Monday, April 16, 2012

Accidental Duathlon

Wednesday was a great day for rainbows. I stopped to look at a spectacular double rainbow over Lake Wentworth as I rode out the path. Photographs of such things always fall short of the reality, so I did not try to capture it, only paused to admire it before pushing on. I was riding the whole route home, not just the short park-and-ride version.

Beyond the rainbow is the rain. The first splatters hit me before I'd reached the end of the causeway with the colorful arch still in view. Within a quarter-mile the light was wet and gray around me.

The forecast called for widely scattered showers. It should have said wide scattered showers. Every time I thought I might get out from under this one it extended a new lobe over me, thicker and wetter than before.

I had gotten the zipper repaired in my Sugoi Stealth jacket, so I was comfortable enough, but the thickening downpour and darkness under the clouds made me snap on my lights. Streaming water down my face and steam from my own moist heat covered my glasses inside and out. The rain continued to soak me, colder and colder. When a friend pulled over in her car I went ahead and hopped in. We hadn't seen each other in a while anyway, even though we both serve on town boards and live a mile and a half apart. We trade cat care and, in fact, her current two cats came from a batch of seven we rescued when they appeared out of the woods several years ago. So that was nice.

Thursday I drove because I go to a jam session in the evening and don't have time to make the whole route under pedal power, lights or not. Living in the country, one often has to travel inconvenient distances to do things. It might have been easier when you could doze at the reins while the horse made its own way home. I don't know what you'd do if the horse got sleepy. You'd be manure out of luck.

Friday I charged out again full of pent up energy and high resolve. I'd given in to the rain with eight miles to go on Wednesday.

The morning was quite chilly, down near freezing. I wore the Sugoi shell jacket again as the top layer of my ensemble. Then the day warmed nicely to the 60s, though it was cooling somewhat by quitting time. That was actually good, because clothing is easier to wear than to carry. I stuffed a few items in my pack and strapped the rolled-up Sugoi jacket onto the top of my rack pack in case I wanted to pull it out when I reached the long descent from the height of Route 28.

The path was somewhat crowded now that the weather is nice again. I maneuvered among the pedestrians and bumped and jolted over a section where dark, moist soil compacts over the railroad ties to create about 50 yards of rumble strip. The sky was clear, the sun was bright and the weather, in spite of Wednesday's localized downpour, is too dry. It was a fine evening to hammer. I gave it my best shot.

I was about three miles from home when I glanced back and saw that my jacket had worked its way out of the pack straps and disappeared. I had not imagined it could escape, the way I had it bound in there. It must have worked loose in the wind on the long descent on 28. I stood up to accelerate homeward so I could get the car and go back to search. As I did so, a spoke snapped in the rear wheel, causing it instantly to wobble hard into the brake pads. Even after I opened the brakes it dragged.

I called home. "Bring me a pair of sneakers and come in the station wagon," I requested. When the cellist arrived she was in the station wagon but had missed the part about sneakers. I haven't put my car shoes in the vehicle yet.

The cellist drove on toward town. We scanned the roadside and saw nothing, nothing, nothing. It had not blown off on the long downhill or any of the shorter ones. We reached the point where I'd entered the highway from the path. This was just about the worst scenario.

I'd already removed my cleated shoes. I pulled off my socks and stuffed them into my pocket. I told the cellist where to meet me and started barefoot down the path.

I'd actually been wanting to try barefoot running since one of the local athletes did some research on it a while ago. He's always trying to improve his workouts, and impact from running has been a problem. The barefoot crowd says that taking your shoes off immediately changes your running style to eliminate heel strike.

It most certainly does.

It did not hurt as much as I expected. Running was actually a little more comfortable than walking because it was easier to land on the ball of the foot in a running tempo than walking. I remembered barefoot rituals as a kid, when we would toughen our feet in the spring for a summer of shoeless wandering. It started to get to me after a while, though. I wondered if I would have big, nasty blisters or bleeding abrasions. And I still didn't see the jacket.

About a mile down the path I saw the welcome blob of yellow where my jacket lay at the end of the rumbly section. Beyond that I saw the cellist. She'd been none too happy with this rescue mission but she had volunteered by driving on out Elm Street rather than taking herself home and releasing me to my own foolishness. She told me to go dip my glowing feet in the cold waters of Crescent Lake while she went to where she'd left the car at a farther intersection with the path.

As I numbed my feet in the lake I thought I should go for a quick swim to make it a full triathlon, even if the events were out of order, but decided not to bother.

At home the first thing I did was put on socks and shoes. I really like shoes. I stuck the bike in the work stand just to assess the wheel and set up the repair for later, but I ended up fixing it instead. Then I went upstairs to degrime and have supper.

It was the first time I had had much in the way of bad luck on a Friday the 13th. Crap doesn't know what day it is. Eventually it will arrive on a day some people consider significant. I just hope my commuting wheel hasn't decided to start popping spokes. That's another dynamite argument in favor of the generator hub instead of a tire-driven one, certainly.

Saturday's half-commute went fine. Here's to better luck next week.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Illusion of Safety

Wolfeboro is like a micro-city. Especially in the summer its downtown area is a churning mass of impatient drivers, determined cyclists and a whole spectrum of pedestrians. Any route along the shore of Lake Winnipesaukee from the downtown area is likely to be crowded with business and pleasure traffic including tractor-trailers, contractors in various size trucks, more landscapers and property care crews than you can believe, boat trailers and cars.

Out in the countryside, some people drive in a more relaxed way, happy to be clear of either the bustle of the lake shore towns or the worse bustle of the places they normally live in the sprawl of Megalopolis. Others race around in the clear running room of uncrowded country roads. Many of those drivers are locals with schedules to keep and no great love of the seasonal hordes, in spite of the money the seasonal business brings to keep them alive here. Keep us alive, I should say, because I depend on it as well.

Many people tell me they wish they could drive less and ride more. When they tell me why they don't, safety may not head every list, but it's in the top five concerns, if not the top two.

Factions of cyclists disagree vigorously about what factors really enhance safety. Believers in separate but equal systems of cycling-only or mixed-use pathways hold that isolation from motor vehicles is the key. Vehicularists represent the opposite view, that cyclists need to be allowed, encouraged and perhaps left no alternative but to take a place in the traffic flow as it exists, asserting their right to pedal in a motor-dominated world. In between lie all shades and gradations mixing pure vehicularism and some level of faith in infrastructure. Lying outside the continuum of law-acknowledging pedalers are the anarchists who ride the shortest route or the most fun whether it's with traffic, against traffic, through red lights and stop signs, up and down sidewalks (and occasionally stairways), through parking lots, parks, alleys -- in short, anywhere they will fit. The anarchists believe that the bike has a natural right to go anywhere the rider can take it.

I can tell you why I had every bike accident I've had. Each has its own story and involves some level of error on my part. That's not to say that stuff doesn't just happen. A prime example is this video of a transportation cyclist being rear-ended on a multi-lane street in Pennsylvania, which I picked up from DFW Point-to-Point. It has a relatively happy ending because a bus driver and another motorist blocked the fleeing driver yards from the scene of the crime so that police could make the arrest. Someone commenting on the video mentioned the dangers of distracted driving, but it looks more like an intentional tag to me. The car that struck the cyclist passed the silver car that later blocked him behind the bus and then pulled into the lane behind the cyclist, made the hit and pulled out. How distracted do you have to be to overlook a massive city bus pulling around a cyclist ahead of you, even with a car between you? Thus, as the author of DFW Point-to-Point states, you can do everything right and still have a collision. This is true in a car or truck as well as on a bike. Driving home a couple of weeks ago I nearly got torpedoed by an idiot who blew through a stop sign without the slightest hesitation where Route 171 crosses Route 28 in Ossipee. If I had been winging through the intersection the way many people seem to consider acceptable, there would have been bloodshed.

People are completely willing to live with the illusion of safety as they drive, but sense massive danger all around when they think about riding a bike. Just as they think more lanes of asphalt will improve traffic flow or that airbags are an adequate substitute for avoiding a collision in the first place, many will believe that a bike lane or a separate path will provide the necessary margin to allow a cyclist a chance to survive in the maelstrom of vehicular flow. So why not give them as many of those illusions as possible, as long as the myths don't impede reality? We're talking about faith here: a belief in things unproven but comforting. People undertake massively dangerous and ill-advised campaigns when bolstered by faith, as well as some very nice and commendable efforts on behalf of fellow humans.

The trap is in the fine print. Any of these talismans must be funded. With that funding comes obligation. Legal guardians of cyclists' rights have to make sure that those obligations don't include coercion of non-believers. Cycling choice falls under the heading of free speech and expression of religion because belief is what ultimately gets a person to push off from the curb and wobble away.

Anything that encourages more people to ride bikes helps cycling. If a law discourages people who would have ridden vehicularly while emboldening a few sidepath and bike lane believers, it has not helped because it has not broadened participation. If people want to believe that paint on the road makes them safer and that belief gets them out on a bike, their presence puts more cyclists out in the public eye. As long as the free-range cyclist has the option to ignore the paint and do what really works, the bike-lane believer can have the painted refuge from which to observe and perhaps venture out as experience proves that the rider, not the paint, is what makes the difference. Meanwhile, some sort of tokens among the many traffic directives plastered on and around the roads put the concept that cycling is a legitimate activity right in front of drivers, lane mile after lane mile.

As a last resort we can just send them all a reverse-911 text message to remind them to glance through the windshield once in a while to be sure that no cyclists are harmed.

Sunday, April 01, 2012


Fat. It's a winter thing. The bears eat like crazy in the summer and fall and squeeze into their dens to live on stored fat. Other wild creatures follow similar routines whether they are true hibernators or not. Humans hang around indoors, eating too much and moving around too little.

I salute the highly motivated individuals who take up indoor training classes. The winter bike commuters are another intrepid bunch.

Then there are fat bikes. I looked at the Surly Pugsley as an amusing curiosity when it first came out. Fine for the upper Midwest and Alaska, it seemed out of place on our steep, rocky, muddy terrain and often icy trails.

Over the years, a fat bike subculture developed. We started to get calls about them last winter. They started appearing in photos of winter events around the area. We decided to try selling some.

I won't get hooked. I have all the bikes I need. Yep. I can pass on this one.  I don't have a problem.

So far that remains true. But as we work on selling points they sound like downright practical ideas. For instance, winter mountain bikers have used the snow machine trails since the studded tire craze of the mid 1990s. But what about those times when the surface is soft? Studs don't matter and even a wide regular mountain bike tire sinks in. With warming winters, those conditions become more common.

The fat bike may be the thing that replaces or at least seriously supplements cross-country skiing in an era of warming winters. If you want to exercise outdoors and don't want to deal with winter road biking; if you want to commute in all weather like our visitor from Alton told us he does; if you want to move at a steadier, faster pace than a walk; if you want to take advantage of the network of snow machine trails at least as extensive as the public highways, the fat bike may be your choice.

A basic Pugsley costs more than a really good racing cross-country ski package, but not that much more. Of course it is a very different experience. The racing ski is like a road bike: light, fast and limited to firm, smooth trails. This is especially true of skating skis, which need a wide, smooth, firm trail to allow the freest use of the technique. In return, the skier experiences the swiftest form of cross-country skiing, provided conditions are right. When they're wrong it can be a tedious plod. So the fat bike has to compete with less expensive touring skis or snowshoes on price. But consider this: just as the cyclocross bike can take you on dirt with confidence and on pavement without feeling like a treadmill, the fat bike can roll on snow, sand, mud or rock. It is the mountain bike writ large, at least where the rubber meets the ground. Skis or snowshoes are just more weight on your pack when you leave the snow or the snow leaves you.

A used car can cost several thousand dollars. Think what an arsenal of bikes you could put together for that amount of money. Better used cars and new cars cost many thousands more. So it's reasonable to consider a fat bike for winter, fixed gear for wet, 'cross bike for general three-season transportation and maybe a road bike for zippy fun. You could achieve this with simple componentry and steel frames for less than $4,000. The more of your own work you can do, the less you pay to build and operate these bikes.

The economic argument suffers when you consider that most of us do keep a car around for many valid reasons. I can imagine Biketopia as well as the next person, but we don't really live there yet. So the purchase of a fat bike has to compete with many other expenses in people's lives. But I did not expect it to seem even remotely practical until I rode one.

The human engine can be fitted to many different machines. People generate electricity, power boats, and propel vehicles with two, three and four wheels. Adding one with cartoonishly large tires is a small stretch. What seemed like a goofy idea and a recreational diversion now seems more like a valid addition to pedal-powered capability.

Customers either love it or hate it. The vast majority of people who come in are astonished, but accept the explanation. An interesting minority will blurt out, "Why would anyone want to ride anything like that?" That's a direct quote from at least two, one of whom surprised me because he had never seemed like a closed-minded type. And it was instantaneous and visceral, like they couldn't stop themselves from spitting out their opinion on sight. The ones who don't like it seem almost offended that anyone even built it. Everyone else seems amused and somewhat intrigued.

It will be interesting to work with fat bikes for a while to see if they really work around here. A piece of equipment has to earn its keep with me. It may pay its way with purely psychic coin, but it has to qualify for its place. Since the late 1970s every bike I've added has had to meet that standard.