Wednesday, July 30, 2008

How will Jeannie Longo Deal with China's Air?

Bike racing isn't really the focus of this blog, but this is an interesting article brought to my attention by my brother Willie:

Jeannie Longo is almost 50, and competing in womens' cycling in her 7th consecutive Olympics. Wow. I don't have words to express my admiration for this kind of stamina and strength. This NYT article details a little more of her amazing successes: over 1,000 career wins. Wow, again. The picture at left is of Jeannie winning a hill-climbing contest in 2004.

However, one of her self-attributed success factors is avoidance of non-organic food and "chemicals" to which she says she's allergic. This raises an interesting point: How will she deal with air pollution in China?

I don't know the French equivalent for "You, go, girl.." so I'll just say, «Allez, Jeannie!»

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

1-hour Bike Shoe Design Contest

Core77, the online design magazine / forum, is sponsoring a one-hour design contest for bicycle shoes. Go to the contest page and check out my design, based on the greenest shoes I know: Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars. The CCTAS, according to Wikipedia, has sold over 750 million pairs between 1917 (the year of their introduction) and the year 2000. They are a true American design classic, and pretty green to boot. Chucks don't need much to be pretty versatile shoes for commuting & c. They don't have much cushion, but you don't want that on a bike anyway. The high-tops (always the preferred style) give you lots of lace-up options as to ankle support. Now if I could find someone to make carbon-fiber orthotics!

Update: I did find someone making carbon-fiber orthotics. This idea makes more sense the more I think about it. The expensive part (the orthotic insole) lasts; the inexpensive part (the outer shoe) gets replaced as it wears out (or as you get tired of the color scheme). Hey, this isn't such a silly idea after all! I deserve honorable mention at least!

Update 2: I'm afraid I may be looking like a suck-up. One of the judges of this design contest is from Nike, and Nike bought Converse some time back. Here's an interesting essay on CTAS and Nike's purchase of same.

Update 3: The judge picked me as number 2 (out of 46) submissions from professional product designers. I don't feel bad about this at all. Here's what he said: "I could have used this shoe this morning. Perfect for all the fixed gear riders weaving there way through a downtown near you. Simple, Stylish and Functional. Watch out for those laces. A place to tuck them under a flap or tongue top would be a nice touch."

Update 4: The people at my office want me to put up a step-by-step description of what I did in Vectorworks, so I started a new "Vectorworks Tips & Tricks" blog for this purpose. I've posted the step-by-step here.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Ghost Cycles, or: A Plea for Cyclist Education

A family friend, Ann Chou, sent me to this link on New York Magazine about "Ghost Riders" or Ghost Bicycles. I must say that I have mixed emotions about this phenomenon. In some ways I feel it is very touching to have remembrances of this kind.

However, I also wonder about what it is exactly that these displays are trying to say. Are they:
  • sad, simple, heartfelt memorials?
  • some kind of political statement about bicyclists getting insufficient protection?
  • warnings about the dangers of practical bicyling?
The placard in the photo at right says that Franco Scorcia, age 72, was "killed by a car" on December 6, 2007. It seems to me that this description is inadequate. What really happened, I wonder? I don't know the particular circumstances of Franco's accident, but I do know that I've seen cyclists in urban settings do a number of things that put themselves at risk, often without their realizing it. Things like riding on sidewalks that cross streets and driveways, riding the wrong way on streets, crossing against traffic lights, and generally being unaware of developing traffic situations.

In my thousands of miles of cycle commuting, it is my experience that motorists generally do their best to keep cyclists safe. There are ignorant and impatient motorists, of course, but the truth is this: If a cyclist is going to use the roadway in proximity to automotive traffic, (and mind you, I think that this is a great idea!) then the cyclist, and no one else, is primarily responsible for his own safety.

This may sound a little unforgiving. It may even be unforgiving, but it is by no means impossible or unattainable by an ordinary citizen. All that is needed is education and some practice. I'll pick this theme up again at the bottom of this post.

In the spirit of running the numbers, let's look at the actual causes of serious injury and death in bicycle and automobile-bicycle accidents. The chart at right comes directly from the sixth edition of the Effective Cycling Instructors Manual, published by John Forester on his website. It presents some pretty non-intuitive numbers, I think, in that motorist error accounts for less than ten percent of serious bicycle accidents. The simple fact that "cyclist error" accounts for one half of the serious accidents suggests that there is some serious educating to be acquired by those who would become practical cyclists.

So, let's say you're motivated to begin some practical cycling, say to work or even to a nearby commerical area for some shopping. You've tuned up your bike, you've put together some activewear to ride in, and you've looked at routes on Google maps. What's the next thing to do? Well, it depends on how you might learn best:
  • If you want classroom training, take a class sanctioned by the League of American Bicyclists as described on this page of their website;
  • If you're a self-paced web kind of person, you can go here to see the League's presentations (which are pretty bare-bones kind of PowerPoint slides, but they do have script content to accompany them.)
  • If you want a really complete book, go get a copy of the Bible, Effective Cycling by John Forester. Forester is the Godfather of what is known as "Vehicular Cycling", a protocol governing the safe conduction of bicycles and bicyclists in automotive traffic. It's basically what I've practiced for years.
I might point out that the protocol taught by the League and that taught by Forester don't agree on all points. Forester's is a little more "hard core" and his tone is more strident, but his information is unassailable. There's nothing that will ever magically make cycling as convenient as motoring; you have to plan more, organize more, work more and (yes) sweat more. But honestly, integrating cycling into your daily life has such sweet rewards.

Thanks, Ann, for the Ghost Cycles link. (I've just added Ann's blog, Sit, Billy., to my blog list. Go visit!)

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Practical vs. Symbolic Gestures

Michael Pollan, the visionary food-politics writer, writing earlier this year in the New York Times Magazine "Green Issue", said in an essay entitled "Why Bother?" the following:
I don’t know about you, but for me the most upsetting moment in “An Inconvenient Truth” came long after Al Gore scared the hell out of me, constructing an utterly convincing case that the very survival of life on earth as we know it is threatened by climate change. No, the really dark moment came during the closing credits, when we are asked to . . . change our light bulbs.
Pollan was (rightly, in my opinion) decrying the symbolic-but-quantitatively-meaningless gestures found in the "green" movement. And, oh my goodness, are there a lot of them out there. Pick a green blog, any green blog, and you'll have to plow through things like recyclable clothes hangers. Give me a %&^$%# break! I recycle virtually 100% of my clothes hangers as it is -- doesn't everyone take their clothes hangers back to the cleaners, who gratefully accept (and, one assumes, re-use) them? "Recyclable clothes hangers" are not only fatuous, they actually break the first rule of being green, which is, "consume less stuff".

The green movement, well intentioned though it be, is just chock-full of this kind of silliness. What we need is some who will do the apparently Sisyphean chore of running the numbers for everything that we do as a society. All that we consume, and how, and all that we produce, and how. And then give us some idea of what we should be doing. Such a big and complex job that it just couldn't be done.

Until now.

Once again, a physicist has come to the rescue. David J.C. MacKay, of the Department of Physics at the University of Cambridge, has written a book. A brilliant book, a book that is free to download on the Web, at his website, withouthotair.

Go to the website and download this book right now.

MacKay has run the numbers on the global energy picture (well, the energy picture of Great Britain, which closely parallels that of the US) and has made an assessment of what we have to do. He lays out 5 different alternative plans for what we have to do, really, to become globally sustainable as developed society.

The book (can't call it a paper, really, though it strongly resembles a peer-reviewable scientific paper) is just full of good stuff. The final third or so is the "technical chapters" which (if you are the sort who enjoys reading "Scientific American") are enjoyable nonetheless. Because MacKay "shows all his work", and has published this book under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike License, the book has the potential to become a reference for work of all kinds.

It's hard for me to say too many good things about this book (as you might have gathered by now). I've only read the (non-technical) parts through once, and quickly, but MacKay lays it all out.

As you might expect, vegetarianism gets its due, and (yes!) bicycling, but the most jaw-dropping thing that came from the book for me personally was the environmental cost of something I do quite a lot: flying. A transcontinental or trans-Atlantic flight has the same environmental impact as driving a car for a year. This is disquieting, to say the least, and has me doing research into advocacy for regional high-speed rail in the US. If any of you readers (all 3 of you) have information on this, let me know.

As you might not expect, the reading of this book is easy. It is (wisely) peppered with meaningful graphics and diagrams. Some of the information contained in the book has a deceptive sense of humor as well. (Let it not be said that physicists have no sense of humor -- I've known a few personally, and it ain't so.) Consider this chart in the "wind power" section that addresses the issue of how much a threat wind generators pose to avian life:

I mean, the facts are surprising, and refreshing in their own way, but the graphic presentation! I just love the little "kitty logo" on the left margin. There's something just so right about this. (And the offhand comment in the legend about "collisions with windows".)

Here's a quote from the book:
The myth that won’t die

The BBC is still banging the phone-charger drum in 2007: “turn off your TV, unplug your mobile charger and switch off lights when you leave a room” (Monday, 14 May 2007,

And on 6th June 2007, the Mayor of London launched ‘DIY planet repairs’, a public information campaign calling on citizens to ‘unplug, switch off and turn down’. Under the heading ‘Unplug’, we are advised:

If every London household unplugged theirmobile phone chargers when not in use, we could save 31 000 tonnes of CO2 and £7.75m per year.

Let’s think about these numbers. London’s population is about 7million. So what this ... is really saying is that if you unplug your charger, you’re saving 31 000 / 7million = 0.004 tonnes CO2 per year per person.
We should compare this quantity with the typical CO2 pollution per person, which is about 10 tonnes per year. So what the Mayor is recommending is: ‘Do your bit! Make a difference! Unplug the evil phone chargers, and reduce your CO2 pollution by less than one twentieth of one per cent!
Not the least, I appreciate MacKay's essential Britishness, and the fact that he uses words like "codswallop".

Please join me in a hats-off to David J.C. MacKay. Oh, and read the book!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Republicans vs. Bicycles / Bicyclists

If you live in the congressional district of Frank McNulty, (R-Highlands Ranch, NC) who is against spending a measly (measly!) $1M to promote bicycle use for commuting, I say, the beauty of the House of Representatives is that you can vote them out any time. More here, including YouTube video.

Updated: My brother Willie says that "McNutty" is from Colorado. Sorry to our enlightened North Carolina neighbors about the mistake!

Monday, July 7, 2008

Cycling tragedy

This is a tragic event that did not need to happen. I am so very sorry this happened, and my sincere condolences go out to those immediately affected, but one way of looking at this is that it was a poorly-prepared-for stunt. Before you can even apply the rules of effective cycling in moving from place to place, you must choose your route carefully.

If these cyclists were aware that (as the article states) "the road was built in the sixties so it is unchanged ... narrow and very scary- dead straight and flat so everyone speeds, and when the trucks pass by you are either almost blown off the road or sucked into its draft", then why did they not cycle with a follow-car with emergency blinkers on? If they were not aware of this, then why didn't they do their homework?

A long cross-country cycle ride, even one with sympathetic roads, requires planning. This may sound harsh, but I think these people are candidates for the Darwin Awards.

I find it hard to see how this event, even had it come off as planned, relates to the reality of everyday practical cycling. Practical cycling is cycling to and from work and errands. This is where bicycles can displace cars. But even doing that in areas where you are familiar with the roads, you must plan your route.

Luckily, this is much, much easier to do than it used to be. Google Maps has an "avoid highways" option when getting directions, and the drag-t0-alter feature makes tuning a trip for cycling very easy. Google Maps is one of those things that can improve the safety and practicality of cycing. It makes modern-day cycling much easier.

Updated: Here's an article on Internet mapping for bicyclists.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Bikes and Obsolescence, Planned and Otherwise

About 25 years ago, my brother Willie made the observation, "Bicycles are, relatively speaking, immune to planned obsolescence. They don't wear out very fast and are indefinitely maintaintable."

It's undeniable that bicycle technology has changed a lot in the past 20, or even 10 years: Many modern carbon-fiber frames have integrated headsets, bottom brackets, and even seatposts. It's a far cry from the day where there were only three standards: English, French or Italian threading on bottom brackets and headset diameters. Everything else was interchangeable and standard sized.

But even today, with the proliferation of sizes and configurations (some of it reasonable, much of it not), it's possible to buy, outfit and maintain a standards-based bike that can indefinitely be maintained. Bicycle technology (and its market availabilty) is very interesting: it's as if (using a car analogy as I have before and doubtlessly will again) cars equipped with model-T flathead 4's and modern variable-valve-timing internal-combustion engines were available side-by-side at the same dealership.

Personally, I'm leery of the fancy integrated frame/headset/bottom bracket/seatpost tech. If you're a true racer and need that last 1/10 of 1% edge, it's better I suppose to get it with carbon fiber and ceramic bearings than EPO (sorry, just had to slip that in for the Tour de France fans :) But as a consumer, fancy nth-degree technology ties you down. You're stuck with one manufacturer's idea of what will work for you, and the limited availability of same.

This is one area where (again, unless you're a racer) buying a cheaper bike will actually buy you additional value in the form of maintainability. While it's possible to spend $3000 or even $10000 on a rarified bike, it's also possible to buy a lot of bike in the $500 to $1000 range. I would even say that "planned obsolescence" benefits the low-to-medium end buyer, because of "trickle-down" quality in components. The difference between a $300 and a, say, $1000 bike is quite significant. But the difference between a $1000 and a $5000 bike in today's market is difficult to discern for all but the everyday racers.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Lune de Miel

So, here's a story of the bicycling part of a bicycling honeymoon. My new bride Constance (she was so brave!) and I hired bikes to do an unguided multi-day tour through the Loire river valley in France (I recommend such an adventure for everyone, although not necessarily on a honeymoon. Let things settle a bit first.) We rented a couple of matching beat-up Raleighs from a sleazy sort of shop in the south of Paris. They had racks and fenders, but were not what you'd call in great shape. I was dubious of mine in particular, as the frame was really too small for me, and didn't have an extra-long seatpost. The proprietaire of the shop assured me everything would be fine -- he of course wanted to make the sale.

Well, things were pretty good. The frame was a little short for me and I couldn't get full extension when pedaling, but I have to say, the countryside was fabulous. We cycled to the Abbaye de Solesmes, where the monks were doing Gregorian chants at eventide. I remember ferrets looping across the road as we cycled along (they run wild in France.) We saw many really fabulous chateaux (here I must recommend Chenonceau, for many reaons, but especially for its sconces) and managed to keep it together with the general exertion and the too-short bike.

There was one time we encountered a group of club riders, and one of the riders admonished me, «Attention! Votre cadre, c'est trop court! Vous devenerez fatigué!» ("Watch out, you're riding a frame too short for you, and you'll get tired!") I remember muttering to myself, "Tell me about it." I was embarrassed, because back home, I had a very respectable full-on custom touring bike that I rode almost every day, and this cheesy rental bike put me in a state of severe bike humiliation.

Eventually, one of my tires gave way -- it was just worn out, and I was pissed at myself for not rejecting it at the bike rental place. But it was OK. We were in a small town, and back then, even very small towns in France had bike shops for at least basic repair. (In my heart of hearts, I hope this is true even today.) I was able to purchase a replacement tire, and on a hunch, instead of tossing the old tire, I folded it up and put it in some spare space in a pannier. It took up space, but not too much, and I thought it might come in handy later.

We had met up with our friends Bill and Jan (who themselves had only been married for only a couple of years) as part of this tour, and had many excellent meals with great wine ordered by Bill, who gave glimmerings of the oenophile he was to become. As I say, I highly recommend the Bike Tour of the Val de Loire as something to put on your bucket list.

My new wife Constance fared really well, considering she was not an experienced cyclist at the time. She was indeed courageous to agree to this adventure, and managed well for the multi-day experience. (We rode a lot as a couple our first year of marriage, and on our first anniversary did a three-day tour from our home in Austin, TX to Blanco, notorious Luckenback, and Fredericksberg. Soon thereafter we had our two daughters, and cycling took a back seat for both of us.)

We got back to Paris and returned the bikes to the rental shop. I requested reimbursement for the tire that I had had to purchase in the Loire valley from the old dirt-bag who ran the rental agency. He, of course, was having none of it. At this point, I had one of my rare moments of inspiration-while-speaking-a-foreign-language: I replied to the owner, «C'est rien, alor je vais remplacer l'originale,» ("It's OK, I'll just put the old one back on,") and I proceeded to get out my tire spoons to do the swap. When the proprietaire saw what I was up to, he stopped me and said, «D'Accord.» Whereupon I whipped out the receipt from the bike shop where I got the tire, and he deducted it from my account. As I recall, he was none too happy about having to pay retail for a tire.

Like many Americans who have lived in France at some time in their lives, I have a love-hate relationship with the French, and I have met many who are truly lovely, lovely people. But I can't remember another commercial transaction in France that gave me anywhere near the satisfaction compared to the final reckoning at the bike rental shop.