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.)