering Llangollen itself, and followed the well made towpath.

{View} Glorious views were a feature of this section of the ride

In Llangollen we never actually left the towpath - the town looked rather busy, and there was a good cafe on the towpath itself where we had a light lunch. Although our original plan suggested only going as far as Llangollen on the second day, it was still only early afternoon, so we decided to press on along the towpath, and decide later where we would stop.

The first stages of the ride out of Llangollen along the towpath were very enjoyable - pleasant surroundings, a good surface and excellent warm sunny weather. After a few miles, though, the riding became rather more tiring, as the towpath became a wide (and in places not so wide) grass strip alongside the canal. This made pedalling much harder work, and the bumpy surface was also more tiring. Due to the nature of the surface we had to keep watching the ground, so there was little opportunity for enjoying the view. With this change in riding conditions so the performance of the bikes reversed, the narrow tyred Birdy becoming less suitable, tending to sink into softer surfaces, side slipping rather alarmingly on cambered sections, and generally feeling rather twitchy. The ATB with its wide tyres felt much more stable and relaxing to ride, and cruised along very smoothly. At one point a part of the towpath was partially blocked by a temporary fence, but with no signs to indicate why this was, or whether there were any alternative routes: we decided to carry on, but found ourselves struggling through longer grass, nettles and a narrow, rather soft and very rough section for a few hundred metres. At the end of this was another fence, this time with a sign saying that the section we had just navigated was closed due to erosion of the towpath.

We continued along the towpath for another few miles, still with the rather soft grassy and often rough surface, suiting the ATB better than the Birdy, before we came to a section of the path which was signed as being closed. It was by now early evening, and we needed to think about B&B, but we were still a few miles from Ellesmere or any other spot where we thought we might find accommodation. We decided we had better follow the roads to Ellesmere, but a couple of miles on we came to Hordley Hall, which had a B&B sign outside, so we thankfully stopped there and found accommodation - an excellent room with a beautiful view in the countryside, with martins nesting in the roof above us. Once again the bicycles had secure covered accommodation.

Day 3 - Hordley - Wolverhampton, 35 miles

Our start was slightly delayed as the Birdy was found to have a puncture in the front tyre. We fairly quickly regained the towpath just outside Ellesmere, and then continued along this towards Nantwich. As before, most of the surface was simply a wide grass strip, rather soft and uneven, making cycling fairly hard work and necessitating a careful watch being kept on the surface at all times. At one point I didn't watch the surface closely enough and took a fall on the Birdy, grazing one leg on the pedal and producing an impressively large bump on my right knee - more important, though, the Birdy was unscathed by this adventure.

All this towpath riding was really bringing out the creaks, squeaks and groans which it is prone to, and during one stop one of these was traced to the fact that the saddle uplift/quick release mounting had slid down so that part of the bag frame was hitting the seat post. This was adjusted with some difficulty, and the journey resumed, but we were becoming rather tired of the rather boring towpath riding, with limited views and uncertain surface conditions. When in mid-afternoon we reached a section of the towpath which was very muddy for some distance ahead, we made our way to a road and reviewed our position. We were at this stage ahead of our original schedule, and were likely to reach Nantwich rather early for an overnight stop, which would mean starting on the canal down to Wolverhampton in the late afternoon. As we had really had enough of towpaths, the weather forecast for the next day was not nearly as good, and our options for shortening the ride by catching a train would disappear after Nantwich, we decided at this point to ride by road to Crewe and catch a train home there, missing out the final day of still more towpath riding. The ride to Crewe was pleasantly easy compared with the riding on the towpath, though the traffic over the last few miles was rather heavy as the rush hours were just starting. We felt vindicated in our decision when, just after we arrived at Crewe station, there was a heavy rain shower.

The Birdy was folded for this unbooked train journey, but the ATB was also accommodated on the Sprinter train without any difficulty in the limited cycle space, and no requests were made by train staff for cycle tickets, so it travelled free as well. Back in Wolverhampton I transferred to a local train to Tipton, while John stayed on the train from Crewe to Birmingham.

Performance of the cycles

One reason for using a folder was that it could travel free, and no booking would be required. However, on none of the train journeys was there a shortage of space for bikes, and at no point were we asked for cycle tickets or bookings for the ATB. Undoubtedly one would not always be as lucky in this respect, and using a folder eliminates any possibility of problems, but it does demonstrate that there are times when folders aren't essential when wishing to combine cycle and train travel.

Apart from one puncture each, both bikes performed very well on this small tour. I think that the journey could have been accomplished on any of my other bikes, though some would certainly have been less suitable - the single gear of the Stowaway would have been hard work, and some pushing on hills would have been necessary, the gearing and riding position of the Micro and Brompton would have been less than ideal, and the luggage capacity of the former would have been a problem; the conventional Mercian tourer with crossbar would have been slightly less easy to handle with a load on rough surfaces, and would not have had the option of bagging on trains; the full-suspension Marin East Peak would have ridden well, but would have been as bad as or worse than the Birdy in terms of luggage carrying, and could not have been bagged on the train; the Pocket Rocket would have been uncomfortable on towpaths as it lacks suspension, and its normal narrow IRC tyres would have been unpleasant and worrying on these rough surfaces; the New World Tourist would have been very suitable, but uncomfortable without suspension on the towpaths; the Moulton AM7 would have probably have handled most conditions slightly better than the Birdy, but it could not have been bagged easily on trains, and the tyres would probably have been no better on the towpath, and possibly worse; the APB would have been ideal, but with different tyres from my normal Schwalbe City jets, and it could not have been bagged.

Comparing the two bikes we did use, it needs to be remembered that the ATB is 10 years older than the Birdy Red, and apart from age difference there are other significant differences in the way the bikes were equipped - notably the fairly wide, knobbly off road tyres on the ATB and the standard high pressure Birdy tyres. I think nevertheless it's fair to say that the Birdy felt the quicker and more responsive road bike, and the ATB was much more stable and confidence inspiring on the towpath; the difference in tyres emphasised these characteristics, but did not alter the underlying features of the machines. The Birdy creaked, squeaked and groaned off road, and there was certainly some flexing which there did not seem to be on the ATB. The ATB had vastly superior luggage carrying capacity. The Birdy folds, and the Moulton doesn't, so if you need this feature, there is no contest - even for the limited amount of getting on and off trains which this trip involved, bagging the ATB, or its newer cousin the APB, would be very tiresome. However, apart from this, and the lower weight of the Birdy, I would say that the ATB or APB wins in every other respect.

In other reports I have commented on what I see as three significant weaknesses of the Birdy, so it may be worth reviewing these after this longer ride. Choice of tyres is certainly limited, but the high pressure road tyres were reasonably satisfactory, if a little narrow for the towpath riding. The alternative knobblies would have suited this better, but would have been less good on the road, so there is an inevitable compromise here, and despite reservations about tyres, the ones available for the Birdy were perfectly satisfactory for this type of tour. The aluminium frame creaked and squeaked more than usual off road, and I remain less than enthusiastic about it as a frame material, and in the case of the Birdy I still fell that it is less robust than good steel machines like the Moultons and Brompton, and not much lighter. The limited luggage carrying capacity was very evident, and the saddlebag, though large enough for this 3 day tour, would have been too small for a much longer expedition, and I found the Carradice mounting which I used was not very satisfactory; in addition, the extra load made the handling more skittish than usual, and spreading the load by putting a bottle and lamp on the bars seemed to make matters worse. For a ride of this length I would definitely opt for trying the Steve Parry rear carrier and Brompton bag another time if I used the Birdy - it should give more capacity, carry the load more securely, and also improve stability as it is lower down than the saddlebag.

We have a much longer tour planned for later in the year. John intends to experiment a bit with the ATB and his Pinkerton tourer before then, but he found the ATB felt rather heavy and cumbersome on this outing, and he did not like the oval chainrings. Due to its limited luggage capacity I would not consider the Birdy for the longer ride, and the choice for me will be between the Bike Friday New World Tourist (only bad point is the lack of suspension on a tour which involves some off-road riding) and my APB (probably with a tyre change, the only drawbacks to this bike being that it is not easily bagged and it is a shade heavy).

For both the present short tour and the planned long tour, I think folders and separables are as good as or better than conventional tourers - the low step over height can be a real benefit on a heavily loaded bike, and machines like the Moultons carry their luggage lower, improving stability.

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Last updated: 9 May 1999