Monday, August 31, 2009

Cyclist's Log, and A Bargain

First: Mileage at the end of August: 2548. This is 463 miles this month. It would have been more, except for that little 4-day vacation to the Rhode Island shore. But I'm well on track to smash my yearly goals, so no complaints here. Especially not now that the weather is drying out and getting cool both in the morning and evening.

Let's get to a late-breaking item, though, and that is a quality bike available at a bargain—at least, if you are in the market for a practical "urban" bike (that is, I think, the new "third category", after "road" and "mountain".) I don't advertise on this blog, and this is not an ad, just a heads-up on a bike that I'd buy for myself if I needed an urban warrior.

REI has their venerable Transport Bike on sale (must be time for a hardware upgrade) for only $480. This is a bike that has won awards for the best commuter from Bicycling magazine. Internally geared 7 speed rear hub and front dyno-hub. Fenders, rack, lighting, all included. This is one of the very few bikes that I'd take nothing off of. (Well, maybe pedals.) If you're in the market for a practical bike, and especially if you have an REI store in your area (and double especially if you're already a member,) check out this bike. Heck of a deal, but good only, they say, 'til 7 September.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Is Cycle-commuting Blue-Collar?

Turn away from your animal kind
Try to leave your body just to live in your mind
—James Taylor, "Gaia"

This is one of those posts that I could probably take days to carefully write, but I won't. I've been thinking about people's relationships with their bodies. It is such an uneasy thing in the modern world. A massive proportion of Americans (and those in other countries) are obese, overweight, or otherwise obsessed with their bodies.

Datapoint 1. In a recent interview on the PBS NewsHour with Gwen Ifill, Eric Finkelstein, the director of health economics of RTI International, when asked about the cause of the obesity epidemic, said:
Well, we argue it's because of economics. Essentially, the calculus has changed so it's just easier and cheaper to engage in behaviors that promote obesity and more difficult to engage in those behaviors that are associated with fitness.
Datapoint 2. A recent article in the New York Times discusses in some depth the phenomenon of formerly white-collar Americans indulging in a romance with blue-collar trades and questioning the "hollowness of white-collar work." They romanticize not only the physical challenge but also the skills involved in blue-collar work.

Datapoint 3. I've been observing the number of bike racks on the back of/ on top of cars. It strikes me as intensely ironic that many Americans view bicycles as something that it's OK to use for exercise or recreation, but its somehow weird to ride practically, to commute.

I know, I know, people are frightened of cars. I know, I know, people can't sweat at the office, they might end up smelling bad. But I'm not buying it. I don't think the reason(s) that people don't cycle-commute are practical, because fundamentally, if viewed rationally, the reasons to bike are much stronger than the practical reasons not to bike.

I think at the root, that Finkelstein had it right, it's a deep thing that is rooted in economics and the status associated with that. People don't ride bikes to work because it's practical and frugal to use your body in this way, and therefore somehow low-class. It's high-class (go figure) to demonstrate that you control enough resources to be able to fritter them away.

I'm telling you, people's relationship with their bodies is complex.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Apocalyptic, but (hopefully) Funny

No, I'm not talking about the latest Tarantino movie, but about T-shirt designs.

For the longest time, I've been unable to get the irony of the old Sinclair gasoline station signs out of my head. The double-entendre of the "dinosaur" is just too delicious, particularly when applied to (take your choice): petroleum / global warming / large automobiles / SUVs / heedless drivers.

Combining my love of ironic humor with my love of word play, I've mashed-up the old Sinclair sign a bit, finding a new anagrammatic interpretation of the letters, giving ol' Apato a little bit of personality and throwing in a fiery asteroid for good measure (this last element, I must admit, was inspired by Olivia Judson's blog on the New York Times website.)

There are two hi-rez PDF versions, one with a background field, one without (the low-ink version, for those of you printing your own T-shirts on the inkjet printer.) Enjoy, and if you make up some shirts, send me some photos of yourselves!

Friday, August 21, 2009


Cycling vacation reconnaissance is (I suppose you could say) what I was up to the first three days of this week. My wife, younger daughter and I spent a few days on the Rhode Island shore (at Narragansett) doing some hiking, including some hiking on what is probably the number one bicycle tourism spot in the lower 48 (or at least New England). That is Block Island, RI.

Block Island is strategically located between RI and Long Island, and is served by ferries from Point Judith RI, Newport RI and Montauk NY. While there are certainly cars on the island (it has plenty of miles of paved and semi-paved roads), traffic is nonetheless very light, and the locals seem to be very cognizant of cyclists, so (I'm presuming here) automobile-bike accidents are rare.

The island is beautiful, filled with not only natural beauty (sea views and some outstanding cliff-protected beaches) but also much history, both maritime and architectural. The Southeast Lighthouse is pictured at right. It's on the National Register and the Historic American Buildings Survey. It was moved (taken down and rebuilt, I guess, brick by brick, as it's darn hard to move a brick building) back from the edge of the cliff it overlooks to prevent collapse.

Good seafood abounds, of course. The terrain can be intimidating to those once-in-a-blue-moon cyclists; climbing out of the village on Spring Street was an uninterrupted 1-1/4 mile climb. Not terrifically steep, mind you, but still a sizable challenge for a cyclist uncertain of their gears.

While there are on-island 5 bicycle rentals (one rental agency notes "Bikes with 6-27 speeds available"), it seems most on-season tourists brought their own. The ferries were packed with bikes, and they charged $6 to carry a bike, which for an hour ferry ride seemed a little steep to me. Bikes are accommodated elsewhere -- most on-island taxis, for example, have hitch-style bike racks for getting the less conditioned cyclists up those hills.

I won't go into a diatribe of the bicycling errors and risks I saw, suffice it to say that I'm sure many people go expecting a carefree day of cycling (away from those pesky cars) and find other pesky aspects of reality crawling their way into the picnic. I'd be willing to bet that flats, other minor mechanical failures, hills, and sunburn top the list. There is another non-bicycling hazard that exists on Block Island, and that is Lyme disease. BI has historically been endemic with it; however, I was told that BI has eliminated their deer population, and evidently that has had some effect. So, insect repellent is on the list of Block Island musts.

But the island looked great, even if a very touristy destination. It's for a reason. I've got vacation hours to burn at work, so I'm going back in the off-season, you can be sure.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Post 100

I let the one-year anniversary of this blog slip by without comment or celebration, so I'll celebrate the hundredth post, which is also worthy of note, I think. As this post hits, I'm on a brief vacation on the Rhode Island shore, and not doing any practical cycling.

About the blog: this is really a collection of mini-essays on (mostly) cycling topics, reflecting my own idiosyncratic point of view, and usually based on whatever comes to mind in that hour to hour and twenty minutes that I spend on my bike most days. (I guess you knew that already). It is very different from a more newsy, multi-contributor blog. I try to say something only when I've got something to say, and not to just "feed the monster". That's why it's taken over a year to hit 100 posts.

About you: You readers are from all over the world, every continent (except Antarctica, of course). There are between 40 and 70 of you a day visiting this site, and you hit the site between 50 and 120 times a day.

About us: I'm very honored to have you as readers of this collection of articles. I hope you continue to find value visiting here. I hope you feel free to "pipe up", comment on the posts, and let me know what you think.

More to come.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

De Pigerne Promenade...

..which is Danish for "The Girls Promenade". Which is kind of how I think of the blog Copenhagen Cycle Chic. I have to admit, it's kind of an envy thing. Let me explain.

Firstly, here's the brief on CCC:

Copenhagen Cycle Chic began its bloglife back in June 2007 when journalist, film director and photographer Mikael Colville-Andersen decided to put a growing number of photos about Copenhagen's bicycle culture into one place on the internet.

A series of social documentary photos about Copenhagen started to include a number of shots of life in the World's Cycling Capital, including fashionable Copenhageners on their bicycles. The feedback about these photos was positive and there was clearly a growing interest abroad in seeing how the bicycle was an integral part of life in the Danish capital. Specifically about how Copenhageners have demystified the bicycle and use it without any form of bicycle 'gear'. Just as the bicycle was meant to be ridden when invented.
I love that statement about "how Copenhagers have demystified the bicycle and use it without any form of bicycle 'gear'". Really? Do the good bicycling citizens of Copenhagen not have to carry locks, has bicycle theft become passé in Copenhagen? Hm. I don't think so, although supposedly "convenience theft" has decreased since Copenhagen introduced their City Bike system. Do the Danes not have to use lights after dark? I can't imagine so. And I know for a fact (by looking at some of nice photography on the site) that bike baskets and panniers are widely used. So I suspect the "bicycle gear" that Mikael Colville-Andersen is referring to is bicycle clothes. Which raises the question:

Why are functional bicycling clothes so reviled, especially in Copenhagen?

I mean, look at the Copenhagen Cycling Chic Manifesto. (Here's the desktop version and here is the blog post.) While certainly delivered with tongue firmly planted in cheek, I mean, come on.

I wear:
  • bike shorts (simple black ones, not team-livery) because they don't chafe when I'm cycling at 15-20 mph;
  • a bright fluorescent jersey to be visible in all weather conditions;
  • cycling shoes for more efficient power;
  • gloves to keep my hands from getting lacerated in a spill; and
  • a helmet for safety.
I admit this may be "geeky" (however that's defined) but this is practical cycling, and it is, after all, the name of this blog. The Copenhageners (Copenhagenites?) sniff at this, because they know they have it good, and they want to flaunt it.

Why do I say they "have it good"? I've been giving this some thought, and I've come to the conclusion that this is a "hierarchy of needs" issue. Most readers will be familiar with Abraham Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs" often expressed as a graphic pyramid from his 1943 paper, "A Theory of Human Motivation". The original hierarchy was expressed as the following levels of need:
  • Physiological (meeting biological needs);
  • Safety (security of body, resources, property);
  • Love/Belonging (friendship, family, intimacy);
  • Esteem (self-esteem, confidence, respect);
  • Self-Actualization (morality, creativity, etc.);
Now, let's think about the environment of practical cycling. There's a hierarchy of needs here, also, if you think about it:
  • Law (I must have the legal right to be on the road!);
  • Safety (Can I make it to my destination without mishap?);
  • Living Density (How far do I have to ride to work?);
  • Physical Ability (How much strength do I need to do it?);
  • Style (Can I look good or be cool doing it?);
The beauty of Copenhagen is that the first three levels of the pyramid are taken care of. Cyclists are legally supported in Denmark, and are numerous enough that they are well respected on the road. Copenhagen, like most European capitals, is very densely settled (and flat to boot) so that rides are short and it doesn't require significant physical stamina to handle the ride. Which gives the Danes the luxury of being able to focus on Style. Good for them, I say. But, as reported earlier, I'm jealous.

Keep up the promenade, girls. And, by all means, keep looking good. But please, try to not rub our noses in it quite so hard!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

What about Free Speech?

Here's a "news of the week"-type story that hits me. Dr. Jason Newsom, an Iraq-veteran MD serving as head of Bay County Health Department in Pensacola, Florida, put up an electronic sign outside his offices with message such as:
  • Hamburger = Spare Tire
  • Sweet Tea = Liquid Sugar
  • French Fries = Thunder Thighs
Everything was going fine until he took on Dunkin Donuts. When he programmed the sign to read:
  • America Dies on Dunkin'
Well, that cut it for a county commissioner who owns a doughnut shop and two lawyers who own a new Dunkin' Donuts on Panama City Beach. They got him fired; his bosses at the state Health Department told him that his leadership wasn't wanted and that he could be fired or resign. He chose to resign May 8 but has reapplied for the job.

This is outrageous. The man's job description not only included but revolved around educating the public about health issues. What could possibly be more on-point for this job than telling people that the crap that they eat is killing them?

Newsom said,
I picked on doughnuts because those things are ubiquitous in this county. Everywhere I went, there were two dozen doughnuts on the back table. At church, there were always doughnuts on the back table at Sunday school. It is social expectation thing.
I am so with this guy. How can people put garbage in their mouths and not be aware of its effect on them? And WHOSE JOB IS IT to educate the public? Obesity, diabetes, hypertension, I'm told these are all epidemic in our society, and the cost is enormous. I hope Newsom wins his job back and if he doesn't, I hope he sues. This is injustice of the most heinous kind.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Oregon Manifest troubles me...

Sometimes I worry that I'm becoming a curmudgeon. For example, take my reaction to the Oregon Manifest. Here is an event that, on the face of it, people like me should be wholeheartedly in support of. (I know, don't end your sentences with prepositions.) But still, I find it troubling. Bear with me as I explore the reasons why:

First, what is the Oregon Manifest? It's a three-weekend series of bike related events in October and November. There appear to be two main events: The Oregon Manifest Constructor's Design Challenge is a framebuilders' competition aimed at [inspiring] "frame builders and designers to develop considered, integrated, and spectacular solutions for the everyday rider". Complementary to this is the second major event, the Constructor's Race, wherein "Design Challenge builders (or their designated proxies) will put their entries to the test braving dirt, gravel, elevation climbs, and urban technical trials on the route to Bike Victory."

The judging criteria for the Design Challenge is truly broad and deep. From the entry form, it reads like this:
  1. Truly sensational solution: A genuinely unique and innovative solution for transportation use. Amaze us.
  2. Handling: The bike must handle equally well with and without load. Both options will be tested against turning and straight pedaling.
  3. Integration: Design solutions should be integrated into a complete and harmonious whole, rather than a checklist of details.
  4. Presentation and Execution: Fabrication refinement and final presentation are important indicators of skill and thoughtfulness. Extraordinary craftsmanship can be displayed equally well in the simplest brazing or the fanciest lug. Individual design solutions should build to a single visual and functional whole.
  5. Overall response to the course and challenges: Entry bikes must take into consider all elements of the race course, the 10 design considerations and the overall challenges they present.
  6. Load carrying: Bikes must accomodate and securely carry the rider’s award ceremony party attire, a provided 6-pack of beverage (in glass bottles), and a provided small container of party snacks.
  7. Security: Bikes must be protected from theft while unattended. A smart, easy solution for securing the bike under different conditions is expected.
  8. Portage: Bikes must accommodate being carried by its rider over a section of the course.
  9. Utility: Bikes should accomodate the expected need for changing weather, lighting conditions, and visibility. We know that you know what this means.
  10. Quality and Rattles: If elements are loose, rattling, or otherwise inoperable at the race finish, points will be deducted for each failure.
So, there you have it. Everything from "Amaze us" (and "us" is a distinguished group of judges) to "smart, easy solution" for security to "accommodate weather" to "no rattles". You will agree that that's a broad portfolio for design and execution, no?

You know, I do believe that issuing a tough challenge is a good way to get results. I've participated in (and, on occasion, won) design challenges under tough, even unreasonable, conditions. So, what problems could a Practical Cyclist have with such a challenge? I think my problem is with the assumptions that this event appears to make about the state of affairs "for the everyday rider" (and I feel that, as a bona fide "everyday rider" and as a blogger who cares about bicycle design I get to weigh in on this stuff):

Assumption 1: The reason people don't use bikes for transportation is that the bikes themselves aren't good enough, nicely-enough designed, practical enough, or (especially) convenient enough. This is a seductive assumption: "Hey, if we could just make bikes convenient, like cars, people would use them!" Well, I hate to be the one to break this news, but it's just not going to happen -- bikes will never be as convenient as cars, and we'll just have to live with that. The truth is, the not-so-little problems with bike "convenience", to wit,
  • safety in traffic
  • weather
  • security
  • comfort
  • physical stamina
  • efficient power utilization
  • perspiration
..can be addressed by physical bicycle design only to a limited degree. The problems that can't be addressed by design will have to be overcome by preparation and motivation to ride, and I assert that it is lack of motivation to ride that keeps people off bikes, because, frankly, bikes are pretty wonderful as they are. Making them 2 or 3 or even 5 percent more wonderful is nice, but hardly a revolution.

Assumption 2: A 77-mile cyclocross race is a predictor of a successful transportation system. Look, practical transportation needs are in the range of 20 to 30 miles a day, maximum. And they don't involve portage or dirt trails. (They do involve carrying lunch and a change of clothes, however, which is admittedly also part of the challenge.) Cyclocross races, especially ones with extra "degrees of difficulty", are fun, for sure, but suggesting that an event like this has anything to do with the "everyday rider" is muddying the waters.

Assumption 3: The engineering and fabrication required to solve the problems stated in the design brief can be done in 2 months. I've built frames before; 30 years ago in Houston, I had the great privilege to be an apprentice to the late, great Roman "Ray" Gasiorowski, maker of Romic bikes. From my personal experience, to even begin to solve these problems, you're talking about a month of pencil-and-paper work. Then fabrication of special components, then assembly and testing. The timing is such that what you're going to get is a bunch of beautiful, well-engineered, fast cargo bikes. This is not a bad thing, mind you, but not "velorutionary". (Here's a prediction: several of the entrants, and probably the winner, will use a Rohloff Speedhub, because of its superior transmission capabilities.)

Conceptual problems aside, though, I do see one other problem, or should I say potential conflict, and that is this: The listed Director of Oregon Manifest is someone named Jocelyn Sycip, and one of the listed entrants in the design competition is Sycip Design of Santa Rosa, California. Is this a conflict of interest, or am I to believe that the Sycips of Oregon and California are unrelated?

Yep, all these years and miles of bicycle commuting are turning me into a curmudgeon. No doubt about it.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Poetry Break

There was recently, in the New York Times, a paean to the tailfin as promulgated by Detroit in the 1950's. In it, there was a brief excerpt from a Robert Lowell poem. Lowell (for those of you who are, like me, generally ignorant of higher culture (especially poetry), Lowell was appointed the sixth Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (aka "Poet Laureate" of the United States) in 1946. His family included the other poets Amy Lowell and James Russell Lowell.

Here's the poem. "For the Union Dead" was commissioned for and first read at the Boston Arts Festival in 1960. It was the title work of his next book of poetry, published in 1964. See if you can find the quatrain that caught my eye (and was quoted in the Times). (The link to the Times article is below the poem.)

WARNING: this poem uses the "N" word, although (to my mind) in an historic and not a racist way.

For the Union Dead

Relinquunt Ommia Servare Rem Publicam.

The old South Boston Aquarium stands
in a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are boarded.
The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales.
The airy tanks are dry.
Once my nose crawled like a snail on the glass;
my hand tingled to burst the bubbles
drifting from the noses of the crowded, compliant fish.

My hand draws back. I often sign still
for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom
of the fish and reptile. One morning last March,
I pressed against the new barbed and galvanized

fence on the Boston Common. Behind their cage,
yellow dinosaur steamshovels were grunting
as they cropped up tons of mush and grass
to gouge their underworld garage.

Parking spaces luxuriate like civic
sandpiles in the heart of Boston.
a girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders
braces the tingling Statehouse,

shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw
and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry
on St. Gaudens' shaking Civil War relief,
propped by a plank splint against the garage's earthquake.

Two months after marching through Boston,
half of the regiment was dead;
at the dedication,
William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.

Their monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city's throat.
Its Colonel is a lean
as a compass-needle.

He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,
a greyhound's gentle tautness;
he seems to wince at pleasure,
and suffocate for privacy.

He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man's lovely,
peculiar power to choose life and die-
when he leads his black soldiers to death,
he cannot bend his back.

On a thousand small town New England greens
the old white churches hold their air
of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags
quilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic

The stone statutes of the abstract Union Soldier
grow slimmer and younger each year-
wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets
and muse through their sideburns…

Shaw's father wanted no monument
except the ditch,
where his son's body was thrown
and lost with his "niggers."

The ditch is nearer.
There are no statutes for the last war here;
on Boylston Street, a commercial photograph
shows Hiroshima boiling

over a Mosler Safe, the "Rock of Ages"
that survived the blast. Space is nearer.
when I crouch to my television set,
the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons.

Colonel Shaw
is riding on his bubble,
he waits
for the blessed break.

The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.

—Robert Lowell, 1960

(Link to the New York Times article is here.)

Monday, August 3, 2009

Use Case for a Practical Cyclist

There are many particular "use cases" for practical cycling, but few come to mind that are any more compelling than Taking The Car To The Shop. In non-practical-cycling terms, this is one of life's little pains, right? You have to have your spouse/SO/family member take you or pick you up (and burn double the fossil fuel in doing so), or else you have to cool your heels at the auto shop for a shuttle (that's assuming they even have a shuttle), OR you have to get a taxi. Inconvenient, frustrating, and/or wasteful all the way around.

On the other hand, if you:
  • have figured out a good route to/from the shop to your home;
  • have a way to carry a bike on or in the car being serviced; and
  • want an excuse to ride your bike,
..then Taking The Car To The Shop is just a fun couple of hours (except for the repair bill, which is yet another reminder (as if I needed one) that cars are expensive and troublesome!)

Finding excuses to ride your bike (as opposed to finding excuses to avoid riding your bike) is what the Practical Cyclist's life is all about.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Cyclist's Log

Mileage as of end of July 2009: 2085.4 miles.

Considering I had a dud of a May (only 215 miles!) I think this is not too bad. July, wherein I had in excess of 440 miles, has been a great month. I'm back on track to hit my goal for the year. (And I'm starting out August strong.)