Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Folded, Spindled and Mutilated: My Foray Into Collapsible Bicycles

I've become a big fan of the multi-mode commute, using the combination of train and bicycle to get myself to far off points in Hunterdon County with minimal fuss and inconvenience. The rail line would often take me within a few miles of where I needed to go, and the bicycle would let cover those last couple miles with ease. Additionally, for the frequent occasions when a return train wasn't available, I could ride the rail out, then bike the 20-30 miles home pretty easily.
However, NJ Transit recently updated its policy to make it pretty difficult to bring a full-size bike on a train. Bicycles are only allowed on and off at high-level platforms, which includes exactly none of the stations I frequent. Now, I'm reasonably healthy and can walk or jog two or three miles from the station to my eventual destination, but for those late-night assignments I was faced with the choice of walking 20 miles home, hiring a cab or sleeping at the (outdoor) station until the 6 a.m. train.
Fortunately the rules still permit "collapsible bicycles" (and furthermore, collapsible - or folding bikes as they're more commonly called - are allowed on even during peak hours. Regular bikes are not). Unfortunately, I'm pretty much broke, and while there are some brilliantly designed folding commuter bikes out there, I can't afford a single one of them. Fortunately, I'm pretty handy at fixing up bicycles, so when the option to buy a used Raleigh Twenty came up, I jumped on it.
The bike, as I recieved it, was in pretty good shape, but needed a bit of work. There were some bearing and clamp issues, and while it was pretty rideable, a compulsive tinkerer like myself couldn't leave it at "pretty good".
Within five minutes of paying for it, I'd already customized it - I added a cupholder.

The primary concerns I had were the length of the seatpost (I'm 6'3", I needed a couple inches more to get proper pedal extension), the chromed steel rims which were heavy and provided very poor wet-weather braking, the headset which used a plastic bushing instead of top bearings and mismatched handlebars and stem.
The first step was to replace the stem and bars with some mountain bike parts I had lying around
I also swapped the saddle for a Rido that had been given to me by my friend Neil, and swapped out the front fender (which had a broken mount) for a carbon fiber recumbent fender from my buddy Dave's parts box

You better believe I kept the cup holder though (also donated by Neil)
I found a junker kids bike with 20" rims, which I pulled off and laced to the existing hubs. The front hub of the Raleigh has an unusual spacing (91mm rather than the now-common 100mm) and the rear hub was the three-speed unit, so I obviously wanted to hang onto that. Small wheels are pretty forgiving, and since I'm strapped for cash, I re-used the old spokes. They fit pretty well, but on the rear hub I they were juuuust a bit too long.
Mr. Dremel says "no problem."
By this point, the bike was working pretty well. I scavenged a new top headset cup from that donor kids bike, and used the fork crown race and some spacers to create a working upper headset bearing. I was still waiting for a new seatpost, which I'd ordered through Garden State Bicycle, so the bike was a bit short for me.
I did take it for some short rides, and even one train commute, where I could test out it's foldability

And finally the new seatpost (400mm) came in, which, with the addition of a stem riser made for a pretty comfortable ride.

Once I got all the componentry together, I took it for a leisurely shakedown ride on the D&R Towpath between my home in South Bound Brook and my friend's place in Highland Park, about an 8-mile total trip. I figured it would make for an interesting test of handling, because the canal path had been washed out during Hurricane Irene and is currently fairly rough and rocky. The Twenty behaved predictably, and was comfortable and stable to ride, if not as fast as my 700c-wheeled commuter bike. The folding mechanism on the Twenty is a bit different from the hinge on many modern folding bikes (Dahon etc), the frame is interrupted in the middle of the main tube by a pair of angled plates, which swivel around a thick bolt and are held in place by an L-bolt. The connection seems very strong and stiff, and, although the bike doesn't fold up nearly as compactly or as quickly as some of the modern folding bikes, it's quick enough and becomes a small enough bundle for a big guy like me to easily carry onto a train (and is, in fact, far smaller than some of the luggage I see folks carrying). Most importantly, though, from my perspective, is that because of the stiff folding joint and the slightly longer wheelbase, the bike rides more like a full-size city bike than many of the other small-wheel bikes I've tried.
The "Cracks of Doom" at Landing Lane Bridge in New Brunswick, I had to get off and walk the Twenty across, but I've had to walk everything except for an actual mountain bike across here. It's a good fishing spot though. 

Once I was confident the bike would handle some real riding, I took it on a freelance assignement. I took the train out to cover a municipal meeting, clipped on my Niterider headlight, and rode home through about 20 miles of mostly rural back roads. It's not the perfect do-everything bike, but after spending a good hour and a half on it, I can say it's a pretty good utility bike, and with it's small size, comfortable riding position and ability to fold might turn out to be a fantastic bike for travel that involves some leisurely sightseeing or even some day tours (that don't involve major hills). I can think of some definite modifications I'd want to make in the future, including better grips (possibly with bar ends for a secondary hand position), newer tires and some general overhauling, but for a modest investment in time and money, this is a great bike.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Better Than Fiction: Around the World on a Bicycle

There's a whole class of literature these days dedicated to fictional adventures set in the Victorian age. The period is certainly fertile ground for imaginary adventures, global communications and travel were just becoming reality, yet there were plenty of blank spots on the map where European feet - in some cases any human feet - had yet to tread. At the same time, steam power, electricity and heavy industry were bringing rapid changes across the develped world.

During the period authors like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were looking at the possibilities inherent in the new technology of the day, while more than a century later, modern science fiction authors look back to the period and imagine how that same world of steam and gears might have evolved into an analog analogue of our digital 21st Century society.

But at the same time, there was no shortage of actual adventure, as evidenced by the travel writings of Thomas Stevens.  In 1884 Stevens, who was born in England but had been living and working in the Western United States, packed a small bag of clothes, some rain gear and a Smith & Wesson revolver and set out to ride his new bicycle around the world.

The Columbia high-wheel bicycle he was riding was the latest innovation and was a triumph of Yankee engineering. The idea of connecting the cranks to the rear wheel with a chain drive was still several years in the future, but with its 50-inch-tall front wheel and solid rubber tires it rolled much faster and more smoothly than the boneshakers that were the former pinnacle of human-powered transport.

Stevens started out in California in April and traveled along railroad routes, canal towpaths, public roads and wagon trails across the country until arriving in Boston 3,000 miles and almost four months later. The American West in the 1880s was still pretty wild, and he could travel an entire day without seeing another soul, and when he DID reach a town or ranch (usually a full day's travel apart) he ran into some fairly eccentric characters. Often the ground was so uneven he found himself walking about a third of his daily miles. After crossing the plains, though, he found himself in more and more settled territory (and on better and better roads) until he hit the Big City in August.

After he become the first person to cycle across America, Outing magazing took notice and hired Stevens as a correspondent, and helped fund his travels from that point on in return for travel reports from abroad. He sailed to England by steamship the next spring and set out from London in April of 1885.

From London he crossed to the continent by steamer and traveled through Europe to the Middle East, wintering in Tehran and, after several misadventures false starts, set out across Asia, finally reaching Yokohama, Japan in December of 1886, having traveled more than 13,000 miles riding (and occasionally pushing) his bicycle.

The distance and difficulty alone are impressive, but better still were his observations about the people he met along the way. The bicycle, which today is one of the most popular forms of transport in the world, was a novelty at the time, so he often found himself treated as a sideshow performer, constantly being asked to demonstrate how it was possible to ride this strange contraption. Many passers-by regarded it as almost magical that a machine which couldn't stand unsupported could carry a person at the same speed as a horse.

It's also quite amusing to read Stevens' accounts of all the local merchants and self-appointed guides, in various countries and languages, who would try to swindle the "English Tourist" for as much money as they could get for their often dubious services - a complaint which is familiar from many modern travel writers.

Stevens was threatened a few times, almost robbed a few more, and run out of town at least once in his travels, but he never had to fire his revolver at another person, and often traveled through some of the most "dangerous" territories in the world at the time as an honored guest of the locals (although, perhaps not surprisingly, he was unable to safely cross Afghanistan, which was a tragic mess even then).

It's a long book, collected in two volumes, and takes quite a while to get through, but it's worth reading if you've ever dreamed of setting out under your own power, by foot, by boat or -of course - by bike and seeing just how far you could go.

Around the World on a Bicycle is available in paperback from your local bookseller or in digital form from Project Gutenberg

Friday, October 21, 2011

Eureka: The Joy of "Lame Duck" Television.

One of the most frustrating things about watching any ongoing television series is often the zero-sum nature of the plot. In order to keep the show consistent from week to week, the characters and situations must return to the status quo at the end of each episode, leaving much less room for character development than in a one-off movie or miniseries. There have been exceptions to this, of course, but more often than not, real change in principal characters tends to be minimal.

Recently, though, Syfy announced it was going to end one of my favorite programs on the network, Eureka. Instead of the usual practice of simply not renewing the show after the current season ends, Syfy has announced that the coming season will be the last, and even budged for an extra episode to give the show a proper finale.

This situation means the writers have the chance to bring the show to a definite conclusion, instead of just dropping out of existence with plot threads dangling in the breeze like so many other genre fiction programs have done, and I'm looking forward to it.

The season that just wrapped up (on a dramatic cliffhanger, of course) has been a joy for me, and pushed all my geek buttons. For those that aren't familiar with Eureka, the show takes place in a fictional town (named Eureka) somewhere in Rural Oregon. The town, run by a large corporation with ties to the Department of Defense, is populated entirely by some of the best scientists in the world, and basically exists to give them an isolated place and plenty of resources to pursue all sorts of science-fictional research projects into technology that is often decades ahead of anything seen in the outside world. The main character, Jack Carter (Colin Ferguson) is the Sherriff of the town, whose primary purpose is to reign in some of the wilder experiments and stop them from blowing up Eureka (or a large chunk of North America, depending on just how crazy things get). The whole vibe has a certain retro feel to it, and comes across as kind of "Andy Griffith in Tommorowland."

The current story arc concerns the development of a faster-than-light spacecraft, and the resources of the entire town have been channeled into a mission to Saturn's moon, Titan (especially poignant because of the state of our current space program). During the buildup to the launch, we get to hear more about some of the characters and how many of them were inspired to become scientists specifically because of their childhood dreams of seeing the stars. Unlike some of the other genre franchises out there, Eureka also takes great pains to show us how major projects like the trip to Titan are not the work of some rogue genius, but of a large group of brilliant and hard-working minds working together.

I'm looking forward to seeing where this goes, and I hope the show gets the ending it deserves.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Tenkara: The Fixed-Gear of Fly Fishing?

Road cycling and fly fishing have many things in common, other than a preponderance of carbon fiber. For one, both are viewed as "elitist" in some quarters, with lots of unwritten rules and specialized knowledge needed, and both are thought to require thousands of dollars worth of specialized equipment to enjoy properly (I know these things are not necessarily true of either fly fishing or road biking, but I'm dealing in broad generalizations here).

On the other hand, if you want a light, fast road bike, have a tight budget, and are willing to accept some limitations and extra effort, especially uphill, you can build yourself a fixed-gear bicycle, with a radically simplified drivetrain. With a single gear choice and no coasting allowed, fixed gear riding can be a lot of fun, and make for a super-efficient bike under ideal conditions, but when the conditions are less ideal (ie, hills) it can be a lot more work than a geared road bike.

It turns out fly fishing has a roughly analogous discipline in the Japanse style of fishing known as Tenkara. Tenkara uses a super-light, collapsible rod with no reel and no line guides. The fly line is tied directly to the tip of the rod and the length of line you tie on is the length of line you get. Like fixed-gear bikes, your equipment options are limited, but like the bike, you can still get where you're going and have a surprising amount of fun doing it.

I came across Tenkara while looking for an inexpense, lightweight fishing setup to bring with me on bicycle rides, and the stripped-down approach turned out to be just the thing I was looking for. The rods themselves are long, usually between 11 and 13 feet, but collapse down to about 20 inches long. The line is about the same length as the rod, to which is added a few feet of tippet (thinner line, which is all-but-invisible in the water) and a simple fly pattern of string and feather tied to a hook, which doesn't usually resemble any specific prey animal, but has a generally "buggy" look and motion underwater. It's cast just like a western fly line, with the long, flexible rod and heavier line being used to propel the tiny fly towards the target area. The fly is designed to sink under the water's surface, and is twitched up and down to attract the fish's attention.

See, the funny thing about me is, in spite of the fact that I fix bicycles for a living, and build my own musical instruments, and generally like to tinker, I'm not really a "Gear Guy." When I'm off on a ride, or on stage, or at the riverside, I really have no interest in fiddling around with my equipment. I don't want to adjust things, or swap out parts, or retune or whatever. If the choice is between "bring more complicated gear" and "work a bit harder," I'll generally opt for the slightly more challenging work. So the Tenkara approach, with its simple rod, short reach and traditional choice of only one or two fly patterns seemed to suit me well.

Does it catch fish? Yes it does. I've had more luck in my local water with the Tenkara rod and some hand-tied flies than I've had in several years fishing with a spinning rod and store-bought lures. I can't cast as far as I could with a more conventional setup, but I find myself being able to fish with more precision than with other gear. Most importantly, it's fun. I can grab my rod and a tiny bagful of gear (some flies, a line, extra tipped, a tool to cut line and forceps for unhooking fish) and go with no fuss and no preparation.  Because the rod itself collapses so small, it can travel in a backpack or messenger bag just in case I happen to have time to kill while I'm out and about, making me more likely to explore new fishing spots.

So far, however, there is one major difference between Tenkara and fixed-gear cycling: you don't see urban fishermen trying to do it in skinny jeans.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Two-Wheeled Picnicking

It was nice out, I had a kid to entertain, and I was broke. What to do?

Picnic time! We have some fairly nice local parks, and I picked one that was about a six-mile bike ride away via an old canal path. I loaded up some lightweight picnic gear on my bike, had my daughter strap our cameras to her front basket, and off we went. We met a friend of mine at the park and a nice lunch and a good time taking pictures of flowers and wildlife was had by all. And at the end of the ride, the kid was worn out and quiet for nearly a whole half hour afterwards.

The logistics of picnicking by bicycle are pretty simple. In our case, I was carrying lunch for three people, and we had (at kid speed) about an hour to travel in 85-degree temps.

Because of the heat and humidity, I didn't want to carry picnic gear in a backpack or messenger bag, so I resorted to my old standby, my Carradice College saddlebag. I loaded the gear inside and used a pair of toe straps to fasten the picnic blanket across the outside. It all worked pretty well, although it did sway a bit too much on the bumpier parts of the road. (I'm hoping to replace my current ad-hoc saddlebag mount  in a paycheck or two, with the SQR mounting system, which will not only provide a more rigid support but also get the bag mounted a bit higher where it won't bump the back of my legs while pedaling).

Inside the saddlebag I had three camping mugs, a pair of aluminum plates, a Platypus collapsible bottle half-full of homemade iced-tea and my trusty Opinel No.8 knife (best cheese-slicer ever).

In light of the heat and humidity, I opted for sturdy foods. No meat that might spoil or greens that might wilt. I stopped by the local market and grabbed a block of cheddar cheese, some apples, some plum tomatoes and a few small loaves of fresh bread. Service was simple: spread the blanket, slice the cheese, tomatoes and apples into the plates and eat. A coupe of clean bandannas served as napkins and were packed in with the used cups to prevent drips from getting all over the saddlebag on the way home.

If the weather was cooler, I might have opted for some lunchmeat, and packed my little propane stove and some teabags for a hot brew-up, but overall it's hard to go wrong with a cheese and tomato sandwich.

Planning your own bike-a-nic is pretty simple, pretty much all you need is some sturdy place settings (those aluminum mess kits they sell in the camping section of almost any sporting goods or department store are perfect) and a way to carry it. You can use a traditional saddlebag like I do, panniers, a front basket, backpack or whatever suits you, just make sure it's comfortable and washable (in case of leaks).

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Internet Cyclists Field Guide Addendum

I realized that there was one important omission from yesterday's post about the different kind of cyclists you'll find around the internet. This may or may not remind you of someone you've met

Retro-Smug Utili-Grouch:
The RSUG has been there, done that and bought the moisture-wicking, hidden-pocket 3/4-zip t-shirt. He's probably in the bike industry, or has worked in a shop in the past, raced a little and now, as he says, “just rides his bike.” His personal bicycle (or bicycles, he never only owns one) is often built of a mix of ancient parts salvaged from old ten-speeds and high tech modern components. He will make a point of nonchalantly stating that he just rides “for the sake of riding, and to get around” and “doesn't worry about things like weight,” yet when he thinks nobody is looking he'll compare eight different front baskets to find the lightest, most aerodynamic one to put on his commuter bike. He usually has a closet full of expensive cycling clothing, yet is most often seen riding around in cargo shorts and flip-flops.
Quote: “Proper nutrition is important after a long ride, which is why I've brought pizza AND beer.”

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Field Guide to North American Cyclists (on the Internet)

The bicycle has been with us for over a century, and in that time has evolved into a variety of forms and attracted  wide variety of riders, all united to some degree by their love of fast, human-powered transportation. The internet has been around for a few decades, and in that time has managed to divide the cycling world into a wide array of disparate and occasionally bitterly-divided factions.

Every cycling blog, forum and chat room, as well as just about any news article even vaguely related to cycling will draw out these folks en masse, each one of them ready to offer their take on the One True Way to enjoy the use of their two-wheeled conveyance.

While it's impossible to keep up with the subcultures and fads that are rising and falling every moment on the internet, I've tried to compile a list of some of the most notable sorts. It's also worth noting that there are many hybrid cyclists, who show traits of one or more of these breeds. Please note that, while I've listed these various species using male pronouns for the sake of brevity (English being lacking in gender-neutral words to describe humans) each type has its female variant as well.

The Weight Weenie:
Rides a road racing bike, although the chance that he or she actually races is only 50/50. Will spend hours poring over spec sheets to find the way to shave two paper-clips'-worth of weight off their bike. Will dismissively refer to other forum members' 20lbs bikes as "tanks" and sneer at the idea of carrying anything so bulky as a lock or multitool. Usually buys parts online and upgrades compulsively.
Quote: "Well, it's an OK bike, but with a 32-ounce wheelset you might as well be dragging a coffee table behind you."

The Bicycle Creationist:
To the Creationist, bicycle technology began and end at some fixed date in the past, usually somewhere around 1970. Since then, everything about cycling has deteriorated, including frame materials, shifting quality and even the clothes riders wear. What modern riders might consider "dangerous flaws" in some older equipment, the Bicycle Creationist refers to as "endearing quirks." Hates clipless pedals and integrated brake-shifters with a passion and considers Rivendell Bicycles to be a bit "newfangled"
Quote: "Well, it's true that those stems did snap off and cause fatal crashes on a couple occasions, but you have to admit they were a lot better looking and had much more SOUL than these modern gadgets."

The Dutchie:
The Dutchie is a hardcore transportation cyclist who believe that "proper" cycling can only take place on upright city bicycles whilst wearing street clothes. Will constantly talk up how much better bicycle culture is in European cities such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen, and sneer at people who ride their mountain bikes to work. Will often spend upwards of $1,000 to import the European equivalent of a Schwinn Varsity.
Quote: "Yes, it takes me and two friends to lift my bicycle over a curb, but in in Denmark they have 43 miles of dedicated bicycle paths leading to each picnic table, so I would never  have to go over a curb to get to a public park."

Safety Man:
It's a dangerous world out there, and Safety Man is prepared for the worst. He never gets on a bike without a helmet, hi-visibility vest, gloves, protective eyewear, at least four taillights, a 300-lumen headlight, a backup headlight, pepper spray, a safety whistle, non-slip footwear, raingear (with reflective strips) a safety flag and six forms of ID. To Safety Man, "reasonable safety precautions" involve getting ready for "Mad Max" road scenarios.
Quote: "You can quote all the statistics you want, but if you're not wearing a reflectorized helmet with an emergency locator beacon, you're nothing more than an organ donor in training."

Anti-Helmet Guy:
Anti-Helmet Guy does not like to wear a bicycle helmet when riding. He really, really does not like to wear a helmet. However, instead of simply saying "I don't think my activity is risky enough to warrant protective headgear," Anti-Helmet Guy will, at the drop of a (non-protective) hat  reel off a list of statistics, factoids and anecdotal stories that will tell you under certain circumstances, when the moon is right and the wind from the Southwest if you land just so and are moving at a particular velocity in relation to a particular type of blacktop at a certain temperature a helmet just might result in slightly worse fatal injuries than the fatal injuries you would have incurred while not wearing a helmet in the same circumstances, therefore no one should ever wear a bicycle helmet.
Quote: "Antarctica has no mandatory helmet laws, yet in 2009 there were no fatal cycling-related head injuries reported on the entire continent, see how forcing people to wear helmets puts them at risk?"

The Gaspipe Ironman:
The Gaspipe Ironman is the polar opposite of the Weight Weenie. He not only isn't worried about how heavy his bike is, he's proud of it. His greatest cycling-related joy is to describe how many lycra-clad road racers he's passed on tough climbs while riding a $79 girls' cruiser with a rusty chain he bought from the local department store 3 years ago. If the Gaspipe Ironman is to be believed, on a bike that actually fit him and had working gears, he'd have won last year's Tour de France by four hours. Fortunately for the cycling world, he has a 75 lbs Roadmaster to hold him off from a Championship Jersey monopoly.
Quote: "The local professional road racing team has learned to fear the squeaking of my unlubricated chain."

The Poller:
This cyclist won't buy so much as an inner tube without logging on to a cycling forum to ask if a particular brand is any good. Every day he'll post a question on some trivial bike-related matter, often prefaced by "the guy at my local shop told me I should do this, but..." The input of a dozen anonymous voices on the Internet are of more value to the Poller than any individual he could actually meet face-to-face. If the Poller's query is not answered on a cycling forum within 15 minutes, he will quickly reply to his own discussion thread with "hello?" or "does ANYBODY know anything about this?" The Poller is often most easily satisfied by running a Google search of his question and copy/pasting the results.
Quote: "bump!"

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Apocalypse Will Be Televised

Post-Apocalyptic fiction comes with a few guilty pleasures. We get to see the greedy and powerful reduced to beggars, we see often despised institutions reduced to rubble, and, most importantly, we often get to see the marginalized and powerless get their chance to be the heroes. Just about anyone who has ever toiled away at an unrewarding job or unpopular hobby has secretly wished for the day when their special skill set would be just what was needed to save the day.

When the cities flood, the dead rise or the aliens invade, the current social order is overturned, or so the PA novel would have us believe, and the meek don't just inherit, bur step up to kick some ass.

In the case of Mira Grant's zombie-apocalypse novel, Feed, the particular underdog heroes are bloggers, who in her not-too-distant future setting were the first to spread the word about the sudden outbreak of undead (as is becoming the typical nowadays, zombies are the result of a genetically engineered, highly contagious virus). The government and traditional media outlets let everyone down, and people were only saved by the power of social networking.

and by the power of the  Department of Highway Safety

The scenario took a bit of Suspension of Disbelief on my part, for a couple reasons. First off, I tend to see Facebook updates notifying me of the Zombie Apocalypse about six times a week, and I'm pretty sure that I wouldn't actually take one seriously until one of my former in-laws was trying to gnaw my arm off. Secondly, while I am fairly sure that there are high levels of incompetence and stupidity spread throughout many of our government institutions, groups like the US Military and the Centers for Disease Control to tend to employ many very competent people.
via Cracked
I was quickly able to put my left-brain objections side and get on with enjoying the book though. As in many zombie stories, the zombies themselves were more of a background element. The horror of seeing a former loved one converted into a bloodthirsty monster is always disturbing (as anyone who has ever gone through a divorce can attest to) but enough repetition can rob even the most gruesome villains of their ability to shock. Instead, the  new and dangerous world provides our stalwart newsies with the chance to be both political muckrackers and hardened war correspondents.

It's a tough thing to combine Post-Apocalyptic action with an exploration of the value of journalistic integrity, and Feed suffers from some awkward plot jumps and flat characters, but it's still a lot of fun, and I found myself sucked in and genuinely caring about the leads. Grant also manages to be very effective in evoking not just how scary contagious zombification would be, but also how sad. She especially uses the time between infection and conversion to wring the pathos out of the situation of someone who knows they're about to die.

All in all, if you're a fan of zombie fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction, or the idea of the plucky reporter proving that sunlight really is the best disinfectant (well, and bullets, lots and lots of bullets), you'll probably enjoy Feed as a fun summer read.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Bike for the Masses?

I've occasionally thought (usually while trying to tune up some 60 lbs Wal-Monster bike with useless suspension and barely-functional brakes) that using today's manufacturing technology, it should be possible to build a reliable, repairable, no-frills bicycle that would retail for $100-150, making it accessible to low-income workers and poor students who need inexpensive, reliable transportation. It wouldn't be a high-performance machine or anything beautiful, but it would work and it would be repairable when it broke down. I would also recommend a range of accessories such as racks, lights and fenders that could be sold as aftermarket add-ons.

What it WOULDN'T be is an attempt to emulate some sort of "extreme" dowhill racing bike, with crappy suspension or poorly-designed disc brakes. Much of the investment in the typical big-box bike goes to making it look cool, as opposed to being reliable.

The big obstacle would be in creating a cheap bike that's meant as Basic Transportation, rather than being meant as a toy. Part of the reason that Big Box bikes are so unnecessarily flashy is that they're built as toys rather than useful objects. 

These bikes could be sold through bike shops or online. Preferably at a local bike shop, which would be able to easily maintain and upgrade a no-frills machine. If I were to design such a thing, here's where I would start:

Frame- Welded, straight-guage Hi-ten steel, in a fairly upright geometry. I'd keep sizing simple and one-size-fits-many. A smaller bike with 26-inch wheels in a men's and ladies' frame, and a larger bike with 700c wheels in a men's and ladies' frame. It'd have stamped semi-horizontal dropouts like an old cheap ten-speed, and eyelet holes in the dropout for mounting racks and fenders. No need for threaded eyelets, which would add money to tap, aftermarket accessories can be attached with nuts and bolts. American bottom bracket for one-piece cranks.
Fork- Rigid hi-ten with non-threaded eyelet holes for fenders. 1" threaded steer tube.
Wheels- aluminum single-wall rims, 36-spoke with bolt on hubs. 7[speed freewheel rear
Tires- generic semi-slick in 26" or 700c
Handlebars- straight mountain-style bars attached to a long threaded stem for maximum adjustability
Seat- Generic, moderate foam padding over a plastic shell. Use a straight seatpost (long as possible for max height adjustment) with a separate clamp to save costs
Brakes - this is a toss-up. I was going to say stamped sidepull calipers, because they're cheap yet can be made to work, but it seems like linear-pull brakes ("v-brakes") are becoming generic and cheap enough to be cost-effective, and offer better wet-weather stopping power even in their low-end forms
Drivetrain - Single 42-tooth front chainring, 7-speed rear with gripshift

A few bike companies offer an upscale version of this, but usually an aluminum frame, cartridge bottom-bracket, suspension seatpost and a few other frills make them more expensive. If this bike were made with the same production quality as the average big-box Huffy, it would be useable and way cheaper. It'd weigh a ton, and you might never love it, but you'd get to work on time.

Cheap, reliable transportation can mean the difference between a job and no job for a lot of folks, and with stagnant wages and rising fuel costs, the personal car is starting to become an unaffordable luxury to even the lower middle class. In coming years, the humble bicycle will be the most effective and democratic way of getting around for more and more of the population, and a decent cheap bike should be within anyone's reach.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

What's That Cost?

Since I'm out on my bike all the time these days, I tend to run into other transportation cyclists a lot. Some of these folks are riding because they prefer it to driving, some because they can't afford to drive, and some because, for whatever reason, they no longer have a driver's license. Oddly enough, they all seem to want to talk about the same thing: the cost of our respective bikes.
I had one fellow corner me at a bike rack outside of a Target and subject me to a lengthy lecture about how much he paid for his bike, what the actual retail price was, what the price of the bike was the model year before and after, and what the cost of the other bikes he was considering buying at the time. Then he, of course, asked me how much my bike cost. "Um... I'm not really sure," I mumbled, "I got it on closeout, but swapped a lot of parts and stuff around." This didn't really satisfy him, so I eventually just said, "five-hundred dollars," which elicited a knowing nod and a "not bad" from him.
I didn't quite get it, but it seems to be a common thing. I mentioned it to my boss at the bike shop, and he said last time he and his wife were grabbing coffee after a Sunday ride, the same thing happened (the woman who approached them bragging that she had a "ten thousand dollar bike," which was only off in his estimation by about $9,000).
I'm really not sure how much my bike, as I'm riding it, cost. I know how much the MSRP was, and how much I paid for it when I bought it, but I swapped out a lot of parts, added some things, used some old parts I had lying around, got some stuff from a friend... you get the idea. I could probably tally it all up, but I don't actually care.
I guess it's another case of folks wanting to use their transportation as status symbols. After all, if you're driving an Escalade, everyone knows you spent a certain amount on it, but if you're riding around on a mountain bike, there's the very real danger that people might not realize that it cost you lots of money!
Yeah, it's kind of stupid. I figure even the most expensive add-ons to my bike, like the high-powered headlight for night commutes cost less than a tankful of gas for my old truck, and everything I've done to it serves a purpose.
A more interesting thing to me, in terms of cost/use/etc is to look at what I've worn out since I started using a bike as my main transport almost four months ago. I estimate I've got between 1,500 and 2,000 miles on the bike now (a cyclocomputer doesn't count as a necessity, so my "broke commuter" logic says I can't afford one), and have worn out, lost or broken the following:

A pair of pedals
Two sets of grips
Three inner tubes
Two sets of brake pads
One chain
One kickstand
Two water bottles
One bell
Two taillights
One headlight
One spoke

This is more interesting to me than what the bike cost, or what it weighs (another meaningless question that comes up a lot, the answer is "depends on what's in the saddlebag"), because it's both a tally of the real operating cost of the bike, and a mark of how much use (and care, I fix stuff when it's worn out or broken more diligently than I ever have on a car) my current vehicle gets.

What's it mean? I don't know. It means I'm riding my bike, I guess that's all.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Diminished (Cargo) Capacity

Bicycle commuting, like just about everything else, involves compromise and trade-offs. For example, my Jamis Commuter came with a set of North Road style handlebars, which provided a nice upright riding position and left me with plenty of room to attach a wire basket to the front of my bike. The basket was incredibly handy, and let me carry everything from groceries to small musical instruments fairly easily.
Unfortunately, the handlebars, which were fine for short rides (say, under 5 miles), were causing me problems with hand numbness, in no small part because they didn't offer much room to move my hands to different positions, and kept me locked into a not-quite-comfortable 45-degree angle.
In the interest of saving my nerve endings over longer rides (most of my commuting ends up being between 8 and 20 miles at a stretch) I swapped them out for moustache-stylehandlebars, which bring my hands back parallel to each other, and give me room to move them to different positions as I ride.
The downside is that the new handlebars and the basket don't seem to fit together all that well. The moustache bars sit quite a bit lower and sweep forward, partially covering the top of the basket, and making me bang my knuckles on the basket edge if I have my hands in the forward position.
So for the moment, I've had to remove the oh-so-useful cargo basket in exchange for being able to feel my fingers after a ride (important if you're playing music). But I'd like to get some of my carrying capacity back (I do have a large bag mounted on the rear of the bike, and I can use a messenger bag, but that gets warm really quickly in this weather).
One option is to get a front rack which attaches lower on the fork. This would be ideal as I'd have the option of affixing either a basket or using the flat of the rack and a bungee cord, however, most of the decent racks seem pricey (I'm broke). The other is to try to fabricate some sort of alternate attachment system for the basket I have, that will carry it lower on the front of the bike. This might be doable if I can come up with something simple and sturdy that won't rattle all over the place.
I'm open to suggestions.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear... Goggles?

 The Steampunk motif in science fiction has been with us for quite a while, and lately has caught on as an aesthetic subculture full of cool DIY projects and modifications. But as real-world technology is evolving towards greater energy efficiency and more impressive design standards, we end up with things like this awesome-looking light bulb or high-speed, human powered vehicles that look like something designed by on overcaffeinated da Vinci.
As manufacturing technology also improves, we're also learning to build better products out of sustainable materials, such as wood and bamboo, and to reuse metals, which are not only more eco-friendly, but are often more pleasing to the eye than their plastic counterparts.
Rising fuel prices are not only spurring a minor boom in bicycling and train transportation but mean engineers are looking at new versions of old technologies, such as the Holy Grail of retrofuturism, airships!
Of course, there are negative possibilities too, and we may all be wearing goggles because we've completely toasted the atmosphere and our eyeballs are being fried by UV rays, and societal collapse might set us back a century or two technologically, leaving us at a 19th Century level. The growth in income disparity could also create a rigid caste system in the (theoretically) socially mobile Euro-American world.
But it's a lot more fun to imagine how we could reach a cool looking future by moving forward rather than how we might fall backwards.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Are Crosswalks Killing Downtown?

One of the emerging themes in traffic planning, and urban design seems to be the near-universal rule that "Happy cars do not make for happy people"(or particularly healthy ones), yet much of our street design is based around getting cars from place to place at as high a speed as possible. Part of this has traditionally involved putting up signs and marking to make it clear where everyone belongs and at what speed and in what order. However, as Tom Vanderbilt, author of "Traffic" discusses things like "Children at Play" signs and similar markings don't work. 

Why is this? In part, excessive and largely irrelevant information just provides an additional distraction, and often gets ignored and partially because overly strict distinctions rob drivers of the ability and motivation to courteously interact with other road users, or each other.

In the particular case of crosswalks, drivers are basically being told that they can ignore pedestrians except at certain places on the road, which in turn usually gets them in the habit of ignoring pedestrians entirely. This isn't a lack of courtesy, it's just that when drivers are not in the habit of looking for people on foot, they might miss them even when they are waiting in a crosswalk.

As a result, it becomes inconvenient and dangerous to walk around downtown, which in turn makes it less pleasant to shop (and shoppers more likely to "just not bother" visiting shops that they have to double back and cross a busy street to get to).

Several "new school" traffic engineers around the world have taken this problem head-on not by adding more crosswalks and signage, but by getting rid of the signs and giving every road user more-or-less equal access rights. The operator of the bigger, faster vehicle is responsible for slower operators, so cars yeild to bikes yeild to pedestrians and everyone watches out for children. Real-world trials of these "shared" or "living" street designs that force motorists, cyclists and pedestrians to interact as human beings have shown that the  are both safer and more efficient. 

Traffic flow, in many cases, is actually improved (think about it, while your car CAN go 35 mph on a downtown street, you actually spend a  lot of it going 0 mph. A steady 5-15 mph is actually much faster and somewhat less aggravating) and increased pedestrian safety makes it easier and more pleasant to wander around, get lunch, shop and spend money downtown, which in turn leads to a better local business climate, better tax income for the municipality and therefore a lower residential tax burden.

There's some argument (and not altogether an invalid one) for banning cars from urban centers altogether, and routing them around downtowns instead of straight through them, but this comes with its own trade-offs in mobility and economic issues. Better to get people in cars to slow down and pay attention than to try to keep them out.

From the business perspective, people don't come to towns where it's pleasant to drive (there is no such place, "pleasant to drive" usually means "middle of nowhere with nice scenery", not "town." Cars are good at getting between places, they usually become a burden once you get there), they come to places where it's pleasant to walk, shop and hang out. If they know they can walk around worry-free, they're ore likely to get out of their car and spend their money.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Necessary Gear?

I've been slacking off on running for a while, but now that I'm getting in better shape from bicycle commuting, I think it's time to get back to it. And if I'm going to get serious about running again, I have to make sure I've got the right equipment.
However, I've found myself wondering what, exactly, do I really need to run.

When I first got into running, years ago, I thought I needed all sorts of high tech equipment

 But after a while, I came to think that all you need is a decent pair of running shoes

But, later in life, I realized that the shoes don't even matter that much, that a few hundred millenia have prepared human beings to run as they are 

So I got to thinking "well, all you really need to run is a pair of feet!

Um... or maybe I'm just overthinking things.

Monday, May 16, 2011

A Thousand Miles

I purchased a new bicycle, a Jamis Commuter 3, in mid-march. Shortly afterwards, I took my car off the road (not for any eco-ethical reasons, it was a financial decision based on my current income vs the cost of needed repairs, fuel and insurance). I don't have an odometer on the bike, but based on my typical weekly trips, I'm estimating I've put in around 1,000 miles of transportation cycling since then, mostly in trips of under 10 miles (although one of my regular destinations, which I visit once or twice a week, is about 20 miles from home).

So far the bike is holding up well. I give it a basic cleaning and tune-up about once a week, and have replaced a few parts (some due to wear and damage, some for the sake of better comfort/performance). I'm also holding up well, having gone from about the heaviest I've ever been at 324 lbs down to about 303 and still dropping (yes, I'm that big).

I've learned a few things over all those miles as well, such as how to pick clothing that's comfortable to ride in yet lets me look presentable when I arrive (I tend to have a default “khaki shorts and collared shirt” look unless the situation demands otherwise, also, patterned shirts hide sweat better than solids), and how to load stuff I need to carry. I've learned what stuff I need to have all the time, and what I can live without.

I've also gotten to know a bit more about my local area. I've had the chance to see a lot of wildlife that I didn't even know lived around here, gotten a better feel for weather and topography and generally spend a lot more time getting close-up knowledge of where I live.

One of the things I've been figuring out about Central NJ is that it has the potential to be one of the most bicycle-friendly areas in the US. The terrain and climate (rolling hills and damp, respectively) are not ideal, but aren't extreme, however the real selling point is density. New Jersey is a small place with a lot going on, and population centers are fairly close together. It was settled and developed pretty early in America's history, and because of that has fairly extensive infrastructure. The only challenge is making enough of that infrastructure safe and comfortable for transportation cycling. It's certainly possible, but it would take a real political push and, of course, money.

I've also learned that most NJ folks, whether they're on a bike or in a car, are a lot friendly and more courteous than they get credit for. There are certainly obnoxious people out there, but most folks are willing to share the road with minimal fuss. It's not perfect, but I find unpleasant encounters while cycling aren't any more common than they are when driving, and are even more quickly forgotten for the most part.

All in all, not bad so far, and I'm looking forward to the next thousand miles!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Another Reason to Encourage Bike Friendly Towns

As I've mentioned, I've been car-free for a couple months now. Different people have different reasons for ditching motorized transport. For some it's a moral choice to reduce their carbon footprint, but in my case it was an economic decision. Based on what I was earning vs. the costs of gas, maintenance and insurance, I decided keeping a car on the road was eating up way too much of my recently-diminished income.

A recent article at Grist discussed a bit more of the math involved. It turns out that even people who are making a decent living wage are spending a sizable chunk of their workday just paying for the cost of getting to work. Now, for some folks, especially in areas with more spread-out populations, the investment in keeping up a personal automobile makes a lot of sense in terms of mobility, but in denser areas those numbers look pretty discouraging.

What I'm thinking is that for a lot of businesses, those numbers are equally discouraging.

See, in the traditional view, car ownership equates with prosperity. If people can afford a car, they can afford to shop. However, it's becoming increasingly apparently that people don't drive because they can afford to, but because they feel they have to, and in the current economy, many lower-middle-class families are stuck with car loans that eat up sizable chunks of their paychecks. Add rising gas prices, insurance rates and everything else, and all the sudden "car=prosperous" in many cases becomes "car= no disposable income."

If a family spends $300 on a car loan, $100 on insurance and $200 on fuel in a month, that means there's $600 that wasn't spent on coffee, dinner, clothes, entertainment or any of the other things that small, local businesses provide.

So not only do bike- and pedestrian-friendly communities encourage people to shop and dine locally, if that bike-friendliness also translates into the ability to bike or take mass transit to work, and live without a car or with reduced car use, that may translate into having more money to spend when they do go out.

Again, there are places where this just won't work, where things are spread too far out for people to get by without their own car, but large numbers of Americans live near urban areas, or in densely-packed suburban sprawl (coughNJcough) where, with some infrastructure improvements and the support of the business community, a car-free life could turn out to be a lot less of a hassle than driving. Things like better-developed mass-transit corridor, walkable municipal designs and even easy access to rental cars (how many people catch themselves saying "well, I could live without a car most of the time, but what about occasions x and y when I absolutely need one?") could all help. More support from employers could also help (and there are ways it benefits them, as well, for example, having fewer employees who drive regularly means having a smaller parking lot, which means less land and less maintenance, and lower costs).

It's something to think about.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Bow Tie Hero: Buckaroo Banzai

I've mentioned in the past that there are a number of incredibly awesome action heroes who favor the Bow Tie, including the several incarnations of everybody's favorite Time Lord and a certain Nazi-fighting archeologist, but let's not forget Peter Weller's great New Jersey-based experimental physicist/neurosurgeon/rock star/comic book hero/planetary savior, Buckaroo Banzai.

Buckaroo Banzai, the very incarnation of Awesomeness. Also, Jeff Goldblum in fuzzy chaps. The 80s were truly a magical time in the Garden State.

For all that I've worked and traveled in Hunterdon County, however, I have yet to drive past the Banzai Institute in Holland Township.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Notes from the Saddle

It's officially National Bike Month, and the weather is (mostly) grand! Gas prices are rising, the Ice Caps are melting and there's plenty of reasons to ditch the car for your short-distance errands or commute. You don't have to do 20-mile trips, but if you've got errands or social events within a couple miles of home, why not bike? Chances are you'll enjoy them more, and you'll save some fuel and get a bit of fresh air. Plus, parking is easier (bring a lock!).

This fellow seems to have gotten an early start on Bike-to-Work week. While I think the Leage of American Bicyclists is trying to promote cycling to your legal job, I certainly applaud his commitment to reducing his carbon footprint.

If you're thinking of cycling for transportation, you may think twice about whether you want to deck yourself out in dedicated cycling garb. Consider this discussion on how a woman in a dress seems to get a lot  more space from motorists. From now on I plan to bring an attractive woman with me on all my rides... you know, just as a safety feature.

Actually, I've been finding Central Jersey motorists to be, generally speaking, really courteous towards me on my bike. I think the combination of a fairly utilitarian-looking bike (upright position, cargo basket, fenders) with riding in street clothes makes me look more like a "regular person" who happens to be riding a bike, whereas the lycra and jerseys of a sport cyclists appear as more of a uniform, and act to make them look more "other." There's some psychology going on there, and I'm not sure how much of it is real and how much is perceptual bias.

On the flip side, I do feel like I'm experiencing some "basket discrimination" from a certain class of cyclists. The disdainful looks seem to come from both the "weekend warrior" racers who ride two-abreast on $4,000 racing bikes while talking about sales figures and the "urban commando" guys who tool around on their singlespeeds wearing what their suburban imagination thinks a hardcore messenger would wear. As I seem to be enjoying my ride more than the latter, and am often moving faster than the former, I find myself unconcerned.

If cars and other cyclists are not a problem, what is my current arch-nemesis? Geese. Canada geese are always a nuisance in this region, especially as most of my local routes pass near water, but at this time of year there are goslings about, so these normally obnoxious and aggressive critters are in full-on "psycho bird monster" mode. I haven't been bitten yet, but have had a few close calls (and will a bite by a monster goose, who has been swimming in the chemical cocktail of New Jersey's waterways, transform me into the most embarassing super-hero ever? I hope to never find out).

Friday, April 29, 2011

Ready at the Altar

There she is, getting ready for her special day, the shuttle Endeavour.

What, you though I was going to post pictures of Kate Middleton?

While I enjoy many British exports, Doctor Who, Terry Pratchett, Harry Potter, etc, the one thing I've got no use for is hereditary monarchy. And while I wish the happy couple well and all that, our forefathers here fought a couple wars and put together a pretty good set of rules and guidelines based in no small part on the premise that we're under no obligation to give a damn about royalty. While our country has its flaws, the belief that even the poorest orphan is equal as a human being to any king or queen is not one of them. I only wish that equality were as apparent in practice as it is in our founding documents.

So if you're going to toast anything today, toast the final voyage of that amazing machine. While one royal bride is headed into a world of boundaries and class lines, Endeavour is headed today to a place far beyond any walls or palaces, where any distinctions we might wish to build for ourselves are rendered meaningless by the vastness of space.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Cycling: The Helmet Question

I have a confession: I rode my bike without a helmet today.
Now, before anyone starts making the usual "organ donor" comments, I would point out that in light of the 80-degree weather (after weeks of 40 degree weather, soon enough 80 will be a cool day) I decided to take off my lid and drop it in my basket for PART of my ride, which was along the D&R towpath, a flat, smooth trail with no motorized traffic at all. When I got to the point where I had to get back on the road, the helmet went back on.

For non-cyclists, this might not seem like a big deal at all, but in the cycling world there seems to be a culture war between the helmet and non-helmet crowds. There is all sorts of sanctimonious blather on both sides of the issue, along with "proof" that helmets will either save your life, guarantee you'll get hit, make injuries worse, mitigate injuries or have no affect whatsoever.

As for myself, my position on helmets is that no one over 18 should be required by law to wear one, but since they do seem to offer some protection from head injury in a crash, it's not a bad idea. One should definitely wear one while racing, and when mountain biking, it's probably a good idea when riding fast or in traffic, and probably not all that necessary when cruising around back streets or on going slow on a bike path (but if you're used to wearing one, go for it). During icy or wet weather, you might consider one as slippery conditions make a fall a bit more likely.

Kids should wear them, because low-speed faceplants seem to happen for them on a fairly regular basis, and it's probably a good idea to wear one when riding WITH children, because you'll set a good example, and besides which when they suddenly decide to pull a Jackie Chan impersonation, you know it's going to happen six inches in front of you, so you might as well be ready for it.

I've worked in the bike business a while, and known a few people who've crashed hard and got off pretty easily in part because they were wearing a helmet, all of them on either off-road or high speed road rides, and I've had some minor dings myself (including the time I was hit in the head by my own bicycle) so for that type of riding, I think they're a good idea.

I guess that puts me on the pro-helmet side of the debate. On the other hand, if having to wear a helmet is the only thing keeping you off a bike, ride without one, you'll probably be fine. I'm also pretty sure that riding in a safe, predictable manner, and paying attention to your surroundings is much more important to being a safe rider (take, for example, the fellow who nearly hit me while I was locking up my bike today in Highland Park, he came from behind me, riding the wrong way on a sidewalk, and didn't make any noise or give any indication that he was about to pass a pedestrian, BUT HE WAS WEARING A HELMET). In the Netherlands, famous for being the safest and most bike-friendly place on earth, helmets are a rarity, but so are bike fatalities, so it has a lot to do with safe riding and and safe interactions between bikes, cars and pedestrians. So I guess I agree with the anti-helmet folks on some things too.

The thing that gets on my nerves, though, is how every time the topic comes up, or even when it's not specifically brought up (for example whenever there's a blog post or ad featuring a non-helmeted person) how there's this immediate, knee-jerk reaction of "he's an idiot, he's not wearing a helmet" which is immediately followed by a "helmets don't really make you any safer" comment, and then a general outpouring of obnoxiousness from the peanut gallery. It's stupid and I have the feeling it makes newcomers somewhat uncomfortable. If you're thinking "hey, I want to ride a bike more and get involved in some of these online discussion groups" but find out that before you can type three words you're expected to pick sides in a stupidly vitriolic debate, it can be somewhat off-putting, and you might find yourself thinking you need a better hobby.

I think helmets are good, and wear one on most (but not all) rides. I recommend them to people who ask my opinion, but in fairly mild language. If you don't want to wear one, that's OK too. Just have fun and be safe.

However, if the only reason you won't wear a helmet is because they're not cool or stylish enough, I have two words for you: bicycle fedora.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Steampunk or Hipster?

Steampunks and Hipsters both share an affinity for vintage clothing, obscure music and epic facial hair. I realize that many laypeople may find the distinction between the two subcultures somewhat muddied, and have prepared a brief, scientific quiz to help differentiate the two. Simply pose the following questions to your subject.

Steampunk or Hipster: The Quiz

1. You wear your muttonchops
a) Ironically
b) Sincerely

2. Your air of smug superiority is
a) a natural manifestation of my superior taste
b) something I affect in order to live up to my top hat

3. Bicycle that doesn't coast?
a) fixie
b) penny-farthing

4. What are you drinking?
a) PBR
b) Earl Grey

5. why won't I hear your favorite song on the radio?
a) the artist who wrote it has never recorded it and only plays locally
b) the artist who wrote it died in 1896

6. best thrift store find?
a) vintage denim
b) vintage tweed

7. don't you think your outfit looks a bit silly?
a) you wouldn't understand
b) why, is my cravat askew?

8. bow ties?
a) cool
b) cool

Add up the total number of "a" or "b" answers.
Mostly "a"s indicated that the subject is a member of the Hipster culture.
Mostly "b"s indicates that the subject is a member of the Steampunk culture
An even mix of "a" and "b" answers indicates that the person before you is an unholy mix of Hipster and Steampunk, and may be somewhat dangerous. Run.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Bike Commuting: The Problems of the Ride Home

I have lived car-free at various points in my adult life, sometimes by choice, but often because of practical considerations. During those times I've tried very hard not to be the "Bum a Ride" guy, who is always asking his friends and family members if he can "bum a ride" here and there. The rare occasions when I do ask for a lift I try to pay for gas and parking at least, and make sure I don't inconvenience the person driving me any more than absolutely necessary (especially having been on the other end of that transaction, when a car-less coworker relied on me for transport to work, and was late almost every day, it was infuriating).
My current job requires me to work evening hours, which means I have to bicycle home in the dark. Because of this, and the usual misconceptions about how dangerous bicycling is, I occasionally have friends and coworkers offer to drive me home.
Most of the time I'm not even tempted, it's only about a half-hour bike ride, and during most weather conditions it's a fairly pleasant way to unwind from a less-than-wonderful job. Even when it's a bit chilly and/or rainy I'd still rather bike.
However, there are some conditions which make getting home by bike a bit more unpleasant and dangerous than I'd like, most notably thunderstorms. While I feel reasonable secure among downtown buildings and trees, there are some exposed hills and bridges on my ride home that I'd rather avoid those times.
Unfortunately, my bike is pretty big (I'm tall, and too heavy for most of the folding bikes out there) and doesn't fit in most cars without extensive disassembly, so accepting a ride most of the time would mean leaving my bicycle behind, which in turn would leave me stranded without transportation in the morning, as well as cause an extremely high risk of my bike being stolen.
I've lucked out on the most recent occasion by having a co-worker with a pickup truck, however there are times when I may not be as lucky.
Some of you may have a spouse or significant other who can pick you up, but what about those of you who don't? How would you handle the leave-your-bike-or-ride-dangerous conundrum? Also, are there those of you out there who are car-free for ethical reasons who wouldn't accept a ride under any circumstances?

Monday, April 18, 2011

Clothing for the Transportation Cyclist?

I'm on a roll with the bicycle-related posts lately. Possibly it's because it's springtime and the car is falling apart, so I'm riding more, possibly it's because I think with rising gas prices, unrest in the Middle East and environmental catastrophe looming over our shoulders daily, I think it's important to explore alternate transportation method, or possibly it's because I know way too much about bicycles.

In any case, now that cycling has once again become my primary means of transportation, clothing choice becomes an issue. For just spinning around town, whatever I happen to be wearing is fine, and for long rides dedicated cycling wear makes sense, but for a seven-mile commute, meeting friends for dinner or other occasions that are far enough away that cycling comfort matters, but I when I also want to look like a human being at the end of the ride it takes a little bit more planning.

I think there are four things to keep in mind with transportation bicycling clothing:
1. Comfort on the bike - This is especially important with pants. Pants or shorts that restrict movement, have uncomfortable waistbands or badly-places seams are bad. Also they shouldn't get caught in the chain, which means baggy pants bottoms are out. I use a chainguard on my commuter bike, which means I don't have to roll up long pants, but on the other hand, dress pants with sewn-in cuffs still get caught on the chainguard itself.
2. Sweat management - This is especially a big deal during hot weather, but can be a problem in cold weather with layers as well. Cotton is particularly bad for this, because it tends to hold moisture in, but some synthetics, while they dry quickly, tend to smell funny when they're damp.
3. Weather - You should be able to adapt to a reasonable range of weather conditions without too much trouble.
4. Looks off the bike - Obviously, you want to look presentable once the bike is locked up and you have to interact with non-cycling people Wrinkle and stain resistance helps this a lot, as does a smart choice of color and style

I'm still searching for the perfect bike-to-work pants (there are companies that are trying to make stylish dedicated cycling wear, but not only does it not come in big-and-tall sized, it's pretty darn expensive, usually over $100 for a pair of pants). But have had some luck in finding the perfect bike-commuting shirts from an unexpected direction: golf. It seems modern golf wear has evolved away from tartan knickers and excessively loud sweater-vests to a more understated khaki-and-polo-shirt look. And since golfers are social creatures who occasionally spend their time out in the hot sun, they look for fabrics that shed sweat and wrinkles. Golf shirts might be pricey to begin with, but are often readily available at discount retailers, even in 2X sizes (golf may be a sport, but not everyone who plays is built like a 5k runner). So reasonably fashionable, quick-dry, wrinkle-resistant collared shirts are the easy part.

Aside from looking for the perfect pants (I'm envisioning something along the lines of Dickies 874 work pants, but with a gusseted crotch) I'm still searching for the perfect bike-to-work underwear. Without going into the gory details, moisture management and seam placement is key to avoid discomfort, and if you're going to ride to your destination and then spend the rest of the day on your feet, padded cycling shorts tend to have an uncomfortable "diaper" feel to them. So far my favorite has been a pair of briefs from EMS, but they're very expensive. I've also been looking into quick-dry Champion boxer-briefs from Target, but find they bind a bit around the leg holes, making them less than ideal. They do breathe fairly well though, and are comfortable in an upright, walking-around position, so they might work well for some folks.

Oddly enough, in the vast array of internet cycling lore, you can find billions of threads debating about carbon vs. steel frames, millions about whether you should ride Shimano, Sram or Campagnolo but very few discussion what to wear to ride your bike to work. There are some excellent bicycle-fashion-related blogs, but they're geared more towards the city cyclist who travels relatively short distances, and Velouria over at Lovely Bicycle has some good advice to offer for sporty womenss cyling wear for the non-Lycra set, but I'm looking for a bit more masculine approach. I'll keep working on it and share any profound revelations that I come across.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

... as I was saying yesterday

I went out to run some errands, and headed over to the Bridgewater Promenade shopping center. I went to go lock up my bicycle at Target and was greeted by this:
The bike rack was completely blocked by shopping carts. Fortunately there was another bike rack at the far end of the building, but it goes to show how low-priority bicycle parking can be.

What's worse is that Target is the only shop in that center that even offers bicycle parking, I went to Home Depot and found nowhere to lock up, in fact the support columns of the building's facade seemed to be designed deliberately to prevent people from locking bikes to them, and I had to go out into the car parking area and lock to the security camera post (trying not to damage the bundle of exposed wires around the base).

I was somewhat tempted to just walk my bike inside with me and use it as a shopping basket, but figured it was all wet and muddy and it would just bring grief to someone who had nothing to do with the lack of bike-friendly facilities.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A Name Change and Some Wonky Thoughts on Bicycle Parking

As I mentioned recently, I don't update this blog nearly enough to warrant the "Daily" name, so I'm changing it. I got a few suggestions, and finally settled on a version of one that came from a casual conversation.
As I go in to the "dashboard" to change the name, I'm realizing it kind of feels like being back in a high school rock band, when we'd change our name every week, but never actually had any gigs.

Anyway, on a brief but more serious note, I recently read an article at www.grist.org on how more bicycle-friendly parking can draw in customers to local businesses.
While it's true that secure bicycle parking costs way, WAY less than car parking (even a 10-bike slot costs a fraction of a single car space, it's not even a close comparison) there seems to be two other factors working against an increase in bike parking, at least in suburban New Jersey.

First off is the economic stereotype of cycling. In spite of the increasing number of middle-class citizens using bikes for short trips or even going completely car-free voluntarily, bicycles are considered transportation for poor people, kids and DUI offenders. Business owners don't feel the urgency to cater to cyclists, because they may believe that anyone who might show up on a bike won't have money to spend.

The second issue I see, and noted from far too much time spent reporting on local planning board meetings, comes from the way many urban/suburban centers' land use laws work. Just about any business opening in a downtown area (which will draw the most transportation cyclists) is required to provide parking for a certain amount of cars. Often meeting the minimum requirement for a particular business is nearly impossible based on the available space, and requires the owner/developer to get variances and other special allowances to make up for failing to meet municipal requirements.

When a new business is already having a hard time getting clearance to build because it doesn't have enough car parking, what is the incentive to give up even a single potential car slot for bicycle parking? By the same token, many existing businesses are allowed to get away with fewer parking spaces than are required by current law because they were "grandfathered" in, but if they want to convert a motor vehicle space to bicycle parking, they may face zoning and planning issues that would make it difficult and expensive.

Obviously these aren't insurmountable problems, and not every municipality has the same requirements, but there is a pressure to provide more car parking, and at the very least, this makes the idea of providing a lot of bicycle parking unappealing to a lot of business owners.

I would like to see state and municipal laws address this, possibly even granting incentives for certain types of businesses that provide a certain amount of bike parking. This would also involve adopting some standards for bicycle parking as well, as far as sizing and security. Again, these are not impossible problems to work around, but they require willing politicians and common-sense advocacy.

Perhaps a smart advocacy group could take advantage of the fact that a number of NJ politicians are fairly pro-cycling (including our Central Jersey congressmen Leonard Lance(R) and Rush Holt(D), both of whom are members of the Congressional Bike Caucus).

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Name My Blog contest and Continuing Thoughts on Bicycle Commuting

OK, I'm just about managing a "Weekly DeBlass," but that doesn't have the same ring to it, so I'd I'm asking you for suggestions on what to name the blog. The winning suggestion will get... um... to pick the name of my blog (sorry, I don't really have anything good to give away at the moment!)

In other news, high gas prices and a continually unreliable vehicle (it is technically drivable, but the transmission is acting up, so I've left it in the driveway the last few weeks until I get a good diagnosis and raise the funds to fix it), I'm doing almost all of my traveling by bicycle lately. Since I'm pretty severely underemployed, it's not too much of a hardship for me, most of my trips are under 10 miles each way.

As I mentioned before, my current ride is the first bike I've had in a while that isn't a "sport" style. It's definitely a utility bike with no pretense towards racing. In keeping with that, I've decided that instead of either the lycra look or the wanna-be messenger style, I'm just going to ride in regular "people clothes." With the generally cool early spring weather, it's actually been pretty comfortable to cruise around in khakis and light windbreaker, and as it gets warmer I'm shifting towards shorts and polo shirts. I'm still sticking with flat pedals and regular street shoes as well. In addition to being able to get off my bike and walk around the supermarket without feeling the constant urge to blurt out "I'm bicycle commuting" to everyone I see, I feel like riding in regular, even slightly preppy-ish, street clothes helps do a bit for cycling advocacy by sending the message that bicycling is a normal form of transportation that doesn't require special gear or athletic discipline.

There's a lot of information on the internet that addresses cycling as transportation, and even a few blogs devoted to bike-related fashion. Among this you can find a lot of discussion on fabric choices (lightweight wool seems to be tops for quick-drying/not-smelling-funny), the length and cut of pants, less-geeky looking helmets, etc. But amid all this information on non-sports bike wear the blogosphere seems to be strangely silent on one particular topic: underwear. Anyone who's ever pedaled a modest distance on a humid day can understand how one's choice in skivvies can have a dramatic affect on one's comfort level, but it seems very hard to find anyone who's willing to say "hey, wear these and they won't chafe/bunch/feel like you dredged them out of the Everglades when by the time you get to work."

I'm debating on whether I want to chronicle (sans illustrations, thank you) the results of my own research into the topic or not. On one hand, I would be providing useful information and leading an important discussion, on the other, I don't know if I'm ready to surrender the tiny bit of dignity I have left.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The M.A.S.H. Analogy and Mean Humor. Also, Is It Time To Change The Name Of This Blog?

I was reading a piece in Slate by Joanna Weiss about how the trend of mean-spirited sitcoms seems to be dying down. By "mean-spirited" I'm not just talking about snarky humor and sarcasm, but shows like "Two and a Half Men," which the article held up as an example of the genre. Shows like that or like "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" derive their humor mostly through outrage and schadenfreude, as completely unsympathetic characters do unbelievably selfish and often stupid things, then get exactly what they deserve. (Or not, in which case we get to chuckle over the fact that they somehow got away with it).
This is all undeniably funny, and in it's own way is a backlash against the syrupy lesson-in-every-episode type of family sitcom that came before, but eventually it becomes as much of a formula as the shows it was originally meant to mock, and the humor pendulum begins its swing from sarcasm back to sincerity.
Of course, the other problem with that type of show is that the characters, by nature, are not very sympathetic at all. If you actually liked and identified with them you'd be outraged at their behavior, but as it is it becomes like watching a nature documentary about some weird species of reptile: they're not really human, so when they bite the head off their own young it's much more excusable and queasily fascinating. 
Most sitcoms need to have a "jerk" to act as the foil for the main character, and to occasionally add a little humorous outrage, but it seems that those characters are more interesting when they're also human beings with sympathetic qualities.
I'd use the show "M.A.S.H." as an example (other long-running shows like "The Simpsons" work equally well, but there's a great test case to be had here). The two central wise-cracking doctors, Pierce and Hunnicutt, had a nemesis for the entire run of the show, other than the actual war. There were two characters who filled that role, and one of the was way better than the other.
The first was Major Frank Burns, who was more of a stereotypical Jerk character. Burns was a cowardly, incompetent suckup, who was quick to pull rank on other characters and suck up to authority. His general lack of likability and hypocrisy made him a frequent butt of jokes by more sympathetic characters, giving the viewer the pleasure of watching them "win" over the Jerk.
However, eventually Burns left the show and was replaced by a much more interesting, funnier and more nuanced character named Charles Winchester (the Third). Charles was a top-class surgeon from a wealthy Boston WASP family. He was an arrogant snob, disdainful of popular culture and his fellow co-workers and made it clear that he though his assignment in a battlefield hospital was far beneath him.
BUT, he was also a brilliant surgeon and had a strong sense of honor, humor and fair play. And as his character developed (character development being another option not offered in the "no hugging, no learning" school of comedy writing) he came to exhibit some surprisingly sentimental and admirable characteristics. This made the war of put-downs and practical jokes between him and his co-workers a lot easier to relate to, after all, who doesn't like to mess with their friends just a bit?
In the "mean" comedy, every character is like a Frank Burns, and while it's funny to laugh at them getting their comeuppance, it's really hard to put yourself in their shoes (good God, at least I HOPE it is!). Personally, while that's funny for a short time, if I can't find something sympathetic with the characters, I'll eventually get bored with the show (probably why Seinfeld put me to sleep. There I said it, I hated Seinfeld). The trick is, of course, to find a good balance between sweet feel-good comedy (which is hardly ever actually funny) and mean-spirited comedy (which, like Taco Bell, can be hard to resist when its in front of you, but will leave you feeling queasy and unfulfilled ten minutes later).
We'll see whether there's anything to what Miss Weiss had to say, I'd like to see some better-rounded stuff out there. While I've enjoyed watching some of the "mean" stuff, I'm starting to thing that if all I want to do is watch selfish, stupid people making asses of themselves on screen, I may as well just be watching reality shows.

In other news: I've long since gotten out of the habit of updating this on any sort of schedule, so maybe "The Daily DeBlass" is not really an appropriate title. It may be time for a change, so I'm taking suggestions for a new blog title.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Learning to be Slow

Just about ten years ago, I bought a new bicycle. I wanted something sturdy and versatile, and bought myself a cyclocross bike, with dropped handlebars and off-road brakes. I coulnd't afford two good bicycles, so I figured that this would handle aggressive road riding as well as light trail and touring use. It was a fast bike, not the most comfortable thing on two wheels, but I put it to use in some all-day rides anyway. After replacing just about every part on it I finally sold off the frame few years ago, with the idea that I'd build up a new road bike with the parts I'd hung on to. Unfortunately, the car broke down and I ended up spending my frame money on the infernal combustion machine, so I could get to work. The new bike never got built.

About a week ago, I bought another new bike, my first one in a decade (I've had other ones in the interim, but they've been assembled out of second-hand frames and fourth-hand parts, often as not held together by MacGuyver-like improvisations and zip ties. Not one of them has actually been big enough to be a comfortable fit for my six-foot-plus self). Just like a decade ago, I can't afford two good bikes (a breif period of relative financial security, if not exactly prosperity, fell victim to the Great Recession, just like it has for so many others), so I had to get something that would satisfy my need for commuting, road riding, some weekend touring and light trail use. This time, however, I got a bike with swept back “North Road” style handlebars, an 8-Speed internally geared hub and fenders. It's closer in spirit to a mid-20th Century British three-speed than a Belgian mixed-course racing machine. It's more “tweed jacket” than “lycra shorts.” I even put a bell on the handlebars.

So what changed? Why not get another cyclocross bike, or a mountain bike with slick tires, or anything more aggressively styled? The obvious answer is that I'm not in as good shape as I was at 25, but that's not it. If I ride enough (and with gas prices and frequent breakdowns, leaving the car in the driveway is not a hard choice most days), I'll be able to move at a good clip before too long. Already, after a week of riding, some of the hills are feeling noticably smaller and some of my routes feel a bit quicker. Am I suffering an attack of retro-grouch nostalgia, and trying to recreate the club riding experience of half a century ago? Maybe a little, but it's not a replica of an old bike, it's a modern, aluminum machine which while it may be inspired by those old roadsters, is a lot lighter and has some nice upgrades (like a bigger range of gears). Maybe it's because it looks cool and it impresses women? Well, yeah, but I can do that on any type of bike.

I think a huge part of the reason is that after all these years of riding I really want a bike that I can just hop on and GO. No special shoes (I have not intention of putting clipless pedals on this thing, or even toe straps and clips. Just plain old flats for me, thanks), no funny shorts (although I may find myself wearing liners or shorts with padding for longer trips) and no need to tuck my pant leg into my sock (it's got a chain guard). The riding position is upright enough that I can wear my regular raincoat when it rains, and sling my leather briefcase over my shoulder without it getting too uncomfortable. I wear sneakers, dress shoes or even sandals, not lugging a change of shoes everywhere I ride. I don't have to spend 20 minutes getting prepped to ride, I just have to figure out where I left my cell phone, squeeze the tires to make sure they're pumped up, and roll.

The new bike is slower than my drop-bar bikes have been (not by much, judging by the time it takes to get places and the readouts on those radar signs, but definitely a couple MPH), but that's OK, because I'm also learning the value of taking it easy sometimes. If I'm riding to work, it's nice to be able to wear my work clothes instead of having to pack a change, and if I want to show up without looking like I've been swimming to work, that means staying at an exertion level that doesn't make me sweat too much. It's the difference between “brisk walk” and “jogging” paces. Because I'm in a relaxed stance, I don't feel that subconscious pressure to race everywhere, and I'm certainly not riding a bike that I'll ever find myself saying “I may race this one day,” so I don't have the need to live up to that kind of thinking either.

I think, when it comes down to it, this says a lot about who I am these days, I'm no longer out to prove anything to myself (except perhaps that I can find a halfway decent job again, but that's another blogging topic altogether) but hope to be able to sit back and enjoy the ride a bit more.