Sunday, June 26, 2011

It's all about Image

It's become a bit of a personal crusade for me to bring real vehicular cycling to America. Not that vehicular cycling as an act is anything particularly difficult or spectacular, but in the U.S. it is a very polarizing form of transportation. It seems that people either love or hate the bicycle, and I'm not sure why a more integrative method isn't taken.

I spent this past weekend at my family's house in the almost-rural northeastern outskirts of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, a city where the car is absolutely king. As they say in Los Angeles, everything is 20 minutes. A place where no less than three of my own family members looked at me a little baffled; where upon being sent to the store, the first thing I did was grab my bike. With me I took the TARDIS and a bike I'd gotten for my mom, an Electra Townie 8i.

Here it is parked with the TARDIS

Look at it. Fenders. Pants guard. Stepthrough frame. Comfy saddle. It's a European bike done with west coast cool. And yet everyone who sees it is baffled by it for a while, even up to and after they ride it. It gets so many reactions, most of which are mixed. "It rides like a Grandma bike." "I'd get one of these, but only if I lived in Key West." "I feel like such a hipster on this thing."

The interesting thing about those comments is they all came from men. The women who've ridden it have commented, "This is so much fun!" "I feel like I have excellent posture." "I can ride it in a skirt!" In short, putting the average woman on a comfortable, upright bike they can ride in any type of clothing seems to win rave reviews. Because here's the thing I've only ever seen brought up on Cycle Chic blogs - most people want to dress for their destination, not the journey. Gone are the days of driving coats and gloves, and I've never seen anyone in a car wearing a helmet. Because whether they admit it or not, most people are concerned with their image. Appearance. Call it vanity, call it whatever you like, but it's real and it's not going anywhere. Which brings me around to my initial point.

If we're going to make cycling a popular, viable form of transportation in this country, an alternative, if you will, then it has to be possible to get where you're going, looking good. I personally, for instance, hate wearing a helmet. I have a lot of hair and hate eternally arriving at my destination looking a bit like a wet dog. All the helmets and knee pads in the wide world are no substitute for good bicycle infrastructure. It has to be easy, practical, and safe. Popularity brings social acceptance, not the other way around (for instance, consider the evolution of the mini-skirt).

So in my crusade for vehicular cycling, I don't find it to be terribly revolutionary. It's just good common sense to integrate all the available options into our transportation infrastructure, and whether people like it or not, the bicycle is here to stay.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Paying It Forward

Let me take you back about 3 years. I had just graduated college, where I had a cheap Schwinn I got at Target to ride to class, which was stolen from under my porch. I had just arrived in California where my then-boyfriend was an avid cyclist. I immediately thought "Hey, that looks like fun!"

I got a bike. It was too big. I fell off it, repeatedly. I got a different bike from Craigslist. It was a piece of crap. Then I got Grey Bike, my first-ever non-crappy bike that was actually the correct size. I started riding, hesitantly, often on the sidewalk. I remember my first "long" ride, 15 miles, where I pretty much had to crawl up the staircase afterwords. I remember being terrified of cars, huge, noisy things that got way too close for my comfort. I was confused about how I fit into the traffic picture, because no one in driver's education tells you about bikes and where they go. But I was having way too much fun to let that stop me. I rode to the grocery store, I started riding to work. I figured out how to bring my bike on CalTrain and widened the potential range I could go by several times.

With practice, I got less afraid. Then I met Dina. Dina was me, 6 months previous. She had a crappy mountain bike, but was intrigued and romanced by the idea of the wind in her hair. We started riding together, short distances, me teaching her what I had learned in my short tenure as a street cyclist. We became more skilled, together. Recently, she participated in the AIDS Lifecycle, a ride that takes you from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

I met other people, mostly women, who had a bike but didn't know where to begin. My mom. My friends. Women I was pedaling past. People I met at work. And every one of them, we started slow and short, keeping it simple and safe while their confidence in themselves, their bike, and their skills grew. Every one of them starts hesitant, afraid, but having too much fun to just quit.

The relationship I was in when I discovered riding bikes is long gone. But I can never, ever be unhappy it happened because it brought me to one of my greatest sources of joy. It's an obsession, a passion. I want others to know how it feels to laugh for no reason while you fly downhill on your trusty steed, whether that steed be a beach cruiser or a carbon fiber roadbike.

Ostensibly, this blog is mostly about street cycling, mostly in the city of Austin. But I think what drives people to blog about something is the depths of emotion they achieve while engaged in their activity of choice. I've laughed on a bike and cried on a bike. I've felt helpless, and I've felt totally invincible. I've felt like an ox dragging a cart up a hill, and I've felt like a falcon in flight.

So every time I meet someone who wants to try, I can't help but pay it forward. Teach them how to navigate, stick with them while they learn. It's worth it the first time you see "The Grin". Pay it forward, folks. We were all learning once.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

It's Huge In Europe

I seem to eternally be on the hunt for the perfect accessories for my bikes. Because I ride a relatively relaxed bike in a relatively relaxed fashion, I tend to go for pure practicality in my cycling accessories, with an eye towards aesthetics. That is, weirdly, actually pretty difficult to find without contacting some specialty vendors, and if you can actually find what you're looking for, paying through the nose.

My current quest, if you want to call it that, is finding a skirt guard to fit the TARDIS. A skirt guard is a panel that attaches to either side of your rear fender, basically to keep long flappy articles of clothing from snagging in the spokes of your rear wheel. As I've mentioned (and mentioned, and mentioned), it's hotter than the fires of hell outside and as such I seem to be wearing a fair amount of loose, flappy skirts. What can I say, they breathe well.

The problem with this is in the circumstance that my skirt snags in my rear wheel, there is a strong likelihood of me going over the handlebars (and that's not to mention the embarrasment of sudden public depansting). The skirt guard would solve this problem, and they appear on just about every European city bike, because they're intended to be ridden in whatever you happen to have on. The problem here is those bikes have a different wheel size, and do not use rim brakes, and those are the kind of bikes with which skirt guards are compatible.

So my quest now is to either find or fabricate a nice-looking skirt guard for my bike without spending many $$$. Two fairly specialist bike vendors have already informed me I may well just be out of luck. Bummer.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Severe Heat Advisory: I'm melting!

I know I've said it before, but it is hot out. Unseasonably warm, if you can believe that from June in Texas. We've been hitting the triple digits every day for well over a week now, which usually waits til around the 3rd week of July.

Yesterday when I got home from work and errand running, I was a dripping ball of sweat. While I'm used to heat, yesterday was soemthing special. I unpacked my panniers, poured myself a glass of water and got on the Weather Channel's website to see what the actual temperature was. 104 F, with an advisory attached to it stating "Severe weather advisory - avoid prolonged exposure."

With the weather being as hot as it already is, I find myself a tad concerned about my ability to continue regularly bike commuting through the summer. I've had a few illuminating experiences with heat exhaustion and have no desire to pass out in a 7-Eleven. Again.

Look Ma, a Cold Front!

Yesterday was illustrative. It was 104 F once you accounted for heat index, and at those temperatures, you are miserably uncomfortable, and not in a fixable way. You walk into a building and your glasses immediately fog up. You sweat buckets just standing around, let alone doing what I was doing, which was dragging 20 pounds of groceries home in panniers in a crosswind. It was slow going, and the heat seems to have fried the brains of drivers. No really - people seem to drive more angrily when the weather demands they roll their windows up.

Got any tips for severe-heat cycling?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Going the Distance

I find my sense of scale with regards has become a tad warped in the last couple years. With the distances I regularly travel on a bike, I've developed a really good idea how long it will hypothetically take me to get somewhere, but conversely, my idea of how long it takes to get somewhere in a car is now all over the place. I have no clue which traffic patterns to account for, what gas costs until I am unpleasantly surprised at the gas station, and am generally awful at finding parking because I never have the need.

This came to light for me today at school, where our relative commute times were under discussion. One guy, an exchange student from India, mentioned that he takes a bus home and mentioned it takes about 45 minutes to go 8 miles. My immediate reaction was "Hey, that's once you account for stop lights and all, that is MOVING." And then everyone else looked at me funny. Then I remembered that most people's sense of distance is from a car, and 8 miles in 45 minutes is actually quite slow.

It's so much easier to become a fully immersed local as a cyclist, partially because you tend to figure out where EVERYTHING close to you is located. Hardware stores, liquor stores, groceries, dry cleaners, library, and for the ultimate irony, I've even biked to Auto Zone. If it's far away and over a barrier (a hill, across a freeway, more than a couple miles away), it becomes an event to go unless you are en route elsewhere at the time.

So to be able to cycle on a vehicular level in America, you have to be able to go the distance. How do you deal with our cities' sense of scale?

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Mixed Media Part II

As an avid reader of BikeSnobNYC, one of my favorite recurring themes of his is the "Indignity of commuting by bicycle." The last couple days have sort of thrown the indignity into sharp relief.

Last time around I wrote a post basically saying that for the sake of convenience, vanity, and timeliness, I often like to go the "Bike-N-Ride" route, blending public transport, catching rides from friends, and cycling. The last couple of days, Planet Earth apparently decided I was not going to be getting around in any other such fashion than by bike. My plan for yesterday evening was to take the MetroRail downtown to hang out with Sunshine McHappyFlowers, eat some pasta salad, and get a margarita.

I arrived at the train station and walk up to the ticket machine, which is surrounded by disgruntled looking people holding bicycles. Apparently the train south was cancelled. The rather stressed-out looking dispatcher said they would be sending along a bus shortly that would stop along the MetroRail's normal route, and that the travel-time would not be significantly different. The bus did indeed arrive, the problem became obvious. Austin's buses only hold 2 bikes a piece, on a front rack. Not only were the two spots on that bus already filled, but there were 5 of us standing there holding our 2-wheeled contrivances. So it was decided with two other people that we would simply ride the distance.

As I've mentioned, Texas is fairly hot in the summer. Yesterday it was 100 F out for the duration of the ride there and in those temperatures, it's almost impossible to stay cool and hydrated. I got to Sunshine's place about an hour later, and went upstairs to have pasta salad and get ready to go out. I spent a good amount of time drying off, cleaning up the raccoon effect I always get from the combination of heavy sweating and makeup, and nervously texting a lad I met at the park. Onto our bikes we hopped and off to the bar we pedaled, where we met DogParkGuy for drinks. Another friend of mine ended up meeting us out and being a bit inebriated, threw our bikes in the back of his truck and he drove all of us back to Sunshine's apartment to keep the party rolling and crash out. Theoretically, my friend was giving me a ride home in the morning so I could take care of my dogs, maybe get a little more sleep, and still make it to work on time.

Fate wasn't having it. Despite the relatively short amount of time we were there, and the late hours, my friend's truck was towed this morning. So at 6:45 this morning, it was time to get creative with getting home. I rode to the train station, only to discover that the MetroRail doesn't even run on the weekends. This left me two options. Take the bus, which takes forever, or ride. I think you all know which choice I went with.

An hour later, I pulled up to my house, in quite the state. A shower was what was called for, however, one of my dogs kicks up an incredibly racket if put outside and left alone (housepets do not understand banishment). Since I still had on the bathing suit I'd put on the night before under my dress, I turned on the garden hose, set the sprayer to the "Shower" setting, and took a quick shower in my backyard. I still made it to work on time.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Mixed Media

In terms of legitimately using a bike for transportation, the same challenges come up for everyone. The biggest obstacle, particularly in the U.S. has to do with the sheer scale of urban sprawl. I originate in Dallas, one of the largest metroplexes nationwide. It takes 2 hours to cross, in good traffic, on the freeway. Austin, while substantially smaller, suffers from the same syndrome. As did the Bay Area during my tenure as a resident of Silicon Valley.

So the solution for many (myself included) as one who is alternatively transported, is to mix my modes of transportation. My favorite combination is the MetroRail/Bike combo, which I have used in the last 3 cities I've lived in. A few examples:

Here's Grey Bike a couple years ago, loaded down and waiting for the train to transport me and my stuff home. In those bags are lots, and lots of brewing supplies which sort of destabilized the bike, so I elected to let CalTrain do the work for me.

More recently, this is the Surly waiting at a CapMetro Rail station for the train to come and ferry us to downtown to watch a movie. The ability to put my bike on a train has a powerful influence on where I will go, when, and probably most importantly with destination-oriented cycling, how I will look and feel upon my arrival. Maybe it's vain, but it's important to me. I hate drinking and driving, but I also hate looking like a sweaty ragamuffin.

So a hybrid approach is called for. Train accommodations for bikes vary from negligible to quite nice, depending on who designed the train you're riding. Having taken a bike on 3 rail systems in 3 separate cities at this point, I feel I can say CalTrain had the best accommodations - an entire car that was nothing but racks for bikes, with a capacity of 16 bikes (4 racks per car, 4 bikes per rack). And they filled it, every day. They turned people away some mornings because the trains were at or over bike capacity.

The issue in this country with making public transportation comes back to urban sprawl. The issue, as it's known among cycling advocates, is of "last mile" transportation. See, the thing about public transport is unless you're very lucky, or live somewhere very dense with a very comprehensive system, public transport rarely puts you precisely at your final destination - sometimes you have as much as an additional mile or two to go. So how to surmount the last stretch? The bike is basically ideal - light enough to be portable, quick enough to be practical. But without good facilities, that last mile become a substantial barrier to making rail systems jive in a country that's cities are defined by their sheer scale.

Ever tried the mixed method? Thoughts?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Freshening up

As I mentioned yesterday, on my way home from school I ran over a broken safety pin, deflating my rear tire. Cue the sad trombones.

I was too lazy yesterday to change my tube out, mostly because when I attempted to do so on the way home, my hands were immediately covered in black road goo when I removed my rear wheel. I know why my bike is in an eternal state of flux with regard to its cleanliness - I ride in all sorts of conditions. The ones that really do their worst are wet or damp, which just turns my drivetrain into a gucky wreck.

Meaning, in addition to fixing a flat, it is now time to clean my bike. I have some pretty high standards with relation to bike cleanliness, partially because I love my bikes, and partially because I absolutely hate getting that black stripe on the inside of my right leg. Which happens. A lot. It's not a good look.

I have a method when it comes to cleaning my bike, which has been known to include polishing the frame. I always feel a bit pimpadelic rolling down the road on a sparkling clean, shiny bike. On basic cleanups, I do the quick and dirty method - lubricate the chain, wipe the excess out, usually takes a lot of grime with it. Then there is the extended version - washing, scrubbing, degreasing, lubricating. I even swap out which lubricants I use based on where I am and what the weather is doing lately.

While it's not a very glamorous topic, basic maintenance is as important for a bike as it is for a car. Without basic care and maintenance, the nicest bike in the world will turn into a creaky, unreliable rolling wreck waiting to happen. It's not terribly difficult, and I'm happy to go into the topic further later if someone would like me to, but some rags, brushes, degreaser, chain lubricant, and a garden hose will go a long way towards making your bike work better and last longer.

Also, keep it inside. Seriously. In an enclosed space not exposed to the elements. And not near the pool chemicals. They will rust your bike.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Falling flat

Today I suffered the most inconvenient of cyclist inconveniences. I got a flat! Certainly not a catastrophe, but it was rather disheartening in the 100 degree weather to walk up to the TARDIS and lo and behold, it's not up for business. So I wheeled it over into the grass, sat down, applied a patch, and got out my little frame pump.

For some reason, I couldn't get the tire to hold air. And being as hot as it was and as dirty as my hands got (rode home in yet another rainfall the other day - my drivetrain is disgusting), I did not have the patience to take the wheel aaaaaall the way back off, pull the tire off, check the tube for holes, patch them, let the glue dry, and then sit with earth's crappiest travel-sized pump trying to get my tire to reinflate.

Long story short, I ended up walking home today 2 miles in 100 degree weather. I apparently lack patch-based kung fu.

What are your best strategies or stories related to flat tires?

Friday, June 3, 2011

Rollin' on the River

Despite my recent bicycle-related run-in with The Man, I am normally an extremely law abiding cyclist. This is all part of my own personal crusade to represent everyday cycling as I see it: normal, comfortable, safe, practical, with a certain cool factor. I typically accomplish this by cycling in a fairly relaxed fashion, while wearing my regular clothing, riding my "normal" bike, and following all the rules. So my own legal faux pas aside, I am consistently irritated (infuriated, if you prefer) by the legions of cyclists I see wildly flouting the rules of the road.

Occasionally, however, this is harder than not. While Austin is a very cyclist friendly city, let's face it, this is America. Out infrastructure accomodates drivers, pedestrians, public transport, and bikes. More or less in that order, bikes coming in dead last. This morning my previously mentioned friend Sunshine McHappypants took a morning ride from my place in North Austin to her new apartment in downtown, utilizing the mostly-awesome Shoal Creek Blvd and further south, its counterpart the Shoal Creek Trail. It's nearly a freeway for bikes - the bike lane is shared-use for parked cars, so its a full lane-width wide, mostly perfect pavement, low traffic, and is a direct artery until about 31st Street or so.

However, for chunks of it, it is a completely unpaved, rocky "hike and bike" trail, emphasis on the hike. As pretty as it is, I find the design of it a bit disappointing. You hop off the beautifully appointed bike lane onto a smooth paved trail framed in oaks, wind rustling through the trees. There is no traffic, just you and your bike headed out for the day together. Then bam! Pavement ends. If you ride a mountain bike, cool. Run over it. But I ride a city bike with no suspension, and street tires. I'm getting off and walking.

As the trail heads further south into downtown, it continues to alternate between pavement and natural surface, and past a point it just became easier to jump onto Lamar, which is a major road. I hate riding on bike lane-less major roads. That's there the cars live. But the best infrastructure in the area is painfully impractical in a transportation sense. What if I'd had panniers on? Or non-athletic shoes?

If you could change anything (or several things) about our bike infrastructure, where would you start? Where would you go with that start?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Social Cycling

Yesterday I rode almost 30 miles, all destination oriented cycling (which is a fancy way of saying I was running errands and then decided to go out in the evening). The first 14 or so miles were by myself, and the second 14 were with my biking buddy and all around awesome friend Sunshine McHappyflowers (not her real name).

On our way to our event we passed a rather large groupride, on many different kinds of bike, all out to have a nice evening together. It got me to thinking about cycling not only as a sport or a form of transportation, but a vehicle for socializing. Sunshine and I are basically our own private little groupride and we regularly go frolic together on bikes. I'm realizing that cycling is one of my favorite ways to socialize partly because I most feel like myself on my bike.

Cycling, particularly of the errand-running variety, is most often a solitary activity (at least for me). You sit in traffic, wait at lights, change lanes, and so on. All of which is very practical when getting around town, but isn't doing a lot for my "Bike high" factor. But, the joy of doing my favorite thing with other people who love it as much as I go amps the Happy factor by a thousand times.

Sharing climbing up the hills, even the not-so-awesome experiences like getting cut off by buses, and that feeling of total freedom when you get to coast down a long slope.

It's also a great way to meet new people. Via organizations such as Social Cycling ATX and the Austin Cycling Events Calendar, there is no shortage venues for letting out your inner social butterfly on a bike in Austin, TX. And there are organizations like this in just about every major city I've had the privilege to cycle in.

Do you like to social cycle?