Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Cruisin' in the TARDIS

Since this is ostensibly a blog about biking, in which I yak on the topic of bikes and how to use them, I guess it's time to introduce my bikes. I have a few.

This is Grey Bike. This is the first non-crappy bike I ever bought (the model is the 2008 Novara Buzz V), immediately after I finished college. As far as category goes, it's an urban bike, made to be fairly comfortable, agile, and very, very durable. The only things I don't like about it relate to it being a less expensive bike. For one, they did not change out the length of the crank arms or stem relative to the size of the bike. So the crank arms are fairly enormously long, and the stem stretches me out past where I'd like to be. Admittedly these are both very fixable problems, but half the point of this bike is that it's pretty inexpensive. I'm also not a huge fan of the flat handlebars or the saddle, mostly because it's a "unisex", rather than a lady's. The current incarnation is as general beater bike, loaner, and for riding to places I'd rather not lock up either of the others. It will soon also become a pedicab, because the idea of people watching and riding bikes while making money appeals to me.

This is Shadow, a 2009 Cannondale Synapse 7. She is an aluminum bike with a carbon fiber fork, and is all over just a sexy beast. She now has a different saddle than in that picture, and is black as midnight from head to toe. She's a fast, agile, sexy vixen with curves that just won't stop. Shadow is my bike for when I want to go fast, for a long time, and together we put in between 50-150 miles a week, all summer last year. I've also commuted on her, but she's a flashy lady and I really dislike chaining her up anywhere - the bike just screams "STEAL ME!" in big flashing letters.

Last, and by no stretch of the imagination, least, is the TARDIS. It's a Surly Long Haul Trucker, which is a dedicated touring bike made to handle well under loads, and ride comfortably as long as you can physically stand to be on the bike. It's my everyday bike. I use it to go to work, get groceries, walk the dog, cruise around town, ride to school, and everything else you could conceivably want to do with it. 90% of the time I'm on a bike, I'm on the TARDIS. I've tricked it out since I got it, and in the time since this picture was taken it has acquired a kickstand. My all time record haul on it was a kitchen trashcan, a wastebasket for the bathroom, a dozen coathangers, and $60 worth of groceries. Here's to bungee cords.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Sport vs Transport Part Deaux

My criteria for what constitutes an awesome bike is highly variable. This is largely because I take a "Tool for the Job" approach to cycling, where no one bike is ideal for all tasks, though certainly some bikes are more ideal for most tasks than other bikes which are excellent at one thing, but suck at anything else.

There are no better examples of the two sides of the coin than a cyclocross bike and the downhill full-suspension mountain bike. For reference, I will choose two bikes I consider to be fairly representative of each type of bike. I'm going to go ahead and admit a huge personal bias towards smaller, quirkier manufacturers whose work is primarily in steel.

So check it. This is the Soma Double Cross:

This picture comes from the website for Soma Fabrications. However, when I googled this bike, most of the pictures of it came up tricked out as a commuter. For those not totally immersed in bike dorkdom, cyclocross is a sport that is basically centered around taking roadbikes off-road. This has created bikes which are fairly fast, handle very well in a variety of conditions, and tend to be tough as nails. They are versatile by their very nature, and as such, it's a bike you can ride for road rides, can do some trail on, and does just as well getting you to work. A lot of manufacturers have noticed this and include a lot of commute friendly features like braze-ons for racks and fenders and all the other goodies people like to put on their rides.

To contrast, this is a full suspension mountain bike, the Cannondale Claymore:

This bike is an amazing over-mountain bike. It will roll over just about anything going down a hill and you can do some incredible rides on it. But here's the thing - even going uphill on this bike is a bear of a task, due to the weight of the suspensions which make hillbombing at questionably intelligent speeds possible. If you tried to ride it on a normal trail with some people riding hardtail 29ers or god forbid, on the street with a few people riding hybrids, it would feel about like dragging a ball and chain up a hill. A squishy ball and chain.

The point I'm getting at here, is when someone asks me what constitutes a "good bike" or "the best bike", the first thing to ask is, "Well, what are you going to use it for?" because there is no one right answer. A good transport bike has a very different criteria from a road racing bike or a full suspension downhill bike.

For my money, versatility and practicality always win. Maybe I'm insufferably boring (not to mention preachy and arrogant), but if I'm blowing the equivalent of a month's worth of life on a bicycle, I like to be able to use it for more than just buzzing around looking cool. I also like using it for buzzing around looking cool while crossing things off my to-do list. Even if all that's on there is "Go to the pub for beerskis".

Friday, May 27, 2011

Sport vs Transport

There is a powerful distinction to me between riding for sport/recreation, and riding a bike as a way to get from A to B. Not least in the bikes best suited for the activities. I ride for both, and enjoy both uses of my bikes very much.

For transport I ride a fairly heavy touring bike and most days put anywhere between 7 to 30 miles on it, depending on how much I have to do. I am often contrary, and for transportation, I like my bike to be a tad heavy. Obviously not excessively so - that's a waste of energy. But.....sturdy. Solid. Not going anywhere. I often carry large amounts of stuff on my bike, and having a heavy bike capable of getting a load home gives me a certain amount of security that no matter what I have to get done, it's not outside the realm of possibility. Behold a fairly sizeable grocery haul I brought home on the bike.

However, that's not to say I'm not all about sport riding. Last summer I was training for a century (which I admittedly never got to ride). I was doing large amounts of mileage every week, anywhere between 70-150 miles, with individual rides as long as 50 miles. My roadbike and I fused to become one creature with a fluid sense of cadence, shifting, and where turns felt more like instinct than a conscious movement of my handlebars. I also commuted on this bike 1-2 times a week, 15 miles in each direction. Earth's best commuter, it is not, but for those distances speed was the order of the day.

But this year for me has been the year of the commuter. I have the bike I've always wanted for it, set up exactly how I've wanted it. On my heavy bike I often feel like I can do anything (albeit at a slightly slower pace than on my roadbike). Ride any distance, go anywhere, and bring back almost anything I please. So they represent two totally different types of freedom to me. One of the freedom from my car, which I more or less regard as a gigantic four-wheeled ball and chain. The other is the freedom of the open road, the wind in my hair, and the feeling of invincibility of conquering a ride that once defeated me.

I don't know if sport or transport, if one is better than the other. I obviously on a personal level lean towards transport cycling for every day, but who am I to make that call for someone else. At least they ride a bike.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Shortest Distance Between Two Points is a Straight Line

It seems like half, or more than half of being a successful urban cyclist is in the routing. That is, efficiently getting to your destination while choosing the best streets. The thing is, if you're just transitioning over from driving, is that the best routes from the perspective of a car and a bike are totally different. A good routefinder can cross huge swathes of city without ever touching a main road.

Sometimes it's frustrating, as the most direct routes between points are usually major roads which are the most dangerous for cycling. The traffic is moving faster, there's usually not a bike lane, the drivers are inevitably in their more competitive state of mind, and it's all in all a solid way to get hit by a car. Usually, though, there is a street as little as a block or two over that follows the same path, and runs through neighborhoods with a low speed limit and relatively little traffic. Sometimes there's even a bike lane! So these roads become the cyclist's main arteries through town.

Interestingly enough though, there's a point at which traffic becomes dense enough that the cyclist can rejoin on regular streets because the reality is the cars aren't moving that fast. Here in Austin, there is no better example than the area from campus to the river (basically from the capitol to downtown). This, for example is a route I would probably take from just south of 183 all the way to Zilker Park. Yes, you jump onto a main road south of 38th St, but in that area the traffic is often pretty manageable. Prior to that, it's neighborhood the whole way. And if that makes you nervous, there's always the Shoal Creek Trail which parallels Lamar. Or bob and weave over to Nueces. The options are virtually endless.

However, there's also the matter of freeways and other large obstacles in your way. Finding safe ways to cross these without going hugely out of your way is most of the challenge. I call it Fording the River.

It presents the same issues. You're faced with an enormous rushing current you must somehow find your way across without losing any oxen or getting hit by a car. This is usually achieved the same way most cycling routefinding goes - finding a smaller-than-main road that crosses from a neighborhood, to a neighborhood in the hopes the traffic will be calm at that intersection.

The easiest way to find these paths is usually a bike map. One of the first things I buy in any given city (at least, if I have my bike) is a bike map. The newly updated Austin Bike Map is practically my bible. I have one that lives on my bike, and though I know my city pretty well, I almost never leave home without it.

Find your way, folks.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

It's Always Sunny

I thoroughly enjoy blogs such as Bike Fancy, Lovely Bicycle!, and Copenhagen Cycle Chic. I know they're as much style-themed as they are about bikes, but that is a lot of what I enjoy about them. The emphasis on the person and the bike together. Aesthetics, functionality.

But one thing that always amazes me is how late into the year they manage to wear jackets. Around here, the weather starts to warm up in March and by May, it's full-time shorts weather. God help you if you're still trying to wear long sleeves or pants by June. So occasionally pulling off the "Aesthete and Cyclist" look around here can be a bit of a challenge, if only because we have a summer that lasts 5 months. It's easy to get sweaty and flushed just standing around, and I say that as someone with a lifetime of adaptation to the climate. I do not overheat easily and am generally comfortable with outdoor activities as long as the temperature is sub-100 F. For all those keeping score in MetricLand, that's 37.7 C, and we have a solid 4 to 6 weeks of weather continuously hotter than that every year. It's like living on the surface of the sun.

That being said, I use my bike for transportation and am also fairly vain - I don't always want to LOOK like I came by bike. That is, I sort of enjoy the surprise factor when people see me lookin' good and smellin' good when they find out I didn't drive. Feelin' good is pretty much a constant.

The phrase that really resonated with my I got from the above mentioned Copenhagen Cycle Chic. "Don't dress for the journey, dress for the destination." So that's what I try to accomplish. It has resulted in purchasing my clothes with the thought always in the back of my mind that I'm going to have to ride in this, whatever it is. Because let's face it. It's freaking hot out.

But that being said, there are several things that define Austin and one of them is the local sense of style (as unusual as it can be). One of these days I'll get a camera and ride downtown to take some pictures. Call it ogling, call it inspiration. But I love it when people look good on bikes.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Night Rider

Man oh man do I ever love riding my bike at night. The streets are empty and the world feels like your oyster. The fact that bikes are silent makes you feel like a panther slithering through the jungle in pursuit of prey. You swoop down hills, taking the whole lane to yourself. And what is it about the way the air seems to change at night? Different feel, different smell. It's what it must feel like to be Batman.

As most of you have probably figured out by now, I'm what could be called an urban or street cyclist. Most of my time on a bike is spent buzzing around town, whether it be for fun or for more productive ends. I ride in all my clothes, at all times of day, to just about every type of destination. So every time I see the user manual for a bicycle and it advises that cycling after dark is very dangerous and one should never do it, I am torn between sadness and laughter. After all, for cycling to be a viable method of transportation, you need to be able to get where you need to go whether that's at noon or midnight.

One thing though - there is no time like the night time when good lights and a really solid lock (or two) is necessary. As much as the cover of darkness makes me feel like the Caped Crusader, it's also really good for concealing shady activities, like, yknow, bike theft. And lights will keep you alive.

So ride off into the night. Feel the night air blowing through your hair. Be the bat.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Loosey Goosey

One of my favorite things in the whole universe combines beautifully with one of my other favorite things. Namely, I love riding my bike to the pub for a couple beers with my friends.

Before I get the inevitable, "It's dangerous!"-es and "Enjoy your funeral"-s, I'll go ahead and say, I have enough experience on both a personal and professional level to understand the inherent risks of my actions. That being said, the same people that call me crazy for cycling to the pub will gladly drive to the same place for the same drinks, then drive home. Because let's face it, the way things around here are set up, drinking and driving is almost a necessity. We are left responsible for ourselves, including how we transport ourselves from A to B.

Because here's the thing - how are you gonna get home? Cab? Sure, if you wanna be out $40 additional dollars, plus whatever the potential consequences are of leaving your car overnight (towing, fees....the list goes on). Public transportation? Hah. This is America. Public transportation doesn't work like that. Call a friend? At 3 in the morning? I'm sure they'll be glad to hear about your night.

So for me that leaves cycling. Today a colleague and I met up at our local for a couple post-work pints, me "con bicicleta" as usual. I chained up to something that was either an artful bike rack, or a sign that worked amazingly well as a rack, and went in for my pints. After a solid discussion of European imperial history, the Texas Rangers, and our upcoming schedules, my friend and I parted ways to mosey onwards to our respective abodes.

Whether its Earth's best idea or not, I sort of love cycling with a bit of a buzz on. You sit up, take it easy on the speed, and just sort of leisurely pedal in a straight line until it's either time to turn, or you're home. Alcohol adds the best "Before you know it!" syndrome - I've ridden 8 miles in what felt like the equivalent time of 3 after a well-fought battle with $2.75 pint night. It's relaxation in a way rarely afforded to citizens of a modern society. Freedom to feel the wind on your face and enough of a buzz to really FEEL THE WIND ON YOUR FACE, MAN. No cell phones. No computers. Just a good old fashioned good-ass time.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Life in the Bike Lane

I'm always a smidge amazed at the logic behind bike lanes in the United States. I live in Austin, TX, which is a Silver Level Bike Friendly Community as awarded by the League of American Bicyclists. Yet even in this relative haven of bike-friendly policy, it'll be the day when someone doesn't cut me off, attempt to side-swipe me, park something in the bike lane, or some other similar indignity.

The designated bike lanes here appear and disappear alarmingly quickly. As a for instance, as previously mentioned, on my route to work I cross a freeway. The road I take is fairly busy - 3 lanes of traffic on each side of the road, overpassing a major freeway. It accomodates bikes right up until the freeway bridge, where it suddenly just vanishes. You are expected to merge into traffic to cross and from there forward, occupy the right lane.

My question is largely.....why? I appreciate the bike lane so much, but right at the busiest area suddenly my protection, and in the view of many drivers, rights vanish. Which brings me to me next point - I'm realizing more and more how much I have created my lifestyle to agree with my preferred method of transportation, and why bike commuting is intimidating to novices. Particularly women.

In areas where safe, practical cycling is heavily supported by infrastructure, women often make up the majority of cyclists. However in areas where cycling is perceived as an impractical mode of transportation, men by far make up the majority. Thus, women are considered an "indicator species" of abundant, practical cycling facilities and friendliness.

If people wonder why we harp so hard for proper bike facilities, they should try one day of riding to work. It can bring you to life, and it can bring you down. But it definitely will wake you up.

Friday, May 20, 2011

National Bike to Work Day

A few years back I moved to California, where I acquired a crappy Free Spirit mixte from Craigslist. I weebled. I wobbled. Once or twice, I fell down. Over time, I bought a commuter bike. A road bike. A touring bike. I rode beach cruisers and racing bikes, things that didn't fit me at all and things that did.

In the interim, I've since moved home to Texas, specifically to Austin, where I am a daily bike commuter, general bike enthusiast (code-word for "fantastic dork") and spend as much of my free time as possible on a bicycle, pedaling through town to wherever the winds take me.

So welcome. I hope you like bikes as much as I do, which is a holy-shit level of "a lot". Which brings me to today.

Today was National Bike to Work Day, which inspires my perverse nature as few other things do. Given my perversity and the forecast of thunderstorms, I considered driving to work. I stood and looked at my bike, and said (as I often do to myself in quiet moments), "You know, I could just drive." But as almost always happens, I found myself going through the motions of shoving my lock into my bag, putting my helmet on, and making sure I remembered a rain jacket.

Bike commuting for me is a very zen experience. Yes, it's fraught with people honking at me, people passing just a bit too close for comfort, and bike lanes which appear and disappear with annoying frequency. I was hoping to see some of my fellow bike commuters out on our big day, but my commute passed as it usually does - with the bike lane to myself.

On the way home was another story. I was pulling out of the parking lot when I heard a big fat drop smack me square in the helmet. Then another. This is Texas in the spring. It quite frequently changes from bone dry to a deluge in a matter of minutes, and I'm enough of a Texan to panic at sudden rain. I got into my rain jacket, pulled the cover over my rack-trunk, hit the lights, and "BOOM". The ground shook and by the time I made it to the stoplight, the skies had opened.

As I rode, I had a couple moments of "OH NO," primarily related to the significant drop in braking power that comes with being hosed down. I cross a freeway on the way home and the thought of careening down the road unable to control my speed flashed across my mind.

After the initial panic wears off, the same thing always happens: I turn into a 5 year old girl splashing through puddles. I felt like I was pedaling through a lake at the bottom of the big hill, got back up the other side, headed down the slope to my house, and walked me and my poor, sad bicycle into the house. I looked in a mirror. From the waist up, in JacketLand, I was groovin, but the bottom half of me looked like I'd been dunked in a swimming pool. All in all, it was a pretty awesome commute.

So to all those who bravely headed off into the new today on National Bike to Work Day: welcome to bike commuting! I hope you like it here.