Friday, January 30, 2009


Three times in the last week of cycling (twice on a single day) I've had it happen: On a two lane road with no-passing stripes, a motorist coming up on me from behind passes me wide on the left at a relatively high rate of speed. In doing so, they pay more attention to me than to (argh!) the oncoming traffic, and they narrowly miss an oncoming motorist who (understandably) honks.

I'm conflicted about this. On one hand, I'm grateful that the motorist behind is giving me a wide berth (particularly since they're hauling right along), but I'm distressed (to say the least) that these guys are creating what amounts to a dangerous situation.

So: Slow The Hell Down if you're a motorist passing a cyclist. Wait until the road is clear and you can cross over the double-yellow line without endangering anyone. Patience, dammit! And if you're the oncoming guy and see my light, it wouldn't hurt to hug the curb a little.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Winter Cycle Clothing Guidelines

I've promised an article on my "system" for active winter dressing, so herewith I'm going to lay out what has worked for me so far this winter. I hope that you who are thinking about doing some serious cycling find this helpful, but first some general observations. The chart at lower right shows how I progressively dress for cold weather. (NB: All temperatures in this list are the temperature after "wind chill" is considered.) I think it's pretty self-explanatory, although I discuss some clothing articles at more length below.

Adaptation: To me, one of the continually-remarkable things about cold-weather cycling is the way our bodies adapt when in use. I call it remarkable because it seems like I have to consciously remind myself that it's going to happen. If I dress to be comfortable for the first 7 minutes of cycling in the cold, it usually means I'm going to sweat up my gear thoroughly by the end of my 9 mile commute (and be pretty miserable at the end). So what I do is I suffer (just a teeny bit) for the first mile and a half, until I make it to the top of my first decent hill. By the time I've ridden that far, I'm quite comfortable. By "comfortable" I don't mean that I'm toasty warm, but I'm not feeling chilly, either, and the engine is just humming along. It is a bit of a strange sensation, feeling a little cold, but being very confident that the discomfort will pass, and it always does. It's a good exercise in delayed gratification.

Core vs. Extremities: If you spend some time looking at the clothing chart, you'll see that I act earlier to protect my extremities (hands, head, feet) than I do to protect my core (torso and legs). For one thing, my windproof shell does an excellent job of protecting my core (this makes me think that windproof tights would work as well as two layers of tights in very cold weather, but I already have the two pairs of tights in my hard-to-find tall size, and windproof tights (assuming I could find them in large-talls) would set me back $100-$150, so I'll live with the inconvenience of putting on two pairs of tights when it's truly frigid outside.

By far the most difficult "extremities" problem is hands. I've discussed before my approach to gloves / mittens, and I've found the "Zoidbergs" with poly liners good down only to the about 20° F. (given my commute distance). Below that temperature, you can help comfort by wearing latex gloves against your skin as vapor barriers to prevent chapping. I recommend also applying a very thin coating of some anti-chap hand cream as soon as you can after riding. Chapped fingers are no fun.

Discussions on Particular Items of Clothing:

1. Tunic: I think finding a high-quality fleece tunic is fairly critical. This tunic from REI [UPDATE 10-19-09: the previous item is no longer available; this is the replacement] is what I use, and I like it quite a lot. It's stretchy, it's available in tall sizes, the fleece is very soft and comfy against my skin, it's very thermally forgiving, and it will dry quickly hanging on the back of my office door.

2. Windproof shell: There are many brands and varieties of windproof shell available. I've had mine for several years now, and I'll probably have to replace it in the next year or so. The one I have I bought several years ago at the LL Bean store in Freeport, ME, and I've worn it so much that replacing it will seem like replacing a friend. But the zipper has only so much time left. In any case: requirements are: reflectivity, drawstring or elastic waist (or both), big enough to fit over a couple of winter layers, but not excessively floppy, zipper pockets, velcro wind flaps over the zippers, and a stowable hood. This is the closest thing that Bean has to what I use now. In a perfect world, it would have under-arm "pit zips," but sigh, no.

3. Vapor barriers for feet: This makes a surprising difference in foot warmth. I use newspaper bags for simplicity, economy, and convenience. For weather that's not too cold, you can just pull them on over your wool socks. But your feet will definitely feel, uh, rather humid at the end of your ride, so it feels good to "unsack" your feet at the end of the ride to let 'em air out. This article suggests that I'm doing it wrong, and ought to wear the VB under my socks, so in colder weather I've worn thin sock liners (old dress socks work just fine) under the bags. VB socks are available from hunting-fishing places also, but the paper bags are a pretty green solution, and zero cost (if you're one of the dinosaurs still reading newpapers!)

4. Headwear: I've become pretty attached to wearing a balaclava in temperatures below freezing, although above freezing, a thin fleece stocking-cap will do fine. In very cold weather, I might be tempted to put the (windproof) hood up on my parka.

So, that's about it. Nothing earth-shattering here, and (as always) your mileage may vary (along with your cold-bloodedness), so you can adjust the temps at the top of the chart. Remember to keep in mind some of my other recommendations for winter cycling, and get out there.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Disposable Bike Helmets

I've often wondered what the actual cost of producing a bike helmet is. I mean the vacuum-formed-with-foam variety. Well, now I know. It's something less than 4 bucks. No, really. You can go to this site and buy as many bike helmets as you want for $3.65 each (plus shipping, which if you order 36 helmets or more is $1.00 per helmet. You can get free shipping if you're willing to buy 20 cases, or 720 helmets.)

Now you or I don't need even a single case (36 units) of helmets, but this is an interesting proposition for a police department, a club, or anyone who is teaching people to ride and needs an economical helmet. At $3.65 each, the helmets are almost disposable. And, they meet CPSC safety standards!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

An Attaboy on a Snowy Day

Unlike the city of Boulder, CO, the city of Columbia, MD, does not assiduously maintain its bike paths in winter snows. A stretch of no more than 1/2 mile of a pedestrian/bike trail is part of my daily commute; it parallels a busy stretch of road that tends to be full of distracted drivers.

Yesterday morning, the trail had not been cleared and (taking a deep breath, knowing that some patience was going to be involved) I got on the road, named Little Patuxent Parkway. I took my line well out in the roadway in the right lane of a four-lane undivided street -- I wasn't going to be pinned against the curb by heedless drivers on my one day that I was forced to ride this stretch.

True to form, a clueless driver got in behind me and slowed down. For some inexplicable reason, the driver, even though it was two lanes in our direction and the traffic was light, couldn't bring herself to pull out and move around me. Instead, she kept creeping along, got frustrated (no surprise) and began honking at me. My general approach when faced with such clueless behavior is to ignore it (particularly when I have on my Zoidbergs and therefore am constrained to be polite—no "flipping the bird", so to speak.) So I did here, until I made my turn and the driver passed, whereupon I yelled at the top of my voice, "WHAT'S YOUR PROBLEM?"

Unbeknownst to me, there was a pedestrian who had witnessed the entire sequence, and he was on the street I turned on to. As I was accelerating, I saw him pull down his hood, give me a big smile, and say, "Hey, good job!"

I won't ever know if he was complimenting me on my comments to the motorist, my lack of profanity, or simply the fact that I was out commuting on a morning when the wind-chill was in the mid-teens. But I'll take it anyway.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The LightLane, a Better Mousetrap?

It seems to me that people over-value ideas, and under-value the hard sweaty work it takes to get ideas to be really fruitful implemen- tations. I remember Rich Diehl, a friend and employer, once saying to me, "One doesn't patent ideas; one patents implementations," and he was absolutely correct. Which brings me to the LightLane.

The LightLane is a concept from Alex Tee and Evan Gant of Altitude (I'm not 100% sure what "Altitude" is. A design firm, maybe?) Here's what they say about it:
A close brush with a distracted driver is enough to intimidate the most avid bikers from riding at night. The problem isn’t just about visibility, as safety lights are effective at capturing the attention of a driver. However, these lights are typically constrained to the bike frame, which highlights only a fraction of the bike’s envelope. Bike lanes have proven to be an effective method of protecting cyclists on congested roads. One key is that the lane establishes a well defined boundary beyond the envelope of the bicycle, providing a greater margin of safety between the car and the cyclist. Yet, only a small fraction of streets have dedicated bike lanes, and with an installation cost of $5,000 to $50,000 per mile, we shouldn’t expect to find them everywhere anytime soon. Instead of adapting cycling to established bike lanes, the bike lane should adapt to the cyclists. This is the idea behind the LightLane. Our system projects a crisply defined virtual bike lane onto pavement, using a laser, providing the driver with a familiar boundary to avoid. With a wider margin of safety, bikers will regain their confidence to ride at night, making the bike a more viable commuting alternative.
The LightLane is an idea (NOT an implementation, if I am to interpret the Photoshop job as the work-in-progress.) Not a bad idea, although not by any means fully fleshed out. The concept of defining in a clearly visible way a "safe zone" around a bicycle using a stroked laser is interesting. But it doesn't seem remotely ready for prime time, in my opinion. It looks to me like Tee and Gant might be trying to solve the wrong problem here:
  • Firstly, if (as they admit) high-intensity bike lights "are effective at capturing the attention of a driver", then the rest of the problem is simply a matter of obeying the rules of the road. What makes the "envelope" around bicycles any different from the reasonable safe clearance given any other vehicle by a safe driver?
  • Secondly, does this concept work in the day time, or is it conceived strictly as a replacement for bike lighting? (I can't imagine the laser that would be sufficiently bright to light up a virtual bike lane in the daytime without burning holes in things, if you know what I mean.)
  • Thirdly, the device as shown seems to be oriented more towards overtaking cars rather than cars ahead. It's been shown through accident statistics that very few accidents occur from cars overtaking bikes. Far more often, collisions occur when cars pull out in front of bicyclists (see below) or when they turn left in front of them, both as a result of not seeing the approaching bike. This device doesn't seem to significantly increase forward visibility of the bicylist, although it might in certain terrain.
  • Fourthly, and possibly most importantly, it seems to me that a (regular) bike lane has value precisely because it provides a zone of protection for a cyclist that has been agreed to by statute. It's there day and night, and it doesn't move around. The "virtual bike lane" does (at least in theory) make the cyclist more visible in certain situations, but that's really the limit of it. It should really be billed as an alternative night-lighting arrangement and compared to other such devices, and not as a alternative to infrastructures, which it really doesn't provide.
  • Lastly, even if all these issues could be dealt with, could this device be produced at any reasonable cost?
All these criticisms aside, I can think of things you could do with stroked laser type lighting. The idea of creating a virtual envelope around a bike might have merit, but I think it needs to be a 3D envelope, which almost suggests something more holographic. (I'm not sure this is possible with current technology). I could also conceive of a training aid to teach cyclists how to "find their line" in the traffic lane, although this is something that should be projected ahead of the cyclist, and should probably have some sonic detection to help the cyclist move out around parked cars, and this of course would add complexity and cost.

All in all, it's hard to see how this is much of an improvement over conventional night lighting for bicyclists. I'm put in mind of the Trek bicycle ad that they ran on OLN during the Tour de France, where they showed a cycle commuter at dusk on (presumably) a Trek bike, but with no headlight! (Hey, doofus, why do you think that car is pulling out in front of you? It's because he can't see you!)

Well, hmm, this has been a bit of a wandering post. I guess the point I want to make is about "the better mousetrap". I'm not seeing where projecting a lane on the pavement around me is going to increase my visibility to drivers all that much, while simply using a conventional light device doesn't do a bad job of it.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Cold Weather and Adhesives: A tale in 3 chapters

Chapter 1: Late last fall when it was quite cold, I had an "interesting" experience. My helmet (a Giro Atlas) delaminated—the shell peeled right away from the foam core of the thing. Strangely and excitingly, it happened while I was riding. I made a quick decision to not stop (it was cold, after all) and try and recover the shell on my morning ride to work, which I did.

I wrote the customer service wing of Giro and they kindly sent me replacement tape (adhesive tape around the perimeter is what holds the standard vacuum-plastic-foam helmet together) with instructions on how to repair it.

I was surprised (stunned, really) about how the thing just let go all at once. Clearly (it seemed to me at the time) this was a temperature-related occurence. I'm now using (for extreme cold weather riding) a Bern helmet using their "Zip-mold" technology, quite a different thing from the vacuum-plastic-foam approach.

Chapter 2: Cycling in to work about 6 weeks ago, when I was about a mile from the office, I experienced a sudden flat. Since I was so close, I just got off and walked the bike in. When I got the tube out of the tire, I was surprised to find that the cause of the flat was a Slime Skab peel-and-stick patch that had just let go. I immediately thought of my helmet and began to wonder about how cold weather affects adhesives. (I also began a more philosophical rumination about how our lives depend on adhesives, but that's for a different time.)

When I was fixing the tire that day, I was concerned about the "wrinkly" appearance of the Skabs (I had several on this particular tube). I compared them to the appearance of a Park peel-and-stick that I also had on this tube. (This is, admittedly, a rather "road-weary" tube.) The Park patch was more rigid, but perfectly flat, while the Skabs were thin and pliable, but all wrinkled.

Chapter 3: Earlier this week, a second Skab developed a leak. I replaced it, but I must say the cold weather reliability (or lack thereof) of the Skabs has me concerned. At the moment, I would not recommend the use of Skabs if you're going to be cycling in significantly cold (below freezing) weather. Reliability of your cycling system needs to be high in extreme weather conditions. I'm not calling it a matter of life and death, but a flat at the wrong time (for no good reason) can be a matter of significant discomfort.

Epilogue: If you're going to be cycling in cold weather and you use peel-and-stick tire repair, go with Parks.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Immigrant Bike Commuters

If you live in an urban environment, you've seen them. Adult immigrants (almost always Latinos) cycling in work clothes on Wal-mart bikes, too slowly, on streets that are too busy, with no helmets. Every time I see a such an immigrant commuter, I cringe, out of worry for their well-being. I know they are just trying to get to or from work in the most cost-effective way possible.

Hector Rapalo (shown at right) was killed over the Christmas holidays in Islip, NY while on a bicycle. There's not much to the story. The police report is here, and here's an editorial in the New York Times (from Jan. 11) that drew my attention to this particular incident. The editorial also mentions the cases of Santos Javier Ramos and Enrique Aguilar-Gamez. The editorial suggests that some of the hit-and-runs (and yes, there are multiple ones) are hate crimes. My general good-naturedness makes me want to doubt this, but then I went to this comments posting on the Ramos incident, and frankly, too many of the comments are pretty sickening in their xenophobia and racism.

The NYT editorial generalizes a little too much: it says, "Bicyclists and suburbs are an uneasy fit," with which I utterly disagree. More accurately, unskilled bicyclists and commuting are an uneasy fit, and it makes no difference your skin color or national origin, although (I submit) the economic status, access to Internet, and language barrier of Latino immigrants exacerbates the situation for them.

So, how can we make this situation better? I can think of several ideas, all of which are "unfunded mandates":
  1. An initiative on the part of the League of American Bicyclists to provide Spanish-language and/or bilingual versions of the "Road 1" course;
  2. Concurrent with (1) above, scholarships from HHS or INS to help legal immigrants (or for that matter, low-income Americans) to attend these classes;
  3. Since most of these bikes (I suspect) are $80-to-$100 models bought at Wal-Mart, I'd like to see Wal-Mart provide a certificate for a free or very low-cost ANSI-compliant helmet (nothing fancy, to be sure) for every bike sold;
I'm no policy whiz—I really don't know what I'm doing in this area. But there is simply no defensible reason for the the least-affluent in our society to be deprived of access to information that will make them safer as they try to use cost-effective, environmentally-friendly transport.

Sunday, January 11, 2009


About 2-1/2 months ago, I finally broke down and bought a pair of Pearl-Izumi "lobster" cycling gloves. Numbness and tingling in my hands has been a continual problem for me during the cold months, and these gloves definitively solve it. I used to use three layers; XXXL mountain-biking full finger gloves over fleece over polypro glove liners. It didn't stop the cold-finger syndrome when the weather dropped below about 40 ° F. (4° C.)

I don't do a lot of product endorsements, and I've never received compensation of any kind for any product I've mentioned on this blog (and I won't be starting now.) But I have to say that these gloves really do the trick. I've been cycling in Maryland winter weather this season in weather as cold as 20° F. (-7° C.) and have yet to see the weather that these gloves (along with simple polypro glove liners) can't handle. These gloves are not cheap -- they cost $55 to $65 depending on your source. But comparing that cost to circulation difficulties and attendant possible neurological problems, these guys seem like a bargain.

I call them my "Zoidbergs".

Soon: A systematic approach to dressing for cold-weather cycling..

Thursday, January 8, 2009

2903.77 --> 0.00

Happy New Year to All!

For me, it's that most mixed-emotion of times -- time to reset the odometer. There may be those who say that one should just go on running up the miles, but not me. I think goals are good things to have, and you have to know where you're starting. My goal last year was 3000 miles, which I almost made, even considering that I didn't ride much in January or February.

This year is starting out with ugly Maryland weather, rainy and cold, but I'll be out in the first two months of the year this time around. I'm wanting to make 3300 miles of "practical" (displaced automobile) miles, and that means I need an early start.

I'm feeling pretty positive about the blog. Something just happened that has never happened before. My last post (the cargo bike review) got two comments on the first day -- whoo hoo! There are many good topics for the Practical Cyclist this year. I expect I'll be writing on my winter clothing in some more detail before the winter goes much further, and I have some overseas adventures planned with a folding bike that I've, uh, "re-cycled" from my brother.

Here's hoping the year has good cycling in store for you, too.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Cargo bikes

Time for another product review post, yay! It's been a while since I posted anything really substantial (I've been too busy out riding, fighting the cold) so... Let's look at a favorite topic of mine, Cargo Bikes. These are the essence of "Practical Cycling".

I had visions years ago of unusual municipal vehicles in Austin, Texas. Garbage conveyance (which after all doesn't have to travel at a high rate of speed), street sweeping, public safety (THAT one at least came true) -- could they all be supplied by human-powered vehicles? Certainly deliveries could, as these vehicles amply demonstrate. (Note: I limit this review to commercial-style cargo bikes, no kiddie trailers.)

Bakfiets: This Dutch company makes a variety of front-wheel loaded bicycles and tricycles. "Bakfiets" is Dutch for "carrier cycle" or "cargo bike". This make is apparently popular as a purveyor of kiddie-carriers for (hm, how can I say this...) bourgeois US households and even has some name-brand-recognition therewith.

Work Cycles: This is another Dutch company with a nice broad selection of designs. Their philosophy as stated on their website begins: "The bicycle is a perfect example of the beautiful minimalism the world should adopt to continue forward. We thus promote everyday cycling amongst individuals, families and enterprises.." Nicely put. Work Cycles does Bakfiets-style "child transport cycles" but also heavier-duty stuff like the "Bakers' Bike" illustrated. (Regular readers may notice a similarity to the Stockholm commercial bike I pictured earlier.) Update: the bike pictured in this section is a "Truck", made by Monark Bikes of Sweden, better known in the US for their exercise bikes.

The Dutch Bicycle Company: Another, hm, Dutch company (is there anyone other than me noticing a pattern here?) that deals in (among other things) cargo bikes. I get the impression that this company, more than manufacturers, are importer and dealers. They sell a bike (that they describe as Swedish-built) called the "short John" that is pretty much identical to the "Bakers' bike" above, and also a "long John" cargo bike (pictured).

Bilenky Bikes of Philadelphia (finally an American builder!) Full disclosure: I've done business with Steven Bilenky a couple of years back when he modified and repainted a touring frame for me. Bilenky is a full custom builder and does beautiful hand filed fillet brazing on his main frame joints. His motto is "Artistry in Steel", which pretty much tells you his choice of material. Most of Bilenky's cargo bikes are variations on a front-hauler style. In 2005, a courier named Hodari won the "World Messenger Cargo Bike Race" on a Bilenky. Go here to see a video of the race. Fun!

Bikes at Work is a custom shop out of Ames, Iowa that also has a production line of heavy-duty bike trailers (pictured). I really like the unassuming practicality of these units. (They are sized to fit multiples of Rubbermaid garden waste containers, available everywhere.) Bikes at Work also does custom cargo bikes; there's a page on their web site showing some of their "projects".

Carry Freedom: Not a commercial enterprise, but a take on bicycle-trailer-as-appropriate-technology. This is the ultimate green bike trailer, made of bamboo, and plans are free for the downloading. (Wide acceptance of the Internet didn't occur until long after he was dead, but Fritz Schumacher would have loved the Web and the dissemination of information it embodies.) If you have a source of bamboo, it's hard to imagine a more cost-effective solution. The page has a number of other free bicycle cart designs at the bottom that are worth visiting. See this page also for other community bike cart designs. Bicycle ambulances! (This gets back to some of my original visions for municipal support of human power.)

Continuing the "Appropriate Technology" theme, the Center for Appropriate Transportation of Oregon has many interesting practical hauling-cycle designs. Check out the "tri-hauler", a front-wheel drive utility tricycle that comes in a "third-ton" model! I've been fascinated by alternate-steering geometries of human-powered vehicles, and this model epitomizes this approach. I do worry a little about the torque on the steerer of this design, and I feel about this a little like I felt about the front-wheel-drive Volkswagen pickup truck, i.e., the weight ought to be over the driving wheels, oughtn't it?

Segue-ing on while maintaining the Oregon theme, CETMA Racks is a small builder from Eugene, Oregon who (as the name suggests) has made a business in heavy-duty front racks and is now offering a limited edition (and really beautiful) cargo bike. The bike looks exceedingly sturdy and well-engineered with disk brakes and, yes, what appears to be a Rohloff rear hub. Very, very nice. (The racks are nice too, if you're on more of a budget.) This is the builder you go to if you're an execution fanatic, where every detail counts.

I've seen the Danish-origin Christiania cargo trikes in London. They are reverse trikes, with two rigidly connected steering wheels under the cargo box. Very tradesman-looking, and they have a unique offering in the disability-transporting unit that will take a wheelchair passenger. These have many optional extras (including electric drive hubs) and appear to be very professionally built.

We're getting into the serious commercial side of things with Cycles Maximus, makers of pedicabs. These can also be seen on the streets of London and are very professionally made. Three-passenger capacity, space for advertising, compact off-duty storage, 24-speed SRAM rear hubs (no doubt with perfect gearing), differentials, and so on. You get the impression of an almost Darwinian, highly-evolved design for the pedicab, or rickshaw, or "pedicab rickshaw" as they are somewhat redundantly referred to on Maximus' site. Ding-ding! Get out of the way!

David Wilson Industries of Seattle makes a cargo bike called the "Borracho" which would be reviewed here if for no other reason than its name. ("Borracho" translates from the Spanish as "drunken".) At first glance, perhaps, this bike appears a little less sophisticated than some of the others we've looked at, but don't be fooled. It has a 600-lb capacity, and if I had to batter down a reinforced door with my cargo bike, this is the one I'd use with the least fear of damaging the bike itself. The braking system is notable here; rear roller brake (part of the Shimano Nexus hub) and take a look at the size of that front disk.

Fraser Cycles is a custom builder out of San Diego who has ventured into the area of cargo bikes. He's also done track, road, racing, and the sine qua non of custom builders, the back-to-back tandem recumbent. (Is there a more complicated bike, mechanically?) Fraser uses software on his website called "tiltviewer" that is easily the most high-tech gallery viewing software I've seen on the web. It's a little "too-too", I think.

Organic Engines (love that name) is a Tallahassee builder (Daniel Kavanagh) who also has a heavy-duty front wheel drive cargo trike like C.A.T. above, but I think Kavanagh's is more interesting. Firstly, it has a pivot (can we still call it a headset?) setup that doesn't look like it would break under heavy loading. Second, Kavanagh builds it as a cargo trike (platform only) or as a pedicab. Third, Kavanagh touts the pedicab as a small-business pitch, which I really like. Lastly, OE/Kavanagh sells frame sets only if you want to save a buck, and he's very upfront about costs. Very admirable. The first expression on his site is (and I quote,) "OMGWTFBBQ". What's not to like about a guy like this? (Well, I can think of one thing, and that is, he likes bikesnobnyc.)

So that's it, a not-quite-exhaustive survey of cargo bikes. I'm sure there are others out there, let me know if there's a favorite of yours that I missed.