Friday, December 12, 2008

The Day the Earth Stood Still

In anticipation (dread?) of the upcoming Keanu Reeves movie, I got on Netflix and watched the original 1951 Michael Rennie TDTESS tonight (it can be streamed, along with a lot of other sci-fi classics). Although the special effects were weak (the flying saucer never changed perspective in any of the shots, which means it was probably a hand-painted cel), the sets were great (especially the saucer interior), and the Theremin music was probably state of the art for the time.

You all know the premise, so I won't rework it here. But in none of the shots of traffic tie-ups anywhere across the world was there even one bicycle! I guess it would have given the lie to, uh, "standing still". Hey, bicyclists don't need no stinkin' electricity, at least as long as it's daytime.

The trailers for the new TDTESS look a lot more destructive. And I'm getting the idea (wonder where from) that the new movie has a more "green" and less "anti-nuke" theme to it. So I'm betting that when things drag to a halt in the new movie, we in fact DO see cyclists moving around. Anybody want some action on this??

Friday, November 28, 2008


Nitsuh. NHTSA. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. A surprisingly rich source of information for bicycling and bicycle safety. See here. I won't reproduce all the links, you can go there and see what there is to see. They also have a set of links to other organizations.

Hearkening back to the previous post, it's clear government has a role. Yet when you visit the NHTSA site, it's a bit like sipping from the proverbial fire hose. There is so much information, and such a scarcity of vision such as John Pucher.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving 2008

I'm very thankful to be a cycle-commuter. It greatly increases my health (mental as well as physical), it saves me money, and it does its part to save the planet. It has such a salutary effect on my lifestyle that I'm sure I would bore to tears anyone who asked me why I cycle and was willing to stand around and hear the answer.

One of the questions I therefore ask myself (repeatedly) is, "Since cycling provides so many benefits, why don't more people cycle? What would it take to get more people on the road?" Certainly one (oft repeated here) obstacle is the irrational fear of traffic. (Irrational, that is, for people with traffic cycling skills.) Once a cyclist has a high skill level, it's no problem to cycle in American traffic.

However, it's just not rational to expect a large number of people to somehow magically develop these skills. So in the absence of [insert magical event here], how do we change the environment (and I use the word "environment" in the broadest sense) to effect this desirable change?

I'm not the only person who has been asking this. Fortunately. (If I were, very little would have gotten done.) Dr. John Pucher is a professor in the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, and he has studied bicycle use in all its variants across the world. Pucher's bio page is here , so I won't repeat it. Suffice it to say that this guy is doing important work in the areas of public policy and public health. He (along with a Rutgers PhD candidate, Ralph Buehler) have written a well researched white paper (PDF) and an excellent presentation (in both video and slideshow form) on the topic "Cycling for Everyone" which studies cycle use worldwide, and which focuses on the ways governments can encourage cycling utilization by policy in the following areas:
  • Better facilities and traffic engineering
  • Integration of biking with public transport
  • Traffic calming of resiential neighborhoods
  • Mixed-use zoning and improved urban design
  • Traffic education
  • Traffic regulations and enforcement
He's given this presentation in various forms in fora in New York City (4/2007), Louisville, KY (4/2007), Vancouver, BC (5/2008) and at the League of American Bicyclists National Bike Summit in Washington, DC (3/2007). So this is no big secret by any means, but it's definitely information that bears repeating, and passing on.

The presentation is in some ways a laundry list, and I think that there are some implementations in Europe that will have difficulty finding acceptance in the US (30-kph speed limit zones for example) but there are many that are already "mainstream" practices in the US, e.g. traffice calming and bike carriers on public transit. The really good news here is, all the policy research has been done. Now it's only a matter of using that research to bludgeon convince our legislators that this stuff is important for our health, our well-being, and our energy policy also. I think the League has done good work in this area, and that's why I'm a member of it.

So, hats off to you, John Pucher. Here's wishing you success in getting your policies put in place. And, as long as we're being thankful, thank you for the good work you've done and continue to do.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Cycling Deep into Winter

Well, OK, everyone seems to be putting up posts on "Winter Cycling Tips". Here's one over at Paul Dorn's excellent commuting website, and here's another. Now that I've been cycling for a couple of weeks in weather that is often-if-not-mostly below freezing, I guess I can offer some ideas.

Planning: Winter, with its short days and questionable road conditions, is no time to experiment with new routes, at least during the early morning and early evening hours of your regular commute. Stick to the routes you know; if you want to develop some new routes, do it over the weekend, during the day.

Clothing / Accessories / Equipment: I like a layer of full-on fleece (say Polartec 200 gauge) next to my skin, topped with a wind-proof (but uninsulated) shell, and full tights. For mid-20 to 30 deg F. weather, this is really enough clothing. If it gets down into the zero degree range, I might add another layer, but it's possible to sweat this up pretty thoroughly in sub-freezing weather. I find that I warm up about 1.5 miles into my ride, where I hit my first significant uphill. Truth is, where you're exercising, you adapt pretty well thermally.

Protection of Extremities: I have a thin fleece cap that fits under my helmet (I'm probably going to add a balaclava), and I use SmartWool hiking socks. So far I haven't found the need to go to a second layer of socks -- I probably would use a vapor barrier wrap made from bread sacks or newspaper bags before I went to a full-on multilayer sock approach. (For a good discussion of why you want vapor barriers at your feet, go to this link at the venerable Stephenson "Warmlite" site.) The big difficulty I find is keeping my hands sufficiently warm. I wear a light Polartec glove liner under full winter cycling gloves, and my fingers still hurt from the cold at the end of a 9-mile ride. Better to hurt than to have lost feeling, I guess. The next step is to go to "lobster gloves" -- I've ordered some from LL Bean (Pearl Izumi brand) and maybe can find some comfort.

Other Equipment:
One thing you'll need is sunglasses for the morning commute. The sun is low in the sky, and creates a lot of glare. If you don't wear glasses anyway, you'll need eye protection for the evening commute, also. One other thing that I've found, is that it's extremely handy to have a visor on your helmet. This is so you can put your head down to deflect the headlight beams of oncoming cars on dark roads. This keeps you from getting blinded.

Outfitting the bike:
Mudguards (fenders) are essential, of course. Lights that meet the legal minimums also. I like the blinking-LED variety, for the way they conserve batteries. I've also added a large amber auto-reflector to supplement the standard red rear light. If I know the weather is going to be inclement, I don't plan to ride. But I carry extra clothing (a full rain outfit and the aforementioned newspaper bags) to keep me reasonably dry if the weather turns foul. As for tires, you can research and buy studded tires at Peter White's excellent website. For me, right now, if the weather is such that I'd need studded tires so I can ride on ice, hmm. I think I'll not ride that day. That doesn't mean you can't, though.

Motivation: Many of the other blog articles on winter cycling talk about motivation and getting going. It is true that the first mile is the hardest. I think the strategy that has been most successful for me is to just not quit, not get out of the habit. I do think that deep winter would be a challenging time to start a cycle-commuting habit, to say the least. I feel like any week where I can ride 3 days or more is a good week, and I've had mostly good weeks since the end of summer.

If you're planning on regular winter cycling, I hope these little tips have been useful. Be safe!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Bike-onomics, or, What Succeeds the Bike?

Here's a link to an article in the Week in Review section of last Sunday's New York Times. It's an article about technological advance and the "creative destruction" of capitalism (a timely topic, you might concur.) It starts with the (to me) exceeding provocative statement, "By some logic, there is no earthly reason why bicycles should still exist." It's a very interesting article, and (as is often the case with the NYT) so very timely on many fronts. (So go on, read it, don't worry, we'll still be here when you're done..)

The author, Catherine Rampell, makes the statement that "older technologies have survived by recasting themselves as luxuries and by marketing their sensory, aesthetic and nostalgic appeal." I wouldn't disagree with that, exactly, but Ms. Rampell does miss (or perhaps chooses to ignore) the point that bicycles do have a straight-ahead economic advantage: they are greatly less expensive to operate than automobiles for trips of a certain length, say daily commutes of 10 miles or less. There's just no comparison, and commuting bicyclists' blogs are replete with stories of how much money they've saved, ad nauseaum. Ms. Rampell might make the argument that such extra modality makes no sense, even if there are savings to be had. I would respond that I know of people who (even today) find cross-country driving more economical than flying, and do so for that very reason.

But I think the article raises an interesting question: what would it take to render the bicycle obsolete, at least as a practical means of transportation, or to marginalize it to such a degree that its only practical use is as a "fresh-air exercise machine"? I say this knowing full well that there are those of us "hard-core" individuals who will let you take our bikes only when you can pry our cold, dead fingers, etc., and it can reasonably be argued (by someone who lacks the personal daily joy of same) that bicycle commuting is inherently a fanatic kind of activity, even if economical.

Well, here's a candidate for a vehicle technology that might someday render the bicycle obsolete except for us fanatics: the Twill Wicked. What if you could have a highly safe personal transportation device, freeway-speed capable, extemely efficient (450-mpg equivalent, say), and capable of existing totally "off the grid", for which a solar panel of less than 4 square meters would suffice to supply energy for a daily 30 mile commute? What if this vehicle cost $12,000 (the price of a high-end carbon racing bike)? Such are the promised specifications of the Wicked.

To be sure, the Wicked exists right now somewhere between the gleam in the eye of an engineer and a partially-working prototype, no more. But the imagination displayed in this project is remarkable. (Allow me to step up on my soapbox a moment.) It is precisely the lack of this kind of imagination on Detroit's part that is at the root of their current death-throes. I mean, look at the ridiculous Chevy Volt, totally hobbled by the fact that it's designed around a superstructure based on cheap oil. As long as a car is assumed to be a ton-and-three-quarters hunk of metal, the battery requirements to get any kind of decent range will be excessive and costly. The problem is that, since this is what Detroit's "best and brightest" can come up with, this is what the public takes for an "electric vehicle". I don't assign any form of conspiracy theory here along the lines of "Who Killed the Electric Car?", rather I just think it's gross incompetence. (end soapbox) Maybe the the Wicked is what will replace the car, maybe the Aptera. Or a vehicle being brewed in any one of a thousand garages right now.

But I'm not worried about them replacing the bicycle. No time soon, anyway.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

2539.7 what it reads on my cyclo-computer odometer (which I reset on January 1) right now. It being just past the Ides of November, I expect I may (if I'm lucky) get in 3 or at most 4 weeks more of commuting in before the end of the year. This past week, I got in 3 days, had one day lost to bad weather, and one day lost because of having to make a business trip into Washington, DC.

My goal for the year was to displace 3,000 miles of car travel. To me, this meant 3,000 miles of trips that I would have made anyway in a car — commuting, errands, etc., so recreational cycling wouldn't technically count. I feel like I've gotten pretty close, no matter what the rest of the year looks like. I'm particularly happy in comparison to last year, when I cycled only about 2200 miles, over 500 of which were weekend recreational miles. (Nothing wrong with them, except they don't displace auto miles.) I got a late start this year, no cycling in January, which was pretty inclement, and precious little in February. I'm just going to have to get out more in winter if I want to make my goal next year, which I'm setting at 3,300 miles. (You read it here first.)

So, (shifting gears here a little,) as part of the Great Financial Bailout of 2008, the Bicycle Commuting Act was passed. This allows employers to provide fringe benefits to their bicycle-commuting employees of up to $20 and provide various tax incentives for same. I don't know how a "bicycle commuter" is defined; there are several guys at my office who are "bicycle decorators", i.e., they use bikes for office decor, but they don't ride them very much. One article I read says that if you ride your bike 60% of the time, you would be considered a bicycle commuter. So I broke out my calculator:

48 weeks* x 5 days x 17.6 miles in my RT commute = 4224 miles per year at 100% utilization.

(* I figured 52 weeks - 3 weeks vacation - 1 week holidays)

So at 60% utilization, 4224 x 0.6 = 2534.4 miles. This means that on my last ride home this past week, I became a bicycle commuter for the year. Whoo-hoo!

Seriously, I do a good amount of business travel, which should fairly be excluded. And there are other extenuating circumstance -- no one should have to cycle in a downpour. Not only is it not fun, it's dangerous. But I know that by US standards, I'm a cycling fiend. It just goes to show that the bar for defining "cycle commuter" has not been set too low by our friends in Congress.

For a NY Times article on the Bicycle Commuting Act, go here. For more information on the Congressional Bike Caucus (presumably a good place to write to do some informal lobbying,) go here.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Final word on Stockholm

Before I leave it, a few last words on Stockholm:

Stockholm Bike Fashion: The "fixie" craze has yet to hit Stockholm the way it has in the US. If you have a single-speed, it's an standard* steel-frame, coaster-brake style. Other "standards" are three-speeds. (I would call an "standard" an "old person's bike" except that young people who are not bike enthusiasts ride them too. So they are just "standard".) Enthusiast bikes are derailleur-equipped late-model mountain bikes or road bikes with bright paint jobs. (I did see one Rohloff-equipped bike. Nice.) I saw aluminum, not carbon, frames in the display windows of the one bike shop I stopped at. As for couture, I saw only a few people wearing Spandex, and they were all club riders. For that matter, I was remarkable (even in my street clothes) for wearing gloves.

Infrastructure / Pedestrians: Bikeways, where they are uninterrupted, are great, e.g. along a waterfront, especially where there is some separation (other than a line of paint) from pedestrians. But they are always problematic where they end, or have to deal with intersections, or cross roads. There is a lot of "engineering" (signalization, signage, and control) involved. And the cyclist always has the option of using the roadway anyway. Just as in the US, delivery trucks and cars park in the bikeways, forcing the cyclist into the motorway. The adjacency of bikeways to pedestrian areas is problematic, I think bikes (moving at 10-20 mph) belong more with cars than with pedestrians. I found myself using my bell a lot.

*I've been, justly enough, taken to task for my earlier use of the term "ordinary", which historically refers to a "penny-farthing" type bicycle.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Stockholm Cyclist Holiday...

..well, it was really a business trip, but I was able to tack on a day to do an extensive tour of the city by bike. As I said in an earlier post, I'd never been in Sweden before. I found it very English-friendly. (This is good thing, as my Nordic is pretty non-existent. One of the weird things about visiting Sweden is that "Hello" in Nordic is "He!" pronounced "hey". It's tempting to just say "hey" right back, kind of comfortable and informal, until you realize that you're sending the wrong signal about which language you prefer.)

Stockholm has a lot of practical cyclists. It would not be hard to believe that (at least in the warm months) 20 to 25 8 to 10 percent of city-dwellers commute to work, or do at least some practical transportation on bikes. The city has an extensive network of bike lanes, and the sensible Swedes wear helmets in far greater proportion than I've seen elsewhere in Europe. I'd guess 50% of the urban riders I saw wore helmets, which may not sound like a lot, until you see Paris where the percentage is in the low (and I mean low) single digits.

Stockholm has a public bike-sharing system called "Stockholm City Bikes". It has been put together by Clear Channel advertising, who I think also did the Washington DC "SmartBike" system. The systems look pretty much identical: the bikes (3 speed w/ coaster brakes on the rear) are the same (see my post on SmartBike here), and the rental system is very similar, with a 3-hour usage limit. SCB is more tourist oriented, though, with a 3-day pass available (for between $15 and $20) at the central railway station.

I got a better deal than SCB, though. I got a free bike for two days from my hotel (a very nice central hotel called the Scandic Anglais). Evidently this is not unusual. The larger hotels keep a collection of bikes available for patron use, and you just check them out and a deposit is put on your hotel tab until you return them. Simple and convenient. The bikes are nothing special: one-speed "ordinaries" with rear coaster brake (coaster brakes suck, by the way) and drum brake on front, rack, mudguards, and lights. Pretty basic stuff, and not very different from what a lot of locals use on their own. Just guessing, I would say that about 50% of the locals were on "ordinaries" while the other half were on more high-tech modern bikes. I saw very few people on the SCBs. It was late September, and past the tourist "high season", so maybe that was it -- the SCBs were mainly for tourists.

The SCB website is here, but it's in the off-season now. Bikes are available only for seven months of the year, 3/31 to 10/31. I guess winters are pretty tough in Stockholm. One of my acquaintances there said he had a co-worker who put on studded tires and rode year-round, but he was considered extremely hard-core by his colleagues.

So, to document the holiday and encourage other tourist-cyclists in Stockholm, I've mapped my city tour on Google Maps below. My first day tour (8.5 miles, Friday afternoon) is in red, and my longer Saturday tour (19.5 miles) is in purple:

View Larger Map

..and, even more fun, have an annotated collection of "travelogue" photos on flickr here. You can click on the map link on each photo page to see where it was taken in Stockholm. I hope you enjoy seeing Sweden's capital by bike!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Brief Interlude

Well, I seem to be having trouble finding time to get to my blog again. (There's probably a word for it - "blogpostaphobia" or something.) Anyway, to while away the time until I can get it together to finish the story of Stockholm, here's a link to the New York Times Biking Travel Guide section. (Did you know the Gray Lady had a section on bicycle tourism? I didn't).

Enjoy! I'll be back soon. Really.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Stockholm Business / Cycling Trip — 1

I just got back from my first time in Stockholm. Business trip. Lovely city in late September, and lovely people, too. I'll put several posts up about the trip, which culminated in a wonderful 5-hour cyclist's tour of Stockholm. I'll be putting a map up on Google and some linked pictures up on Flickr. about that, also.

Preparation: I'd never been to Stockholm before, so I got out the NYT's "36 hours" feature on it, which wasn't too old. I find the "36 hours" series try to find the very new, very hip, or offbeat places that you might not find in a conventional guidebook. (As I was meeting up with locals for business, I figured I would get plenty of the "standard tourist fare" from them.) Other than that, I looked up my hotel, my meeting places, and a couple of the places in NYT on Google Maps, and figured out how far apart things were. (My hotel was a couple of blocks from one of my meetings, and less than 4km from the other.) As for equipment, I took a helmet, U-lock, gloves, and a bandanna. As I was carrying on all my luggage, I wondered how the U-lock would look to the security screeners. (Outbound, no one asked anything. Coming home, the screeners asked to see it. I said, "It's a bicycle lock." The screener smiled and said, "I know, but she (pointing to the x-ray screener) wants to see it." All very good natured.) Also, a tourist tip: If you visit Stockholm, use the Arlanda Express high-speed train to get into town. Not much more expensive than a bus and much faster. And, you can pre-book on the Web and just use your credit card for ID in and out of town. Painless.

Geography / Geology: Stockholm is an archipelago. I rode on 7 bridge-connected islands when I was there. One of the first things you notice when you catch the Arlanda Express train into town is that the walls of the station itself are cave-like. No structure or walls, just hewn from rock, dark granite like stuff. At first I thought it might be decor, but I learned otherwise. It turns out Stockholm is underlain by a huge granite dome. (Question: what better place for a chemist to develop high-explosive to remove rock?)

Here's a picture of a "working bike". Notice the details. I was particularly impressed by the fact that the framemaker included diacritical marks in the lettering. Nice.

(Soon: A deal that's even better than Stockholm City Bikes..)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Skills vs. Infrastructure Debate

Regular readers of this blog know that from time to time I bloviate on about "vehicular bicycling skills." (It might be more accurate to say that this is one of the primary ongoing themes to be found in this blog.) Not all of this blog's readers, however, might know that there is an ongoing if ill-focused debate among interested parties that touches on this issue. The debate is between proponents of INFRASTRUCTURE vs. those who promote SKILLS DEVELOPMENT. (It is entirely possible to be a proponent of both these things. Let's, just for the moment, be partisan about this, hey? It's so much fun to argue, even if it is with oneself.)

The "infrastructure" argument asserts that bicyclists need more environmental protection from motorists, and the way to make that happen is with new bike-lane infrastructure. This argument tends to support the intuitive position of people who think they would like to cycle more but are not currently doing so, i.e., "Gee, if only there were more bike lanes like in Europe, then I would get out and cycle on a much more regular, even frequent, basis."

The "bicycling skills development" argument asserts that if bicyclists learn and use the rules of "vehicular bicycling," then additional infrastructure not only isn't necessary, but can have negative effects such as creating confusion (if poorly engineered), creating a false sense of security for unskilled cyclists, and (ultimately) relegating cyclists to "second-class" vehicular status (because of the additional confinement of the bike lane -- e.g., if a bike lane exists but is not used, even if for a good reason, is the cyclist liable?) and ultimately driving (so to speak) the cyclist off the roadways. The "skills" argument seems to be adopted more by people who are actually regular cycle commuters.

I believe it to be the case that bicycle accident statistics tend to bear out the "skills" arguments rather than the "infrastructure" argument. See my earlier post here.

I personally think that bicyclists need more education and skills development to be safer. I commute regularly by bicycle, and the stupid (i.e., dangerous) things I've seen cyclists do is breathtaking. This includes inexperienced cyclists, who are still in the "toy-bike" mode, as well as experienced road riders (who are nonetheless inexperienced vehicular cyclists) who believe, since they are so experienced, the "rules of the road" don't apply to their seasoned selves.

If the problem could be described as a problem of educational infrastructure rather than transportation infrastructure, then what is the best approach? I don't see this as something that can or will be taught in public schools -- they certainly have enough problems, not the least budgetary. But the educational infrastructure needs a curriculum, a venue, teachers, and a funding source.

A curriculum could be developed by interested parties drawing from the LAB curriculum (which the LAB tends to keep under rather tight control, as their training courses serve as a funding source) and other sources, such as Forester's Effective Cycling curriculum (but much abbreviated). Of course, the curriculum should be regularized on a national basis, while being scrupulous to minor variations within the governing state's "rules of the road". The cost to do this would be a few tens of thousands of dollars, I would think.

The venue for this education should be diffuse, locally-based, and trusted. I think a good candidate would be the public library system. Public libraries are available and currently serve a well-recognized educational role. They typically have many outreach programs, which a bicycle-skills program could join. They have large parking lots for basic skills training. They have a good image.

The teachers will of course be drawn from the ranks of current practitioners.

Funding is of course always an issue. How is this to be controlled and paid for? Will the state DOT have any say, will they want control or licensing authority? (I assume driver-training schools are licensed by the state DOTs.) Would this ultimately be linked with (and at least partially paid for by) a cyclist-licensing program? Others have broached the subject of testing and licensing bicyclists, and I think it's perhaps an idea whose time has come.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

No Impact Man and the Senator

Colin Beavan, aka "No Impact Man" in New York City (hello again New York!) had a close call with a car (driven by a rather self-important sounding State Senator) in downtown NYC a couple of days ago that turned into a rather ugly incident. Details here. I really like NIM's writing and sentiment, but I wonder about his cycling skills. NIM allowed himself to get caught in a driver's blind spot in a situation where he had no safe outlet. This is a highly dangerous place to be. It's arguable that he did the right thing (safety wise) by striking the car (as long as he didn't sustain a hand injury), but far better to never get caught in this situation in the first place.

This leads to a handy rule for safe vehicular cycling: If you're riding on a trafficked street and there is not ample shoulder (or adjacent turn lane) space as an escape area, you have to "get out there" in the lane to force an accommodation by the driver. This is one of the rather non-intuitive aspects of safety in bike commuting, I admit, but there it is.

Just added No Impact Man to my blogr0ll. It's worth visiting.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Back from Vacation

..A vacation from this blog. My younger daughter, no stranger to blogging, says I just overdid it in August. No doubt she's right.

I've been thinking that I really need to put up my principles of safe practical cycling. This requires some preparation, though, (creation of graphics, etc.) so I've been putting it off and getting immersed in political blogs. Enough, as the politicians are so fond of saying. So look for a series in this area coming up.

As for right now, I just want to talk about a very eventful commute home last night. My commute is 9 miles, more or less, but last night had a series of interesting observations. First, it's worth noting that yesterday, I probably saw more bicyclists on the road than I ever have on a weekday. It's early fall weather and the cool evenings here in the Baltimore area are perfect for recreational cycling. So, by milepost, here's what I saw last night:

Mile 3.1: Cyclist (young, fit looking female but in street clothes) riding without a helmet, wrong way on a narrow sidewalk, across a bridge where if she came down off the curb, she would be in the oncoming traffic. (I almost stopped to lecture her, but restrained myself.)

Mile 3.2: Father and daughter cycling, same direction as traffic, her on the sidewalk (with traffic), him on the street. Both with helmets. The same sidewalk as the young lady above. Interesting lesson soon.

Mile 4.1: Passed by a young road rider, maybe in his late 20s. He said "hello, sir" (I gritted my teeth -- hate those "sirs".) I picked it up a little and kept with him for about 1/2 mile. At the end of this section, he ran a red light, crossed 2 lanes of traffic and made an illegal left turn to continue on his way. Sigh.

Mile 5.3: Passed an inexperienced rider (with helmet, but laboring in too tall a gear, and taking frequent coasting breaks) to arrive at my "nemesis" stop light - a demand-based unit that my bike won't trigger. (I've got to get organized and use this trick from Instructables!) While waiting for the light to change, passed (in the right turn lane) by a doofus, waving and smiling, apparently trying to identify with me, because he had a bike strapped to the back of his car.

Mile 7.9: Stopped at a red light in the left turn lane, ready to make the home stretch. (Only two more hills to go!) I'm all alone until a driver comes up in the right turn lane, rolls down his window, and we have a conversation:
Him: "You know, you're the first cyclist I've ever seen obeying traffic laws."
Me: "Well, I commute a lot, and this is the only way to be safe. You wouldn't believe the crazy stuff I see cyclists doing."
Him: "You be safe, and God bless you." (takes off.)
Mile 8.5: I came up on a rec cyclist as dusk was beginning to fall and it was getting dark (7:10 pm). This cyclist (female) was moving along pretty well, but had no lights, no reflector in back, nothing. She was very lucky the cars were making space for her on a busy street (typical of suburban MD -- posted speed limit 30 mph, typical speeds 40-45 mph.)

So. There you have it. Encounters with 6 cyclists and 2 motorists. Of the 6 cyclists, 3 (being generous here) were making mistakes that could turn out to cause serious accidents. I've talked before about cyclist education, but this really illustrates my point. Cyclists in the US have a very poor skill level. Until we have a way to develop vehicular cycling skills, there will be accidents (bike lanes or no.)

Not all days are like this. Some are more interesting than others.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Safety Equipment I - Bells

The laws of the State of Maryland (where I live) has this to say about how a bicycle ridden on public byways is to be equipped:
By law, all bicycles must be equipped with:
  • Brakes that enable the operator to make the braked wheel skid on dry, level, clean pavement.
  • An audible device (bell or horn) that can be heard for at least 100 feet. Sirens and whistles are prohibited.
  • A white beam headlight, visible at a distance of 500 feet, and a red rear reflector, visible at a distance of 600 feet, if ridden at night or during unfavorable light conditions.
  • A safety seat, firmly secured to the bicycle, or a trailer must be used if traveling with a small child.
  • A bicycle basket, rack or bag must be used in transporting small articles so that both hands may be kept on the handlebars.
For the longest time, even though I'm a safety fanatic, I ignored the bell requirement. After all, I reasoned, I can yell, "Bicycle!" or "On your left!" much louder than any silly bell. But a couple of weeks ago, after a close brush with a car, I dug a bell that I bought several years ago out of my parts box and installed it. It's one of those "incredibells," very compact. They don't muck up the looks of your bike nor do they get in the way if properly installed.

I was motivated after the close brush because I realized that if I were in an accident, my not being fully and properly equipped according to the state law would weaken my position in any litigation. A bike bell seems like a small burden to bolster your standing in this way.

In the two weeks that I've had the bell installed, I've made an interesting observation. Bike bells work. They work to alert people ahead of you that there's a "bike back," and they seem to be effective for two reasons:
  • They don't require the hearer to understand English, and
  • They are universally (or almost so) recognized as the sound of a bicycle
So, I say, if you ride on the street, make sure your bike's properly and legally equipped. You might just find that things work more smoothly to boot.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Cycling Movies

There haven't been that many English-language dramatic movies about bicycling made since the 19th-century "Ritchie the Tramp Bicyclist" (1899, UK, silent).

The late screenwriter Steve Tesich wrote a couple of movies in the late 1970's and 1980's.

"Breaking Away" (1979) was an (I guess you'd say) "sweet" kind of coming-of-age movie, set in a small Midwest college town. One of a group of four friends gets caught up in the romance of bike racing and the movie follows him and his buddies through the changes of late adolescence. The protagonist is Dennis Christopher, backed up by a very young Dennis Quaid, 4 years before he found a broader audience in The Right Stuff. Here's the Netflix entry. Tesich won an Oscar for the Breaking Away screenplay. (Rating: 7.6, imdb)

(PS: Check out the poster at right: What's wrong with this picture?)

Six years later, Tesich wrote "American Flyers" (1985) starring Kevin Costner, 2 years before he found a broader audience with Untouchables, and Jennifer Grey. I haven't seen American Flyers, so I can't give you a personal plot synopsis, but here's what Internet Movie Database has to say: Sports physician Marcus persuades his unstable brother David to come with him and train for a bicycle race across the Rocky Mountains. He doesn't tell him that he has a cerebral tumor. While David powerfully heads for the victory, Marcus has to realize that the contest is now beyond his capabilities. / Features great views of the Rockies and an insight in the tactics of bicycle races. Here's the Netflix entry. (Rating: 5.9, imdb)

Now the movie that inspired this post: "The Flying Scotsman" (2006) starring Jonny Lee Miller and the versatile Scots actor Billy Boyd of Lord of the Rings fame. This is the fascinating true story of Graeme Obrey, the Scotsman who held two world records in the 1-hour track time trial (on a bike of his own design and fabrication) and was World Pursuit Champion in 1993 and 1995. This is a dramatic and engaging story that has it all: competition, desire, conflict (Obrey and the World Cycling Federation were in conflict for years over his unconventional methods and designs) and (even) mental instability. I wholly recommend this movie.

You'll note that I qualify in the first sentence of this posting the "English language". Let me warn you that (especially for the American ear) parts of the dialogue in Flying Scotsman in in such a thick brogue you may need to turn on the subtitles in English (yes, they have English subtitles in a Scottish movie!) Here's the Netflix entry. (Rating 7.1 imdb)

Friday, August 22, 2008

(No Relation)

Here's a story about convoluted reasoning in San Francisco bike politics. A person who (sort of) shares my name, Rob Anderson, a 65-year old described as a "gadfly" has insisted the city of SF complete an environmental impact study before they roll out a massive bike lane / bike parking plan.

His reasoning? Allotting more street space to cyclists could cause more traffic jams, more idling and more pollution.

This guy is definitely a weirdo / lightning rod, to be sure, but hasn't SF always, always been the epicenter of this kind of highly-charged local politics? Critical Mass originated in San Francisco in 1992.

This political contentiousness is nothing new. I remember 10 or 12 years ago seeing sidewalk stencils in the parks at Haight-Ashbury with pictures of cars described as "heat death machines". Here's another article on sidewalk stencil art in SF. You can see a nice collection of stencil art over at StencilArchive. (The bike stencil above came from there.) I searched, but I couldn't find my "death machine".

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Folding Bike Rationale

Folding bikes seem to be very popular, and there are many good online reviews of them. Here's a recent one that is a nice broad (and current) survey. In the interest of not clogging up the blogosphere with duplicate information, I'm not going to re-hash anything to be found at Optimal Ride.

One of the things that jumps out at you with regards to "foldies" is that it's a design-heavy category, with apparent points for originality. Line up a bunch of road bikes or fully suspended mountain bikes and let your eyes go out of focus, and they all look the same. Not so with foldies. Every manufacturer has a different idea in mind as to what is important to the user of a folding bike. With this in mind, let's approach the issue from a different direction, to wit:

Why fold a bike in the first place?

Since folding a bike frame will either add weight or decrease strength or both, there should be a compelling reason (or reasons) for doing it, to make up for what is lost. Following, I write down the use-cases that I can think of for folding a bike. Maybe some readers of this post can comment this posting up with a few more. Anyway, let's begin:
  1. Fold up a bike to put it in your private vehicle, to avoid using a bike carrier rack: Perhaps you consider bike carrier racks a pain, and feel that they are flimsy and insecure. In this case, it's expected that ride quality will be important, because this use-case suggests you'll be getting your bike to the starting point of say a club ride, which could be of any length.
  2. Fold up a bike to carry it on a public conveyance that won't accept a full-size bike: In this case, it's expected that you will be attending your bicycle, and will presumably load it to and unload it from the conveyance by yourself. This use-case suggests public transit for commuting, so ride quality may be less important, as distances may well be shorter. A commuting scenario suggests that you'll be doing setup-fold and fold-setup sequences quite often, so compactness and ease of setup will be important here. And weight will be important, unless you're looking for some upper-body exercise.
  3. Fold up a bike so it can accompany you on a plane trip: Handing your bike over to someone else to handle requires a leap of faith, insurance to cover damage, or a highly protective case. Or very possibly all three. This use-case values ride quality over speed of break-down or setup; this isn't a commuting scenario, you'll likely be setting up and breaking down only once on the trip.
  4. Fold up a bike so that you can carry it to and store it in your office because you don't have a bike rack or other place to secure it: This scenario suggests an urban, multi-story setting. In this case, setup speed and weight of the bike would be important.
With these possible user-cases for a folding bike, let's now look at quality criteria for folding bikes:
  • Ease of setup/knockdown: How quickly can the user put the bike in a folded state from a rideable state or vice versa?
  • Compactness: How small is the folded-state package?
  • Ride quality: How well does the bike ride compared to a regular bike? What gear range is available?
  • Weight: How heavy?
  • Utility: Is the bike equipped (or equippable) with fenders or rack, or a special conveyance system (such as the Bike Friday carrying case / trailer)?
  • Sizing: Can the bike accommodate tall or heavy/strong riders?
So looking at the use-cases vs. the quality criteria, here's a little chart at right that represents my opinion on weighting the various attributes of the folding bikes for the different use-cases. As always, your mileage may vary. But I recommend using a method such as this when comparing the various folding bikes if you're in the market for one, otherwise it's easy to get overwhelmed or to purchase a foldie that doesn't solve your particular problem.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

MOMA sez: Bikes are Hip

Continuing on our theme of New York City, bikes and urban hipness, mosey on over to the MOMA online store. On the front page of their Fall 2008 catalog is a Strida bike, a classic design which is now in its fifth generation. (At a long-legged 6' 6", I personally am too big for a Strida, and I think it would be tough to ride a Strida for more than a couple of miles, even for someone whom it fit. But a compelling modern minimalist design, nonetheless.) Bikes as expressions of urban hipness have officially arrived. We'll see how long this mania lasts, but my advice is to enjoy it while you can!

But wow, the MOMA catalog item that caught my eye (at a suggestion from my wife) was these pant-leg clips (pictured). They are called "Windriders" and designed by Gijs Bakker. They seem obvious, so obvious that I have a nagging feeling that I must have seen them before. I don't know if this is the case, or if my sense of déja vu is simply the subconscious recognition of a classic design, but in any case, hats off to Bakker and MOMA. (I don't wear long pants riding, and so don't have any practical use for them, but if they were given me, I'd wear them over my socks now and again just for fun.)

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Byrne, Bike Racks, and Design

David Byrne is the paragon of the hip urban cyclist. If you don't believe me, look here. He's been doing bicycle activism in New York City, for which he is to be commended. When asked to be a judge in a bike rack design content, he instead turned in some (in my opinion) cutesy designs (that are, admittedly, very NYC-savvy) and expects to sell them as objets d'art later. I'm certain he'll find a willing market for this. (The finalists in the NYC bike rack design contest are here.)

If I had not recently been charged with doing bike-rack research for our office, perhaps I would be more impressed. But there has been a lot of really creative design work going into bike racks, design that often goes deeper than simple croquis imagery. Consider the Byrne coffee mug rack in fabrication (below right) vs. the custom Dero coffee mug rack (below left), several years old:

Let's start by asking the question, "What does a bike rack need to do?" I would submit that a bike rack should fulfill some or all of the following functional requirements:
  • It should be identifiable as a place to park bicycles;
  • It should allow bike parking at a reasonable density, while still keeping bikes from getting scratched or dinged up;
  • It should allow secure locking of bikes (a very good design would make it hard to lock your bike incorrectly);
  • It should accommodate all kinds of bicycles.
There are no doubt other requirements relating to budget, etc., and of course your mileage may vary, but for now, let's assume all other things equal and let the above requirements stand.

So, when researching a bike parking facility at our office, I did a fair amount of online research. There are many repetitions in the land of bike rack design, and where there are duplicates, I make an attempt to present the original designer (such as "Ribbon Racks" below, the originator as far as I know, of the undulating ribbon design). I was looking for group bike parking in the 6 to 12 bike range. Here in no particular order are the racks I found. Consider the following a survey of bicycle rack design in the current day. Although there are other designs to be sure, most all of them will be a variant of one of the following designs:

The Bike Rib, series 3: Available from Function First, Inc: This is a nice, clean design that is formed from simple round steel tubing and appears to be nicely optimized for bike density. I like the use of angles for functionality here. The design at right holds 8 bikes, two for each vertical loop. It looks like it would be sturdy.

Vintage Bike Rack: Available from Cycle Safe, Inc: This is a standard "inverted loop" design, but with decorative inlays. This would be very useful, I think, if you're an urban planner doing street-scape work in a historical district. There are 11 different designs, of which I show 4 at right. They seem to have taken some pains to make sure that the decor does not decrease the locking function.

Campus Racks: Available from Peak Racks: This is an alternating-height rack with a separate locking bar. Looks to be very high density, and moderate security (certainly good for campuses and other controlled environments, probably not sturdy enough for hard-core or overnight urban settings.) This is a difficult design to photograph, but it looks like it has lots of applications, particularly on (as the name suggests) campuses.

Cora Expo:
Available from Cora: This looks like it would work in a setting where high security was not required. Those "coat hangers", while allowing good density, don't make it obvious how to lock up the bike and frankly, they look a little lightweight. I'm afraid a pair of bolt-cutters would go through them.

Wallrack: Available from Cycle Safe, Inc: This looks like a sturdy alternative to the ubiquitous wall hook, with the advantage that the angled brace provides a lock point, although it's not clear that this brace will work with any standard U-lock unless you have a cable. These are staggered on the wall (see photo) to allow handlebar clearance with standard 16" stud spacing. Unlike most of the other designs, which tend to be embedded in pavement, these would require a sturdy attachment to the supporting wall to prevent a thief from just ripping the whole thing away.

Grid Style Bike Rack: Available from Saris: This is the familiar, mass-market style of bike rack that you've seen on a hundred college campuses. Not terribly convenient, but no doubt economical. You can usually find a way to securely lock your bike if you don't get one of the coveted end spots, but you have to work at it.

Bikeeper: Available from Bikeeper: This Dutch company is easily my personal pick for the best new design I've seen in this area (even if they do have a Flash website.. ugh). It's not surprising that the Dutch, who are bicycle-oriented in the extreme, would come up with a simple and clever design such as this. You roll your bike into the trough, and the trough pivots to present obvious locking tangs to hook your U-lock into. (See the animation at their website.) Gosh, I love good design ideas. The only fault I can find with this design is, it may interfere with (or, rather, be obstructed by) down-tube bottle cages. Or if you have a bike (like a Montague) that doesn't have a down-tube. (I'd take my down-tube cage off if we had one of these at work.)

Commuter Bike Rack: Available from Huntco: This is a high-security "clamshell" design. Very safe, difficult to make dense, probably has a learning curve to use well. No nonsense aesthetics. Although Huntco has some more highly-designed stuff similar to Dero and Ribbon Rack (below), this particular model seems to be unique to them. This is what I'd want in the inner city (along with a Kryptonite New York City lock.)

Ribbon Rack: Available from RibbonRack: This is the classic design that has been widely copied, perhaps because the designers didn't pursue appropriate protections, or perhaps because they wanted to design and not spend their time in court. Or maybe, just maybe, they've been successful in protecting it and this is what everyone sells. (I hope so, but I somehow doubt it.) In any case, this brilliant design came out in (I think) the late '70s or the early '80s. Simple, beautiful, economical, classic.

Dero "Bike" Bike Rack: Available from Dero: It seems to me that Dero has been doing for years what many of the New York City designers have just started, and that is, iconic bike racks. They are in my opinion the leaders in commercial bike-rack design and execution. If you look at the NYC designers stuff (including Byrne) above, and then go look at the Dero site, you'll see a lot of similarities, and where there are duplicate themes, the Dero design is usually better. (Dero has the advantage of having done this for years and subjected their designs to a manufacturing discipline, so it's natural that they would be convincing when it comes to quality.) Dero has many different designs on their site (including an intriguing "stag" design) but I especially like the Bike Bike Rack. It can park up to 4 bikes and simply, iconically, announces what it is.

BikeTree: Available from BikeTree: On rare occasions, you come across something that is so stunningly over- engineered while being under- considered, it just takes your breath away. The BikeTree is one such item, a fantastic example of a solution hunting for a problem. Neither "bike parking" nor fully-realized "integrated bike sharing sytem", the BikeTree is an over-the top design exercise for parking bikes that employs Wi-Fi, Smart Cards, solar panels, lithium ion batteries, and lots and lots of polycarbonate plastic, all in the service of solving the awful problem of (wait for it).. having to carry a bike lock. Yes! Freedom from bike locks! Except, er, if you go on your bike to the grocery or hardware store, you'll have to carry a lock anyway. Nevermind. On their website, it says, "Bike Tree products emphasize simplicity, efficiency and convenience." I don't know what they're smoking over there at BikeTree, but I want some.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Your Bike's Sound System

I think that these kids in Queens have an idea of "bike sound system" that is different from mine.

The other day I was passing another commuter on my way in to work. A younger guy, nice bike, not slow, but kind of wobbling a little. It's my experience that when you pass a cyclist, you say, "on your left" or "on your right," not too loud, just to be courteous. Well, I said, "on your left" as I was beginning to pass, and the cyclist didn't respond. Hmph, I thought. Then I looked and noticed he had earbuds in place. I think this is dangerous, particularly if you use the isolation kind of earbud. (I also wonder if having his ears stopped up contributed to his wobbling.)

Well, there are new earphones on the block that use bone conduction to transfer the sound, and don't obstruct the ear canal, thus allowing sensing of ambient sound. Finally a system for safe cyclists! These are called "Zelco outis" (I guess they pronounce "outi" as "outie", like a belly button.) You can read a little more about them on Gizmodo.

It would be great to pick up Morning Edition as I bike in to work. Or All Things Considered as I go home. I think I'm going to have to get a pair of these.

It looks like these list for a little over a hundred dollars, but they're being heavily discounted. I'd love to hear from someone who has used them, and will gladly post on this blog any reviews from cyclists. So let me hear.

Friday, August 15, 2008

DC SmartBike vs. Paris Vélib

Today (August 14), Washington DC rolled out its public bicycle system, called "SmartBike". There are 120 bikes based at 10 different stations spread across downtown Washington DC. I'm a little dubious about how it will work, or rather I should say that the system is structured in a way that is unclear. Is the system for locals or tourists? Some aspects of the system seem to discourage tourist use, but others suggest that the system will not work all that well for local commuters.

The obvious comparison is to the Vélib system in Paris, what Parisians have cleverly nicknamed "La Vélorucion". I've had the good fortune to visit Paris 3 times in the past year, and have personally admired Vélib. Rain, shine, night, day, whatever.. you see Parisians on Vélib cycles. You see the stations everywhere. At night, you see trucks full of Vélib bikes being hauled back to the central depot for maintenance. It's really something.

Both systems, Vélib and SmartBike, are subsidized by advertising (billboard) companies in a private-public partnership with the respective city. And the bikes (Vélib top right, SmartBike center right) are not so different, urban highly adjustable upright bikes with full mudguards, and high-capacity front baskets. (The DC program for some inexplicable reason decided to go with differently-sized front and rear wheels, thus doubling their tire inventory requirements for maintenance. And, equally inexplicably, the SmartBikes have no lighting system. No doubt a cost-cutting measure.) There the similarity (such as it is) ends.

In the thematic spirit of Practical Cyclist, let's run the numbers.

Looking at the chart outlining the systems at right, we can see that it's not really fair to compare the Paris and DC systems. (Note: corrected for DC served area.) A quick glance shows that the Paris system has 170 times the bikes, 150 times the stations, and 30 times the density (the Paris system covers approximately 5.5 times the land area). Not much of a match-up there; the American sponsors are being, ahem, a little timid (understandably, I suppose).

An even more striking contrast is apparent when you compare the fee structure between the two systems. To use a bike in DC, you can go up to 3 hours free. To use one in Paris, you are charged a surcharge of 1 euro after your first 30 minutes, and the rate of surcharge increases the longer you have the bike. At 3 hours, the limit of the DC system, you've been charged over 20 bucks on Vélib!

So what's going on here?

Well, it would seem, from the economic structure shown, that the DC and the Paris systems are designed to answer different questions. The Paris system tries to answer the question, "What would a mass-transit system based on bicycles look like?" The frankly punitive surcharges that they levy are designed to get the users to use the bikes to get to their destination and get them back in service. They are trying to create a feeling of reliability, such that you can go to your nearest station and expect to find a bike to use. (Failing that, if your nearest station is out of bikes, the station density assures that there will be another one very nearby.)

The question the DC system is trying to answer is not so clear. They don't cover a broad enough area nor do they have enough density to truly serve the commuter needs. Nor do they have a bike depot at Union Station, where all the train commuters come into town. The 3-hour limit is too ahort for a work day, and seems more oriented towards a tourist use. However, the station locations are not in the right places for tourists, and tourists won't use it anyway because of the annual fee. So I'm forced to conclude that the question the DC system is trying to answer is, "What symbolic but ineffective gesture can we make to show we are a 'green' city?" or, alternatively, "What can we do to further frustrate the cabdrivers of DC?"

I think the SmartBike system could work, even given the major limitation it has (that of being situated in a non-cycling city!) I think that if they situated a huge depot at Union Station, (where they care about how bicycles look,) and situated "receptor" stations around L'Enfant Plaza and the Capitol office buildings, it could succeed locally in terms of visibility and ridership. And that would be a success, indeed.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Vehicular Cycling in Beijing

Sometimes, I wish people who weren't vehicular cyclists would get trained before they try to write about it.

Katie Thomas, a sportswriter for the (wait for it) New York Times, writes in an article today that urban cycling is nerve-wracking. Nerve-wracking, that is, for an inexperienced cyclist. For an experienced one, such as Jason McCartney, a member of the US Olympic cycling team, it's "giddy" fun.

I'll give Thomas some credit. She admits her inexperience by calling her own idea "archair arrogance". And, she offers a good one-sentence description of vehicular cycling: "It required looking over one’s shoulder, moving into an open space in traffic, and trying to avoid pedestrians — all at once." But by describing the experience as "not for the faint of heart" and as implying that left turns across traffic were tantamount to taking one's life in one's hands, she in effect portrays vehicular cycling as not for ordinary people. And that's just wrong.

See "A Relaxing Ride, but Not for the Faint of Heart".

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

My Ride

Here's my current ride. It's a commuter that's really built on a cyclo-cross frame. I'm a pretty old-school guy, so in some ways this is an old-school bike. I've put about 4500 miles on this bike so far, (about 1600 this year) and it's held up well. Here are the "specs":

Frame: Steel Nashbar generic mountain bike hardtail frame and rigid fork. Extra long seat post to handle my long legs (38" inseam!).

Wheels: combo rim / disk brake compatible 26" mountain wheels. Sun Rhyno Lite rims on Deore hubs (I wish they had cartridge bearings.) I have Forte City ST/K tires from Performance Cycling which I run at 85 psi.

Drive train: This is the most unusual aspect of my bike. It's a 9-speed. 45-tooth chainwheel on an old French TA crank (185mm crank arms for those long legs of mine) driving an 11-34 Shimano cluster. This is all the gear range I need around Columbia, Maryland. SPD compatible pedals from Nashbar. Sealed Shimano bottom bracket. Deore indexed shifter and derailleur. Just having a single gearing to shift up and down on is so intuitive, it's almost like having an automatic transmission. Sometimes I think about replacing this with an internal-geared hub. (It would be nice to downshift when stopped.)

Saddle: Terry Liberator Men's. Very nice commuter saddle. Durable and comfortable.

Brakes: Mafac cantilevers with drilled-out Mafac levers. These are very "old-school" brakes. They require a fair amount of hand strength to operate, but they are as solid and reliable as it gets. Fantastic stopping power.

Handlebars: Old improvised "bull-horns" cut from a standard drop handlebar. Bought for $5 from the parts box of a local bike shop. I use a double-wrap of gel tape covered with yellow and blue Cinelli cork tape. It is so important to be color-coordinated!

Lighting / visibility: Cateye 3-LED front light, 3-LED rear light (on seatpost), with 3" amber truck reflector on the back. (You can see the reflector shining in the mirror behind the bike in the photo above.) Everything uses AAA batteries, and they last a surprisingly long time.

Mudguards (fenders): Yellow Planet Bike "Hardcore". Life is too short to limit yourself to black or silver fenders.

Baggage carrying: Old Eclipse platform rear rack with a couple of Nashbar panniers. I fill these up on a daily basis. One pannier carries rain gear, a change of clothes, a lock, and lunch. The other pannier carries my briefcase-backpack, including my laptop. It's a pretty full load, and this bike handles it nicely.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Lost in the Fog

I greatly admire George Vecsey, the sportswriter for the New York Times. Here's a link to his coverage of the Olympic men's bicycle road race (152 miles).

An excerpt is a quote from Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee, (IOC):

“The fog you see is based on the basis of humidity and heat. It does not mean to say that this fog is the same as pollution. It can be pollution, but the fog doesn’t mean necessarily that it is pollution.”

It's tempting to say that Rogge doesn't have a superb command of English, and that would explain the ambiguity of this statement. Me, I think it's rubbish. Rogge is trying to say something that is less than a bald-faced lie, and not succeeding at it.

The cyclists call it pollution, and I tend to believe them. "Grandpa" George Hincapie said these were the worst conditions under which he had ever raced.

This is a scandal, and the IOC's and the US Olympic Committee's (USOC) transparent responses to pressure from their Chinese hosts is disgraceful. Consider this story: The USOC issued the specially designed masks to protect athletes from the potentially harmful air in Beijing. Randy Wilber, the USOC's main exercise physiologist, advised the athletes to wear the masks on the plane and as soon as they stepped foot here. Which is precisely what the US Track-cycling team did (see photo). Then, after being scolded by USOC officials who told them "the Chinese were mad," they apologized to the press. For doing what is (1) prudent and (2) what they were advised to do. This sucks big time. I'm probably going to boycott TV coverage of these Olympics because it angers me so. (Update: I didn't. It was good to see the American swimmers and roundball players rock.)

Vecsey describes the air as "Hot and furry and persistent". Ugh. I'll leave it at that. Put on your masks, people.

Update: Here's a followup in the NYT from a pulmonologist.

Photo Copyright© 2008 The New York Times Company

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Chain Maintenance: Waxing

Most people probably think that tires are the highest-maintenance items on a bike, but they're not. The highest maintenance item is the chain. I might have to deal with flats 3 or 4 times a year (I use aramid aka "Kevlar" belted tires), but I have to lube my chain every few weeks (say every 300 or 400 miles) or it starts clattering.

I use a very "old-school" type of chain lubrication. I dip it in hot (liquified) paraffin wax and let it sit for a few minutes. The chain heats up, the joints loosen, the old dirt falls out, and the wax seeps in to all the nooks and crannies of the chain. I pull the chain out, and it's magically shiny -- a thing of beauty. It cools, and has a slightly waxy feel (can't imagine why). Goes right back on the bike and I'm good for a couple more weeks of daily riding.

The hidden beauty of chain waxing is that it is (as far as I know) the cleanest form of chain lubrication. It's dry and absolutely does not pick up dirt. Which means it doesn't get the rest of the bike dirty nor you dirty. Most liquid lubricants inevitably pick up dirt and just getting near your bike will give you a "tattoo". A needless mess, whereas I can rub against my chain all day, even with long pants on, and.. nothing.

So, if it's so advantageous, why doesn't everyone do this? Well, it's a bit of a hassle to get set up. First, your chain should be removable from your bike without tools (see Update 1 below). Then you need a pound of paraffin wax (this is widely available at most grocery stores in the "canning goods" aisle.) Then you need something to heat it, and here's where it gets tricky. You have to use something that will melt the wax but not heat it above its flash point or you will have a big fire on your hands.

For a long time I used a coffee can with my wax melted into it and set that in a large saucepan of water. Just like a double-boiler in principle. This has worked fine, but my dear wife has finally had enough of the little wax splatters that inevitably happen. So last weekend I went out to a beauty supply store and bought a wax heater (just a little thermostatic hot-plate device that they use for heating depilatory paraffin.) I wish I had taken pictures of the quizzical looks on the beauty-supply clerks' faces when this big sweaty cyclist walked in their shop wanting a wax heater.

If it works, (and I've got a little setting up to do yet this weekend,) I can leave it set up out in the garage. Woo-hoo! It will be nice to be able to just flip the switch, get the wax liquid, and drop the chain in, and not have all the cleanup associated with the kitchen.

I'll let you know how it goes with an update.

Update 1: I haven't got the new setup going yet, but my brother Willie makes the comment that, in this post, I assumed that all users would have an easy way to remove the chain from their bike. Silly me for making this assumption! I use an SRAM Power-link (pictured at right). and have for years. Here's a good web-page that gives the best technique for removing the PowerLink, which does have some, uh, "nuance".

Update 2: I published an Instructable that gives a step-by-step method for chain waxing. Enjoy!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Surprising Results in Carbon Footprinting

Sometimes you see an image that conveys a new and unexpected fact and it just grabs you and doesn't let go. So it was was when I read this article in the New York Times in late April. The unexpected fact was about the relative carbon footprint (CF) of French vs. California wines on the East Coast (where I live). As the graphic below shows, French wines have roughly one-half the CF of California wines, almost all the difference due to the shipping of bottles and the finished wines themselves. (Click the image below for a legible version.)

A close read of the article exposes some other gems: Where is the sense in Great Britain exchanging 20 tons of bottled water a year with Australia? This is a fact that only the freight companies could love.

I'm all for eliminating tax exemptions and subsidies that hide the energy / carbon costs of our way of life. (Ultimately this philosophy has to be good for cycling!)

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Overcoming Obstacles: Sweat

I've had a couple of conversations this week with different people about one of the commuting cyclist's challenges, sweat. Which is to say, body odor. Particularly for cyclists with an athletic tendency, who like to ride fast and sweat in the process, body smell in the workplace is an issue. No matter how you feel about how inoffensive your smell may be, believe me, your co-workers will sense it. You've gotta deal with it!

The question is how. Most people feel like they have to have a shower room at the office, and if you've got one, with janitorial service to keep it clean and towel service and lockers, I have this to say to you: "What company was it you said you worked for? Because I want to apply for a job!"

Then there are the rest of us. I for example have a company that provides an employee-policed shower room. Ugh. Better than nothing, but not something to get excited about.

And there's the unwritten observation about showers: they do take significant time. Figure getting in at least 40 minutes early to work, 15 minutes to cool down and 25 minutes to shower, towel off, change clothes, and hang up your cycling stuff. It works, but 40 minutes is a lot of time...

Then there's my solution: I use baby wipes.

Before you recoil in horror, let me walk you through my process. I cycle in to the office, and arrange the contents of my panniers. I cool down (I allow 10-15 minutes, depending on the heat of the day). I strip off my cycling jersey and hang it up on the back of my office door. Then I use two baby wipes, one for my pits, and one for my head and shoulders (hey, isn't that a trademark?) I use aloe wipes with a baby powder scent. (This may sound effeminate if you're a guy, but it's actually a quite refreshing smell.) Then, on with my working clothes, and I'm good.

The whole thing (including cool-down) takes 20 minutes max.

For a long time, I thought this was my own personal brilliant great idea, but one time I ran into a fellow cyclist at a hotel exercise room in Chicago, and found that he'd hit upon the exact same solution. So once again, I was humbled, as I am so often by this wonderful activity.

For an interesting perspective on sweat from the third world, go here.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Good Cop / Bad Cop

Here's the good cop, pictured at right. Tom Casady, Chief of Police, Lincoln, NE. This guy makes me think that living in Lincoln, Nebraska might not be such a bad thing. (And I have to admit, this is the absolute first thing to make me think this.) Read his post on bicycles and cars sharing the road here. The rest of his blog is an interesting insight into medium-sized-town policing. Update: Tom has a good sense of humor. When discussing how to avoid the "door prize", he says, "A row of parallel-parked cars is risky, and cyclists generally need to move out to the left by the approximate length of a 1972 Monte Carlo's door." (The link to the car image is by him.)

Here's the bad cop, also pictured at right. Patrick Pogan, rookie policeman in New York City. This guy brutally tackled a cyclist at a Critical Mass demonstration in NYC. The video is of course on YouTube here. I have (like about so many other things) mixed emotions about Critical Mass, because I feel like their manifestations are unnecessarily confrontational. (I mean, I holler at rude or oblivious drivers, but it's always for a reason.) The NYPD police union is defending him, more here. Good luck. If the video is admissible, it sure looks like an assault to me. I mean, this &*%^! cop didn't even flag the cyclist down!

Be your own judge.