£50 of free money?

Header image of EST voucher page

On Friday the Government rolled out the “Fix Your Bike Voucher Scheme” and its website promptly crashed several times over the following day(s) under the demand.

Full details are via https://www.gov.uk/guidance/fix-your-bike-voucher-scheme-apply-for-a-voucher and / or https://fixyourbikevoucherscheme.est.org.uk/ but, in short, the scheme is aimed at helping people afford to get a bike back in working order and it grants a voucher worth £50 towards getting this done at a local bike shop.

We’re happy to be part of this scheme, and voucher-based enquiries are coming in thick and fast, so this post aims to answer a few questions:

Vouchers are valid for repairs to get a bike back on the road only. Vouchers can’t be spent upgrading parts that don’t need replacing, and they’re only for jobs involving labour to replace the parts.

Vouchers are valid for adult and children’s bikes; electric-assist bikes are eligible but only if they’re road legal (i.e. not home-built or modified).

Vouchers can’t be claimed on work that’s been carried out in the past.

Vouchers can’t be part-refunded or exchanged if the job costs less than the full amount of the voucher.

Vouchers are valid for 60 days from the date they’re issued.

We can’t give other discounts on jobs with vouchers allocated.

When we take the bike in, we need to see:

– a valid voucher code

– a photo ID: driving licence, passport or residence permit

– a recent (last months) proof of address: utility or council tax bill, mortgage statement, benefit book or council / housing association rent card

The voucher is valid for a specific bike; we have to submit a photo to prove that’s the bike we’ve worked on when we redeem the voucher.

Only one voucher per job.

Only a maximum of two vouchers per household.

We need to collect, and keep, details of the customer’s name, phone number, email address and address. The customer needs to approve this, because GDPR.

The first wave of vouchers have all been granted, so if you already have a voucher you’ve got 60 days from the date of voucher issue to book a bike in. As I type, our workshop diary’s pretty much full up to the second week in September, but that still gives plenty of time to book in. Or, of course, we’ll accept vouchers if you’re using our walk-in service first thing in the morning for smaller jobs (a new pair of tyres can easily cost over £50!).

Keep an eye out on the website(s) at the top of this post for announcements about further waves of vouchers being released if you were unlucky this time.

Time for a meeting

These are exciting and busy times at Rat Race Cycles – we’re doing all we can to keep as many people rolling as possible, and it’s been great to see so many new cyclists as well as many familiar faces.

We’ve taken on a couple of new team members – hi Alex and Joe! – in the last month too, and as our team grows it’s getting all the more important to make sure we’re working well together and keeping the shop standards high.

Busy workshops get grubbier and more disorganised quicker, and we all need some time to learn and to make sure we keep improving. So we’re going to be changing our opening hours again: we’ll open at 10am on Wednesdays instead of the current 8, to give us time to have a team meeting, to do some training and also to have a bit of a deeper clean.

We’ll be in the shop, but we’ll be closed, so we won’t be running the walk-in service on Wednesday mornings. We’re sorry for any inconvenience this causes – we chose Wednesday because it’s been our quietest day on average for walk-ins so we hope this will affect the fewest people.

For people who have bikes booked in on Wednesdays we’ll be encouraging them to drop bikes off the night before or after 10am; we’ll try and notify everyone who’s already booked in over the next few weeks and make things work for them.

One of the things we’ve been discussing is extending our opening hours, now we have more staff to cover this, so watch this space for a further update! Thanks for your understanding.

Time out

What a weekend for a bank holiday. Especially one on lockdown. On any normal May Day bank holiday weekend with weather like this, we’d be planning rides, adventures, social events or visits to family. There’d be group rides, races, audaxes and sportives to join, and parks and pubs would be full of families and friends meeting up.

But not this year. We’re still in lockdown, still required to keep our distance from each other and still being asked to do whatever we can to minimise transmission of the coronavirus.

So many of us have been finding these last few weeks tough. And we’re no exception.

It’s been unbelievably busy at the shop. It’s a lovely problem to have – we’re proud of keeping so many returning, new and regular cyclists rolling – and first and foremost we want to thank you all for your continued support and understanding as we try to make things as safe as we can for ourselves and for you all. But, if we’re honest, it has been pretty full-on juggling the increased demand with the new ways of working.

So, this weekend, we’re closing the shop. The team have also been incredibly supportive of Rat Race these last few weeks, working hard and long hours, (and we’ve all managed most of it in brilliant good humour, amazingly!) and frankly we all need some time out.

So, we’ll be closed on Friday 08, and Saturday 09 May.

Thanks again to all of you. We’ll see you bright and early on Monday. With our brand new opening hours… (watch this space for details of those coming right up!)

And remember – even if you haven’t got a turbo, you are still allowed to ride. We’re going to be trying to get out into the real world, for sure – just look at this weather! Please remember, though, if you do decide to head out, make sure you go solo and follow British Cycling’s guidance for riding during lockdown: https://www.britishcycling.org.uk/about/article/20200319-about-bc-news-Coronavirus-Covid-19-FAQs-0

Stay safe.

Changing how we do things, again!

Hello from the workstand once again! I feel like I’ve written more blog posts in the last few weeks than I have in all the years of the shop being open.

We’re still here, still open, working as hard as we can to keep everyone riding. I have to be candid though, it hasn’t been easy; there are two big challenges and we’ve had to change the way we work to adapt to them. If you’re short on time, please scroll to the break for what it means for you. If not, here’s a longer explanation:

The first problem is, of course, COVID-19. We’re keeping the door locked most of the time so that we and you can keep our distance, and when dropping a bike off or picking it up we’ll be setting it in the stand outside the front door and disinfecting contact points like the saddle, grips and levers. We’re wearing gloves practically all the time and disinfecting those gloves, our tools, work surfaces, the phone, the card machine, the iPad… that’s all to protect both you and ourselves and minimise transmission as much as we can.

The second struggle, however, has been coping with how busy we’ve become! Obviously, it’s a great problem to have; we’re very glad to see so many people getting on their bikes (and we’re especially grateful for all the messages of support and encouragement we’ve been getting, thank you!). But this busy-ness, combined with the new ways of working we’ve had to adopt for COVID-19, means that at times we’ve been so busy answering enquiries at the door, answering the phone and trying to reply to emails and messages in a timely manner that we’ve had very little time to actually work on people’s bikes! It’s a perfect storm.

Although we’re all experienced and methodical mechanics, there’s a certain lag that comes from breaking off in the middle of a service to answer the door or the phone, and then coming back to the bike and getting back to whatever you were working on before. It’s not a lot, but it starts adding up when it happens many times over and a 20-minute job stays in the workstand for two hours because there have been so many interruptions. It also means the bikes that customers have booked in aren’t getting our undivided attention, which doesn’t seem very fair.

We’ve always had a policy of trying to fix people’s bikes on the spot if it’s a minor task – you’d usually only have to wait a few minutes if you have a puncture, for example, and we try and do most small jobs as quickly as possible to avoid booking bikes in and filling up the shop. But unfortunately, we have to change that, at least for now.


From Monday 20th April we’ll only work on walk-in jobs before 10am. If you’ve got a puncture, if your wheel needs truing, if your brake pads need replacing, that sort of thing, please get down to us as early as possible and we’ll try and fit you in that morning.

Otherwise, our workshop will be appointment only. From 10am onwards, to make sure we can give booked-in bikes our full attention, we won’t be taking in any un-booked jobs. Not even punctures – sorry! To minimise interruptions, we’ll also be letting the phone go to voicemail, and calling people back regularly throughout the day.

We’re very sorry for any hassle this might cause you, but we hope you understand that we’re trying to be fair to as many people as possible, and making sure we can focus on getting as many bikes properly serviced as we can.

A very Good Friday

In the past, we’ve always closed over bank holidays. Partly because Nunhead is often quiet on a bank holiday weekend, but mainly because everyone deserves a break, including our awesome staff.

This time, however, we want to give something back to our wonderful community, and in particular the people putting their lives at risk every day to protect ours.*

So, if you’re an NHS or emergency worker who relies on your bike, on Good Friday (10 April) we’ll service it free of charge. We’ll need to charge for any parts fitted, but we’ll discount these as much as we can. We won’t charge for labour.

We’ll be accepting walk-ups (although we’ll still have the door shut and be practicing safe social distancing) but if you want to book in, call us on 020 7732 1933.

And if you’re not a key worker but want to help, we’ll be taking donations to put towards parts for key workers’ services between now and then. Just call by the shop or give us a call to work out how to get money to us. Anything not used on Friday will be put towards key workers’ services in the coming weeks.

*I want to emphasise that this is a joint decision; my staff suggested working on Good Friday; we collectively came up with this idea, everyone volunteered and we’ve worked out the details together. I’m utterly proud of them all.

Why do I need to replace my chain and cassette?

(Originally published 16th October 2011)

When we service your bike, things like oils, grease and hydraulic fluid are included in the price. However, some things aren’t included and the most common extra charges are for brake pads, chains and cassettes.

The brake pads are fairly self-explanatory, and you’ll certainly notice if they’re not replaced in time. But it’s not always clear why the bike’s chain, and sometimes the cassette, need replacing.

newchain bw

As a bike chain is used, something called “chain stretch” occurs. This isn’t a great term for it, because the chain parts don’t actually stretch. At each point where the chain pivots, the constant rub of metal on metal starts to wear the parts away. Although this happens very gradually, this wear means that that pivot point starts to become a little looser. As it wears down, the distance between two consecutive chain rivets becomes very slightly further apart.

wornunwornlinks

The image above shows a very worn chain link and a brand new link. You can see the wear on the rivet, the inside of the roller and the inner edges of the inner plates.

The chain and the cassette (the set of sprockets on the rear wheel) are designed to align perfectly with each other. When both are new, this is what happens; the teeth on the sprockets all mesh equally with the links on the chain, and the force you put in when pedalling gets spread evenly to each tooth in contact with the chain.

But as the chain wears, the length of each link gets very slightly longer. Only by a tiny amount, but this can mean that the pedalling force gets transferred unequally to the sprocket on the back wheel. Because of the way the chain transfers force to the sprocket’s teeth, the teeth at the “bottom” of the sprocket will have more force on them than those at the “top” at any time in the sprocket’s rotation. In turn, this wears down those teeth very slightly. As the teeth wear down, they match the wear of the chain, the chain’s load is spread more evenly across the teeth and the wear lessens.

This isn’t a huge dramatic process (unless your components are made of very cheap metal, or you run your chain dry), but it is a gradual process that occurs steadily all the time you use the bike. In time the chain, and also the cassette, become slightly worn.

parkcc3

I use a very handy tool to measure this “chain stretch”. When new, all bicycle chains will measure exactly 1″, 25.4mm, across one link. (“one link” is the repeating unit – one inner pair of links, one roller, one outer pair of links, another roller). As the chain wears, the very slight lengthening of each link is hard to measure but because it usually happens evenly over the whole chain, one can measure the lengthening over several links.

The chain tool pictured above is inexpensive and fairly foolproof and I’ll often refer to it as the tool that determines whether the service is going to be a little more costly or not! One end hooks into the chain and the other end will fit into the chain further along if the chain has “stretched”. It has two carefully measured sides, one that will drop into the chain if it’s 0.75% longer than when new and one that drops in at 1% total elongation. Those are important measurements.

Most chain manufacturers recommend that their chains are replaced when they have elongated by 0.75%. Because the chain wears slightly faster than the cassette, this is the point where you can usually just replace the chain (and not the cassette) if both were new to start with. As an aside, if you’re fairly meticulous about swapping chains regularly, you can usually get through two or three chains for every cassette.

Once the chain wear is approaching 1% “stretch”, it’s usually time to replace the cassette as well. Because the teeth on the cassette will have worn down to more or less match the chain wear, if a new chain is fitted to a worn cassette, it won’t mesh properly and may jump or skip, especially when changing gear. Conversely, if a new cassette is used with a worn chain it will also mesh and change gear badly and the cassette will wear much faster than usual. As chains are less expensive than cassettes of equal quality, it’s much more economical to replace them before you need to replace both.

veryworncassette

The next logical question, of course, is “if my chain and cassette are worn but working well together, why do I need to replace them at all?”

There are two answers to this. One is, in turn, to reduce wear on your chainrings, the big cogs that the pedals directly drive. The teeth on these won’t usually wear as fast as the teeth on the cassette, because the pedalling forces are spread over more teeth on the chainring. A worn chain will still lead to unequal distribution of force on the teeth on the chainring and will wear the teeth down in the same way the cassette wears. But usually if the chain is kept below 1% “stretch,” most chainrings will outlast several chains and cassettes.

Back Camera

The second answer is simply that eventually the teeth on the cogs will wear out. I was asked to “have a look at” the bicycle pictured above because “the gears are slipping”. When people tell me this, it’s usually because the gears aren’t properly indexed and the chain is jumping between sprockets, but this chap’s chain had actually begun to slip straight over the cogs whenever he put any pressure on the pedals! There simply wasn’t enough material left on the cogs for the chain to grip on to, so it was jumping over the teeth. Unfortunately for this bike it needed a new chain, new cassette and a new set of chainrings, which worked out more expensive than the bike itself and he chose to scrap it.

The moral of his story? Replace your chain regularly, keep your bike running for longer…

The beauty of hand built

One important thing we do at Rat Race Cycles is hand-build wheels. In fact, we’re about to launch a specialised wheel building service – Owen Wheels – at this year’s BESPOKED – The UK Handmade Bicycle Show.

There’s no dark art to wheel building, but to consistently build strong, durable wheels requires knowledge, skill and practice. There are many reasons to choose hand-built wheels over branded wheels like Mavic, Shimano or Fulcrum. I’ll try and outline the key ones:

Changing gear at Rat Race Cycles

If you’ve been in the Nunhead area over the Christmas break, you’ll have noticed that we’ve been making a few changes to the shop. Sure, we’ve reorganised things a bit, added in some more lights and had a tidy up and given the walls a lick of paint, but none of those is the big change. The major change is that we have stopped selling bikes.

That’s right – we are now a bike shop that doesn’t sell bikes.

Sounds crazy, right? Well, yes and no.

Small Business Saturday

Think of a massive online retailer and chances are you think of a logo; a letter, a colour scheme, a design.

Think of a small shop on your high street and you probably think of a face. The owner. The person who took a deep breath, stepped out and turned their passion – their dream – into their life’s work.

Every year, more stories surface about huge multinationals exploiting yet another loophole to skip out on tax in the UK. And yet, every year, (often despite our best intentions) we throw our hard earned money at them as Christmas descends, resorting to the easiest, the cheapest, the most obvious, over-advertised option. And every year we wonder why shops are closing on the high street, why people are going out of business, why our towns and villages are becoming soulless miniature carbon copies of huge, out-of-town shopping malls.

Well, here’s a chance to shop a bit differently. This Saturday 5 December is Small Business Saturday, and a chance to get down to your local high street and support those people trying to make their dreams pay their bills.