Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Death of a Cyclist

Last week, bicyclist Nathaniel Williams, 23, was killed by a motorist in Tuftonboro. My deepest sympathies go out to his family.

When a cyclist death is reported on the news, we riders listen a moment, usually to hear that it’s a motorcyclist, not a bicyclist, or that it was in a distant town, an unhelmeted child, someone riding against traffic. It’s sad, but it isn’t someone we know.

This time was different. The rider was local. I did not know Nathaniel Williams well, but I know people who knew him better. He was supposedly a good cyclist, a young man, properly equipped and capable.

As I understand it from news reports and one of the emergency personnel responding to the accident, Williams was riding fast, in the dusk, without lights, when a motorist turned left in front of him. As summer days shorten, cyclists can get caught out at dusk.

Road cyclists have to assert themselves to get the right of way the law grants them, but that motorists often seem reluctant to concede. Be bold, but not foolhardy. Refuse to back down. If Afghans and Iraqis can risk death just to go to the polls to claim what should be the routine right to vote, we cyclists can face the much lesser peril of claiming the routine right to use the roads for which we all pay taxes.

At sunset, the rules change, even if the laws don’t. Even with the lights and reflectors required by law, a bicyclist is far less visible to motorists than they are to him. Right of way no longer exists, because the rider no longer exists. Out of sight, out of mind.

It’s easy for a rider to forget how cut off a person is in the sensory deprivation tanks we call automobiles. A driver looks for objects as large or larger than the vehicle the driver is operating. As dusk deepens into night, the driver looks for lights, big, bright lights.

When cyclist and motorist are going the same direction, the rider is the safest, because the motorist is looking ahead, seeking the red tail lights of vehicles in the same lane. A blinking beacon and moving pedal reflectors catch the driver’s eye. But when rider approaches driver from the opposite direction the danger increases sharply, lights or not.

We riders can forget this all too easily. Even in daylight we have to remember that a driver may misjudge our speed and try to shoot a gap that we’re already filling.

Motorcyclists will tell you that even with their much larger headlights and greater speed, drivers overlook them with terrifying, if not tragic, consequences. A light large enough to stand out against a busy background will require a generator or a battery weighing several pounds.

When I commuted year-round in an urban area, it was over short distances, usually less than ten miles each way, on relatively flat ground. My commuting bike had a generator light permanently installed, with a battery backup that provided power when my speed would not turn the generator fast enough to produce bright light. The rig weighed at least an extra pound, and the generator produced resistance equal to a harder gear. It made the bike harder to ride, but the security at night was worth it. But it was only as good as the vigilance of drivers looking at it and my own defensive driving.

The scary thing is, we all get careless. It’s so easy to forget that the approaching vehicle in the opposite lane could cut across. Bicyclists want to maintain momentum, so we make the decision to keep pedaling and maintain our speed sooner than perhaps we should.

As a courtesy, cyclists work around the limitations of drivers until such time as driver education finally catches up with all the responsibilities that go with operating a huge chunk of steel at a high rate of speed. We would certainly produce much better drivers if they would not receive their license until they had completed a full year using a bicycle as transportation.

Meanwhile, the death toll from human haste includes everything from salamanders to critters the size of raccoons, to deer, moose and humans. And that doesn’t even include the casualties from wars to seize natural resources from abroad. Our cars leave a trail of blood we have yet to acknowledge.

What Works at Night

A new bike must be delivered to the customer with a white reflector on the front, a red reflector on the rear, white reflectors on the wheels and orange reflectors on the pedals.

To ride at night, New Hampshire law requires a white headlight visible for 300 feet on the front of the bike and a red reflector on the back visible when struck by a light from 300 feet away. Pedal reflectors visible for 200 feet are also required. Reflectorized leg bands are a legal substitute.

The required reflectors provide a minimal level of safety. The state-required headlight provides a little more. But what really keeps you safe?

Reflectorized leg bands are better than installed pedal reflectors, because they generally have reflective material that wraps all the way around the rider’s ankle, providing visibility from the side as well as just the front and rear. They’re light and compact enough for even a weight-conscious cyclist to carry them in a pocket in case of need. You can even strap on a couple of extras.

A rear reflector is a little better than nothing at all, but an active tail light really does the job, especially one that blinks. At dusk, motorists may not yet have their headlights on, rendering reflectors completely useless. Therefore, one or more blinking beacons provide both the active illumination and the motion necessary to catch the motorist’s attention.

A headlight that meets the letter of the law still doesn’t give the rider a functional view of the road. A generator light or a large battery light not only produces a brighter light to attract attention, it also puts out a useful beam so the cyclist can actually see to ride. Generator lights are no longer common, but bright lights with rechargeable batteries come in a variety of styles and price ranges to suit all types of bike and rider.

Wheel reflectors, while fun to look at, should not be considered much of a defense. If a cyclist is crossing the path of a motorist at night so closely that the motorist has to respond to the wheel reflectors, the cyclist has made a serious tactical mistake. If the cyclist is crossing clear ahead, the wheel reflectors are irrelevant. In addition, wheel reflectors can throw a wheel out of balance, making the bike feel somewhat unstable at times. Should they happen to fall off, it’s not as serious a loss as having a light burn out, or forgetting your reflector leg bands.

As inconvenient as it seems, the last line of defense is, “When in Doubt, Bail Out.” At night, I don’t ride in cleated shoes, and I keep a constant eye out for places to get off the road if I have a bad feeling about who might be coming up. This is just about the opposite to my behavior in daylight, when I will enforce my right to the road without reservation. Just never get off the road because a motorist ordered you to do so. The only appropriate response to that involves a single finger giving a widely recognized gesture of defiance. Or better yet just ignore them and hope they go away.

If the motoring public ever decides to declare open war on cyclists they can kill us all within a day. That’s not how we do things in this country, at least not yet, so thousands of riders still get to pursue the invigorating and delightful activity of cycling. But riders have to remember that the motoring public has limitations they themselves do not even realize, encased as they are in glass cubicles, watching the scenery outside as if it were a movie. If you want to be seen, you have to make a scene.

Monday, August 29, 2005

A Quick Jaunt

Laurie really wanted to take some sort of bike tour this summer. A tight schedule had reduced it from a week to three or four days to an overnight, but we were going, no matter what.

I took my first tour in September 1980. It was a leisurely three weeks from San Francisco, California to Eugene, Oregon. The woman I rode with was still in school, doing a year at the University of Oregon on an exchange program.

Almost a month on the road really spoiled me for anything shorter. The fact that I was out of school, essentially homeless, gave the trip a serious feeling my companion may not have shared. I also thought I was working up to a transcontinental tour. I did not know that the transcon would keep falling through for the next several years until I put it aside in favor of other activities that seemed more important, and other forms of recreational homelessness that seemed more rewarding.

So there I was, loading the Surly Cross-Check for this micro-tour, this Cub Scout sleep over of a trip, when I realized that my panniers, my bar bag, my Bleuet stove, even the Blackburn rack on the bike itself were 25 years old.

In 1980, two cyclists rode about 700 miles without a flat tire or a broken spoke.

In 2005, two cyclists rode less than four miles before hearing the angry hiss of a punctured tire. Or did we? Still in the first few shakedown miles, still in our own neighborhood, we pulled off the road to see whose bike had suffered what.

Both tires of both bikes felt firm thumb pressure. The hissing noise had ceased. We remounted and continued.

We’d gotten a bit of a late start. You need just about as much gear for an overnight as you do for a week or a month. What seemed easy in the mind was a bit harder to find and stuff into a pannier. But decades of camping experience helped. We could still make the short hop to Sebago Lake before sunset, even if we barely averaged 10 miles per hour. I wasn’t going to assume I could set any records, riding with a load for the first time in such a long time, coming off a full commuting week, and barely emerging from a very busy couple of months in the repair shop.

The route is mostly flat, through the glacial plains of the Saco River valley. There was just one climb, on Route 5/117, heading over from Cornish to pick up Route 113. It’s not too long, but it’s almost steep. It wasn’t too bad. Aside from that we just had a few rolling grades on 113.

We arrived at Sebago Lake Family Campground by 5 p.m., checked into our site, pitched the tent, stacked the bikes and walked back over to the lake to scout out the nearby store and take a little swim. The water was surprisingly chilly for late August, but the bottom was clean sand. The nearby store had some welcome items to add to dinner, as well as beer for the evening and coffee available in the morning. Life was good.

The campground was almost eerily quiet. A lot of the sites clearly belong to regular residents. They weren’t tremendously outgoing, but then neither am I. Our site was tucked back into the woods a little bit, so we could just settle back against the forest and enjoy the quiet. ATV tracks went around a gatepost right at the corner of our site, but no one drove by. The trail was probably used by the maintenance crew.

The idea of trying to have a relaxing getaway while sharing the highway with impatient motorists had made me think that only an epic trip would be worth the aggravation, so I was really pleased, though surprised, when the peace of self-propelled travel kicked in right out of the driveway. The trip instantly took on the timeless quality that makes self-propelled travel so rewarding.

Bike touring has an advantage over backpacking, because you can do a lot of it in civilized areas. You can sample local delicacies, buy necessities, shop for groceries each evening, rather than carry absolutely everything in your bike bags for every possible circumstance. The disadvantage, of course, is that you share the road with people who may not respect your choices, no matter how courteous you attempt to be with them. No one ever honked, yelled or threw anything at me when I was hiking a remote trail in the mountains. But then again, they don’t always do it when I’m riding. You just get that edge of anger and anxiety after it has happened a few times. You wonder when the next unprovoked attack is coming. But that seems to be the pattern of modern life now, doesn’t it? You might as well be doing something you enjoy when the brick or the cruise missile comes at you.

The first night out in 1980, I felt very far from home as I stretched out on the cold, hard ground without even a sleeping pad. I’ve slept on the ground many times since then, but I have to say that camp nights can be weird. I get a little claustrophobic in the tent sometimes, so I felt really trapped when Laurie zipped the tent door. Her tent only has single-slider zippers on the door, and they stop on her side. That left me looking out through the mesh with no handy escape hatch in front of me.

After a couple of long hours, Laurie asked if I minded if she opened the door to admit more air.

Did I mind? Whew. No more dreams of entrapment. That was fine until I started thinking about disease-ridden mosquitoes and hungry raccoons and skunks sashaying in.

The eerie quiet of the campground extended to insects and animals as well. We heard a bit of light scurrying in the woods, but nothing ever came close. There weren’t even any bugs after the early evening mosquitoes. Maybe the place is built on a toxic waste dump. At least it keeps the critters down.

Dawn was welcome. Not only could I crawl out of the tent and stretch my kinked joints, I could also stumble down to the store and pour a steaming cup of fresh coffee into my brain cells.
The kinks gave way to a feeling like the aftermath of a deep massage or a really aggressive stretching session. The combination of the mellow ride the day before and the firm sleeping surface left me feeling remarkably rested and well aligned.

Going over the bikes to get ready for the day, I discovered that Laurie’s tire really had been going flat. It felt a little soft to thumb pressure and hissed sharply when I pushed the valve stem sideways.

Using some spare cord from the tent, I tied a line between two trees. Hanging the nose of her bike saddle over this I could suspend the bike to work on it. The cord was nearly invisible.

Laurie devised some tasty food that required minimal refrigeration for supper and breakfast. Grilled vegetable and havarti sandwiches on ciabatta rolls we could heat in aluminum foil over the fire for supper. Precooked sausage and egg sandwiches we could heat similarly for breakfast. A soft cooler with a cold pack fit easily in a pannier with the light load for a quick overnight. We also had some carrots and celery for salad.

After breakfast we set out for the leisurely ride we didn’t have the day before. With time to spare, we diverted from 113 onto Pigeon Brook Road, to River Road, coming onto Route 5/117 right next to the Saco River. River Road turned out to be dirt, but that’s why we have Surlies.

Laurie doesn’t get to ride every day, or even several times a week, so doing more than 30 miles a day, back to back, tired her out a bit. We stopped several times, but that’s one of the major pleasures of touring, as opposed to performance riding, whether officially racing or not. Sometimes it’s fun to ride without stopping, but it’s also fun to stop and check out things along the way. For instance, we had never found time to stop in Cornish when we drive through there, but on the bikes it was easy. We didn’t have to block traffic or find a place to park a full-size vehicle. And the same was true for riverside overlooks or enticing side roads.

I doubt if another quarter century will pass before I load up the bike for another tour. I have a lot of catching up to do.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Truckin' toward Sebago Lake.
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Laurie conquers The Hill.
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Laurie's bike impersonates a Terry. Perspective is a wonderful thing.
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The panniers and bar bag are 25 years old. I just didn't tour for some reason, so I never wore them out.
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This is not a flash picture. It's a time exposure using a 3-led bike headlight for about 7 seconds.
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This shot was made using only fire light. The 1.8 lens on the Olympus C-3040Z is amazing. My brother hooked me up with that. He also started me on serious cycling. The bastard.
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Laurie records the events of the day.
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Laurie's bike on The Invisible Workstand.
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Uh oh! Who took the pavement? Did we get cross? Heck no! We have Cross-Checks!
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Some of this stuff is almost as old as my panniers.
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It's never convenient to stop in Cornish when we're driving. So we'd never sat in Thompson Park and had ice cream before today.
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Friday, August 19, 2005

No Excuse

I love it when The Management here takes exception to my thoroughness by saying, "I don't think many bike shops bother to do it that well."

Other people's standards aren't my business. I get paid to straighten out other people's crap, not add to it.

We can argue for hours about the relative economic merits of doing a good job as opposed to shoving it through any old way we can. But I repeat: other people's low standards should not set ours. But I'm not in charge, there's only one of me, and limited time to work. I can't fix them all.

Good luck!

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Saddle pain

If your bike seat hurts you, the best thing to put on it so you feel no pain is someone else's ass. The next best thing to put on it is more hours of riding to get your own posterior used to the normal wear and tear. Make sure the bike is set up properly first.

The Customer is Always Right?

Give me a break. If the customer was always right, they wouldn't need me, they'd only need a vending machine. So why do so many people ask me so many questions?

We're here to banish misconception.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Heavy Work Load

The work load in the repair shop has been unbelievable for at least eight weeks.

"But that's what you want, right?" someone asked me.

"No," I said. "I'd much rather have it spread out more evenly throughout the year. But it is what it is."

We always try to do good work as quickly as possible. Good and quick don't always go together when working on complex mechanical devices. People think bikes are stupid simple, because they have no motor. But parts still have to go together. The newer, more complex bikes, still using the same engine as the old bikes, demand a lot of precision, and parts that are closely matched to each other.

After many weeks of this, going in early, maybe staying late as well, we're all wearing down. Tempers fray, stress mounts, because not only does the shop demand a lot of energy, life still goes on outside of work. That other life suffers more and more from the loss of an hour or two here and there, day after day.

You just start to feel shorter of breath and one day closer to death. One morning you wake up, the workload has eased, but summer's over. Days are short. The house needs to be buttoned up for winter. Dammit, you missed another one. Maybe next year.

In a good year we can stamp out a little personal time. We make less money, but we gain in peace of mind. But when the customers want the good stuff, I want to deliver it, if I can. Why work if you can't take pride in it? So the time isn't totally lost.

Of course when I get the feeling it's a waste, because no one really cares how well it's done, I can't stop myself from doing good work, because I can't stand to do it any other way, but I certainly feel desolate, sad and sick, trudging through another day just pissing people off with my goddamned high standards.

Customer Relations

There are two basic models for customer relations: adversarial and cooperative.

In the adversarial model, the customer is a bag of money. The business wants to get as much money as possible with the least effort. The customer, knowing this, wants to avoid paying. It becomes a contest between gouging business and chiseling customer.

In the gouging model, work quality only serves to keep the customer calm, quiet, reassured. The reassurance may be false. Who cares? Get the dough. Get the mark out the door. Take five minutes, spray the bike with aromatic lubricant, knock the worst of the dirt off, call it a tuneup and charge $50.

If you don't really like people and have really fallen into that "us versus them" mentality, conning customers seems perfectly legitimate. They're not clients. They're prey.

Some customers are easy to hate. But not every poor-mouthing chronic chiseler deserves to be screwed. Some of them can be educated to understand the value they're receiving for the higher price. Others are simply playing the business game, trying to drive a hard bargain because they enjoy the haggling. Feel free to laugh in their face. Don't play the numbers game with them. The chiseler always wins that one.

In the cooperative model, even chiselers can be accommodated. Perhaps you have to do it by showing some of them the exit, but don't waste time being hostile. Just be courteously unavailable.

The cooperative model seems like more work at first, because you actually have to perform the services you say you offer. But I've noticed over the years that trying to get out of work ends up being more work than actually working. Once you accept that the work needs to be done, you can get down to doing it as quickly as a good job allows. Then it's done, usually just once, correctly, and it's out of your hair.

The guy who fixes my car was talking to me on the telephone earlier this summer. We both had heavy repair loads.

"Well, work too hard," said Rich, as we got ready to hang up.

As so often happens when I talk to Rich, I took it to heart. Do good work. You don't always get to choose when it comes to you. If you've created a trusting customer base, you really do owe them the expertise you've trained them to accept. Do less than that and you have to start all over again.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Does This Sound Good?

It doesn't matter if your bike is actually fixed, as long as the shop can make you believe it is fixed and get it out the door. I'm told by someone who worked in the medical field that it's done that way in hospitals. Basically, if no one can pin a lawsuit on you you've done a fine job.

People who fear punishment more than they fear doing wrong only worry about getting caught, not about doing things right because they prefer to do things right. If someone like that performs a mechanical or medical service for you, you're both just waiting for your luck to run out.

While it's true that most customers won't know the difference, you can never be sure which ones they are. And a chronic careless approach eventually gets someone hurt. If you don't care if other people get hurt, just remember that to everyone else YOU are other people.

Maybe most people do shabby work and only look out for themselves. But why go out of your way to deserve to be treated that way?

Unforeseen Hazard

Last week on the morning ride to town, I saw a strip of dark pavement ahead of me. We hadn't had rain, but the road was wet. The wet strip was perhaps a foot and a half or two feet wide, from just to the left of the fog line, extending toward the middle of the lane.

It smelled like sewage. It wasn't just reminiscent of sewage. It was sewage. Had a septic tank truck spring a leak? Had someone forgotten to shut a valve all the way, or left a hose undrained after pumping out a tank?

I had to keep an eye on it so I wouldn't wander into it by accident, but I didn't want to scrutinize it closely enough to see corn, or tomato seeds, grayish-brown lumps or streamers of wet tissue. I hugged the guard rail and hoped that no one would drive by and splash it up.

Occasionally the wet strip would end, only to resume in just a few yards. Yellow foam was piled up down the middle of it. I could only imagine the mist of germs that hung in the air. I tried to breathe shallowly.

Eventually it ended for good. I wondered if someone had signalled the driver. It didn't really matter. At least the road was dry for the rest of the way.

A Sad Truth

The management of many bike shops does not care if you ride your bike, as long as you buy it from them and dutifully get it tuned up at least once a year. Indeed, the bike industry itself has been slow to grasp the connection between purchase and use, expecting repeated purchases from people when it has only recently begun to take active steps to improve their riding environment.

Some people in shops create a hostile environment because they don't want enthusiasts hanging around. Not every bike shop owner really likes to ride. Less active people, especially as they get older, don't really understand active people. The bike business can be very frustrating to someone who is more interested in the money they make than the activity itself.

The fact is, many of the apparently time-wasting lip-flappers who come and tarry a while bring us information from the outside world, another perspective on cycling. It's a point of view we can use to improve our own understanding. It helps us make reasoned decisions about techniques and equipment we ourselves might not have had time or inclination to study.

Others come to us as students, in search of some of the secret knowledge. They may become our helpers and allies in the future. Certainly they will take away a better impression if they don't sense passive-aggressive disapproval radiating out of the scowling face of someone who clearly cannot wait for them to leave.

I will admit that some people who come into the shop annoy me to no end. Some of them don't even own bikes. They come in to air their views on various national and world affairs in a setting where we can't really debate it.

The technowitalls who only want to buff their egos by stumping me can get lost, too. But they're a lot rarer since mountain biking got so esoteric. Any really techie mountain biker could lose me in the technicalities in a few seconds and I wouldn't really care. You want to spend a couple thou on a bike to beat up, have at it. I probably don't have what you want in stock and I don't want to fix yours when you smash it. I used to think a lack of hydraulic systems was a POSITIVE thing about bicycles.

The shop has helped me learn a lot about how I would like to be treated in places where I shop or look for service. A displayed lack of integrity solidifies my resolve to act with as much integrity as I can muster. Hostility reminds me how easy it is to present an unwelcoming facade, perhaps by accident. I'm sure I fail often in the courtesy department, but I always try to be trustworthy, if not charming.

I am so reflexively argumentative that I will look for the flaws in just about any statement someone cares to make, even if it seems I should agree with it. The companion philosophy to Question Authority is Question Yourself. Don't let your own assumptions go unchallenged. Every once in a while you have to slap the bedrock hard, just to assure yourself it is still bedrock.

I don't know if many shops have the space or leisure to provide as social a setting as some people seem to seek. Certainly one has to set limits. But the shops that obviously and habitually shut people down will find themselves with plenty of free time eventually.