Recently in cycling Category

"I want to do that hill again"

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Cycling Waterford 008I'm super proud of how much progress she's made in the past year or more. Not everyone who's going through cancer treatments decides it's time to start running (and for those who do, good for you!). Not only did she get through that first 5K last year, but she ran the Freihofer's again this year and has slowly been building back her base, able to do things she couldn't just a year ago. We cycle together too, and she's making strides there. When this picture was taken, we had just climbed up Flight Lock Road in Waterford, an easy climb for anyone with hundreds of miles in the legs, but a challenge for someone who has lost some of her wind. When we've gone out riding I've mostly kept her to the flats so she can go a little farther, enjoy the distance and not worry about having enough juice to get back. But this time we were only on a short jaunt, and I underestimated how much of a challenge the hill, which runs alongside a series of canal locks, would be to her. But she just kept cranking away at it until we got to the crest. Then we coasted down one lock, took a rest, coasted the rest of the way into town and stopped to admire the river at the Waterford Visitors Center.

Then, of course, she hurled. (In the rest room, happily.) We're blaming virus rather than exertion. And after the hurling, she said:

"I want to do that hill again."

Which is why she's cool.

They shouldn't be called bike paths


It's that time of year again, when it is finally warm, the body is finally working, and it's time to get some serious miles under my wheels. And because I often have to be in downtown Albany on certain afternoons and weekends, it makes sense to just take off on the bike path for the first few kilometers of my ride -- there's convenient parking, a porta-potty and a flat path out of town. Which is great in the off-season, but by this time of year, the path is simply overrun with people, and trying to bike on it in good weather is just an exercise in frustration. This is meant less as a complaint than an explanation. People often ask if I ride the bike path, and I say that I try to avoid it whenever possible. I'm not being snobbish, I'm just trying to have a good fast ride, and that's hard to come by on the bike path. Here's why:

  • The people I'm coming up behind are generally oblivious and/or unable to hear. They've got headphones or cell phones, or they're just tuning out. Calling out "on your left" is useless. Ringing my bell (yes, there's a bell on my commuter, as required by law) is similarly useless. Or worse than useless, as 90% of the population doesn't appear to know which side is its left, or thinks that I'm commanding them to make a sudden jump to the left, and directly into my path.
  • People take as much space as is available. Two people or twelve, they will spread out as wide as possible, pay no attention to whether anyone is coming from ahead or behind, and often act indignant or surprised when they need to move aside.
  • Dogs. I love dogs, and in fact most of the dogs I come across on the path are under good control. But my greatest fear on the path is hurting someone's dog, so if I come up on one that is unleashed and not under control, I've got to slow way down to make sure we're not going to have a bad interaction.
  • Kids. People say kids are unpredictable. That's crazy. I predict that every single one of them will put himself or herself right where you don't want them to be, and I'm right 90% of the time. It's not their fault -- they're kids. Most parents try to get them in line on the path, but they're slippery little devils.

There are some sections of bike path around here that are unavoidable, often because it's vastly safer than the nearby road alternative (such as much of Rosendale Road in Niskayuna). And the newly paved section running from Aqueduct to downtown Schenectady is a delight, and no longer feels dangerous and abandoned (imagine that: they made something nice and nice people started using it). But in general, once the paths are clogged up with people doing things other than biking, you'll see me on the road.

In some parts of the country there is acknowledgement that paths with a lot of use really need to separate the cyclists from the rest of the multi-users. Maybe someday that attitude will have some effect here, but in a region where money spent on something other than the automobile is generally derided as pure waste, I don't hold out a lot of hope. The $18 million that was spent on the Fuller Road debacle sure could have paved a lot of bike paths for a very long time.

Seek alternate routes

I've come to think of routine as a tremendous aid in every day life. While you want to avoid getting into a rut, some routines just make life easier. I get up at pretty much the same time every day. I eat the same breakfast almost every day. I buy the same soaps and shampoos. There's great efficiency in not having to work through those problems every time.

But there is one area of my life where I have never been able to abide routine: moving from Point A to Point B. From the earliest age at which I was getting myself from one place to another on my own, I was seeking out alternate routes. Although I lived a block and a half from my elementary school, I would sometimes go around the school's block, just to see different scenery. Going to junior high, I found as many different ways to get there as possible. In high school, I'd rarely go up the same streets two days in a row. Once I was driving back and forth to college, this hyperlocal wanderlust extended to long-distance travel; I couldn't abide always taking the Thruway between Schenectady and Syracuse, and was instead always getting onto Route 5, or 5S, or even 20 for at least part of the way to break up the terrible monotony of the highway.

This especially extends to bicycling. Some people are able to settle into a circuit or two that they do every day, and that's a good thing. They get to build power and speed and judge themselves against a known course. But if I had to do that I'd go out of my mind, or at least get off my bike. I can't even stand to do circuits; the second time around just bores me stiff. And the chance that I'd ride the same route twice in a week is slim indeed.

Once we get further into the season, I can stand a little repetition in my rides. For the sake of going farther and faster I have to use some common roads just to get out of my neighborhood, and I get okay with that. And there are definitely some favorite country roads around here that I enjoy riding a couple of times a month; whenever my daughters want to visit a school friend who lives out in the boonies, they're sure to hear me say that I bike past that house all the time.

But at this time of year, I tend to stick to the cities (at least in part for the flatness), and use my hatred of geographical routine to discover parts of the Capital District that I've never seen despite having lived here for so many decades. Just last week I ventured into a section of Albany I'd never seen before, and found new side streets that somehow I'd never been down, and some passable alternatives to Washington and Western. I've been finding hidden pieces of Troy (it seems as if there are a lot of them), and trying to ride most streets in Watervliet.

The upside is that I'm never bored. The downside is that whenever we're going somewhere by car, my family has to put up with my cries of, "But wait! There's a better way!"

A moment of St. Patrick's Day grace

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When it comes to St. Patrick's Day, I'm a bit of a humbug. Partly, that's because I don't drink and view most of the festivities as focused on amateur drunkenness and hooliganism. Partly it's because my daughter was born on that day, and without any Irish heritage, she views the holiday as a major intrusion on her ability to go out for dinner on her birthday, ever. (This is, of course, her fault. She could have been born on the 15th, but nooooo.) There's also an element of resenting the feeling that it's not a safe day to be out on a bicycle because of all the drunk drivers, when for me it's always a date by which I like to be out doing spring rides.

Saturday (when our cities observed the festivities, paradewise), I found myself with the challenge of having to pick up a daughter from her dance class, one block from ground zero of Albany Irishness, where the vomitorium had already been erected out front, right at the time things would really be getting underway. The only sensible option was to park nearby when I dropped her off and get on my bike for a ride; then when it was time to go, I could drive around the craziness, rather than having to drive through it to get to her.

So I got on my bike and enjoyed a pleasant, sunny ride along the river to Troy. When I got there, there was a duo called "Emerald Dawn" playing Irish music at one corner of Monument Square, entertaining a very small crowd. I wheeled around the block to get a cup of coffee, then came back to swell the ranks and enjoy the sun and music for a few minutes before heading back.

As the musicians played, a woman who likely lives in the public housing at the end of the square wandered up. She was carrying a framed jigsaw puzzle in the shape of a shamrock, with an Irish pastoral scene depicted, thatched hut and all. She danced a bit to the music and then offered to show everyone a real Irish picture. Everyone looked at it admiringly for her as the music played on. When the musicians announced they were almost done, she asked if they could play "Danny Boy," saying that it had been her mother's favorite. The duo obliged with a slow, sweet version, and she stood there with her eyes closed, mouthing the words, transfixed. And there, with just a song, they gifted her with a moment of grace on that chilly winter morning. It was such a beautiful thing that I even thought it might get me over my distaste for St. Patrick's Day.

And so I rode back to Albany in the sun, and even the proliferation of drunken hooligans that were already making travel less than pleasant wasn't enough to spoil the day.

  • First Ride 2013 DSC_1079.jpgGetting back on a nice, sleek road bike after months and months of riding a laden-down, upright commuter festooned with mirrors, bells, lights and cargo bags is like getting into a race car after months of driving a minivan.
  • My commuter shoes clip in way, way easier than my road shoes. Not sure why that is.
  • I get a swig of salt and sand with every drink of water. Free!
  • My new Garmin vest is sweet, and timely, because I'm not sure wearing a Postal vest is considered correct any more.
  • Almost-spring sun and 50 degrees feels really, really good.
  • That's not surprisingly good form, you idiot. It's a tailwind. As you'll find out when you turn around.

Irene gave my bike a filthy.

Irene gave my bike a filthy (Photo credit: carljohnson)

Too many people seem to think that cycling, like veganism, should be an annoying pseudoreligion, with right and wrong ways to do it, a feeling of moral superiority, and a need to proselytize. Bike commuters, perhaps the smallest transportation minority in this country outside of people who dogsled to work, are among the worst offenders. Well, I'm a bike commuter, and I'm here to tell you there is no right way, it doesn't make me a better person, and I frankly don't care whether anyone else does it. It makes no difference to me whether you turn a pedal before and after your daily wage-slavery, but I will share a few observations from a year of biking to work.

  • The bus is cheaper. Much. Bus fare: $1.50, and I can carry my coffee in with me. The bike sets me back as soon as I have to buy that first cup of coffee in the morning. There's also the matter of commuting shoes (I am a pedal snob, and need to be clipped in with the ironically named "clipless" pedals), rainpants, winter gloves, and an array of lights designed to confuse motorists enough to notice that I exist. However, my bus is being cancelled, and the nearest one is a 10-minute walk away, so this economic point is moot.
  • It is a most unsatisfying ride. In my case, it's under four miles each way, barely worth the time it takes to prepare. The first half is down, there's a hump over the Dunn Bridge in the middle, and then a steep climb, all on a heavy bike with a lot of gear I have to carry back and forth. The Dunn has the charm of a Soviet office block and detracts from what should be a lovely view of the Hudson. In the dead of winter I start by freezing and end up in a steam bath of my own making. There are logistics, with packing of lunch, making sure I have phones, carrying all I may need and nothing I don't. After every ride there are wipes and birdbaths and much changing of clothes.Any road ride is more enjoyable.
  • Staying warm is not the problem. I have a neck gaiter, a helmet liner and good long-fingered gloves, and wear a layer less than if I were going to take a walk in the same temperature. Staying dry is more of an issue, and generally if you wear rainproof gear, it rains inside as much as outside.I now have rainpants that cost more than any dress pants I have ever owned.
  • I used to work in a building full of athletes, and getting on the elevator while carrying a helmet and perhaps in bike-friendly clothes (and we're not even talking spandex shorts) did not raise a lot of eyebrows. I no longer work in a building full of athletes, and people go out of their way not to share the elevator with me, even on days when I'm sure I do not offend.
  • Rush-hour drivers are in too much of a hurry to fuck with you. So while they won't give you an extra inch to avoid horrible potholes or sunken grates, they're also not inclined to suddenly lay on their horns, lean out their windows and scream, or throw things out their windows. Cyclists are the battered spouses of transportation, and so we interpret a failure to try to kill us as some kind of love.
  • Riding somewhere for lunch is a tremendous delight. Being able to get to a place that's not even a mile away but just too far to walk during lunchtime makes an enormous difference in my day, especially if I get to sit outside and enjoy my lunch with my wheels.  Thanks to CDTA's bike rack map, I can always find out if there's a place to lock my bike, too.

I am not a better human being because of this. Many days, I ride my bike across the river just to get into my SUV and drive right back over to pick up my daughter from dance class. I know this makes Al Gore cry, and I'm okay with that. I am, however, a happier human being, even after a miserable hot or rainy ride, because I spent an hour riding my bike that otherwise would have just been more time spent in my car. And an hour riding a bike is better than just about anything else.

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Rosebud, the bicycle

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Ross Pro Gran Tour.jpgCharles Foster Kane couldn't reclaim his Rosebud. Until a couple of weeks ago, I couldn't have told you my Rosebud's name. I remember every bicycle I ever had . . . except for my first serious 10-speed, which somehow completely slipped my mind. I remember my very first bicycle, a red Columbia that cost $48 plus tax at Duane's Toyland when I was in fourth grade, and which a local miscreant decided would be fun to steal from our back porch and smash into pieces in the schoolyard. On a school day. When he was supposed to have been in school.  (By the way, still waiting for the promised restitution, you shit-heel.)

It was some time before we scared up the money for a replacement, which was a wildly cool orange Columbia with built-in headlights that looked like a streamlined gas tank, cool chromed fenders and a rear rack. Like its pummeled predecessor, it was a single speed with a coaster brake. By then other kids in the neighborhood were getting coveted "English bikes," internally geared three-speeds with thumb-lever shifters and handbrakes that occasionally I'd get the treat of riding. My family wasn't in a position to upgrade, so it was several years of whining before I was able to finally convince my parents that I was actually facing complete ostracization because of my lack of a ten-speed, which by the time I was 14 had become the gold standard of personal transportation. Two rings in front, five gears in the back, shift levers on the down tube or the handlebar stem; we all had to have one. Once the ten-speed took over the culture, the only other bike cool enough to hang was the Schwinn Sting-Ray. My first one was a very cheap bike called an Iverson, which I believe was a Kmart special. Cheap, cheap, cheap, and its terrible ride didn't quell my whining for long. I think it was only a couple of years before I was able to convince my parents that I needed a better bike, and I can only imagine the sales job I must have done, because if it had both wheels it sure would have been hard to convince my parents that it wasn't good enough

But I prevailed, and I got a new bike. From a bike store (Plane Boys), not a toy store. And it was on this bike, with its gum-walled 27" tires, its cheap Suntour derailleur, Dia-Compe center-pull brakes and that outrageously angled fork, that I learned everything I know about bikes. I learned to really ride, to dismantle axles and replace ball bearings, and how to take a tuning fork to a rim to true it. I rode it for three or four years, all over the place, nearly every day. I rode it into the hills of Glenville, through the streets of Schenectady, out into the horse pasture that used to be Clifton Park, and did it all in sneakers and cut-offs (and in fact my range was quite limited by wet feet and wedgies). This bike took me everywhere and taught me an awful lot. Nearly every meaningful conversation I had with my friends, those kinds of friends you only have when you're 15, I had while describing a slow circle around an intersection under a street light, atop my trusty bicycle.

I took my faithful machine to college with me, where it was stolen within the first couple of weeks. Despite all the memories and the trauma, somehow I have not, for years, been able to recall the name of the bike. I can remember every other bike I've ever owned, where I was when I heard songs that I absolutely hate, where my pet turtles are buried . . . but not for my life could I remember the name of that bike.

And then, thanks to the magical Internet,  it comes rushing back to me. Some vintage bike blog mentioned the brand, which was Ross, and the light went off, and with a couple of clicks, there it was. The very bike. Absolutely in every way precisely the same bike. The Ross Professional Gran Tour. And honestly, seeing that picture, I was flooded with memories, touched in a way I could never have expected. Strong memories of sitting on the front sidewalk, my tiny Clear Creek Bike Book propped open with a rock, learning how to tear down a bottom bracket (with a chipped screwdriver and another rock as my available tools), of packing lunch in a knapsack and riding up into the Glenville hills, of competing with the other guys to see who could get across the village the fastest, or, sometimes, the slowest.

So there it is. My Rosebud. My Rossbud.
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The Flat State

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I take back everything I may have said about cycling in Delaware. For those who don't know, I now spend a significant amount of time in The First State, so named because it was the first state to get a commemorative quarter back when that was the big thing. The fact that there are almost no paths, that any route out of Wilmington is through the kind of neighborhood that doesn't feel welcoming to spandexed speedsters, and the generally hellaciously high traffic levels, combined with my inability to find more than one or two rides even mapped on MapMyRide, made me despair of finding a decent ride around here without driving for miles and miles to a decent starting point. But I ventured down to New Castle, pretty much like Colonial Williamsburg except people live there, and picked a couple of rides starting at its Battery Park. Yesterday I tried The Coastal Evacuation Route, which gave me no assurance that it would ever, in event of a coastal disaster, lead me to any kind of higher ground, but it did take me through refineries and industrial areas down to Delaware City. The shoulders on these roads are not to be believed -- routinely 8 feet wide, in perfect condition (except for strewn glass), and generally used only for turning. When they are used for turning, signs require drivers to yield to bicycles. Who's the bike-friendly state now? Well, I did get a flat tire, but I didn't let it stop me, and I took on another 14k after that to stick with my plan.

Tonight I tried another run out of Battery Park, around the suburbs of Christiana and so forth, and it was more of the same. Only faster -- MUCH faster. I posted my highest average speed ever in the history of ever, 31.9 kph, over 51k -- and in reality I was doing more like 32.5 until I hit some sloggy traffic at the end. It was astonishing, and I wasn't even trying that hard. The combination of flat, smooth and straight just delivered an amazing boost to my speed.

And then after that, of course, I sought out the Performance Bike store and picked up some new jerseys (well, actually that's across the bridge) and a proper raincoat, justifying it all with the commuting I say I would be doing, if I were ever actually in Albany to do it.

Wet madness

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In order to commute by bike, I think you need to be at least a little bit mad. With all that previous investment -- new shoes, new cleats, new respectable-looking commuting shorts, new rack, new panniers -- with all that, I still didn't have quite enough in the game to really force the issue, to push myself over the economic brink at which I would have to say that I had spent too much NOT to ride to work every time I could. It would take a spectacular gesture, a single stupidly expensive piece of equipment to send me over the edge. And it would have to be something that would answer my final objections, which were that the laptop was slopping around in the panniers I had and was likely to get wet, or banged up, or both.

Enter Arkel's laptop briefcase pannier. Insanely expensive. Why? Because it's worth it. I knew I didn't want to stand around in the rain working the bungees and buckles of the other pannier; Arkel has a single bungee, and a single levered locking system. My old bag would slop about and wouldn't let me stand up on the pedals without risking catching the bag in the pedals; the Arkel simply doesn't move. Worried about the laptop bouncing around? It goes in a sleeve and hangs from the top of the bag, instead of resting on the bottom. Worried about rain? I can't imagine how this fabric would soak through (they give you a sample with your bag and dare you to rip it), but for a reasonable-ish additional fee, they give you a fantastic, bright yellow reflectorized rain cover that wraps nearly around the entire bag. It's stiff, sturdy, as big as you need it to be, it straps down tight and when it's off the bike, it looks like a briefcase. And at the price of  $235 with the rain cover, pricey enough that now I have to ride, in order to justify the 78 days of riding the bus that it cost. (Oops.)

So when the forecast this morning said it would be raining in the morning and raining perhaps a little harder on the ride home, I dug out rainpants I haven't used in years, the wrong raincoat (meant for sport riding, not commuting, and not at all waterproof in a drenching rain), popped on my new little Cat Eye loop lights, and set off. Luckily I know just about every crack in the road, because there was a LOT of rain and the potholes were inundated. Got there, locked up under the portico of the Capitol and walked up to my office. Happily, I had a change of shirt there, because the one I wore was soaked. Coming home, I got even wetter. Seriously wet. Wetter than I've ever been, and that includes being submerged. But at least I'd ridden a few pathetic miles more than I would have otherwise.

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I used to bike commute to a great workplace that had secure bike lockup, a locker room and showers, and a place to store my spare clothes (on hangers!) I may have been a little spoiled. But when I went back to work downtown I committed that once I was settled in and had the right to be a little eccentric, I'd get back to bike commuting. But this time it ain't so easy, and not just because they've made a long detour off the bridge that adds a mile or so, which is no big deal and actually welcome.

No, it's a pain because:

  • I don't have a secure, under-cover lockup. There's a cheesy plastic lumber bike rack (held to the building with a rusty chain). There are similar racks that ARE under roofs at the Capitol, so if I know it's going to rain I can park my bike there in the dry. And while I have access to the Plaza bike lockup, it's not only a bit of a walk from my building, there's no way you can legally ride your bike to the bike lockup. It's insane, but you have to get onto the Plaza, ride down a garage ramp, then WALK your bike through the concourse to the lockup. 
  • I have to carry my laptop. Partly because I need to take it with me when I'm traveling, and partly because there's no place to lock it in my office. And bike commuting with a laptop is a pain. It's too hot to carry something that heavy on my back, and my pannier isn't really good enough to keep a laptop safe, so I just plunked down an insane amount for a laptop-specific pannier that should be able to handle anything, and has a rain cover to boot.
  • I can't stand to ride without clipless pedals. (You know, the kind that your shoes clip into. They're called clipless. Just accept it.) So I had to find some mountain bike shoes that would work with my pedals and yet let me walk through my building like a normal person. Found some great Pearl Izumis that really fit the bill, too.
  • It's SLOW. Going from my Roubaix back to my upright Bianchi Strada is like going from a sportscar to a tractor trailer. So I have to accept slowness.
However, with all this investment, I get an hour a day in that I wasn't getting in otherwise. All worth it.

By the way, I ran the numbers, and while riding my bike, even with all this new gear, is cheaper than driving (if I even could -- I don't have parking), the bus is still cheaper than the bike. And it lets me carry my coffee in.

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