Monday, February 29, 2016

This is The Renaissance of Hate

A friend in Des Moines, Iowa, just reported that persons unknown had dumped thumbtacks all over a section of bike trail, causing the sort of damage and inconvenience you would expect.

This trail is a segregated venue. These riders are not interfering with the holy motor vehicle traffic so beloved by Americans. Spiking their trail is an act of pure malice, singling out bike riders purely for being bike riders.

We live in a time when we are actively encouraged to give way to our prejudices and express them without reservation. Close borders. Harass, intimidate, beat up, and even kill "undesirables."

Talk radio hosts have been exposed numerous times suggesting that bike riders make perfectly legitimate targets for violent slapstick comedy. They never suggest that riders should get some hazard pay and a share of the residual income from any video coverage of these actions. It goes along with every other form of entertaining contempt peddled fiercely and continuously by people who have soapboxes large and small. The comment thread on any article about bicycling in the mainstream media devolves almost immediately into a collection of traded insults. It's just one aspect of a culture of intolerance that has been growing steadily since the backlash against "hippies" in the late 1970s and early '80s. It is blossoming now with creative expression of destructive tendencies.

We're in the Renaissance of Hate, when divisions mean more to people than coexistence. A large segment of humanity inclines toward duking things out and settling them now, rather than trying to bump along, accommodating each other as best we can. Another segment does try to keep building toward a universally tolerant society, but there are many details to iron out. The human propensity for simple mindedness and quick fixes throws land mines in front of any peace march to try to shut the gentle people up and let the men of action have their way.

I use the term men of action purposely. The culture of hate is sexist. It attracts many followers who are women, but they either think they can fight it out or they buy into the classic gender roles in which men make the big moves and women support them. In general, movements of intolerance try to keep people in their rigidly defined places. Amazing how totalitarian ideas can march in under a banner of freedom. They have specific, worthy recipients in mind when they talk about freedom.

Some things are deplorable and need to be opposed. Sometimes, forcefully delivered rhetoric is not wrong. That complicates analysis for the concerned citizen. But if someone is suggesting that it's okay to target anyone for unkind treatment, that's bad advice. "Hate the sin, love the sinner" is a shorthand way to remind yourself that a broad brush and a machine gun are ham fisted solutions.

At the start of every riding season, and at intervals during it, I wonder whether hatred or negligence will strike me or someone I hold dear. It's one more thing in the back of the mind when gearing up to take a simple bike ride.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Base miles or anomaly

Other riders have been out religiously in this weak winter. For various reasons, one or two of them possibly valid, I only shook off the deep embrace of the couch today, to begin rebuilding some semblance of fitness for the commuting season.

The illusion of April is eerie. This is heightened by the fact that upper management decided to lop off the last half hour of the business day, releasing us at 5 p.m. The day feels about as long as it always did, but we get out with that half-hour of extra daylight to throw off years of conditioning. It's like an early shot of Daylight Saving Time to make spring seem much closer than it really is.

The National Weather Service says,


Thus beginneth March. The next couple of days look like good enough riding weather, but a big load of frozen items would interrupt the steady accumulation of bike rides. We serve at the pleasure of that whacky jet stream. A series of frozen storms would disrupt outdoor riding even if it did not provide conditions for wintry alternatives. So I can't get all jacked up about the season being truly underway. It goes one ride at a time.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Into the great unknown

With several days left in February, the shop has started making the transition to bike season. It will never be an immediate, drastic shift, because the weather and people's schedules don't work that way. It's always a series of steps. But this is probably the earliest we have ever started them.

For a couple of winters in the 1990s we had a combination of low snow and a surging mountain bike culture. We did a lot of winter repairs for the die-hards who were experimenting with studded tires for the frozen lakes and hard-packed snowmobile trails. That subsided on its own, as we got into a pattern of snowier winters and mountain biking continued to evolve away from the masses.

While the bike component never goes away completely, there is enough of a heritage of real winter sports around here to pull most of our customers into those traditional seasonal pastimes.

This year, the ski trails have not survived the series of rain storms that has pummeled us. So here we are, in the "dead of winter," dead in the water. And then we're slithering on ice when the water we're dead in freezes with the next cold snap.

We have no choice but to ring the dinner bell for the restless cyclists who have been asking when we're going to get busy on the greasy side of things. There must be three or four of them altogether.

I hate trying to work on stuff in the "wrong" season, because the shop is not set up for the slick routines of efficient work flow. Handlebars snag on rental skis. Grease and oil can pollute ski wax. Bikey bench grime is no place to lay a new ski for bindings to be mounted.

Based on the forecast a week ahead, we can look forward to more cycles of dry cold and warm wet. March could continue the trend, or flip it and bury us, initiating a return to ski business. This late in the season, that doesn't mean much in the way of income, but if you're trying to play the touring center game you can't ignore snow before the beginning of April.

For now, I'm preparing rental skis for storage, and rental bikes for the summer ahead. Instead of telling callers they'd be better off waiting for April to bring in their repairs, we're telling them to come on down. February looks like April. That does not guarantee that March won't try to pretend it's January. We're seeing the legendary New England fickle weather elevated to psychopathology.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Thursday's lunch bag

Nearly the only advantage to driving season is the huge cargo capacity the automobile has relative to the bike.

I drive on Thursdays even into bike commuting season, because I go to a music group in the early evening.

To charge up for it, I would swing by home to brew up an espresso when I grabbed my fiddle and fed the cats. Then the group voted to meet a half-hour earlier to accommodate people who drive in from much farther away than I do.

Now Thursday's lunch bag is much bigger:
No screwing around about the afternoon jolt here.

When the workshop gets busy, things will be too chaotic to allow such indulgence. It works for now, though.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Memory of meals missed

One afternoon, in the redwood forest, my traveling companion and I had set up our tent in the bargain campsite provided by the California parks department and gone for a little wander among the enormous trunks soaring up to a canopy you could sort of forget about as you examined the vivid green undergrowth in the filtered light. Trees that big seem more like topographical than botanical features.

We returned to find other campers setting up. One was a German woman with a blonde crew cut, riding a touring bike. The others were a couple of hitchhikers, a man in his 20s and a woman who appeared barely old enough to qualify for the description. The road of summer is full of travelers trying their wings for better or for worse.

The young man had just finished a summer stint cooking at an inn in Vermont. He and his companion had traveled across the country swiftly enough to arrive in the redwoods in early September. Still summer, but only technically, the time just after Labor Day is a great one for traveling.

While my own companion and I had given up on culinary gumption and opted for a big skillet full of scrambled eggs, we soon regretted our haste as we watched the young chef whip up something that looked and smelled far more elaborate over the same fire pit.

To make matters worse, he could play guitar and sing. This he demonstrated after supper. We had been joined by a soft-spoken woman with long, straight hair, who asked if anyone minded if she did some background vocals. My own companion, a guitarist and singer herself, stayed in the music circle. I, possessed of only grunts and croaks, wandered the periphery of the firelight, still in awe of the immense forest. The music drifted over me with the flickers of firelight as I tripped over unseen obstacles and got up again, still in the trance of that random convergence of talents in this enchanted place.

Yeah, at the time I also felt like a boring, miserable toad with nothing to contribute. But I was taking it all in anyway.

The next morning, my companion and I had to move on. We had a deadline in Eugene, Oregon, and a few hundred more miles to cover. The chef was making blueberry pancakes.

Several days later, in Oregon, under steady rain, we converged with the crewcut German woman again. I liked her because her watchword was "coffee." "Coffee? Coffee?" she would ask. Even a big jar of instant looked fine to a caffeine freak pushing a loaded bike over wet roads and bunking down in a wet tent each night.

Her name was Marianne. She told us that she had stayed two more days in the redwoods with the chef and his girlfriend, emerging only to go to the little grocery store nearby to get ingredients for the chef's next creation. She said she finally tore herself away because she realized her bike shorts were getting tight, and she was in danger of just settling in there for the winter. We traveled together for a couple of days, eating our own miserable fare, as she described the chef's creations, to give our imaginations a taste of that little bubble of feasting and conviviality.

She left us to rendezvous with other travelers. We rode onward in the rain, a little hungry.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Bi-- Sk-- Uh-- wha--?

If March turns cold and snowy after this fiasco of a winter so far, it would put the icing on the cake. I've been on the verge of resuming the park and ride commute several times, only to have just enough snow return to slather the path and reactivate our sputtering ski business.

After decades in New Hampshire, I can zig or zag as winter changes its moods. But the oscillations have been short and crazy this winter. Yesterday, the morning low here was minus 12 F. Today's predicted high is in the 40s, with rain. This is on top of two or three inches of snow and sleet that fell overnight. The high on Sunday was about 3. That's right: three degrees above zero was the high. Maybe 5 in the sun, but there was a steady breeze. Monday, the temperature crawled up through the teens as the day advanced, while clouds moved in ahead of the storm.

There's always pie. This is a clean-out-the-freezer berry pie. It's the follow-up to a chocolate chip dessert quiche I slopped together because I wanted to bake something to help warm up the house and I didn't want to resort to the default pan full of brownies.

Even in thaw weather, the house needs heat. There's a long, hypothermic span between sub-freezing temperatures and actual balminess.

Last night, the silvery patter of snowflakes whispered over the silent forest. It reminded me why I live here. For a few hours, no sound of human activity tore the peace. Even in our rural area, people keep having babies and those babies keep growing up to buy motorized things. When they all fall silent it is a blessing.

The next storm of predominantly rain is forecast to hose down the closing weekend of what should be our largest earning week of the winter, in the ski business. Most of the clientele starts thinking about boat shows and Caribbean cruises after the notorious Vacation Week ends. Dedicated skiers will take advantage of whatever they get, but they're few in number compared to the dabbling hordes that actually keep the industry going.

Cross-country skiing is the ancestor of downhill skiing. But its roots can be its downfall in a couple of ways. First, it takes more effort than downhill skiing. It started out as a means of transportation. Second, as a means of transportation, it was a free-range activity. In other words, a cross-country skier would get the equipment and then -- theoretically -- be able to ski for free wherever conditions permitted it. The 1970s cross-country ski boom promoted this idea heavily.

Some sort of grooming makes skiing easier. Traditionally, trails would get better as more people used a track and firmed it up. Touring centers would pack trails, using snowmobiles and various drags. Just as improved road surfaces led to vehicles that needed improved road surfaces, improved grooming led to ski designs that need really well-groomed trails. Touring centers have to charge more for trails that require more elaborate construction, maintenance and grooming, but skiers who have learned to like those things see them as necessary to the experience. And yet, deep down, the traditional cross-country cheapskate lives inside all of us.

This brings us back to the dabblers. Whether they rent or buy, the majority of cross-country skiers only go a few times a season. Some of them have to live where opportunities are rare or nonexistent, saving their ski jollies for one great vacation trip. Others just don't care about it enough to seek it out on a regular basis, even if they live where winter provides snow, and some sort of open land provides a venue.

This only matters to me because I followed an interest in human-powered transportation to an environment in which -- at one time -- one could expect to use skis to get around for a couple of months in the year. It's part of the physical and economic mix of our lives here.

Fat bikes might seem to fit neatly into the menu of options, but now you're talking about adding an expensive bike (relative to a stagnant, working class income) and all the costs that go with it. I already ride each bike in my fleet at least a little. So I would be unlikely to get rid of one to make room for another one. And fat bikes have no place on cross-country ski trails, regardless of whatever ill-considered experiments some beleaguered touring centers are trying. They really are not interchangeable.

Dabblers in cross-country skiing will not buy a fat bike. Fat bikes cost too much. If dabblers did buy fat bikes, they would expect to be able to go to the same place where they dabble in skiing. So now a touring center has to manage traffic control, in the event that ski and bike conditions exist simultaneously. That means investing in a shadow trail system and grooming it so the dabblers can play, trouble-free, with the least amount of thought and effort on their part.

I'm not ragging on dabblers here. They have chosen to dabble in what I do, out of all the other things they do with their lives. Many of them say they wish they could do more than dabble. We try to care for them. We're glad they get out as much as they do. But I still recognize the economic realities of our business. I try to see their point of view, rather than standing haughtily on some pinnacle of hard-core dedication and judging everyone else by how far they manage to scale it.