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.