Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Revolution was too hard and scary

For years, there's been this cocky slogan, "The Revolution Will Not Be Motorized," with various graphics of pedal powered conveyances attached. I suppose they still sell well in some places. Here's a sample:

Most people are not revolutionaries. Some of them may be unattractive, but most of them are not revolting.

Bikes seemed rebellious and free in the '60s part of the '70s. Even into the early 1980s, road riding was gaining ground. To those of us with an eye on corporate dominance of our lives, the bike was a way to live on the fringes while we advocated for a social system that valued individual lives and shared efforts more than the pure pursuit of wealth and power. It offered -- and still offers -- a little slice of personal freedom in the course of a normal day.

As hard as it was then, several decades of infrastructure evolution and social conditioning have made it even harder to live without a motor vehicle in most parts of the country. Even revolting people like myself have grown up a little and noticed more and more occupations that contribute value and require more cruising range and cargo capacity than anything powered by meat alone. And the revolutionaries are few, fighting our little skirmishes against armored cavalry in a losing battle for the hearts and minds of the citizens.

Most cycling is just an expensive hobby. Traffic fear has been a huge boon to mountain biking, as fear gets the better of more and more riders who are scared of motor vehicles, but aren't quite ready to relegate themselves to a sedate bike trail and a comfort bike. Aside from the occasional cougar, mountain bikers have nothing to fear but themselves. Don't feel like a brush with death? Take that easier trail. Don't try that particular jump. It's all more protected than the mean streets.

The United States of today is what lies at the end of about 40 years on the path of least resistance. The only thing that could slow an American down was a bad credit score. A shiny bubble was always more popular than a solid foundation.

The revolution was over by the mid 1980s. People might ride bikes for transportation and pleasure, but without the underlying subversiveness. When mountain biking hit, the rowdy image was just that: an image. It was wild and fun, but it also got cyclists off the road.

I don't enjoy riding among motor vehicles. I merely put up with it, because I don't want to be chased off into the rapidly developing system of purely recreational closed courses that serve the off-road rider. A trail builder I know is sure that there is money to be made on such places. He envisions what are essentially country clubs for cyclists where, for a few hundred dollars a year, a group of riders can build and maintain a trail system that has just what they want. Hard lines, easy lines, place your orders. Trails will be built to suit. Cycling is the new golf indeed. Pay to play.

Cycling is becoming a luxury.

Bikes are very adaptable and still widely available. People will ride the roads because they have to. Some of us will ride the roads because we also want to, and because it should be not only our right but an encouraged behavior with far reaching social benefits.

Revolutions fail. The American Revolution is failing now, as the corporate power that led Thomas Jefferson to state, "I hope that we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country" has completely taken over that government. It was a long, back and forth series of battles from the late 18th Century until the Citizens United decision in 2010.

In a way, America was just the economic Petri dish in which this long experiment was turned loose to fester while the rest of the world watched. It's crawling over the sides now, and surrounding nations are starting to worry about the slime. Many of us mired in the culture are just trying to survive. It doesn't look dramatic unless it's your school that got shot up this week, or your medical bills that suddenly billow out of control. A lot of lives go on, teetering on the top rail of a rotten fence. But we're too divided to revolt. We're too afraid even to ride a bike. Get a gun. Get a bunch of guns, and a big truck.

It doesn't matter whether your truck has a big Confederate battle flag, or Old Glory, or a Gadsden snake  trailing in the wind. If you've paid for all that, you've bought in.

The revolution will not be.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

The peloton didn't smell like a laundromat

Only rarely do I encounter another rider on my commute, especially in the evening. It's an awkward time of day and an unattractive route for riders who can put together any loop they want for their day's training objective. When I do encounter someone from the racing crowd, it's usually cordial but brief.

"How's it goin?'


Racer zooms away.

Once in a while, a friendlier one will pull his pace back and hang for a while, until they realize how late they'll get home or how far below their target heart rate they will fall if they plod along with me for too long. I'm on a linear run, while they're on a loop. So off they trot. But one thing has stood out: they all smell like fresh, chemically-perfumed laundry products.

I did most of my racing in the wool era. Lycra shorts and "skin suits" were just coming in, but in mass start races and on training rides you saw mostly riders wearing knitted fabrics that had to be hand washed and hung to dry. If the peloton smelled like anything other than sweat, it was Woolite, and whatever people had smeared on the vicious shark skin of a newly-dried chamois to turn it back into something you might want in contact with your testicles for a few hours.

I haven't been on a group road ride in well over a decade. I did do a charity ride a couple of years in that time, but the group was small and very dispersed, and there was a sea breeze for much of the time. I also don't use scented laundry products, so my own garb has very little odor until I apply a fresh batch of sweat and road grime.

On Friday, I was trudging along, entertaining myself with a stream of consciousness soliloquy, when I heard the smooth grind of a bike drive train behind me, and a voice announcing politely, "on your left." It was a rider I know.

"How you doin'?" he asked

"Just ploddin' along," I said. I'm careful with racers and performance roadies to avoid throwing down any gauntlets. Not that they're necessarily super sensitive to a challenge, but I don't want to look like that sad old bastard on a touring bike who thinks he can show the racers a thing or two. I want to establish right away what they can expect riding near me: a steady pace, probably considerably slower than they will enjoy, and no illusions.

We were on the very last little rise to the height of land on Route 28 northbound. The lead rider, and the younger man drafting him, passed me as quickly as I expected they would. They didn't whoosh past, opening a huge gap and buffeting me with turbulence, but they didn't linger, either. That was fine with me. Really. I settled back into my thoughts as I reached the crest.

Down the slope, I saw them, still riding a nice tight formation. The gap was more than a hundred yards. It was probably well over a hundred yards. I shifted to my usual gear for the descent and accelerated as I usually do. It's basically two miles down hill from there, and essentially down hill all the rest of the way to my house. I'm headed for the barn, so I don't waste time, even on my heavy bike, and carrying the weight of years.

The gap diminished. This was interesting, I thought to myself. I knew that in previous years the lead rider had been going out with one local ride group famous for killing the wounded and eating the dead. I really didn't expect him to be idling. The two riders seemed to be in pretty tall gears, and were pedaling at a respectably high cadence. They were on fancy road bikes.

Whatever the shortcomings of a fully-loaded Surly Cross Check as a climbing bike, it plummets nicely under the influence of gravity. I utilize all that the forces of nature offer me to make my trip faster and easier. On that long descent, there are places I pedal and places I tuck, little grade variations I seek, and rough, speed-robbing strips that I avoid. If there's a tailwind, I'm surfing it. I've ridden the route hundreds of times. I'd left work late that day, and was eager to get home. At a high but maintainable cruising speed, I was up with them in a couple of minutes. Awkward.

"I tried to get left in the dust," I said to the young rider. He grinned. I stayed in the back, but that's where I really started to notice the smell of laundry products. It's not really pleasant, regardless of what the advertising tells you. All I had to look forward to was more of the same, or possibly a fart or two from one or both of them.

They weren't coasting, but I was actually holding back from my usual pace to avoid making a move around them. I didn't want to look like an old geezer beating myself up to pass the racers, but they were -- surprisingly -- costing me time.

One feature I aim for on one of the steeper bits is a weird hump in the pavement, that always reappears not long after any road work. It never forms a sharp peak. When I ride over it, it always launches me into a higher speed bracket. It's worth a gear, at least. And the speed carries well down into the next section, where the grade levels out a bit. I call it The Speed Bump. They didn't use it, and I coudn't get to it. Even without it, I had to make an effort to avoid making a move on the outside.

The lead rider was doing all the pulling, which is silly. The two of them should have been trading leads, and with three of us we could have had a little pace line. Instead, the lead rider yawed somewhat, but never made a definitive move to pull off, and I wasn't going to blow myself up to get to the front. Where the shoulder widened, I winged out a bit to the left, both to use the wind to check my speed and to get out of the cloud of fabric softener swirling in the slipstream.

On the last drop before the road levels out approaching Route 171, I always tuck tight until I get to the bottom and resume pedaling in top gear. Depending on how fresh I feel, I'll start shifting to lower gears right way, or within a few seconds. In any case, bombing down in a tuck is faster than pedaling.

The racers pedaled. They pedaled and pedaled. I had to use the brakes to keep from running up on them. What the heck, I figured. I'll pull left and tuck, and see what happens.

In a tuck, coasting, I accelerated past the pedaling pair, toiling manfully.

"Guys, I'm not even pedaling," I said. "Tuck! Tuuck!"

I pulled clear ahead. Where the road leveled, I followed my usual shifting pattern. I expected them to come ripping through any second.

They never did. I passed through the intersection with 171, grunted up the little rise to the next level bit, and glanced back. They were gone.

Most of the performance riders in town have no use for my technical advice. Most of them don't even shop at our store anymore. These guys don't, although they used to, back before the turn of the  century. It's all friendly enough. If I didn't work in a bike shop I would probably seldom go into one.

Funny thing about modern technology: when I was telling another local rider about the encounter as a funny story, he told me that those guys posted a 20 mile per hour average for the ride on Strava.

I always forget about Strava. Even having just been reminded, I'll forget again soon. I'm not sure what sort of technology you need to own to get your stats uploaded and verified by satellites, but it's not important enough to me to find out. I do know that a 20 mph average would probably kill me. If the climb had been longer, those guys would have opened a gap I couldn't cross, and that would have been totally fine. But maybe they would have averaged 22 mph if they'd worked the descent a little better. Never underestimate the power of an experienced commuter on his way home for a shower and some food.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

The danger of low-traffic roads

Bicycle riders often choose paths and trails because they are afraid of traffic on roads. Road riders will share routes that they prefer, often based on lower traffic volume. I do it myself.

On busy roads, cyclists worry about close passing and drive-by maliciousness. But the volume on a high-traffic road forces motorists to keep up with each other. Each one only has a couple of seconds to spend on hassling a cyclist before inviting the impatience of drivers coming up from behind. Granted, in a hostile neighborhood a rider may encounter a conveyor belt of aggressive criticism, but in most places a driver will settle for an angry horn blast, or a fender-brush, in passing on their privileged way. More drivers do an okay job going around me than don't.

Quiet roads seem relaxing. Most drivers I encounter seem more interested in getting by with a minimum of fuss regardless of traffic volume. But a quiet road also affords the malicious driver more time to plan and execute cowardly acts of bullying, one on one. A case in point: Yesterday, I was on the home stretch of a 41-mile ride home from dropping off a vehicle in Gilford. With about a mile to go, on a beautiful, sunny afternoon, I was coasting down a little grade when a navy blue Chevy HHR came up and slowed beside me.
The road is bumpy there, so I kept my eyes forward. No one rolled down a window to speak to me. The vehicle just squeezed over to the right, to herd me into the ditch.

Having none of that, I braked sharply and yanked the bike to the left to cross behind the Chevy to the clear left lane. The driver jammed on the brakes as soon as I was behind the vehicle, but not enough to get me. He (I assume, since the whole thing was a total dick move) accelerated slowly away, giving no response to my interrogatory "WTF" shrug.

Such incidents are blessedly rare. But that makes them stand out all the more, when you are reminded that some people enjoy making a special effort to try to mess up someone else's day, and perhaps even cause injury. Put it on YouTube and it will get 7 million hits and make them some beer money.

My rage rises slowly in cases like this. As the incident unfolds, I focus on calm and decisive maneuvers to avoid a crash. Because the cowards usually do their thing and roll on by, I can come to a boil behind them while they're still close enough to hit with a short-barreled weapon, if I were so inclined and equipped. The fact that I could be so inclined is a major reason why I am not so equipped. I would dearly love to vaporize their back window in a shower of glass shards. But I really wouldn't love to vaporize the back of someone's skull, which is a very real possibility when you start tossing lead around.

I have yet to devise the ideal emotionally-satisfying response or a good defense mechanism. Any use of force invites escalation. The best strategy seems to be the existing strategy: ride smart, refuse to quit, and remember that there are many ways to stand up for what you believe is right. The need for principled resolve never ends. It could be scary and it could be painful, but you will experience fear and pain no matter how you live. You might as well spend them on something worthwhile.

Fear itself is just an emotion. Sustained negative emotions can have damaging physical effects, but you can learn to diminish a lot of your fear, and use the remaining bit to heighten your awareness. Mere emotional disruption is far more common than actual physical injury out there on the road.

Anger is a byproduct of fear. My anger centers on two aspects of the violation: I could be hurt, which would disrupt my economy, to say the least; and someone else could be hurt or intimidated. So far, I have been able to take care of myself out there. Ride smart. Learn to get comfortable with other vehicles fairly close to you. You're safer on most streets than you would be in a Cat 4-5 criterium. Most riders do not try racing. They don't learn how to ride mere inches (if that) from someone else.

You can't let yourself dwell on what could go wrong. If you're going to do that, don't just stop at cycling. Think about how insane most of our transportation habits are: We fly at each other on two-lane roads at a combined closure speed of 80 to 130 miles per hour. Motorcyclists join this flow, many of them with no protective clothing whatsoever. I'll bet that they all feel like they've made a better choice than riding a bicycle.

If I let fear get the better of me and quit riding on the roads, I see no point in keeping my job. I'll be walking most places, and driving very little. I've already made plenty of concessions to the motoring public, short of quitting entirely. I ride to the right, I don't bother to herd. I was riding to the right on an empty road on Monday. It's just not enough for some people. Anyone as petty as that deserves no more from me. They represent everything that is wrong with humanity.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Biking will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no biking

When mountain biking surged in popularity in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the United States was in a recession for many of those years.

Here in New England, the mid-1980s economic boom faltered by 1988 and was well on the way down by 1989. Construction projects stopped, newly constructed buildings were never fully completed, and many quickly fell into disrepair. Real estate agents who had grown sleek and fat now wore fading clothes and drove the same Mercedes for several years in a row.

I observed at the time that the economic downturn, as tough as it was for people in search of income, was the best thing that could have happened for the environment.

The search for income led me to the job that I still hold today. The shop needed someone who could figure out new equipment as it appeared, but who also understood older bikes. The fact that I thought I could get by on a meager amount of funds didn't hurt my job security, either.

A committed bike commuter since I graduated from college, I used riding to get me through times of chronic income shortage, and to increase my profit margin when money might briefly flow in a little more briskly.

Recessions tend to kill off the weak. But even among people who still seemed to be living pretty well, economic stress seemed to nudge them toward toys that did not require fuel. Around the Wolfeboro area, a lot of young families seemed to be doing well enough to outfit the whole crew with bikes and to ride them enthusiastically. Because the Lakes Region lives on tourism and seasonal residents, we could see that the economy might be in a bit of a rough patch in general, but enough people were making enough money somewhere to want to spend it on both mountain bikes and trips to our area for vacation.

Once the economy revved up again for the rest of the 1990s, mountain biking had become enough of a habit that we saw lots of business until we more or less suddenly didn't. After the downturn in 2000, for reasons both economic and technological, the bike business turned into a tough way to make a living in just a few short years.

Young adults in urban environments seem to be discovering in large numbers what I discovered with few allies way back in 1979: your money goes farther when you pedal rather than drive. The owners of the economy want people spending every dime they have, while at the same time harshly criticizing the average citizen's lack of thrift and austerity. This dishonest double talk makes snappy sound bites and promotes a hardass attitude worthy of the rise of a thousand year reich, but it does little to improve the human condition overall.

The bicycle is a tool and a symbol of self reliance. If you're really a hardass, apply that hard ass to a bicycle seat. You learn very quickly about doing a lot with a little that way.

The Age of the Guidebook

Part of mountain biking's evolution can be seen in how riding venues are found and promoted.

The 1990s was the Age of the Guidebook. Local riders with the ambition and the resources would produce a guide to the trails they knew, to help visiting riders find them. We discovered the trails and explored them the way explorers have always done, and produced various artifacts on paper to pass the information along.

Guidebook writers face numerous challenges, especially when a route sprawls across miles and spans more than one USGS map. In the forests of New England, landmarks may be scarce. Not every rider used a cycle computer, so mileage increments might not help. Access to the land wasn't always guaranteed. Some rides were open to locals and riders in the company of locals, but the landowner wouldn't appreciate seeing the trail featured in a public ride guide.

At the point in the early 21st Century when mountain biking died back considerably around here, the internet was still a limited resource. By the time we started to notice much demand -- or even just curiosity -- about mountain bikes again, paper maps had all but disappeared, and the internet was bulging with sites devoted to every aspect of cycling.

Cycling has developed a serious web dependency. More on that later.

For practical reasons, I gave up mountain biking around the turn of the century. The Surly Cross Check I built seemed like the perfect bike to explore public rights of way, whether paved or unpaved, without having to worry about landowner permission or trail conditions. I was inventing "gravel riding" without realizing it. It was just "riding" in the peculiar conditions of this area. Lines on the map might not still be maintained roads, but if they were on the map there had been a road at one time. In most cases, enough was left of it to let me get through. Only rarely would a road be so deteriorated that I would hesitate to use it again if I wanted to go that way.

With the resurgence of mountain bike interest, we've seen not only how the mechanical technology has changed, but how trail information has also changed. Because mountain biking has been domesticated fully or partly depending on your region, trail systems are largely purpose-built on preserved land. They're easy to map and easy to promote. Since mountain bikers are largely a drive-to-the-ride crowd, the only difference between them and any other bike path user is the type of terrain they want to encounter on the trails. The all-terrain bicycle is really a limited terrain bicycle, unless you want to expend a lot of personal miles per calorie to chug along on smooth roads on one of those beasts.

Applying the destination resort concept to mountain biking makes it easier to exploit as a purely consumer activity. Some people go to golf resorts. Some people go to lakes or seaside resorts. The mountain biking consumer goes to areas with a known and well documented concentration of riding.

When mountain biking first seized the public fancy in the latter half of the 1980s, it represented freedom and mobility. Rightly or wrongly, the public viewed the mountain bike as the perfect vehicle to ride anywhere, the pedaled equivalent of the SUV. This point of view survived into the 1990s, until the bike designers took it away by focusing on rough terrain capability at the expense of everything else. Given that focus, you no longer have a bike that anyone wants to spend much time pedaling around in search of their favorite terrain. You want to go straight to the good stuff. Choose your favorite search engine, find a venue, load the bikes on your car or truck, and go.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Farmers aren’t cows

The merchant-customer relationship has a lot in common with farming or hunting. Specialty retail used to be different, because so many of the workers were also users, but it was never purely thus. It has moved steadily away from the fellow enthusiast model since the 1990s. The business model moved from small specialty stores to larger, higher-volume retail outlets, through mail order to the impersonal mechanism of the internet.

The larger and more impersonal the delivery systems become, the more the relationship changes not only from an interpersonal exchange between fellow enthusiasts to a quasi-predatory one, but also from a small scale hunting or farming metaphor to a factory farming analogy. You all are being processed, like a bunch of turkeys.

Granted, the metaphor falters because animals used in various ways for food production don't have any autonomy. As a human, you have your knowledge -- such as it may be -- and your free will, to question what seems questionable, to buy from someone else, or to quit an activity entirely. That last factor guides a lot of marketing thought. Purveyors of specialty stuff understand that many people get in, but few stay. This is dramatically evident in a boom and bust cycle, but goes on all the time in lesser waves.

Your knowledge may not be as comprehensive as you think it is. I've been in the business for about 30 years, and I still forget some things from the historical record, or have to dredge my memory for diagnostic information or procedures I might not have used in awhile. And my immersion in this area has taught me about the interdependence of a civilized society. Primitive hunter-gatherers needed to cooperate, but in the earliest times there was a lot less to know. Because we have eradicated that subsistence world, we have to function in the interconnected web of overlapping technology and customs that has evolved ever more rapidly as our species has invented and interpreted lots and lots of things. Become an expert in your field and you automatically don't have the time or the brain space to master many other fields. You have to trust others to inform and guide you. But can you trust anyone who is selling something?

If you have enough coin to have internet access and a credit card, your circumstances are probably not desperate enough to make a poor buying decision a fatal error. Not when it comes to bikes and parts thereof, anyway. Then again, I have both of those things, and I definitely do not have money to waste. But say you have to live entirely in the real world, obtaining whatever you need from physical locations where money changes hands directly. You have a personal relationship with your guardian and protector, or your hunter and exploiter.

Life is one big gray area. Working in a small shop, I have to balance the needs of the business to exist and support its staff against the desire to outfit every customer with the absolute perfect stuff for each individual. Working in a large shop, I would still run up against the limitations of that business's ability or willingness to stock a lot of variety and cater to anything other than the largest common denominator in any category. "It's good enough," the saying goes. And it's true, up to a point. But if you have the misfortune to buy into technology just before a massive shift, you will be on the wrong side of obsolescence for longer than if you'd stumbled in nearer the launch of a new platform. See much 9-speed Dura Ace these days?

New platforms do not guarantee less trouble from the get-go. Early versions often hit the market with bugs that the industry counts on early adopters to disclose. The first customers for any new marvel are often test pilots, whether they know it or not. That's the predatory angle. Someone has to buy the latest crap so that its real-world failings can be discerned and refined out in later editions. So the smart money waits as much as a whole season. But if everyone held back, it would simply delay the onset of this testing period. They've got you by the components, man.

The bike industry began as a cauldron of innovation. The machines evolved steadily from something with wheels like a wagon to the sleek wonders that you see today...and fat bikes...and 75-pound smokeless mopeds. From the beginning, they were creatures of desire, not need. But luxuries become needs. Transportation on demand found a ready market when "the poor man's horse" came on the scene. That led fairly shortly to motorized vehicles that could carry a person around the countryside without the need to build a railroad. By the late 20th Century, automobiles featured in ads for employment: "must have own transportation," "Reliable transportation a must," and so on. These were not high level jobs, either. The regular grunts were expected to own a car. We went from having a workforce on foot to a workforce using mass transit to a workforce swarming around like the Dunkirk evacuation fleet, only doing it every morning and evening, five or six days a week, year after year.

The needs of mass production slow the pace of change slightly, but the pressures of marketing accelerate it. Bike manufacturers seem to be keeping production runs really low in spite of access to the lower costs in Asia. They know that the pool of people with the wherewithal to buy their trinkets is shrinking, and that within an economic sector not everyone will want to play with those toys. Sell-through is easier if you accept that some customers will miss out. It still frees up each company to pump out a newer and better model about every ten months. This is like dumping piles of old doughnuts out in the woods to attract bears, or putting out apples and a salt lick to be "nice" to the deer. Bait 'em in and pick 'em off. Regulations from state to state may require some variations on the theme to meet strict legality, but the underlying motive to create habits in the prey that make hunting them easier is always the same. Have you seen the latest issue of Bicycling!!?!?!

One sales rep we had in the 1990s listened to me griping and said, "You sound like a consumer!" That's it right there: Industry versus customers. He wasn't facing customers every day, getting chewed on for the shortcomings of the latest mechanical marvel. Indeed, from the very early 1990s to the end of the decade I saw a serious gap open up between the manufacturers and distributors, and the front line retailers. Reps who were friendly and available at the start of the decade disappeared, replaced by increasingly numbers-driven salesmen looking for as big an order as they could write, with as little feedback as possible. We weren't insiders anymore. We became the first rank of suckers. Don't talk back. No one cares. Better minds than you have already decided what will be best for several years in advance.

The vast majority of customers these days do not complain, but I don't think it's because they are satisfied. Maybe they don't know what to ask. Maybe they don't ride enough to break anything. Maybe they don't care enough about function to take issue with something that works haphazardly. Maybe all the years of dealing with tech support for just about everything have finally beaten consumers down to the point where they don't even bother to try.

As someone who has devoted a lifetime to educating people about human powered transportation and environmental issues and the connection between economy, ecology, and quality of life, I can tell you, it's hopeless. Should I have figured this out 40 years ago and gone straight for as big a pile of money as I could amass? Too late now. What I hoped would bear fruit in a couple of decades looks like it might bring about some improvement in two or three generations. Or not. C'est la vie. We still seem to be uncovering deeper and deeper layers of problems even in areas where we seemed to have made considerable progress as of the late 1970s. Are we really going backwards, or simply finding out that we hadn't come forward in the first place?

The best you can do is try to be trustworthy. Is it really all just a metaphorical food chain out there?

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Rationing gas since 1979

As the human species bumbles toward the ugly end of the petroleum era, the slower students in the class are working harder and harder to extract and transport the remaining reserves of something we should have cut back on using about 40 years ago.

I did start cutting back almost 40 years ago. It was mostly an economic move, but I considered broader benefits as well. The 1973 gas crisis hit about four months after I got my driver's license. I got to enjoy just that brief time of 28 cents a gallon regular and 70 mile per hour highway speeds, and then bam: gas prices doubling, lines around the block, rationing. It was the future we'd been told was coming when the finite oil reserves finally ran out. Sure, it was an artificial preview, but I had read enough about non-renewable resources to get the idea that a love affair with the automobile might not be a long-term relationship. By 1979, I was well prepared to go car free to maximize whatever meager income I could garner with a brand-new degree in creative writing.

The writing degree was starting to pay off by the mid 1980s. At that time, I married into a car, but it was obvious that the average wordsmith was not going to be rolling in dough, and I had yet to establish myself as above average. I still used the bike to get around as much as possible. What driving I did looked like part of recreational activity but actually supported my work as an outdoor writer.

I never cracked the middle ranks, let alone the top ranks, of outdoor writers, because I never took the kind of cool trips anyone wants to read about. I drove less and less. You need a car in rural New England, but you don't need it all the time. In driving season, I go to work, I go to music class, and I run whatever errands I need to on my days off. In bike commuting season, the car sits for days at a time. Rationing. Whenever I have considered working somewhere far from home, I calculate the cost of having the job against what I would expect it to pay. I factor in the time spent sitting in the car, not getting to ride at all, buying gas, pumping out fumes, getting weaker by the day.

I'm always considering how I can avoid driving. It's bad, in a way, because I'll find that I haven't left my house in a couple of days if I don't have a pressing reason to go out. It reinforces an unhealthy tendency to avoid people, even when I like them. That, and I continue to try to hold space open for my creative ideas, as the odds grow worse and worse that any of them will ever amount to crap. I don't know what to call most of what I do, or where to send it for consideration. There are millions of other people shopping their opinions around. Maybe I'll make some more coffee, have a snack...and will you look at the time? I have to get laundry done before my work week starts again. And the cats need to be fed.

In the old 28 cents a gallon days, my father used to like to go for a drive in the evening. He'd call me like a beloved pet, and we'd tool around for an hour or more, talking. It was like stoner chat without the weed, philosophical rambling and chance observation. When I was in my early 20s, my bike rides with a close friend were that sort of unplanned exploration. We rode around for a couple of years before we ever started mapping out routes beforehand. We'd just ride and talk and see what was down this road or that, and eventually figure out how to bend it back toward our starting point.

I find it is less fun completely alone. Some people glorify solitude and their undiluted enjoyment without the demands of a companion. It can be a good way to think, if you have something you want to think about. But it can also be rather bleak.

Commuting is okay alone. It's utilitarian. I hardly ever see other riders during that time, because most other riders drive to work around here. The few who commute by bike come in on different vectors, and at different times. If someone is out for an evening training ride, they're usually going the other way or hammering. By evening, I'm in no mood to hammer.