Saturday, June 27, 2009

Bike Comics

Bike comic strips and comic books, that is. No stand-up here. Let's visit a couple of modern-day heroes, and one very special superhero from the 70's.

Frazz by Jef Mallet

Frazz, aka Edwin Frazier, is a man for our times. Obviously educated, he is nonetheless underemployed (intentionally, for his backstory is, he's a songwriter who has made it big but can't give up the interactions of his "day job" as a middle-school janitor.) His interests? Education, philosophy, music, the impertinence of youth, and (to no small degree) physical activity, which includes a good deal of bicycling. To his credit, when Frazz is on a bike, he always wears a helmet. If you're lucky enough to have a daily newspaper that carries Frazz, don't pass him by.

I really like Mallet's graphic style. While it is very disciplined, it looks loose and sketchy, almost at times like Bill Watterson. His characterizations (both visual and dialogue-based) are great. I especially like Ms. Olson, who (no doubt unfairly) reminds me of countless teachers of my youth.

Yehuda Moon and the Kickstand Cyclery by Rick Smith

Yehuda Moon, like Frazz, is full of attitude (what practical cyclist isn't?) Yehuda is in the trenches, however. He works in a bike shop (the Kickstand Cyclery) and is a year-round commuter. He lives to ride, and will use any excuse to get on his bike to "run an errand". He seems to lack Frazz's lofty philosophical point of view, though, and the day-to-day of the world gets to him quite a bit more than Frazz. Sometimes the 'tude manifests itself as antipathy to heedless drivers (as in the example above) and sometimes it's just pure stubbornness, as in Yehuda's refusal to wear a bike helmet.

Yehuda Moon is an online-only strip and is subscription supported. Judging from the amount of comments on a strip on any given day, he has a strong readership (and I hope that is reflected in the subscription ranks.) There are a lot of cyclist "insider" jokes in this strip, and casual recreational cyclists might not get all of them. But you know, I've known guys (especially in Austin, Texas, where I used to live) who worked in bike shops who were just like Yehuda Moon.

Sprocketman by Louis Saekow

Sprocketman is a superhero with a single purpose, to see that people are safe on their bikes. He originally appeared in the mid-t0-late 1970's in a comic book that was published and distributed as a joint project of the (California) Department of Public Safety and a nonprofit organization called the Urban Bikeway Design Collaborative. The comic book was drawn by a pre-med student at Stanford named Louis Saekow. It turned out to be a bit of a game-changer for Saekow, as he had so much fun drawing the comic book (his first) that he changed his major from medicine to graphic design!

In late 2002, Stanford University Transportation Services commissioned Saekow to do some more Sprocketman promotions. I'm not sure if they ever intended to do a complete comic book, but if it happened, I haven't been able to locate it. I think I may still have some original Sprockeman comics out in the garage — I used it in a bike commuting class that I taught 'way back in 1979. If you want to see the original Sprocketman comic book, you can download a PDF of it here.

Sprocketman also puts in an appearance in a very quirky website called "Pisser," which stands for "Public Information & Safety Superhero Education Rangers".

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Times Square

I asked my younger daughter (who lives in New York City) what she thought about the new Times Square makeover (where Broadway has been blocked from automobile traffic in a couple of places) and she seemed dismissive. (She might have called it a "gimmick".) I think that she, as an adoptive New Yorker, wants to keep away from touristy areas, and Times Square certainly qualifies.

It's weird to think about cheap folding lawn chairs in the left-over spaces where Broadway used to cross 7th Avenue (which remains open, by the way.) Supposedly, the city takes up the chairs every night and redistributes them every morning. Is this any way to run a national urban landmark?

But there's something important about the New Times Square makeover by the Planning Department of New York City. If nothing else, it's the first U.S. project (ad hoc though it be) in my memory whose momentum is decidedly anti-car. Nicholai Ouroussoff reviews the "design" in this article. Nick O (as I will dare to call him) is right on the money about the unplanned nature of the action (as he says, "this is not the Piazza San Marco in Venice or even Trafalgar Square", but I think it is so important to expose people (even if they are unwitting tourists!) to the idea that the U.S. can have a "public realm" that isn't driven (sorry!) by traffic engineering.

Over at the very interesting blog, World Streets (newly on my blogroll), there is a very interesting article (which promises to be a series) by Paul Barter, a professor in public policy at the National University of Singapore, about "The Battle for Street Space" that is really worth a read (as is much of the other stuff over there.) I see many people from all over the world on that blog talking about 30 kph (yes, kph) speed limits everywhere except on highways. My first reaction is to lecture these people about how this will never fly in the U.S.; the auto is forever king here. But maybe not -- Times Square is a very interesting precedent. It will be fascinating to see where it goes.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Apple and bikes

Continuing on in the "what if XX made a bike" series, let's take a deep breath and go after the big one: Apple.

Prologue: Today's state of bicycle "captial D" design to my mind is so-so at best. The fact that opportunity still exists for Apple to come in to the market (should they decide they want to) means that design is still lagging, despite all the effort put towards it. At right is a "design" put forth by Puma, a design-conscious fashion clothing manufacturer, for their fourth-generation bike. They appear to be making some kind of statement about color, except they can't quite get even that right (ahem, guys, get a white handlebar, stem, and front rim, and powder-coat the front brake calipers! If you're going to make it about color, DO IT!)

If Apple made a bike, what would it look like? Knowing what I know about Apple (I've been a Mac user since 1984 and have worked for 10 years for Nemetschek North America, makers of Vectorworks, the best-selling CAD product on the Mac), and particularly considering its recent successes with industrial design since the iPod, here is what I could reasonably predict about any Apple product:
  • It would be iconic; recognizable as the thing that it is (that is, it would be a realization of a classic design rather than a revolutionary design.)
  • It would feature obsessive attention to detail.
  • It would focus on the user experience.
  • It would definitively fix problems with the product category that users didn't realize they had.
  • It would be visually beautiful and a tactile delight.
  • It would co-promote other products made by Apple as part of a lifestyle.
  • It would be expensive, a stretch for the pocketbook; something that conveys status, but stops short of aloofness.
  • It would be value-engineered, so Apple could make a decent profit.
  • It would be sold only through the Apple store. (duh.)
  • There would be tremendous opportunity to create a third-party "add-on" ecosystem.
So, how would these "branding requirements" translate into a specific bicycle design? What are the "unrealized problems" waiting to be solved in bicycle design that could be fixed with an obsessive amount of user-centric problem solving and delivered through industrial design? I think the major problems to be solved (the "user requirements") are these:
  • Looks: The bike should have a minimalist look, as much like a fixie as possible. The explosive popularity of fixies is all about that sexy, iconic bike look.
  • Shifting: Bikes need to be easier to use (i.e. shift) so that users don't wear themselves out getting from point A to point B. (Fixies look great, but aren't practical unless you're an athlete.)
  • Security: There needs to be a convenient, highly effective anti-theft solution.
  • Comfort: The places where your body touches the bike, the controls, the seat and the pedals, need improvement. This is after all the "user interface" of the bike. Ideally, other than for a helmet (and maybe some sporty-looking gloves) you wouldn't need any special clothing to use this bike.
  • Maintenance: The thing needs to set new standards of minimalism in maintenance.
Specking out this bike (at a high level) would be fun—more fun, I daresay, than the sweat-work of designing and testing it. (So, let's do it!) I would think we'd see the following kind of "functional specification" from Apple in trying to fulfill these requirements:
  • Frame: Probably hydr0formed aluminum, welded, with smooth-dressed joints. The finish would be anodized ("nanochromatic" colors to match the iPod nano?) and clear-coated. All cables would be internally routed. The frame would be set up so that a minimum number of sizes (maybe just two: small and large) would accommodate all riders. This presumes a maximally adjustable seatpost and stem arrangement.
  • Drivetrain: Internally-geared rear hub, probably 8 speed, with an automatic shifter working off cadence and speed scnsors integrated in the frame. Belt drive. Gear range for city hills.
  • Brakes: Internal hub brakes front and rear. (Yes, the hubs will be big, but it'll be a clean look and low maintenance. Speaking of which...).
  • Maintenance: Carbon or aramid drive belt good for 10,000 miles. Sealed bearings everywhere. Aramid-belted tires (possibly tubeless) with interior goo to stop slow leaks. All cables Teflon-coated. An absolute minimum of hardware exposed to the elements. Here's where that famous Apple attention to detail will pay off.
  • Controls: Brake handles with fully-concealed cabling. The cyclocomputer would be your iPhone or iPod touch running a "free" app from the App Store. The app would integrate GPS, speed, odometer, traffic and weather reports, and (naturally) music. There would be special valve-stem caps that could sense low pressure in your tires and transmit warnings to the control unit via Bluetooth. Oh, and the app would enable customization of your shift points on the transmission. The front hub would be a dyno-hub to keep the lights and the iPhone charged up.
  • User Interface (pedals, seat, handlebars): I think Apple could come up with some clever platform pedals that would work with street shoes but still have some restraint to allow pedaling efficiency. And the handlebars should be "fixie" style, perhaps with cell-foam padding so they could be used without gloves. The saddle is the real problem, because it needs to fulfill two conflicting requirements (1) be an iconic bike saddle; and (2) be comfortable. I think they'd have to do something like provide a "basic" saddle that has a proven comfort record like the Terry Liberator, and a "premium" saddle that is a Brooks classic leather saddle that comes fully broken in. (That will be an expensive extra cost option!)
  • Accessories: I think fenders, yes; but rack, no. (Fenders are sexy, racks aren't.) Instead of selling racks and panniers, Apple could sell coordinated backpacks (they could re-brand this ergonomic German one). Lights front and rear, for sure, integrated into the frame. The really tough challenge is the security issue. You could easily design security to work for Mudville, but not so easy for Manhattan. And effective locks are so big and heavy. I think Apple might try a two-pronged approach: first, a frame design that integrated a solid locking bar that would allow you to use a small high-security lock rather than a U-bar lock, and secondly, something (again an extra cost option) that worked with the iPhone to transmit a "help" signal if the bike were being tampered with.
Whew. Quite a bike, huh? What should it sell for? I would say that it ought to sell slightly above the price range for Apple laptops, say $1900 to $3500 depending on the options. I daresay that Apple has enough economies of scale, manufacturing wise, to be able to pull this off, and to value-engineer it to make a profit. (That auto-shifter will be tricky to engineer for sure, but Apple's just the company to do it.)

An industrial designer who is really ready to take on the challenge of the Apple bike is the Swedish designer Erik Nohlin from Gothenburg. He entered his delightfully minimalist, well thought out "MuskOx" design in the Bicycle Design (blog) "Ultimate Commuter Bike" design contest. (He should have won in my opinion.) If Apple wanted to get into bikes, they should just hire this guy, give him the list of requirements, and fund him.

But, first things first, Apple. Before you can proceed on this project, you have to wrestle the "iBike" trademark (#3096850) away from Velocomp LLP, makers of the "iBike" cyclocomputers.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Web Skills for Practical Cyclists I

It's 7:15 am, and for the last 90 minutes, my part of Maryland has been under a downpour. Nonetheless, I'll be riding into work today, because by 8 am, the rain will be gone. How do I know this? Accuweather radar.

The Accuweather web site has made finding the "holes in the weather" (if they exist) possible. Real time radar is such a great piece of information. It's not hard to learn how to gauge clear spots, and to leave work a half-an-hour early if that's going to get you home dry. You can look at the radar and see if the storms are concentrated "cells" or widely dispersed, slow or fast moving, and figure out if (mostly) dry riding is possible.

Modify the following URL and paste it into your browser to see the real-time weather radar in your area, right now:"YOUR ZIPCODE HERE, NO QUOTES"&level=local&anim=1

One of these days, I'll evolve into a real practical cyclist, one who doesn't care what the weather is doing, because I'll be properly equipped and will have the right attitude. Until then, I've got Accuweather.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Disc Brakes

... or is it Disk Brakes? Anyway, I've never understood the use of disc brakes on anything other than a mud-eating mountain, downhill, or (maybe) cyclocross bike. The brake-choking mud or dirt seems to me to be a requisite to justify it.

Why is this? The reason is simple, if you have an interest in amateur physics (and I do): Braking Torque. Think of it this way: if the braking is occurring at the hub (as it is with a disk brake), then all the braking force has to be transmitted from the hub, through the spokes, to the rim (where after all, the "rubber meets the road.")

This means that the spokes (which are the weakest link of the wheel) do at least twice as much work on a bike equipped with disk brakes. I haven't seen statistics for this, but I'd be willing to bet that spoke breakage is higher on bicycles equipped with disk brakes. I also wonder if there is a higher rate of failure of the seat stays (which absorb braking force), since the force applied by the disk brake is several times higher than a rim-caliper brake. (see illustration)

On a rim-brake setup, you can think of the entire wheel as the "disk". Braking force is less, but more importantly, the braking force is being applied near the rim, and the only loads that are carried by the spokes are for driving force (which are inevitable) and structural (keeping the wheel true and round).

As long as the wheel is in fact true, and you can properly keep adjusted your rim-caliper brakes (of whatever type), They are a physically and structurally superior solution. It does require that you keep your wheels true, but I'm sorry, if you have wobbly wheels, your riding quality is going to be pretty poor no matter what. I will grant that using the rim for braking means that the rim is eventually going to wear out and you'll have to replace the rim (rebuild the wheel), but we're talking tens of thousands of miles here.

Of course, bike manufacturers are loading up their offerings with disc brakes, even for bikes that will never see off-road use (and of course many so-called "mountain bikes" will always be on a paved trail.) Here's an offering from Raleigh, here's one from Trek, here's a Civia, and even REI has one. These are all touted as premium bikes in their categories. But bear in mind that the disk brakes, while superior in an automotive setting, don't convey that much superiority in a bike that won't be used on unpaved trails.

Give me old-school cantilevers any time. They require some hand strength, but they never fade, and boy are they reliable.

Update: The excellent "Cozy Beehive" blog has a report on a disc brake induced failure here.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Buying a used bike: "Beaters"

I was going to make a post on buying a used bike on Craigslist; what to look for and what to avoid and all that. But the New York Times, bless 'em, has done a better job at this than I could on an article about Beater Bikes. Check it out.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Core routine

One of the things I've done over the past couple of years is try and keep my core muscles in decent form.

It is said about the "core" (i.e. abdominals, lateral abdominals and lower back muscles) that their strength is required for good bicycling form, but that bicycling doesn't help to develop them. (This seems a little contradictory to me, but it's not worth arguing about.)

In the March 2007 issue of Bicycling magazine, there was an (ahem, eye-catching) cover article by Dimity McDowell on abdominal development, along with a good Pilates-derived set of exercises. I've used this set of exercises as my "base" for a couple of years now and have added a few. The good news is this: I belong to a health club system that includes clubs that are 3.8 and 7.5 miles from my house. Depending on the amount of time I can spare, I can bike to the club, do these exercise in less than 30 minutes, and bike home for a cool-down and shower. (This is such an efficient use of time! Cycling to and from the club to get the aerobic segment of a workout is "practical cycling" defined.) Even though I like going to the club to do these, if you don't have time or don't belong to a club, these are easy to do at home on a yoga mat or extra piece of carpet. Two of the exercses require an exercise ball.

So here's my routine (except for the customary push-ups, exercises are all from the Bicycling article):
  1. Boxer Ball Crunch (40 reps CW, 40 reps CCW)
  2. Power Bridge (40 reps)
  3. Hip Extensions on exercise ball (40 reps)
  4. Plank (as long as possible, 1 to 2 minutes)
  5. Transverse Plank (30 sec. each side)
  6. Pushups (20 reps, or as many as possible with good form)
  7. Scissor Kick (2 x 50 reps)
  8. Catapult (25 reps)
  9. Boat Pose (40-45 sec.) (This is a challenging exercise and always gets the attention of the young turks!)
Then I cool down and stretch before getting back on the bike for the ride home:
  1. Pelvic Clocks (20 reps CW, 20 reps CCW) (PDF of exercise here)
  2. Supine Spinal Twist (2 each side, very relaxed, concentrate on breathing out very slowly)
If you find the illustrations of the exercises in the Bicycling link too small, there are some good online descriptions of many of the exact same exercises here.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Before and After: My Diet

So, here's a little bit about my personal history. I can identify pretty much with "before"/"after" stories, as I'm one of those guys who has a "before" and "after" myself. My story is this: in February of 2006, I weighed about 250 lbs, large but not crazy-overweight for a guy who is 6'6" tall, and I was getting regular exercise, a lot of it on my bike. On my annual checkup that month, my family physician told me I was borderline diabetic. This came as a rather nasty shock, as my dad was diabetic, and his diabetes (and associated heart disease) drastically shortened his life (he died at the age of 56, after his third heart attack.) It's hard to overestimate the dread with which I beheld diabetes, so to say I was motivated to change is putting it mildly.

My doctor told me I had to find (as she put it) "a new baseline" in my dietary habits. She directed me to the Whole Foods Diet developed by the Health Sciences Center of the School of Medicine at Texas Tech University. What I really like about this diet is one of its organizing principles: it's not how much you eat, it's what you eat. This is a controlled-carbohydrate diet that (other than refined carbos) lets you eat all the whole foods you want. I found myself eating a lot of fresh fruit, because of the convenience. No preparation, immediate hunger abatement. The important and fundamental thing is, I was never, ever hungry on this diet.

The results were, I guess you'd say, pretty dramatic. I began losing two to three pounds a week, which is a pretty fast loss on a sustained basis. I basically went from 245 to 195 in about four months. By mid-2006, I reached 195 lbs and stopped losing weight. My BMI went from 28.3 to 22.5. Since that time, my weight has stayed in the 195 to 200 range. These days, I'm on the diet for breakfast and lunch (I almost always pack my lunch to work) and eat pretty much whatever for dinner. I really like being in shape, my marginal diabetes went away (hopefully never to return) and I lost 20mm of mercury off the top and bottom of my blood pressure.

I think motivation is a matter of focus. I was focused on getting and feeling healthy and avoiding the history of my dad. Many people, when they change their habits, focus on what they're missing. I say, don't look back.