Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Another Casualty

I recently learned that one of the cross-country ski instructors in Jackson, a man who had lived the car-free lifestyle for many years, was run down while cycling a couple of months ago in Massachusetts, where he summers. He has been in physical therapy for weeks and has not appeared in Jackson as he usually does in advance of the winter.

In the winter, he teaches both downhill and Nordic skiing with exquisite technique. He skis from place to place in the village when conditions allow, riding his trusty Litespeed when he needs to go somewhere by road. That was before this accident. I have not learned whether he will be able to resume this lifestyle.

This summer and fall's casualties underscore that bicyclists don't have fender-benders. Our bodies are our bodywork, so the dents go in us.

Cyclists, like pilots, climbers and mariners, always want to know all the details about a crash, so we can check our own procedures, to make sure we're doing all we can to avoid going down ourselves. In its harshest form, there's a definite tendency to try to blame the victim. Pilots I know will get curiously detached describing the catastrophes of even people they know. Climbers are much the same. It isn't a lack of compassion, just a defense mechanism to help us assure ourselves we are less likely than these other poor boobs to suffer the same fate. Otherwise it can be pretty hard to get yourself to go out or up again.

In heavy traffic the cyclist faces the harshest environment. Whenever you ride beside a motor vehicle you are in the greatest danger from it. That's why I cringe when I see someone splitting lanes at full speed between slow or stopped cars. It may feel like a great power trip to show those idiots how much better you have it, but remember that they're idiots at best and homicidal at worst.

Those big vehicles are bloated creatures with their piggy little eyes mounted way up front. Their view to the rear is limited to what they bother to notice in their mirrors. Their view to the side is subject only to the whims of chance. If they see you, will they register you? If they register you, will they consider you worthy of consideration? Will they judge your speed and distance correctly, even if they do pick you up on their sensors?

The next big danger comes from vehicles turning across your path from the opposite direction. Bike equals toy equals slow. Sure, they can make that hole shot. And if they don't, YOU"RE not going to hurt THEM.

Finally we have traffic entering from side streets. All factors come into play there, especially in a chaotic mess like the eastern Massachusetts road system. All those roads basically started out as goat paths. Look at how they wander and intersect, widened and paved, repaved and widened more to try to accommodate the burgeoning population of motorists over the years. They were never really designed. They just grew.

The Boston driving style is world famous. Aim for the gap and punch the gas. It's your only chance to crack into that endless flow of steel, glass and plastic. This method applies throughout the greater Boston area, which is effectively the entire eastern half of the state.

Despite these dangers, many people choose to ride bikes there, as they do in many congested urban areas. The freedom of cycling outweighs the danger of an accident. One does not set out expecting an accident, but the drawbacks of being a motorist don't discourage people from exposing themselves to a certain degree of hazard for the sake of cycling. Freedom, as is often said, is not free.

Monday, November 26, 2007


After five days off the bike, I finally managed to put together a couple of days of riding. In temperatures from the mid twenties (F) to today's balmy upper thirties, the fixed gear has pulled me back from the brink of utter separation from the comforts of human existence. Tomorrow looks good for one more before weather and scheduling thrust me into another flooded tunnel through which to swim toward the dim oval of what could be light.

I hate the feeling of a freewheel bike in cold weather. Direct drive keeps my muscles working and my speed in check. That keeps the wind chill as controllable as possible while generating heat both uphill and down.

And let's take a moment to salute the inventor of wind-block underwear.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Damned if I do and damned if I don't, so I did.

Once practical cycling becomes impractical, rides get harder to justify. In a civilization where physical exertion is almost entirely unnecessary, it becomes a luxury for those not shackled to it as part of a strenuous, physically destructive job.

When I worked more physically demanding jobs, I went at them like an athlete. I lifted weights, and walked and cycled for transportation so I could stand up to more of the strains of physical work. But most physical jobs aren't designed to preserve the body. People working in construction and other occupations that require physical exertion often have to operate in spaces that don't allow for careful alignment and judicious application of force.

I was fortunate enough to find steady employment in less rigorous occupations, though I have had to be frugal to maintain a comfortable standard of living on the income thus provided. Destructive labor or completely sedentary work might have paid a little better in money. I just couldn't hack the costs.

So here we are in November. If I get a ride, I have a better day than if I don't. Stealing riding time from other activities sets me apart from most other people. Sometimes I get a little crap for my scheduling priorities. That's the damned if I do part. But if I don't ride, I'm left to fashion a mood out of tiny, fragile bubbles of euphoria adrift on a vast sea of anhedonia.

If we get a ski season, cross-country skiing will provide its usual unmatched body and mind renewal. None of the dry land surrogates for Nordic skiing do as good a job as the real thing. So if the snow doesn't come, no matter what else I do to fill in the gaps in the exercise schedule, winter rides will still give me the most satisfaction. They connect to the greater whole of my practical riding and all the journeys I've taken in that way.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Need a Ride, Not Getting a Ride

Not posted when I wrote it. Here it is now.

Two mornings of pouring rain have kept me from riding. Yesterday the rain lasted all day. Today it is supposed to clear once I am at work.

Rejoining the motoring public for the dark, miserable winter, I observe that the section of Route 28 on my shorter drive to Wolfe City is much more thickly populated with sociopathic assholes than the longer drive up to Jackson. When I go by bike, these people rumble by me without a sideways glance. They only extend their aggression to motorists in their path. Stuck in a car, I have to put up with more of their antics.

Based on transportation principles alone, I should find other work. Maybe I should even move to another area entirely, where I can forgo the car. But life is not that simple. In order to support things I support here, I have to accept the need to carry large items quickly across longer distances than would be practical by human power alone. In the country, things are farther apart. In the city, things are too crowded and overbuilt. Take your pick.

Suddenly turned into a normal motorist blob by the seasonal changes of my job, I have to fit exercise into a schedule already crammed with other aims and interests. I have always understood how easy it is just to give it up. Color your view of the prisoners of indoor life with compassion, not contempt. It's hard to find time for everything, and we're conditioned to avoid exertion. Small wonder it gets discarded first.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Senseless Brutality

Random violence has to be the scariest creation of humanity.

In nature, violence has a purpose, usually related to feeding or mating. Only human beings practice injurious or lethal ambush as sport or even casual diversion.

Read this account of a commuting cyclist shot in the lung and heart near his home in Seattle. The weapon was apparently a bb shot from a .22 caliber gun. With a larger charge behind it than typically provided by an air gun, the projectiles actually penetrated his chest, puncturing one lung and hitting his aorta.

Motorists shoot each other, so this isn't just a hazard of cycling. It's a sad truth about human beings. Some of us are stupid or callous enough to consider violence to be comical. The comment thread after the cyclist's blog post includes other people's accounts of assault with various things ranging from the usual rocks and bottles to food.

Cyclists make a tempting target because we're out there in view, unshelled. The kind of people who like to pick on someone they perceive as weaker see our slower pace and lack of armor as an invitation. We can't wear a Kevlar vest all the time, in case one of these reprehensible morons comes along. We can't quit cycling. That would be like quitting driving because some day or night a drunk driver might come across the centerline at you, or some enraged driver might shoot you. Yes they might. If they have no conscience or the one they have loses its battle against their darker impulses, you could come out the worse for it.

This is the world we live in. As unfair as it is, these are the people we could die of. No war except the personal war against one's own impulses to lash out will ever change that. Punishment may do no more than breed a greater resentment. Whatever satisfaction one may get from hunting down a specific perpetrator and penalizing them, it does little to change the kind of mentality that would do such a thing in the first place.

You might as well ride.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Boxed In

If I hibernated, it would be this time of year. Minutes bleed from every day, dripping into the pool of darkness that will spread to its largest more than a month from now. The intrusion of a work day tears the bright heart out of the daylight hours. Sleeping in, so natural in a time of slowing metabolism and inward thoughts, is the unforgivable sin, punished by loss of the day.

For most of three seasons, a person has a little time to think, to plan, to improvise, and still go out with few special preparations. Then comes the darkness.

Today, the sun came out of the thick clouds just in time to set. All day, rain showers alternated with light drizzle. I considered a masochistic fixed-gear ride, but I really have too much to try to do. I need to prepare work for an art and crafts sale at the end of the month. My stuff did really well there last year. I need to package and send submissions to markets that might actually pay something. They get bombarded with a thousand submissions a day, but they do buy something. Why not mine? If it never arrives in their office, of course it never gets picked.

For years I've been "more of an athlete than a (fill in the blank) [cartoonist] [artist] [writer] [music student]" Only in the last year have I consciously forced myself to allocate my time differently. The net result has not been massive amounts of creativity, just a lot less exercise.

On a day when I don't have to go anywhere, it's hard to justify a ride, unless I can guarantee that the energizing effects will make me more productive. But if I can't hop out of bed and knock it out first thing, it's quite likely not to get done at all.

When other substances or activities provided that steady undercurrent of hopeful energy, a rainy day was a gift. Nothing was any better than sitting in a warm, well-lighted room, doodling and looking out at the weather. But back then I held the problems of the world and a human in it at a long arm's length. The price of engagement has been the time I spend grappling with the forces of existence. The return has been a more informed view of the world in which we all struggle.

The winter holds no promise anymore. We get what we get and do what we can with it. All I can do now is try to get past that time of year we call "the Holidays" with some shred of sanity intact, and look toward the rising sun of midwinter.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

A Good Review

The owner of the Fuji Cross Comp for whom I installed a complete custom drive train came in a couple of days ago just to say how great the bike was now.

"I can go up all the hills like a jackrabbit," he said. Or he might have said rocket. Something fast, anyway. The bike finally would do exactly what he wanted it to do.

The future of the independent bike shop lies not in sales volume of new bikes but in repairs and adaptations like this. Major bike manufacturers don't see it this way. They think the sport of cycling is the sport of buying bikes. Economic realities will catch up with them. Meanwhile, active cyclists ride ten-year-old mountain bikes on perfectly enjoyable adventures.

Last week I installed a new suspension fork, threadless headset, stem and rise bars on a customer's older mountain bike. He did end up dropping a chunk of change on that, because the rear rim turned out to have collapsed from brake pad wear. Building up a new wheel tossed about another $100 onto the bill. But it kept a bike in service. A comparable new bike would have cost almost twice what he put into the work on this one.

All my major jobs this fall have been adaptations of older bikes. I still have to finish the stem update on a Litespeed road bike for a customer who wanted to bring the bars up and closer. That one is old enough to have a one-inch quill stem. Nitto Technomic saves the day again.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Economic Indicators

Sometimes when we advertise for shop help, no one responds. If two or three people respond, we think it's a big deal. So when we advertised this fall and at least half a dozen applicants gathered almost immediately, we knew something was up. And more call in every day.

How bad must the economy be for so many people even to consider working as a sport shop grunt? The real proof that things are on shaky ground came in the form of strong-handed men, smelling faintly of sawdust, telling us that they've been working construction for the past several years, but "people are cutting back. There just aren't as many jobs."

I can't say how much these guys might actually want the job with us. They may just have to apply for a certain number of jobs a week while they're on unemployment, and we are one of the few businesses advertising a position. But that in itself tells you something.

Prosperity based on constant construction feeds on humanity's metastatic growth. It isn't sustainable. But the change may be hard, because we have been able to rely on that model for so long. We are now finding the limits, as science and economics start to be able to tell us how much growth we can get away with. We can say with confidence how much area certain animal species need to survive, but shy away from facing hard numbers about ourselves. We count on our own ingenuity to come up with ways to have our cake and eat it. So far, it seems to me, the bulk of the cake goes to people who are willing to have that status supported by debt and slavery. But that's "big picture" bullshit. Construction workers are out of work now because fewer people are building things. If that turned around and money started flowing again, few people would complain. Those who did would be branded with the usual labels and shouted down.

I'm in the bike business because, in good times and bad, it gives me nothing to feel guilty or uneasy about, except to wonder what bone-headed technological decisions the industry might make next. The basic concept of cycling is and always will be good.