Category Archives: cycling

The Flat State

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I take back everything I may have said about cycling in Delaware. For those who don’t know, I now spend a significant amount of time in The First State, so named because it was the first state to get a commemorative quarter back when that was the big thing. The fact that there are almost no paths, that any route out of Wilmington is through the kind of neighborhood that doesn’t feel welcoming to spandexed speedsters, and the generally hellaciously high traffic levels, combined with my inability to find more than one or two rides even mapped on MapMyRide, made me despair of finding a decent ride around here without driving for miles and miles to a decent starting point. But I ventured down to New Castle, pretty much like Colonial Williamsburg except people live there, and picked a couple of rides starting at its Battery Park. Yesterday I tried The Coastal Evacuation Route, which gave me no assurance that it would ever, in event of a coastal disaster, lead me to any kind of higher ground, but it did take me through refineries and industrial areas down to Delaware City. The shoulders on these roads are not to be believed — routinely 8 feet wide, in perfect condition (except for strewn glass), and generally used only for turning. When they are used for turning, signs require drivers to yield to bicycles. Who’s the bike-friendly state now? Well, I did get a flat tire, but I didn’t let it stop me, and I took on another 14k after that to stick with my plan.

Tonight I tried another run out of Battery Park, around the suburbs of Christiana and so forth, and it was more of the same. Only faster — MUCH faster. I posted my highest average speed ever in the history of ever, 31.9 kph, over 51k — and in reality I was doing more like 32.5 until I hit some sloggy traffic at the end. It was astonishing, and I wasn’t even trying that hard. The combination of flat, smooth and straight just delivered an amazing boost to my speed.

And then after that, of course, I sought out the Performance Bike store and picked up some new jerseys (well, actually that’s across the bridge) and a proper raincoat, justifying it all with the commuting I say I would be doing, if I were ever actually in Albany to do it.

Wet madness

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In order to commute by bike, I think you need to be at least a little bit mad. With all that previous investment — new shoes, new cleats, new respectable-looking commuting shorts, new rack, new panniers — with all that, I still didn’t have quite enough in the game to really force the issue, to push myself over the economic brink at which I would have to say that I had spent too much NOT to ride to work every time I could. It would take a spectacular gesture, a single stupidly expensive piece of equipment to send me over the edge. And it would have to be something that would answer my final objections, which were that the laptop was slopping around in the panniers I had and was likely to get wet, or banged up, or both.

Enter Arkel’s laptop briefcase pannier. Insanely expensive. Why? Because it’s worth it. I knew I didn’t want to stand around in the rain working the bungees and buckles of the other pannier; Arkel has a single bungee, and a single levered locking system. My old bag would slop about and wouldn’t let me stand up on the pedals without risking catching the bag in the pedals; the Arkel simply doesn’t move. Worried about the laptop bouncing around? It goes in a sleeve and hangs from the top of the bag, instead of resting on the bottom. Worried about rain? I can’t imagine how this fabric would soak through (they give you a sample with your bag and dare you to rip it), but for a reasonable-ish additional fee, they give you a fantastic, bright yellow reflectorized rain cover that wraps nearly around the entire bag. It’s stiff, sturdy, as big as you need it to be, it straps down tight and when it’s off the bike, it looks like a briefcase. And at the price of  $235 with the rain cover, pricey enough that now I have to ride, in order to justify the 78 days of riding the bus that it cost. (Oops.)

So when the forecast this morning said it would be raining in the morning and raining perhaps a little harder on the ride home, I dug out rainpants I haven’t used in years, the wrong raincoat (meant for sport riding, not commuting, and not at all waterproof in a drenching rain), popped on my new little Cat Eye loop lights, and set off. Luckily I know just about every crack in the road, because there was a LOT of rain and the potholes were inundated. Got there, locked up under the portico of the Capitol and walked up to my office. Happily, I had a change of shirt there, because the one I wore was soaked. Coming home, I got even wetter. Seriously wet. Wetter than I’ve ever been, and that includes being submerged. But at least I’d ridden a few pathetic miles more than I would have otherwise.

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I used to bike commute to a great workplace that had secure bike lockup, a locker room and showers, and a place to store my spare clothes (on hangers!) I may have been a little spoiled. But when I went back to work downtown I committed that once I was settled in and had the right to be a little eccentric, I’d get back to bike commuting. But this time it ain’t so easy, and not just because they’ve made a long detour off the bridge that adds a mile or so, which is no big deal and actually welcome.

No, it’s a pain because:

  • I don’t have a secure, under-cover lockup. There’s a cheesy plastic lumber bike rack (held to the building with a rusty chain). There are similar racks that ARE under roofs at the Capitol, so if I know it’s going to rain I can park my bike there in the dry. And while I have access to the Plaza bike lockup, it’s not only a bit of a walk from my building, there’s no way you can legally ride your bike to the bike lockup. It’s insane, but you have to get onto the Plaza, ride down a garage ramp, then WALK your bike through the concourse to the lockup. 
  • I have to carry my laptop. Partly because I need to take it with me when I’m traveling, and partly because there’s no place to lock it in my office. And bike commuting with a laptop is a pain. It’s too hot to carry something that heavy on my back, and my pannier isn’t really good enough to keep a laptop safe, so I just plunked down an insane amount for a laptop-specific pannier that should be able to handle anything, and has a rain cover to boot.
  • I can’t stand to ride without clipless pedals. (You know, the kind that your shoes clip into. They’re called clipless. Just accept it.) So I had to find some mountain bike shoes that would work with my pedals and yet let me walk through my building like a normal person. Found some great Pearl Izumis that really fit the bill, too.
  • It’s SLOW. Going from my Roubaix back to my upright Bianchi Strada is like going from a sportscar to a tractor trailer. So I have to accept slowness.

However, with all this investment, I get an hour a day in that I wasn’t getting in otherwise. All worth it.

By the way, I ran the numbers, and while riding my bike, even with all this new gear, is cheaper than driving (if I even could — I don’t have parking), the bus is still cheaper than the bike. And it lets me carry my coffee in.

No, they mustn’t.

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bicyclists must walkLike most people, I obey the law, except when I don’t. I follow all the
traffic rules when I’m cycling. I do not ignore stop signs, and I don’t
roll through red lights (and if that’s made me annoying to erstwhile
riding companions, so be it – the whole problem with drivers today is
their absolute sense of entitlement, of a right to the road superior to
everyone else’s rights, and I’m tired of it). I signal my stops and
turns when it’s safe for me to do so (but with the rough pavement we
have, releasing the handlebars isn’t always a good idea). I don’t cut
through parking lots or ride on sidewalks. I even stop for school buses,
not because my bike is going to run over some kindergartener, but
because it’s the law. It’s just what you do.

But I’ll be damned
if I’ll obey the signs on the ramps up to the Dunn Memorial Bridge that
say “Bicyclists must walk on ramp.” There is no reason on earth for this
rule. First, it doesn’t recognize that on that narrow ramp, a cyclist
walking his bike is twice as wide, making it harder for people going in
opposite directions to pass each other. Second, it doesn’t recognize
that it’s nearly impossible to walk that steep ramp in bike shoes.
Third, it would add at least 40 minutes to my commute every day if I
were to actually walk my bike on the ramps. But most importantly, there
is NO REASON for it. Why would I have to get off my bike and walk it? If
I can’t control my bike on a hill, then I couldn’t be riding on that
bridge anyway, because the choice on either side of the bridge is a

Do we periodically require that drivers get out and push
their cars on a stretch of highway? No. Why not? Because it would be
insane. Same with this. You want to tell me to yield to pedestrians,
fine. You want to set a speed limit, fine. You want to warn me to slow
down on the complete afterthought of an elbow in the ramp where the
homeless drop their crackpipes to the pavement, fine. But you want me to
get off and walk my bike just to make getting across the river on a
nasty, unmaintained, glass-strewn sidewalk just a little less pleasant?
Not fine.

What brings this to mind? Coming home from a hot ride
on Sunday, getting ready for a long slog up the hills to home. There are
hundreds of cyclists along the river because the Bike the Canal ride
was finishing up in Albany that morning. And I get behind a couple of
them with their big cruiser bikes and their packed saddle bags who have
decided to go across the river. And like any good tourists, they are
obeying the sign and walking their bikes up the ramp. They’re so wide I
can’t get around them even on my bike, and if I get off and try to walk
up the ramp in my skittery bike shoes I will be even wider and
completely unable to get past them ,and now I’m stuck spending 10 extra
minutes in the hot sun just slogging across this unfresh hell of a
bridge cursing the bureaucrat (possibly someone I know, I realize) who
decreed that bicycles must be walked on this ramp. When I finally got to
a point in the glass-strewn gardenway where I could squeeze myself
between their depanniers and the chainlink fence and get by, I got to
the down ramp and found another pair of cyclists, dutifully walking
their pack mules down the ramp.
Why do I not obey this sign? Because it is insane.

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Something’s gotta give

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Right knee.

Image via Wikipedia

What with this whole “working full-time” thing, a mess of traveling thrown in with that, an increasingly busy end-of-year schedule for the girls at school, and all the usual things that need to get done to keep a family going, it was bound to happen. Something had to give. That something, apparently, is my knee. Specifically (probably), my meniscus. As Zevon said, “My shit’s fucked up  . . .  the shit that used to work, won’t work no more.” That and rain have been keeping me off the bike, which is the one thing I really didn’t want to give, but of course having to show up to an office every day is bound to put a crimp in the cycling lifestyle. Once I know what I’m doing, I can probably work some rides in, but right now there’s just too much to learn and too many hours to put in.

The knee was actually something I broke back in the big snowfall. Too much shoveling, which always has some twisting involved, and then a couple of days later I went down on my knee and screamed like a girl. I’ve been babying it ever since, and it’s mostly been better, but never all the way. And then it started to get worse. While we wait for the greatest medical system in the world (and to question that is communist) to decide if I can have pictures taken of my knee, the doc told me I could ride, but not hills. Living in Rensselaer county, that’s a challenging prescription. I was going to stick to it tonight, but the rain came down again as soon as I got home and I just wasn’t into it. So, another day of rest. Let’s hope it makes a difference. But something tells me my streak of being surgery free is about to end.

I just wanna lock my bike

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Millions for parking lots, but not one cent for bike racks! Or: Making Al Gore Cry

Twice in recent days I’ve been in a perfect position to do what I almost never do while riding my bike
– stop and enjoy a cup of coffee and something to eat. And twice in recent days I’ve been reminded why I almost never do that, and why even doing local errands on my bike is a travail: there’s nowhere to lock up. One was at a well-known and loved local coffee shop, tucked up against a large college campus, where you would expect that students would frequently bike. I stopped by after a ride in the neighborhood and thought how nice it would be to dispel the spring cold with a cup of coffee before riding the last little bit and putting the bike up – but there was NO place to lock up. Not even a bad place, like a bench, which I hate to lock to because it makes it hard for people to sit. Just nowhere. So I had to go back to my truck, put up the bike, and then drive back to the coffee shop. Then back to where I needed to be. Very inconvenient.

Same thing happened again Friday, in one of those storybook New England towns with a lovely town center, gorgeous shops I could never afford to buy anything from, a deplorable dearth of open coffee shops in early April, and some very tempting pizza. I was cold and a bit surprised by the hills (the Berkshires are hilly; who knew?) and was for once happy to stop for sustenance. But there was nothing to lock my bike to: not a light pole, certainly not a bike rack. There was a bench, but locking to it would have put my bike square in the walkway and I don’t like to do that. So again, it was off to my truck and back again, making Al Gore cry for the senseless waste all the way.

When I was growing up it seemed that many more people actually rode their bikes and did things with them. In fact, looking through my high school yearbook the other day, I noticed a number of shots that were posed by the bike racks. And what was parked at those bike racks? Bikes. Kids rode their bikes to school. After a couple of years of pleading, I finally got a bike rack installed at my daughter’s high school. Today when I try to do errands, I find one impediment after another, and things are not getting better. Going to the drugstore or the bank on my bike is just a pain, when it shouldn’t be. And even a place that you would think would be welcoming, like Stewart’s, isn’t – of the hundreds of Stewart’s I’ve visited by car and by bike, there’s not a single one that I’ve encountered that has a bike rack. I used to make a point to stop and get an extra drink or ice cream and stretch my legs, but I don’t anymore.

CDTA, our local transportation authority, has done a lot to promote biking in the area (or, in transportation jargon, “intermodal transportation”). They’ve added bike racks to every bus in the region – something I always forget when I’ve got a broken spoke, but which could come in handy. They’ve also been giving away bike racks every year, and have put up a very handy map of where those bike racks have been installed.

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Jarheads throwing bottles again

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Luckily, I lost my faith in humanity long ago, or this constant rash of barely evolved creatures throwing things at me from cars would be putting a serious dent in it. I don’t know if it’s their fear of fitness that causes it, personal shame, or having been raised by wolves, but for some reason a ridiculous number of miscreants with driver’s licenses (presumably) believe that it’s okay to throw things from moving cars at bicyclists, just because they can. I don’t see them do this to pedestrians, skateboarders, or other vehicles — just bicycles. This week’s pillars of society were a pair of young men and a young lady in a shitty little sedan on Old Niskayuna Road, New York license plate ESG4524, who thought it the height of hilarity to slow down alongside me and threaten to throw a bottle of water at me. They did back off, so I didn’t call them in. But seriously — you will hurt someone, and when you do I hope you get what’s coming to you.

Mad Alchemy

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Ghost sign to be

Image by carljohnson via Flickr

It’s so cool when you try something and it’s just as good as you had hoped it would be. Especially in this case, because I’ve been wanting to try it for a couple of years but just hadn’t ponied up the money. Along comes a birthday, hints are broadcast (over the interwebs), received and acted on, and finally I get to try it. Omigod, so good.

Talking about Mad Alchemy warming embrocation. See, there are times when you’re cycling and would like your legs to be warm. Especially in the shoulder months, this can be a challenge. You start off with cold leg muscles and when it’s below 55, the wind keeps them cold. The traditional, cheap cure for this is Icy Hot or WarmFX (same thing, really), but these have downsides — they start out too hot, they dry out your skin, and the methyl salicylate worries me a bit. (It’s unlikely to cause a problem, but there is that one pesky fatality.)

So today, 55 degrees, sunny, windy, perfect conditions for bare legs with a little something extra (too much colder and I’ll be pulling on the leg warmers). Put on the medium strength Mad Alchemy embrocation just before my ride. It was wonderful to the touch, went on very smoothly and created a nice barrier against the wind, in addition to providing a gentle warming. For today’s conditions, it was utterly perfect — my legs were never hot, my legs are never cold. My legs never felt the wind. Felt so good. And the scent is pleasant and never overpowering, unlike that “omigod enough with the mint already” smell of Icy Hot.

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Seriously, what is wrong with people?

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Ghost bike in Glass Lake

Image by carljohnson via Flickr

I’ve tried to take the stoic approach. I’ve tried to ignore people and go on with my life. I’ve tried not to let people ruin my day. But enough’s enough.

Imagine walking down the street, just like you might do on any day. But 7% of the times you go out for a walk, someone you don’t know randomly throws something at you. A cup of ice, a water bottle, who knows what. You’re walking along, and someone throws something at you. We wouldn’t put up with that for long.

Imagine driving down the street, just like you might do on any day. But 7% of the times you go out for a drive, someone chucks something at your car. You would think you were living in Palestine. We wouldn’t put up with that for long.

Now imagine riding your bike along our roads. By my very conservative calculations, 7% of the times I go out for a bike ride, someone I don’t know decides to throw something at me. Usually they miss, sometimes they hit. Luckily, I’m a very experienced rider, so unless it hits me hard enough to throw me off my bike, I’m not going to lose my line because of a thrown object. Even MORE often, someone decides to come up behind me or alongside me and either scream at the top of their lungs or lay on the horn — and that’s often even more of a surprise, and it’s hard not to be startled. I’m not sure when it became funny to try to hurt or kill people you don’t know, to see if you could make two girls fatherless, and I’m not sure why it’s only okay when the object is on a bicycle. No one would put up with this if it were happening to their cars — there would be unbelievable outrage. But to bikes? Well, what’s the problem?

I can nearly ALWAYS get the license number. I can often chase people down — I’ve successfully caught three cars this summer that thought that trying to knock me off my bike would be a hoot. But after screaming and photographing, I’ve drawn the line at ruining my day by calling the police and bringing my ride to an end. Until yesterday, when a passenger in a gray sedan thought it would be cute to whip some small object into my chest. I was in a hurry to get somewhere so I put off filing the police report until later, and I don’t have any illusions about what they’ll be able to do, but the Saratoga County Sheriff’s office was very helpful.

And from now on, every single person who harasses me when I’m on my bike will be called in to the local police.

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Cycling ups and downs

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The weather has been unrelentingly excellent this summer – admittedly too hot a lot of the time, but without the daily threat of downpours, lightning and hail that usually characterize a summer afternoon. Mostly sunny, mostly dry, and therefore perfect for biking. And yet I’m just not getting the miles in. In part, it’s the uncertain nature of my work – where missing a phone call could mean missing a job, and none of the people I deal with seem to be on a predictable schedule. Some days I’ll go for hours without talking to anyone, some days I’ll spend the whole day on the phone. Makes it hard to plan for a ride.

The second complication has been an unprecedented number of mechanicals, leaving me dead on the road and desperately trying to communicate my whereabouts to my extremely patient wife. The first spoke of the season had the courtesy to break in my garage, before I had even set out; the second and third left me out on back roads that she’d never be able to find without Google maps. The sidewall blowout wasn’t too far away but in a somewhat sketchy neighborhood, a long walk back to the truck in cycling shoes. And there was the time when the mechanical problem was me, and it was just too hot to face another 20 minutes of climbing to get home after a long, insanely hot ride. All of these have cut into my miles and left me scrambling to replace parts, swap wheels around, etc. in order to get back on.

The biggest enemy of time on my bike is simply that I like to go long, and I’m not getting to do that this summer. I think a 50k ride (which takes 2 hours) should be the minimum, and when I can’t squeeze that in, I’m unlikely to settle for half that or less – which means that I’m not getting miles into my legs that I could. I’ve struggled with this issue for years. In other years I’ve considered 70 or 80k to be the ideal, but that’s barely happened this summer.

So we come into the late part of the season, when motivation is usually flagging anyway, without enough kilometers to make me satisfied. On the upside, I’ve explored new roads, found new ways to get to old places, discovered fresh pavement here and there, and have still not had a bad ride. Healthy, strong and able to blow the doors off most other rides I encounter. Can’t complain about that.

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