Monday, June 30, 2008

The Bible

There is really only one Bible of practical cycling (or bicycle commuting, if you prefer.) It's a book entitled "Effective Cycling" and it was first written by a visionary named John Forrester in 1976. I remember seeing my first copy — it was a plastic-comb bound, self published book amateurishly published by a company called Custom Cycle Fitments (CCF) of Palo Alto, California. CCF manufactured made-to-order custom-sized cycling clothes, including rain gear. (CCF has been out of business for quite a while, something that is too bad but is probably inevitable. Impossible to compete with LL Bean and their suppliers in the Far East. And not enough call for custom sized things for outsized people like me. I'm 198cm tall. I wonder if, even when they were viable, they didn't realize more revenue off this book than off their clothing.)

But I digress—back to Effective Cycling. It's astonishing to pick up a later edition (it's now in its 6th edition, picked up in 1984 by the MIT Press) and realize how little of the core information in the book has changed, and how relevant the book is today. It's truly the only book you'll ever need to read about cycling (unless you want to race professionally, which is a different topic), and it tells you everything essential about bikes, including building, maintenance, sizing, riding technique, and safe use. Most users will never even true a spoked wheel, much less build one from scratch, but it you want to, step-by-step instructions are in this book. As such, it can be more than a little intimidating to the new serious cyclist.

As good and complete a reference as it is for bike assembly and maintenance, however, the seminal contribution made by "Effective Cycling" from its beginnings is about safe bicycle transportation — how to safely "drive" a bike in the midst of automobile traffic. Forrester worked out a relatively complete set of cycling "rules of the road" and since 1976, everyone else who has written on the topic has really just been polishing Forrester's edifice. Not everyone agrees with Forrester, whose central principle is that most traffic devices intended to "protect" cyclists do no such thing, and cyclists are best served when they behave predictably in traffic, not separated from cars.

There are many people who don't like the somewhat imperious tone of parts of Forrester's work — passages such as "The government's bicycle design standard is based on engineering incompetence" turn some people off. But Forrester has a point. Bicycle commuting requires (I think) a hard-nosed confidence that comes from a presence of mind (some would say, a mental toughness) and sugar-coating that requirement would be deceptive and possibly dangerous. I will talk more about "St. John the Curmudgeonly" later and theorize about the source of this attitude.

You can buy a paper-bound copy of the book on Amazon here (Disclaimer: I provide the link for convenience and receive no compensation of any sort from sales of the book.)

Friday, June 27, 2008

A Deficit of Imagination

Lookit — there's a definite paucity of imagination among the political bloviators in this country.

The prevailing opinion in this country is that we have a supply problem with petroleum. If you believe that, if you truly do, then I have a bridge in the general vicinity of New York City in which you might be interested. I mean, there may be some short term speculation going on, but... c'mon.

Our problem is not a supply problem. It's a demand problem. More specifically, it's an efficiency problem (see the Einstein posting in this blog, which details the efficiency numbers). People in the media are wringing their hands, saying that any ameloriation of the current dire situation is "eighteen or more months away". Oh, please. Let's do something about petroleum demand beginning tomorrow. Heck, beginning RIGHT NOW:
  • If you live in a city with public transit, use it;
  • If you don't, use carpooling. You can use the online database at Ridesearch to match up with other interested carpoolers;
  • If you live 5 miles or less from where you work, ride a bike at least a couple of days a week;
  • If you drive, obey the speed limit and use your cruise control on the highway, and
  • Make sure your tires are properly inflated and your car tuned;
You might say that this won't make a difference, but I must respond that if 25 - 50% of Americans began implementing the above remedies in their lives (and they could beginning, as I say, right now), they would not only be depressing the cost of gas (and disappointing the speculators, tsk tsk) but also they would begin immediately saving money.

Until we begin to change our demand profile, we can't begin to whittle away at this problem and buy ourselves the time to develop the highly efficient, non-petroleum economy that we need to be truly secure. Swallow hard and repeat after me: "High fuel prices are our friend, for two reasons: they depress demand, and they make alternatives viable."

Updated: Here's a post on CNN Money that says pretty much the same thing.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Recreational Cycling and the "next step"

Every time I see a bike rack on a car, filled with bikes headed to some idyllic road on the edge of town, something inside me grimaces a little. The word that comes to my mind is "dilettante". I know that's a harsh judgement.

There's a positional difference between the practical cyclist and the recreational cyclist that outsiders (and probably many cyclists) don't see. I suspect that most practical cyclists see the difference, however. The difference is this: while both recreational and practical cyclists see cycling as a rewarding activity (flying, fitness, blah blah), only practical cyclists have taken the next step.

The "next step" is adopting the philosopy that I see at the core of practical cycling, to wit: if a purpose can be reasonably served by a bicycling trip, then it should be. This means that bicycling trips are the best choice for commuting (reasonable distances), grocery trips, errands, and getting to the start point of a ride (again, within reasonable distances).

The "next step" means taking the practical (there's that word again) steps to overcoming the (sometimes irrational) fear of automobile traffic and learing to be safe -- something I'll talk more about later. Some of my friends think I'm unusually brave (or a crazy fiend) for riding in traffic. Neither is the case -- I just follow the rules.

Back in the late '70s, when I was just beginning to cycle seriously, I lived in Houston. My good friend Bill P. (who was into practical cycling back then) suggested that we participate in a fun organized ride "out to Katy and back -- it's only a 25-mile round trip." Bill neglected to mention (and I in my dullness neglected to work out) that from our neighborhood to the start point was about 22 miles. We rode out, we rode the ride, we rode home. When I complained to Bill the next day of how sore I was, he said something like, "Hey man, only pussies drive their cars to the start point." And just like that, I'd put my first ride of more than 50 miles behind me.

The "next step" is a learning process. It means learning (really learning) the rules of the road. It means that one re-thinks his ideas of distance and timeliness, and how much time and effort it should take to do something. It's definitely a change of habit and a lifestyle change.

I still own a car and use it, but much more sparingly, and for things that I can't do on my bike. If I'm in my car going somewhere and I really could be cycling there, it feels like a guilty pleasure. More guilty than pleasure, really.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Einstein and bicycles

"I thought of it while riding my bicycle", is reputedly what Albert Einstein said about his Special Theory of Relativity.

Another Einstein quote - "Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving" -says something of the physicist's depth of intuition for bicycling. While a student at Munich University in Bavaria, he would tour by bicycle. And while at Princeton University during the early 1950s, Einstein was often seen on his bike. (The above image is not from Princeton, but from Santa Barbara, CA.)

So, it's really not too big a stretch to call Einstein a bike commuter, although the communities he lived in were more compact than our urban sprawl of today, and so perhaps the word "commuter" was less relevant. Einstein was irrefutably a cyclist. What was the attraction that bikes held for him? My own personal theory is that, being a theoretical physicist, he was compelled to run the numbers. And, running the numbers, he couldn't in good conscience use a car on a regular basis.

Here are the numbers, by the way:

1. The modern automotive internal combustion engine (ICE) machinery is 10% efficient. That is, 10% of the chemical energy in the fuel gets turned into kinetic energy (energy of motion) where the rubber meets the road.

2. Since the ratio of car mass to passenger mass for a single passenger vehicle is roughly 15 : 1, the overall efficiency of a car system (its ability to move your carcass down the road) is 0.10 x 1/15, or somewhat less than one percent. Say 2/3 of 1 percent. Multiply this by the number of passengers.

So, good rule of thumb, a car is 1% efficient. Incredible, isn't it?

How about a bike? Well, most studies show overall efficiency of a bike system (depending on rider technique) to be in the 18 - 25% range. This sounds pretty bad until you compare it to an automobile system!

So when you ride your bike, you're (let's say) 20 to 30 times as efficient as an automobile. Think of yourself getting 600 to 900 miles per gallon.

Not too shabby.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A Practical Cyclist

My wife Constance probably thinks of me (among other things!) as a "radical cyclist," but all I am is a cyclo-commuter, and a practical cyclist. It's June, and I've displaced 1150 automobile miles since January 1 of this year, mostly in commuting to work, but more and more doing other practical things like errands. The time I've spent cycling has been of enormous benefit to me, physically and mentally. I'll bloviate on it here.

Feel welcome to comment.