Thursday, December 29, 2011

Mental Activity

My life's work has been riding to work.

I've ridden my bike to every job I've had since I graduated from college in 1979. I had no idea it would be such a controversial and political activity when I took it up. It just made sense: I got exercise and saved money. Why wasn't everyone doing it?

Whatever else I planned to do and still hope to accomplish, riding the bike is the most effective advocacy I can think of. Be seen on it. People will eventually have questions and ask them. They also take your opinion more seriously when they see you acting on it.

Winter is tough for cycling around here. Even in the warmer, lighter months I understand that many people have to rely on motor vehicles. Sharing the road goes both ways. Motorists do have a big responsibility because their vehicles are large and hard, but bicyclists have to balance their rights against the need to move people from place to place cooperatively. It's a balance more complicated than a few regulations can encompass. I spend most of the winter waiting for the next bike season. If I had only to deal with the weather and light my way through the darkness I could handle it. The vehicles with which I have to share the road create the vast majority of the obstacles. So I journey inwardly.

Winter used to be mountaineering season. Any cross-country skiing I did on the groomed trails where I work was only to build and maintain fitness for excursions to places that were harder to reach. These activities provided good alternative training to relieve the unbalanced fitness and possible overuse injuries a year-round cyclist might suffer. The upper body muscle came in handy for the season of splitting and carrying firewood. Now splitting and carrying firewood forms the majority of my winter exercise. I don't have the right amount of time in the right places in the day to do anything ambitiously athletic or to prepare for any expeditions. Some time after the first of the year I will probably start riding the rollers. I also keep saying I will start walking the path to work in lieu of riding it, but so far I just sleep too late and drive the whole way.

Depending on the amount and quality of the snow I might do a park-and-ski commute on the path. It's used by snowmobilers, so I have to worry about being buzzed by motorheads. It's a lot easier to dive off the path on skis than it is to bail from the roadway on a bike (should I be inclined to do that). In places it would even be fun, although the path follows a valley floor, so it provides no real opportunities to dive down a glade and crank a few turns.

The most practical ski for path commuting is not a very sporty one for fast striding, but conditioning is conditioning.

Skiing depends on a narrower range of conditions than cycling. If I ski in on a cold morning and a wet warm front moves in during the day, it could wipe out the snow completely. The trip back to the car would be a muddy plod. The reverse is also true: I might walk in the morning on bare ground and face a foot of snow in the evening. If the weather goes from dry and chilly in the morning to wet in the evening when I'm riding the bike I just ride anyway. I have fenders.  So winter is more finicky than the seasons that aren't winter. It's really easy to abandon self-propelled transportation entirely and go from car to building to car to building, day after day until suddenly you're a waddling doughball facing bike season with no fitness base. That happened to me last year.

I don't make New Year's resolutions. If something is a good idea, it's a good idea. Do or don't do. The date does not matter. Last winter was pretty crappy for a number of reasons. This winter has already delivered woes of its own, with death and illness around town. Quite often there's more to consider than the weather or the traffic when deciding when or whether to go out.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Art, Footwear and False Economy

We save boxes to re-use for shipping. Cross-country ski boots especially call for boxes of a certain size to protect them properly without sending a bulky, space-wasting package.

I found this calligraphy on the perfect box for a pair of racing boots I was boxing for shipment today. Ordinarily we obliterate old marks so they don't confuse the shipper. In this case I figured I did not have to destroy something pretty since it did not convey misleading information to UPS. It was box 1 of 1 in our shipment as well as the one in which it had arrived. The number meant nothing but was harmless. I liked how whoever wrote it made it look nice.

This post started as a little report on winter cycling footwear. Opportunities to write are limited. So are opportunities to ride. Generally at some point in mid December I just take a deep breath, dive down and swim hard (metaphorically) toward the end of the holiday season. Maybe that takes me into the beginning of ski season or maybe we spend long dismal hours waiting for bankruptcy in an endless mud season. Ski season no longer represents much in the way of fun, because I don't get to ski consistently enough to call it a conditioning program. I might as well still live in Annapolis. But I digress. For the moment, I take the rides I can get.

The weather has been warm for most of the fall. The big snowstorms weren't particularly cold and they had warm weather before and after them. For most of my path commutes I have been able to wear an old pair of Diadora touring shoes that are great for toeclips. They have a smooth sole and a tapered toe, plenty of support and only light Velcro straps. Of course they are no longer made.

The touring shoes have the usual mesh uppers.  I have used neoprene toe warmers and even booties with them, but the lack of a cleat means the pedal wears more directly on the neoprene. Also, neoprene covers all have huge holes in them to accommodate cleats. That's a drawback even with cleated shoes because cold air and wetness can get in through these built-in leaks.

I put tape over the mesh in places, but it doesn't last and it doesn't cover enough. I have also used various combinations of liner socks and plastic bags.

 With my cleated shoes the neoprene toe covers and booties work adequately, but I don't like to ride the trail with cleated shoes in case I have to walk. I also don't like to ride far from home in the winter with cleated shoes because a breakdown might force me to walk in all kinds of sand, snow and slush. It has happened. A short ride can be a rough, long walk when you are abusing your riding shoes with every step.

A few days ago the temperature was about 20 degrees. I skipped the cycling shoes entirely. I have a pair of North Face shoes -- called Snow Sneakers I believe -- that are insulated and waterproof. They're stiff enough. They fit into the toeclips adequately. They were gratifyingly toasty on the truly frosty morning.

Bikes continue to trickle in for repairs. This fork is from a cheap mountain bike called an FS Elite (made in USA!) that a customer wanted refurbished for some offspring living in New York. He pointed to the broken fork brace.

"That's not important, right?" he said. "I mean, it doesn't really do anything." He did agree to have the fork replaced when I told him I could scrounge up a rigid, one-inch fork with a threaded steerer from the basement. We used to do fork replacements all the time in the late 1980s and early '90s. Suspension technology has virtually eliminated the damage riders used to inflict by jumping. They can still trash forks, but in different ways. This one was just cheap junk.

The holidays continue to bear down. I might get one or two rides before January. Then it's mostly up to the weather and whatever disruptive events might lurk in the mists of the future. Last winter was kind of a bucket of crap. I hope this one is better.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

It's Brilliant!

After nine months with the dynamo hub, I still love it. It adds weight and resistance that a removable battery light wouldn't, but you would have to remove the battery light to save the weight. So that just leaves resistance.

A transportation bike is going to weigh more than a sport or competition bike. Even mountain bikes are using exotic materials and evolved designs to reduce their weight compared to bikes with similar features from a decade or more ago. But the transportation category includes cargo bikes and heavy tourers, so we quit worrying excessively about every gram when we started down that path. Or road.

In 1980, when I worked at my first bike shop job and thought it was a temporary thing while I got a more illustrious career in order, our tribal elder and wise man -- he was 32 -- told us that a generator adds about a gear's worth of resistance when it is operating. He said this as he was installing the classic Union bottle generator onto the Motobecane he was configuring as a fixed-gear commuter with racks and fenders. We were all assembling different forms of the same thing. Most of us, with limited budgets and more of a focus on racing, used completely inadequate lights.

When I got a better job (relatively speaking) the following year, I invested in my own Union generator, and later acquired a Sanyo that drove off the tread face of the rear tire, rather than the sidewall. The increase in resistance never seemed as clear-cut as "a gear's worth." Does that mean a one-tooth jump or a larger increment? Even in the days of anemic incandescent bulbs it was great to have a fairly steady light. With Union's battery pack accessory it would even stay lit when the bike stopped. Any resistance it might have added was never enough to discourage me from flipping the lever to activate the light.

The specter of resistance still haunted me. When I moved to my present home and faced a 14- to 15-mile hilly ride each way for my commute I carried as little as possible on the bike or myself. The season of darkness ended my riding each year.

When powerful battery lights emerged as mountain bikers pushed into the darkness, they offered amazing illumination compared to any battery or generator light I had previously encountered. But then the problem of battery life became more important. When your light is already pretty feeble, its dimming seems less dramatic than when you start out with something that lets you read a newspaper at 50 yards when it's fresh, but leaves you groping in its dying glow when the charge runs out.

Rechargeable batteries needed careful handling to avoid over-discharging them and over charging them. As battery and charger technology evolved, we were told that running the batteries out was no longer a problem. So-called smart chargers eliminated the problem of frying the batteries if you left them baking too long as well. After using some of them I remain unconvinced, especially about the chargers.

At best, rechargeable batteries have a finite life anyway. They can only survive a certain number of charging cycles. So you go through a period of diminishing efficiency as the battery nears the end of its functional life.

Cold temperatures also diminish the power of many batteries. When I used my mountain biking light as a headlamp for night skiing I had to tuck the battery inside my clothing. When I took cold rides with the battery mounted to the bike it would suffer from the exposure. The battery lights I have on my helmet now don't work as well in sub-freezing temperatures. But then, who does?

The SRAM iLight hub dynamo I chose had very few reviews on the Internet compared to the Shimano, Sanyo and Schmidt hubs. Schmidt is the gold standard: expensive but excellent. Shimano is often rated as the next best choice. Shimano has prospered for decades making the second best item in many categories, bringing them to market at a price significantly lower than the top brand. Now they are recognized as a leader by many. Love 'em or loathe 'em, they do put out a lot of useful items along with container ship loads of technofascist whizbang garbage. I try to avoid them when I can because of that, but they're so huge that they end up providing things their major competitors won't.

Shimano made my job easier when choosing a hub because they did not offer a 36-hole hub that was not set up for disc brakes. SRAM did. So did Schmidt, but I work in a bike shop. I'm not pulling in Schmidt money. We have an account with Peter White, importer and distributor, but even with that it's an investment.

The SRAM seemed like it was a bit better than the Sanyo for comparable money. In particular it seemed to have lower drag with the light off. That resistance is the price you pay for unlimited light.

A 36-hole hub is probably overkill for my commuting routine. I went with something that strong in case I take a heavily loaded tour. Since I can imagine putting dynamo lighting on almost every bike I own now, I could see building on hubs with lower spoke counts for some of them.

Because I have not ridden with the Schmidt or Shimano hubs, I can't say if I would find them easier to push. The Schmidt certainly has impressive numbers, especially with the light turned off. However, I don't go without the advantages of the dynamo hub just because I could not afford the very best.

If you have a frame with a dynamo bracket already built onto the stays or fork, you can mount a sidewall generator like the Busch and Muller Dymotec 6 I used initially. I had problems maintaining alignment because of the tires I use and the way the add-on mounting bracket clamps the seat stay. Rather than continue to put a hurt on the frame tubing I went to the hub. With the sidewall generator you have zero resistance with the lights off. The downside is that you have to make specific arrangements to improve performance in wet weather. The wire-brush roller for wet conditions can mess up a tire pretty quickly if you don't have it lined up right. Also, most tires do not have a real dynamo track molded into the sidewall. German brands are more likely to, because of Germany's lighting requirements for transportation bikes. It's not a feature most tire makers highlight in their product descriptions in North America.

If you go with a dynamo instead of battery system you can get accessories to charge and power your small electronic devices so the electricity you produce during daylight won't go to waste. Some lights also come with daytime running lights now.

I have noticed that motorists show more respect when I run the big light. Something about its power seems to put me on a more equal footing. Fewer oncoming drivers leave their high beams on when I have a light that makes a bigger impact on them. It's aimed down where I need it, so it does not blind anyone driving toward me, but it clearly gets their attention even when I'm not running flashing lights on the handlebar to enhance visibility.

The wide Toplight Line Plus tail light probably helps for overtaking vehicles, but I never ride on the road without my full array of flashing tail lights as well. The Planet Bike Superflash pounds out a sharp warning that commands respect even when the sun is up. As the centerpiece of a night array with two flanking flashers it probably makes me look like an official vehicle. The bluish tint to the Beamers in flashing mode on the front of the bike may subliminally suggest police lights to drivers who chronically have a guilty conscience anyway.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Some things you have to experience for yourself

Riding out the path on Saturday night I was pondering how I (or anyone) could shoot a video that really presents the essence of a night ride.

It's hard enough in daylight. A ride appears linear, but travels through four perceptible dimensions on its apparently forward course.

Exceptionally talented fixed-gear riders might proceed an impressive distance on a backward course, but such riders are rare and even they usually have better things to do.

At night the most visible field narrows to the areas shown by whatever you are using for lights. When I was in my twenties, if my corrective prescription was absolutely up to date I might be able to ride at a foolish clip at night without any lights, but now I rely on powerful technology to make sure I see and am seen. With light comes shadows. But the world still exists in the darkness all around you.

The temperature was 27 degrees F when I started out. Some frost was starting to form. Stars glittered alongside half a moon. Things tend to glitter on winter nights even before snow spreads a luminous blanket over everything. The sky, if it's clear at all, seems exceptionally clear in the cold months. The bright stars quiver as if the frigid breeze reached them. Crystals form instead of dew as the night's chill settles. Reaching beams from a cyclist's light strike these minuscule reflectors that sparkle back.

As noted many times, the path I ride requires frequent zigzags to go between the rails or exit from them. The rhythm of the ride includes the sudden slowing, the well-practiced angulation, the sprint away. Each of these maneuvers swings the light. My comparatively weak helmet light probes for the course I plan to take while the powerful dynamo light splashes its radiance where the bike is actually pointing. Each pass through the rails is a tricky bit of peering to find the built-up crossing outside the brightest patch and get the bike lined up with it. When the fallen leaves are deep the crossings can disappear. I've over-run them a few times, jolting humorously down the uncovered railroad ties beyond the filled-in travel way.

Riding often leads to reverie. The rhythm provokes a meditative state that becomes even stronger at night. It can be nicely dreamlike.

On the road, a rider needs to be careful of motor traffic. Some roads are quite nicely desolate. Others are annoyingly busy. Off road it can be weird and lonely. But what you feel comes from inside you, so you can control it. If you are fortunate enough to have one or more compatible companions for the night ride that can hold any creepy feelings at bay. Remember, of course that in scary movies they often pick off members of a group one by one. The progressive disappearances add to the fear. So just because you have someone with you doesn't mean you won't be abducted by aliens or successively slashed and/or devoured by someone or something. So hey, you might as well go alone.

Thursday, December 01, 2011


This is the story of a project that may never happen.

The grand movements of nature and society have traditionally followed their own course regardless of the plans of individuals. This seems especially true when individuals lay those plans to adapt to those grand movements.

In the previous couple of years that I have been trying to use the Cotton Valley Trail to extend my bike commuting season into the dark months, the decision to quit has been mine to make, well before winter weather really shuts things down. This year we've had two significant snowstorms that forced me off the path before December even arrived. Each one melted after a while.

Between October's storm and November's I took a look at my old mountain bike. The Cross Check is an excellent bike. If I owned only one bike it would be that one. But I don't. I build to meet my needs. I quit riding the mountain bike completely after I built the Cross Check, because I no longer wanted to spend time looking for technical trails. But what if technical trails came to me?

 The basic bike starts with a 1996 Gary Fisher Aquila frame. Originally I switched over most of the parts from my 1991 Stumpjumper. Over time I added linear-pull brakes and a 58-94 crank so I could run smaller rings up front. Who knew 58-94 was going to be such a temporary thing? I mean, bike companies make perfectly good stuff disappear all the time, but some things really seem to have a very short run. I put on wider bars with a bit of rise because my technical mountain biking advisor told me they would improve the handling. They seem to, but I hardly rode the bike after the mods.
The shifters remain where they belong: on top of the bars.

When mud was a selling point and filth was fun we would charge out on the rotting ice of thawing snowmobile trails and laugh about our sprawls in frigid water and silt. As much fun as that sounds, it's not good if your ride ends at your place of employment. They don't care how I look when I arrive. We all used to ride in the gook together. However, I have to be ready to work with customers.

In the 1990s I tried studded mountain bike tires when they first became popular. They were novel, but I was more likely to skate or ski if ice or snow were good. If the winter was acting like an endless November I wouldn't need the studs to ride the trails. I sold my test pair to a local ice boater who used his bike to ride around on frozen lakes when he had left the boat offshore. Ice isn't the issue here, but cargo capacity, mud and water are. So is darkness.

Fenders and a rack are easy. Lights not so much. I'm really addicted to the power and limitless running time of the dynamo lights. Knobby tires make a hub dynamo a better choice. Since the entire evening commute takes place in the dark now, lights are not a luxury. For the short duration of the regular evening ride a battery light might be fine, but once I've made a technical-trail explorer it might as well have full night capability. Cha-ching! Honk! Honk! Honk! The unnecessary investment horn sounds. I've talked myself out of it...for now.