Driving, Riding

Splat the rat

Safer roads in Oxfordshire.

Safer roads in Oxfordshire.

Most councils use conflict-based ‘traffic calming’ schemes as speed reduction measures and to discourage drivers from using certain roads.  They call roads like these – the roads people use to get to work, to go shopping and home to their families – ‘rat runs’.

In my own village in West Oxfordshire we have had ‘calming’ imposed on each of the four ‘rat runs’ into the village.  The reason?  Pressure from some residents that traffic was too fast.  Accident history certainly didn’t give a reason for engineering measures – 12 injury accidents in 5 years, not one speed-related – but ‘fear of speeding traffic’ was significant enough to justify pinch-points and chicanes.

Not so calm

It seems Bampton’s calming caused more crashes in its first six months than the entire village had seen in six years.  It certainly caused many column-inches and minutes of airtime discussion in the local press. Even years later there’s still plenty of evidence of conflict – broken glass, bits of bodywork and scraped posts in the traffic calming.  And residents still say speeding traffic is a problem.

The road safety results?  Well, we don’t know.  No surveys were carried out before the calming was imposed, so it’s hard to measure.  

Calming-caused crashes?

Crawley, another rural West Oxfordshire village, has no history of speed-related crashes, but ‘fear of traffic’ was a concern for some residents.  The County Council installed the scheme of urbanised concrete, posts, lights, signs and humps you can see in the pictures.  They also imposed more bumps, a chicane and narrowing on the tight hills leaving the village. 

Approaching, it’s impossible to see if it’s safe to start driving through the chicanes. That’s because they’re designed to force drivers onto the blind side of the road into the face of unseen oncoming traffic. And, just to make sure they don’t make it through the new hazards quickly, the bumps slow them down and keep them exposed to danger for the maximum length of time. 

The new Crawley scheme was quick in claiming its first victim – just a few days after it was imposed.  You can see the results in the pictures. 

What’s the problem?

Conflict-based calming in action.

Conflict-based calming in action.

These schemes rely on bringing road users into conflict. They could almost have been designed deliberately to cause maximum aggression; clearly telling one set of drivers that they have right of way, then forcing other drivers into their path.  It doesn’t slow traffic down, it just promotes tension, aggression and conflict – completely unnecessarily and with absolutely no benefit.

That’s because conflict narrows and concentrates drivers’ perception and observation to dealing with the conflict – not driving safely.  For one group it becomes all about getting their vehicles over the hump, through the chicane and past the road furniture without having an accident.  For the other group, it means forcibly insisting on their right of way by speeding up, driving aggressively straight at opposing vehicles, hooting and gesturing. Perfect for ensuring that both sets of road users are agitated, aggressive and distracted as they drive through villages.

Politics over safety

One wonders whether the politicisation of road safety might be largely to blame.  After all, a councillor faced with a committee of residents railing about ‘fear of speeding traffic’ wants to do the right thing and help.  This means she must do something and, more importantly, be seen to be doing something.  Ideally, “something” for many residents means a scheme that is perceived to punish those horrid drivers who speed through our village – whilst leaving us free to speed through theirs. 

In fact, shared space schemes would be far more effective in reducing speeds and enhancing the environment.  That’s because they don’t promote aggression and conflict – they promote ambiguity in which road users have to negotiate their way safely as equals.  Shared space does away with the forests of shouty signs, urban concrete and jarring humps – the visual cues road users rely on to know what they should do – and makes the environment more natural and ambiguous.  Ambiguity has the opposite effect to conflict; drivers slow down and observe more widely as they search for visual cues.  Each group is equally discomfited by it, so no-one can aggressively insist on their ‘rights’.   

As Hans Monderman, architect of the shared space concept in Holland, argued:

“Who has the right of way? I don’t care. People here have to find their own way, negotiate for themselves, use their own brains.”

Perhaps it’s time to stop promoting conflict and one-size-fits-all urban ugliness.  Instead, we could look at schemes that not only enhance villages but make them safer and more pleasant too. 

Driving, Riding

Say what you mean

Councils and the public sector are very careful about how they use language.  This is no bad thing.  It demonstrates an understanding that language is massively, foundationally important. The National Council of Teachers of English rightly says “language plays a central role in the way human beings behave and think.”

But language can be used to obscure as well as illuminate.  For example, earlier this year on Radio 4’s Today programme, a Head of Social Services was discussing the problem of dementia patients in care homes forming ‘inappropriate’ relationships with other residents.  In other words, of lonely, scared elderly people daring to fall in love. She talked with earnest concern of how one elderly lady was ‘supported to leave the room’ when their new partner walked in during a family visit. Translated, this meant she was bodily manhandled and frogmarched out against her will. Dolores Umbridge would be proud.

All this care with words makes the language local authorities use about the private car all the more remarkable. Or perhaps it simply shows what they really think of drivers and motorcyclists.

Let’s start with ‘traffic calming’.

Traffic calming

The term implies that traffic is so aggressive and beastlike that it requires constant ‘calming’.  Councils spend millions on humps, bumps, chicanes, gateways and pinchpoints.  Any motorcyclist who’s tried to negotiate the mess of overbanding mastic, poorly-maintained bumps and displaced gravel on a dark and wet February evening will not be calm. Drivers and riders are pushed, hooted and faced-off with oncoming traffic, made aggressive by artificial constraints. But in Councilland, this deliberately provoked and facilitated, full-on road user conflict is called ‘calming’.

Strangely, most traffic is a lot calmer without it.

No conflict here. Move along now.

No conflict here. Move along now.


In some parts of the country, drivers and riders are faced with slippery, hard-edged, jarring thermoplastic humps.  If you have a back condition, these can be agony to traverse at any speed.  If you’re a motorcyclist riding in the rain at night, they’re as slippery as a slug and lethal.

To your local council, they’re ‘thumps‘. Yes, that council that does soooo much to avoid even the faintest trace of conflict and demonises ‘hostile’ language calls these ‘thumps’.  But, maybe, they just think those evil, private car and motorcycle users deserve being hit up a bit.

Pinch points

Safer roads in Oxfordshire.

Safer roads in Oxfordshire.

Pinch points are designed to let just one vehicle through at a time. It’s clearly fine to ‘pinch’ drivers, rather as a spiteful schoolchild might pinch another when teacher isn’t looking. By forcing only one car through a gap at a time, councils promote conflict, anger and immense frustration at peak times. Giving those nasty drivers a quick nip when no-one’s looking is absolutely fine.

Village gateways

In ‘traffic management’ (there we go again – the implication that drivers can’t be left to use their own intelligence) terms, a ‘gateway’ is designed to protect a village and keep those nasty drivers out.  The very antithesis of of the faux-equality and ‘inclusion’ espoused by council thinking. Gateways narrow the road so that vehicles are forced to cross into the opposite carriageway into direct conflict.  Drivers and riders are forced into the path of oncoming traffic with the intention of reducing speeds.

Gateways also illustrate – beautifully – a complete lack of understanding of human nature.  Of course everyone should play nicely, giving way, not rushing, not pushing and not being aggressive.  But gateways encourage and promote the opposite behaviour as drivers insist on their rights of way by driving uncompromisingly straight and hard at oncoming traffic. Others try to sneak in the wake of a lead car in an attempt to get through.

It's all about safety, mostly for councillors' electoral chances.

The sign says ‘Danger! Road safety measure ahead’.

Pedestrian refuges 

See those poor, terrified pedestrians.  See them cower in the face of the evil drivers.  See them huddle, clutching each other on the isles of the pedestrian refuge.  The language is absolutely clear – the car is evil and a threat from which defenceless pedestrians need protection.

Clearly, cars are not driven by normal people with children, families and hearts. They are driven by the sort of people from who society needs to seek refuge.

Severed roads

“Severed” is a pretty strong word. An unusual one too. The dictionary has it as “divide by cutting or slicing, especially suddenly and forcibly.” Powerful language from organisations that would describe the frogmarching of a pensioner from a room as ‘enabling her to leave’. Someone must have gone out of their way to choose such a deliberately aggressive term.

They’re described thus; “Severed roads… provide the ultimate deterrent to rat running.” And imagine a councillor or council employee describing any other group in society as ‘rats’. They’d be taken away for reprogramming faster than a final council tax demand.

Screen Shot 2015-07-03 at 23.44.58

Those damn ‘rat-runners’ trying to get to work to support their families.

Dragon’s Teeth

Another wonderfully hostile term describes white, spiked markings at the entrance to towns and villages.  Dragon’s Teeth.  Cornwall County Council’s website describes them thus: “Dragon’s teeth provide a visual change and narrowing of the road. They are suitable for village entry points. Cost £4,250 – 5,500.”

Designed to give those nasty, selfish drivers a visual nip, the language used is, again, clearly and openly hostile.

What does it all mean?

In the real world, this forensic persnicketiness about words doesn’t matter.  Despite what the language police think, normal, everyday people use unintentionally loaded, prejudicial and caricaturing terms all the time and don’t mean a thing by it.  But councils understand the power of words.  They treat language very carefully and thoughtfully indeed with the white-gloved care one usually gives nitroglycerin.

To hear council employees talking about using ‘thumps’ and ‘pinchpoints’ against any other group in society would be unthinkable. Yet it’s not only acceptable but encouraged when directed against private motorised road users. When councils talk about ‘severed roads’, and ‘refuges’ they’re making their position and view clear.

Their language caricatures drivers and riders as an aggressive, unpleasant, animalistic subgroup.  Certainly, in a minority of cases that’s a fair description.  But the mass of normal drivers and riders are far more considerate; just decent and perfectly normal people going about their everyday business. But private cars and motorcycles has been so successfully demonised that it’s absolutely acceptable to ‘manage’, ‘restrict’ and ‘control’ their use.

There is no other group about which officials would use language like this. So perhaps its time to stop using it about drivers and motorcyclists. Either that, County Hall, or fess up and admit you simply don’t like us.


Three wheels on my wagon

Bikes have been part of my life since I first tried a friend’s 50cc Monkeybike at the age of 11.  I couldn’t wait to get a licence.  In Frome, there was an independent BMW dealer, Difazio’s.  I’d walk the 3 miles from home to stand and gawp at the unfeasibly swoopy-faired R100RSes, RTs and – finally, macho GSes in the window, vowing I’d have one one day.

Growing up in Somerset with a bike was joy.  Perfect roads, no traffic, plenty of country pubs.

Coffee on a table near a Jupiter motorcycle combo


As soon as I was 17, I bought my first – a metallic red Suzuki A100.  Lying flat across the tank, feet on the passenger footpegs, it would just about top 60mph on the Maiden Bradley straight. For £80 I’d bought my freedom and my first fix.  That bike took me everywhere, L-plates fluttering.

Thanks to the kindness of Cyril Fuller who managed to teach me to ride without killing myself, I passed my test.  It wasn’t much of a test then.  A ride around a windswept, February housing estate with the examiner watching from the pavement, finally stepping out with his clipboard to check my emergency stop.

It's Downton, dear, but not as we know it.

It’s Downton, dear, but not as we know it.

The A100 gave way to a white X7 Suzuki 250.  The press had acclaimed it as “the first ton-up 250”.  It was true – at least, the speedo said it was.  It was also the bike that taught me how to take engines apart and, occasionally, get most of the bits back together again.

Then, a mate clearing his garage presented me with a stack of oily boxes and two instantly recognisable pieces of white, swoopy fibreglass.  An R100RS. 

OK, it was in Trex White, but it was my dream bike.  All I had to do was build it.  For the next month, I lived solely on mugs of tea as I bolted and unbolted and fettled and begged bits from anyone who’d listen.  I was at least twenty years too young for one, but that was my first BMW.

Twenty five years later, I’m still riding.  Now, an R1100GS that’s heading for 60k on the clock – and a Ural outfit.  The outfit – a bike with a sidecar – is splendid for me.  I have all the ability on a two-wheeler of a frozen chicken.  The Ural’s sidecar not only carries a huge amount of stuff, it’s like having stabilisers.

It’s an addiction, a refuge and an endless joy.

Driving, Riding

Dolores Umbridge. Now in charge of speed limit policy.

Speeding fines handed out by courts are hitting a new high.  In 2013, nearly 115,000 drivers waited while a magistrate looked down, wagged a reproving finger and dished out an average £169 fine and three points.  In 2012, failing to match the number on the stick to the number on the dial accounted for 56% of the 730,000 fixed penalty notices drivers received – and cameras provided the evidence for 84% of them.

If you haven’t had a speeding fine yet, your odds of picking one up are shortening daily.


The press today says it’s all the fault of new, digital cameras.  Sure, they won’t make things any easier for drivers – but the real problem is Department for Transport-imposed, artificially lower speed limits.  And you probably didn’t even notice.

Unless you spend your time poring over the intricacies of Department for Transport Circulars, you won’t have spotted one snappily entitled Department for Transport Circular 01/2013 crawling into the light of day in January 2013.  It changed the way drivers and riders use the UK’s roads for ever.  And it’s opened the door to a massive increase in speeding prosecutions. In fact, it criminalised hundreds of thousands of previously safe, law-abiding drivers at a stroke.

Van crashes into speed camera

Speed cameras save lives. Apparently.

That dull, dusty document is so full of weaseling that it would make Dolores Umbridge blush.  In true, Umbridgeian fashion, it starts so reasonably that not even the most petrolheaded speed junkie could object:

“Speed limits should be evidence-led and self-explaining and seek to reinforce people’s assessment of what is a safe speed to travel. They should encourage self-compliance. Speed limits should be seen by drivers as the maximum rather than a target speed.”

Then, it works its way through suggesting that drivers should be “encouraged” to drive below the speed limit as a matter of course, before sneaking the bomb in at point 35:

35. Mean speed and 85th percentile speed (the speed at or below which 85% of vehicles are travelling) are the most commonly used measures of actual traffic speed. Traffic authorities should continue to routinely collect and assess both, but mean speeds should be used as the basis for determining local speed limits.

Doesn’t sound terribly significant, does it?  Mean, schmean.  So what?  It’s actually the most significant change in road safety policy since the introduction of speed limits themselves.  Apologies for the history lesson, but the context is important…

Speed limits used to be set by measuring the natural speed of traffic along a given road in free-flowing conditions. You then assumed that 15% of the drivers were going too fast and set the limit at the 85th percentile. Limits were designed to reflect the idea that most drivers were responsible – otherwise why let them have licences in the first place?

The majority drove around the limit speed because, in effect, the majority set it.  Circular 01/13 put an end to all that.  And, in fact, even The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) advised against it.

It made limits so artificially low that nearly every road where the new limits have been applied feels too slow – like the limit is a mistake.  Drivers lose attention, drift off into reverie and cease being engaged with driving.  Failing that, they look for the first available overtake, tailgate the limit-limpet in front of them and lose their sense in a red mist of frustration overtakes.

That means – for most drivers – they now need to spend an excessive amount of concentration simply on limit compliance.  “Well, if they don’t speed, they won’t get a ticket, will they?” tut the prigs.  But when compliance and safety move so far apart, the limits become risible.  Today, sticking to the limit doesn’t make you safe, it makes you an oddity.  When I comply, I’m tailgated, flashed, hooted, overtaken on bends and with oncoming traffic.

More damaging; the better driver you are, the more the new limits punish you.  If you’re used to observing well ahead, planning your drive or ride and anticipating the actions of other road users, you might as well not bother.  You’ll spend more time thinking about what you cook for supper than the road ahead.  They’re so artificially low that you could climb into the back seat, have a quick snooze, make a coffee and still be back in time to brake for any unexpected hazards.

As a consequence, drivers and riders are losing respect for limits.  As they rollercoaster on a single road from 20 to 30 to 40 to 30 to 20 to 40 to 50 to (briefly) 60 and back to 30, they’re driving by a blizzard of numbers, up and down like a yo-yo.  It’s like paint by numbers; a bad facsimile of the real thing.  But very, very much more dangerous.


Situation normal.

The more you ride an old bike, the more its quirks and wrinkles become normal. I realised this today after spending most of it tinkering with the Ural. Urals are possibly the exemplar of quirks and wrinkles.

It's Downton, dear, but not as we know it.

It’s Downton, dear, but not as we know it.

I went to retrieve it from its new garage on the other side of the village and, of course, cleaned out the carb float bowls. That’s because they have a nasty habit of filling with water when the bike’s left outside for a while. Easy job. Takes less than five minutes now to have both bowls off, clean them out, replace the gaskets and nip up the screws.

Then, of course, it wouldn’t start. Turn key – click. Turn key again – click. Check the lights – yep, battery’s fine. Must be a stuck starter. Open boot, extract biggest spanner in the tool roll. This is the sort of spanner that Ural’s Russian makers would have nicked from one of the USSR’s tank regiments. I whack the starter casing, put the spanner back in the roll confidently and thumb the button again. Clacka-clacka-clacka – the wonderful, ‘biscuit tin full of old bolts’ sound that is a healthy Ural. Easy job.

Then I ride it home, realising that the left carb is over-fuelling. So I lean down and straighten the control cable. Engine happy again. More clacka-clacka-clacka. Easy job.

A few happy hours of cleaning, including removing the exhaust system (glad I copper-slipped the threads) and by the time it’s time to start again it’s dark. I start the bike and casually flick the light switch. Nothing. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth and gross darkness the people. Must be No.1 fuse. So, fusebox cover off, give the fuse a twiddle and replace the cover. Yep, lights working now. Easy job.

I remember when my pal Tarka rode down from Liverpool to teach me to ride a combo, four years ago now. We were out practicing when the bike suddenly started running rough and bogging down. Without a comment, he climbed off, toolkit out, and drained the carb float bowls – just as I did this morning. At the time I was terrified. I thought I’d spent a fortune on a lemon. To Tarks, a simple job like this was just part of owning a bike with a bit of character, so why comment when you can twirl a screwdriver and fix it?

The more you ride an old bike, the more its quirks and wrinkles become normal. I realised this today after spending most of it tinkering with the Ural. Urals are possibly the best example of quirks and wrinkles.
Now I realise that Urals just need a bit of love and care. And the sense of satisfaction from knowing all those little quirks and wrinkles is immense. You don’t get that on a Honda.

Musings, Riding

None of the gear…


I was lucky enough to be 550 meters up, at the top of Bozburun Tepesi. It was just before sunset and the resin from the pine forests mixed with the Land Rover’s diesely, oily, metallic tang. The old thing had had a tough climb up the gravel track, dotted with rocks big enough to take out a diff if you got it wrong. A low ratio second gear, tooth-rattling crawl for much of it.

The view from Bozburun takes in the whole of the Köyceğiz-Dalyan delta, and it looks small enough to be a train set. Look across the Continue reading

Musings, Riding

Slow Train

There’s not been a lot of time for two or three-wheeled ambling recently. Instead, a pretty solid wall of work-borne rush, stress and frustration has kept me off the bikes. So, with an unaccustomed free Sunday afternoon and some sun, I decided to stop beating my head against it, hoiked the keys off the peg and helmeted up.

The saddle of a motorcycle is not generally a place for wool-gathering.  Back lanes with no traffic and the Ural are fine though.  And soon, like most riders, in time with the clacking of the engine, I found myself humming contentedly.  All sorts of tunes seem to push themselves forwards as candidates when you’re on a bike.  There’s no knowing whether it’s going to be Bach or Bragg.

Today, it was Flanders and Swann’s Slow Train.  Fitting, with the 50th anniversary of Dr Beeching’s “The Reshaping of British Railways”No churns, no porter, no cat on a seat. Continue reading

Musings, Riding

MMC Musings in Cotswold Life

When I popped an e-mail over to Cotswold Life offering them a few snaps and some airfieldy musings, I didn’t really think they’d publish them.  But they have.  May edition and a whole double page spread too.  I’m delighted.  It’s so good to see some of these old WWII bases getting the sort of recognition they’ve deserved for so long.

Big thanks to Candia and all the team at Cotswold Life.

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Musings, Riding

A spring evening’s bimble, being scared and perspective.

I fancied a ride this evening.  It’s spring.  It’s light.  It’s Wednesday.  It’s been a bitch of a day in the office.

That’s good enough for me.

I had to drop our entry fee for the Village Quiz in at a neighbour’s house so thought I’d call by on the Ural.

As I set off, there was still enough light not to worry the eccentric Ural electrics and the lanes beckoned.  The edges of the sky were just starting to crinkle and dim, but that was it.

Living in Bampton has a tendency to resemble The Archers from time to time.  This was one of them.

I arrived on Helene’s doorstep just as another neighbour and fellow rider, Reece, got there too.  Both of us clutched our Quiz cash in our hands. I knocked.  We exchanged bike chat as we waited for Helene to answer the door.

After a few minutes, Helene flung the door open, clearly somewhat flustered.  There she stood, in her nightgown with a towel around her head, Continue reading


It’s not Urals that are unreliable. It’s their owners.

It was the rain that did it. That, and me buggering off for Christmas, leaving the Ural alone, outside under its cover. By the time I’d got back, half the UK’s annual rainfall had found its way into the carburettors. The Ural has two, one for each cylinder. Most of the water was, of course, in the left carb. “So what?” ask readers unfamiliar with combos imported into the British Isles. The left carb is wedged between the sidecar and the bike. Getting to it requires the skills of a contortionist India-rubber keyhole surgeon, a long-handled screwdriver and patience. By the Law of Sod which so carefully governs our lives, this means the left carb is always the one to fill with water, go out of balance, acquire a mouse nest in the float bowl…

But, actually, it’s all my fault. And it shows precisely why Urals are not, as some believe, rolling manifestations of unreliability. Instead, it illustrates that there are only unreliable owners.

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Thing is, modern stuff and Urals are fundamentally different. Modern stuff is all about sealed units, electronics, modules and zero interaction. You get on a modern bike, thumb the starter and it goes. No fuss, no bother – and absolutely no need to interact with the machine. The mechanics powering its engine and drivetrain are as much a mystery to you as the interior of your microwave.

A Ural is different. And that means Ural owners need to be different too. Starting procedure… if you have any mechanical sympathy at all, you’ll turn the engine over a couple of times with the kick-starter, just to give the top ends a fighting chance of getting a bit of oil heading their way. Then you’ll need to open the enricheners on the nasty, cast-in-purest-cheese Pekar K68 carbs. Of course, you’ll already have checked their float bowls are free from water, remember? Then, clutch in and hit the starter. This assumes you’re not one of the significant minority of Urallists who eschew electric starting.

And that’s the point. Urals are about interaction, about knowing how, about getting involved with the machinery. And that’s why they need the right sort of owners. Anyone who thinks they can just get on and ride an older Ural like a Modern is in for a very oily, spanner-related wake-up call.

My pal Alex’s new Triumph horrified him by being supplied with just a 5mm allen key. That was it. But it has more computers powering the fuel injection system than ran the whole of the Soyuz I mission. And you’re not allowed near any of them. In fact, modern bikes discourage interaction of any sort apart from the throttle-twisting kind.

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That’s fine, although I’m old fashioned enough to think that if you’re going to trust your neck to something you should understand how it works and be able to fix it. A Ural comes with a tool kit that’s comprehensive enough to rebuild the engine, fix the cycle parts and probably construct a Bessemer converter with what’s left over.

If you jump from a Honda to a Ural, and treat it with the sort of neglect Hondas lap up, it WILL be an unreliable heap. That’s because a Ural needs maintenance in the same way a Honda needs petrol. It’s part of the ownership experience.

Maintain a Ural, tinker, fiddle, get to know it and it will be (as mine has been) stone reliable. It will get you home – always. That’s because you’ll know what to do with the countless little things that niggle on a Russian machine that defines the concept of simple mechanics.

That means you need to be a certain sort of person to own a Ural for the long term. The sort of person who has a set of metric feeler gauges and knows what they’re for. Who understands, at least broadly, how a carburettor works. But most of all, who takes to heart the WWID technique of maintenance and repair.

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WWID stands for “what would Ivan do?” Ivan being the mythical, Everyman Russian Ural owner with basic tools, no training, but a self-taught understanding of how mechanical things work. For example, Ivan would cheerfully use a strip cut from a drinks can as a shim. As Pirsig points out, it’s perfect shimstock – and Ivan knows it. He knows when to step back, put down the spanner and think. And his life is richer for it.

So when someone takes a pop at ‘unreliable’ Urals from the electrically heated saddle of their new K1600GTL, I’m happy to smile. That’s because I know that if their self-levelling headlight circuit develops a fault, their entire bike’s systems will shut down in self protection and they’ll be trailered home. If my Ural’s headlight fails, as it did a couple of years ago, there are only two options – the bulb or the fuse. Takes two minutes to sort either and get on with riding. I like simple. Simple’s best. Ask Ivan.