Saturday, December 28, 2013


Long before the recent news blip about Chicago's proposed bike tax I was already thinking about how America would react to a surge in transportation cycling. We would be monetized, of course.

The concept of cyclists as freeloaders is a major rallying point for the champions of motoring. You can explain about how taxation really works and the relative burden non-motorized users place on infrastructure until you run out of breath. A large percentage of the opponents of cycling simply will not believe you. Cyclists are parasites. Every improvement made for our benefit adds to our perceived debt.

I am willing to look at a full and honest audit to see whether cyclists are holding up their end. But a bicycle can be ridden in so many places and different ways that it would be hard to draw a firm line around the bicyclists who owe society and the ones who may safely and freely play in their designated areas where they don't bother the grownups.

Every form of mobility except bicycling and walking has a price tag attached to it. And, if you walk to the bus or the light rail, even if you don't get a seat you pay a fare. Wherever people gather you end up forking out to hang around. So, inevitably, bicyclists come under pressure to dig in the pocket lint for their contribution. The more successful we become, the more people will want a piece of the action. It's the American way.

Is there any chance we'll discuss the issues rationally, as cooperating adults? Not if our entire political history is any indication. But one can hope. Everything has a true cost. It needs to be fairly divided once we know what it is. Then we know what's reasonable and what's excessive.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

What a grunt

The studded snow tires turned out not to be the best tool for the snowy path yesterday. Even though there was no more than a couple of inches of snow in the deepest areas, cold temperatures had kept it dry and unconsolidated.

The ride started promisingly enough on a well-packed dirt road. The bike slithered a little, but the tread or the studs caught quickly as the surface varied between loose and frozen. But on the trail nothing had packed the snow. Foot traffic had made the texture irregular, but nothing was firm. The bike fishtailed and jerked. The soft surface ate all my energy, like running in loose sand. With a temperature in the teens I was soon soaked with sweat from the effort needed to keep the bike moving and maintain course.

This went on for the better part of six miles at an average speed 50 percent slower than when the trail is firm and fast.

I planned to offer to buy my coworker Jim the craft brewed beer of his choice from Beveridge's, a craft beer (and soap) shop in our building, if he would drive me back to my car at the end of the day. There was nothing fun about the ride. I mean the weather was nice, the sun was out, but the relentless labor to gain every yard when the route was essentially downhill all the way to town indicated that the return trip, uphill, on conditions unlikely to have improved, would probably be much slower. I'd been pushing it, leaving the dog home by himself for the normal length of my bike-commuting day. Now that day looked like it could be at least an hour longer.

Unfortunately, Jim had walked to work. To make the situation worse, late customers kept us more than half an hour after our normal closing time. I would have to get myself back up that hill.

Somehow, heavy foot traffic on the inner portion of the path had managed to pack it somewhat better, though it was still irregular, requiring constant steering. I was tired from the morning grunt and the long day at work, so the improved surface only provided a temporary advantage. I was soon sweaty again, even with fewer layers on than in the morning.

With steady effort I reached the car after almost an hour. I tossed the bike in and hurried on home. The dog had endured eleven hours of confinement without springing a leak. He was the hero of the day. He got pets and treats until bedtime.

A day like that emphasizes the "do or die" aspect of rural bike commuting. With basically no transportation alternatives that don't involve inconveniencing another person, the rural commuter has to choose a mode and make it work. I could have whined to people until I finally got someone to give me a lift, but it might not have gotten me there any sooner. And I saved the beer money I would have used to bribe Jim so I can spend it on myself. So many beers. So little time.

A fat bike might have handled the soft stuff. I don't have one to try, so I don't know if the rolling resistance of a four-inch tire would cancel out the flotation in the bothersome fluff. And I know from interviewing a fat bike rider who was doing winter commutes that the fat tire does nothing for you on ice. Then you need fat studded tires, which can retail for more than $200 each.

A woman on cross-country skis was not going faster than I was, but she wasn't working nearly as hard, either. Who would have thought that a scant inch or two of snow would yield a skiable surface? And the cold is preserving it amazingly. It's kind of the perfect setup: not enough snow to close out the parking at various trail access points, but enough to slide on if you have some beater skis. If I can get myself going early enough tomorrow I'll give it a shot.

A weekend storm may bring a real accumulation. Then, ironically, I won't be able to ski anymore because I won't have a place to dump the car. And until the snowmobiles pack the rail trail I won't be able to bike it with my merely normal-width studded tires.

Nature always has another trick.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Kickin' back under the stars

Riding out the path on Saturday night through frosty air, between frozen lakes, with a sky full of glittering stars, I kept thinking this would be the time to ride a recumbent. It's not my preference in most cases, but sometimes it would be nice to pedal a lawn chair. Recumbent trikes are particularly suitable for sky gazing because you don't have to worry about balancing.

When the weather is bad, with rain, sleet and wet snow I wouldn't want to lie there, supine, letting it all just pool in my lap. In conditions like that it's nice to lean forward and let it roll off my back. And a little of that is plenty anyway. I'll take it for a short commute. For a long ride, stormy weather would make a velomobile seem like a great idea.

The variations of human powered vehicle are numerous. This might actually discourage some people who want to pick the "best" bike when there is no best bike. Certainly the configuration we've come to recognize as "normal" is the basis for the most versatile form of the machine, but even there we see great diversity for different habits and habitats. Best is often a compromise. How much better it is than worse or worst may be a slim margin in some cases.

For those of us addicted to using the human engine the temptation to acquire a fleet of vehicles is strong. I'll go further and say that it's a guilt-free indulgence compared to a fleet of vehicles that require fossil fuels, spew crap into the atmosphere and have a lengthy death toll associated with them. Indeed, those other vehicles present the biggest obstacle to people who might want to push the limits of their pedal-powered vehicles into winter conditions and darkness. It's bad enough with ample daylight and warm weather.

Motorized vehicles and equipment could have a place in Biketopia, constructing our travel routes and keeping them passable. And of course a well-developed rail network would serve a large network of communities for when quicker travel in spiffier attire was required. But then, humans set the standard for required spiffiness of attire. Maybe we should just get used to seeing each other in more casual clothing better suited to self-transportation.

The human powered vehicle industry could take up where the auto industry leaves off after the transition to healthy and sustainable personal transportation. Imagine Detroit and the Rust Belt coming back as the pedal-powered powerhouse of industrial renaissance. Imagine the road network of the United States devoted mostly to pedalers, with a few token "car lanes" stuck on the sides of some of them. Ha!

I never forget that I have financial advantages that many  people in the world do not. I'm relatively poor by American standards, but those standards are pretty warped. If I had to limit myself to one bike I could. I have it all picked out. But I would still make seasonal changes to broaden its capability.

Transportation costs money, even if you're just buying a pair of shoes. The economy adjusts to people's purchasing habits as people's purchasing habits adjust to the economy. If human powered vehicles dominated the transportation mix, they would pick up peripheral expenses from all the entities that make it their business to add peripheral expenses. Governments would require registration. Somehow the insurance industry would manage to get a hook in. Bike parking garages would have a regular fee schedule. All sorts of shady repair facilities would spring up. And the bike industry would continue to add dubious innovations that make repair more complicated and ownership more expensive, just as they are doing now with hydraulics, electronics, shifting systems and exotic materials. In absolute dollar amounts it could never rival the expenses and collateral costs of relying on motor vehicles, but in an adjusted economy the relative expense per person could rise to a comparable level. We could live on less money, but a similar proportion of it would be sucked out of us by the associated economic factors.

Some associated expenses are legitimate. Losing the revenue from motor vehicle registrations and other taxes and fees coughed up by the motoring public, governments would need to make up some of it to maintain the transportation routes formerly dominated by the smoking jalopies of a bygone era. Human-powered vehicles would damage the surface less, but weather still takes its toll. And human-powered travelers would benefit from facilities and amenities not yet constructed, or carried over in a modified form from the motor era. And without a doubt we would see increased enforcement of traffic laws related to human powered vehicles. Ever see those speed limit signs on bike paths? Ever whiz by the 15 mph sign at 20 or more and laugh about it? Now imagine some cop on an e-bike hiding in the bushes just beyond it. Yep. It could happen. It would happen.

Traffic laws could become more enlightened regarding rolling stops at stop signs, but cyclists need regulated intersections as much as motorists do. Imagine the carnage if everyone just blasted into intersections at whatever speed they could manage and tried to intimidate their way through. There would have to be some basic principles and someone would have to act as the referees.

I doubt if we have to worry about it any time soon. But it wouldn't be a bad worry to have. I would love to undertake the challenge of making a mostly human-powered transportation culture work. But it can't be achieved with an unwilling majority. Coercion is tyranny even if the end result appears beneficial. Process is important too. Process is vital. Consensus is indispensable. So that's the first challenge.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Separate but better

I've been stuck in the car this week because of evening meetings and sketchy weather. It reminds me how much I hate being stuck in the car.

On the bike I use the rail trail to get out of town. For the dark season park-and-ride I use about six miles of the trail. Slouching along in the darkness can be a trifle lonely, but the kind of peer pressure you get when you're in a car among other motorists is not company.

The trail route takes me to quiet roads, mostly dirt, to where I park the car. Then the first part of the drive continues on dirt and minor paved roads, limiting my exposure to the people who always stick to the roads with the highest speed limits. You will get the occasional flaming jerk on a back road, but it's a lot easier to pull off and let them blaze on when you're not flying between the guardrails at 60. If I'm on the fast road it's because I need to go fast anyway, like in the morning when I'm invariably late to work.

If I have to drive the whole commute I will use the highway to go home simply to get the unpleasant task of driving finished as quickly as possible. Sometimes I'll divert to a dirt route, but since driving itself is not all that enjoyable I have to balance the peace of the circuitous route with the extra butt time in the driver's seat. I keep wishing I was on the bike.

If tonight's snowstorm stays well south I should salvage one bike commute out of the week. The night meetings are over for another month, except for music on Thursdays. It all comes down to the weather.

Once my park-and-ride gets shut down I have to figure out how to fit a ride into each driving day. With the great lights and studded tires on my path bike I can ride after dark. We'll see how that goes. It's pretty tempting just to go home and drink beer.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Dreams deferred

I was going to say my bike had been across the country more times than I had, but that's not true. However, it did make one transcontinental journey unaccompanied. And in its four crossings (two round trips) I was not propelling it. It traveled by airplane, bus and freight truck.

Back in 1979, my best buddy and I were planning our transcon bike tour. The idea was still fairly novel, only three years after Bikecentennial. Prior to 1976, modern bike boomers were already knocking off The Big One, but it was still considered a pretty cool thing.

By the summer of 1979 in Annapolis I was acquiring the bike, some of the parts and saving some money at a menial job that would be easy to leave. My friend, who lived in Alexandria, Virginia, was doing the same. We had found the frames for our bikes in the shop in Alexandria where we would both later work another menial job that would be easy to leave. We set our sights on the following summer.

Late in the fall my buddy developed a sudden, inconvenient interest in higher education. He had busted out of the school system in his early teens to pursue his wide-ranging curiosity in the real world. His temperament did not mesh well with institutions. But now he felt the powerful need to go back and finish up with some institutional credentials.

I had a bachelors degree and had been unimpressed with its performance as an income enhancer but I couldn't talk him out of it.

The girlfriend I stumbled into in January of 1980 was a bike tourist, but she was also still entangled in the university system. The best we could manage was a 700-mile jaunt from San Francisco to Eugene, Oregon in September that year. So my bike flew to the west coast and rode the bus back east from Eugene when we kinda sorta broke up a little. We'd had a good trip, but she needed to get through the rest of college unburdened by a serious relationship. We maintained the fiction of connection, and that led to my bike's second west coast visit in April 1981. I was going to go out for a little early season training and some lovey dovin'. I'd sent the bike by UPS and was about to purchase the ticket when I got The Call, late at night Eastern Standard Time, that our lovey dovin' was over.

"Send my bike when it arrives," I requested. Then I hopped in the tub to shave my legs. I would train on my old bike until the well-traveled Eisentraut returned.

My best buddy, meanwhile, was still battling with the demons of community college. I started planning for a solo trip. Then I developed knee trouble from misaligned cleats I'd been using on my cyclocross-configured spare bike, so there went 1981. I also wanted to save more money, so I got another menial job that would be easy to leave, and looked toward 1982.

Racing had been good training in 1980 for the west coast tour. The 1982 season started out particularly well, since I was feeling suicidally bold. Then I got seriously smashed up in July. There went 1982. And July would have been late to start anyway.

One rational, sensible decision at a time the window closed for youthful quests like a transcon bike tour. To do it right I would want to take no less than two months, preferably closer to three. Why ride it like a record attempt? Take some time, see some stuff. You can't have the fetters of responsible adulthood on you for that.

In the fall of 1980, when my buddy and I were working in that bike shop in Alexandria, a family came in. Mom, Dad and lad had ridden from Oregon all together, taking the kid out of school for the year so they could have an unbeatable family bonding experience. That's one way to take the fetters with you. I forget what they'd done with their home base in Oregon, but they'd made arrangements. However, it took commitment by all of them. And with the best of intentions not everyone can make a commitment like that. Nor should they be scorned for a decision to forgo it.

Best buddy completed his education and started on a career of non-menial jobs he did not want to leave. Or when he did it was for another non-menial job. He married. They reproduced. They divorced. He followed various dreams and adventures, none of them pedal-powered.

A time or two since the early 1980s he has mentioned the transcon. I had one window in the mid 1990s when it could have gone well. I don't recall exactly where he was at the time, but I had no super incentive to chuck everything and go a-wandering by myself. I simply could have, with the right inducement. And then the window slid shut.

So here it is, the waning days of 2013 and best buddy sends me a message saying he's looking at 2014 to do the transcon. I inferred he would welcome my participation, but he did not say it directly. He has occasionally communicated to report things he was enjoying that I was obviously in no position to share, usually because I was hundreds of miles away. But assuming for the sake of argument that he was implicitly recruiting me, it has a piquant irony.

The cellist is a bike tourist, but her job and the commute to reach it preclude a lot of serious training. Also, her release and return dates from school bracket the touring season pretty tightly. So if I went I would be going separately. Do I really want to spend a couple of months away from home during the season she has the most time available? No.

The money. I have enough saved to do the trip in a style that would have been luxurious when I was in my 20s and was going to get on my bike at my doorstep on the east coast, ride to the west coast and probably ride back. When I was in my 20s I was nearly homeless already, although I could avoid seeming like a total vagrant by listing my parents' address as my home of record. I was also not above sleeping in a culvert or a cleft in a cliff. Nowadays I would pass on the culvert, although the cliff cleft is still a viable option. But I own a home, and it needs me when it needs me. As my colleague George -- a world traveler -- pointed out, whatever might be thinking about breaking will do so when you're a thousand miles away. He took his own major journeys when he and his wife were both unencumbered enough to take a motorcycle around Europe for a couple of months and other such getaways.

When you're getting away from it all you have to calculate how much "it all" you have and how far you want to get away from it. It's a whole lot easier when the answer to the first part is "not much" and to the second part is "it doesn't matter."

Initially intrigued by my buddy's idea, when I started putting practical logistics around the mid-trip fantasy scenarios it started getting unacceptably cumbersome.

When riding across the United States was going to be the first of many epic journeys it had practical aspects for all of its blatant impracticality. If I was really going to take wild trips and share them with a reading public, a transcon was a fine launching pad. But bad strategic decisions thwarted the vaguely-visualized plan to be such a traveler, aided in large part by the fact that I'm a wussy sociophobe who would have trouble asking for a tourniquet if I'd just severed an artery. At least I was. My imaginary cojones were always greater than my actual ones, as was my imaginary wit. After receiving a few gory gashes in public places I have learned to speak up quickly when first aid was slow or incompetent. But I still prefer to avoid people for the most part.

Actually, cojonically speaking, I do take risks. I even get back on the horse, so to speak, after a risk doesn't work out. Sometimes it takes longer than others. But it takes a lot to get me to talk to strangers outside of a known context like selling outdoor equipment or explaining myself to the arresting officer. And come to think of it, selling things and getting pulled over can both be uncomfortable contexts.

By the time I was 30 I could have traveled alone, and I've only gotten more comfortable alone since then. But by then it was too late. Or so it seemed, but belief makes it so. Everything has its price. This price needs to be fully calculated, not just approximated. What could possibly go wrong? And how would you feel if it did?

I do not say I'll get to it some day. I do not say I will never get to it. But I don't think 2014 is the year.

Mind you, best buddy has dangled the transcon carrot a time or two in the years  since the early 1980s and then tossed away, so I wait to see what transpires anyway. I've been putting together the kit to gear up the Traveler's Check for loaded touring already. I have only to accelerate the process a little. Initially I was going to transfer the multi-gear parts from the Cross Check, but now I think I would only transfer the dynamo front wheel. So the TC needs a front rack, a light set and that's about it. I have a crank, derailleurs and a rear brake and fenders. I need primary brake levers and I wouldn't mind getting a full set of Ortlieb paniers for front and rear. Odds and ends, really. Without the lights I could get it into a rideable configuration now. I might even have primary brake levers kicking around the bins somewhere.

I don't plan to go nowhere. I just don't know where.