Practical Advice for Transportation Cycling

Sometimes, all that matters is getting from Point A to Point B as cheaply, safely and efficiently as possible. You don't need a fast bike, you don't need a pretty bike, and most of all you don't need an expensive bike, you just need one that works.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Books on Bikes

Just as man cannot live on bread alone, those interested in reading about bikes shouldn't try to get by on Blogs alone. Fortunately for me, one of my favorite bike bloggers, Bike Snob NYC, recently published his third book, "Bike Snob Abroad."

In this new book, as in his previous two, the Snob talks about his own history with cycling, from when he was a BMX riding punk wannabe living in Far Rockaway to his current life as cargo-bike riding family man living Brooklyn. This time, though, he contrasts his bike-related experiences in NYC with the joys of riding in other parts of the world, most notably in Amsterdam and London. It's an interesting look at how other places relate differently to transportation cycling and how, if everything goes well, the US cycling landscape could look a few decades from now.

It's also worth noting, if you read his blog, that in his books Bike Snob (aka Eben Weiss) is a bit less abrasive and a bit more thoughtful than in his daily posts. Not surprising, considering the differences in the two mediums (media? medii? medians?), but interesting nonetheless.

In addition to the Bike Snob books, another recent cycling-oriented text I've enjoyed, and mentioned before is Grant Petersen's "Just Ride," which offers some practical advice along with anecdotes and insight. As I've said before, I find myself agreeing with Petersen most of the time, but every now and then it seems he gets a bit caught up in the "unracer" thing of his, and seems to lose sight of the fact that for a lot of folks, trying to go fast on a bike is an end in itself, and a lot of fun. On the other hand, his livelihood depends on selling bikes targeted at the "unracing" crowd, and honestly he makes a lot of sense (and if I had the money, I'd buy one of his bikes myself over some equally-priced but far-less-comfy carbon race machine, so there is that).

Of course, people have been writing about bicycles since long before the 2010s, and there are a couple of great reads out there dating back to the 1800s and early 1900s when bikes were starting to move from a novelty to a common form of transport and recreation. Some of these works are hard to find in print, but readily available for free in eBook format.

Thomas Stevens' "Around the World on a Bicycle" is a fascinating read, not only for it's chronicle of his adventures on his high-wheeled chrome Columbia, but for its account of an America much changed from a century ago. Stevens wheeled his way from San Francisco eastward, pedaling (or often walking, since roads were rough to nonexistent, and the fat-tired mountain bike that could have handled the rocks and mud were still a century away) through the wild west to the Atlantic, through Europe and the Middle East, through many misadventures in China and finally into what he described as the peaceful and civilized Japan of the late-19th Century.

For a shorter and more humorous tale, Jerome K. Jerome's "Three Men on the Bummel" is still in print (and often sold in a single volume with his classic "Three Men in a Boat"). One of the great joys of Jerome's work is how fresh and relevant it still seems to the modern reader, and the descriptions of the often-ridiculous "anatomic" saddle designs, and the compulsive types who spend more time tinkering with their machines than actually riding them will resonate with modern cyclists as well. Part of the fun of this book is that, although the bicycles are an important part of the journey, the real story is of three lifelong friends on a road trip together, pulling pranks, making poor decisions and harassing each other as much as the locals along the way.

It's almost easier to find enjoyable stories about bike rides from a hundred years ago than it is to find them now. Authors such as H.G. Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle incorporated travel by bicycle into many of their stories, since it was a common enough way to get around at the time. A lot of the modern bike-related books seem to be focused on advocacy, advice or on the machines themselves, rather than the joys and adventures possible when off on a bike ride. I'm hoping, though, that as bikes become regarded as more normal and vacations by bicycle touring are becoming a bigger and bigger item, we'll see some modern equivalents of these two-wheeled travelogues.

Any of you readers have favorite bike-related books to share in the comments?

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Bag in a Basket

Now that the weather is (finally) warming up, messenger bags and backpacks are going to start feeling a bit warm for commuting, and in some cases leave their sweaty outline behind on your favorite bike-to-work shirt.

The way around this, of course, is to make the bike do the carrying, by using bags and racks. But what if you don't want to leave stuff hanging off your bicycle while you're indoors?

The simplest solution is to put a basket on your bike, and find a bag that fits it. There are some bags commercially made for such purposes, but usually any small messenger, duffel, briefcase or backpack will do fine. The photo shows my own setup for a day of substitute teaching: a front basket with an iPad-sized messenger bag to hold a book, my tablet and my lunch.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Getting Noticed

Note: I've had both internet access issues and an exceptionally busy couple weeks in my personal life, so posting has gotten a bit sporadic of late. Hopefully this week will see both of those things resolved, but sometimes there are more important things than blogging, so don't be sad if I miss a day here and there, I still love you just as much. 

There are a lot of differing opinions within the transportation cycling community (including whether the fact that we all ride our bikes to get places means we're a "community," after all, you don't talk about the "pedestrian community" or the "light-rail community" or at least nobody I know does), but pretty much everyone can agree that being hit by cars kind of sucks.

It's become something of a cliche that no matter what bad behavior he or she is indulging in, a driver who hits a cyclist will always exclaim "I didn't see him!" or "she just came out of nowhere!" This is usually some version of the truth, if the driver had seen the cyclist, he or she probably wouldn't have it them, but "not seeing" is often a result of "not paying attention."  There isn't much we can do about distracted drivers, but we can stack the odds in our favor by making ourselves easier to notice.

This doesn't necessarily mean dressing head-to-toe in neon-colored reflective gear,and festooning your ride with a dozen flashing lights (although if that's the way you want to go, who am I to say you're wrong) but using head-and-taillights even when it's not fully dark, and putting a bit of thought into your clothing choices in conditions with poorer visibility certainly can't hurt.

I normally just ride around in my street clothes, for example, with little regard for whether they contrast with the background. However, I usually have a hi-viz vest, of the type used by construction workers, stashed in my saddlebag, and when it gets rainy or foggy, I'll wear it or lash it to my saddlebag. I also look for raingear in bright colors, again, to make myself more noticeable. If I know I'll be out and about around dusk I'll often opt for a lighter colored shirt, although I rely more on my lights and reflectors to make myself stand out.

Lighting is important, of course, and I favor a flashing red taillight, or possibly a combination of one flashing and one steady taillight. I have a front headlight that's bright enough to navigate by, and which is visible from quite a long way off.

One more thing that affects your visibility is your road position. Riding on the sidewalk makes you invisible, riding against traffic makes your speed and position harder to judge, and riding too close to parked cars makes you less noticeable. Ideally you like to be far enough into the lane that you have a bit of empty asphalt around you (conditions and traffic permitting, of course) so you're not blending in with all the roadside clutter. By going from an "object on the side of the road" to an "object IN the road" you're forcing drivers to pay attention to you.

Sometimes this will mean pulling out all the way into the lane and making drivers wait until the roadway widens enough for them to pass safely, which can be a bit nerve-wracking at first, and can annoy the less considerate types of motorists, but I say if a driver is annoyed with you because you're in their way, that means that they KNOW YOU'RE THERE!" After all, they don't WANT to hit you, so if they see you, drivers will usually give you the space you need.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Technical Difficulties

I have been having problems with internet access and a few other issues, I should be back on a regular posting schedule by Friday

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Inexpensive Rain Gear: Driducks by Frog Toggs

Now that spring is here, and frequent rain (and occasional snow) with it, I've been experimenting a bit with relatively low-budget rain gear. I recently started using an inexpensive rain cape from Campmor on local rides with some success, but wanted to look at some other options as well. The rain cape works well on a bicycle with full fenders, and provides decent airflow to keep you cool on warm, wet days. However, it's pretty useless on a bike with no fenders (spray will come right up underneath) and because of its cut is less than idea off the bike (still better than nothing!). 

My daughter and I had an overnight trip along the Delaware River planned for this past weekend, and the forecast called for rain and snow on the day of our return trip. My daughter's bike doesn't have fenders, and because the weather was supposed to get chilly, a full rainsuit seemed like a better option than just a poncho. 

I've tried inexpensive rain gear before, and found that the usual thin PVC stuff traps a volume of sweat about equal to the volume of rain it keeps out. In addition, it's very fragile and tends to tear with little provocation. There are cheap nylon rainsuits available at a lot of department stores as well, but they tend to come in very limited size options, which meant finding gear that would fit both my 5'1" daughter and my 6'3" self was tricky. 

Our local sporting goods store carries a pretty good range of wet-weather gear, from cheap plastic ponchos up to full waterproof-breathable stuff costing hundreds of dollars. When told what we were looking for, the salesguy (who is an occasional bike commuter) recommended the  Driducks UltraLite rain suit by Frog Toggs. 


Shown here on our model, who also had a cold face due to her inability to grow a beard like dad's.
The Driducks suit material is not a woven cloth, but rather a two-layer synthetic fused together rather than stitched. It's got kind of a rubbery outer surface with a "fuzzy" interior. It has no pockets and the waistband is a simple elastic, it's a pretty no-frills suit.
They worked well overall, and after a day of use in sleet and snow I can say four good things and three bad things about them.

The Good 
  • Price: At around $20 a set, they cost less than the cheap rain suits at Target
  • Breathability: They did a good job of moving moisture from sweat away from our bodies while we were moving at a comfortable "touring" pace. I did manage to soak my shirt while going at a hard level of exertion, but I was going all-out for a bit (when the weather got really bad, I left the kid in a cafe and rode the last 17 miles to pick up our car by myself), and I was wearing an insulating mid-layer, which trapped some moisture. I still didn't feel as clammy as when using a PVC layer though. 
  • Packability: These things are superlight and take up less room in your bag than your lunch. They'd fit in a large seat pack or just about any messenger bag or pannier ever made. 
  • Options: They come in a good range of sizes (and are cut fairly baggy) and a few color choices
The Bad 
  • All of the color choices are pretty dull and muted. While this is great for hunting and fishing, for cycling, you want to be more visible to drivers. We compensated by putting inexpensive road-safety vests on over top, as seen in the picture (I don't wear one when normally cycling, but in rainy conditions, when visibility is impaired, I usually grab a hi-viz vest or sash)
  • The material is light and inexpensive, and is therefore not all that durable. While it holds up much better than those thin PVC suits and "emergency ponchos," it is nothing like a real cloth rain suit. I'm guessing that, barring crashes or thorn bushes, you can make these things last a year of commuting, but I wouldn't count on more (you may wear through the seat of the pants more quickly than that if you use them a lot). 
  • The baggy cut of the legs and lack of any sort of closure at the cuff means it's easy to catch the bottom of the pants in your chain. You'll need to tuck the right leg into something or tie it down with a strap of some sort. 
Overall, the good outweighs the bad, and if you're looking for decent rainwear for occasional use, I haven't seen better for the price. 

Monday, March 25, 2013

Overnighting in the Early Spring

My daughter and I just returned from a spring-break overnight trip. We took off Sunday and rode up the Delaware River, spent the night in Pennsylvania at a Bed and Breakfast, and rode back to where we started today.
Along the way we hit a cold, wet snowstorm, which was a bit more than my 12-year-old was ready for, so I eventually ended up parking her in a cafe with a video game and some cash, and rode the last 17 miles solo, got out car and returned to pick her up. We're now home and warming up, and I have some new thoughts for this week on raingear, handlebars, bike setup and the changeability of the weather at this time of year, but for now, it's time for hot tea and a nap!