Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Revolution was too hard and scary

For years, there's been this cocky slogan, "The Revolution Will Not Be Motorized," with various graphics of pedal powered conveyances attached. I suppose they still sell well in some places. Here's a sample:

Most people are not revolutionaries. Some of them may be unattractive, but most of them are not revolting.

Bikes seemed rebellious and free in the '60s part of the '70s. Even into the early 1980s, road riding was gaining ground. To those of us with an eye on corporate dominance of our lives, the bike was a way to live on the fringes while we advocated for a social system that valued individual lives and shared efforts more than the pure pursuit of wealth and power. It offered -- and still offers -- a little slice of personal freedom in the course of a normal day.

As hard as it was then, several decades of infrastructure evolution and social conditioning have made it even harder to live without a motor vehicle in most parts of the country. Even revolting people like myself have grown up a little and noticed more and more occupations that contribute value and require more cruising range and cargo capacity than anything powered by meat alone. And the revolutionaries are few, fighting our little skirmishes against armored cavalry in a losing battle for the hearts and minds of the citizens.

Most cycling is just an expensive hobby. Traffic fear has been a huge boon to mountain biking, as fear gets the better of more and more riders who are scared of motor vehicles, but aren't quite ready to relegate themselves to a sedate bike trail and a comfort bike. Aside from the occasional cougar, mountain bikers have nothing to fear but themselves. Don't feel like a brush with death? Take that easier trail. Don't try that particular jump. It's all more protected than the mean streets.

The United States of today is what lies at the end of about 40 years on the path of least resistance. The only thing that could slow an American down was a bad credit score. A shiny bubble was always more popular than a solid foundation.

The revolution was over by the mid 1980s. People might ride bikes for transportation and pleasure, but without the underlying subversiveness. When mountain biking hit, the rowdy image was just that: an image. It was wild and fun, but it also got cyclists off the road.

I don't enjoy riding among motor vehicles. I merely put up with it, because I don't want to be chased off into the rapidly developing system of purely recreational closed courses that serve the off-road rider. A trail builder I know is sure that there is money to be made on such places. He envisions what are essentially country clubs for cyclists where, for a few hundred dollars a year, a group of riders can build and maintain a trail system that has just what they want. Hard lines, easy lines, place your orders. Trails will be built to suit. Cycling is the new golf indeed. Pay to play.

Cycling is becoming a luxury.

Bikes are very adaptable and still widely available. People will ride the roads because they have to. Some of us will ride the roads because we also want to, and because it should be not only our right but an encouraged behavior with far reaching social benefits.

Revolutions fail. The American Revolution is failing now, as the corporate power that led Thomas Jefferson to state, "I hope that we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country" has completely taken over that government. It was a long, back and forth series of battles from the late 18th Century until the Citizens United decision in 2010.

In a way, America was just the economic Petri dish in which this long experiment was turned loose to fester while the rest of the world watched. It's crawling over the sides now, and surrounding nations are starting to worry about the slime. Many of us mired in the culture are just trying to survive. It doesn't look dramatic unless it's your school that got shot up this week, or your medical bills that suddenly billow out of control. A lot of lives go on, teetering on the top rail of a rotten fence. But we're too divided to revolt. We're too afraid even to ride a bike. Get a gun. Get a bunch of guns, and a big truck.

It doesn't matter whether your truck has a big Confederate battle flag, or Old Glory, or a Gadsden snake  trailing in the wind. If you've paid for all that, you've bought in.

The revolution will not be.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

The peloton didn't smell like a laundromat

Only rarely do I encounter another rider on my commute, especially in the evening. It's an awkward time of day and an unattractive route for riders who can put together any loop they want for their day's training objective. When I do encounter someone from the racing crowd, it's usually cordial but brief.

"How's it goin?'


Racer zooms away.

Once in a while, a friendlier one will pull his pace back and hang for a while, until they realize how late they'll get home or how far below their target heart rate they will fall if they plod along with me for too long. I'm on a linear run, while they're on a loop. So off they trot. But one thing has stood out: they all smell like fresh, chemically-perfumed laundry products.

I did most of my racing in the wool era. Lycra shorts and "skin suits" were just coming in, but in mass start races and on training rides you saw mostly riders wearing knitted fabrics that had to be hand washed and hung to dry. If the peloton smelled like anything other than sweat, it was Woolite, and whatever people had smeared on the vicious shark skin of a newly-dried chamois to turn it back into something you might want in contact with your testicles for a few hours.

I haven't been on a group road ride in well over a decade. I did do a charity ride a couple of years in that time, but the group was small and very dispersed, and there was a sea breeze for much of the time. I also don't use scented laundry products, so my own garb has very little odor until I apply a fresh batch of sweat and road grime.

On Friday, I was trudging along, entertaining myself with a stream of consciousness soliloquy, when I heard the smooth grind of a bike drive train behind me, and a voice announcing politely, "on your left." It was a rider I know.

"How you doin'?" he asked

"Just ploddin' along," I said. I'm careful with racers and performance roadies to avoid throwing down any gauntlets. Not that they're necessarily super sensitive to a challenge, but I don't want to look like that sad old bastard on a touring bike who thinks he can show the racers a thing or two. I want to establish right away what they can expect riding near me: a steady pace, probably considerably slower than they will enjoy, and no illusions.

We were on the very last little rise to the height of land on Route 28 northbound. The lead rider, and the younger man drafting him, passed me as quickly as I expected they would. They didn't whoosh past, opening a huge gap and buffeting me with turbulence, but they didn't linger, either. That was fine with me. Really. I settled back into my thoughts as I reached the crest.

Down the slope, I saw them, still riding a nice tight formation. The gap was more than a hundred yards. It was probably well over a hundred yards. I shifted to my usual gear for the descent and accelerated as I usually do. It's basically two miles down hill from there, and essentially down hill all the rest of the way to my house. I'm headed for the barn, so I don't waste time, even on my heavy bike, and carrying the weight of years.

The gap diminished. This was interesting, I thought to myself. I knew that in previous years the lead rider had been going out with one local ride group famous for killing the wounded and eating the dead. I really didn't expect him to be idling. The two riders seemed to be in pretty tall gears, and were pedaling at a respectably high cadence. They were on fancy road bikes.

Whatever the shortcomings of a fully-loaded Surly Cross Check as a climbing bike, it plummets nicely under the influence of gravity. I utilize all that the forces of nature offer me to make my trip faster and easier. On that long descent, there are places I pedal and places I tuck, little grade variations I seek, and rough, speed-robbing strips that I avoid. If there's a tailwind, I'm surfing it. I've ridden the route hundreds of times. I'd left work late that day, and was eager to get home. At a high but maintainable cruising speed, I was up with them in a couple of minutes. Awkward.

"I tried to get left in the dust," I said to the young rider. He grinned. I stayed in the back, but that's where I really started to notice the smell of laundry products. It's not really pleasant, regardless of what the advertising tells you. All I had to look forward to was more of the same, or possibly a fart or two from one or both of them.

They weren't coasting, but I was actually holding back from my usual pace to avoid making a move around them. I didn't want to look like an old geezer beating myself up to pass the racers, but they were -- surprisingly -- costing me time.

One feature I aim for on one of the steeper bits is a weird hump in the pavement, that always reappears not long after any road work. It never forms a sharp peak. When I ride over it, it always launches me into a higher speed bracket. It's worth a gear, at least. And the speed carries well down into the next section, where the grade levels out a bit. I call it The Speed Bump. They didn't use it, and I coudn't get to it. Even without it, I had to make an effort to avoid making a move on the outside.

The lead rider was doing all the pulling, which is silly. The two of them should have been trading leads, and with three of us we could have had a little pace line. Instead, the lead rider yawed somewhat, but never made a definitive move to pull off, and I wasn't going to blow myself up to get to the front. Where the shoulder widened, I winged out a bit to the left, both to use the wind to check my speed and to get out of the cloud of fabric softener swirling in the slipstream.

On the last drop before the road levels out approaching Route 171, I always tuck tight until I get to the bottom and resume pedaling in top gear. Depending on how fresh I feel, I'll start shifting to lower gears right way, or within a few seconds. In any case, bombing down in a tuck is faster than pedaling.

The racers pedaled. They pedaled and pedaled. I had to use the brakes to keep from running up on them. What the heck, I figured. I'll pull left and tuck, and see what happens.

In a tuck, coasting, I accelerated past the pedaling pair, toiling manfully.

"Guys, I'm not even pedaling," I said. "Tuck! Tuuck!"

I pulled clear ahead. Where the road leveled, I followed my usual shifting pattern. I expected them to come ripping through any second.

They never did. I passed through the intersection with 171, grunted up the little rise to the next level bit, and glanced back. They were gone.

Most of the performance riders in town have no use for my technical advice. Most of them don't even shop at our store anymore. These guys don't, although they used to, back before the turn of the  century. It's all friendly enough. If I didn't work in a bike shop I would probably seldom go into one.

Funny thing about modern technology: when I was telling another local rider about the encounter as a funny story, he told me that those guys posted a 20 mile per hour average for the ride on Strava.

I always forget about Strava. Even having just been reminded, I'll forget again soon. I'm not sure what sort of technology you need to own to get your stats uploaded and verified by satellites, but it's not important enough to me to find out. I do know that a 20 mph average would probably kill me. If the climb had been longer, those guys would have opened a gap I couldn't cross, and that would have been totally fine. But maybe they would have averaged 22 mph if they'd worked the descent a little better. Never underestimate the power of an experienced commuter on his way home for a shower and some food.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

The danger of low-traffic roads

Bicycle riders often choose paths and trails because they are afraid of traffic on roads. Road riders will share routes that they prefer, often based on lower traffic volume. I do it myself.

On busy roads, cyclists worry about close passing and drive-by maliciousness. But the volume on a high-traffic road forces motorists to keep up with each other. Each one only has a couple of seconds to spend on hassling a cyclist before inviting the impatience of drivers coming up from behind. Granted, in a hostile neighborhood a rider may encounter a conveyor belt of aggressive criticism, but in most places a driver will settle for an angry horn blast, or a fender-brush, in passing on their privileged way. More drivers do an okay job going around me than don't.

Quiet roads seem relaxing. Most drivers I encounter seem more interested in getting by with a minimum of fuss regardless of traffic volume. But a quiet road also affords the malicious driver more time to plan and execute cowardly acts of bullying, one on one. A case in point: Yesterday, I was on the home stretch of a 41-mile ride home from dropping off a vehicle in Gilford. With about a mile to go, on a beautiful, sunny afternoon, I was coasting down a little grade when a navy blue Chevy HHR came up and slowed beside me.
The road is bumpy there, so I kept my eyes forward. No one rolled down a window to speak to me. The vehicle just squeezed over to the right, to herd me into the ditch.

Having none of that, I braked sharply and yanked the bike to the left to cross behind the Chevy to the clear left lane. The driver jammed on the brakes as soon as I was behind the vehicle, but not enough to get me. He (I assume, since the whole thing was a total dick move) accelerated slowly away, giving no response to my interrogatory "WTF" shrug.

Such incidents are blessedly rare. But that makes them stand out all the more, when you are reminded that some people enjoy making a special effort to try to mess up someone else's day, and perhaps even cause injury. Put it on YouTube and it will get 7 million hits and make them some beer money.

My rage rises slowly in cases like this. As the incident unfolds, I focus on calm and decisive maneuvers to avoid a crash. Because the cowards usually do their thing and roll on by, I can come to a boil behind them while they're still close enough to hit with a short-barreled weapon, if I were so inclined and equipped. The fact that I could be so inclined is a major reason why I am not so equipped. I would dearly love to vaporize their back window in a shower of glass shards. But I really wouldn't love to vaporize the back of someone's skull, which is a very real possibility when you start tossing lead around.

I have yet to devise the ideal emotionally-satisfying response or a good defense mechanism. Any use of force invites escalation. The best strategy seems to be the existing strategy: ride smart, refuse to quit, and remember that there are many ways to stand up for what you believe is right. The need for principled resolve never ends. It could be scary and it could be painful, but you will experience fear and pain no matter how you live. You might as well spend them on something worthwhile.

Fear itself is just an emotion. Sustained negative emotions can have damaging physical effects, but you can learn to diminish a lot of your fear, and use the remaining bit to heighten your awareness. Mere emotional disruption is far more common than actual physical injury out there on the road.

Anger is a byproduct of fear. My anger centers on two aspects of the violation: I could be hurt, which would disrupt my economy, to say the least; and someone else could be hurt or intimidated. So far, I have been able to take care of myself out there. Ride smart. Learn to get comfortable with other vehicles fairly close to you. You're safer on most streets than you would be in a Cat 4-5 criterium. Most riders do not try racing. They don't learn how to ride mere inches (if that) from someone else.

You can't let yourself dwell on what could go wrong. If you're going to do that, don't just stop at cycling. Think about how insane most of our transportation habits are: We fly at each other on two-lane roads at a combined closure speed of 80 to 130 miles per hour. Motorcyclists join this flow, many of them with no protective clothing whatsoever. I'll bet that they all feel like they've made a better choice than riding a bicycle.

If I let fear get the better of me and quit riding on the roads, I see no point in keeping my job. I'll be walking most places, and driving very little. I've already made plenty of concessions to the motoring public, short of quitting entirely. I ride to the right, I don't bother to herd. I was riding to the right on an empty road on Monday. It's just not enough for some people. Anyone as petty as that deserves no more from me. They represent everything that is wrong with humanity.