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!