Wednesday, September 22, 2010

David Herlihy: One Of Us

A bike geek, that is. And I mean that in the nicest way.

Despite being ravaged by a fast-onset cold (so much for that "amazing humidity/third lung" feeling from my last post), I managed to drag myself out to Mr. Herlihy's lecture/presentation last night. For those who don't know, Herlihy is the author of Bicycle: The History, an absolutely gorgeous book on (obviously) the early history of the bicycle, one that the staff graphic designer here at The Cycle has actually used for visual inspiration. I know I promised to dump the Amazon ads, but this book deserves one:

Thanks to a bookstore screwup, this was the book piled on the table for purchase and signing -- too bad Herlihy was actually here to discuss and promote his latest work instead, The Lost Cyclist: The Epic Tale of an American Adventurer and His Mysterious Disappearance, which also seems quite link-worthy:

The Lost Cyclist is the tale of one Frank Lenz, an avid Pittsburgh rider who set out to circumnavigate the globe on his bike in 1892... and (spoiler alert!) didn't quite make it. Sadly, Lenz left during a time when cyclists were America's oddballs (some things never change, eh?) and never got to witness the explosive bike boom that swept the nation in his absence. Herlihy's presentation was a fascinating narrated slideshow of the journey illustrated by Lenz's own photographs -- several of the photos are available at that Amazon link if you'd like to see some for yourself. At every turn, the author provided new insights into the technology, society, and (no other way to say it, sorry) "bike culture" at the end of the 19th century. I actually found myself rooting for Frank Lenz during the presentation, wondering what new adventure was waiting in the next photo.

I truly, truly enjoyed hearing the author speak. He started out a little slow, with the verbal pauses that reveal someone (like me) who works better at a keyboard than a microphone. But as the presentation moved along, I could feel him getting into full-geek mode, picking up steam as his passion for the topic overcame the awkwardness of the situation. By the time a few of his own photos slipped into the slideshow (standing near some of the same sights Lenz visited on his trip), I felt safe assuming that Herlihy's own bike had taken him there and was resting just outside the frame. Fine historian? Check. Excellent storyteller? Check. Bike nut extraordinaire? You bet.

So, fear not, Mr. Herlihy. Sure, the bookstore screwed up, but I went straight home and ordered my own copy of The Lost Cyclist anyway. I kind of hope it gets here before this cold goes away, since I predict it will be hard to put down for pesky little things like work... or food... or sleeping.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Perfect Commute

I admit, I'm still having a bit of trouble with my new 20-mile-round-trip commute. I was spoiled by that "ten minutes on the bike, no need to shower" luxury. When I have to drag myself out of bed early enough to put in 40-45 minutes of ride time and grab a shower on the other end, it feels a little like a chore.

When I peered into the darkness this morning and saw a thick blanket of fog, the dread set in. An early Monday morning with even more limited visibility than usual? Ugh. But sometimes, lowered expectations can set the stage for a truly sublime ride.

First, the temperature was Goldilocks perfect... not too warm, not too cool. And that fog? Sure, it made me all but invisible (even with flashers blasting) during the first three miles of street riding, but nobody's out that early anyway. Besides, that same fog did amazing things for my ragweed-ravaged sinuses. It was like riding with a cool humidifier on my handlebars -- I felt like I was packing a third lung. Plus, there's just something spooky-fun about slicing through the fog, like riding across Dagobah minus the swampiness and the Muppet on your back.

The trails were wet, making traction a little treacherous, but I got to see three deer (including one that I almost t-boned as he stood mid-trail, nonplussed), I greeted Grumpy Jogging Lady Who Scolded Me For Not Saying "On Your Left" Once, and I passed Tom the IowaGriz on his eastbound commute (I can only pass Tom if we're going in opposite directions). 

The trip home wasn't so great -- warmer and wicked windy. But the woods kept the worst of the gusts away, so I'm counting the whole day as a win. All in all, it was a pretty convincing argument for getting to work on a bike.

Planet Bike Blaze: My Two Watts' Worth

I just realized that I still owe my reader(s) a review of the Planet Bike 2w Blaze headlight. Sorry about that, lighting geeks -- and you know who you are.

Things I like about the 2w Blaze? It uses the same basic case design as all the other Blazes, so I was able to just plunk it on the same brackets I'd scattered around the fleet for my 1/2-watt Blaze. Also, the 2w still uses just two AA batteries -- a nice even number of an easy-to-find battery size. Between the Blaze and my rear Planet Bike Superflash (which uses two AAAs), I can recharge my entire lighting setup in one cycle of my charger. (Brief pause so dynohub users can be smug about their lack of batteries.)

In a darkened garage, the 2w on its low setting absolutely overwhelmed the 1/2w. High looked like more than enough light for trail riding after dark. The beam pattern is round and symmetrical (unlike a car headlight) so some of those lumens are scattering out in places where they aren't needed. Still, I was more than a little impressed by how much light the PB folks have eked out of the same basic platform. The only fail in the garage test is the strobe pattern. Bright? Sure. But I can't imagine a situation where it wouldn't be annoying to either me or anything approaching me. Imagine riding with a disco strobe on your bars (or worse yet, riding TOWARD someone with a disco strobe on their bars) -- not good. Maybe it's the "dense fog" setting.

Out on the road, I had some technical difficulties with my 2w, unfortunately. It seemed like the grooves in the case weren't cut correctly, which allowed the front section with the LED to jiggle loose over rough roads. Luckily, I had the light on at the time so I saw it cut out before there was any danger of losing the LED. Back in the garage, I tried the front half of the 2w with the back half of my old 1/2w (lighting Legos!) and got a much more satisfying click as they came together. Still, it looked a little dumb (yeah, I'm that vain) so I used a little bit of electrical tape to keep the front and back of the 2w case from jiggling apart. Not long after that fix, however, I got caught in a hard rain that shorted the light from (I presume) the not-entirely-sealed connection. Not enough tape, I guess.

I contacted Planet Bike with my concerns, and they sent a very prompt and friendly reply thanking me for my input and offering to replace the light under warranty. Well played. I'll be taking them up on that offer, and I'll report on the replacement light when it arrives.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

News From The Local Beat

A few Des Moines biker updates:

First, the city has posted a survey about the restriping of Ingersoll Avenue that painted a shiny new bike lane right outside The Cycle World Headquarters. If you really like the bike lane, take the survey. If you don't like the bike lane, watch a video of a cute puppy instead.

Second, we have a bike sharing program! Is anyone going to use it? Will the bikes end up in the bottom of the Raccoon River? Will this make us the Paris of the Midwest? Does it mean we're bike-cooler than Minneapolis? I have no idea. But with one of the stations just blocks away from The Cycle World Headquarters, you can bet that one of our intrepid testers will be freeing a bike from its kiosk and taking it for a spin around town.

Finally, noted cycle historian David Herlihy is giving a lecture this Tuesday at 6:30 at the Central Library in support of his latest book, The Lost Cyclist: The Epic Tale of an American Adventurer and His Mysterious Disappearance. I'm not entirely sure how Mr. Herlihy got away with putting "epic" in the title without running afoul of Rapha's copyright lawyers, but as a fan of his previous work and a nerd of both words and bikes, I'm triply psyched he's here.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Retiring An Old Soldier

The staff seamstress here at The Cycle tells me that the holes in my beloved Smicksburg (PA) Century t-shirt are in fact signs of terminal illness, fabric worn and washed to death over the last 11 years. I'm going to immortalize it here before it goes to its final resting place of honor as a shop rag.

Smicksburg '99 still holds top honors as the hardest ride I've ever done. I was surprisingly lean in those days, 25 pounds under my current fat-Midwesterner weight, commuting 20 miles a day over the hills of Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. Call me sick, but I actually learned to love climbing in western PA, at least compared to the headwinds we get here in the center of the country. Hills have a defined end. Wind, not so much.

I was a mechanic at the now-defunct Laurel Highlands Schwinn in '99, so I rode in shop colors with the informal, unsponsored "friends of the shop" team: Chad, Tinky, Hutch, maybe Jernigan? I can't remember. I know Bill (the shop owner) couldn't make it, which was a bummer as I was hoping for some company at the back of the pack (Bill and I were the "descending specialists" on the team). I remember the morning was cool, with a nice mist in the air on the first long climb. Things heated up in the afternoon, though, and the organizers thoughtfully put a much-worse climb at about mile 80. The macaroni salad I'd eaten at the lunch stop didn't help -- nothing like a little mayonnaise in the gut when you're soloing (having long since been dropped by the faster contingent of Team LHS) up a long grinder in the blazing sun.

I made it to the end, though it was one of those "leftover salt crusties from sweat on the outside of the shorts" kind of days. Ick. I'm not entirely sure how I mustered the leg strength to work the clutch on my old truck during the drive home. Despite all that, Smicksburg '99 is one of my favorite riding memories, and a fitting century to end the last century.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Break Out The Asbestos Suit, I'm Talking Helmets

Please note that this is NOT going to be a pro-/anti-helmet screed. I'd like to keep this blog as the last sanctuary from that particular religious war. If you wear one, great. If you don't, great. As long as you're riding a bike and don't try to force your decision on me, we're cool.

I did, however, replace my lid last weekend, and it made me realize that helmets are the one place where the promise of trickle-down technology really has paid off in the cycling world. I don't need an eleven-speed cassette or a carbon frame that weighs less than a full water bottle. A cool, comfortable and protected head? Yep, I'll take that.

I don't usually put a lot of cash into my helmets -- the daily commute grind is hard on them, and they all protect the same, so it seems silly to wear Lance's latest zillion-dollar R&D project that promises to be lighter and more ventilated than a Coolmax yarmulke. Luckily, a lot of that R&D does make it down to the bottom rung. For instance, I dropped the princely sum of $40 on the entry-level Specialized Align. It looks dorky, yes (they all do), but on comfort and air-sucking, it beats out the helmet I paid $55 for five years ago, which beat out the $70 helmet I bought four years before that, which beat out the $90 helmet I bought three years before that. To be fair, both Bell and Giro (the two-headed beast that seems to supply 99.99% of all helmets everywhere) also offer lids at the same price/performance point -- the Specialized just fit my bizarrely shaped cranium best.

I did a bit of research to determine if "bike shop versus big-box store" snobbery is justified in melon-protection, dropping by the store with the bullseye logo just to see what their styrofoam noggin-toppers looked like. I can say without hesitation that the trickle-down stops at the big-box door. Sure, you can get a helmet for half the admission price of the bike shop, and sure, they all have to pass the same safety tests, but that $20 at the big box buys a decidedly inferior lid. The one I checked out had these unfortunate "features":
  • TAPED-ON SHELL: Even the cheapest helmet from the Bell/Giro/Specialized cerberus now bonds the entire plastic outer shell to the styrofoam innards. The big-box lid just tapes the shell around the lower perimeter -- a cheaper, less-durable way to go. It works, but it won't last as long (says the guy who's retaped a few shells in his day to try to eke more life out of a lid).
  • NON-ADJUSTABLE CROSS STRAPS: This blew my mind, as I hadn't seen it on a non-BMX helmet since maybe the 80s. Sure, the buckle under the chin is adjustable, but the place where the straps meet under your ears is just sewn together. That's great if the sewn-together spot happens to meet under your ear the way it's supposed to. It's not so hot if the crossing spot is on top of your ear.
  • TINY, TINY VENTS: A good test for a helmet is to get the straps out of the way and hold it up against a light background. The more of that background you can see through the helmet, the more air is probably going to make it to your head. The big-box lid was like looking at a wall with a few errant nail holes. Even if you don't care all that much about ventilation, all that foam means more weight on your neck, and it's an indication the manufacturer probably just met the safety requirements by slapping on more material.
So, if you choose to wear a lid, caveat emptor -- but know that the good ones keep getting better and cheaper. The dork factor remains embarrassingly constant, however.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Humbled On The Homebound Commute

As I mentioned in my last post, my new Borg cube is just over ten miles from home -- quite a shift from the "barely worth changing clothes" commute I've enjoyed for the last five years. It does, however, provide many more opportunities for interesting encounters with other cyclists.

Case in point: I was in the final stretch on Monday's trip home, a long, gradual downhill with a few stoplights in our shiny new bike lane on Ingersoll. Just as I started the descent, I caught and passed a guy in flip-flops sitting bolt upright on a super-shined-up drop-frame Raleigh 3-speed. The thing had been polished to within an inch of its life. He gave me a wave, and I figured that was the last we'd see of each other.

Then, I got caught at the next light, and he timed it just right to get past me again. A block later, I passed him again with a wave, and I figured (again) we wouldn't cross paths after that. Snobbery? Probably.

About a mile later, I'm setting up to take the traffic lane and make my left into home base when I hear a two-tone bell that sounds like a flippin' gong... and Mr. Classic Raleigh 3-Speed goes by my left shoulder like a shiny shot. I swear, if the next light hadn't stopped him, he would have broken the sound barrier.

Kudos to you, Mr. Classic Raleigh 3-Speed. Kudos.