Sunday, January 12, 2020

Disposable Income

Watching a recorded video of the Wolfeboro, NH, selectmen's meeting from Wednesday, Jan. 8, several things struck me about the public comments regarding the shared use policy drawn up to accommodate fat bike riders in the winter.

Several skiers made excellent points about the negative impact that bike riders will have on the ski experience. I made the point before about the irreducible width of 31-inch handlebars. There's also the emotional impact of having to share trails with people working way too hard to go way too slowly, getting incomplete exercise while adding sizable flotsam in the form of their oversized bikes.

A couple of people in support of the bikes made the comparison -- almost entirely incorrectly -- between fat bikes on Nordic trails and snowboarders on downhill ski areas.

First off, alpine skiers and snowboarders are both lift-dependent sliders on snow. Throw fat bikes onto a downhill ski area and then you have a comparison. By the way, alpine skiers were none too fond of Telemark skiers either. The rhythm of free-heel skiing, within the limits of the gear of the time, made our paths a bit more meandering than your locked-down, fully-mechanized alpine skier would follow. We didn't gouge things up the way the one-plankers did, but we still got in the way of modern progress. Telemarkers cured the problem by turning their gear into what was essentially alpine skis and boots. Snowboarders cured their problem by simply being too numerous to ignore. Needing the money, the downhill areas caved in and sold out. The snowboarders do have a negative effect on the snow surface, but downhill areas are such a mosh pit anyway that lift riders have learned not to care. It's just a theme park.

Proponents of the fat bike revolution tell the cross country skiers that they will be fine just as alpine skiers were fine. It's a nice way of saying that your time is up and you have to watch yourself being replaced by this new thing that is really different from your thing, that requires all the concessions from the skiers, until skiing finally dies out. This is the wave of the future. Resistance is useless.

It's a bit like deciding whether to go ahead and welcome the Panzer battalions or let the invaders machine gun and shell a bunch of you first.

At least two commenters referred to Wolfeboro as becoming a mountain bike and fat bike Mecca. They contend that this is the only thing that will attract "a younger demographic with more disposable income" to the area.

Actually, some jobs would be a really good start. People came here in the 1980s in droves and hordes because land rape was going full bore, and anyone even pretending to be a builder was basically printing money. But many of the people who moved here became super commuters, driving hours at each end of a work day to get to their jobs in Massachusetts and the southernmost parts of New Hampshire. You have to be young to pull off a schedule like that. Other jobs proliferated in the school system, to service the kids that accompanied the influx, which drove taxes up sharply. Peripheral trades, notably landscaping and property care, also saw a boom. Year-round residents use fewer of those services than the second home crowd does.

People quit mountain biking around here around the turn of the century. A few continued. Others have resumed it as various midlife experiences impel them that way. But disposable income had become much more of a requirement.

In the 1980s and '90s, you didn't need a huge amount of money to ride mountain bikes. A mountain bike used to be something you could use to go somewhere. Now it's something you go somewhere to use. You can drop a thousand bucks just on a car rack to carry your fleet of behemoths to your chosen venue. Or you can fake something up, if you're handy with tools. But you'll need more than a thousand dollars per bike per category to get anything reasonably well made and sort of durable. Two thousand a bike is a safer estimate. When everyone was mountain biking in the late 20th Century, it wasn't about the money, it was about the fun: accessible fun that anyone could join. Mountain biking is definitely no longer that.

The people who are riding now, or have returned to riding, are earning comfortable salaries at various things that pay comfortable salaries. They can afford to sit and chat for hours in a place that charges $6 for a single glass of beer. In a way, it's always been true, that the well-off only have to wait a little while for poor upstarts to fall away. Being really good at riding your bike does not provide a pathway to secure long-term income. So the well-funded hobbyist reigns supreme at the recreational side of riding.

The unanswered economic question is whether there are enough well-funded hobbyists to offset the costs of trying to pander to them.

The bike addicts can't level the same charge at cross-country skiers. A crazy top-end ski set might run you more than a grand, but you can do quite well for less. Then it's just a matter of stick time. Go out every day you possibly can, for 30 minutes or an hour, and you can put a serious hurt on posers with expensive gear and no training. Or, if you're not afflicted with competitiveness, you can just enjoy the benefits of the world's most complete exercise and let the neurotics chase each other around.

I guarantee that the median income of our old mountain bike group was half of what it is for the current group, even adjusting for inflation. No one says "whoever dies with the most toys wins" anymore, but they certainly exemplify it.

Here's the thing about a young crowd with disposable income: they get older. You look at the cross-country ski trails, you see people of all ages. Yes, a lot of the them are pretty darn old. But whole families can take it up and keep doing it with fairly minimal investment for decades. How many people in their 60s and up will be spending what's left of their disposable income on mountain biking? And who will replace each wave of the young and affluent as they age out?

As consumer society and car culture flame out in their final frenzy, all forms of human powered transportation face deadly competition on the public right of way. Human powered transportation and recreation would have provided tremendous lifestyle benefits for those of us with lesser means, if we had acknowledged as a species how limited our means actually are. But we're still drunk with the excesses of more than a century of expanding resource exploitation, reinforced and amplified by our collective fantasy life played out on screens large and small. What is the true cost of that disposable income?

Friday, December 20, 2019

Holiday treats

Here's another one that could go as appropriately in my ski blog as in this one.

The turn of the year brings holidays typically associated with food and festive beverages. But the combination of weather, darkness, and the needs of my employer usually reduce my physical activity to its lowest point in the year.

I'll freely admit that one reason I chose human-powered travel so many years ago was so I could be a little undisciplined about what I ate. Humans were meant to move themselves around. We have invented various devices to carry us, but that fosters a mental addiction that leads to physical decline. Forcing myself to ride a bike to get from place to place inserted a naturally recurring period of exercise, augmented by additional exercise to travel anywhere off of my routine paths. Motorized transportation has its place, but a life built around minimizing it as much as possible helps the body get the regular use it needs. It also makes tasty treats taste better. It's fuel! It's fun! It's both! Oh hey, I ate a little too much. Sorry, everybody. I just have to ride farther. Or walk farther.

There is a form of bulimia in which the purge phase is excessive exercise, so that's another spectrum we can find ourselves on. But just because one end of the spectrum is a dangerous condition doesn't mean that the middle is bad. I would bet that most of us -- myself included -- slide more readily toward the sedentary end than the gaunt and haunted figure stomping on a treadmill at 3 a.m. And I do not make light of that person's plight. These days, I eat too much and I gain weight, because it's harder to justify the time spent playing outside. What do I need my health and fitness for? I should be trying to die, to make way for the younger generation to flourish in the space I vacate.

Life is habit forming. I don't want to live any longer than I'm enjoying it, but I don't want to cash out before I've had the last possible fun. How do you know when that is? You kinda want to hang around until it's obvious, since you can't unkill yourself. Besides, I can still be helpful to people who might need to learn something I can teach them.

Pretty heavy musings on a buche de noel, eh? But I used to be able to burn off baked goods within minutes after I ate them. Now I promise to try to burn them off some time in June. If all goes well I will be laying down base miles to get ready for bike commuting by early April, but the winters have been such physiological quicksand that the first month and a half is just damage control.

On the plus side, I'm not a very imaginative cook or sophisticated eater, so I revert to a fairly boring diet based on my attempts at nutritious food. Even so, I enter each new bike season with deep fear and doubt, which deepens my appreciation when I regain strength. Always in the mist of the future I can see the thickening shape of the serpent that will one day trap my limbs and squeeze my lungs as I fight vainly to rise one more time.

I love to start the day with a nice cup of coffee and some kind of baked goods. The coffee pot alone is sometimes the only thing that gets me out of bed, but throw in some pie, or home-made cinnamon rolls, or a whole bunch of other things the cellist is good at making, and every night is like Christmas Eve. And, since she's home so little now, I have to get it while I can.

This year I have front-loaded the queue of baked treats by making the cellist a Boston cream pie for her birthday cake. That's what got me started thinking about the Solstice baked-goods binge. The recipes I used for the pastry cream and ganache were not printed out, they were scribbled on scrap paper, so I -- inexperienced in the kitchen -- couldn't visualize the amounts. I'll be carrying pastry cream and ganache for lunch tomorrow...and probably the next day.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Nordic got run over by a fat bike (originally posted on Explore Cross-Country)

Think of the tune, "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer."

Cross-country skiing is dying, killed by climate change throughout its range. This is happening more rapidly in the lower 48 states of the USA than in Scandinavia, but all over the Nordic racing world events are being held more and more on manufactured snow. And that's only possible if temperature and humidity -- not to mention budgets -- allow for enough snow to be made and distributed over a trail system.

Racers will put up with incredible tedium to develop and maintain their fitness, and then submit to torture on a challenging course. Any skier might prefer more variety and free range, but the addicted competitor will go around and around and around and around and around and around a kilometer or two for the sake of race-ready strength and technique. They are not the majority of cross-country skiers, but they are the ones who will spend the most money on it per capita.

Tourists make up the vast majority of the small portion of the population that still skis cross-country. Tourists have a variety of motivations, fitness among them, and cheapness strongly evident. That's a major reason that the ski industry as a whole dislikes them. Frugality generates little profit compared to addiction.

It takes money to run a trail system. Cross-country ski centers have to maintain trails in the off season and groom them in the ski season. Since the widespread acceptance of skate skiing in the late 1980s and early 1990s, that calls for a machine that easily costs more than $100,000.00, requiring fuel, maintenance, repair, and a skilled driver. Larger areas need multiple machines and drivers. Any area also has to maintain the trails themselves in the face of erosion, encroaching vegetation, blowdowns, and abuse by unauthorized or destructive shared uses.

When Surly introduced the Pugsley as a complete bike in 2011, it launched the category as something people could buy "off the shelf." Our own shop and touring center pondered whether the bikes would make a worthy addition to our mix of users as a way to weather the increasingly irregular winter conditions that the changing climate had been bringing us. However, our early experiments discouraged us from trying to blend skiers and bike riders on a single trail system.

When the bike industry tried to make fat bikes the next big thing around 2015 there was an explosion of interest that looked like it might turn into a bit of a boom. But as the browsers browsed, most of them chose not to invest upwards of a thousand bucks in yet another bike. Various media outlets ran weirdo-news features on the nutty people riding goofy bikes on the snow(!), but the curiosity was not matched by significant sales. Meanwhile, in the bike industry's usual fashion, they mutated the bikes rapidly, challenging consumers and shops alike to keep up with the need for newer and ever more expensive tools and parts.

Once the tool of intrepid, self-reliant adventurers, fat bikes seem to have attracted a demographic that might view itself that way, but often presents itself as entitled whiners. Our small touring center has seen a determined assault by a handful of riders who have looked for any possible leverage to force us to allow them onto the trail system. They have also proudly posted pictures on social media of themselves poaching the trails. I believe that it's become an obsession with them that means nothing more than another notch on their bedpost. Their own representative has stated at meetings that most riders aren't looking for a 20-foot-wide trail like an interstate highway through the woods. Minimum width for a skate groomed cross-country ski trail is about 12 feet, but much more would be needed to accommodate bike traffic and ski traffic in busy periods.

Will there be busy periods? Between the decrease in natural snow and the daunting expense of buying a winter bike, both sports remain a small percentage of winter recreational activity, far outstripped by motorized activities and downhill sports using motor-driven chair lifts. So what happens next? People want to find a place that has bought a rental fleet of fat bikes for them, on top of expanding the trail system for this new user group. How many touring centers can afford to put together a fleet of expensive and complex bikes and maintain them in readiness for whoever might want to try them out? This situation is being forced on the cross-country ski business by an alien culture.

This isn't just as simple as the ski versus snowboard debate. It has elements of the skate versus classic debate, in the different ways that the user groups occupy space on the trail and flow through the terrain. Having skied both classical and skate, I can tell you that the two techniques can come into conflict when skiers of each type converge. Now throw in some bike riders. The skate skiers can at least bring their skis parallel and double pole through a pod of slow tourists. Skiers don't have 31-inch-wide handlebars. And riders with 31-inch-wide handlebars can't reduce that dimension for a courteous minute or two, even if they might want to.

Skiers also have their feet on the ground. If a skier has to stop, it's not that hard to step off the trail, or at least move to the very edge of it and stand in a way that leaves plenty of room to pass. It's not as easy when you come off the pedals and either need room and time to dismount or need to waddle along straddling the bike. Also, your 5-inch tire at 8 psi might not make much of a mark, but your big clodhopping feet do.

Life is full of inconveniences. We have to make allowances for each other. Motorists hate having to accommodate bicyclists on the roads, and make many arguments about the differences in speed and maneuverability between the various size motor vehicles and the ones being pedaled. The difference is that all of our taxes pay for the public right of way, and that we all have a right to travel freely. A trail system is not the public street. The idea that cross-country ski trails should be coerced into admitting fat bikes is fairly recent even in the short history of fat biking itself. The pioneering riders used things like snow machine trails, just as their ancestors did, way back in the 1990s, when winter riders on the mountain bikes of their era either bought or made studded tires to go ride on those trails or on frozen lakes, woods roads, and other open venues.

The group of fat bikers that set its sights on the trails in Wolfeboro saw trails already groomed and looked for a way to commandeer them. With absolutely no respect for the decades of time, effort, and non-governmental investment that went into the trails, they seized on a flimsy legal possibility to force their case. Since they opened this can of worms, other user groups have tried to present themselves at the same loophole to be allowed to walk their dogs on the trails. The grooming is not done by town employees using town equipment and town funds. If a dedicated non-profit organization had not devoted itself to maintaining the trail system in town, that system would not exist, and we wouldn't be having this discussion. The fat bikers would be riding on whatever was open, just like the poor kids do in towns that don't happen to have a well-established and once-respected ski association.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Back spasm, or: How to Age 30 Years in a Fraction of a Second

Bicycling is not complete exercise. It will tire you out. It will help you maintain healthy body weight and a good cardiovascular system, but it does not help build bone density the way weight-bearing exercise does, and it does not build core strength. It benefits from core strength, but does not build core muscles.

A rational bike commuter, riding fairly short distances, gains from the exercise and still has time left over to build the neglected areas. The higher the cycling mileage, the less time is left for other things. These things include supportive conditioning and earning a living.

During my peak riding years, I lived as a form of professional athlete. Working in a shop that sold bike and cross-country ski gear, held weekly rides and gave ski lessons, I was a better asset to the business if I was good at what we did. The pay was meager, but the lifestyle was generally physically beneficial.

Various things intrude on a stable distribution of time. Suffice to say that I eliminated one thing and another, leaving only bike commuting and some extra riding on either end of the height of commuting season. I try to remember to throw in enough stretching and core work to hold things together, but days may pass. At worst they turn into weeks, usually when I'm not getting out to do much of anything.

For the bike portion of my commutes right now, the old mountain bike with studded tires handles the icy areas well, but it feels like I'm in a hamster wheel half submerged in wet cement. I grind away dutifully on every possible day. Mornings I'm rushed. Evenings I'm tired. I feel okay. I don't stretch...

Sunday was a nice day, and the shop was closed. A wintry mix was supposed to move in for the next couple of days, so I zipped out for a tool on the fixed gear, around one of my favorite short rides, Huntress Bridge Road.
The low-angled sun creates a distinctive mood this time of year. It also provides interesting visual effects.
Back at home, I went right into items on the to do list with only a passing swipe at stretching, and no other support strength activities.

Monday dawned gray and raw, as advertised. Having set my mind to indoor pursuits, I sat down to write, moved to a different room, sat down to check emails. The cat got on my lap. I sat a while longer. My weekend is Monday and Tuesday, so it was nothing unusual. I poked around in the kitchen, did some laundry. Sat some more. Got under the cat again. Then I tried to get up.

My lower back seized up. I couldn't stand up straight. I could barely walk. I tried to shape myself into the stretches I knew I needed to do, but it was too late for instant relief. It was too late for any relief. I could only walk in a weird, bent-kneed crouch.

Suspecting the old psoas muscle, I focused on efforts to relax it. They showed some effect, but the knot was the most severe I'd had since I was introduced to the problem several years ago after an outburst of pain that literally dropped me to my knees. About 41 hours later, I'm still not fully functional. Just something simple like splitting a couple of logs for the wood stove becomes a strategic operation.

Back pain can be associated with all sorts of expensive and fatal conditions, as well. Even getting those assessed can be pricey, let alone getting anything treated. I'll take encouragement from the fact that mine is responding at all to my home care. These assurances may be false, but low income people in America have to choose between betting all their financial resources on the health care wheel of fortune or concluding their affairs and leaving whatever nugget they can for any family members they might have. Even concluding your affairs costs money.

Suddenly living in a world tightly confined by pain, you wonder if you'll ever be fully functional again. This is especially true when you become "a senior citizen." When I was in my 20s, I read something that seemed to indicate that we start to die as soon as physical growth stops. Age 30 was held up as the beginning of decrepitude. An active person over 40 was a great inspiration. Then you reach those ages and realize life goes on. Life does go on, as long as you are there to live it. But at a certain point the pains take longer to subside. You have to wear glasses. You have to watch what you eat. People around you start to drop off more frequently. You hear about other people's medical catastrophes, and maybe have some of your own.

Life is a negotiation. You review the terms constantly. What are you willing to accept? What can you enforce?

Work is going to be a challenge today. I can't lift much, and a careless step brings a slap of pain across the lower back. But work is where the money comes from. Things are improving, but I assume nothing. The instantaneous assault of the initial back spasm is just one of many examples of how you can go from high to low in one breath. Then you just have to keep breathing while you figure out what to do next. But that's really just life itself: keep breathing while you figure out what to do next.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Repair season closing?

The two big projects of the late season rolled out this week. First to go was the 1970s Raleigh Competition that got a complete overhaul.

When the owner picked it up I said, "You basically just bought the bike all over again, but in 1970-whatever dollars this would only be about $175." He's one of those people who don't show much emotion, so I don't know if he thought I was overpriced. I took time to go through every little touch, including having to fabricate small parts that are no longer available, and really truly overhauling every assembly, including pedal bearings. Complete means complete.

With the Raleigh out of the way, the stand was clear to move forward on the Long Haul Trucker build for a touring rider whose old Trek presented too many challenges for the newer components we wanted to put on it.

While I was buried in these bikes, skis have started piling up for services which require the bench to be degreased. Right now, half of the bench is degreased, which is awkward no matter which side you're on.

The quick and easy brake bleed on a customer's fat bike turned into the first move in warranty replacement of the brake levers of his SRAM Level TL brakes. They have the stuck pistons characteristic of a whole generation of SRAM brakes. To SRAM's credit, they do not hesitate to send out replacement parts.

The serial number of the brake is on the bottom of the caliper. You know, just about the least accessible place, exposed to the most obscuring crud.

I have no idea what prompted me to try sticking handlebar plugs behind my glasses, but I like the effect.

And now back to work!

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

A daily adventure

Nine degrees F this morning. The forecast high is 26. The ground is covered with a frozen white layer of the perfect thickness for the studded tires. I just have to make sure I dress properly for the chill now and the deeper freeze coming after sunset this afternoon.

Disclaimer: bike commuting is not for everyone. Some occupations require equipment too cumbersome for even a smokeless moped to haul around. Some people have to go too far in a day to make pedaling practical. That still leaves a lot of people who could do it but don't. It's okay. You don't have to. Life is hard enough in other ways. Don't believe me when I tell you that simply doing this one thing that seems hard can make other things feel less challenging.

Bike commuting over short distances can be much more efficient than using a motor vehicle. Even in some degree of adverse weather, the bike can make better time, and the rider can wear normal enough clothing to go right to the business of the day with little time in the transition area. As distances get longer, you will want to dress in clothing designed to make it less uncomfortable: cycling shorts, technical fabrics, closer-fitting tops, and riding shoes. You may work harder and sweat more over longer distances with headwinds or hills. It takes more commitment. You could also be called stubborn, obsessed, or thick-headed. You can hardly claim that it's more efficient and faster than driving when it gets longer than ten miles each way, unless you live in traffic hell.

I have pondered the lengthy preparations I go through at either end of a work day when the weather isn't mild enough to pull on shorts and a jersey and head right out. Even in shorts-and-a-jersey season, I change into work clothes at work and back into riding clothes to go home. It adds at most a couple of minutes, added to a few minutes more to load the bike. In cold weather, changing clothes adds a solid 15 minutes because of all the layers. This all has to be hung to dry on arrival and pulled back onto me to get ready to depart. On the days when I drive, I might put on some outerwear, and maybe change footwear, but all that goes over whatever I wore all day. On a fairly mild day, it's just a quick zip out to the waiting vehicle. If I got one of those remote start thingies, the car could already be idling. I wouldn't do that. But I could.

On the bike side, after all the dressing, departure is about as simple as throwing a leg over the bike and pushing off. So there's that.

Darkness comes early now. When I'm getting ready to head out into the frigid solitude of the bike path, I think about Jack London's protagonist in To Build a Fire. I'm just as happy not to see anyone else when I'm out there alone in the dark, but it does emphasize what an idiot I am to be out there at all. However, maybe I'm just intrepid. It isn't 75 degrees below zero. It's a temperature that Alaskans and northern Canadians would consider mild, even when it's in the single digits and glittering with frost.

Sometimes the adventure is wet. Hypothermia beckons in those conditions too. It's an extra level of bullshit that a motorist doesn't deal with. It all depends on how much you want to ride as opposed to taking the easy way out.

Obligate bike commuters, who do not have a car whether they want one or not, will have to ride in whatever conditions they get. Either that or walk, take public transportation, or hitch. I keep my own privilege in mind. But I'm also down there on the pay scale compared to the median average. I hate the median average, because it's a bullshit statistic, but it does indicate that a lot of people are managing to make too little money on a lot bigger income than mine. I don't just piss away the money I save by reducing automobile use. I do spend it on a decent diet -- which some consider a luxury -- and hope that a healthy lifestyle will help me avoid medical issues that I can't afford. We're all living on an edge we can't see. Money will only cover you so far. But the truly impoverished are really depending on the economic efficiency of human-powered transportation.

The more accustomed you are to getting yourself around and getting things done without help, the less it seems like a hardship. If you do it optionally, you'll be able to weather it a little better should it for some reason become a necessity. That was part of my rationale in bike commuting from the start. If civilization was going to fold, I would do well to be in shape before it happened rather than try to get in shape after it happened. And a modest, self-propelled lifestyle seemed like something closer to a sustainable global average than an energy-gobbling, resource-intensive one. If the debts of industrial society were suddenly going to be called in, I didn't want to be too heavily invested. That's even more true now.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Death Wish

A recent death has a lot of people around here thinking about how they want their own passing marked. Some have suggested that they'd like the survivors just to have a big party. Piece of cake! Just be a complete bastard. People will be dancing in the streets.

You get to a certain age and you start to consider mortality. That age will vary depending on your life experiences and many other factors, but sooner or later you think about it in more than merely theoretical terms. Or at least the theoretical scenarios are more fleshed out than just a sideways squint at the concept and a hasty look away.

I'm no fan of death, but we're stuck with it. A lot of our lives are spent trying to evade the risks associated with activities we enjoy, and retaining whatever degree of youth we can. It isn't just to be young as such. It's a practical matter. It's also a matter of pride to be able to do things and not make dumb mistakes that get you eliminated. On the other side of the equation, you might not want to hang around too long past your freshness date and end up some wizened husk, technically alive but incapable of living. On the third hand, maybe it's a weird, cool trip, being nothing but a wicked old brain on top of a body that no one expects anything from. It's a lot of work for other people, though, and I hate inconveniencing anyone unduly.

I hate funerals. I'm not even planning to be at my own. I'm hoping for the "missing, presumed dead" option. But maybe I'm secretly hoping that if I vanish from other people's perceptions so that they're not totally sure I'm irretrievably gone I will also sneak away from myself and just sort of vaporize, like dry ice. Hey, it's worth a try. As for the funeral itself, I'd prefer to save people the inconvenience. If anyone is around and wants to do something, it's on them. I can just imagine it.

"Join with us now as we try to make sense of the life of this aggravating schmuck."

Given the rise in pedestrian and cyclist deaths on the road, I have to wonder if my own healthy habits are going to kill me. I don't need statistics to make me think about the hazards of traveling without a shell among the armored vehicles. The statistics just underscore how little we matter.