Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Yearning for spring

Winter can be quite enjoyable if you are in a position to use winter conditions with appropriate tools and activities. Otherwise, it is just a challenge to survival, both physical and mental.

As a college athlete -- albeit a dissipated and hedonistic one -- I had heard what happens to weekend warriors who try to continue to compete after they emerge into the Real World and let other responsibilities take over the time they used to spend on training. I only nursed delusions of higher level competition in fencing for a few years after graduation, but I had every intention of remaining physically active.

Physical capability requires continuous maintenance. I found lots of interesting ways to explore under my own power. I recommend all of them. But only a couple work well as routine daily transportation. Cycling is the only one that is basically universal. If you walk, you need to live within timely walking distance of your destination. If you row or paddle, you will need to transport your vessel or have a place to keep it on the water. Park-and-whatever options do reduce motor vehicle use, but don't allow you to be completely car-free.

Bike commuting provided continuous physical activity. It fit neatly into a part of the day already committed to commuting in general. Biking is not complete exercise, but it provides a great baseline from which to add a little of this and that to fill out your needs. It also marks you as some kind of arrested adolescent or weirdo, but that's society's problem, not cycling's. Society will make it your problem if you ride. You have to do your own cost/benefit analysis to decide if it's worth it to you.

One of the hardest things to get used to when you're out there riding a bike and trying to live a low impact life is finding out how many people hate you for it and think you should die. It doesn't have to be the majority. You only have to encounter one homicidal jerk. That's true whether you get tagged by a hit and run driver or you happen to be at the mall the day one of them shows up and opens fire. In spite of that, I find myself trapped by winter, waiting for the opportunity to go expose myself to the contempt and hostility of the motoring public, just to be able to fit physical activity conveniently into my schedule again.

As a member of society and a denizen of a northern state, I don't go wobbling down the icy, narrowed roads on my bike when conditions are adverse. Once you accept that the majority of people have valid reasons not to use a bicycle for transportation, you have a responsibility to examine your own priorities as you expect them to bend to your decision to ride. If biking was really a valid option for low income people to get to their jobs around here we would see them out in all weather. In some places you do. Those would be the places that get first priority when someone starts handing out infrastructure improvements. In the other places, where harsh-weather cyclists are rare or nonexistent, people have clearly made other adaptations. In an open winter, or as winter finally loosens its grip, I will take training rides and ease into the full-distance commute. As long as most roads are lined with slumping snowbanks, and narrowed by flows of ice, I will find other things to do. But it is hard. So many other things I need to do involve no physical exertion at all. Case in point, I'm sitting here on my ass, writing, because this is the time I have.

Unfortunately for me, the shorter options for the commute aren't open until late in the spring, because they involve parking areas and sections of trail that are buried in snow. These thaw slowly to mud and then dry gradually to a decent riding surface. For the past several years I have had to pull off some sudden long days in the early season.

Trainer riding is not only mental torment, it is very abusive of the bike in the trainer. The bike is clamped into a frame instead of free to lean in response to rider input. The rider's sweat cascades down over the machine for the entire trainer season. I do my best to avoid using a trainer, preferring instead to use off-bike cross training activities and some roller riding for smoothness. But that was when I wasn't as mired in depression most of the time. The nice thing about commuting is that I can flog myself to do it even if I feel like a worthless piece of crap. It beats sitting in the car feeling like a worthless piece of crap.

When the days get longer, there's more daylight to burn. Even before commuting season it's easier to fit more things into a day away from work, or into the margins of a day wasted on gainful employment. Meanwhile, I'm keenly aware that one should not wish time away. Just keep tunneling, and look for rewards in each shovelful.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Motorist Logic in Action

Conflicts with bicyclists and pedestrians are just symptoms of the selfishness and poor judgment motorists routinely exhibit toward each other. In addition to being a means of conveying people and their stuff from place to place, motor vehicles also serve a function like the pads worn by American football players, or ice hockey players. Motoring is a contact sport.

In the past two days I have gotten to witness two classic examples of motorist logic on my morning drive to work.

On Thursday, the weather was warm and wet. The landscape was shrouded in fog as the snow pack sublimated into vapor. Along with perhaps eight or ten other drivers, I came up behind a state highway truck winging back the plow drift along Route 28. The speed limit for most of that part of 28 is 55 miles per hour. In good weather, that means most of the locals are doing 60-65. Because the weather has not been good, the road surface was a mix of chunked-up wet ice, slush, and bits of exposed pavement, slathered with sand and brine. Average speed had been about 45 until we all caught up to the state truck. That vehicle was going about 18-25 mph. Its bulk filled the lane as its side blade bounced along the shoulder, shoving the snow further back to make room for whatever else the winter might deliver.

We were on a long, steady climb. The center line is double yellow. The height of land is a narrow crest, so the approach is blind from both sides. In spite of fog, unsteady traction, and the blind hill crest, impatient drivers went one after another out around the plow truck. There was no skill involved. The drivers had no way to judge whether it was safe to pass. It was a complete gamble. But these suicidal lemmings weren't just gambling with their own lives. They were also betting the lives of anyone who might be coming the other way.

No one happened to be coming the other way just then, but 28 is a busy road, especially on a workday morning. Passing there and then was a selfish and stupid move. Unfortunately, those traits are common.

Today, on a different part of 28, we were all moving along much better on mostly dry roads, when I saw a big work truck pull partway off the travel lane and throw it in reverse. A plastic container had blown out of the truck bed. The driver's automatic reflex was not to pull safely off the road and walk back, it was to back up against traffic. Driver's ed was a lot of years ago, but I definitely remember being told quite emphatically that you do not put it in reverse and back up on a highway. But we are a motoring culture. We drive as close as possible to our destination, and walk as little as possible. Of course you stay in your truck and back up against oncoming traffic to try to rescue your unsecured property from the center line of the road. No other driver will fault you for behaving completely normally. What else is a driver supposed to do?

The driver's selfish and dangerous maneuver increased the chances that another driver would hit the item that he was hoping to rescue, as we all tried to work around truck and its lost cargo.

In both cases, drivers were doing things that they shouldn't have done, that lots of people do anyway, and that most people get away with. It only reinforces the custom, because drivers so seldom suffer any consequences.

A motorist in free flight will react negatively to any obstacle that breaks the flow. The same fixation on forward motion prompts a driver squeezing past a cyclist or blazing around a plow truck on a blind hill crest in the fog.

Interestingly, the driver backing up on the highway to suit his own convenience has a philosophical kinship to the cyclist who rides against traffic and ignores one-way streets. It's the same kind of personal relationship with the law and right of way in either case. "It's only me, it's only here, it's only now." If everyone else would lighten up -- and adapt to my personal wants -- everything would be fine. A chunky truck going backwards on a highway has a bit more leverage, but the self-centeredness is spot on.

The cyclist who rides on the sidewalk is analogous to the driver who pulls into a designated cycle lane to get ahead in traffic or to park. These equivalencies are not meant to excuse the behavior of either side, only to emphasize that the problems are not motorist or pedaler problems but human problems. Wrapping the human in a motor vehicle makes the offenses worse because of the damage that the hard outer coating can inflict on softer opponents, but it's pilot error in either case.

We all want to flow smoothly to our chosen destination. Cyclists like to maintain speed. We take advantage of our small size and maneuverability to bend traffic rules in ways that actually enhance our safety and make traffic flow better. But some of us abuse the power and commit gross infractions that don't end well. If the result isn't an outright crash with injuries or death, it is at least a bad public relations move, with far-reaching consequences in the bike-hating community. Everyone bears some responsibility for making a multi-mode transportation culture work. However, the bigger the vehicle, the greater the responsibility.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The obstinacy of people on wheels

The snow thrower quit on me this morning as I was beginning the most critical part of the job. I have to clear the end of the driveway and a landing zone so that I can get out to work this morning and have a place to bury the car when I return home this evening. Snow continues to fall, with up to eight inches forecast for the day.

Because humans have adopted the wheel as the universal facilitator of land travel, massive efforts have been made over the centuries to make wheeled conveyances more powerful, and surfaces more available. My friends in Alaska talk about road conditions, and the challenges of operating a motor vehicle in Arctic and near-Arctic conditions.

The town plow makes life miserable for those of us who move their own snow, and more expensive for  everyone. They make mobility possible in humanity's chosen way, but they build walls in front of driveways. If I could get around another way, I would forget the driveway and mothball the car for the winter. But many factors act against that.

This is relevant to cycling with the rise of fat bikes. Fat bikes can't break their own trail. They're lousy for bushwhacking. Fat bike riders are always looking for a packed surface to exploit. Some of them accept the challenge of packing their own trails, but as the user group expands it attracts more and more people who do not have that self sufficient ethic. They are fixated on using their expensive wheeled toy, and they push hard to be allowed on any existing packed surface. All they have to do to find peace is accept that wheels and snow were never meant to go together.

The rest of society cannot be weaned. In a place like New England, where snow is inconsistent, one winter might be white from end to end. Sleighs, snow machines, and skis would be great. But get a thaw, or have a dry or rainy winter and we're back to rolling. Most likely, get a winter that flips between the two extremes, and nothing works for long.

Today's blizzard will be followed by 40 degrees and rain by Thursday. That won't remove anything, it will just make it harder to deal with. It will be especially hard without the wheeled piece of power equipment that allows me to function at all.