Monday, September 22, 2014

We were the Culture of Speed once

An item I read about a bicyclist in Kentucky being arrested for vehicular cycling reminded me of the ChipSeal case from several years ago. I'd lost track of ChipSeal in the intervening years, so I went to see what he's up to. His blog reported police encounters from only about a month ago.

ChipSeal illustrates the difference between an advocate and an activist. He rides within the law, but he takes up every square inch the law allows. Because most people, including many of those paid to uphold it, do not know the law, the vehicular cyclist claiming a permitted share of the road looks conspicuously obstructive to motorists who firmly believe the cyclist has a legal duty to defer to them in all cases. And that, my friends, is the majority of motorists. So ChipSeal and others who assert their rights -- and ours -- in the face of civilian and police harassment keep motorists thinking about bicyclists, but not necessarily fondly.

Any set of principles can take on a religious level of dedication. If we as riders believe we have a right to the road, why do we not all claim this right, all the time? The activists seem to survive at least as well as the less assertive. They would say more so. By being in-your-face visible and present, they are told they make themselves a target, but they also force motorists to steer deliberately around them.

"It is common for motorists to be annoyed with my presence and express it with their automobile horns. Often, the more impatient motorists will pass me on the shoulder. Even when the road divides into two lanes again I will often get free unsolicited advice from motorists or their passengers as they accelerate past me." This is a quote from ChipSeal's blog entry for August 23. It indicates the psychological effect of assertive cycling on motorists and passengers in vehicles passing the assertive cyclist. They do not suddenly start thoughtfully considering the rights and the challenges of transportation cycling. They're just pissed off by one more idiot on a bike.

ChipSeal refers to the Culture of Speed and a windshield view of the world. We notice it now, after almost a century of motorist domination. But we were the Culture of Speed once. Not only did the introduction of human-powered two-wheelers lead to incidents of bad behavior, the bicycle as it evolved also greatly increased the speed and cruising range of a person who might previously have had to walk everywhere. Cycling groups led the movement to improve roads so they could go faster in greater safety. And from the bicycle, on the roads that cycling helped improve, transportation evolved to be even faster with the addition of external power sources that did not eat hay and crap on the road. So the bicycle was left behind by technological development. Whether it should have been is another matter. People wanted to go even farther, even faster, with even less personal effort, even though the automobile required massively greater utilization of resources and mobilization of workers, and thus a greater public cost than bicycling and a good rail system would have required. All that stuff created jobs and set money in motion, so it all seemed just wonderful.

The costs were spread over society in ways we have only begun to calculate. Individuals tend to look only at what they see coming directly out of their pockets. So they'll complain about the cost of a vehicle, registration, insurance, fuel, parking and maintenance and overlook public health and safety costs, congestion, sprawl, pollution, resource depletion and other ills until they get so bad they can't be ignored anymore.

Those of us who for various reasons took up bicycling have to varying degrees refused technology that the mainstream has accepted. Some purists refuse it entirely. Some recreationists don't really refuse it at all, even to the point of despising and persecuting bicyclists who ride on the road. Anyone can hop on a bicycle. Then, no matter what they really believe, anyone who sees them on it will lump them in with "bicyclists" as a category. The opinion of that category lies with the beholder.

Why do we ride? Usually people ride to go faster than a walk. I don't think too many people say, "I ride to go slowly." Even people who pride themselves on riding slowly will find that they have a lower limit. Otherwise, why pedal at all? So speed is relative, but it's always a factor. And relative speed is the root of all our problems with the motorized road user. It's also the root of our problems on paths where we are the fastest users. Then our speed is obvious even if we feel we are working hard to attain it.

Along with speed goes flow. Traffic systems function best when they help the elements using them to flow with the least awkwardness. Wheels create the illusion of flight, so where paths intersect these flights have to cross each other. Mostly we use a system that subordinates the flow on one path to the flow on another, or we use interchanges that keep elements in motion, using ramps and bridges to manage the connections. But motorists can change speed without major muscular exertion, whereas pedalers cannot. We are protective of our speed just as much as drivers are. Indeed, much of our desire to use travel lanes has to do with avoiding the margins of roadways, where debris and poor surface conditions would hold us to very low speeds and rough rides.

We have other reasons to ride in the lane, notably to control passing behavior. But anyone who rides mostly on narrow roads learns to give way in some places and hold the line in others. Full-on vehicular cycling might not get you hit by a car, but it could get you pummeled by someone who followed you until you stopped or tagged into the ditch by someone who had to wait behind you until you did swing right to open the gate.

All of our decisions are calculated to maintain our flow -- in other words, our best sustainable speed.

The motorized Culture of Speed certainly runs at a more frantic pace. Its unquestioning participants can't begin to understand why anyone would settle for less. Only kids and drunks ride bikes to get from place to place. Them and weirdo freaks who probably don't smell very good and must not have real jobs to get to, families to raise and busy schedules to keep. You get nowhere emphasizing the differences between us and them. You have to try to minimize them. Don't think you can do that just by wearing regular street clothes. The drunks wear those. So do the kids. You need to solve the flow problem. Do that and no one will care how we look.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014


Introducing the IMBIBE: Ingenious Mechanics' Bashed In Barplug Extractor.

It can also be used as a corkscrew. Ingenious!

Mix it up

Those of us who get most of our exercise from transportation may find ourselves falling into a routine of the same activity over and over.

I used to mix it up, even in the commute. I had a deal going that allowed me to paddle four miles and walk at least a mile and a half as one alternative. The drive to Lake Wentworth, the paddle and the walk all together took at least an hour and a half each way. It was great fun, but I had to give it up. It ate too much time. But I have few options to insert walking into my commute. So I end up riding the bike every work day.

I'm not complaining, just observing.

By riding every day, more or less, I always use the same muscles in the same way. I stress the same joints. When I take a rest day it helps restore things, but the first day back on the bike doesn't feel as good as the second. The effect is the same with two days off or three.

Until this week.

With the shop closed on Sunday for a while, I gratefully accept the extra day to myself, pay cut and all. I come out of the summer with a lot of chores to finish before winter. I used to ride for fun or go paddling or hiking on days off, but American puritan guilt has finally worked its way into my brain so I don't enjoy anything that can't be related to work. I don't say this is a good thing. It has simply happened.  But on Tuesday, the middle day off, I got myself to go for a couple of hours of moderately strenuous bushwhacking up the mountain behind my house.

Logging has changed the vegetation. Where I used to be able to see quite a distance under the canopy of a mature forest,  now logging cuts of various ages have grown into impenetrable sapling hells. Side light from the open areas has increased the density of understory foliage in adjacent areas. Navigation has become quite tricky. With the prevalence of Lyme disease in the area I don't like to get too cuddly with the underbrush until we've had some hard freezes and shed the leaves. So while one could just shoot a compass bearing and shove on through,  it doesn't appeal to me. It's also been a banner year for ground nesting hornets. I don't want to be tangled in a thicket and suddenly notice the angry swarm I've kicked up.

All this led me to a circuitous path avoiding natural obstacles and an unfortunate house built by people who used to have a cabin in a hollow and now have a ch√Ęteau on a ridge. It's amazingly well concealed, but it's still up and out there. It used to be easy to avoid the cabin, which was seldom occupied anyway. They're okay people, but I don't go into the woods to socialize. And I don't want to intrude on their privacy either.

When the forest was all mature and the going was good I used to be able to reach the ridge top in an hour or less. This time I did not aim for the summit. There was plenty to see lower down and it was plenty of work to get there.

The next day was rainy. I had things to do indoors. So the hiking day was bracketed by rest days. This morning I rode with none of the creakiness I have when the pattern includes only cycling,  random physical labor and rest. I felt rejuvenated.

This is not a new idea. I merely note how the experience reminded me that it works. In my ideal living situation I would get to mix it up routinely, walking for some errands and riding for others. But I hate to give up a place so rural that I can stand in a grassy clearing in the woods and hear the wing beats of a raven 60 feet above me. So while I'm here I'll have to declare the walks medicinal and justify them that way.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The world's fastest micro-poodles

It's a gray day.  It started kind of light gray, but it's closing in as the clouds thicken. It seemed like a good day to do a park and ride commute to shake down the path bike before autumn really sets in.

On the Cross Check I may ride a lot of dirt, but once I get to Center Street I get back into traffic, even if I rode in the path from North Wolfeboro. The last section of path, along Back Bay, is often full of other users. The street route is more conducive to speed. But the path bike is such a wallowing slug on the pavement that I will stay on the path and be nearly the fastest thing on it rather than waddle down the road as nearly the slowest.

Bombing down the first descents from where I park, the path bike feels solid but maneuverable. Lower down, on the Cotton Valley Trail segment of the route, the wide tires demand a little less precision than the skinnier smooth tires on the Cross Check. But it's no sprinter. Come the frosty time I won't miss the speed. It's a mental and physical transition.
Path Commuter and Cross Check

Zipping along the shore of Back Bay this morning,  I slowed up a little as I approached a guy with a couple of small dogs.  I could hardly see the dogs, but I could tell they were there by the way the man moved.

When the little buggers saw me, they burst into furious yapping.  One launched a charge. I looked down at what appeared to be a rat with a perm, ripping along below my foot.  I mean, these things would need a small step ladder to bite someone's ankle. But the leader in particular was amazingly fast and persistent.

When I saw the mini dog was not going to quit I turned back to lead the chase back to its owner. That did bring me into range of the equally irate but less ambitious other dog, who had broken off pursuit after a few yards, but the responsible human quickly gained control. That's the thing about micro-poodles. You can hold quite an arm load of them.

Not much in the workshop today. One road bike with front derailleur problems. Its chain was a black, dripping mess. Someone must have told the owner,  "be sure to lube your chain." Judging by the rest of the bike, this was apparently interpreted to mean, "and never lube anything else." Everything but the chain is covered with grinding oxidation.

As I arrived at the shop, customers were adding another bike to the repair queue.  It had been on the rear rack of their car when it was hit by another vehicle from behind. It looks amazingly good. The customers already got new parts to replace the bashed ones. The rest of the bike hardly looks like anything happened.  I've seen much worse looking bikes that have never been hit with anything but their owner.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Muffin Doin'

Feeling a little under-breakfasted this morning, I decided to indulge in a sour cream coffee cake muffin from Lydia's Cafe. The recipe dates back to the original Lydia, around 1997. That's three Lydias ago. The current Lydia is a guy named Hunter, but he carries on the fine tradition of a cheerful welcome and worthy consumables.

The cafe's name may be its good luck charm. The original Lydia was pretty darn special at a time when that whole neighborhood could use it. She and her consort, Darrell, moved on to enrich some other place, but each successive owner has kept the name and carried on its pleasant legacy.

I've been getting the enormous scones Hunter introduced. Scones are totally cool. Everyone knows the cool kids get sconed. But I don't want to get sconed so much I need more and more to get the same enjoyment.

All the way in over North Wolfeboro
                                                              I thought about muffins. Muffin is a word with no dignity. You can't sound tough or cool when you ask for one. The word just sounds like you're trying to say "nothin'" with your mouth full -- as it would be when scarfing down a muffin, for instance. Muffins are just not badass. There's no warrior tradition of muffins. It's not the legendary breakfast or mid-morning nosh of conquerors.

"Finish your muffins, men! We're going into battle!"

I did crack 40 mph ripping down from the plateau where I took this picture over distant Lake Wentworth. Foolish risk is a hallmark of badassery. The paved drop rolls out onto a continuation of the dirt. With the right bike it's a fun rush. The low sun through trees that still have all their leaves makes it hard to see in some sections. Every time I get away with it I'm happy, but I wonder how many chances I have left.

From the top of North Wolfeboro it's basically downhill all the way into town, perhaps seven or eight miles. It's not all free fall; the trail levels out quite a bit. But there's nothing left to climb.

Got to work, changed clothes, assessed the situation and headed for Lydia's.

Muffin obtained, I settled into the morning's work. Jobs tend to drop in one at a time right now, allowing plenty of time to consider the details. If I'm lucky, they're jobs with details worth considering. I mean, everyone's details are important, but some of them are more interesting than others.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Horrible seats and cheap pedals

It's hard to spec a bike for industrial production. The seat and pedals on this 1994-ish Bianchi hybrid illustrate the point.

By the time step-in pedals became widespread in the 1990s,  bike manufacturers had already developed the habit of putting disposable plastic pedals on most new bikes. While toe clips were still a viable option, some mid- and upper-range bikes might have somewhat nice pedals in that style, but by the mid 1990s the toeclip was dead, as far as the industry was concerned. After a few seasons in which step-in pedal manufacturers got some OEM spec, the industry decided to save the money and go with disposable pedals on anything that came with pedals at all. They assume a serious rider will choose a pedal system and a casual rider won't care.

The seats present a more complex problem. As I looked at the deterioration of the seat on this Bianchi I thought about what options a bike manufacturer has with that particular piece of the bike's equipment.

The part of the bike that goes between your legs has been a sore point, if you will, since the earliest days of straddled transportation. Among equestrians, saddle toughness is a point of pride. But somehow, among cyclists, the seat has become the bad guy. The sore rider is just an innocent victim. If you look at a lot of OEM seats you can see why. Cheap saddles are almost all really awful. And the high-performance saddles on expensive bikes are more than the untrained ass is ready to withstand.

Unfortunately, the seat is an ambassador for the activity of cycling. How much of the general perception that bike seats are incurably awful is fed by the fact that the cheap original seat on most bikes is incurably awful? And because cyclists don't aspire to saddle toughness anymore -- indeed, many of them never did -- a lot of people feel aggrieved pretty quickly when the ride is uncomfortable.

I see no easy solution. Butts are like snowflakes: no two are alike. So even changing the OEM spec to a higher quality saddle will fail to please a large number of customers because they're simply shaped differently. The bike manufacturer is out the money and the new rider either slouches away grumbling or has to invest in a new saddle for their new bike right away.

The best a retailer can do is acknowledge problems quickly and accommodate changes readily. And that's basically what we do. The process is generating quite a few orphaned and unloved seats, however. Someone needs to come up with a good use for them or a recycling program. Maybe they could be used as part of enhanced interrogation.

"No, please! Don't make me ride that trainer any longer! I will tell you everything!"

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Morning Fog

The approach of autumn brings some brooding skies. This morning's fog was thick enough to rise grudgingly as a thick overcast that only burned off much later. Later rising sun at a lower angle brings less power to bear on the vapor that collects overnight. The day eventually became somewhat sunny, as predicted.

Once I turned off the highway I saw almost no one for the next eight miles or so. The one car I saw coming in on a side road must have turned the other way, because it never passed me.

A customer brought her bike in for us to pack so she can ship it to the start of the Climate Ride from New York City to Washington, D.C.  Every packing job is a unique art project. She rides a little Richard Sachs touring bike from the 1970s or early '80s. Its proportions and our limited supply of boxes led to some interesting challenges. I may be a finalist for this year's Golden Shoehorn Award.

Here's her donation page. Her name is Susan Fuller.

Here's a page listing the beneficiaries of the ride's fundraising efforts.  There are multiple rides and events under the umbrella of Climate Ride.

The rest of my day consisted of odd little repairs as I waited for time to get back on my bike to ride home. Tune in again tomorrow for more diddly crap. But you never know when something good might happen. Remind me of that when the alarm goes off tomorrow morning.