Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Essential Bike Library

A few posts ago, I did a couple book reviews, and Local Steve kicked in a recommendation of Tim Krabbe's The Rider. That got me thinking about my favorite paper-based bike reading material. So, in no particular order (and with many links to Amazon that -- if used by you -- make money for me), here's Jason's List of the Greatest Bike Books Ever.

First up is Steve's recommendation, Krabbe's The Rider. This is a fascinating fictional look inside the head of a bike racer as he tackles a difficult race. The prose is short, crisp and vivid, descriptive without dragging. Take Ralph Hume's The Yellow Jersey (another classic work of racer-fiction), compress it down into a rock-hard nugget of language, and you've got The Rider. While I don't have the proper perspective to know for sure, I'd guess that this is a piece of bike fiction that even non-bikers can enjoy.

Next on the bookshelf is Paul Fournel's Need for the Bike. This is an odd little bugger, a book that isn't all that well-known even among bike-book nerds. I was lucky enough to find a copy in a small, independent bookstore on vacation in Seattle, read it once on the train down to Portland, and read it again on the train ride back a couple days later. This collection of short essays (translated from the author's native French into English by Allan Stoekl) is one of the few books I've read that really puts words to the joy, freedom and -- yes -- pain that can come from the bicycle. For lack of a better word, Fournel's "Frenchiness" still comes through in the translation, and Need for the Bike is better for it (hence my shout-out to translater Stoekl above). Why would anyone suffer a crude, American "bonk" (which is even cruder for my British readers, I'm told) when they can go to meet "the man with the hammer"? Whenever I need a bite-sized inspiration to ride or to write, I reach for Fournel's little collection.

If those were too chewy and literary for you, pick up a copy of The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles written by Jan Heine and photographed by Jean-Pierre Praderes. I get no kickback on this one, but if you're a biker and don't have it, go find a credit card. The drool-worthy studio photography alone would be enough to recommend this book, but the text also takes the reader through a part of bicycle history that probably isn't too familiar to the average American biker. I know I was surprised to find that the comfortable, fast, light, fully-accessorized bikes I've been hoping/searching for over the last decade had already been designed and built by the French over a half-century ago. Who knew? Well, Jan Heine, for one.

Shifting gears (okay, I confess, pun intended) from photography to illustration, take a flip through William Nealy's Mountain Bike!

This is a great offroad skills manual masquerading as a comic book. The illustrations are entertaining, and the advice behind them is solid, even though the book (like me) came from an era when suspension of any sort was a rarity, and we still (gasp!) used toe clips. Kids, if you ask your grandpa about unsuspended bikes, he'll probably launch into a diatribe about how that's the only way to learn any off-road skills, how suspension makes you soft, and how back in his day, we only had 18 speeds... and we LIKED IT. Wait, what was I talking about there? And what are you dang kids doing on my yard?

As long as I'm in a how-to mode, I really like a book by Robert Hurst and Marla Streb that's now on its second printing and second title. My old-school copy is The Art of Urban Cycling: Lessons From The Street, while the latest printing has morphed into The Art of Cycling: A Guide to Bicycling in 21st-Century America:

Think of Art of (Urban) Cycling as John Forester's Effective Cycling with a bit less cantankerousness and a dash of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Not that I mind a bit of cantankerousness, of course, but Hurst/Streb take Forester's "play by the rules, no exceptions" approach and soften the edges to take into account the reality of playing in traffic with large beasts that don't always accept the tenets of vehicular cycling. There are about a jillion how-to books out there for people who want to race or tour or (heaven forfend) do a triathlon, but if someone comes to me looking to start riding every day in the real world, I loan them Art.

And, since I've mentioned the word Zen, I'm now contractually obligated as a bike writer to say something about fixed-gear bikes, messengers, or both. Luckily, Travis Hugh Culley has my back:

Culley was on the street delivering packages (yes, that's what those big bags are for, hipster fakengers) on a bike before messengering was a "culture" you could buy as a ready-made Specialized Langster in your choice of "cityways." Some of THC's "noble, wheeled proletariat" shtick starts to wear on me after a while, but I still found myself immersed in his story and glad to have a glimpse into a corner of the cycling world I'll never get to experience on my own. I always want to figure out a way to quit my job and earn a salary in the saddle when I put this book down -- which will probably motivate my wife to hide it when she reads this.

So there you have it: Six ways to stave off winter insanity in a handy, portable paper form -- 100% eyeball-compatible with no wi-fi, 3G or Kindle required. Happy reading! 

Friday, January 29, 2010

More Winter Silliness: Communication Breakdowns

There I was, just toodling along minding my own business, when a car passed just a little closer and faster than I would prefer. Probably not his fault -- the roads must be a good six feet narrower thanks to the Winter X-Games-snowboard-halfpipe-sized drifts on each side. But I'd had a long day at work and I was freezing my "gentleman's bits" off,  so I overreacted a little. In -- ahem -- "sign language."

Except I was wearing a pair of these: 

So my unwittingly concealed nonverbal suggestion that he should attempt something indecent with himself was interpreted as, "Hello, friend! What a fine day!" And, being a friendly Iowa sort, he waved back.

Oh well. Someday those mittens will probably save me from a beatdown.

Mini-review: If you ride a bike that doesn't require dexterity (singlespeed? fixed-gear? thumbshifters? bar-ends? just not STI or Ergopower, really), the Fox River mitts are quite toasty, though not as wind-resistant as I'd like. My knitter-half is making me an extra-extra-extra-extra large pair of wool mitts that she's going to felt down to my size in an attempt to improve on these. But the FRs will stay in my arsenal for two reasons: one, my late-Dad had a pair he used for winter running, so they always remind me of him, and two, Fox River is based in Osage, Iowa. Yay, quasi-locals!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Review: Winter Commuter Shootout

In honor of the brisk winter weather we're enjoying here at The Cycle World Headquarters, our crack test team has pitted two time-tested modes of snow commuting against each other in a head-to-head battle.

In this corner, the Winter Bike. Studded tires, fenders, powerful brakes, simple drivetrain... the essence of cold-weather velo.

(photo borrowed from Steve F's Zen Biking) 

And in this corner, the Taun-Taun. Hairy, horny, and ill-tempered... but just the thing if you're hiding out from the Empire.

 (this is not the copyrighted image you're looking for) 

So how do these stack up on an extreme winter commute? Well, the Taun-taun tends to rear up and dump you when confronted by hostile traffic (whether of the SUV or pissed-off abominable snowman variety). Advantage: Bicycle.

However, in extreme winter conditions, your vehicle is bound to have a mechanical failure at some point, stranding you in the cold. And when that happens, let's be honest -- you can't cut open a bicycle with your lightsaber and/or Swiss Army knife, pull out its steaming innards, crawl inside, and wait out the storm in cozy-slimy comfort. Advantage: Taun-taun.

Of course, as renowned winter commuter and Taun-taun afficionado Han Solo reminds us, they smell bad -- both inside and out. Advantage: Bicycle.

But let's say you need to make your presence known to other users of the road/tundra. The bike has one of those jingly Pee Wee Herman/Grandma bells. The Taun-taun bleats like an enraged goat. Advantage: Taun-taun.

Looks like it's a dead heat, so you'll just have to test ride them both and choose the one that fits you best. The Cycle's homeowners' association classifies a Taun-taun as a "nuisance pet" (and the thing eats our carpets if we don't lock it in a VERY large kennel while we're at work), so we choose the bicycle.

But we're knitting some very cozy sweaters from the giant hairballs...

Friday, January 22, 2010

Proud Uncle

Time to lighten the mood again...

Talked to Wilson the World's Coolest Older Nephew the other night. Like most 2.5-year-old boys, he has a fascination with all things transportation-related: cars, trucks, trains (man, does that kid like his trains), boats, you name it.

At first, any four-wheeled conveyance was a bus. My sister's car was "momma's bus." Bro-in-law's car was "daddy's bus." Et cetera. But now, he's started to categorize... so they tried to teach him to say "SUV".

Except, being 2.5, when he says it, it sounds like "SOB." So he's on the phone with Uncajason (all one word) yelling "SOB! SOB! SOB!" and wondering why I'm laughing so hard. I can't wait until his parents are driving him somewhere with the windows down, somebody drives by in some flavor of Canyonero, and he yells "SOB!" at them.

On the bright side, the next time I'm riding to work, get brushed back by a Canyonero, and think "son of a...", I'll just imagine Wilson yelling "SOB!" and laugh out loud. Thanks for that, little buddy.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Please Help Haiti

A warning: I'm going to do the "ugly American" thing here and try (in vain) to make something from my life connect to the incredible devastation in Haiti right now. It's what we do, right? "Two hundred people were killed in a plane crash... and two of them were Americans." As if somehow that's our signal to actually care. But the scope of the suffering in Haiti is so huge, so incomprehensible, my brain just can't wrap around it. So I take some tiny fragment of my own experience, tie it to what I'm hearing, and that's how I make it compute.

What's been stuck in my head this week has been an NPR report I heard describing people who suffered major fractures during the initial earthquake and could not get access to any medical attention for days, if at all. Why that? Because although I can't possibly relate to anything else going on, I have suffered a major fracture. One person, one injury, no widespread crisis, in a developed, wealthy (by the standards of most of the world) city. I grabbed my phone, and highly-trained paramedics were tending to me in a matter of minutes (though I should note that I whimpered and cried like a baby during those minutes). Within hours, I was under the knife of a skilled orthopedic surgeon. All because the luck of the draw made me a comfortably middle-class American with all the benefits that entails -- the ones we feel so entitled to, they just seem to go without saying.

Now, in Haiti, thousands of children (reports say that half their population is under 18) who were  lucky to survive the initial collapse at all are suffering with similar injuries, going days without treatment, enduring gangrene, losing limbs, and dying. Many have already lost their entire families.

I just donated money to help the relief effort. Is it misplaced middle-class guilt? Probably. Does it make me feel any better, like I'm making any sort of difference? Not really. But I'm asking my four readers (two Steves, one spammer selling Viagra, and someone who Googled in here by accident) to help too. Give what you can to the American Red Cross, the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, Doctors Without Borders, or the religious organization of your choice.

I don't have much of a sphere of influence, but I'm trying. I hope you will too.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Workin' On The Chain Gang

I managed to save the rust-encrusted chain mentioned in my previous post, so I figured other winter-stricken readers might like to know how I pulled it off.

The chain in question has been eating salt and snow for about a month, and had finally rusted to the point that it barely went through the derailleur any more. I left it on the bike, wrapped a green ScotchBrite pad around it, hung on for dear life, and spun the cranks like mad, stopping occasionally to find a clean spot on the pad. I kinda doubt this is in the SRAM factory service manual, but the thing was already toast, so I figured I couldn't do any more harm.

After the spin cycle, I hunted down the PowerLink (tiny endorsement -- if your chain doesn't have one of these things, get one), popped it open, pulled the chain off, and tossed it in my garage Crock Pot. I know, Martha Stewart look out, right? The pot has about a pound of straight paraffin wax in it, basic canning stuff you can get for a couple bucks a pound at the grocery store. I used the same wax through all of 2009, so it's pretty skanky right now -- but again, considering the state of the chain when I started, I didn't particularly care.

I cranked the pot over to "high" and let it run for a couple hours, stopping by from time to time to give my waxy chain stew a quick stir with an old spoke. Once I figured the wax had cooked long enough to get the grit out of the rollers, I fished the chain out with pliers (caution! hot wax can burn! proceed with caution!), dangled it over the pot to drain off the excess and let it cool to touchable temperature, and reinstalled. In dry months, that's where my chain routine stops -- the wax drives out gunk and provides just enough internal lubrication for my tastes while staying clean to the touch. However, knowing that the bike was going to have to contend with more snow and salt, I chased the wax with a generous droplet of Triflow on each roller while it was still warm to the touch.

The resulting lube is a little goopy and thick for my liking, but with temps above freezing and a massive amount of sloppy snowmelt on the streets, that's just what the Chain Doctor ordered. It's still looking good after a couple days of riding, though time will tell how long it holds up. But, for a chain that was either going to go to the recyclery or explode in a poof of brown, rusty dust, I'm pretty pleased.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Winter Distractions

Not much to report on the bike right now -- too much of a wuss to hit the gravel with Local Steve, so I've just been staying inside, occasionally hitting the indoor bike, getting fat, and reading. But, being obsessed, at least my books are bikey. As always, if you chase these links to Amazon and do commerce, my beak gets slightly moistened. You've been disclosed.

First up on the pile was Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists are Changing American Cities by Jeff Mapes. 

Sadly, I came away from this one with the conclusion that pretty much anywhere in the U.S. is probably trying harder to improve bike life than Des Moines. On the upside, Mapes did put to paper something I've always believed should be true: That putting more bikers on the street makes the situation better for bikers. It's my "Critical Mass every day" argument in a real live book! Cars will only respect bikers when bikers become normal and expected. One nut with studded tires and a funny hat (guilty) can't do it alone.

Once I'd had my self-vindication from PR, I turned to the book everyone with a bike seems to be talking about: David Byrne's Bicycle Diaries.

I first picked this up at the not-local-mega-book-chain, browsed a couple pages, thought, "Hmph, not really for me," and put it down. But so many people I trusted seemed to love it that I checked it out from the actually-local-library. And you know what? Just like Mikey and his Life cereal, I liked it. I really liked it. Do not come to this book looking for a bike-centric "Here's-what-I-rode-and-where-I-rode-it" tale. It ain't that -- which probably explains my initial reaction. It's really a travel book, but the author (being David Byrne and all) gets to travel to a lot of cool places and chooses to do so with a folding bike. The bike influences how he sees the places he visits (which is probably way too obvious to anyone who's traveled on two wheels), but -- to quote another bike book, it's not about the bike. Be also warned... the author has a political slant that some might find distasteful. Me, I'm so far left I almost fall off the edge (and I dig Talking Heads music), so I'd love to put in some saddle time with Mr. Psycho Killer.

Just to prove that I'm not only reading that old-fashioned paper stuff, I've also thrown large chunks of time down the rabbit hole reading The Oatmeal. Oh sure, maybe I'm just biased toward sites that are "The" anything, being The Cycle and all, but this stuff is downright funny. Not bike related, sorry, but during a winter like this, I need a good laugh wherever I can get it. Note that there are some kid-/work-inappropriate words in there if you happen to be surfing in a PG-rated setting. Ever wonder how a Web design goes straight to hell? Or how to use an apostrophe? The Oatmeal knows. I even learned that I can survive for 54 seconds chained to a bunk bed with a velociraptor.

On that non sequitur note, I need to go tend to a very rust-encrusted chain that's soaking in a Crock Pot full of wax. I fear the patient may not survive, but if he pulls through, I'll give a full report on my methods in case anyone else is suffering from WCS: Winter Chain Syndrome.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Studded Tire Technique

After my recent fall-down-go-boom post, frequent commenter and pal Steve K. asked me (off-blog, mercifully) how one can be spastic enough to fall down on snow and ice while riding studded tires. I'm paraphrasing (Steve's too nice to call my spastic), but that was the gist.

As always, Steve makes a good point. Studded tires are supposed to prevent exactly what I went through. As I pondered this, it seemed like an opportunity to be (brace yourself) educational. See, studded tires -- wonderful though they may be -- are not a cure-all for winter's woes. With bad technique and/or a truly awful combination of slippery substances, it's easy to overcome the benefits of studs and find yourself making the world's ugliest snow angel.

One amazing studded-tire trick is to use a fixed gear. I'm not usually one who spouts that whole "Zen connectedness" cliche, but the ability to directly control the rotation of your rear wheel is a real boon on snow and ice. If you're skidding, you know it. And if you need to control your speed on something sketchy, you can. Still, I've gone back to derailleurs this winter (can't risk a high-value fixed in this slop) and still (usually) manage to stay shiny-side-up. It's just like driving in winter -- figure out how fast you can stop, and don't go any faster than that.

The key to studded tires is weight distribution. Studs only work if they have enough of your weight on them to bite into the ice. In the case of my crash, I had just started out. I didn't have weight on the saddle for that first turn of the pedals, so the rear tire didn't bite. The torque from my massive thighs (one's bionic, remember) spun out the rear, which went sideways, and down I went. The fix is to get your butt down before you put any power to the drivetrain, planting the studs solidly before you try to move forward.

The same rule applies to the front, too. The effectiveness of braking and steering on those front studs relies on having some weight over the wheel. Not enough weight up there will let the tire skate -- or it won't press down through the snow to find the ice underneath. The result? Abject terror and a visit to a roadside drift.

The other joy of winter is the rut -- and I'm not talking about the one you get in watching old Tour tapes from the indoor trainer. If you find yourself down in an icy tire-track, you might as well keep following it to wherever that car went. Pretend you're hunting it like wild game if that helps. Try to steer out and you'll probably find yourself imitating roadkill unless you have the rare "extreme" studded tire with lots of sideways studs specifically designed for grabbing this sort of thing. Better to stop, lift out, and go your merry way. Discretion over dental work.

The intersection is your enemy during snowy commutes, too. On an uninterrupted road, you can take advantage of ruts to build up some good high-traction straight-line speed. The catch is, if you encounter a place where traffic has been traveling at 90 degrees to your express route, you're going to find perpendicular ruts and snow piles that will make things go all wonky. At best, they'll be small heaps of that dirty, squishy stuff that looks and feels (but doesn't taste, unfortunately) like brown sugar. Follow the weight distribution rule and you can pretty much hammer through, though the front wheel may give a spooky wiggle. Worst case, you may find that the crossroad was deemed "more important" by the guy with the plow, and a nice drift will be waiting at the point where he dumped snow on your road in deference to his. Best to let up a little at intersections and be prepared for the worst.

My thermometer is reading double-digits below zero (in Farenheit) right now, so I'm not going out to re-test these techniques any time soon. But, for those of you having a snowy-but-tolerable day, I hope this helps you keep the studded rubber down. Dress warm, stop for a hot cup of joe whenever you can't feel an appendage, and be careful out there.