Thursday, December 31, 2009

2010 To-Do List: Keep It Simple, Stupid

At the risk of starting a shame-spiral, let's review my 2009 to-do list and the success/failure count.
  • LimpStrong 3.0? Nope, didn't do that.
  • Distance rides on a fixed-gear? Nope, not that one either.
  • Getting a bike older than me? Yep. Not much of an accomplishment, but whatever.
  • More tandem rides? Not really.
  • More nephew time? Yeah, though still not enough.
  • More better blogging? Well, there was more. I'll leave it to my reader(s) to judge better.
So in terms of riding goals, it was pretty much a bust.

This year, I'm going to try to distill all my goals into three simple ideas: Less stuff, more riding, less me.

"Less stuff" because I know I have bike hoarding tendencies. Do I really need a stack of six spare tires? A box of unused brake levers? Two extra water bottle cages for every bike? A dozen variations on bike luggage? Or -- brace for blasphemy -- more than one good solo bike? Probably not. So I'm going to make a concerted effort to reduce my stash.

"More riding" is obvious, I hope. Don't futz with the bike so much. Just ride the dang thing.

And "less me" should be a result of "more riding" -- I hope. The body mass index charts say I should drop 30 pounds of bacon and donuts from my midsection. That seems nuts, but I'll give it a shot.

Okay, it's out there. Less stuff, more riding, less me. No ducking it now.

Thanks to all my readers for tolerating my babble in '09. Have a safe and happy new year, and I'll do my darndest to entertain you, inform you, and/or treat your insomnia in 2010.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Winter Strikes Back

Sometimes, winter reminds you exactly why our region of the country has a "biking season" and an "off season."

This morning, I rolled the bike out of the garage onto a patch of what looked like just a dusting of fresh, powdery snow over the concrete. Turns out, thanks to my south-facing garage and the resulting daily thaw/refreeze cycles, there was a thick cake of ice under that snow. I got a leg over the bike, pushed off, turned the pedals over once, and POW. I was on the ground, flailing like an upside-down turtle. Ever try to get out from under a bike, stand up, and get that bike back on its tires on ice? Ain't easy.

Somehow, the nose of my saddle hit the back of my left knee in the fall, making a nice throbbing knot on the tendon. My bum back is griping a little too, though I can't tell if that's from the fall or from favoring the achy left leg when I walk. Otherwise, I'm unharmed -- save for my pride, since that must have been the most comical slow-speed smackdown ever.

Take note, winter cyclists: Studded tires won't always save you from stupidity.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Book Review: Off to the Races

I'm lucky enough to have good friends of the non-bikey persuasion who know me as a bike geek. One of those friends found a blast from my past at a garage sale in the form of the book Off to the Races (copyright 1968) written by Fred and Marjorie Phleger and illustrated by Leo Summers.

I owned a copy of this book way back in my tricycle days, long before I graduated to two-wheelers, and -- now that I see it again and the memories come rushing back -- I think it's probably my favorite kids' bike book, even outstripping the famed primate on wheels Curious George. It's the story of a boy who's told that he's "too young" to make the two-day bike trip with older brother Bob to a bike rally. Undeterred, our hero sneaks a peek at Bob's maps, sees his brother off, then sets off himself in a solo pursuit. Thus begins a trip that cyclists of all ages can relate to -- hills, fatigue, rain, mud, darkness, and even an encounter with a bear. At the risk of minor spoilage, our hero does finally reach the rally -- which includes, among many other events, a "wiggly board race." Let's see Lance Armstrong do that!

With simple full-page colored drawings and just a couple kid-friendly sentences per page, the Phlegers and Leo Summers still manage to convey an epic adventure on wheels. I remember worrying about that kid as he rode alone through the rainy night searching for Bob. I remember wondering if he would ever make it to that rally. Three decades later, I still worry and wonder, even though I know the ending by heart. Best of all, even though the bikes and outfits look dated (it's like Dick and Jane meet The Rivendell Reader) and I've never heard of a rally like the one described ("wiggly board race", remember?), the book rings true to me as a cyclist now that I've finally taken the training wheels off and set out on my own two-wheeled adventures.

All in all, it's a book that bikers of all ages can appreciate. If you can find a copy (either through my self-serving Amazon link above or anywhere else), I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Happy 11th Night of Hanukkah To Me

Yes, Rabbi Reader, I know Hanukkah has only eight nights. But Monday night, I took possession of a little gift that makes me oh-so happy.

I've been coveting a winter biking hat in wool ever since I got my Deller Designs summer cap a few years ago. My covetous eye looked upon Deller's winter offerings, Swobo, and Walz (coveting in no particular order there). But before this fool and his money could be parted, my wonderful wife said, "I can make that."

So she did. Here's the result, upon my homely Sputnik-esque noggin:

I call it my Yehuda Moon hat, as an homage to the retro-grouchy biking cartoon character who wears a very similar lid.

This now runs my total of Carla-produced wool cycling knitwear to three hats (helmet liner 1.0, helmet liner 2.0 and the aforementioned Yehuda Moon) and a pair of lobster mitts. I am one lucky dude.

Hey, quit coveting my wife! There's a commandment against that, you know!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Visit To The Dark Side

I had a dentist appointment this morning.

Nothing dark about that, really. My tooth professional doesn't torment me too much, other than that whole "flossing" thing and her gentle, well-meaning insistence that, "maybe someday we'll do something about those two front teeth?" I broke them in a dumb crash about ten years ago (hard cornering plus worn-out indoor trainer tire plus wet leaves equals emergency room visit) and could only afford to have them sort-of fixed. At the time, it looked pretty good. Now, it's becoming one of those "before" pictures in my dentist's waiting room.

No, the Dark Side for me was a (gasp!) conventional suburban car commute. I normally bike to the dentist, but for whatever reason, I talked myself out of it ("It's cold. I'm lazy. The new house is too far from the dentist. I'm lazy.") and made arrangements with my better half to share the car. In one of those "lousy endorsements for a one-car life" moments, that decision entailed:

  • Getting up way earlier than I needed to.
  • Driving said better half to West Des Moines (motto: "Now With Even More Mini-Malls!") for her job.
  • Turning around and heading back into Des Moines proper shortly after 7:30... when every Canyonero-driving suburbanite cube jockey was headed the same way.
Now don't get me wrong. This is still the greater Des Moines area, land of the legendary "15 minutes to anywhere" drive. We don't have a rush hour. Maybe on a bad day, we get "Minneapolis-lite" traffic. But I still felt myself clench up as the density of single-occupant soccer-yachts closed in around me. By the time I'd reached my destination, I was in a noticeably less happy place than where I'd started (and, again, not just because that destination was the dentist's office). It was a far cry from a morning bike commute, where I step off the pedals feeling fresher than I started, even though the traffic gets a lot closer and has a lot better chance of killing me.

Part of the problem, I'll admit, is that I'm not a great driver. As a red-blooded American male, it's hard to fess up to that. But it's true. I don't always know where the corners of my vehicle are. My eyes are bad, and my depth perception is lousy. And -- this one's the bike's fault -- my reaction time is tuned in to 15-20 miles per hour, not three or four times that fast. Yet a trace of that American Male training still tells me that I'm invincible with a wheel in my hand. It's not a good combination.

For the record, cyclists and pedestrians need not worry about the Litany of Terror above... I know my weaknesses and proceed with extra-special caution around all vulnerable human-propelled bretheren (even -- shudder -- that sub-human, wheeled-foot mutant species known as the Rollerblader). But for the rest of you, the subject is armed with a blue Subaru Forester and presumed dangerous. You've been warned.

Next time, I'll suck it up and ride to the dentist, lesson learned. But the drive did serve as a nice reminder of why I live where I do, work where I do, and get around the way I do. And I didn't have any cavities!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Bike Obsession Confessional, Part 1

When the weather turns ugly (and dang, is it ugly here now), I have a bad habit of casting a covetous eye on bicycles that are not my own. Weather's great and I'm getting lots of saddle time? I love my fleet. But when I'm not getting that saddle time, I look at those same bikes and think, "This is your fault." It's irrational, I know. I yam what I yam.

In an attempt to purge my bike-dulterous thoughts, I'm going to share them here. Today's unrequited love? The Xootr Swift folding bike, which looks a little something like this:
Why, pray tell, would someone with a yen for vintage mountain bikes with drop bars fall for this homely little mutt? Especially when that someone has never ridden one of these things or even seen one in person? Honestly, I do not know. Here are a few things that sort of justify my wandering eye:
  • Aluminum frame. I ride in a lot of crud that is doing ugly things to my steel frames. Beer can bikes don't have these issues.
  • Low standover. My bum leg has issues getting over a conventional frame, especially in the cold.
  • Short top tube. I'm all leg, so it's a real challenge to set up a conventional bike with the bars close enough for my T-Rex arms.
  • Simplicity. It already has the 1x8 drivetrain I favor, and if that isn't simple enough, the horizontal dropouts will accommodate a singlespeed/fixed conversion.
  • Lots of standard components. I like to futz with my bikes. Weird proprietary parts make that impractical to impossible.
  • Tire selection. You think there are a gaggle of 26" or 700c tires out there to choose from? Look at a BMX-centric site sometime (I shop at Dan's Comp for my rare "mad skillz, yo" BMX needs -- but be warned, once they have your address, you'll be buried in catalogs.) There are a LOT of 406 bead-seat tires out there, from gnarly gnobbies to street smoothies. And in a desperate moment on tour, you can probably find something passable in any old dash-mart (Wal, K, whatever) or hardware store.
  • Folding is just cool. Reports say that the Swift doesn't fold as small or as easy as some, but still, a bike you can stuff in a duffle? That's just crazy-fun.
  • It's just different. Yeah, I'm that guy, the one who just can't stand to be riding the same bike as the next guy up the road. It's like seeing someone at a party wearing the same dress -- and if I had a nickel for every time THAT happened to me...
(WARNING: I'm about to pepper the following paragraph with links to illustrate the stuff I'm talking about, and they're gonna go to Amazon, and if you follow them and buy stuff, I get a measly percentage of your purchase price kicked back to me. So if you're the sort of person who says, "Gosh, I'll follow the link of this random blogger and impulse-buy a $700 bike despite the fact that he admits he's never ridden one," you've been warned.)

So what would my Swift look like? First things first, those flat bars would be replaced with the drops from my tourer (including the 8-speed bar-end shifter on a Paul's Thumbies mount). My brake levers wouldn't cut it for the V-brakes, so I'd need some Tektro RL520s instead. And the el-cheapo V-brakes would go bye-bye in favor of el-cheapo Shimano V-brakes (no link here, since pretty much ANYTHING Shimano will outperform the no-namers, as the bottom-rung Shimano Vs on my tandem will attest). I'd hang some baggage on that bad boy, maybe tack on a second stem for lights and accessories like Alex Wetmore did, and away we'd go. A second set of singlespeed wheels from the LBS would be a cheap security blanket, and come winter, those would probably wear some 20" studded tires (yes, they exist -- I told you this was a common size!) And lookee there, it's a pocket-sized do-it-all bike!

Oh, shoot. I was supposed to be talking myself out of this plan, but I think I'm on the slippery slope toward talking myself into it. I hate when that happens...

Driven To Distraction

I think cell phone use (whether for chatting or -- heaven forfend -- texting) while driving should be banned. Seriously.

Why? Allow me to illustrate with a little people-watching exercise.

I work in downtown Des Moines, which is connected by a fairly extensive skywalk system. In effect, it's an elevated ant farm for corporate cubicle drones like myself. At about noon every day, several massive companies disgorge their hordes of employees into this network of glorified hallways for lunch, and many of those employees immediately take up their personal cell phones for a chat or a text.

And I've noticed that when people are using their phones for whatever purpose, they are ENTIRELY INCAPABLE OF WALKING IN A STRAIGHT LINE AT A NORMAL SPEED. Watch for yourself sometime. If you're in a large crowd where a lot of people are using phones, chances are you'll get a full-body check (or at least a near miss) from one of these distracted walkers.

Knowing those odds, I don't think I'm being unreasonable to expect that these same people should NOT operate a half-ton of horsepower while using their phones. The full-body check on foot isn't so bad; heck, if you're paying attention, you can plant your feet and "accidentally" put someone on their tuchus (not that I would do such a thing, of course). But if I'm on the bike and that person is doing S-curves down a straight road in a friggin' Hummer while tapping out OMGs and LOLs, I'm toast.

(Hypocrite alert: I will sometimes answer my phone while riding the bike. You may fling rotten virtual tomatoes at me now.)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Note To The Storm: I'm Sorry! So Knock It Off!

I didn't think much of it the other day when I snarkily commented on the predicted "Storm of the Century" bearing down on us.

Unfortunately, it heard me, and absolutely WALLOPED Des Moines. Something like 15" of snow, 30mph winds with gusts to 50, and now the temps are plummeting, with wind chills predicted to be 15-20 below ZERO (F.) tonight.

At first, we were getting along just fine. It closed my office, so I got to sit inside the new townhouse and watch the nice men shovel out my sidewalks and driveway multiple times (we got our money's worth out of those homeowners' association dues just today, I figure -- the rest of the month is gravy).

BUT THEN IT KILLED MY INTERNET CONNECTION. Aw, c'mon! Trap me in my house and block off the series of tubes so I can't feed my biggest addiction other than coffee? (Luckily, we had plenty of that.) Cruel and unusual.

My interweb access is back again (obviously), so I'm grudgingly making nice with the storm again. But storm, if you're listening, you could go a long way toward appeasing me if you'd just close my office for one more day. Deal?

Monday, December 7, 2009

Give Me A Lever...

... and I shall SMITE the evil Sun rim/Nokian studded tire monster!

I can't find this thing on Amazon, or else I'd link to it in one of those "you buy it, I get a kickback" deals. But I'm so insanely impressed by my impulse-purchased Bontrager tire levers, I don't care. And besides, how many tire levers would Amazon have to sell (at a whopping four bucks a pair) in order for me to get that extra kidney I've been wanting, anyway?

You'd think it would be hard to screw up a tire lever, but so many companies have. This one has a nice shape in the hand, a slender tip that can get into the most spelunker-proof rim/tire bead crevices, and -- most importantly -- it's made out of some wacky space-age plastic that finally lives up to the promise of The Graduate. Specifically, I can honk on this thing with all my noodle-armed might and (so far, knock on wood), it DOES NOT BREAK. My Nokians are installed (ready for the impending Storm of the Century that has all the local meteorological-folk running around like chickens with their heads cut off) thanks to these little buggers.

I like these so much, I'm holding back my usual person-turned-Trek-brand snark... at least for now. Thank you, oh thank you, whatever Trek product manager slapped Keith's logo on these levers and shipped them off to Trek-marts the world over.

Bring on the snow!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Takin' It To The Feet

A couple posts ago, I lamented the fact that my new short commute will probably make me fat(ter). This is a pretty real (and surprisingly un-funnyish) fear for me. I just turned 37. My dad had his first heart attack at 44. His third (that ended his life) was ten years later. On my mom's side, I lost my too-young grandfather this year to a heart condition he never saw coming. One day, he was seemingly healthy, and less than a week later, he died on the operating table during major bypass surgery.

Heavy stuff, I know. But it's what I live with. So when I start falling into bad patterns, eating garbage, exercising less, and straining my belt, I get nervous. So nervous, in fact, that I actually attempted running last weekend. Regular readers will know that running ranks somewhere near root canals on my list of activities to avoid. Luckily, my new abode is near a cemetery so I had a place to abuse myself where no passerby could mistake my stride for a seizure. Plus, it was a handy (or perhaps heavy-handed) mortality reminder to boot. But after one miserable half hour of jogging-cum-walking-cum-limping-cum-staggering, I remembered why I stopped running many, many years ago. It was perhaps one of the most pathetic displays of attempted athleticism ever committed on pavement.

As I waited for the shin splints to subside, it dawned on me: One mile to work is a lame bike ride, but it's a nice little walk. Do that round trip every day, and maybe I could stave off fatness without the masochism of running. So I've spent all this week going to work slowly on foot, and I think I'm a little hooked. Some reasons why:

THE SCENERY: Okay, downtown Des Moines ain't the Grand Canyon. But in the same way that I notice things on the bike that would go by too fast in the car, I notice things on foot that I just wouldn't pick up from the saddle. F'rinstance, I get to pass through a world-class sculpture park twice a day -- one that's closed to bikes and skateboards (determine for yourself if that's The Man keepin' me down). I also get to pass by the copper-walled, green-roofed Central Library and the historic Temple for Performing Arts. Local businesses, amazing landscaping (it helps to have Meredith Corporation -- publishers of Better Homes & Gardens -- between home and work), great architecture, subtle changes in weather, you name it. Sure, all of this is available to me on wheels, but the speed of riding and the focus it requires keeps me from paying enough attention. Plus, I can walk against the one-way streets, opening up dozens of new ways to approach downtown and dozens of new angles to view it.

THE TUNES: I have an unhealthy attachment to my iPod. There, I admitted it. But it scares me silly to close off my ears when I'm on the bike. I'll throw it in the handlebar bag when I know I'm going to be out on a long, isolated slog in need of inspiration, but most days, I ride without music. On foot, I have no qualms about turning it up to 11. Today, I was laughing myself extra-silly to the newest Flight of the Conchords album -- highly recommended.

THE CONVENIENCE: As easy as it is to lock up a bike, and as much as I want to think of myself as the Urban Super Bike Transportation Guy, I know darn well that I'm just a tiny bit hesitant to make stops on my way to/from work because I'll have to lock up. On foot, you just pop in wherever you decide you want to go, no parking required. Coffeehouses, restaurants, bars, odd little local shops, the market across the street from home, and even weird corners of the human ant farm that is the Des Moines Skywalk system -- nothing is off limits. If Carla wants to meet me downtown for dinner or a drink or a movie after work, I don't have to think about getting the bike home, because it's already home.

Downsides? Well, sure. For one, a 10-minute ride is a 20- to 25-minute walk depending on how many of those stops I make... and while I can tolerate just about any weather conditions for 10 minutes, a brisk Midwestern winter breeze gets old around minute 15. Also, let's call it like it is -- walking is what retirees do around the mall. There's just nothing cool about it, no way to pretend you're being EXTREME. Maybe it just needs rebranding, though. Urban hiking? Low-impact Parkour? I'm accepting submissions.

Don't worry, gentle reader(s). This is not going to become a walking blog, debating the minutiae of heel strike and stride length. I'm only really interested in the cocktail-party-yawn-inducing details of bikes, which I'll be thinking about during my daily walks.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Bill's Half Century

A little birdie told me that my Pennsylvania pal Bill W. is turning the ripe old age of FIFTY. I'm a little late posting this congrats, but in my defense, that same little birdie threw him a big ol' surprise party on Friday, so any earlier and I would have spoiled the surprise. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

Bill was my boss at my last bike shop gig, the now-sadly-defunct Laurel Highlands Schwinn in Latrobe PA (yes, home of Rolling Rock beer and Arnie Palmer). I've already mentioned him in a rant about the economy, but I figured in honor of his big birthday, I'd devote a post to what I'll call Bill's Greatest Hits. These little snips of my favorite Bill stories might not stitch together into something coherent, but hopefully by the end, you'll have a pretty good picture of a pretty good guy.

I first met Bill thanks to a really lucky coincidence -- I'd followed my wife out to western PA for her work and to give myself space out of grad school to finish up my thesis. The catch was, I couldn't maintain my sanity as a full-time thesis-writer, and my wife's salary couldn't keep both of us fed. So we looked up the bike shops in the area (since I did still have one marketable skill that grad school hadn't beaten out of me) and paid Bill's place a visit. Turns out, his mechanic at the time was leaving, so after a quick grilling to see if I actually knew anything (confession -- I faked it), I was hired.

Working for Bill pretty much ruined me on every boss since. I mean, c'mon, the guy used to pay me just to hang out and play darts in the slow season. We rode laps around an indoor obstacle course. We tried (with no success) to learn how to ride a unicycle. I can't count the number of times he bought Jioio's pizza for lunch (man, do I ever miss Jioio's... and they have a MAIL ORDER PIZZA link on their site! But it's not working! Pizza tease!) And what kind of boss holds an annual Christmas cookout of deer burgers made from a deer he took down himself with a bow and arrow? (If I remember correctly, we got a friend/team rider/customer -- who shall remain nameless to protect the innocent -- wasted on cheap wine at one of these get-togethers until he passed out in a chair in the back of the shop, waking up every once in a while to slur/shout, "WHAT TIME IS IT?!?")

Now lest you think it was all fun and games at Laurel Highlands Schwinn, Bill and I did have our one near-death experience in the shop. Ooh, cue ominous music, right? We were working together on an overhaul for a Cannondale Headshok suspension fork. If you're not familiar with that procedure (because who is?), it involves a special "castle" tool that unscrews and removes a top cartridge inside the steerer tube, exposing the guts of the spring/damper mechanism. For some reason, this one was giving me grief, so Bill helped out. Little did either of us know that we'd both forgotten to bleed the air pressure out of the shock before we started -- which was the one "DO NOT EVER FORGET THIS" all-caps warning in the manual and in the handy service video with Nigel the English Cannondale Service Video Guy. As soon as the threads loosened, the cartridge shot out of the steerer like a mortar shell, ripping the castle tool out of my hands and missing both our heads by inches before shattering the fluorescent lights over our heads and putting an impressive divot in the ceiling. A couple inches either way and one of us would have been taking the other to the hospital. We laughed about it later... much later, once our hearts slowed back down.

I laughed a lot around Bill. Nobody keeps a straight face and stretches a good joke out better. When PNC Bank got the naming rights for a stadium in Pittsburgh, Bill had me completely convinced that it would have windows in the bathrooms so you could keep watching the game while you were at the urinal. I bought this for what seemed like hours (because it does sound like a good idea, right?) before he dropped the "Pee and See Bank" punchline on me. If Bill has a good joke, just watch out -- nobody's safe. And he'll sell it to the bitter end until he finally cracks himself up. And if you want to spring any sort of practical joke on someone, hit Bill up for ideas. I'd like to take credit for all the ways I tortured Junior Mechanic Chad "The Great Chadolini", but most of the good ideas were Bill's... and I suspect he was behind a lot of the pranks Chad used to get me back.

One of those sick, sick jokes was our "shop people only" Spinning class. We sold and serviced all the Spinning bikes for a local health club, so they told us that if we got together enough guys on a Sunday morning, they'd do a class just for us. Anyone who's ever been on an all-guys group ride can imagine the scene as a dozen of us swaggered in snickering at the thought of getting a "workout" from this tiny little female aerobics teacher. Fast forward to an hour later, when swaggers had become staggers and we were all struggling to keep breakfast down. If Bill hadn't taught me the "pretend to turn your resistance dial instead of actually turning it" trick, I never would have made it through a second class.

Our actual outdoor group rides were a piece of cake by comparison, since they usually involved a coasting contest. Unless I'm mistaken, Bill is still the undisputed champion of the coasting contest. You can draw your own conclusions on whether that's due to his (ahem) greater mass or just his buttery-smooth Dura Ace hubs. Since it's his birthday, I'll go with the hubs.

I've probably rattled on long enough, even though I've barely scratched the surface. So, before my two readers who aren't Bill nod off to sleep, I'll just say congratulations on the big five-oh to a great boss, a great friend, and a great guy. Bill, any time you find yourself in Iowa (opening that kite shop you and Chad were planning, maybe), you're welcome here at the House of Noodle. And the next time I find myself out in Westmoreland County, you can probably drop my fat butt like nobody's business going up Laurel Mountain. I'll give you a good run down the other side during the coasting contest, though.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Clark Kent Commuting

The new home brings with it a new, shorter commute. The front door of The Cycle new-and-improved World Headquarters is just one stinkin' mile away from my cubicle.

I have issues with change. Mess with too many variables in my usual routine and I get kind of twitchy. So the first day I rode to work from the new HQ, I did my usual: Wake up early, dress in bike clothes and clipless-compatible shoes, pack work clothes, ride to work, change to work clothes, work all day, change back to bike clothes and clipless-compatible shoes, ride home, and change out of bike clothes. In other words, for about a 20 minute round-trip, I spent a solid 45 minutes changing clothes. Dumb.

Since Day 1, I've adapted myself to a civilian commute. I put flat pedals back on the daily driver and started riding that mile in my work clothes and shoes. It's an adjustment, I'll admit, but so far, it's been a worthwhile one. I get to sleep later since all that transition time is gone -- I just ride to the office, lock up, and stroll to my desk. I get a lot more flexibility too, since I no longer feel like I have to pop into the phone booth and come out in my superhero clothes just to ride. Hit the grocery store on the way home? Sure. Ride straight to a restaurant for dinner with my wife after work? Why not? Hop on the bike at lunch to hit a good restaurant on the other side of downtown? Yep. It feels like being on foot, only faster.

The downside, obviously, is that I'm less inclined to take the long way home and "turn a pedal in anger" (to quote the legend Phil Liggett). Time will tell if this change in my commuting style makes me fatter, or if the lack of exterior maintenance on the new casa frees up enough time that I can get more of those angry pedal-turnings outside my commute.

(The other downside to the new domicile? Small garage! If I weren't the custodian of Steve K's old Raleigh International, I'd feel almost obligated to cut back to just -- gasp! -- ONE bike to conserve space. Thankfully, that International is just too darn nice to vote off the island.)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Now It Feels Like Home

I found the nearest local coffee joint to the new domicile: Smokey Row.

It's just a few blocks up the "hill" (those scare-quotes are for my readers who live places where there are actual hills, not the geographic pimples that pass for hills here) from the new World Headquarters. Bottomless cups of tasty dark brew, yummy cookies, free wi-fi, and a good vibe -- not corporate at all (yay, locals) but not "we're way too hip for you, old man" either. It's also big enough to cater to my agoraphobic tendencies... I actually have a decent swath of caffeine-consuming real estate all to myself instead of having to go all Swayze on people: "This is MY coffee space, this is YOUR coffee space." And -- super double bonus -- tonight's patrons include a snarky local weatherman (pardon me, meteorologist) who's trying really, really hard to pretend that he doesn't notice being noticed, but still can't resist giving that "yep, you really are seeing ME" smirk to the noticers. Hilarious.

(You may now mock the postmodern cliche of me writing about trying to look like I'm not noticing someone who's noticing that he's being noticed by someone else. Done? Good.)

I fear I will waste a lot of time (and put a lot of miles on my kidneys) here. In fact, I'm wishing I had the laptop from The Company (that one run by The Man) instead of my netbook so I could do tonight's site deployment from my booth.

Nutshell review: Two very twitchy thumbs up. Time for another refill!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Cycle Relocates!

The big move is done, and we're settling in to The Cycle World Headquarters 2.0. Apologies for the lack of bike content, but I just wanted to let my reader(s) know that I hadn't fallen into a hole.

Two moronic moving foibles on my part, for your entertainment:

"Um, honey, where's the hardware for the bed?"

Yep, I lost the bolts and nuts that are absolutely necessary to assemble the bed. Found them at about 11:00 p.m. the night of the move and just barely got the thing put together (with much assistance from a rightfully-irritated spouse) before midnight. Doh.

"Oh, crap, my cell phone is dead. Didn't I just have that charger?"
Yeah, I'm that guy. Had to go to Radio Shack yesterday (slogan, courtesy of Steve K: "You've got questions, we've got blank stares.") and pay my $30 idiot fee for a new charger.
On the bright side, all the bikes do fit in TCWHQ 2.0's smaller garage (don't have to vote any off the island) and the new workshop (also located in TCWHQ 2.0's garage) is gradually coming together. I was very well-behaved during the move too -- didn't hover around the movers while they stuck the bikes in the truck (adopting a "don't ask what's getting scratched, don't tell them what to do" policy) and only hovered a little when the bikes came off the truck. Thankfully, no harm was done to the fleet, or to anything else for that matter.

Now, if I could just find the box where I packed my sanity...

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Mysteries of the Interwebs

One of my favorite bike websites is the abandoned little corner of the 'net known as the Bike-Pro Buyer's Guide.

I wish I could tell you what the deal is with this site. It's packed full of excruciatingly detailed writeups of an amazingly wide variety of components. The catch? It's as if the people running it were wiped out by some mysterious alien microbe in 1995, yet the site... kept... running. It always gives me a creepy feeling to surf the guide, kind of like the sailor in Nevil Shute's
On the Beach who has to go ashore to find the source of the random radio signal emanating from the irradiated ruins of Seattle (great book, by the way -- assuming you're interested in a fictional account of the aftermath of global nuclear war, of course.)

So, as long as the benevolent and/or clueless overlords of Bike-Pro's domain will allow, you can don your radiation suit and read a review of Shimano PD-M737 pedals as if they're still current cutting edge (scratch that, there's a mention of the "new" 747 coming out in 1995) from right here in 2009. Not obscure enough? How about 13 different types of "current" bar-ends and another 10 that are described as "no longer made"? Kids, a "bar-end" was an extension we clamped on to the end of our flat mountain bike bars to provide an extra hand position. What's a flat mountain bike bar, you ask? Sheesh, just hand me my cane and go back to texting...

For someone like me with a fetish for all things MTB of the mid-90s, the Buyer's Guide is a gold mine of forgotten memories from a time when just about anybody who could CNC a blocky component and anodize it rainbow colors hopped into the bike parts business. Meanwhile, Shimano quietly made the greatest mountain bike group ever, M900 XTR. Oh, M900, how I coveted you on my $5 an hour mechanic's salary, yet even on employee purchase you remained tantalizingly out of reach (I love how Bike-Pro never misses a chance to describe XTR as Shimano's "eXTRa expensive group of components.") When I think of all the dumb things I bought when I could have been saving for a full-XTR Stumpjumper... sigh. (Though I wasn't
too dumb, since I bought an engagement ring and an LX-equipped Rockhopper instead... and guess which one has lasted?)

Where was I going with that? Dang, even I don't know. Digression! Digression!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Overcompensate Much?

Spotted on my commute home: A car with a rooftop bike rack (bikeless) and a sticker on the back with this simple message: 53x11

Seriously? 53x11? As in, 126.6 gear inches on a 700x23 tire? As in, 45mph at 120 rpm on that same 700x23? (Math courtesy of the late, great Sheldon Brown.)

Here's a tip: If you can turn it, you probably don't need to advertise it.
Just sayin' is all.

(Slice of humble pie: I was struggling to turn over a 42x18 at the time. So what do I know?)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

In The Bag (Part 2)

As you may recall, part 1 of this series gave a general breakdown of the types of bags you can use to commute with some pros and cons of each type. Now, as promised, I'll give some quickie reviews of actual brands and models that I've tested on the not-so-mean streets. I'm leaving out the "experimental" bags and sticking with ones that I've really tested hard over time. Note that (as usual) none of these were "sponsored" in any way -- I either paid for the bag with my own grubby bills or it was a gift from a mystified relative who didn't really know what they were buying or why. And, as usual, if a link in this post goes to the product on Amazon, your purchase over there will eventually result in some kind of tiny kickback for yours truly. Think of it as "supporting the blog" -- insofar as any money I make here goes toward buying more stuff to talk about here. If the link goes anywhere other than Amazon, I don't make one stinkin' red cent. Ah well.


These were the first bags I ever bought specifically for a bike commute, and I've become a big fan of all things Jandd based on the 10 years they have now lived on at least one of my bikes. The materials and construction are about as tough as a Paris-Roubaix rider's backside, and when the hardware is properly adjusted, they lock to the rack with absolutely zero sway. The expanders can take them from fairly sleek to touring-kit devouring (in fact, I've done a three-day tour with just these bags and a couple things strapped on my rack). Downsides? They are very water-resistant, but the zippers and hardware holes make them just short of waterproof. Like most panniers, they're a bit awkward to carry off the bike -- two (snapped together with the thick leather handle) are wide and bulky, while one leaves poky mounting hardware exposed (including the stainless hooks that can scratch up rack rails in use). And, that mounting hardware is definitely designed for extended tours rather than day-to-day utility cycling. It takes some finagling to get the bags on and off the bike (a minor nuisance that becomes a major annoyance when you do it twice a day in heavy gloves), and they don't always swap nicely from one rack to another without a fairly involved hardware re-adjustment. But, if you're a one-bike commuter who values toughness and stability over quick-release convenience, they'll likely outlast whatever bike you put them on.


I confess, I'm such a bag hound, I'm now on my second medium T2 messenger. The first was my "I'm a grown-up with a real job, time to reward myself" gift when we moved to Des Moines, a custom in no-longer-available waxed cotton canvas. For whatever reason, I temporarily lost my taste for M-bags shortly after, never quite liking the way it hung on my back, and ended up selling it. Duh. So several years later, there I was replacing it with the same thing in non-custom Cordura. I know that the T2 messenger is so fixie-hipster ubiquitous these days that it's a cliche to even sling one on, but I'm also convinced there's a good reason for the popularity beyond just hype. The waterproof liner actually works, the bag stays (mostly) where it belongs on your back when the straps are properly adjusted, and you really can spin it around to grab something out of it like a real messenger on a double-rush. The medium size has been the "just right" for me -- I can't fill a large with my commute gear, so it flops around half-empty and twice as uncomfortable. You're still going to get Sweaty Back Syndrome from it (especially if you sweat like I do), but that's pretty unavoidable with a bag you wear. More-hardarse-than-I guys report that these won't hold up to "real" messengering, but I certainly haven't been able to wear mine out in "civilian" duty. If I have to carry a laptop, this is what I use.


I bought this as a reaction to my Jandd Mini-Mountains, hoping to find a "perfect" pannier to address their quibbly shortcomings. Of course, looking at the Arkel site, it seems like they've redesigned this bag a couple times since I got mine, so the bag you buy today won't look at all like my construction-orange "vintage" one. What I like about the UB is that it's just one giant bag with a couple little pockets here and there. It's actually designed as an uber-fancy grocery-bag pannier, but for my needs, it's an ideal commuting pannier. You just dump your stuff in, lock it on the rack, and get gone. The Arkel mounting hardware is quicker on/off, more thick-glove-friendly, and easier to adjust than the Jandds -- and that's the first generation. The latest iteration is (reportedly) even easier to use, incorporating a "pull the handle to release" feature. Like just about any pannier, the UB is awkward off the bike, kind of unbalanced and poky. The flat bottom is nice when you reach your destination, though -- it sits up for unloading rather than toppling over. So, whenever I need to carry more stuff than I really should, I reach for Big Orange.


This was kind of a fluke impulse purchase, because, well, I'm a bag fiend. I tried REI's bike-specific Novara commuter backpack and loathed it... too heavy, too uncomfortable, and just way over-designed for anything short of "expedition commuting" (for example, if your office is on the summit of K2). So I returned it, but on my way out of the store, I noticed this little yellow backpack that seemed like everything the commuter wasn't: lightweight, close-fitting, simple, compressible, comfy, and relatively cheap. It's basically a big hydration pack without the bladder (though it has a pocket and hose access point if you want to add one). The minimalist straps keep the load right where it needs to be, and the bag itself adds almost no weight to my commuting kit. Like any backpack, it will cause Sweaty Back Syndrome, but the small footprint back there (backprint?) helps a lot. Downsides? Well, it is small. My laptop won't fit, and if I need to pack a pair of shoes with my clothes/lunch, things get pretty tight. The stuff-sack-style opening pretty much sends rain an engraved invitation, too. And, since it's not designed for any sport that puts the wearer in traffic, it is sadly lacking in reflective details. Still, this bag continues to impress me the more I use it, outperforming stuff that costs twice (and thrice!) as much. Nice work, REI, and not just because I'm a card-carrying member. (Stupid fun detail: The orange buckle on the chest strap is actually a very loud whistle that both scares the snot out of motorists
and does a cool blowing-across-a-bottle noise when I'm riding at terminal velocity.)

So, there you have it, and I hope that it wasn't too spammy-sounding. If there are any other bags you'd like to see reviewed, just let me know. Considering how many bike bags I've bought, tried, stashed in the garage, passed to friends, and/or resold, I'm sure whatever you're looking for will wind up in my arsenal eventually... and at least I can justify it as "for the good of the blog" if it eventually winds up here too.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Suspension of Disbelief

I'll warn my regular readers right up front: The wonky disc in my lower back is flaring up, which has me in a not-so-pleasant mood. There's something about a relentless, droning, knife-like pain shooting down your leg that will do that to a fella. Thankfully, my Angel of Chiropractic Care is going to set me straight tomorrow, so I'll be back to my usual charming self.

In the meantime, I'm grumpy, and I think I'll point that grumpiness at a trend in new bikes that drives me nuts. Calling it a "trend" might imply that it's actually trendy, but this has really been going on since I was in the biz a decade ago. I absolutely cannot STAND the proliferation of cheap suspension parts on just about every new bike imaginable. Clunky, sticky seatposts, pounds and pounds of bouncy forks that always feel like a loose headset... I hate 'em.

Let's start at the seatposts. In theory, I'm all for a suspension post executed well... they're a simple way to isolate high-frequency bumps from your rump. They're especially helpful on a tandem when the captain is too inconsiderate to call out bumps (ask me how I know). But execute that thing to hit the price point on a $250-$300 bike and you might as well just put an accordion boot around a regular seatpost. I can't tell you the number of those monstrosities I fought with, trying to find that sweet spot between "doesn't budge" and "makes the saddle nose swing like a compass needle." I saw more than a few come in for 30-day checkups completely stuck at their lowest position, their riders blissfully unaware. Oh, and of course, when they
do move, there's the squeaking. The infernal squeaking. The only place these things came in handy was when you squished them down on the sales floor to show just how (theoretically) comfy they were -- which probably used up their only compression anyway.

On the front end, it seems like a suspension fork is now about as optional as a wheel, and the same race to the lowest common denominator has taken place. The most laughable thing is that most of these bikes now feature the comfort-bike equivalent of ape-hangers: tall head tubes, giraffe-like stems, and riser bars that put the rider's hands about nostril-high. Here's a tip: If your knuckles almost graze the garage door, you don't have any weight on your hands... which means you couldn't feel your suspension fork even if it did provide any useful suspension. It's just spec-sheet cotton candy, designed to make Bike A look $50 more valuable than Bike B.

So, when I rule the world, what will my perfect $250-$300 bike look like? You can bet that it will have no cruddy suspension gee-gaws front or rear... just a regular old seatpost and a rigid steel fork (because, to paraphrase an engineer pal, failure modes are important when a part is keeping your face off the pavement). It will have MASSIVE tire clearances so "comfort-oriented" customers can jam some massive rubber in there... since that's a cheap suspension system that actually works. And it won't sell for beans, since there won't be anything for the salesperson to squish. Sigh...

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Let's Get Visible, Visible

Good grief, what is it with the 80s music references? And how much of my brain is devoted to bad lyrics anyway?

But I digress, as usual. With the days getting shorter and shorter, it's time for the cycle commuter to start thinking about lighting up. Will a good set of lights keep you from getting mowed down by a text-messaging teen in Mom's Canyonero? Probably not. But assuming your lights survive the crash, they might help bystanders find where your bike ended up. "Well, would you look at that? The neighbor's dog must've treed a Schwinn!"

When it comes to making a good target on the roads, I am a huge, unapologetic fan of the Planet Bike Superflash LED taillight. Now, there are new rules out there for bloggers about product endorsements and whatnot, so let me state this with absolute clarity to keep the G-men off my back: I WAS NOT GIVEN ONE THIN DIME OR ANY FREEBIES FOR THIS REVIEW. In fact, I own three Superflashes: Two I paid for (full retail pop) out of my own pocket, and the third was a gift from my in-laws (who are NOT employees of Planet Bike). That said, if you click on the Amazon links below and buy a Superflash based on my glowing (pun intended, sorry) recommendation, a few pence trickle back to me. Everyone feeling sufficiently disclosed? Good!

There's some debate among my commuter pals (virtual and otherwise) about the prudence of a flashing rear light. Some tremble at the thought of a drunk getting fixated on the flasher and driving into it like a Buick-cocooned moth being drawn to the flame. Others claim that the flashing prevents people from judging distance, making it more likely that they'll mow you down while their pea-sized brains try to compute advanced calculus at 70 miles per hour. Still others find it inconsiderate to blast trailing cyclists with the equivalent of a phaser on stun.

Thankfully, I was an English major, so matters of human psychology and physiology (and calculus, for that matter) are beyond my grasp. And if you're riding behind me, well, get up front and take a pull once in a while, why don'tchya? So I run at least one (sometimes two) Superflashes on strobe mode when things get dark. And in my limited pseudo-scientific experiments (see English major above), I find that drivers give these things a VERY WIDE berth. I hear the car coming, brace myself for the close pass, and all of a sudden, the car backs off and swings way around me. And that, as they say, is priceless.

(If you ARE concerned about target fixation, depth perception, or enraged wheelsuckers, the Superflash has a steady mode. Happy now?)

There are reports about the interwebs that Superflashes aren't completely weatherproof, though I can't corroborate that. Mine live on seatstays, below the fender line, getting hosed quite a bit, and they still do their thing. If one would ever quit, I've had very positive experiences with Planet Bike customer service, so I'm not too worried there.

I will say that the pop-off case, convenient though it may be for battery changes, can pop off at inopportune times (like when a clumsy rider kicks it) leaving behind just a belt clip and useless clamshell as everything that makes the light a light goes clattering down the road with the back half. And while hipsters may dig the white case (to match their Deep-Vs and Ourys), I could do without it. I even went so far as to swap in the back half of a Planet Bike Blinky 7 (which shares the same shell) for a more subtle look. Planet Bike must have heard the gripes from oldsters like me, since they now offer a "stealth" version with a black case, clear lens, and the same retina-scarring red LEDs.

So, there you have it. The Planet Bike Superflash: Probably the most protection you can get for under $25 -- unless you buy condoms at Costco, of course.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Signs, Signs, Everywhere There's Signs

Closing is November 6. And local readers, if you're trying to move a hunk of Des Moines property, call Kelly. She's been a rock star.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go happy-dance around that sign like it's a tiny Spinal Tap Stonehenge.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Shop The Monkey

My secret plan to latch on to my wife's lucrative graphic design career so I can leave the cubicle and live in my jammies as a kept blogger is off to an auspicious start!

Carla has just started her own storefront on Cafe Press, selling stuff imprinted with her soon-to-be-famous "typemonkey" design: T-shirts, hoodies, notebooks, stickers, ornaments, you name it. So, if you're a fan of typography (and who isn't?) or a fan of monkeys (and who isn't?) or -- even better -- a fan of typography and monkeys, check it out.

Remember, proceeds from Typemonkey Designs might allow me to blog more -- but please don't let that deter you!

(Editor's note: No, you aren't seeing things. I did write a second draft of the title of this post, which probably says more about me than I'd like to admit in a public forum. But if you noticed, it probably says quite a bit about you, doesn't it?)


For three days straight, my commute has been marred by a song stuck in my head.

Not just any song, mind you. "Respect Yourself" by Bruce Willis. Yes, a lame one-hit-wonder of the 80s by a TV star attempting to cross over into music -- complete with more irony than anything Alanis Morrisette ever recorded, since Bruce never would have recorded "Respect Yourself" if he'd had a shred of self-respect in the first place.

It's become a self-fulfilling prophecy... I get on the bike and think, "Geez, I wonder if that stupid song is going to get stuck in my head again?" Whammo, there it is.

So, in an attempt to get it out, I'm going to make the rest of you suffer. Please listen to the whole thing in the hopes that it will leave my brain-space for yours. And don't make me give you a pop quiz on the lyrics later to prove that you've done your assignment!

Editor's After-The-Fact Note: Huh, look at that! I guess Bruce Willis and/or his management and/or anyone else who cares about his dignity find this song appropriately humiliating and are attempting to expunge all evidence of it from YouTube. Well, you're off the hook for the quiz, but I would ask that you remember this pearl of wisdom: "If you don't respect yourself, ain't nobody gonna give a good cahoot." And let me tell you, there's just nothing worse than finding yourself stuck with a bad cahoot, or -- heaven forfend -- no cahoot at all.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

An Open Letter To Des Moines Area Regional Transit

Dear DART,

It's been a rough couple years, hasn't it? According to a WHO-TV investigation, your buses have hit seven pedestrians in Des Moines since 2006. And while I'm no student of physics, I know that in a bus versus pedestrian accident, the pedestrian always loses.

A friend and coworker of mine happened to be one of those pedestrians in the wrong crosswalk following the wrong "walk" signal at the wrong time when one of your bus drivers made a left turn and ran her over. I do not exaggerate: She was
run over by a bus. Imagine for a second what that felt like. Imagine for a second what the rest of her life is going to be like. Will she recover from the physical injuries? I don't know. My experience with less-gruesome but still life-altering accidents tells me that her body will never be the same. Will she recover emotionally? Will she still be the perpetually laughing person I remember? I hope so.

As a cyclist in downtown Des Moines, I may be a little over-sensitized to your presence. After all, just about everything on the road is bigger and faster than I am, and your buses are some of the biggest, fastest predators I encounter. I've never had a near miss at the hands of one of your drivers, but I've also learned to give them a wide berth. When I get off the bike and live among the pedestrians, my head is on a swivel. Honestly, I feel safer crossing
against the lights where I can see what's going to hit me and -- hopefully -- your driver can see me before that happens.

So what has your answer been? A policy of -- get this -- having your drivers
honk whenever they make a turn. Do you think that your 40-foot diesel behemoths are somehow sneaking up on us? That if you just add a little more noise pollution the problem will go away?

Let me propose a different solution. Rather than making our streets a Darwinian "I warned you with my horn, so it's not my fault if you don't move" tangle of fear and noise, why not adopt a policy that places the burden of responsibility and safety on the
least vulnerable actor in the situation? Instead of expecting a fragile human body to get out of your way, why not instruct your drivers that anything smaller than their bus (be it pedestrian, cyclist, or Toyota Prius) gets the right of way no matter what -- with the light, against the light, in a crosswalk, in the middle of the block, wherever. If it means a bus has to come to a dead stop before making a turn so the driver can get a clear view, so be it. Is that really more inconvenient than putting tire tracks on another human being? And if it is, so what?

Don't get me wrong: I'm a huge supporter of public transportation. I was a die-hard DART rider (though it was the MTA in those days) when I first moved to Des Moines. As a cyclist, I'd much rather deal with fifty people going downtown in one of your buses than dodge each one of those fifty people driving alone.

But you gotta stop running over my friends and blaming them. Go pick on someone your own size, why don't you?

Scattershot Updates from Cycle Central

Just a few random shotgun-blast newsbits from The Cycle World Headquarters. Pull!

We've accepted an offer on the World Headquarters and placed an offer on the New and Improved World Headquarters -- with a man-cave/bike palace that's actually connected to the humanoid living space. Knock wood, cross fingers, blah blah blah, but if all the bizarre Tetris pieces of the real estate game drop into place, we will close both deals on November 6, two days shy of my birthday. Happy birthday to me! Aw, it's a bigger mortgage payment? You shouldn't have!
LIMPSTRONG 3.0 CANCELLED: I know, I know, after all that buildup, with the pledges pouring in and the new t-shirt design finalized, and now this? The final stages of The Crud are hanging on longer than expected, and I'm contending with some (ahem) "issues" in the (ahem) "saddle area" that have pretty much limited me to short commute miles. Trust me, you don't want to know more. I imagine you probably didn't want to know that much. Bottom line (okay, pun intended), between this and moving, I'm not going to have enough in my legs to put in a hundred this year.

I've now "finished" this bike about four times. This time, I swear I've got it. 44x17 fixed, Michelin slicks, Nitto bullhorn bars, Tektro inverse brake lever, and a long-as-all-gitout Tektro dual-pivot caliper up front. Smooth, comfy and speedy, at least when the motor is running at 100%. The only remaining decision is fenders... my chrome Walds are on there now, but as I don't see using 38-year-old steel as a rain bike, I'm thinking about taking them off and making this my dry-day weight weenie bike. Pictures to come if it ever stops raining.

I groused about them in a previous post (and pal Steve F. rightly called me on the "clip-on fenders/no clip-on racks" hypocrisy), but I saw something last week that changed my mind. Fellow J-name commuter guy Jacob (we have two Jasons and a Jacob sharing rack space) has fitted one of those seatpost-mounted monstrosities on the seat tube of his Schwinn singlespeed commuter, below the seat cluster and between the seatstays. Sure, it only works on big frames with sidepull brakes, and I'm guessing you don't want to do it on your super-fancy lightweight unobtanium frame, but it looks (and, I assume, works) so much better sitting right above the rear wheel where a rack belongs. Very slick. Again, I'll try to grab a picture some other time.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Mythical "Lobster Man" Sighted In Des Moines

One of The Cycle's intrepid photographers was able to snap this closeup photo of the hideous beast at great risk to life and limb. She returned to our offices reeking of shellfish and refusing to speak of the ordeal.

As Des Moines is (obviously) far from the ocean, we can only assume that this is the even-more-rare freshwater River Lobster Man. The scraggly beard and excess body fat would seem to indicate that he is preparing to hibernate.

(In all semi-seriousness, what you're seeing above is me as a hand model, showing off the new wool lobster mittens that Dear Spouse Carla just finished for me in preparation for winter commutes. She had to graft together two different patterns to pull it off, but the end result is PERFECT. I have the most awesomest, knittingest wife ever. I can't say that I'm looking forward to colder weather, but I am really psyched to try these things out.)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

In The Bag (Part 1)

One of the big things that seems to put off potential bike commuters (other than the ever-present question of, "How do I un-stink at work?") is how to schlep one's junk back and forth.

Having commuted for a
long time, I think I've tried just about every combination of bike luggage out there. I'll save the specific brand/model reviews for a second post, but here's a breakdown of the general factors to consider when you choose your baggage.

This is the biggest dividing line in bike luggage. Do you carry your stuff somewhere on the bike itself, or do you carry it on your body? Bike-carriage has the advantages of reducing Sweaty Back Syndrome (SBS) and possible back strain issues. Disadvantages can include the need to mount specialized stuff (racks, baskets, saddlebags) on the commuting bike and bike compatibility issues (short chainstays plus large panniers don't always mix, for example). Making yourself the mule means that your baggage is immediately compatible with just about any bike. However, schlepping kit on your body also brings with it the above-mentioned SBS (the flipside advantage for winter commuting is extra insulation back there), and a poorly-placed or heavy load can't be good for your spine.

Within the bike-as-mule camp, you have several options -- a front basket, panniers or a trunk on a rear rack, or a big saddlebag. Front load can provide handling challenges if your bike isn't designed for it; I highly recommend Bicycle Quarterly's analyses of front-end geometry if you're picking a bike specifically to carry gear up front. Rear panniers are a bit more forgiving, though a light, flexible bike can get a "wag the dog" effect from a heavy rear load. I can't really speak to big saddlebags, as those are the one thing I've yet to try.

The body-carrying breaks down into a couple simple categories: Backpack or "messenger" bag. I scare-quote that second one since they've become so ubiquitous among people who don't even know what a messenger is, it's hard to connect them back to their origins with real working cyclists. I've used both types, and honestly, if you choose good ones, I think the differences come down to style. Messenger bags do provide easier access "on the fly" if you need to grab something out of your bag or shove something in there without taking it off. I'm using a backpack now, but -- I have to confess -- a large part of it is a perverse desire to
not look like a fixed-gear hipster wannabe.

This is an aspect that I'm not sure a lot of commuters consider until they're actually out there doing it. How long does it take you to get from "riding mode" to "locked up, bags in hand, on-foot mode"? I see a lot of riders struggling with hard-to-remove bags, multi-step pocket emptying, and awkward locking techniques. It's no wonder they don't like to commute. If you had to unstrap a NASCAR safety harness and crawl out the window of your car Dukes of Hazard-style every morning, you'd probably hate driving to work too. Bags-on-body wins here, since a big part of your transition is done as soon as your foot hits the ground. Still, smooth transitions are possible with bags-on-bike, either by carrying a body-mounted bag in a basket or by choosing a pannier with quick-release hardware. If you're an all-season commuter, consider how easy that hardware will be when you're in bulky gloves or mittens, too.

There is just nothing worse than riding in the rain, getting to work, drying off, and finding out that your work undies are sopping wet in the bottom of your bag. When you're reading manufacturers' buzzwords, "waterproof" and "water-resistant" sure sound similar, don't they? They don't behave similarly in practice, though. Seams, hardware mounting points and zippers on water-resistant bags can all provide entry points for water, leading to damp undies. You really have to make a choice based on your local climate and commute distance, though -- for my short commute here in the Midwest, I can get away with less-sealed bags. Seattleites will tell you something different, though. A water-resistant bag can always be supplemented with a waterproof roll-top dry bag, too.

A bag that's big enough to carry a change of clothes and a lunch will by its very nature provide a decent amount of surface area. Use it to your advantage. Get a bag that has plenty of reflectorized accents or add your own. Choose a bright color that provides plenty of contrast against your surroundings. Mounting points for blinky lights are a nice add-on, but don't be lulled into a false sense of security by them. Most blinkies are extremely directional -- if a driver's the slightest bit off-axis to them, the light doesn't look nearly as bright. Since a light on a bag relies on the position of a floppy fabric loop and the position of the floppy fabric bag on your body or bike, the chances that you'll actually have the thing aimed where it belongs when it counts are pretty slim. Hard-mount the blinkers on your bike and use your luggage for reflectives.

Bigger isn't always necessarily better. A bag with a lot of unused space will flop around or fit awkwardly on your body. Pull together whatever your standard commuting load will be (change of clothes? lunch? shoes? laptop? files?) and pick a bag that holds that with just a bit more room to spare. That will allow you to fit bulkier clothes in the winter, stop at the store on the way home for a couple forgotten groceries, or bring donuts for your coworkers (an important peace offering if you haven't figured out that "how to stay un-stinky" commuter issue). The proliferation of really compact reusable grocery bags can come in really handy -- stick one in the bottom of your bag and use that for those "special occasions" where you have load overflow rather than picking a giant bag that's underused 90% of the time.

Next up: Some brands and models of bags that I've actually put through their commuting paces.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Nerd Alert: Tech Upgrades At The Cycle

I should have listened to frequent commenter and former neighbor Steve.

Back in January, I added an Asus eeePC netbook to my nerd arsenal in the hopes of taking this blog on the road more often. And, if I didn't ask much of it, the little guy did just fine -- it's been to Minnesota and Illinois a couple times, not to mention some local coffeehouse excursions. It grabbed wifi when asked, and satisfied my raging Internet addiction when I was away from the home Mac.

Still, the tiny chicklet keyboard was a little clumsy under my chubby digits, and as much as I wanted to love Linux in theory, I just couldn't get my brain around it. 20 years on a Mac and 40 hours a week working on Windows for The Man will do that to you -- old dog, new tricks, whatever. So, as much as I wanted to keep Microsoft operating systems out of my house,
The Cycle is now coming to you from an Acer Aspire One: XP (you've won this round, Gates, but at least I wasn't dumb enough to go Vista -- or is that abomination off the market already?), 10" screen, a real hard drive, and a keyboard I can't blame for my typos. There's my economic stimulus for you, Mr. President -- two new computers in a year. You're welcome.

It's still too early for a detailed geek-review, but my nutshell first impression: The eeePC felt like a kid's toy (in fact, it just found a new home via Craigslist with someone who wanted one for his kids) while the Acer feels like a little computer.

Anyway, computer nerd mode off. Back to bike nerd mode.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

LimpStrong Training Hits A Snag

Things were off to an absolutely epic start (can I say "epic" without paying some kind of royalty to Rapha? after all, that seems to be the adjective of choice for guys who spend more on their jerseys than I do on a whole bike.) I took the newly-bullhorn-barred Raleigh International fixed gear out on Saturday and rolled off 54 miles as a LimpStrong 3.0 dry run -- my longest fixed-gear ride ever, and probably my longest ride of any sort this year. And it felt great. Sure, I had a couple stretches where my legs bogged down and my spin dropped off, and I didn't pack any food (or think to stop for any along the way) resulting in a mild mini-bonk, but all in all, it was a stunning success.

Then, I woke up Sunday morning with a little sniffle. "No sweat," I figured, "just overdosed on environmental allergens. Minor setback." Monday morning, that little sniffle had transformed into an upper respiratory/head crud that made me seriously consider whether I could drag myself two miles to work. And by last night, that upper respiratory crud really walloped me.

I worked from home today, but even that seems like it will be a stretch tomorrow. I may need to take some actual sick time, sleep like I'm in a coma, hold off on LimpStrong training for a while, and let my body recharge.

I don't really blame the big ride. I think I was just past due for a case of the crud. And assuming I can shake this in a week or so, I'm still psyched to try LimpStrong 3.0 (scheduled for October 17 -- yikes, just over a month away!) on fixed. In fact, popping off that no-coasting half century with (relative) ease makes me even more confident that the full 100-miler is possible.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Bee Bit My Bottom, Now My Bottom's Big

It was my worst baggy-shorts nightmare.

I was finishing up an absolutely outstanding tandem ride with my studly stoker-spouse. We'd rolled out into perfect conditions: 70s, sunny, no wind. Rode the Greenbelt Trail into West Des Moines, grabbed some lunch, startled a fuzzy-antlered young buck on the trail, saw my very first Rohloff hub gear in the wild (didn't have a chance to chat with the owner about it, though) and stopped at the bike shop on the way back. Really, an idyllic way for this bike geek to start his long weekend.

Then, we started the "descent" into home. For locals, that's eastbound Ingersoll between 42nd and 35th. Not exactly a "stop to tuck newspapers into the front of your jersey first" kind of downhill, but on the tandem, those gradual downward slopes can really build some momentum. So we let 'er rip.

And just about the time we hit terminal velocity, some kind of insect flew up the flapping leg opening of my otherwise-wonderful J&G Touring Shorts, panicked, and instead of quietly going out the way he came in, stung me on the right butt cheek. Seriously. I'm all for adding some excitement to a ride, but frantically swatting at one's arse with one hand while trying to control a loaded tandem going Mach 1 with the other hand is not my idea of a good time.

The captain managed to keep the ship on course without a FDGB (Fall Down Go Boom), and the sting feels fine after a bit of calamine lotion, but I must grudgingly admit that Lycra does have its benefits in situations like this. If that little beastie had gone left instead of right and found my man-junk instead of my ample posterior, I'd have turned right back around for the bike shop and bought a whole new skin-tight wardrobe right then and there.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

I Blame Kent

That's Kent the Mountain Turtle of Kent's Bike Blog fame. Last Wednesday, he taunted the flat tire gods with this hubris-encrusted (and conveniently decontextualized by yours truly) bit of prose: "I've had zero issues with these tires. None. No flats."

The following day, the flat tire gods paid him back with a screw through the tire.
But Kent, dagnabit, you've caused a great disturbance in The Force.

Exhibit A: Monday morning, I rolled the bike out into an unseasonably cool morning. Maybe I should have felt my bionic leg tightening up ever so slightly in the cold. But I didn't. So when I tried to swing it over the saddle, I didn't get enough altitude, slamming my knee into the saddle and leaving a lovely knot of a bruise.

Exhibit B: That same Monday morning commute. I'm rolling into downtown, minding my own business, when the driver of a Toyota Yaris completely ignores my blazing sprint (go ahead, snicker, I know you want to) and pulls out in front of me. I missed him with room to spare, but it was more adrenaline than a geezer who can't even get his leg over the saddle really needs. Of course, a Yaris has the curb weight of our tandem, so I probably would have done more damage to it than it would have done to me.

Exhibit C: Monday night, headed home. I'm demonstrating that blazing sprint again (really? another snicker? don't have it out of your system yet?). Spot a pothole, swerve, and enjoy one brief smirk of victory before I stuff both wheels into pothole #2 hiding behind the first one. My bell rings, my water bottle ejects, but the bike stays up... just long enough for the pinch flat to empty my rear tire.

Kent, you have to make this right. Here's my proposal:

1. Drive a few dozen nails through a piece of wood.

2. Lay that piece of wood in your garage/driveway/street/whatever, pointy side up.

3. Ride your bike back and forth over that bed of nails until your tubes are Swiss-cheesed.

4. Spend the next several hours patching those tubes as penance.

It's the least you can do.

(For those who have yet to figure out that I distill Pure Essence of Sarcasm, I consider Kent a Good Pal of the Interwebs, and my tongue is jammed firmly in my cheek. Heck, it was Kent that inspired me to start this blog in the first place, so you can thank -- or blame -- him for the fact that I'm prattling here today.)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Is Your Protection Wearing Protection?

Regular readers (and a couple irregular ones) will know that my big dream in starting and maintaining this blog (other than just having a place to listen to myself talk) was to someday be graced by gifts from the Schwag Gods. I imagined that once bicycle manufacturers saw my dazzling prose and my rapt audience of dozens, free carbon and titanium bits would come tumbling from the Great Brown Truck like manna from heaven.

So far, that hasn't really panned out. But I'm proud -- nay, thrilled -- nay again, ecstatic -- to announce that
The Cycle has finally dipped its toe into the Fountain of Schwag. Thanks to the generosity (and perhaps the questionable marketing savvy) of inventor/do-it-yourselfer Blake Mills from San Francisco, CA, I've spent the last week testing The Helmet Lock.

Okay, so what's a helmet lock? Pretty simple, really -- it's a twist of steel cable run in a figure eight through a too-big-to-fit-through-a-helmet-vent hunk of metal and crimped at the end, with the whole works coated in a plasticky/rubbery stuff to protect whatever it comes into contact with. (There's also a well-placed URL that can't be missed when the product's in use... a practice that I find distasteful when TrekSpecializedGiantCannondale do it to wretched excess, but it works in this application.) To whit...

(quarter not included)

The idea is that you shove the fat cable loop through a vent in your helmet from the inside out, run your bike lock through the loop, and the central metal hunk (a fat nut, actually) can't be pulled through the vent, preventing evil-doers from waltzing off with your helmet -- and taunting them Nelson Muntz-style with the name of the product that's just thwarted them: "Haw haw, you're a failed miscreant!"

I confess, I have never been one to lock up my helmet with my bike. I have an irrational fear that a drunk, a dog, or -- horror of horrors -- a drunk dog will mistake my crash protection as some kind of styrofoam public urinal and anoint it with a golden shower. But, in the interest of journalism, I've been putting The Helmet Lock through its paces for over a week now. Impressions...

  • It's easy to use. Blake provides handy instructions with all sorts of caveats about how challenging it can be to juggle your bike, your lock, and your Helmet Locked-helmet, but I found that he doth protest too much. Just run the loop through your lid, start your usual lockup routine, and sling the loop over your lock before you close it up. Maybe it's tougher with a cable lock, but with my U-lock, I thought it was a piece of cake -- and this is from someone who likes to choreograph his lockup like a triathlete going through a transition.
  • Choose your vent carefully. My "beater" commute helmet (a not-terribly-expensive Bell from a few years back) has a few vents that allow the fat nut to slide right through, defeating the purpose of The Helmet Lock pretty handily. Since an expensive helmet (presumably one you'd be more interested in protecting) probably has even bigger vents, this is definitely something to keep in mind. Still, there are at least a half-dozen vents on that same beater helmet that work just fine, so I imagine you'd be able to find a small enough vent on about any helmet you choose. For example, my "fancy" helmet (a newer and more expensive Giro) batted a thousand, preventing nut pull-through at every orifice (Yeesh, that sounds bad. Let's move on, shall we?)
  • People will ask you about it. If you hang with "utility" bikers (who don't carry their helmets around in custom hard cases and display them proudly on a spotlit tchotchke shelf), they'll be impressed. Nobody (myself included) realizes that helmet-wrangling is a problem until they see this simple, elegant solution. Then, they have that forehead-slapping "Why didn't I think of that?" moment.
  • Light, cheap, strong: Pick all three. Very few things in bikedom get to contradict the original "pick two" dictum from former-human-turned-Trek-brand Keith Bontrager. The Helmet Lock pulls it off. It's forgettably light in a bag or hanging off the bike somewhere but more than strong enough for the intended purpose (because how much is a thief going to work for a stinkin' -- in my case quite literally -- helmet, anyway?) And at $13 for one or $20 for two (because it's nice to share), I'd call it cheap... er, inexpensive.
The bottom line: If you don't like carting your helmet around with you but don't feel safe just hanging it off the bike, this little gidget is what you didn't know you were looking for. Someday, the helmet manufacturers will wise up and put some kind of integrated cable loop into their commuter lids (unlike the bizarre collection of accessories -- earmuffs?!? -- available on Bell's supposedly-commuter-marketed Metro) just for lockup purposes. Until that day comes, we can thank Blake for The Helmet Lock.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I just saw a tipsy Doberman headed toward the bike rack...