Thursday, December 25, 2008

Phantoms, Part 5

Author's Note:
It's funny, I'd walked away from this piece for a while, picked today to look it over again, and realized just how appropriate it would be to put up the excerpt where I'd left off.

This is dedicated to my late-Grandmother Nunemaker, who sent me on the wild-goose gift chases described below every Christmas (the most memorable led to my first computer, appropriately enough), and to my late-Dad, the first person out of bed on Christmas morning his entire life, even after he had kids of his own.

In the bike shop where I work, I hear it almost every day: “Oh, I had one just like that.” The customer is usually male, mid-fifties, responding to the Schwinn Black Phantom reissue cruiser that hangs from our ceiling. I would guess that eighty percent of these glassy-eyed nostalgia sufferers never owned a Phantom. Most probably owned another model in the Schwinn line, or perhaps a bicycle built by Schwinn to be rebadged as a department-store model. After all, in 1950s America, the Schwinn Black Phantom was, without question, the best - and most expensive - bike a kid could have. Granted, from a strictly utilitarian perspective, the original Phantom was nothing new, borrowing from balloon-tire technologies Schwinn perfected two decades earlier. However, unlike its prewar ancestors - the Motorbike, the Autocycle, the DX, the Excelsior - Phantoms had all the toys. Deep black and red enamel, blinding chrome on just about everything, tubing junctures smooth as poured liquid, flowing curves, long antique white pinstripes, real leather saddle, drum brakes, fenders, built-in wheel lock, rear rack with working taillight, working headlight growing organically from the line of the front fender, and a small button on the side of the imitation gas tank controlling the battery-powered horn inside. Everything about the bike was big and overbuilt, from the wide balloon tires on rolled steel rims to the long cowhorn handlebars. In one bicycle, Schwinn blended all the fantasies of postwar Americans, adult and child alike. Style, polish, power, and features - if they sell cars, Schwinn reasoned, why not bikes? The Phantom brought ten-year-old boys to tears of desire, a machine-as-identity lust that would eventually be transferred to four-wheeled vehicles like Mustangs, Corvettes, and Camaros. In its time, it was simply the ultimate bicycle. Even fifty years later, the Phantom still stands as a defining moment in bicycle history, pursued by collectors like a two-wheeled Holy Grail. So I can’t blame these glassy-eyed men in my shop for the blur in their memories, the hardening of want into remembered ownership. My own father, now fifty-four, suffers the same illness.

On March 3, 1954, for his ninth birthday, my father received what he remembers as a Schwinn Black Phantom. That morning, my grandparents probably gave him something small, pretending that the gift-giving was over. Then, just as disappointment set in, they handed him a small note: “Look in the hall closet.” In the hall closet, another note: “Look under your pillow.” I see my grandparents exchanging smiles over coffee as their son scurries around the house. Under the pillow: “Look on Mom’s dresser.” On the dresser: “Look in the garage.” Since it was March in Illinois, I’m certain my grandmother stopped him on his way out the door, insisting on a coat and hat, adding one more delay just as the suspense reached its zenith.

Finally, a warm coat wrapped over his pajamas, he burst into the garage, and there it was: his Schwinn. Black, with cream trim. Black-painted fenders with matching cream pinstripes. A rear rack. Chrome springer fork. Big. Gleaming. Most birthday presents would require a bow, but the Schwinn had enough style simply propped on its kickstand. They rolled it outside into the bitter Illinois winter, stood boy and bike in front of the garage door, and snapped a picture in the snow.

In the next four years, my father would shear off the coaster brake fixing strap (as well as several of grandpa’s replacement straps) and shatter the front axle jumping the bike off what he calls “a small wall.” The social mores of preteens would shift, decreeing that bikes were no longer “cool,” and the bike would be abandoned in the garage, then sold. But forty-four years later, if I could just find that photograph, my father would still be a pudgy, grinning nine-year old in his winter coat and hat, the piles of snow would never melt, and his Schwinn would remain unridden, unbroken, and unquestionably cool. Would I have the heart to tell him his bike was the less-expensive, less-coveted Panther, not the Phantom it has become in his mind? Would it matter?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Cool New Bike Porn

The Competition Bicycle
A photographic history
By Jan Heine and Jean-Pierre Praderes

There is almost no bicycle book I don’t love, and this latest coffee-table book, weighing in at three and a half pounds, is a velo-bibliophile’s dream tome. It could be the coffee table itself, so long as you wrapped it in two layers of plexiglass to keep it pristine.

The well-reproduced color photographs by renowned French photographer (himself a devout randonneur) Jean-Pierre Praderes show every gritty inch, er..millimeter of the legendary frames that propelled the greats from Coppi to Merckx to Lemond (with a couple of feminine detours thank goddess) across destiny’s finish line.

Jan Heine, the author and publisher ( is a rabid Paris-Brest-Paris competitor. When he called me a year ago about photographing my bicycle Otto, I was astonished to learn mine would be the only mountain bike in the book.
It’s an honor
Said Heine: What other mountain bike was twenty years ahead of its time?
Eat yr heart out, Tom (name withheld to protect ego). Sometimes steel IS real…real heavy!
Settle down, girl. This is a magazine. Not a gossip sheet. (Feel free to hurl, o editor mine)
The fast majority of the bicycles shown are indeed steel, custom machines that reveal over 150 years of improvement the leapfrogging improvements that allow us to enjoy multiple gear choices, modern materials and sometimes even evolutionary cul-de sacs (psst: “Dursley Pedersen”)

Many of the original machines (flown in for the photo shoot) reveal details of workmanship that cannot be found anywhere else, unless specified to a custom builder today.

Artsy touches appear in the mass-produced chainrings of British Short Arms bikes (BSA spelt out in the chainring) and ALCYON cast into the pedal cages).

The reader will at first page through this book slowly, savoring the pictures—most of which have never been seen before—bicycles seemingly track-standing mid-air…and action shots of the great racers. Later, the reader will return feverish for more intimate details of bicycles hard-ridden and put away, but not forgotten.
The book costs sixty (swiftly deflating) dollars, plus about thirty dollars post (THAT is not gonna go down, with fuel costs rising)… it’s the perfect stocking stuffer if you have a sock the size of Santa’s size fourteen platters tacked to the mantel with a grade twelve alloy steel 10-32 socket-head cap screw with cold-rolled threads. Ahem.
Santa? Got that?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Stubborn Season

Commuting on a bike.

In Iowa.

In December.

Sometimes it's a mirror I'd rather not see.

Think about it. There's the gear collecting and bundling: heavy tights, thick wool socks, wool sweater, windproof jacket, two pairs of gloves, hat, and facemask. Then there's the routine of firing up a cluster of front and rear LEDs that could distract low-flying air traffic. Then there's the ride: two miles at about 10 miles per hour, picking through slush stalagmites, plow droppings, and black ice.

Twenty-five minutes of preparation for fifteen minutes of misery.

Then I have to peel all those layers off again so I can change into work clothes and sit in a cube for eight hours.

Then, I do it all over again in reverse.

Without special studded tires -- at about $50 a pop for the heaviest, most sluggish-feeling rubber you'll ever turn over -- it probably wouldn't even be possible. And let's not even talk about gunked up bearings. Crusty chains. Frames eaten out from the inside by salt and rust. Frozen cables. Brakes that barely qualify as a cruel joke thanks to ice-glazed rims.

People ask me why I do it, and I honestly don't have an answer. I just shrug.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Is the bike industry sustainable? Can it be?

Every day at my job, I have to sort through new and used bike parts and decide what's worth keeping in stock and what's not. If it's a used part, it's easy; the stuff that's worth keeping we put back in the bin, perhaps updating the price if we think the last person to sort through the box underpriced an item, or cleaning a part more to justify the price they put on it. We don't always pay money for the used parts we sort and save. Sometimes they come in as trades, sometimes they're pulled from a bike with a dead frame.

If it's a new part, it's a bit harder. We always pay money for the new stuff, and sometimes we make mistakes. We order something thinking it will serve a specific purpose, or because it's what a customer insists they want; and the part comes and suddenly it's not what anyone expects or wants. Sometimes we can send it back, but not without more expense at our end (it costs money to ship things back and forth). Most of the time, we keep it, knowing that the cost of correcting our mistake is more than the cost of keeping the now-unwanted part. Thankfully, through a combination of care and luck we manage to avoid making too many such mistakes. For a small business like an independent bike shop, those mistakes can add up quickly.

But sometimes the shops don't make the mistakes, the manufacturers do. They bet on what they think will be a great idea, they manufacture it in the hundreds of thousands, and hope to God it sells. And most of the time, it sells well enough. But sometimes the idea isn't so great, or the public has a hard time understanding it, or the public just flat decides that they don't need it, even if it is so great. When that happens, you see the Next Big Thing end up on ebay and craigslist very quickly. (Remember Samson's clipless pedals? Mavic's foray into electronic shifting? The first year that Shimano's "Coaster" came out? Initial sales of these items were not promising, and many of these things wound up in the want ads months after being released on the market. Shimano is still struggling to gain market share with folks who aren't quite sure about Coaster, and not only on the public side of the retail counter.)

The big thing these days, if you've been paying attention, is carbon fiber. For the last several years, more and more bicycle parts are being made from the stuff. It's "space age" material, light as a feather compared to the same components made of any kind of metal, and it looks cool with all that fancy lattice-work weaving going on there (see derailleur, above). I went to my first trade show this year, Interbike, and nearly got lost in a sea of carbon fiber: forks, derailleurs, shift levers, stems, even rims are now made of the stuff. 

If you look more closely, you'll notice that most of those really cool-looking carbon-fiber bits are being installed on bikes meant for racing or for what's often called "sport" riding (where you look like a racer but don't pedal your bike quite as fast as the pros do). I think racing's cool, by the way; some of my best friends race, and do it quite well on the amateur level. But what bothers me is how temporary all of it is.

Think about it: bikes that are made mostly of carbon-fiber work well for a time, and then they begin to wear out. When they wear out, those parts cannot be serviced and made to work good as new again, or even close to new. Those parts are removed from the bike and replaced with brand-new parts. The bike runs like clockwork again and the rider is happy. But -- and this is the question I kept asking folks at the trade show -- what happens to the old parts?

The answers ranged from shrugging (lots of shrugging, actually) to shaking of the head to "I don't really know". Only one person out of the dozens I asked told me his company sends factory seconds (the stuff not quite ready for prime-time, so it doesn't leave the factory) to another site to be dismantled so the metal hinges and pivot pieces can be retrieved for recycling. But the carbon-fiber itself is apparently quite difficult and costly to recycle, so no one's doing it on an industrial level, at least not among the folks I spoke to at Interbike. No one was willing to come out and say that the stuff was going to a dump, but no one would flat-out deny it, either.

Add this little tidbit of reality to the scenes from big races like Le Tour, with its caravan of dozens and dozens of "official" motor vehicles following the racers all over France, and the thousands of cables, housing pieces, nuts and bolts and handlebar tape and tires that get removed from these bikes every night and replaced before the next day's stage, and you've got a sport that is among the most wasteful I've ever seen. 

If that was where it stopped perhaps I wouldn't worry so much. But the problem with this reality is that racing drives innovation among bicycle and component makers. Without innovation, sales slump and profits go down. So to promote innovation, you have to promote racing. The issue with that is that the big sell in typical bike shops now is that you need a new bike every couple of years or so (because, well, the pros get a new bike every time they sneeze or the sponsors change, right?). If you ride in lycra -- and for heaven's sake you ought to, you know -- it has to be the lightest, most space-age stuff money can buy (which means it falls apart after a season and has to be replaced). And if you want to ride the lightest bike possible -- because, well, that's what you ought to want, seriously -- then , well, that bike is simply going to have to be replaced every few years because -- and here's the ugly little secret, as far as I'm concerned -- 

it's not supposed to last that long.

That's right. It only makes sense. For a bike and all its parts and accessories to be very, very light in weight (meaning that you're supposed to be able to go faster, because, well, the pros can, after all), that stuff has to be built with thinner walls, tight tolerances, ceramic bearings (they weigh less than steel ones) and tires made with silk or some space-age (there we go again) micro-fiber in the belt. For all of this lightness, something has to give and that something is durability. What's criminal to my thinking is that bike riders spend so much money on stuff that wears out so fast, and stuff that can't be refurbished or fixed up to run again at that. The more stuff wears out, the more stuff shops can sell, the more stuff companies can make, and all the right people are rolling in dough. That's the way it works. Now, racing is not about planned obsolescence, it's about winning -- but the obsolescence is a side effect of all that time spent on getting lighter and faster. So it happens anyway. And lots of people who love bicycles are starting to grow tired of it.

Thankfully, we are seeing a move back towards things that are built to last. Steel bikes are coming back. All-metal components aren't, not yet, not any that are of decent quality anyway; but you can find old ones in decent condition on ebay and in slightly lesser condition in the bargain bins at a shop that carries used parts. People are beginning to ride for transportation again, just like they did the last time gas was expensive in the 1970's. Racks and baskets and bags are making a comeback as more folks discover (again) that bikes are useful vehicles and not just sporting equipment. I only hope that the bike industry wakes up and pays attention, and starts not only making but really promoting the kinds of things that will really last again. Let's make durability and thrift cool again. Let's teach people how to do the simple stuff at home so we who work in shops have more time for the big jobs, and to refurbish more old bikes and get them out on the road again. I want the bike magazines to focus on real-world bikes, new and used, and just forget about the trickle-down from racing for awhile. Let's leave off the bikes that are here today, broke tomorrow and off to a landfill next week. I'm tired of that stuff, and grateful my shop doesn't sell a lot of it. I want the bike manufacturing industry to really wake up and start making affordable, durable, decent-quality bikes for the rest of us, for the majority of us, for the folks who don't race or even fantasize about it, who just want to ride our bike to get from one place to another and enjoy the ride -- today, tomorrow and for years to come. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

I Am the Wind

A bicycle is an instrument of transcendence. It carries its rider from the common to the special. Those smitten with the bicycle sometimes describe the sensation as flying. Gliding downhill effortlessly, carving large arcs with wind in my face is how I imagine flying. Each swerve I make is a banked turn on outstretched wings. The only sound is rushing air moving past me as I soar through it. Bicyclists tell of this feeling, but there is another.

Sometimes I am more than a bird in flight. I become a force of nature. When the wind blows steadily and directly down the road, we synchronize pace. At once, the air is still and silent. Tires quietly hum. I and my bicycle move, but with no effort. With a rolling gold-orange-brown wave of fallen leaves, we surf across the earth. We glide in startling stillness, a massive train of air. I've been carried to a special place. I am the wind.

Monday, October 20, 2008

My Six-Fingered Man

I just finished reading The Princess Bride by William Goldman. I've seen the movie about a dozen times -- though not as many times as my wife, who can proudly quote just about anything in the film: Cliffs of Insanity, Miracle Max, Battle of Wits, you name it. I'd meant to actually see the words on paper for years, but never quite got around to it until now -- which, as Vizzini (played in the film by the incomparable Wallace Shawn) would say, is "inconceivable!"

After I finished up, I went for a bike ride, Goldman's wonderful characters and hilarious asides still fresh in my mind. As I got warmed up and felt my legs settle into a rhythm, I kept hearing the voice of Mandy Patinkin as the vengeance-seeking Inigo Montoya, facing down the six-fingered man who took his father's life. "Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die. HELLO, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die. HELLO! My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."

I ride my bike for a lot of reasons. It's fun. It gives me an excuse to take things apart and put them back together. It gets me to work or to the store. It lets me live out fantasies of being faster or stronger than I really am. It reminds me of being a kid. But the one I don't face up to often is my very own six-fingered man. My father had his first heart attack at age 44 when I was a teenager. He survived. His second came at age 50, when I was in college. He survived again, though not by much. And his final heart attack struck at age 54, when I was just 28 years old. That one ended his life.

You don't get to duel with heart disease. You don't get a climactic battle scene in a castle, your sword flashing, blood pouring from your wounds, your enemy vanquished. All you get is another day marked off the calendar, another day healthy, another day survived, an endless series of scratches tick-marked in the enemy's flesh. But when I'm out riding, feeling the strength of my own heart banging against my ribs, I feel like I'm winning. I can look my enemy in the face and see the fear in his eyes.

Hello. My name is Jason Nunemaker. You killed my father. Prepare to die.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Proper bike usage when confronted with shovels

Things seem to have been a bit slow here at Veloquent of late. Hopefully this will get the creative sparks a flying.

Via Chris C on the boblist

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Oh no, it's me!

I submit that most of us who think ourselves to be serious cyclists have goals. Perhaps “dreams” is a better word. It might be a transcontinental tour, to go carless, or notch that first century. Some might be pursuing Kent Peterson’s, “ride 12,000 miles a year and eat what you want” concept, a complete brevet series, or simply to commute to work for the very first time. I think most of us are chasing something.

As time flows steadily by, dreams change. Regardless of the dream, however, riding more has consistently been a path to my destination. I have continually sought to overcome obstacles that would stand between me and my bike.

Now that years have passed, I have systematically confronted and defeated darkness, cold, and road conditions. My children have grown and my fatherly duties have diminished. I have moved to a rural area with abundant low-traffic roads. So you might be surprised to learn that, with no decrease in passion, I ride less now than a few years ago. I seem to be losing the battle and struggle to find ways to ride more.

Just recently I was slapped silly by the realization, “Oh no…it’s me!” I am the obstacle and a formidable one. There are numerous sobering examples of people that overcome so much more to achieve their dreams with so much less. How do they do it?

Maybe I’ve been focusing on my constraints while they’ve focused on the possibilities. While I’ve been making excuses to hide my own laziness and fear, they dream and do. Yes, friends, I think I’ve found the true obstacle. It is not methods, training, traffic, or gear. Oh no, to be sure, it’s me.

I’ve read your stories and they inspire me. For those who overcame themselves, tell me please, how was it done?

Sunday, September 7, 2008

bikes as trucks

I began this year hoping to ride a 200km brevet, which would be a new distance record for me. I figured that after riding four metric centuries (62.5 mi/100km) last year this was the next logical goal. Life and other stuff got in the way, and my longest ride to date has been 55 miles of the 70-mile Livestrong course which I rode in late June.

Meanwhile, I've been discovering another approach to riding: one where not distance, but cargo capacity, is the measuring rod.

I had a Burley kid trailer. In the four years I owned it I used it perhaps a dozen times. When not in use it hung folded on the wall of the shed and sometimes got in the way when I needed to get at other things. I wanted to find a better way to carry stuff, and lots of it; but the trailer just wasn't working for me.

Enter the longbike.

I had an opportunity to buy an Xtracycle kit and add it on to the rear end of an old-school 1980's ATB, thus turning it into some kind of human-powered pickup truck. The longbike solution would take up more floor space than the trailer, but if I used it more then that tradeoff would be justified. It turned out to be a marvelous idea.

I started out doing basic things: going to the farmer's market or the grocery store; bringing home the occasional frameset or wheel from the shop. Riding was easy because I'd selected a wide range of gears and also because I had readjusted my definition of "fast" to accommodate travel on this longer, heavier bike.

Then, I got ambitious. I started bringing home larger loads, more unwieldy, oddly-shaped objects -- not on a regular basis, but just to see if I could. The ladder was free, a leftover from work that was no longer needed, and if I wanted it I had to get it home. No problem with the longbike:

What has happened is that I find I have less time and energy for "training" rides per se -- I simply haven't been able to make regular, consistent time for many long weekends rides this summer -- but instead I have made time for shorter rides with heavier, bigger loads around town. Not sure what this will do for my "fitness", and the more I ride my longbike the less I worry about that.

My best ride of all so far happened the Thursday before Labor Day, when I loaded up the longbike with lawn chairs and a picnic basket. My partner and I rode our bikes downtown for the Oregon Symphony's annual Waterfront Concert, a free event that attracts thousands of people and ends with the playing Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture and a glorious fireworks show.

After the concert, we rode home again, attracting stares and some good-natured smiles along the way.

My bike isn't unusual anymore; there are hundreds of these Xtracycles and other versions of longbikes (like Bakfietsen, Brox [recumbent] longbikes and Mondo-bikes and such) around town now. My hope is that more people who see this kind of bike will come to accept it as yet another form of serious, real-world transportation. I'd like drivers to give me a little slack at intersections because it takes a little longer to get a longbike going from a standstill. I'd like traffic engineers to think big-picture and longer term when they plan future streets, to make a little bit more room for these bikes because they could really ease congestion in cities. And I'd like to think that this kind of utilitarian riding will help me ride stronger, even if it doesn't help me ride longer. Mostly, I have to say that although I didn't really go for my original riding goal, I've had a marvelous bicycling summer anyway discovering another kind of riding.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Down in Texas

Down in Texas, the north grass land grows thirsty and stalks of kindling wave in the wind. Since morning, a mockingbird has been working the fenceline, and the cattle have congregated at precious trees. They follow the shade from long to short to long again as it crawls silently from one side of the tree to the other. Pick-up driving ranchers motor by with regularity, but to pasture dwellers it is routine background noise.

First one head, and then a few, lift and look for an odd new sound. Barely audible, is it danger? What is that continuous peeling of asphalt moving steady toward us? That’s no rancher. It’s stealthier. Be ready to flee.

Two wheels roll on hot pavement. Their tires adhere to the hot, sticky black. Then the sound of stainless steel spokes, so many useless fan blades, spinning and beating the air. Finally, rhythmic breathing grows louder...and then fainter as the cyclist glides on by. A few wary heads turn and follow, but the spoke sounds disappear. The peeling fades to nothing but the same hot breeze through brittle grass from only moments ago.

One by one, heads drop back down, tails flick flies, and the hot work of summer sustenance continues in the pasture.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Phantoms, Part 4

My grey Trek 830 went from first love to rusted beater in the span of four years: accessorized, stripped, cared for, neglected, covered in stickers, abandoned in Dad’s garage, abused, left in the rain, and taken to college because it was finally too ugly to steal. In 1991, when my affections were finally stolen away by a big, tennis-ball yellow Trek 6000 with its six extra gears, ultralight aluminum tubing, stop-right-now brakes, and (finally) quick-release wheels, I stripped my first love bare, painted it black, swapped out the teal stem because it didn’t match the new paint, reassembled it with some help from the shop, and sold it cheap to my then-girlfriend’s father. He rode it a few times and hung it in his garage, too polite to admit it didn’t connect for him like his old Schwinn three-speed. I don’t doubt it’s still there, hanging from the rafters. I’ve considered calling, perhaps offering to buy back his piece of my cycling past, but I can’t figure out a polite way to say, “This is your former future-son-in-law... I know I’m no longer in love with your daughter, but that bike...”

A true bike nut remembers them all fondly. Each bike sticks in the mind like an old friendship I’ve grudgingly outgrown. The orange-and-red banana-seat Murray. The chrome Huffy BMX bike. The royal blue Murray mountain bike knockoff. Dad’s brown Free Spirit ten speed. The sky-blue hand-me-down Schwinn Continental from my cousin Dale. My blue Schwinn World Sport. The grey 830. The yellow 6000. Schwinn 974 racing bike. Cannondale M400 mountain bike. Cannondale T700 touring bike. Specialized Epic racing bike. Schwinn DeLuxe Twinn Tandem. Nishiki Citysport cruiser. GT Slipstream hybrid cruiser. And finally, my current friends, the Specialized Rockhopper mountain bike and Schwinn Paramount road bike. I learned to ride a bike twenty years ago. Seventeen bikes in twenty years. And I remember them all, because every one helped me live out a fantasy of who I wanted to be. At seven, I carried the absolute conviction that my banana-seat Murray looked just like a California Highway Patrol motorcycle. As I cruised the long gravel driveway of my parents’ farm, twisting the plastic grip like a throttle, I was Jon from my favorite TV show, “CHiPs.” I chased down the car thieves, rescued children from burning buses, wrote out speeding tickets. On my bike, I was the hero. It sounds funny to me now, but even today, when I shift into the big chainring on my road bike, somewhere in my mind I see Greg LeMond tucked low, methodically reeling in Laurent Fignon to take the 1989 Tour de France. Different bike, different fantasy, but I’m still trying on identities, wanting to be more than simply me.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Do You Respond?

Good Morning! Hey There!
Good Morning! (quietly) hello
Good Morning! Mornin'

It was a great Wednesday. Friendly cyclists responded to my Good Morning! with their own greetings. Every single one had some sort of reply.

That was a rare day. Friday was typical. Two of nine riders encountered on my way to work responded to my hellos. It's a shtick I have, greeting bicycle riders.

Good Morning
Hey There

It's not like there are so many of us. My commute doesn't cross one of the bridges into downtown Portland. Those routes have hundreds of cyclists passing through each hour. Just a few miles east of the cycling crowd a reverse commute rider like me will encounter only a handful of cyclists each day. To almost all of them I call out a greeting. A few reply.

Would you? Do you?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Its the little things

I just returned from a short trip to france and the streetside bike scoping is outrageously fun. The nice part is the sheer volume of 50's-70's era production city bikes with nice details that make looking at the bikes more fun than looking at, say, thousands of schwinn varsities.

I can't get over the number of stamped dropout seventies city bikes that had details like these headlight reliefs in the front rack:

So so so so good.
Lots more french street bike pics:
in dijon
in paris

Friday, July 11, 2008

what is 'bike culture"? (part two in an occasional series)

While I was out of town on vacation this week, there was an incident between a bicycle rider and a car driver in southeast Portland. It got ugly and nasty. Alcohol was involved. So, apparently, was a lack of good judgment on the part of several individuals at the scene. Since I don't know the full story, I suggest you check out the details at the Oregonian newspaper:

and perhaps also at the website Bike Portland:

I have taken some time to read these articles and a host of comments that were typed in response to each, and I am struck by one thing. Many of the comments made by folks who identified themselves as being staunchly "pro-bike" referred to the "bicycle community". Until tonight I used to think along those lines myself, without question or deeper thought. But tonight, I remembered a comment my friend made a couple of weeks ago. In a brilliant flash of serious forward thinking, my friend Ian said that he looked forward to a time when Portland -- and other US cities -- would be so bike-friendly that the very idea of a bicycle culture would be redundant. "It'd be like Amsterdam", he said, and they don't really have a 'bike culture'. All they have is a town that was designed so that a whole bunch of people could ride bicycles as transportation. And that's it. That's all."

What great event, what momentous agent of change will be required for enough bicycle riders and pedestrians to rise up in anger at the sheer stupidity, wastefulness and unfairness of our present oil-fueled, freeway-ribboned, car-centric landscape and say, enough is enough? What will be the tipping point that leads us to an age where we no longer identify ourselves as a "bicycle community", where lots of people just ride bikes because it's the easiest and cheapest way to get somewhere?

The thing is, there are times and places in the here and now where many bicycle riders feel a need to identify themselves as being part of a "bicycle community". There are lots of places where it is simply scary to ride a bike for transportation, and simply moving to another, supposedly safer city is not an option. So people naturally band together. Portland is an insane, ridiculous example of a town with so much Bicycle Culture (capitalized and on display in bright neon in every bike shop and bike planning bureau office window!) that it's crazy. People move to Portland and tell me that they did it "for the bike culture, for the bike community". And that's great. Welcome to Portland! (I hope you can afford the rent here.) Go and enjoy the bike polo, the Sprockettes bike-ballet shows and the bike-art installations, the Multnomah County Bike Fair and everything else. I know that lots of people -- especially older adults -- don't feel welcome at those events, which are staffed and organized primarily by the under-thirty set and take place on city streets where most inexperienced riders don't feel safe riding a bicycle. Then whose bicycle community is it?

Or what happens if the most extreme car drivers, already angry at having to share the road with anyone else (whatever vehicle they're operating, frankly) and getting frustrated with the rising cost of gasm see an adult pass them on a bike looking calm, mellow, even happy? Might we see some road rage incidents based simply on drivers' growing anger at The Way Things Might Become? How might a "bicycle community" respond?

Finally, what about the very poor, who have ridden cheap bikes for years because that is all they can afford? What about the homeless man who is dirty, who smells bad and acts worse and tows a shopping cart behind a cobbled-together Magna mountain bike that's five sizes too small for him? Would the hip, self-proclaimed "bicycle community", the raison d'etre for many in Portland, accept him? Would they accept him as warmly as they accept me on my nice bike, with my helmet and the whole aura of One Who Is Employed And Housed And Otherwise Normal? Would they? Honestly? REALLY?

Where's the place in our highly-touted "bike culture" for those who don't see themselves as being part of one?

And what about those in the landscape who cannot ride, either because they are infirm or too old, or because they simply prefer to walk or take the bus? Almost everybody walks somewhere, sometime. And the busses are packed with folks of many different stripes now that gas is over four bucks a gallon. Is there a self-proclaimed "bus community"? Is there a self-proclaimed "pedestrian community?" Do we see "bus culture" or "pedestrian culture"? Not really. The very idea seems almost silly.

Lately I find that the very term "bicycle community" has as much potential to divide as it does to unite, and I find myself wondering about whether it's a label I would like to continue to use. I have no easy answers as yet, but perhaps my friend was onto something.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Karen's New Xtracycle

The Obvious Answer

I broke my leg in a crash last year. Freak accident, patch of mud on an otherwise clear paved trail, wheels gone sideways, bad landing, and crack. Split my femur like a wishbone in what's called a "spiral fracture."

For the curious, no bikes were harmed in the making of this anecdote. Bent derailleur hanger, a little paint loss, and a missing frame pump. And the rider recovered, in a grisly tale of titanium implants, staples, crutches, and Vicodin that I will -- thankfully -- spare you.

But what I find telling, even a year after that crash, is the reaction of other people when they hear about it. Bikers and non-bikers alike will -- without fail -- ask the same question first:

"Do you still ride?"

I can take it in stride now. I expect it. But it threw me the first few times, and the repetition of it -- the sheer critical mass of that one question -- continues to throw me, especially when I keep hearing it from people who call themselves cyclists. I'll admit, there were dark moments during my recovery where I thought I would never get a leg over an upright bike again. Yet even in those dark moments, my mind turned to recumbent trikes. There was no question that I would ride something. The question was simply what I would be able to ride.

It's funny. Most of the people I know -- myself included -- have been in some form of car accident, from a paint-scraping fender-bender to a full-on, airbag-popping rollover. Some have been injured. Some have been seriously injured. Yet no one asks, "So, you giving up driving?" We accept (or more accurately, deny) a given level of risk in our most common transportation choice. Ironically, it's the statistical anomaly, the freak accident, that makes the safer, saner choice seem extreme.

Sure, I'll give up riding someday. The grisly recovery taught me that I'm stuck in a mortal, fallible sack of skin. This body won't be able to make the pedals go around forever. But to just walk away, 35 years old, perfectly functional (and ever-so-slightly bionic), for one bad day, one moment of inattentiveness, when I've seen that the number of riding days on my calendar is finite? Hardly.

Do I still ride? Ask me if I still breathe instead.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Difference

Ask a bunch of bicycle commuters to describe the commute experience. Then do the same for a group of automobile commuters to do the same. What do you think the #1 difference is going to be? Think about that for a moment while I digress.

Spring is almost over, like we're in our last week folks. Today I took on a long overdue Spring Cleaning task. Part of it involved going through boxes and piles of clothes and sorting them into piles: keepers, charity donation and rag. I'm sure this work will have its own reward in the resulting order. Yeah, right. In the meantime I am having fun trying on shirts that I haven't worn in five years. (Did you think I did this spring cleaning every year?) The real reward is easily slipping into something that, before bike commuting, I could not squirm into. Wheee!! New clothes!

How about that commuter difference? The #1 difference is that most bike commuters describe the commute as fun or enjoyable. Car commuters never use those terms. Think about that the next time you prepare to leave home on your way to work. Are you going to have fun on the way?

Monday, June 9, 2008

What Randonneuring Is All About

Tom Petty once wrote:

Every now and then I get down to the end of the day
And I have to stop and ask myself why I've done it.
It just seems so useless to have to work so hard
And nothin' ever really seems to come from it.

Jennifer Chang just finished the Seattle International Randonneurs 600 kilometer brevet and posted this eloquent answer to Mr Petty's question on the SIR mailing list:

Hello Randonneurs,

In an impulsive moment, I've decided to post my 3:30 am journal rambling, as I feel it reflects sentiments of all of us, who attempt these hard rides. Thank you to multitude of SIR organizers and volunteers, who make these rides possible!


Monday, June 9, 2008, 3:30 AM

After SIR 4 Passes 600K

I've slept, and it's 3:30 am, and I'm up because I can't breathe and my system seems to be shutting down, but I am happy! How do you explain that!

I keep waivering back and forth about this randonneuring stuff. It's really one of the most difficult things I've done in my life and I am SO miserable, while I'm doing it, though I have moments, like when I was climbing White Pass and the sun rose slowly over the creek, and I knew I was one of the few that witnessed the light hitting the craggy walls and mountain grandeur, and I was going wow, and wow, you know.

The worst moment is when you've done over hundred miles and the sun is setting and it's beautiful, and you want the ride to end, just like that, in ease, after the hard day, you wish to literally ride off into the sunset, into hot showers, warm food and soft bed, and you've got OVER hundred miles to go! That's, for me, psychologically, the hardest part.

But, these randonneur rides end in crescendo, in heart beat, in racing beat, as you race against the time, hard, into finishline and you cross, not really into beautiful sunset, but into someone's garage, in dark, or a strange motel lobby, and there are lights, late into the night, and there are friendly cyclists, who are staying up, waiting for you! Looking out for the lost sheep. And you go, wow, I did it. I finished it. And it's an addicting high. Very, very addicting.

I always love the randonneuring ride, after it's done. How could you not? I love the other rides, too, for the comfort at the end of the hard, beautiful day. I don't have to choose, but does that mean I have to continue with randonneuring?

It's hard on my body. So hard on my body. Takes me to my limits: physical, mental, emotional. Period. But, in those limits, I am aware of my boundaries. Boundaries that define, I. And I feel sizzlingly alive, within my set limits. I am not infinite, but I am I.

It's addicting. It's the high.

Paul "Dr. Codfish" Johnson shares the control worker's view of this ride here:

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Crossing the Bow River

Dwayne riding over the Bow River on a RANS Street crank forward bike,
Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

The luxuries of leaving the city

Day 7: Leaving Cortez. Sept. 19, 2002.

One of the most difficult aspects of bicycle touring in the rural southwest is the way slow travel spaces points of civilization so far apart. Every service station becomes a necessity rather than a luxury - if you miss one, the next could be more than a day’s travel away. It almost echoes the sentiment of a exhausted pony express rider in the 1860’s, galloping into a remote mail station after a full day only to have dirty, well-drawn water and a thin blanket awaiting his arrival. Their journal entries show how many riders relished in these barren conditions, if only because it beat the weary road.

Day seven of our 14 day, 600-mile trip through Southern Utah and Colorado brought us to the only distinguishable “city” we would pass through during our entire trip - Cortez, Colorado. A week through the rugged and rural San Juan mountains had nearly exhausted most of our resources, so with the destination came the unavoidable chores of shopping, buying supplies, and filling up water for the long stretch of
desert ahead.

The entire morning had brought us mostly downhill,away from the San Juan mountains and the beautiful Dolores River valley. The motion of traveling downhill had become so fluid that we scarcely glanced off to the side as we flew through the busy streets of Cortez. We stopped at a large supermarket for food and supplies, and decided to get water and lunch on our way out of town. We passed a dilapidated downtown area and several uninviting chain restaurants before the rows of buildings started to stagger away from the highway, and we realized we had already passed city limits.

“Should we go back?” I asked Geoff.

“No,” he said. “There’s got to be at least a gas station on the edge of town.”

And there we were, headed out into the reservation and the desert. It would be at least two full days before we’d reach the next town we were sure existed, at least two full days before we’d ever see another gas station or any type of business, at least two full days before we’d have any chance of getting water, and there we were, bicycling away from the last signs of civilization.

We reached the edge of a long downward slope toward the open desert below, marked by two tiny truck stops. Geoff indicated we should go to the furthest one, because of pizza symbol on the sign. We were starving. But more importantly, we needed to get water for the next 48 hours. I parked outside and tore open all of my panniers.

One by one, I pulled out an assortment of empty bottles I had collected over my travels - Nalgenes, 32-ounce gatorade bottles, spring water bottles, tall bottles, short bottles, fat bottles, and finally, my 100-ounce camelback pouch. Inside the gas station was a single bathroom with a tiny sink. I twisted and angled the bottles in every direction, to no avail. Nothing fit underneath that dingy faucet.

I gathered up my assortment and walked outside. “I’m going back to that last gas station,” I announced, and left Geoff sitting in the parking lot.

In quiet defiance, I rode the two and a half blocks back to the Chevron on the wrong side of the road, facing traffic. The blur of vehicles rushing by almost seemed to brush my open panniers, but I didn’t care. The extra effort to cross the street just wasn’t worth it. I walked into the second-to-last gas station in town with nine water bottles pressed beneath both arms. I bee-lined to the bathroom, again a tiny service closet with a toilet and a cracked sink so small I could barely fit my hands, let alone nine bottles, beneath the nozzle. My groans echoed off a maze of pipes that ran above the nonexistent ceiling.

Head pounding, frustration coagulating in my stomach, I gathered up my bottles and the last few ounces of my dignity, walked to the drink coolers and grabbed two gallon-sized jugs of spring water. “Just these,” I told the clerk, and handed her three dollars.

And with that, we set out into the desert, the sagebrush and sand universe of the reservation, precious water safely tucked inside our panniers, without a glance back at civilization’s shadow. I left the gas station angry at the world, at the tedious chore of surviving, of having to gather and carry resources where none exist. I pedaled away from Cortez as if the city were reaching out to pull me back in, afraid that it might. I had no desire to go back to the city. But the unknown desolation ahead had to be worse.

Oddly enough, with each furious pedal stroke I found myself becoming more and more relaxed. The dimming light of sunset unleashed a blaze of lights behind me, and it felt good to move away from them. The landscape ahead was dark and unfocused, fading into two-dimensional black shapes against the muted orange sky.

“It feels good to get away from there,” Geoff said. And it did. But it didn’t make sense. All week I had been looking forward to the supermarkets and Pizza Huts and running water electrified convenience of the city, only to find myself feeling better about getting away. All I had to look forward to now was a simple dinner of spaghetti and canned sauce and sleep beneath the clear, star-drenched sky.

Funny how a bicycle can so easily, so completely draw time and space backwards. My panniers sagged from the weight of food and water I was forced to carry, but at that moment I would have happily doubled the weight if it meant another two days away from the city, into the sweet, simple luxury of the open road.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Going On A Cruise

Part 1

At a business lunch this week, the two other gentlemen in the party revealed that they each had plans to take a cruise this year. One will be leaving for Alaska soon. The other will be flying to Spain to begin a Mediterranean cruise in September. They spoke of prior cruise vacations. They spoke of the places they'd see and the things they'd do. They spoke of travel logistics. They contrasted the two eagerly anticipated trips to exotic locations. I couldn't add much to the conversation. At one point, one of the gentlemen turned to me and asked, "Chris, have you ever been on a cruise?"

"No", I said, "but I hear they can be quite pleasant." Then I think I mumbled something about there being plenty of food. He turned back to resume his conversation with someone who knew of which he spoke. I took another bite of my lunch and listened.

Part 2

This morning, while the birds were singing at peak volume, I opened the back door, let in the cool, morning air, and the coffee finished brewing. I pulled a small, familiar cup from the cabinet. When the coffee flowed slowly from the decanter, aromatic steam rose up and filled the space bounded by face, cup, and hand. The hot brown liquid swirled...and then settled, but the fragrance continued to rise up and stir the senses. Pleasant, simple, quiet, earthy contentment. Then, there was a realization. Perhaps, during that lunch meeting, I mis-spoke.

Actually, I've been on thousands of cruises. They've just been much less expensive, much more simple, and closer to my home. In fact, this old saddletramp has another land cruise planned very, very soon...and the anticipation gives me great joy.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Phantoms, Part 3

My tires crunch on the gravel, spitting out rocky shrapnel when I stand and accelerate. The path follows the Hennepin Feeder Canal out of Rock Falls, Illinois, a tiny waterway originally designed for barge traffic. The track, once worn bare by mules pulling loaded barges, has been turned over to the park district as a recreational area and buried in white sandstone to create a trail. It is the only off-road riding within range for a kid still working on a driver’s license, my first opportunity to take my new mountain bike into its element. The canal is on my left. On my right, a thin strip of trees separates my ride from the strip malls, hotels, and restaurants of Rock Falls. The illusion works; under the canopy of overhanging branches, I can convince myself that I am alone, that I no longer follow Dad’s wheel.

After a quarter mile of flat gravel riding, the real trail begins. A worn dirt path breaks away from the canal into the woods, cut by renegade motorcycles, kept open by kids on BMX bikes. I veer into the trees and climb the ridge that separates canal from city. The riding is frantic silence, rubber tires on dry earth, trees passing like telephone poles on the interstate. The branches close in, no wider than my handlebars, leaves brushing my knuckles. My pulse presses out on the foam shell of my helmet. Lines of dusty sweat creep down my cheeks. The trail begins to roll, its rise and fall like slow breathing under my tires. Each downhill slope loads my momentum, carrying me over the next rise, picking up speed with each trip across the trail’s wavelength.

My front wheel strikes the knob of a half-buried root, knocking the handlebars from my hands. For an exhilarating instant, I lose control. The wheel chatters out of its line. I grab for the bars, but the distraction is too much on such a narrow trail. A branch snags the bar and rips it from my hands. The front wheel turns sharply off the trail into the brush. I have no choice but to follow, slapped by branches. The bike finally strikes a tree, tossing me over the handlebars head first.

When I reach up to wipe the grit from my forehead, half my helmet is missing. On impact against the tree, the foam has split in a jagged arc across the top of my head. The rear stays in place, held by nylon straps, but the front swings open like a door. The helmet comes apart in my hands when I release the straps and take it off. I sit in the dirt -- dizzy, aching, with a hemisphere of helmet in each hand -- and laugh, because I am sixteen and don’t know any better.

Jason Nunemaker
Des Moines, IA

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

I'm not a Cyclist, I'm a Bicycle Rider

I rode a lot last year, a WHOLE lot, for me anyway. While most of that was for transportation, a significant portion of it involved long-distance recreational riding. And the use of the term "recreational" seems, well, a little confusing at times.

I started riding longer distances in order to train for a big charity ride. I got involved with some really nice folks who do long-distance riding on a regular basis, for fun. I practiced my form. I got a little bit faster (attaining a cruising speed of almost 12 mph). I got stronger. I completed three populaires (rides of 100km, or 62.5 miles) last year and dreamed of riding longer distances, growing ever stronger and more invincible. Randonneuring really woke up the sleeping Walter Mitty inside me. And I did achieve some things I'd never thought possible on a bike. At the end of last year, I had racked up over 2,700 miles. I had completed three metric centuries and successfully completed 141 out of a possible 210 miles on that three-day charity ride. I made some new friends through my involvement in the local randonneuring club. And I began to plan my 2008 riding season. Among my great plans for 2008 were more populaires (those metric centuries) and an attempt at a brevet of 200km.

This spring, my riding plans have been repeatedly stalled; my drive and desire for athletic greatness diminished.

So what happened?

Well, LIFE happened. My partner lost her teaching job last fall and became "underemployed"; and I needed to work more hours to help make up some of the shortage. Important time spent with family and friends took priority over some of my planned rides. The cold, wet winter and early spring made it difficult to go long on the weekends. A series of cold and allergy distresses forced me indoors more often and made it hard for me to ride longer than my typical morning commute (indeed, even my commutes were hard and I wound up tossing my bike on transit more often during the winter). I had a Crohn's flare-up over the winter that kept me off my bike for nearly two weeks. In short, I made plans and other stuff happened that got in the way.

So how am I working with it now?

Well, the 200km is out for the year. I simply cannot set aside enough time to prepare for that distance safely and effectively; and I am not angry or sad about it at all. It's just life. As for the populaires, I had hoped to enter an early one in March but the weather and my colds combined to keep me out of it. The next organized group populaire I can hope to find time for isn't until early November. (I could sign up to do one by myself but there hardly seems any point in that; the truth is I'd rather just go out for a 25- to 35-mile ride with friends and have a nice lunch somewhere along the way. If I could do this two out of four weekends a month I'd be pretty darned happy.) I am doing another charity ride, a shorter one-day event that's close enough to home for me to take public transit to and from the start. If I complete this ride -- and I'm pretty sure I will -- it will likely be, at something like 70 miles, the longest distance I ride in one day this year.

And something else has happened. I have not felt the least bit stressed about how things have turned out. I still ride my bike nearly every day. When I'm tired I take the bus part of the way. When I feel an extra burst of energy in the evening (especially since daylight sticks around till 8 pm now), I'll ride a longer, more "scenic" route home. And as I read ride reports by some of my new randonneuring buddies, I find that their descriptions of literally suffering through a particularly challenging stretch of a ride no longer hold the same allure for me. I feel as though I've found my limits, and I am turning them into my groove.

It's natural to want positive reinforcement simply for being the people we are. When I look around for that reinforcement, encouragement for the bicycle rider I am, I have to look a little harder. It's not found in the popular bicycle literature, in the magazines and articles found at most bike shops. It's not found in the popular media, who still equate Most Things Bicycle with Lance Armstrong. And it's not even found in most mainstream advertising for bicycles and bicycle-related product. Pick up any major bicycle catalog and the first thing you will see is someone who is young, sleek and ferociously fit, most likely a guy, clad in lycra and pounding his way up the mountainside with a determined grim on his tanned face. One must look and dress the part in order to Be A Cyclist.

I'm not so much a Cyclist as I am a Bicycle Rider. And I find that reinforcement by looking at my family and friends, at my co-workers who ride every day, and at regular folks who are just going from place to place on a bicycle, wearing whatever clothes they grabbed off the top of the clean clothes pile, ferrying their groceries or nothing at all while they pedal and smile and enjoy the ride. They are becoming my model of choice more and more, every single day.

That doesn't mean I've given up on riding those longer distances. I get a sense of accomplishment from doing those rides that's hard to explain, and they give me a chance to ride out in the country where it's quieter and there's more wildlife to see and hear. I love those longer rides and plan to do more of them, for as long as I'm able. But they are not the majority of the riding I do, and that is totally okay. Most of my rides are five miles or less each, and they are often as enjoyable as the country rides are. Because the point isn't speed or distance, it's simply that I get to ride my bike.

Any day I get to ride my bike is a good day.

Is it Spring for You?

I'm riding with bare knees. Enough of Spring is here for me to ride that way. The fig and pear trees aren't showing any fruit yet, the grape vines haven't leafed out. So Spring really isn't here.

Spring will really be here for me when I have my first Hawaiian shirt day. On that day I’ll ride in a billowing silky colorful shirt and be really comfortable. It's as close to being naked on the bike as I get.

What's your "it's Spring!" ride moment? Has it arrived this year?

Monday, May 5, 2008

Where Else?

I work in a secure facility. This means there's guard shacks in the driveway and employees need to show their corporate ID to get into the parking lot. Today as I rolled up I noted there was a new guard on duty. I slowed down a little extra, he wasn't going to recognize me. Held out the ID and he waved me on.

"Where's your car?"
"Where it belongs."

Home in the driveway.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Coupleafewthings Monday

  • Go go go go go:
    ok, well don't go, the image is gone, torn from the internets like a $1 off burrito coupon from the student paper. Stupid internets...
    (was once an image of a guy riding a bike on a line of soda bottles)

  • My race bike racked for the ride home.

    I have been waiting years to do this well. A decade ago I occasionally carried frames on my back to customers when I worked at a small frame builder. Many a times I have steered another full bike down the road, one hand on the stem, whilst riding another. But I think I this is the apogee of swellegant bike on bike hauling. That was 9 miles and 800 feet elevation change each way to get to the race.

  • Lots of reasons to hate pro cycling right now, here is a reason to start watching again:

    click for source
    Go read this nice fluff article on Taylor Phinney and family over on Sports Illustrated. If you don't know who he is or who his parents are, go read it.

    Taylor is 17 and one of the top five pursuit cyclists in the world and will be representing the US in Beijing this summer in the Olympics. He rides for the Slipstream Chipotle team and with any luck, will be doing one day races in Europe flying the plaid colors and possibly a tacky mustache within a few years.
  • Wednesday, April 23, 2008

    Addicted to darkness

    Ever since my Down Low Glow lights arrived, I've become completely addicted to nighttime cruising. I've always been a night person, and I love being outside at night, particularly on nights like tonight, when the air is like silk and the stars are out clearly, even in the city.

    Night riding is completely different from daytime riding, and not just because it's dark. You see things in the city at night that you can't see when the sun is out. It's been my experience that most cities have two populations -- the folks who inhabit the office buildings by day and retreat to their pockets of suburban safety during the night, and the people for whom the city isn't even open until about 9 or 10 p.m. That's a broad-brush statement, of course, so please don't take offense.

    I recently moved to Albany, NY, a small city with fewer than 100,000 people. Despite its size, the center of the city and the neighborhoods immediately around it resemble similar spots in most of the larger cities I've lived in. Folks sit out on stoops in the warm night breeze, relaxing with a drink and grilling mouth-watering food on small hibachis or on grills much too large for their porches. Professionals, many still dressed in their work clothes, walk dogs of all sizes, many of whom bark in what I believe to be admiration as my brightly lit bike passes.

    Tonight I rode to Buckingham Lake, a small pocket of countryside right in the heart of Albany. Nestled at the end of several city streets, Buckingham Lake (which is really a small pond) has been a relaxing oasis for Albany residents since the colonial era. I went there for the first time the other day. In the sunshine, the lake was filled with ducks and geese. Mountain bikers rode around the one-mile trail that surrounds the lake, and families of all sizes and kinds walked along the shore or played at the playground.

    At night, it was very different.

    For one thing, it wasn't as dark as I'd hoped. There were quite a few lights on tall lamp posts around the edge of the lake, and the streets on both sides were lit up, too. I hopped on the gravel trail and passed two high-school-age couples walking the trail and -- to judge by the smell -- smoking pot. A businessman stood on the playground in front of an expensive car, talking on his cell phone. One picnic table was occupied by four or five people talking and laughing. Around the first bend in the trail, the light poles stopped and I got a bit of darkness. The far side of the pond was the brightest area, and then the trail dropped down a few feet to kiss the water. Here I actually needed my headlight to see well enough to avoid a late-night swim.

    Leaving the lake, I rode around the circular roadway the surrounds New York State's Harriman Office Complex, and then headed over to cruise around the University of Albany. Given the gorgeous weather, the campus was surprisingly quiet. Maybe everyone was studying for finals. I did pass one large group waiting for the bus, and heard several comments about my glowing Xtracycle. ("That's sweet!" "That's f***king hot!" "Cool bike!" "You're going the wrong way!" That last one turned out to be true, but only for a few hundred feet.)

    On the way back to my house I passed three young guys crossing West Lawrence. "That's a hot bike," one of them said to his friend. "I like your bike, man!" the friend yelled, raising one fist in the air. I thanked him and headed home.

    I'm not a cool guy. Despite having several careers that people might consider cool -- including salsa and funk musician, radio DJ, foreign correspondent and hip hop label producer -- those cool vibes have never really rubbed off on me. I just got my first tattoo (a chainwheel with a peace sign in the middle), but I still look more like the Pillsbury Doughboy than a rebel without a cause. But at night, on the Xtracycle with the Down Low Glow, even I get a little taste of the hip life. And I'm not gonna lie, I dig it. I mean c'mon -- who wouldn't like to ride around with people actually cheering for your bicycle?

    So I highly recommend some nighttime cruising on your bicycle. Just make sure you've got a lot of lights, and choose your route well. And be careful -- once you get out there at night a few times, you'll become addicted, too.

    Jason Crane is a union organizer, jazz broadcaster and action dad. Find him online at and The Jazz Session.

    Saturday, April 19, 2008

    Commuter God

    "You're a commuter god," was what the email said.

    A fellow north-Texan saw a photo of my favorite bike recently submitted to the Fixed Gear Gallery. He emailed me that he believed that we'd met briefly before. Turns out, yep, it was me he flagged down in Denton several weeks ago. After mentioning that I'd ridden the bike in the photo to work in Denton on that day, he must have considered the distance, the fixed gear drive train, and weather conditions that day (a 20+ mph headwind with gusts to 35 mph) before he offered the kind, but greatly exaggerated, compliment.

    I enjoy compliments as much as anyone, but I am not a commuter god. I am not a finely-tuned athlete and do not have a love for discomfort. Thanks in large part to stories and encouragement from many of the authors of this blog, I have begun to identify selected days to commute by bike. As so many of these authors have said, one can greatly expand his understanding of what is possible.

    I've now commuted to work several times at distances I once thought were impractical. My job involves professional attire and numerous out-of-office appointments from 30 to 50 miles away, so days with no appointments work best. I've learned-by-doing how to strike a balance between carrying stuff and staying prepared by keeping stuff in my office when a commuting opportunity arrives. By simply trying, one might learn what was once thought to be impractical, can actually be preferable. My commute by bike takes me three times as long as driving. But being good for the environment, good for the community, good for the body, and good for the spirit, it is a preferable way to use time.

    I'd like to encourage those who might be considering riding the bike for utility purposes. It is a simple way to transform the mundane into the delightful. Whether it be commuting to work, running errands, or social activities, give it a try. Does it take anything like "a commuter god" or special powers? Hardly...just someone who likes to ride a bike.

    Monday, April 14, 2008

    Closer to heaven

    Climbing over Lizard Head Pass, Colo. Day 6

    Morning came with the incandescent reflection of unobstructed sun on a fresh layer of snow - warm, awake and alive. Geoff prompted me out of the tent with the first big breakfast of our trip - French toast, eggs, and orange juice - the subtle luxuries of staying in town. It was the perfect prerequisite to our day - the day we would climb over the mountains and the highest elevation of our entire trip, Lizard Head Pass.

    The storm had moved on, leaving behind only the snow-coated mountain peaks as proof that it ever existed. Fall colors blazed across the foothills, but those peaks make the deep yellows and greens seem almost unreal - as if a cinematic Technicolor brush saturated half of the landscape, leaving everything else stark white on black. In the smog-laden valleys of the Intermountain West where I come from, elevation equals clarity, and today we’re headed as high as this road goes.

    I expected this day to be physically grueling, but unlike the grade that soared toward Telluride, this slope is surprisingly gentle - rolling hills that rise through canyons and drop back into valleys. Maybe this climb is just easier than the roads through southern Utah, or maybe my strength is really increasing that quickly - a possibility that never occurred to me until I glanced back at a sign on the left - warning truckers of the 8 percent grade I was currently ascending. And that, fellow desk potatoes, is a great feeling.

    And my day is so bent on climbing, so prepared for work, so apprehensive for the zenith of the entire trip, that I’m almost disappointed to roll over that gentle mound that is Lizard Head Pass - 10,222 feet in the sky - and stare down the Dolores River canyon and the 55 mile descent ahead. A cold wind blows up from below and pounds my face, the only skin not buried in winter clothing.

    But the thing that hits me the hardest is the contrast. Here I am, standing is the midst of 14,000-foot peaks, snow-covered islands in a sea of yellow aspen and deep green pine - when just five days ago I was rolling through the vermilion sandstone cliffs of the desert, air still stagnant in the lingering heat of summer. And I made this transition on a bike. With my own wimpy legs and inherent fear of physical challenge. The prospect still staggers my imagination.

    The next 15 miles fly by in 27th gear, a blur of blues and greens through my tear-soaked eyes. In just over a half hour we have already arrived Rico, our lunch stop, and are back at the riverside; this time, the Dolores. Things are getting back to normal, elevation dropping, snow-capped peaks fading into the background. By this time tomorrow we’ll be back in the desert.

    Wasn’t it Ernest Hemingway who said “Only by bicycle can one truly know the contours of the land?” All the distance I’ve traveled in the last six days would take me just over four hours to traverse in a car. And yet, it feels like I’ve traveled so far, so long, that I can barely remember the landscape of my home in Salt Lake. But everything between here and Moab is burned in my head, and I can’t help but find familiarity in this strange place.

    Saturday, April 12, 2008

    Hawkins Family Bike Tour: Day 5

    Dear Friends,

    This last day of our family bicycle tour brings us from Battleground WA to Seattle, through Portland and vicinity. Our tales of adventure up to this point had only hardened the misgivings Claire's family have had about our trip and bicycling in general. Monique in particular stated on many occasions that she "would never, ever do anything like that". So I did what every cycling evangelist does. I put her in the stoker seat.

    It turns out that she just loves riding and really had a good time tooling around the neighborhood. We also put some of her kids in the trailer and they had a great time too. You just have to try it. Once you do, you may never think the same way again.

    We took off from Battleground at 10 AM after a leisurely breakfast and play time with the kids. The road into Vancouver was a delight with flat to downhill farm roads with wide shoulders marking our path. There was eventually quite a bit of road construction but I've found that road construction is nice for bikes as long as the flaggers believe that bikes belong on the road and well, around these parts things are pretty positive. In fact, every flagger we encountered made sure that we got through without stopping and smiled and waved as we passed.

    This was also the first fully sunny day we've had. Friday was just a joy and our main concern was making sure that Thorvald wasn't overheating and that he had plenty of shade. Riding on these kinds of days makes you feel like you're getting one over on the world. I spend so much time riding in the rain at 40-50 degrees that I start to overheat myself when things get too sunny. Perhaps my blood has thickened into a higher viscosity that doesn't handle temperatures above 65.

    Vancouver has beautiful bike amenities and we found our way to the I-5 bridge without a hitch but with some help from smiling people. Tandems with kids is the way to engender love and understanding.

    Well, love and understanding only go so far when you get to the Oregon side and the signs to downtown are spotty to be charitable. We had a whale of a time trying to figure out how to get downtown and by following the Vancouver bike map and taking MLK south into Portland, we found ourselves on the least hospitable road of our entire trip. We even got honked at. I don't know what kind of cromagnon honks at bikes with kids, but we got our share and were nearly run off the road on an on-ramp by an Oak Harbor Truck Lines driver pulling two trailers. He also gunned his engine hoping that we would be scared and pull off. A little "peter principle" at work I'm sure but it also gives lie to the notion that Portland is some kind of cycling paradise.

    Anyway, the Vancouver bike map was incorrect. We asked around after getting a little hot under the collar, ok, a lot hot under the collar, and found our way to Vancouver Ave where things were much more sedate. This road wasn't even shown on their map nor was Interstate Ave, the apparent super highway for fast north-south cycling traffic. Maybe next time. Maps are only as good as the committees that approve them.

    We got to the train station after a nice stop in the park for Thorvald, dumped our non-essential stuff, and took off to see the town. We rode up Broadway, toured Portland State University, met a couple of my old professors, hung out in the Park Blocks, had a nice lunch, played some more, got provisions, and then went down to the waterfront.

    Claire was pessimistic at first owing to Seattle's rather utilitarian waterfront style, but upon arrival, her heart was softened and we took another nice break. We then cruised around the Esplanade and talked to some other bikers, traversed some nice bridges, and had a good time. My opinion of Portland was elevated somewhat by workers installing the new green bike boxes and by the sheer volume of cyclists present, but I have to say that Delta Park and North Portland are a mess.

    Now I have a technical question for all of you bike know-it-alls. The wonderful 35 mm Paselas that I installed have expanded enough that their undulations sometimes rub on the chainstay. I know I'm not within my warranty to do so, but do you think it proper to crimp the chainstays so as to garner more tire clearance on a steel framed bike? Your help would be very much appreciated.

    Also you should know that with knowledge comes danger. The Portland Amtrak office charges tandems at two bikes and trailers as one bike. The Seattle office counts it all as one bike and a stroller that is not charged separately. Riding under the radar so to speak has its advantages when train employees don't know the rules because they don't have the constant experience. Count your blessings, dear Seattlites!

    So we paid the surcharge ($5, don't tell them about the airlines!) and happily boarded the train. This was the biggest surprise of the trip. It turned a little long, but Thorvald had napped plenty and was ready to play, and play he did all the way home until 11 PM when we got him home. I love that boy, but he really liked riding and wasn't so involved in the train experience. It was shot in the arm that with children, you can't know what to expect.

    So we covered 25 miles into town and goofed off another 15 or so just tooling around town. The day was sunny, and our dirty, road battered tandem looked a little out of place with much of the sleek Portland fare, but we had a great week and look forward to further adventures. The trains work well, allow you to play with your kids, and get you there eventually. Bicycle travel is surprisingly nice and and we'll be doing much more of it in the future.

    Thanks for reading and let me know about crimping the chainstays. I could just go with 32mm tires but I'm curious.

    Brad, Claire, and Thorvald Hawkins

    Thursday, April 10, 2008

    Hawkins Family Bike Tour: Day 4

    This was the marathon. This was the day that Claire and I proved ourselves in the family bicycle tourist continuum. This was the day that Claire and I rode from Onalaska to Battleground, a distance of 80 miles. This was the day when we really needed to make sure that Thorvald was enjoying himself so that he will still trust us when we put him in the trailer. This was the day when Claire and I would ride together on the same bike longer than we ever have before.

    None of those things happened.

    It was nippy and Claire's great uncle Jerry informed us that he was driving us to Toledo. I had to find out where Toledo is because we did the whole trip on a cue sheet and I wasn't carrying a map. O.K. Toledo. That's kind of close. Upon reviewing our options, the secondary and close city of Vader was chosen because it was actually on our route. This isn't bad.

    We found out that the derelict semi-trailers parked at the corner of Hwy 508 and Jackson Hwy that we guided ourselves to their place with (as markers) are actually his. We found out that as a contractor, you can bid on something, lose money, and you are still stuck with the contract, even if you end up paying for the opportunity to do the job, and we found out that one can easily spend $100 filling up a pick-up truck. No wonder those guys are always so mad at us cyclists; always cutting close, always flooring it as they go by, always letting the engine idle at the gas station while they fill up or go inside to buy that 20 ounce energy drink. I understand more fully now.

    We started off from Vader and had a down hill (Jerry is very thoughful that way) at 9:00 AM and while getting situated, an old Suburban pulling a 50's Chevy wreck came slowly down that same hill. About 100 ft after they passed us, the hitch broke loose and the wreck slammed into the back of the Suburban. We coasted down the hill to see if we could help and they just said "Nah, this ole' truck just doesn't seem to want to go to the wrecking yard. Say, didn't I see you guys in Centralia yesterday?" We responded in the affirmative and that we really enjoyed Centralia and then we were off on our way, trying to make good time just in case they "fixed" the hitch quickly.

    The road winds around but follows roughly the RR tracks and we soon found our way into Castle Rock. Claire and I noticed that Diesel was selling for $4.29 but that didn't stop two fine gentlemen from idling their Dodges in front while they went in for their aforementioned energy drinks, Corn dogs, and Little Nickel publications. Fascinating!

    One guy came out and gave us a better route than following the 411 into Longview and so we took it and were happy. Pleasant Hill Rd. is pleasant indeed. We passed a street cleaner and found to our liking that the road before the street cleaning machine was clean as well. The trees were in full bloom and we saw a blue bird or a bluejay. We don't know. It was nice.

    Next up, we cruised through Longview and then Kelso and then Longview again (that's just the way they are organized; we went in a direct path) and since Thorvald was sleeping well, we trudged on to Kalama where we arrived at 12:00 'noon. We spent about 2 hours in Kalama at different places, learned how to pronounce the name (you'll have to ride with us to find out), and generally worked Thor until he was docile and ready for riding (napping).

    Between Kalama and Woodland lies a cycling conundrum. You don't really want to ride on the freeway because that's kind of like cheating and it's kind of loud, and everybody thinks it's dangerous. The only problem is that the only connecting road looks like this:

    Look at what happens when you start up Line Road. That sucker was so steep, we pushed the thing up most of the way, and then high fived each other, not realizing that we were only half way up! It was laughably difficult and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a cycling challenge. On the way down, I couldn't tell if the drag brake was working and once on the flats, found that the brake had stuck closed. Apparently, it still works.

    The rest of the ride was punctuated by rolling hills, Thorvald's constant sleep (we're going to pay for that tonight, I tell ya') and a very helpful cyclist named Greg who led us on a new path that turned out perfect. Claire might correct me on his name but he had an older Trek 520 with nice, old brifters. Nice guy.

    We arrived in Battleground around 4:30 or 5 and had a great time with Tom and Monique, of which, Tom is Claire's cousin.

    We didn't break anything except perhaps the drag brake which is sticky and I haven't tried since, and we parked the bike in the chicken coop, where I'm sure it will work better tomorrow.

    Total mileage was somewhere around 60-65, down from 80 because of the ride from Jerry, but felt like more because of Green Mountain Road (#^$%^&^%^%#^%*&^, I mean highlight of the day). Thorvald is having a great time with the 4 kids who reside here and we're having a great time. The weather turned from nippy and rainy to sunny today. Tomorrow will be great!

    Well today was pretty fun too.


    Wednesday, April 9, 2008

    Hawkins Family Bike Tour: Day 3

    Dear Friends,

    Some of you are wondering what this all means. I know, it's pretty tricky. Claire and I are riding from Seattle to Portland and taking 5 days. Usually people think of that ride in terms of something only done in the middle of July, on two days of a weekend, with 8,000 people whom you should not trust on two wheels with your safety, ahem I mean, 8,000 of your closest friends.

    Nay, Claire and I are taking advantage of the fact that I have 4 different weeks when some percentage of my students are on spring break and this is the week with the largest percentage of students missing that didn't take place in February. You take what you can get. We have also started a silly and self indulgent pattern of going to crazy places for our anniversary (roughly) and here is this year's installment. Just so you know, the first year was to Mexico City (the concierge wouldn't let us ride bikes nor tell us where we could rent them), yes, the city; the second to Romania (we couldn't stomach $320 to cart our bikes over when a train ride across that country was $12 first class), the third to Ashland and environs (Claire was very with child this time last year), and this year finds us on a bike, just one, riding to visit family.

    With that, today's story begins with last night. After a nice dip in the hot tub, Claire's cousin Jordan informed us that global warming doesn't exist. Jordan is a contractor who specializes in sewage mains and water mains and any kind of pipe for liquids or cable or anthing you like as long as you have to dig to install it. We were about to agree with him based on the nippy weather yesterday and the fact that it took us quite a while to warm up. But I pointed out that global warming really has more to do about accounting for all of your costs, that if you are dumping something into a river or burning some hydrocarbon, that you should pay the entire price for its use. He was in complete agreement because his job is figuring out what things are actually going to cost sometimes years in advance and I'm glad we could reach some rapprochement. I also think that he would love that I used "rapprochement" with reference to him.

    So for today's ride, we went from south Tumwater/Littlerock to Onalaska (just look it up. It exists). I think it kind of fun that all of our family live in deep exurbia and riding our bikes there provides for some really great riding atypical of our downtown Seattle regular commutes.

    Ah yes, the ride. We got loaded up. Thorvald is getting used to the pattern and really likes hanging out with us. He's really adapting to trailer life and goes to sleep most easily there, inexplicably to our better senses. The roads back to the main one are much shorter than we remember, and soon enough we are charting new ground, cutting east so as to meet up with good ole' state route 99. We ride east then south, passing through Tenino, Bucoda (originally a Romanian name but who knows, it was settled in 1853), and then we catch lunch in Centralia.

    In the middle of Centralia is a park with a Carnegie library and a statue of a WWI soldier. It's a memorial but not to what you would think. It's dedicated to the men killed in Centralia's famous labor riot of 1919. How completely cool is that. These guys were soldiers, marched in the Armistice Day parade, and spoke up somehow for worker rights, only to be gunned down.

    I don't know that I've ever done anything that courageous, but seeing that statue was the high point of my riding day, oh, that and the great weather we had, and the sickeningly flat route (sore bums for both of us; Claire switched her saddle out; we carry two for her), and of course, the Yard Bird.

    You just have to go to Chehalis (twin city to Centralia) to see the paper mache exquisiteness that is the Yard Bird. It must be two stories high and 60 feet long and stands at the highway as a sentinel, inviting passers by to feast on the Yard Bird flea market. Oh, you must go. It's a very good time.

    We got in at 3 PM, left at 9:30 that morning, covered 45 miles, had a nice lunch, let Thorvald run wild in the labor/philanthropist park, and talked to all kinds of people who love bikes and love their families. It was a great day.

    Day 4 is the marathon. Stay tuned. We haven't done it yet.


    Hawkins Family Bike Tour: Day 2

    Dear Friends,

    So for our second day in the saddle, and knowing that we had a bike locked up at the Pt. Defiance dock in north Tacoma, but knowing also that bike shops don't open before ten, we took a leisurely morning and had breakfast at Shari's. I'm not typically a fan of the place and the potato pancakes were pretty heavy on the potato, but if you get an omelet with pancakes and add the strawberry sauce and whipped cream as Claire did, you can pretty much forget about bicycling disasters and threatening rain.

    Once the bike shop opens however, you must face reality, the reality of the bicycle, the reality of tools and weather, and hills, and scheduling your ride time around baby feeding and naps. The family bike tour is super fun and very bonding, but keeping Thorvald happy is of primary concern, enjoying the ride yourself secondary, and mileage goals come in somewhere around 7th, right after, heck, I can't even think of what fits in the middle but I sure know it's more important that mileage.

    So Chip (my father in law) drives me to the bike shop where I pick up a chain tool (eureka!) a new chain, and come to think of it, nothing else, drives us back up to the dock, drops me off to fix my bike, and then I ride a more or less stripped down tandem from Point Defiance to Lakewood.

    Now I have to say that Tacoma's idea of bike accomodations borders on the silly. Pearl St is beautiful and wide and flat and runs right down through Tacoma. Vassault Way or Narrows Way or Mildred Ave or whatever it happens to be at any given point is a hilly, chip sealed mess. Note to all road contractors: If you have to chip seal a road, you don't have to pour gravel on the shoulder/bike lane because that part doesn't wear out. Save your money, short the city a little bit, and only hit the lane. Everybody comes out ahead! Got that contractors? Good.

    The hills are fun though and I much prefer them to most other bicycling difficulties because they get me out of the saddle, change up the gears a little (sometimes a lot) and provide me with short term goals. Just don't ride the Burma Road on Vashon without a chain tool. Mark my words.

    I arrive in Lakewood, around 12:30 but not before the drag brake cable snaps and I have to replace the now missing bolt assembly (and I thought STI was high maintenance!) and get a new cable (back at the same bike shop; they were quite happy to see me again and see the rig. Bike shops take great interest in people doing things that bike shop employees dream of doing themselves) and put it all together and then ride home. I'm talking about you, adventure lovers!

    We get loaded up and take off, deciding to skirt the hills for a while, and head through north Fort Lewis, I-5 for 2/3 of a mile, Nisqually and Pac Highway (old 99), and then up the hill to east Olympia where Claire's cousin Joe and family reside.

    Joe works for Intel and has recently replaced his Lexus convertible with a white Ford Econoline with flame decals so we know that at 36, he is well past his midlife crisis and is embracing a new, more adventurous life. His wife Coriell has not been told that we are coming but we have a nice visit anyway. The kids are beautiful.

    The ride into Olympia is a whole different cycling universe and is far and away better than anything I've seen in Seattle. Whereas Seattle has one real bike trail with stop signs all the time and political impasses keeping it from being finished, Olympia is in full bike path nirvana with interlocking trails that get out into and out of the city with complimentary bike pathed roads along the way. The signage is a little lacking but they really have it going on. We took wide street to the Chehalis Western Trail, which then intersected with the Olympia Woodland Trail, which then took us to a wide, pathed road, to another pathed road, to the Capitol. Don't tell me government can't get anything done!

    We futzed around the Capitol and found a woman with a shiny Co-Motion who directed us out of town to the southwest toward Littlerock, and then found a biker going our way who works in fish biology for the state. I don't know why so many engineers and scientists ride bikes, but they are some of the nicest people we know (you know who you are) and we love riding with them. John Forrester has a convincing theory, but I think it's just because those types are deeper thinkers than the rest.

    So we ride a very flat, very straight road down almost to Littlerock, turn right into the Delphi valley, and then visit with another of Claire's cousins and his family, wherein we also stay the night. They have a hot tub, lovely children, and being contractors, lots of fun machinery to talk about. This would be Jordan and Jill, and their three girls. Life is pretty great. We get in around 6:30

    Thorvald up to this point has tried to time his naps perfectly to our riding time and thus took two 2 hour naps, covering our 4 hours of riding time. He's so understanding that way. What a nice boy. He's turning 1 this month too. Come to the party if you can.

    The weather was a little odd. We got rained on twice but not convincingly. The strange part is that that a blue patch kind of followed us along the whole way. We would ride though areas that had just received a deluge of water and our bike is a dirty mess, but we had a great time and ducked inundation with the best of them. No real breakdowns today except that I had to true my rear wheel a little, oh and I fixed the chain at the beginning, and dealt with a broken cable and a bolt assembly. At least we didn't have to walk today.

    Mileage: about 40 miles, broken up into two roughly equal sections, with a 13 mile pre-ride shakedown without the gear. Life is pretty cool. Don't wait for late summer for your bike rides. These are just the greatest.