Saturday, December 29, 2007

Cycling Congressman

No, I'm not dead. December is our busiest month and my lightest cycling month of the year. It's also a bit weak on blogging not that the world mourns. I did notice that this weekend's Wall Street Journal has an article about Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon congressman who bicycles everywhere. It's not a common choice among U.S. Representatives. Apparently, the Journal is going to be set free one day soon but for the moment I have printed the article into a PDF file and you can read it here.

Have a Happy New Year!

Sunday, November 04, 2007


I haven't been blogging much in recent weeks, but thought this was notable. There will be a ribbon cutting for the new Midtown Greenway bridge over Hiawatha on Thursday November 8 from 4 to 6PM. I expect there'll be the usual huge ribbons, oversized scissors and speeches. It's a good moment for the Greenway Coalition and the politicians who supported and funded this. The bridge is really nice.

I can say this from personal experience, as on the way home from church this morning (Karla plays two services, I just sing in the first one and then ride my bicycle home, having taken it on the car to church) Henry and I rode up Bryant and onto the Midtown Greenway. There were signs up along the path about the Thursday grand opening. When we got to the end of the Greenway where it turns right onto the sidewalk to go across Hiawatha you could see the end of the bridge ramp approach with huge TRAIL CLOSED signs. However, there was some guy who'd overtaken us a couple of minutes before riding up there. It didn't look that closed. Signs are for motorists and other losers, let's go take a look. So, Henry and I rode between the two TRAIL CLOSED signs and up the west approach.

It looks really nice, all landscaped now with streetlights in place. It curves up to the big support pole that holds the whole bridge up. There are a couple of benches facing towards this pole, which seems a weird thing to sit and look at. Then, over Hiawatha, across the light rail tracks and swoop back down to the trail on the east side of the street. Other cyclists there were coming up the trail and dutifully queuing up to cross on the crosswalk. I thought about calling out to them and suggesting that they use the bridge, but figured I'd leave that up them, they'll know soon enough.

This is really nice. No more riding on the sidewalk, no more crossing on a crosswalk, just up and over all that traffic. We rode on eastwards to the end, where you can see how wonderful the Short Line bridge would be to cross the Mississippi and connect into Saint Paul, but had to get off and move over to the Lake/Marshall bridge.

Maybe you can't get across during the week if there's lots of construction guys around finishing up work, but on a late Sunday morning there was no problem, and a week from now it will be officially open.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Education of a Cyclist

I was appointed to the Saint Paul Bicycle Advisory Board last February. A few months in, I can see the frustrations that others have experienced in this sort of capacity. The BAB is a Mayor-appointed committee with members from each of Saint Paul's seven Wards (I'm Ward 5) and a couple of at-large members. There are also representatives from Parks and Recreation, the Police and Public Works. We are to provide public input to the city on bicycle aspects of Saint Paul transportation. Part of the frustration comes from having no budget and no staff and all the power and influence that implies, so nearly all the work we do is volunteer out of our time (a city employee does keep minutes, a Parks and Rec guy works up the agendas). We meet every month and discuss things; how about a bike path on this street? Can we get the path along Shepherd Road repaved, it sucks? Most of these run into a welter of objections, no money, other projects, road widths, neighbour objections, other agencies have jurisdiction, so pipe-dreamy as to be out of the question, so on a month to month basis it's hard to feel like we're accomplishing much.

Others have felt this as well, have served on the BAB for a time then left in frustration or disgust to work other avenues. On the other hand, some things have got done. There are bike lanes painted on Como Ave. now, Share The Road signs have sprung up, there have been a couple of public meetings to solicit bicycle input and the recent heads of the BAB worked up the Bicycle portion of the Saint Paul Transportation plan. Perhaps it's the speed that things move that seems so slow, it's like walking off the end of one of those airport moving sidewalks where you suddenly slow down, like the Star Wars leap to light speed in reverse. You ask for something simple like a resurfacing of an existing bike path that is in bad enough shape that cyclists are returning to the adjacent highway and are met with all the problems, Scenic River Committee plans, DNR involvement, path not up to current design standards, DOT study of additional access points to road and how that will affect the path, some on county land, blah blah blah. All we really want is a six foot-wide path resurfaced, it'll be another 40% more expensive next year, but there's this flak cloud of objections. Perhaps someone sympathetic will get killed and that'll hasten things along, in the meantime the BAB seems like a long and tedious slog in a policital milieu in which I'm not used to operating.

Bike lanes or no bike lanes, I think more people are going to be riding in any case, led along by higher fuel costs and the rising popularity of city bikes, which have been big at last week's Interbike (Quality Bicycle Products just introduced their Civia line which, from the photos currently on the site, apparently include a generator hub but no lights, and I've long been a fan of the Breezer Uptown 8 where they had the guts to spec the Nexus Redband 8-speed Premium hub instead of the heavier Nexus 8 and do include lights along with the generator hub). If it's going to take until 2014 for the studies to be complete before we can commence the planning for the design criteria prior to the RFP to repave this stinking bicycle path then there must be something I can do in the meantime.

So I looked into the League of American Bicyclists League Certified Instructor (LCI) program. There are currently just three active LCIs in Minnesota and the profile of the LAB is so low you could slip it under the door. Not only that, it seems to have been through some turmoil. From what I gather, the LCI program arose from the Effective Cycling work of John Forrester. He's an opinionated guy and holds that cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles. Broadly speaking, I agree with this, but in the ways of so many cranky cyclists and the Roman Catholic Church, broadly agreeing isn't quite good enough, and there was some schism in the LAB. I haven't bothered to discern all the fault lines here, but there is a whole website called LAB Reform which goes on about Board actions, copies emails and quotes bylaws. I've been active in churches and charter schools in the past and recognize precisely the sort of self-righteous outrage in this site. When people start quoting bylaws then things have really fallen apart. (Not only have I seen this in churches and schools, but the bicycle-oriented Thunderhead Alliance just chopped their executive director as well, undoubtedly after the requisite internal bitterness) (but not before she got top credit on their new 2007 Benchmarking Report "Bicycling and Walking in the U.S." which I printed out but haven't had time to study yet). The League is apparently trying to restore rigour to the LCI program after a period of what some felt was too simple a qualification (this is hearsay, I don't personally know how the program changed).

The Iowa Bicycle Coalition led by Mark Wyatt wanted to increase bicycle education in Iowa and decided to train some LCIs. This meant having candidates do the Road 1 course, the basic LAB cycling course for adults, and then subsequently do the LCI training which is basically learning how to teach Road 1 and a couple of other classes for Commuters and Kids. I follow the IBC site and noticed the announcement of these classes so pestered Mark long enough and cited my Iowa connections enough that he let me in. Road 1 was in late August. The LCI course was September 21/22/23.

This was actually pretty good. The League's been around since 1880 (as the League of American Wheelmen with a really cool LAW logo rather than the gender-neutral League of American Bicyclists with LAB which sounds like a dopey dog). The LCI course has evolved out of the course they actually called Effective Cycling, which is now a registered trademark of John Forrester.

Some of the materials need updating:

Perform the ABC Quick Cheque
Before riding, perform the ABC Quick Check. Here our rider sights down the chain line. Yep, looks good!

Watch traffic behind you
A fundamental skill is to be able to check traffic behind you while riding in a straight line. This also helps communicate with motorists. What do you think this rider is communicating?

Keep a firm grip on the bars
Keep a firm grip on the handlebars! Yes, there were some women in the course as well.

[OK, OK, these aren't actually LAB materials. They're from the 1901 Fancy Cycling: Trick Riding for Amateurs by Isabel Marks. And you thought spinning the front wheel on your fixie was cool!]

They have been updating some of it and we were on the cutting edge. When we took the Road 1 course in August (14 or 15 of us versus the 11 in the LCI course) we were shown the old LAB movie. This was from probably 1988 or so and featured a smarmy actor I've never heard of ("Joe Blow, Hollywood star") and such a procession of old bicycles, cars and helmets that it was hard to pay attention to the message (Hey, look, a Pinto!) (I had one of those helmets!) (Jesus, remember those shoes?). The new movie instead has an actress presumably taking an older male friend on a bike ride. This poor actress is stuck with the thankless task of droning out all the Important Points in a way that no real humans ever speak to each other ("But Bob, you should wear a helmet whenever you ride and it should be level on your head with the straps properly positioned and snug around your chin" instead of what we'd really say, something like "Hey idiot, where's your helmet?"). This guy rides so little he has to clear a levee of flotsam out of the way to get his bike out but she wreaks her revenge by apparently taking him on some 80-mile multi-hour ride, whining all the way ("But Bob, you should signal your right turn by holding your left arm out bent up 90 degrees at the elbow although in some states it is now legal to signal by pointing right with the right arm so you should check your state laws and local ordinances"). Oh the whole, the new movie is a lot better than the old one but after a while I'd want to extend my left arm out, knock her over and make a run for it.

The LCI training ran 3-8 on Friday, 8-9 on Saturday (and I don't mean 1 hour) and 8-6 on Sunday. Some of it was classroom work, discussing learning styles and how to address them, various exercises. Much of Saturday morning was each of us doing a 10-minute presentation on an assigned topic. My buddy Paul from Cedar Rapids (who had independently arrived at the idea of doing this class) got the thankless task of explaining gearing and derailleur adjustments but my Atlantis saved the day due to the wondrous SKS/ESGE/Pletscher two-legged kickstand which, due to some quirk of geometry on that bike, clears the crank arms completely. Paul put the bike up on the table and demonstrated this stuff right in front of us, the huge bike towering over the class as he showed the derailleurs shifting and adjusted my cables out of whack ("This is what it sounds like when the derailleur is badly adjusted" he'd say, twiddling away at my barrel adjuster). Others had to do their units on lane positioning, safety statistics, brake adjustment and operation, helmet fit and changing a flat tire. Mine was clothing and accessories, which was funny because I hadn't really packed thoughtfully ahead of time so brought most everything cycling-related at the last minute. I showed off my Bell Metro helmet with its mirror, gloves, the always-impressive Rainlegs Assless Bike Chaps, SPD shoes, legendary Jong Won JSB-500 water bottle, Carradice Nelson Longflap with Nitto Quick Release, panniers, Ortlieb front bag, wool jerseys, etc. My presentation was a modest hit.

That afternoon we went out to work out the outdoor parking lot units. There are some basic skills the LAB teaches; a Quick Turn (especially useful when someone tries to Right Hook you and you use it to turn inside them, and taught as countersteering in the Motorcycle Safety Foundation classes), the Panic Stop (emphasizing the front brake and shifting your weight backwards to keep from going over the bars and helping the rear wheel to maintain traction) and the Rock Dodge (that quick wheel twitch you do to miss a rock without actually changing the overall direction of the bike). To experienced cyclists, these seem pretty straightforward, but to a lot of people, it's new ground. The Road 1 course has you set up these obstacles in a parking lot using tennis balls cut in two and running people through them. Here are some of the parking lot scenes from Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning.

Carl Voss on his bicycle
Carl returns to the start of one of the exercises. It was getting late and we actually managed to talk a pizza shop into delivering $80 worth of pizza to a parking lot at the corner of Third and Locust.

Zac and Angela listening to instructions
Zac's a Transportation Planner, Angela is an ex-state-trooper, Legislative Ombudsman and Des Moines's Bike to Work Program Director.

Paul on his Bike Friday
These folding bikes can look a bit daft but Paul rode his 140 miles over from Cedar Rapids.

Donnie and Zac going slow
Sunday morning we did the parking lot exercises for the Kids classes. Here Donnie and Zac compete in the always-popular slow race. You don't do this in Road 1.

Tina ready, Lori on deck
Lori and Tina line up for the Quick Turn exercise. Tina didn't learn to ride a bicycle until she was 30.

Bike Friday in slow riding contest
Dan Ring doing well slow-riding on his Bike Friday. Iowa Bicycle Coaltion head Mark Wyatt is in the background.

Public Poop bags in downtown
The long time frames in the Saint Paul BAB look horrendous when viewed at the start, but we left Des Moines in 1994 to take a job in Minneapolis and they were talking then about the renovation of the East Side of downtown to be done in the unimaginably distant 2008 or something, and, well, here we are, the East Village (as they call it) is hopping, they have way more bicycle parking than, say, the Saint Paul Farmers Market (a shining symbol of the BAB's power!) and publicly-provided dog poop bags! No shit!

We'd each do our presentation, whether inside or out in the parking lot, then John Rider, the instructor, would ask us what we thought went well and what didn't, and the other LCI students would critique the presentation. We were getting to know each other pretty well; several of the Iowans already know each other, and we'd all done Road 1 in a day in August and were now in the midst of three days of the LCI class. This exercise was actually pretty useful, and made us think about and rapidly improve the way we talked, where we stood, the instructions we gave. It was particularly fun Sunday morning when we were instructed to act like 7th graders and responded with a welter of "Donnie farted!" and bicycle insults. Wait--bicycle insults sounds like 30-year-olds.

The last thing Saturday night was the night gear test, where we all rode to a dark path by the river and rode up and down the trail one at a time both with and without headlights shining on us to see how our reflectors and lights looked. This was illuminating har har. Sunday afternoon we did the road test, where in two groups we went out and did a 7 mile ride, alternately leading the group through a variety of traffic obstacles. It was surprisingly hot and very windy out.

There was a debriefing with John. Carl went first; he lived closest by, but a friend's 23-year-old daughter had been killed in a car crash and visitation was at six. Paul and I went next, as we were driving the furthest (Paul came to Saint Paul overnight, then took his Bike Friday on Amtrak the next morning to Washington DC and Cape Cod to visit a couple of his sisters). I noted to John that the League and the LCI program seemed a bit in transition and that they should get their act together. I pointed out a number of nagging errors in the text and a couple of stupid and even hilarious typos. Fundamentally, the set program of instruction, the base skills, the overall message was really good, but it is quickly undermined by mistakes or inconsistencies in the materials. If you're going to hold yourself out as the authority on bicycle education, the materials have to be excellent and error-free and the message consistent. It looks like the League is working on this; the parking lot drills instruction handout was very well done and new within the past month, and the video of the woman whining at Bob was much better than the old "hey look at that" one from the 1980s. Paul did his debrief as well, and we headed back to Saint Paul, pulling in right at eleven.

The LCI Class Sunday evening in Des Moines
The traditional class shot, by some passer-by on Mark Wyatt's camera. Left to right you can see John Rider, League of American Bicyclists Regional Trainer (from Madison) and our teacher; Angela Dalton, Des Moines Bike to Work Program Director; Daniel Ring from Muscatine who I don't think has any official capacity but who I believe has commuted since the 1960s; Lori Leporte, Past President of the Des Moines Cycle Club and on the Board of Directors of the Iowa Bicycle Coalition; my old chum Paul Salamon from Cedar Rapids, who has no official cycling capacity but has ridden for ages; Tina Mowbry of Altoona; Mark Wyatt of the Iowa Bicycle Coaltion, who organized this training and who I believe also runs the Iowa Bike Summit (next one in January 2008); Mike, a consulting engineer from Des Moines; Carl Voss, who among other things serves on the Des Moines Trails and Greenways (TAG) Advisory Committee; me, of the famous Saint Paul Bicycle Advisory Board (which has basically no web presence); Zac Bitting, Transportation Planner for the Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization; and Donnie Miller, who owns Donnie's Indoor Cycling Experience in Moline, Illinois, is the Safety and Education Director for the Quad Cities Bicycle Club and is the Coach and Vice President for the Double "I" Cycling Experience Racing Team. Part of the fun of the weekend was all the riding styles; Donnie was very much the racer, Zac a mountain biker and a couple of these folks are big recumbent riders but went conventional for this course.

So once the paperwork clears, we'll all be LCIs, and eligible to buy the cool Instructor jerseys. I'll be the fourth active one in Minnesota though I have no doubt there have been others over the years who have drifted away or lost interest or gotten pissed at or disgusted with the LAB or one thing or another. I'm not sure if it's a widespread phenomenon, but two of the participants mentioned that there were local LCIs in their areas already but that they were such unpleasant old coots that people didn't like to use them any more. Perhaps it's healthy to have some new LCIs coming in who are agnostic on the old battles. I think there is some prestige among LCIs in having low numbers and mine of course will be unfashionably lofty (though, I'm hoping due to last-name order that it'll be lower than my buddy Paul's!) but in at least a couple of cases it sounds like a bit of fresh and friendly blood is just what's needed. I'm not entirely sure what I'm going to do with my LCI; contact the other ones to start with, I guess, to see see if they have any Road 1 plans. I do see a lot of need for training. In fact, I came up with a slogan:

They say you never forget how to ride a bicycle.
Actually, a lot of people never really learn.

Suddenly more sensitized to it, I see idiocy and incompetence all around. Yesterday, Saturday, I was at a ribbon cutting for the Lilydale Regional Trail extension, it was Saint Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and U.S. Representative Betty McCollum and speeches and thanks all around and a green ribbon and a huge pair of scissors, the culmination of some political, planning and funding process that stretched back God only knows how far, and while we're there some guy rides up and asks to get through and he has his helmet on backwards. Then last night, coming home from a chamber concert at church just after 10, a cyclist cuts left from the right hand side of the road across the cars starting off as the light turns green and across the intersection and off to the left. One of the cars honks at him, as well it should, it was an idiotic move, and the cyclist flips him off as he rides lightless down Lyndale. I didn't correct the helmet doofus (he looked like maybe he meant it and would regale you with 10 minutes of theory why, or that he wouldn't take kindly to having such a public error pointed out) or chase down the lightless idiot left-turner, I could puff up my chest all I want and say I'm an LCI, but that and $3.31 will get you a latte at Caribou. I also doubt that either backwards helmet-man or lightless flipper offer would take a Road 1 course, but perhaps there are people out there who would like to learn how to operate in traffic and to whom we can transfer the knowledge and training needed to give it a try and get out there. In the end, the best argument we have for bike lanes, bike bridges and bike parking will be more bicycles, and, as I said waaaay back at the beginning, maybe this LCI thing will be a channel to work on the training part while in the BAB I nudge and wheedle on the facilities bits.

[Want to join the LAB? Besides this education stuff, they also lobby on behalf of bicyclists in Washington DC. If you join using this link I get credit for it! In what is sure to be a popular move among Local Bike Shops, every person who joins gets me a discount coupon for Performance; every three get me a chance to win a bicycle in a raffle. These prizes don't mean much to me; I've never ordered from Performance and the bicycle is undoubtedly not made in my size, but having a voice in Washington can't hurt. Give it some thought.]

Friday, September 28, 2007

Hope for America's Future

I just did the League of American Bicyclists League Certified Instructor training last weekend in Des Moines, something I'll write up this evening or tomorrow. Once the paperwork goes through, I'll be the fourth currently-active LCI in Minnesota. I'm not sure what exactly I'm going to do with this, to tell you the truth, but have been thinking about bicycle education these past few days.

Imagine my delight when, while riding in this morning, I overtook a pack of maybe 40 cyclists going north on the west Lexington sidepath. It looked like kids of various ages and I wondered if it was a school outing. Intrigued, I pulled off in the parking lot for the Smooth Grind coffeeshop and Network Liquors. The cyclists were pulling into here as well, and, the liquor store not being open yet, were going into the Smooth Grind. I asked one of the kids if it was a school outing. Yep, he said, we've done a few days on bicycles and this is an outing to show how you can use them to actually go places. Cool, I said, and asked the teacher's name. She was inside already and with a horde of kids descending I figured this wasn't the time to go talk to her, but it was good to see that someone's at least talking about bicycles as transportation in school.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Stylish Cycling

I was watching a bit of The War last night. It had to do with the breakout from Anzio Beach and the advance into Rome. The background was the letters home from a soldier who was killed right about then and the grief that greeted this news back home in the U.S. But on one of the shots of tanks and trucks draped with laconic American troops entering the city there passed in the foreground an Italian guy on a bicycle smoking a cigarette, smartly turned out in suit and tie.

Apparently this still goes on. In today's New York Times there's an article called Forget the Vespa: Making Your 2 Wheels a Bike in Rome.
“Bike riding has gotten more popular due to the city’s antipollution politics,” said Alessandro Piccione, a Roman engineer pedaling along the Tiber immaculately dressed (of course) in a blazer on his way to work. “I don’t just bike working days, but weekends, too. It saves a lot of time and trouble parking.”
I sometimes feel bad about wearing cycling-specific clothes to ride to work, then changing, when the cyclists in Amsterdam and Copenhagen manage to get along looking normal and even downright fashionable. Days like today I could wear my office clothes, but soon it'll be too cold and not long ago it was too hot. In the meantime, Rome sounds a treat off a bike.

Sunday, September 16, 2007


Alan Greenspan's new book comes out tomorrow. There's already reviews of it out, and they cite this quote:
Without elaborating, he writes, "I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil."
Can this possibly be a surprise to anybody? Does anybody think we'd give a rat's ass about bringing democracy to the freedom-loving Iraqi people if their main export was pomegranates?

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Lions Led by Asses

The President gave a speech the other night. I didn't listen, I can barely stand to hear the Chief Doofus talk, but read later that he talked of all the progress in Iraq and how we have to carry on the struggle etc. He did say that there would be some reduction in troop levels next spring. This was hailed as some compromise, some movement towards the center. Bullshit.

Troop levels will come down next year because we're out of troops. The Surge from 15 combat brigades to 20 to secure Baghdad (as it was advertised) started in January with 15 month rotations, up from the 12 month tours troops served at the beginning of the war. These start expiring in April and those troops come home. There aren't troops to replace them, to maintain a higher level. Oh, President Bush could extend tours again but he's done that once and that's a lot to ask when his own desultory military service was cut short by a year so he could attend business school. The whole point of the Surge was to lend stability to Baghdad to allow the Iraqi government to get their act together. Even General Petraeus last week admitted that this wasn't happening.

Against this backdrop came some awful news. In August, seven NCOs (non-commissioned officers, the backbone of the Army) on active duty with the 82nd Airborne in Iraq wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times called The War as We Saw It (it's now archived on the NYT site and costs money, but you can read it here) and you should, if you've not already done so. These are the boots-on-the-ground soldiers who every day see the reality of Iraq, not some senator, President, think-tank official or even journalist who flies in and travels only in a protected bubble.
Viewed from Iraq at the tail end of a 15-month deployment, the political debate in Washington is indeed surreal. Counterinsurgency is, by definition, a competition between insurgents and counterinsurgents for the control and support of a population. To believe that Americans, with an occupying force that long ago outlived its reluctant welcome, can win over a recalcitrant local population and win this counterinsurgency is far-fetched. As responsible infantrymen and noncommissioned officers with the 82nd Airborne Division soon heading back home, we are skeptical of recent press coverage portraying the conflict as increasingly manageable and feel it has neglected the mounting civil, political and social unrest we see every day. (Obviously, these are our personal views and should not be seen as official within our chain of command.)

They had to put that last bit in. Soldiers don't have the same First Amendment rights that we have, or used to have.
A few nights ago, for example, we witnessed the death of one American soldier and the critical wounding of two others when a lethal armor-piercing explosive was detonated between an Iraqi Army checkpoint and a police one. Local Iraqis readily testified to American investigators that Iraqi police and Army officers escorted the triggermen and helped plant the bomb. These civilians highlighted their own predicament: had they informed the Americans of the bomb before the incident, the Iraqi Army, the police or the local Shiite militia would have killed their families.
As many grunts will tell you, this is a near-routine event. Reports that a majority of Iraqi Army commanders are now reliable partners can be considered only misleading rhetoric. The truth is that battalion commanders, even if well meaning, have little to no influence over the thousands of obstinate men under them, in an incoherent chain of command, who are really loyal only to their militias.

Hmmm, funny, I recall President Bush in 2004 talking about the Iraqi Army ("The best way to take the pressure off our troops is to succeed in Iraq, is to train Iraqis so they can do the hard work of democracy, is to give them a chance to defend their country, which is precisely what we're doing. We'll have 125,000 troops trained by the end of this year.") and how it would take over. What happened to those 125,000 troops who were ready at the end of '04?

The Sergeants go on:
In a lawless environment where men with guns rule the streets, engaging in the banalities of life has become a death-defying act. Four years into our occupation, we have failed on every promise, while we have substituted Baath Party tyranny with a tyranny of Islamist, militia and criminal violence. When the primary preoccupation of average Iraqis is when and how they are likely to be killed, we can hardly feel smug as we hand out care packages. As an Iraqi man told us a few days ago with deep resignation, "We need security, not free food."

In the end, we need to recognize that our presence may have released Iraqis from the grip of a tyrant, but that it has also robbed them of their self-respect. They will soon realize that the best way to regain dignity is to call us what we are - an army of occupation - and force our withdrawal.

Until that happens, it would be prudent for us to increasingly let Iraqis take center stage in all matters, to come up with a nuanced policy in which we assist them from the margins but let them resolve their differences as they see fit. This suggestion is not meant to be defeatist, but rather to highlight our pursuit of incompatible policies to absurd ends without recognizing the incongruities.
Even NCOs on the ground can see that our President and his regime is delusional or deceptive. Is that what makes this tragic?

No. What makes this tragic is that one of Sergeants, Staff Sergeant Jeremy Murphy, was shot in the head August 12, a week before this was published. He has been evacuated back to the United States and is expected to survive. Two others, Staff Sergeant Yance Gray and Sergeant Omar Mora, were killed in a truck crash last Monday. Thoughtful, experienced, capable men who took a huge career risk to try and bring some reality to the discussion over Iraq, and not a month later one is wounded and two are dead while the President drones on delusionally about the ever-shifting goals and strategies in Iraq and tries to tell us that the inevitable reduction in troop numbers is an actual decision reached because of all the progress we've made.

These Sergeants represent the ideals that should define us; patriotic, strong, but also clear-thinking, informed, pragmatic and even willing to risk their personal careers for the greater good of the country. How many more good men have to die so that lesser men won't have to admit a mistake?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Commuting Dilletante

I've been riding the Atlantis to work (when I ride, which honestly isn't every day). It's the Queen of the Fleet, my nicest bike, but when I built it up I economized in a couple of areas. One of them was the wheels where I bought a $129 wheelset from Harris. The front wheel was subsequently replaced with one built on a Phil Wood front hub I bought in 1977 but the back one soldiers on, some low-end Shimano hub (C-205?) and I couldn't tell you the rim's make. Not that I've minded; I don't fool myself that a better hub will make me faster, stronger, more attractive to the ladies, etc., and actually this hub runs virtually silently so that the Atlantis is so completely silent running right now that you wouldn't be able to appreciate it because your bike is too noisy.

Anyway, what you do give up when you buy the cheapo wheelset is durability, and last night I went out and had a broken spoke and a corresponding wheel wobble. I rode the bike home (and my commute's only 5 miles) but the rim at the wobble was hitting the brakes, so she's out of action until I can get it fixed.

So, today I rode the Chatsworth, my name for the big blue bike that started out life as a Schwinn World Sport. What was intended as an ugly cheapo bike to leave in front of bars and movie theatres instead evolved into quite a striking machine; I had it powder-coated, replaced everything so that the only thing original from the bike as I got it is the steel of the frame, and run it most of the season with a Nexus 8-speed Red Band hub (I switch this to a Sturmey Archer AW three speed wheel for the Three Speed Tour). That hub alone was much more than the Atlantis wheelset. Last year, busy with my father and things in Des Moines and before I upgraded this bike, I actually rode it more miles than my Atlantis since it was what I'd ride to work. This year, the ongoing pesky fitting issues have limited its mileage. Time for that to end.

I like this bike quite a lot but it has infuriatingly tight clearances on everything. The Atlantis, you could run anything from sew-ups to tractor tires on it and still have room for fenders. This Schwinn, despite being a huge rangy frame (68cm, 27"), barely manages to fit a rear fender. And the fenders are exquisite, 43mm plain aluminum Honjos I had powder coated (along with the chainguard) the same as the frame, it is very striking. The fenders are an extremely tight squeeze and actually required me to go from 700C X 32 tires to 700C X 30. I had to tighten all the off-side spokes a half turn on the Nexus wheel to pull the wheel over to clear the fender as well. This thing came with 27" wheels and now has 700Cs, it must have been impossible to put fenders on it originally. Why oh why didn't they mount the rear brake bridge 1/2" higher and add 1/2" to the chainstay length? Life would be great! Anyway, several times this season I've set off on the Chatsworth only to turn back and switch bikes because of tires rubbing or something.

What's the point of a backup, even a beautifully built-up backup, if it never works? Not much. Last night after choir I went out to the garage and fiddled with the bike until it was functional, and I rode it in this morning. It would have been too lame to say, well, I own four bikes but had to drive because they're all out of service at the moment (my winter bike just needs air and a new chain, my 1975 Motobecane is in pieces).

I expected to be slower. The Chatsworth is real upright, Albatross bars and a Brooks Champion Flyer (think sprung B17) saddle I bought the first time Brooks went out of business, but this morning there was a brisk southerly breeze and I sailed on in over 2 minutes faster than I did yesterday. I locked up to the new bike rack out front and came in.

Later, after getting coffee, I noticed a huge dark bank of clouds and thought, I should bring the bike in. For some reason, just after installing a new bicycle rack I'd lobbied for, my employer decided I ought to be able to park the bicycle in the underground garage, used by VPs and Directors (but not me) for their cars. We think of it as the Batcave, since you go around the side of the building, scan the security card, and up it opens. It could stand a cool Bat logo or rocks that slide out of the way and maybe access from the top floor down a firepole. I haven't been using it for the bike, instead parking on the new rack out front as an advertisement that it's ok to ride. Public service you know, advancing the cause, Critical Matt and all that. A couple of people have noted that I'm always so well-dressed (pressed wool trousers, dress shoes, ironed cotton shirt and silk tie, dressier than 90% of the people in the building) even though I ride. Well, public service be damned, it looks like it's going to rain and I think once this has gone through it's supposed to get colder too. Much better to pack up and leave from the nice warm garage than out in blustery rain! So I went and moved it into the garage for the first time, the VPs, Directors and me.

Funny thing is, the garage access is only enabled until November 15. Really, that's about when I need the access to start, not to end! They said let us know if you need it longer. I have ridden during the winter before though not to work, but if I have heated underground parking there's not going to be much excuse!

One reading of all of the above is that I'm something of a dilletante. When I ride to work, it's on a lovely Rivendell Atlantis built out just the way I want it. If that's got a broken spoke, I defer to an oddball but surprisingly nice internal-geared bicycle. Winter comes, and I can ride my winter bike, on the small side, but at its base a pretty nice, light hardtail mountain bike. I can park them in the garage or out front. If it's raining, or it's golf night, or I've got errands to run, or just because I'm lazy, I can drive. Not everybody has these options. There is an article in the Wall Street Journal today about Arlington, Texas, the country's largest city without a transit system. They are looking at starting one because high gas prices are starting to bite. Here are a couple of snippets:
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Truck driver Mark Soliz, 32, began walking his five-mile commute to his company's offices this summer because he couldn't afford the high cost of gasoline. Tired of hoofing it in 90-degree heat, he applied to a local charity for a donated bicycle and now cycles the distance.

"Anything to get there. Anything other than walking," he says.

Climbing gasoline prices have hit low-income workers as never before, and that is particularly evident in this city sandwiched between Dallas and Fort Worth. Though Mr. Soliz owns a car, for him and many other cash-strapped residents here, high gas prices have made driving a last resort. And taking a bus or train isn't an option.
As I said, Arlington's the largest city in the nation without public transportation. Although they are considering it, the city's designed for cars:
In some parts of the country, commuters have begun relying more on public transportation as gasoline prices have climbed. National public-transit usage has jumped 30% since 1995, says Rose Sheridan, vice president of the American Public Transportation Association. But southern cities were designed for cheap gasoline. Urban sprawl here developed around a car-and-freeway system rather than subway and train mass transit.
The article draws the distinction between people like me, who can accomodate higher gas prices and have options, and people who don't have that flexibility.
When gas prices rise, middle-class commuters in areas that don't have convenient public transportation typically compensate in various ways. They can switch to a more-fuel-efficient vehicle, telecommute, or cut back on luxuries such as restaurants and movies. "They leave their Suburban at home and take their Prius," says Dan Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Low-paid workers have fewer options. As they are already living on a shoestring, cutbacks can mean going without groceries and utilities. They also often drive older, less-fuel-efficient cars, Mr. Sperling says.

Melinda Daniel, 39, drives a 1988 Cadillac El Dorado that gets very low gas mileage. After breaking up with her boyfriend in Fort Worth, she could no longer afford the gas to commute to her job in customer service at Alliance Funding in Arlington, and she temporarily moved into a Salvation Army shelter while looking for an apartment nearer where she worked. "In Arlington, if you don't have a car, you're really stuck as far as trying to find a decent job and make a decent living," Ms. Daniel said.

Car ownership can be a real mixed blessing.
Sharon Whittington, 42, who has a six-year-old daughter and a husband who is unable to work because of an accident, drives an older-model Oldsmobile Intrigue. "It's been horrible, if I want to drive across town, I know I need to have at least a $5 bill," says Ms. Whittington, who voted for previous Arlington transit initiatives.

A couple of times the opposition worries that transit will bring in a rougher demographic. Meanwhile, one mission is using bicycles:
Mission Arlington, the nonprofit offering help to low-income residents, now gives away four or five bicycles a day, compared with only a few every week three years ago, says the executive director, Tillie Burgin.
Along the same lines, Bicycling magazine ran an article a couple of years ago called Invisible Riders, about the poor who use bicycles to get around. They're easy to miss, except when they come the wrong way up the bike lane, but there are those who don't ride nice bikes and park in underground garages. You can read the article on the Utne Reader site here.

I think these riders will become more common. If Arlington's seeing residents stressed enough to consider transit when oil is $65 a barrel, what's it going to be like now that it's nuzzling $80? There's plenty of us commuters who do it because it's fun, we like bikes, we're actually doing something to support our troops, we're cutting CO2 and pollution, reducing congestion, getting much-needed exercise, dislike the alienation of car culture or other high-falutin' reasons. Soon there'll be more people doing it because they don't have viable alternatives.

Monday, September 10, 2007


Riding in this morning (lovely cool weather, too!) I was inspired to rewrite the words to Home, Home on the Range. It was free-asscociation: I regard motor vehicles as buffalo, big, strong, fast, ubiquitous, oblivious, often stupid and occasionally hostile, and yesterday at the start of the Saint Paul Classic bike ride there were some bikes in animal dress, including a buffalo one, which got me to thinking. There wasn't any incident or anything, just one of those random flashes that happen from time to time. I think what we need is more bicycling songs, so here's the chorus from Home, Home on the Range.
Home, home on the road
Where the cars and the SUVs play
Where often is heard
A disparaging word
And the pickup guys all think I'm gay.
Need to work on the verses.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Half Century

Due to some technical issues, I've been unable to blog (with photos, at least) until this past weekend. I've still taken a few photos, and here are some from August.

La Crosse Amtrak station

Earlier this summer my friend Paul used Amtrak to Winona as a way to cut a day off his ride back to Cedar Rapids. Annoyingly, he was compelled to box his bicycle up even though Winona's the next baggage stop down the line and Amtrak offers the roll-on, roll-off Bikes on Board service on other routes. Doubly annoying, when the Empire Builder train showed up, the baggage car had little bicycle logos that indicated it was equipped for the Bikes on Board. Grrr.

Move forward to the weekend of 11/12 August. I'm meteor-shower camping with my daughter Geneva, her friend Regan and the seemingly Zelig-like Paul at Lake Louise State Park near Le Roy, Minnesota. My son Henry is coming in off a church trip late Friday, so we had the brilliant idea to have him catch the Saturday morning Amtrak to La Crosse, we'd nip over and pick him up, and the weekend would proceed (we planned bicycle rides but events conspired against us, as you shall see).

This didn't go like clockwork. The night of 10 August there were major thunderstorms in the Twin Cities which caused extensive damage quite near our house (State Fairgrounds, Como Park). They also caused signal problems on the rail lines between Saint Paul and La Crosse, so the train, running an hour late into Saint Paul, was two and a half hours late by the time it arrived in La Crosse. My cell phone didn't get a signal near Le Roy, and we innocently turned up at the expected arrival time of 10:45. Ooops.

We had time to look around. The La Crosse station is nicer than the Winona one, though the Winona station, if you compose carefully, does look exceptionally cute:
The very cute train station in Winona
I took this while down for the Great River Shakespeare Festival in July, which would make another good excuse to train down and either ride or train home. For logistical reasons too complex to elaborate, my wife and son rode the train home after a Saturday matinee of Macbeth, which is when I took this photo. Note that those are train tracks right in front of the station giving it a precious Thomas Kinkade/Thomas the Tank Engine look, but the Amtrak actually stays on the main line which is behind me in this photo.

The La Crosse station is bigger.
The LaCrosse train station
This being Wisconsin, it of course has a bar in it, and also the Train Station Barbeque. Paul and I ate lunch. We did a little shopping (forgot paper towels, bug spray, etc., how did the voyageurs manage without Target?).
La Crosse apparently requires bicycle boxes too. There was one atop a baggage cart waiting out on the platform:
Bicycle in box atop LaCrosse Amtrak baggage cart
Bicycle boxes often seem to be ill-fitting. My huge Atlantis might be a problem:
Most bike boxes seem to be ill-fitting
Finally the train showed up.
Amtrak rolling into LaCrosse, Wisconsin
Regrettably, the baggage car did not have the bicycle logos. I guess we can't count on the availability of the Bikes on Board capability on the Empire Builder, thus Amtrak's insistence on a box.
The Empire Builder at LaCrosse
I've thought about Winona as an out-and-back, Amtrak down, ride home. Jim from Hiawatha did it with a couple of friends and rode it home in a day. This works nicely if the train's on time and the day is long, though they rode until well after dark. I'd thought of it more as a late September/early October, down on Saturday morning/back Sunday evening with an overnight in Red Wing. If Winona wasn't enough miles for you, you could go to La Crosse instead and try that, though Paul, who has ridden all this, says Winona to La Crosse on the Wisconsin side is mostly a crushed-limestone trail and not worth it.

Anyway, with this idle interest I was happy to visit the La Crosse station and see what it was like. When the train finally showed up, Henry popped out, we fed him some barbeque and drove back to the park, through La Cresent and Hokah, towns that a week later would be flooded in major rainstorms.

Additions to the Fleet

The kids' high school is a little over a mile away. Last year Henry rode his bicycle fairly often in the warmer months. Now Geneva's starting there too, and I figured I'd get her a three-speed to ride rather than her nice Schwinn 24-speed. We chose one from Sunrise Cyclery that Jamie was going to tidy up for us (it wouldn't hit all three gears) and we'd go back and get it.

I the meantime, August 25th I was in Des Moines doing the League of American Bicyclist's Road One course (a pre-req to getting the LAB League Certified Instructor rating, which I'll do down there in September). My cell phone rang. Who'd be calling me there? Some grievous accident up in the Cities? I answered, and it was my boss, calling from a garage sale where they had a Dunelt men's bike, was I interested? A few questions, and I said yes, and got it Friday. It's a bit small for Henry, who, though not yet as tall as I am, is getting darn close, but he liked it and was completely taken with bottle dynamo which does a great job on the rear light, though the front one isn't working at the moment.

Here's Henry on his Dunelt. It's be a bit small to ride coast to coast:
Henry on his new Dunelt

Meanwhile, time dragged on with Sunrise. I called to check on the status and Jamie seemed a bit confused about which bike it was. Geneva was exhibiting remarkable excitement about getting a three-speed, so Saturday I drove over. There was a Dunelt there for us. I'm pretty certain it's not the one we tried (which had an odometer and a headlight), but it looked ok, and I went ahead and got it. Geneva was thrilled. Here she is on the bike:
Geneva trying out her new three-speed Dunelt
Isn't she lovely? The New York Observer just ran an article about Beautiful Women on Bicycles and there's a whole blog called Copenhagen Girls on Bikes. People are noticing: girls look great on bicycles. Of course, Geneva's been lovely since she was born, it doesn't take a bicycle to do it, but I am tickled that she (and Henry) is so happy to have the bicycle to ride to school.

It also seemed nicely circular. Saturday was my fiftieth birthday. Forty years ago, 1967, I got a three speed Columbia Tourist for my tenth birthday and was also tickled. It was cool to be exactly four decades later and have an old three speed thrilling my daughter ("Look, Dad, I can ride with these shoes!"). She also has new braces, new glasses and her first perm. Life's getting exciting!

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Gravity is Your Friend

The Times of London ran an article on the Parisian rental bike scheme entitled Parisians show their va va voom as city rolls out 'freedom' bike scheme. You know, smashing success, 1.3 million rentals of the 10,000 bikes in three weeks, traffic calming, blah blah blah. I liked the way people are using them:
In Paris there have been few teething troubles with the high-tech system that supplies the bikes for up to €1 per half-hour — but one is a result of residents using them to glide downhill to work and then taking public transport home, resulting in gluts of bikes at some low-level stands and shortages at higher altitude stations, such as Montmartre.
The end of the article outlines some other tries that have gone by, the last one in particular which relates to my prior entry:
  • Copenhagen Prototype scheme, with advertising sponsorship – bicycles have tyres that do not puncture

  • Lyon 1,500 bicycles available for 15,000 users. Costs 30p for 30 minutes

  • Germany Some glitches with GPS system

  • St Andrews Bikes were stolen in the Scottish university town in an early pilot scheme

  • Cambridge When a pilot scheme started in the 1960s, the fleet slowly vanished. When it was resurrected in 1993, all 300 bicycles were stolen on the first day

This morning I was down getting coffee and talked to Linda, who lives down by Saint Anthony Falls in Minneapolis, not too far from the now-famous ex-bridge. On Thursday, the day after the bridge collapse, her fiance rode over to take a look. Governor Pawlenty was there, some Senators, camera crews. There's a camera crew here, she says, the Governor's here, and right behind him is my fiance. Cops are all over the place, of course. He laid his bike down on a grassy knoll to watch for a minute as statements were made on camera, then turned around, and his bike was gone. He went to the grassy knoll and asked a cop about it. Yep, she said, some guy rode off on it (pointing) but I couldn't leave my position. Sheesh.

Downhills and thievery bring up my Bait Bike idea. Get a bike you don't care about a lot, ride it to a place where it's likely to get pinched, do an indifferent job locking it up, (this is the crucial bit) unhook the brake cables, and leave. Ideally, this location is at the top of a long downhill slope ending in a busy street. Think of the fun. It would make good YouTube footage!

Bike Thievery Around the Nation

Every weekday morning I get a journalism story ideas email from the Poynter Institute. It's a terrific way to keep up on various stories developing around the country. This morning it had a bit on bicycle thefts:
Bike Thieves Keep Active
As people try to go green and ride their bicycles, bike thieves are having a field day. (Texas Hill Country Daily Times). I am seeing reports of rising bicycle thefts in Washington, D.C., (WJLA, Channel 7 ABC from Falls Church, VA) where thieves are hitting metro stations. Some places like this Michigan town, (Northville, Michigan), Denver (Denver Post) and West Des Moines, Iowa, (KCCI Channel 8 CBS) are installing bike racks to prevent thefts.

It's no wonder bikes are so attractive to thieves. They are easy to steal, they can be worth a lot of money these days and they are easy to sell to places like pawnshops. Police often don't spend much time investigating the crime, so the chances of getting caught are small. This would make for a fairly easy story to personalize in your town.

In Denmark, police have announced they won't spend much time on bike thefts, but will instead focus on more serious crime. An estimated 80,000 bikes are stolen (The Copenhagen Post) in Denmark each year. If you figure there are three months a year when bikes are not frequently used in Denmark, this would mean that more than 10,000 bikes a month — a few thousand or so a week — are stolen.
Not included in the Poynter email but another interesting article is Chasing my stolen bicycle by Justin Jouvenal in the San Francisco Bay Guardian. I like this quote from the article:
"Bikes are one of the four commodities of the street — cash, drugs, sex, and bikes," Veysey told me. "You can virtually exchange one for another."
I've had one bicycle stolen, from my garage, and it was maddening. Funnily enough, I'd be angrier if my Atlantis was stolen than if my pickup was stolen. Bicycle thievery is one place where I can see the advantages of sharia law--cut off their hands!

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Stone Arch Bridge Open

The Stone Arch Bridge has been reopened to bikes and pedestrians as of about 4PM on Sunday. For those not from here, that's a lovely old railway bridge that is open to pedestrians and cyclists only. The 10th Avenue Bridge remains closed, which isn't surprising. No word on the Number 9 bridge (another old railway bridge converted to bike and pedestrian usage).

In my prior entry I said that bike routes weren't really affected. This was wrong, as my first commenter pointed out. Although I-35W doesn't really affect bicycle routes across the Mississippi, at least once everything reopens, it fell onto the West River bikepath (see this Star-Tribune slideshow about a cyclist who was 20 seconds from the bridge when it fell onto the bike path in front of him, after which he climbed onto the wreckage and helped people) and across 2nd Street SE on the north side. These routes will be closed until the new bridge is in place, which officials are optimistically hoping to do by the end of 2008. There are other usable routes close to 2nd Street SE, and the City of Minneapolis is recommending using the Light Rail bikepath to get into Minneapolis from the south in place of the river bikepath. Some of this is Matt-centric; I use the Stone Arch and Number 9 bridges but hardly ever use the West River bikepath. Those who do use it for commuting will of course be disrupted for some time to come.

Saturday, August 04, 2007


Well, the outlines of our Governor's Infrastructure Strategy have become apparent:
  1. Reject gas tax increases. Twenty cents a gallon was good enough for 1988, it's good enough for 2007! ("An unnecessary and onerous burden" he called the proposed 7.5 cent per gallon tax in May, vetoing a bill which also mandated annual bridge inspections; in 2005, he asked "How dumb can they be?" of Democratic legislators proposing a gas tax increase; in early 2007 he accused them of being "having been simply obsessed with a gas tax"; the GOP Minority Leader in the House this spring called the gas tax proposal "a joke" and a "pocket picking mechanism" but now, with a bridge collapsed and several dead or missing, is open to ideas. Also, our Governor's hopes to be Number Two on the Straight Talk Express appear to have been derailed now that McCain is flying coach and carrying his own bags, staying in the race just long enough to collect matching public funds to pay off campaign debts.)

  2. Defer projects and maintenance. I personally like how the bid for the Crosstown Commons rebuild required the contractors to loan the state the money for a year until we could afford to pay for it. Unsurprisingly, nobody bid, and the project was delayed a year.

  3. Wait Until Things Get Bad. As you may have heard, a main Interstate Highway bridge collapsed Wednesday during rush hour near downtown Minneapolis. At the moment, the official toll is 5 dead and 8 missing, though I'd be amazed if this doesn't get bigger.

  4. Compare this Catastrophe to 9/11 and Katrina. Hmmm, wasn't that about 3,000 and 1,200 dead, as compared to 5? Still, we've got some great visuals!

  5. Er, Let's Hold Off on that New Twins Stadium Groundbreaking, shall we? Bud Selig was going to be here Thursday for this celebration, but it seemed a bit tasteless even for him to celebrate a taxpayer-financed ballpark the day after a taxpayer-owned bridge had collapsed.

  6. Get Money from the Feds. Helps to have one of our representatives as head of the House Transportation Committee, it looks like $250 million is headed our way. Maybe, with luck, the new bridge will be in place in time for the opening of the new taxpayer-financed Twins stadium and the new taxpayer-financed University of Minnesota Gophers football stadium. Give credit to the Gophers football team, though, they have gotten us used to historic collapses.

  7. Get a visit from the President. President Bush was here this morning, looking solemn and wearing a hard hat and, in contrast to a couple of days ago, able to pronounce our Governor's last name. His trainers must have been hard at work. We're promised an expedited effort to rebuild the bridge (I'm guessing it won't be to the original plans). One wonders if this has to do with the Republican National Convention to be held here just about a year from now. Not going to look so good, this big hole in the transportation fabric.

Very savvy. If he'd listened to those obsessive dumb jokers in the legislature we'd have higher gas taxes and be using money picked from the pockets of hard-working Minnesota taxpayers to patch up this structurally deficient bridge. Now, we'll get a nice shiny new bridge paid for by the Feds! Exchange 5 dead for $250 million and the chance to look concerned and solemn in front of a photogenic structural collapse. Perhaps there are those who think this is an ok deal. I don't.

How Close Were We?

Had the bridge hung on another 15 or 20 minutes, it could have been us. We were on our way, all four of us, to a concert at Orchestra Hall in downtown Minneapolis. We had the option of just going down Larpenteur/Hennepin or taking the Interstate. I-35 is usually quicker unless there are construction backups, but it was just past 6:00 when we left and we opted for the Interstate.

I didn't time-stamp things, but I figure we left about 6:10, by which time the bridge had collapsed although we didn't know this. We headed off down I-35 but as it came up to the Highway 280 exit there was a cop there closing off the road and directing everyone onto 280. This was immediately jammed up. I wondered if there's construction going on but Karla, who drives this way multiple times a week, said that was usually on weekends for a full closure, she thought there must be an accident. As I sat in the 280 line, creeping forward, I figured I'd listen to 88.5 Jazz and Traffic. They were just saying that rescue units were on there way to the scene; sounds like a crash. They were asking people to stay away; hmmm, must be a big one--maybe a semi with chemicals crashed. Then they said, to those of you just joining us, the Interstate 35W bridge over the Mississippi has collapsed into the river. This affects both directions and I-35W is closed.

Holy smokes!

We got off 280 on County B (now closed off, as 280 has become a surrogate freeway for 35W traffic) and made our way down to Hennepin. Going towards downtown we crossed I-35W, not surprisingly completely jammed with immobile cars. It was going to take a while to untangle that lot, I thought. Making our way through downtown took a long time, traffic clotted up and a welter of ambulances, firetrucks and police cars making their way through. We got to Orchestra Hall about 7:20, nearly an hour later than we'd planned. I wondered about the concert; if the musicians had a 6:30 call, it would be credible to have some affected by the collapse or the traffic jam behind it. The 7:30 concert got off about 10 minutes late after a graceless tribute and moment of silence in which the Assistant Conductor didn't say what had happened ("And now a moment of silence for the this evening's tragedy") to an audience where a lot of people may not have known what had happened yet (the people right in front of us didn't, having gone to dinner first). We'd planned to eat before the concert in Peavey Plaza but hadn't had time, so went to Brits afterwards for a bite and to let the concert crowd clear. Going home, stuck in traffic on the 3rd Avenue Bridge, the lawyer for the company doing the road surface work on the I-35W bridge was on the air assuring everyone that the road deck work had nothing to do with the collapse. Wow, after four hours he'd already figured out the cause.

To me, ours doesn't seem a close call. There are people who were on the bridge and miraculously survived, others who were last off or about to get on, a friend of ours only five minutes removed, a co-worker of a co-workers's husband who was ten cars back. A 15 to 20 minute miss seems pretty roomy in that context, but in the context of a 40 year old bridge, all it needed to do was hang on for 15 more minutes and it could have been us.

What Happened?

It'll take a while before the NTSB deliberates, but in my extremely informed highly expert considered opinion, I noted the following things:

1) in the publicly-released video of the collapse, I thought it was remarkable how horizontal the main deck was when it went down. This also makes it clear that it started at the south end of the bridge, not in the scene, and the NTSB noted that the south end had displaced 50 feet sideways, so it looks like the truss didn't break along its length but instead the structure folded sideways.

2) I think the south end started to go sideways and pulled the deck off the north end. Then the approach ramps, all unbalanced, went. You can see the north one hang on a couple of second before falling backwards in the video.

3) the bridge deck isn't supposed to be part of the support structure, but I thought this quote from this morning's paper was telling (the article is about the first responders, and Hoeppner is one of these guys):
"At the site, Hoeppner talked to construction workers who survived the fall. They had been doing repair work but expressed concern to him that the bridge had been wobbling several days before it collapsed. Every layer of concrete the workers removed, the bridge would wobble even more, they told Hoeppner." The article's here. I'm guessing that various plaintiff lawyers will be very interested in talking to those construction workers.

Maybe the transverse members that held the bridge trusses parallel were in worse shape than people thought and the deck was doing more to keep them in place than was thought. As the deck lightened, these folded sideways and pulled the whole river span with it. It didn't seem to pull off the north piers--the photos look like the deck ripped off and then the north approach pivoted backwards off the pier, displacing the pier in the midst of all this. That's what you see in the video.

Taking a Look

Well, one wants to look, right? I rode down last night to take a look. For the most part, you couldn't see squat. The perimeter is backed way off, so that the Number 9 bridge, 10th Avenue bridge and Stone Arch Bridge are all closed. Virtually any spot with a view is blocked off with tape and cops. In part this was probably because of the impending (at the time) visit of President Bush--another blogger noted that a cop told him that if they opened the Stone Arch Bridge they'd just have to close it again and sweep it for bombs. Keeping the Number 9 and Stone Arch bridges closed is a bit short-sighted, as those are common bicycle commuter routes and with them closed, cyclists get dumped out onto city streets already contending with additional traffic loads. Maybe once Mr. Bush has come and gone they'll open again. Although I don't normally ride downtown during rush hours, for a set of reasons too boring to relate my dentist is in downtown Minneapolis and I have an 8:30 checkup Monday morning, so maybe I'll see then.

Lots of people down looking, many in cars. Fools! Bicycles are the perfect way to probe an urban perimeter like this, and that's what I did. I didn't know the Number 9 Bridge was closed and went right to it from the end of the Intercampus Transitway. Nope, closed off. Tons of foot traffic and a stream of frustrated motorists. Oddly enough, my son did a report on the Number 9 bridge this past spring and I'd ridden all over and around it taking photos. I tried some of the approaches. You couldn't see much. Lots of yellow tape.

I rode down to University Avenue. Lots more cops. Moving back a couple of blocks there's a pedestrian bridge across I-35W (connecting 5th Street SE either side of the Interstate). The highway is now empty, but the cars under here were just a couple of hundred yards from being directly involved. These people had the close calls.

There was a bit of a view here. (As usual, if you click on the photos you'll get a larger version, and for once, it might be worth it).
The north bridge approach from the 5th Street SE Pedestrian Bridge
You can see where the road pivoted away with the cars of the closest calls of all balanced on the pivot point. Across the river you can see a semi-truck and some construction equipment on the south approaches to the bridge. It's the stuff in between that's missing. In the foreground is University Avenue; we know a person who got off there (frustrated with the traffic) five minutes before the collapse. Like I said, our 15 to 20-minute miss seems plenty big compared to these.
The north approach collapse by Metalmatic
Down by Metalmatic at 2nd Street and 8th Avenue there was a view down between the factory on the left and the condos on the right. The is the north approaches to the bridge, not part of the main truss system, but the southbound lanes were pulled from their piers and there was a pileup, as you can see. This was a popular photo spot and there were some tv stations nearby.

I moved upstream. The power company now has some viewing walkways out into the river which I've never been on. These looked promising, and I rode out. Couldn't see a damn thing. I came back to shore and rode up to Nicolet Island, crossed the river, and headed back down towards the Guthrie. I went by the Mill Ruins Museum.
A timely sign at Mill Ruins Park
Boy, they're right on top of things! Actually, this is the Mill Ruins Museum, but it's very close to the bridge just upstream.

Probably the Guthrie's cantilevered bridge offers a nice view (we watched fireworks from it on July 4 after seeing 1776 with an aunt from England) but they're not letting the great unwashed out to gawk. (I like how we mere citizens "gawk" while politicians "inspect", "visit" and "survey"). The bike path which used to go under the I-35W bridge is of course closed off, so I moved over to Washington, crossed the abandoned freeway, and moved in behind some apartments. Bingo!

The south approach collapse by 19th Ave S
The semi from the first picture is the one on the left on this photo. This is from a parking lot of an apartment complex between 19th Avenue South and the Interstate. This is an odd bit of Minneapolis--the bridge paralleling the collapsed I35W bridge is called the 10th Avenue bridge, and on the north side of the river the street is 10th Avenue Southeast. On this side of the river, the street is called 19th Avenue South. Why it changes names I don't know.

Anyway, this 10th Avenue Bridge must offer spectacular views. Driving Wednesday to the concert, what residual journalism instincts I have (I started out as a journalism major) cried out to go home, get a camera and bicycle and get down there before everything got closed down. The 10th Avenue bridge is where I would have gone, but of course now it's closed. Officially it's due to concerns about it's integrity vis a vis debris from the collapsed bridge but really this would be one continual spectator stream made worse by the lack of a sidewalk on the upstream side (there is a very nice one on the downstream side). The bright light arrays they had up even as we came home from that Wednesday concert are on this bridge and I expect it will be some time before it reopens.

The light was fading and here, by the north end of the Number 9 bridge, the opposite end of which I'd begun my evening's viewing attempts, I'd made the full circuit. I rode into the U campus looking to take the Washington Avenue bridge home. I was at the lower deck level, not the upper deck, and the ramp up was closed, so I went into the building, took the elevator up one floor, and came out. As I got on the bike, a campus cop guy came over and told me firmly not to do that, that I should go around the building. Look, I said, I tried to use the ramp but it's closed and I don't know my way around. You need to go around next time he says firmly. Yes sir I'll keep that in mind. Sheesh, put these bozos in a blue shirt and badge and they're really feeling their oats, all this hero talk is getting to even the kampus kops.

I rode home using the Intercampus Transitway. It's a bit disrupted right now with road construction and work on the new Gophers Stadium. A big huge grain elevator that used to be there is gone now, and prep work is going on all over.

Bicycles are a great way to do this stuff. I basically never ride on sidewalks or the wrong way down one-way streets but did this night, in a situation like this it works wonderfully. In a car you can't get near anything, you get stuck in traffic, you can't see shit and there's nowhere to park. On foot, you're slow. On a bike, you can make good time, get most anywhere, transition from roadway to sidewalk to parking lot to pedestrian overpass seamlessly. You can even take the elevator up a floor in buildings at the U. You can see what's happening. I've done this before, many years ago during flooding in Des Moines, and just in recent weeks bicycles were of great utility in Japan after some earthquakes and in Britain during some flooding.

One irony of this bridge is how invisible it always was. It was as unremarkable and utilitarian a structure as they come, you only saw it when you drove over it, it had no real redeeming look to it. From the Number 9 bridge it was obscured by the 10th Avenue bridge, from the Stone Arch bridge, it's light truss structure was dominated by the same 10th Avenue bridge in background. Once the wreckage is cleared out, there won't a visual hole in the scenery like the missing World Trade Center towers.

Bicycling Implications

The collapse doesn't directly affect any bicycle routes since there was no bicycle or pedestrian facility on the bridge. As I mentioned earlier, a couple of very useful bike/ped routes are currently closed off but I expect that won't last. The most direct effect is likely to be increased street traffic until a new bridge is built.

However, old, deteriorated bridges have been the topic of conversation elsewhere. Only about 6 weeks ago there was a rally about reopening the Cedar Avenue bridge over the Minnesota river, which would be extremely useful to cyclists down there. Without going back and rereading the articles, I recall comments about how rotten the metal on that bridge is. I'm guessing that will be viewed with more concern now that before even if the loading is just bicycles and pedestrians. A new bridge might be in order rather than a restoration and as usual their are about fourteen agencies who have some say in the effort (for instance, it's close to the airport and any new bridge might have to support emergency vehicles in the event of a plane crash, etc.).

Separately, the wonderful Midtown Greenway across Minneapolis currently terminates at the river. There is this great big lovely railway bridge (the Short Line Bridge) that crosses the river. It used to have 2 tracks, now it has one, and it just serves a spur up and down Hiawatha. The railway has no interest in letting the county use the other bit for a bike path. There are various reasons, but in essence I think the railway has on its hands a big old rusty bridge (nobody seems to know exactly when it was built, but it was around 1880) serving a few grain elevators and scrapyards. I personally think that they look at this customer base, at the rapid improvements along Hiawatha due to the Light Rail which runs the other side, and figure that within a decade all these elevators will close down and they can abandon the spur and bridge. If they allow some stupid bikepath to go over it and all of a sudden it's being used by 3,000 people a day to get to work they now have to maintain their big old rusty bridge forever. Amid all this are discussions of the bridge's integrity and along the line was a comment that it's a design where you remove one element and the whole thing would come down. Again, I expect there will renewed sensitivity to that argument and that we will never see a bikepath on that structure, which is a real pity.

Other Bridgework

Ironically enough, I took some photos of bridge construction last weekend. Henry and I rode to Baker Park, in Western Hennepin County, to camp for a couple of nights with a bunch of church folks. Our late departure (5:35 from home) kept us from dawdling and taking pictures on the way out. We rode down Roselawn and wanted to cross Highway 280 to Broadway but even before the I-35W bridge collapse traffic volumes on 280 were up and no gaps presented themselves, so we went down to Hennepin and moved over. We took Broadway all the way from Industrial Boulevard to Golden Valley Parkway, including an unlovely bit of urban landscape in North Minneapolis, worked our way to Medicine Lake and took the Luce Line trail out to the park to camp by Lake Independence. It was about 33 miles altogether and if our 9:15 arrival sounds late it's because of stopping to navigate, get snacks and buy groceries.

Saturday Henry hung around the campground with the kids. I rode the Luce Line out to Watertown, then up to Delano and Rockford. I'd lost my mirror off my helmet last night and am unused to riding without one, so this felt odd to me. I ate a burger and a beer in Finnegan's in Delano and it wasn't very good. I'd gone in because they had a Boddington's sign in the window, but the didn't actually serve Boddington's. I had a Newcastle Brown Ale and a greasy half-pound hamburger with some bad fries. At least the service was indifferent. From Rockford I rode back to the campground, stopping to snooze for a while under a tree in front of a church. This was about 37 miles in all. Henry was taken home that evening as a bunch of the kids were going to Valleyfair on Sunday after church.

Sunday I got up, packed up and one of the other folks said, hey, we'll take your bags for you. I'm lazy, so I said OK, and they took the tent/pad/bag and both panniers, leaving me light and carefree to ride home. I rode the bikepath through the park to get to the connector back to the Luce Line. This marker was along the way:
Halfway to the North Pole!  Or Equator!
I was once in Yellowstone and there was a bunch of cars gathered along the road and it turned out to be a marker of the 45th parallel, halfway to the North Pole!, we took photos, etc., and then I discovered that in fact it runs right down Draper Avenue in Roseville and that I cross it every day going to and from work, usually refraining from stopping to take a photo. Anyway, these markers amuse me.

For those of you following along at home, I went south down Crystal Bay Road to Fox Road, and headed east. I was planning to go through downtown Wayzata. Along the way, Fox Road had a sign about ROAD CLOSED and BRIDGE WORK AHEAD. I ambled along, wondering if it was closed to everyone or just to mere motor vehicles. A cyclist came the other way and I called to him, Can you get through? We circled in the street a couple of times. Yep, he said, they're making a new bridge but you can kind of walk along the side. Last week you couldn't get by. Ok, thanks, I said. Hey, he said, nice Atlantis, I've got one too. Thanks, I sure like mine. And off I went.

The bridge over a little creek was being built but looking pretty impassable. He'd mentioned walking along the side and I looked around. Sure enough, there was a platform on the south side, probably for the workers. I lifted the bike up there and walked gingerly across. One false move and I could be pitched in excess of two feet into the murky waters below!
The walkway used to skirt the closed bridge
The walkway I used to get across.
My Atlantis and the closed bridge
The Atlantis in Exploring Mode--saddlebag, handlebar bag, ice water in seat tube water bottle. It held gin and tonics on the way out. This is on the east side of the bridge after my successful crossing.

I made it without incident, and rode on. On Peavey Road there was another ROAD CLOSED situation. It was half a mile ahead, so I figured it wouldn't cost me more than a mile total, and rode down. Another cyclist caught up to me (not an unusual situation). He's a local, and wasn't sure if it was open yet or not. This road was oozing money, driveways more expensive than my house, big estates, boats. The bridge, however, was impassable this time, and we turned back. I chatted with the other cyclist a bit, he directed me the way to Wayzata, and off I went. I stopped along the waterfront for a bit, munching peanut M&Ms, admiring the expensive cars, the expensive boats, the expensive women, even a remarkably riveting pair of expensive boobs, before riding on. I went past the Cargill headquarters, lost back in some woods, made my way down to Hopkins where I ate at a Chipotle, then rode on the Kenilworth Trail into Minneapolis.

My left crank arm was making noise, so I popped into Calhoun Cycle but there was no mechanic on duty and in fact I helped a customer who wanted to raise his stem and who thought he needed to loosen his headset locknuts to do it. I also bought a replacement mirror for my helmet. I moved on to Sunrise Cyclery where the owner quickly figured out my pedal was just loose, tightened her up, and the bike was once again silent running. Some Twin Cities Bicycling Club guys were there about to go on a ride, but they were heading out to Hopkins and I'd just been there, so I moved on. I took the Greenway to the river, crossed at Lake Street and headed home, about 38 miles total, a beautiful day for a ride.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Bloody 'ot

It's been pretty miserable out the last couple of days. As a Practical Cyclist, it would be nice to ride around in street clothes and not look like a cycling doofus while off the bike, just like those folks in, you know, Amsterdam. You can do that here, in May and October, but days like today cry for separate clothing. Here's the temperature in Saint Paul right now:

And in Amsterdam:

I think their climate and terrain is better-suited to riding the bike everywhere in street clothes. Me, I've been riding to work and showering and changing there. On less-tropical days, I'll ride and just change with a damp mop, but this New Guinea climate isn't going to work for dress trousers, pressed shirt and tie.

I'm guessing that in 6 months I could run the same entry, entitle it "Bloody Nippy" and show our biting cold versus the relatively balmly Amsterdam weather.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Your Tax Dollars At Work

Last Saturday was something of a novelty, a day free of obligations. For the last year and a half there have been pressing priorities, resulting from my father's deteriorating health, the decision to move him to a nursing home in northeast Iowa near one of my sisters, the need to move some of his possessions up there from Des Moines, to deal with the rest, to work on the house and sell it, to host his sister, my aunt, visiting from England. Much of this weighed heavily this past spring as my cycling buddy Paul and I worked on the house, starting in February, stripping wallpaper, ripping up carpet, painting, jacking up one settling floor, changing locks, all the details of an older house's need four hours from home. My last trip down was in early June and the house got listed, but then it was the bike races, not an obligation, but another event in a crowded spring.

It came to closure this past few weeks. The last Thursday in June my aunt arrived from the UK for her visit; the next day Dad's house sold, and I no longer had a real estate interest in Des Moines. Margaret's visit was two weeks long; as soon as she left, my mother in law arrived for a couple of days. She left, and a weekend loomed up with no obligations. Happily for me, the latest Harry Potter book was arriving. Henry rode up to the Har Mar Mall bookstore for the party and to buy the two copies we'd reserved; he rode home about 1:30AM and the next morning the household plunged into Pottermania. Nobody was even going to notice if I were gone.

I rode off east to start with, following a ride mapped on Map My Ride. It's 20 miles and passes near the house, so I thought I'd follow the eastern bits, not all of which I've ridden. I did this, riding down Summit to the end and decided I didn't want to go home yet, it was a gorgeous day and at home would be hungry cats and oblivious Potter-obsessed humans. I rode across the Lake Street brigde and up to the Midtown Greenway, and headed west.

At Hiawatha I was pleased to see that work is progressing on the bridge over Hiawatha, which will circumvent the current level crossing. Not only is work progressing, they were working on this lovely Saturday!

Your Tax Dollars At Work I

Crane and bridge support on Hiawatha bridge
The cable support and crane for the Hiawatha Bridge.

The cable anchors for the Hiawatha bridge
The cable anchors on the west side.

The grading is looking done on the east side. It looks like this bridge might be open this fall.

I rode on. Is there anything more luxurious than a beautiful day, a lovely bicycle, and absolutely no agenda whatsoever? I rode to the end, then backtracked to the Cars'R'Coffins where I settled in to read a 'zine, drink a latte and consume a delicious ginger and currant scone.

New bike traffic markings on Bryant Avenue in Minneapolis
Riding up Bryant Avenue there were new markings on the street. There's not room for bike lanes, but these get put down. I guess they've been trying them in some cities and they serve as useful reminders for motorists that bicycles are there and to cyclists which direction to ride (just tonight, coming home, I had to make room in my lane for a wrong-way cyclist). Plus they're cheap. It's the first time I've seen them in person.

I rode on, back to the Greenway, out to the end of the path, then back up the Kenilworth Trail. It leads to the Cedar Lake Bike Path and I've never ridden on this. I got on it and rode into Minneapolis.

I have to say, it's a pretty greasy way to enter Minneapolis. It goes by highways, past the impound lot, past vast dunes of sand the city keeps to scatter about in winter, growing a crown of weeds now, by piles of smashed concrete. Minneapolis is a lovely city in many parts, but the Cedar Lake Trail is not the way I'd bring in a first-time visitor!

Ominous signs loomed up. TRAIL CLOSED AHEAD. I idled up to the sign and peered on down around the bend. A young couple pulled up. Do you guys know if this goes through? I asked. One of our friends says it's ok said the young lady. I have no schedule, what can happen?, I ride a mile and have to turn back? I head on past the sign and the young couple follows.

The trail carries on for a mile or two, the scenery not improving, and finally does come up to a read end, another sign, but backed up by a fence next to a steep dirt hill leading to a parking lot behind a warehouse. The young lady, the couple having caught up, muscles her bicycle up the path. The young man gets a phone call and takes it and I head up the hill too, having noticed a grisly-looking homeless person watching us with interest. I hung around in the parking lot with the young lady and the homeless guy who kind of grunted at us and sidled off, until the young man showed up, then I clipped in and headed around the corner.

The fencing that ends the trail is blocking off the site of the Minnesota Twin's new ballpark. There is some pissing contest going on about the price of this unpromising-looking bit of real estate, the price having gone up once the Twins got interested, but despite the lack of resolution on price, work has started.

Your Tax Dollars at Work II

Work starting on the new Twins ballpark
A panorama of the ballpark site.

The pilings getting pounded in
It would be aggravating to work in the building in the background since there was a continuous headache-inducing pounding going on on the pilings in the foreground. Sure are a lot of construction guys working this lovely Saturday!

I was getting kind of hot so rode over to One on One Bicycle Studio, locked up, and got a cold drink and sat reading a book for a few minutes. I took my leave and rode home, stopping for a photo or two, idling along, up the Hendon hill off Como Avenue, cutting through the U of M Saint Paul campus only to find that I was locked out of the State Fairgrounds due to some event, backtracked, took Como Avenue home and arrived back before teatime. I popped my head into Geneva's room and she was crying into the book; the house orca had just died or something. Bummer. I couldn't think of anything appropriately soothing to say so just went back downstairs and put the water on.

It wasn't a fast ride, it wasn't a long distance (about 38 miles in the end and some pathetic average speed, par for the course when I'm exploring, lost or taking photos), there was absolutely no purpose to it at all, but it sure was delightful to just wander along without an agenda and follow my nose. For all their utility as transportation, bicycles are just plain fun as well. I hope I have more days like these, and I hope you do too.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Daily Reading

While I have been preoccupied the past month with various duties, visitors and trips, I have begun reading a couple of fun blogs pretty regularly. I really like the locally-done Pinch Flat News, which comments on bike industry trends and seems unduly hostile to folding bikes (I don't have one, but like the idea).

Separately, the New York-based Bike Snob NYC has a hilarious take on bicycle fashions, especially the Fixie Phenomenon. I can laugh at this with a clear conscience, never having had a fixie and having dispensed with singlespeed bicycles when I got my Columbia Tourist 3-speed for my tenth birthday. However, I can also recognize the passing fads of cycling when I see them and know that I haven't always been immune. When I was that age, it was lugged steel ten-speeds with too-high gearing and sew-ups. It's funny, and a bit rueful now, to look back and think that I couldn't possibly live without the superior handling of the silk tubulars whilst riding my bike to work at Sears.

Rational Observer: "But your bicycle has no gears or brakes."
Earnest Enthusiast: "Yeah man it's pure cycling and I have mad skillz and don't need gears or brakes."

Rational Observer: "But your tires are skinny, hard, fragile and expensive."
Earnest Enthusiast: "Yeah man but when you have exquisite cycling sensitivities such as myself you demand only the finest-handling gear to ride to work."

A rational look would have had me riding to work on a three-speed, probably, with the gear ratios knocked down a bit, but the early 20s are not a rational age and are informed by fashion, style and a painful earnestness. The crowning mercy for those of my vintage (nearing 50) is that we pretty much embarrassed ourselves among a limited circle of friends whereas now any clownish hipster can proclaim their painful earnestness and infatuated enthusiasms to The World on the web. This scrap of self-knowledge doesn't keep me from enjoying Bike Snob; take a look, you might like it too.