Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Notes of a Middle-Aged Utility Cyclist

As I am out and about this January, I'm thinking about a number of cycling-related things:

1. Being Middled Aged and Still Biking
A lot of the focus in our society around biking (and most things, for that matter) has to do with youth. The notion is that cycling is primarily for children or young, strong, prime-of-life sorts...or people who would like to viewed as being young and strong. This is a big change from how it was at cycling's start, when there was a fair amount of diversity in cycling's image.

In recent years, I think I have begun to see a change in this perception. I'm starting to see more and more folks like me (greying, not in the peak of physical perfection, indeed truly "middle-aged") out there on bikes that are designed for more practical use than advertising one's youthful prowess (real or imagined). This is a heartening trend. When I was in my late 30's, I noticed very few people my own age out on bikes. In my late 40's, the implied prohibition on this age group's taking up cycling seems to be breaking down. Amen to that.

Perhaps the whole "affaire de Lance Armstrong" will help in this process. We need to come to see bicycles primarily as transportation appliances, and only secondarily as toys or sporting goods. Health is wonderful, and cycle sport is certainly a valid form of competition...but we need much more focus on the breadth of cycling rather than its extremes.

2. Location! Location! Location! -- or -- "The Grid is Green"
The fact that I live on the edge of the historic "grid" section of our town's inner core really makes a vast difference in my ability to use a bicycle as basic transportation. When I travel (by bike or car) to newer parts of town, I am frequently struck by how awkward they are to get around in. Streets meander in ways that cut into effective connectivity with other ways through town, and the cyclist or pedestrian is clearly relegated to second-class status.

In recent years I have really come to see that (as a friend says) "the grid is green." Living out on one's own, surrounded by land, may be quiet and enjoyable...but it means tremendous dependence on a car, a lot more per capita infrastructure costs, and much less integration into the community. Living in the "grid" makes for various kinds of economies, as well as connection to the wider community. I am very thankful that when we moved to Salem we were able to remain within the "grid's" gracious grasp.

How communities expand in the future will likely need to take this issue into account. Plans to destroy part of Salem's grid with a freeway-type bridge system may feel good in the short run, but in the longer term I think it will undermine a highly-desirable way of structuring communities and neighborhoods. Surely, we have done enough of this sort of auto-centric, ugly, and gut-ripping development in Salem's core already!

3. The subtlety of saddles
For Christmas I was given a nice new leather saddle for my bike. It has been a pleasure to start breaking it in (really). Being an urban cyclist makes this a lot easier than trying to deal with a new leather saddle on long rides! I am finding out again how much I prefer this sort of saddle to padded or gel types. I am also marveling that just a few millimeters one way or another with a saddle can have such dramatic effects on one's pedaling and comfort. The level of integration between bicycle and rider is rather extraordinary. It speaks to the organicity of this form of transport.

4. When not to ride
A couple of my acquaintances in town went cycling last Friday, when we had a bout of freezing fog. They fell and got bumped up--fortunately neither of them were seriously hurt. I gather it was a wild scene in bicycle-friendly Portland, with many falls.

This reminds me of a basic rule: ice and bikes do not mix. I'm checking surfaces and temperatures carefully when going out this time of year. While I dearly enjoy utility cycling, I think there are times when it is not the best choice for transport. In ice, not much is. Calling in and saying "I'm not going to get there" is not an option for everyone, but for me it sometimes can be, and I need to allow myself that rational and healthy-minded option. Perhaps it will witness to others that some degree of sanity is still possibly in our society.

5. It doesn't always rain...and when it does, it often isn't that bad at all
People in Western Oregon tend to act like it rains all the time during the winter. While it often is raining here, it is hardly continuous. I know this because I am often cycling out in this weather, and I frequently don't need to wear the rain gear I have brought along. In fact, I can often get away with my leather shoes just fine.

Having good rainwear is important here, but there are many days when it may not look particularly nice, but it is essentially dry. I'm in the midst of designing some mud flaps for my bike to take out some of the spray kicked up and onto my shoes...that will make winter cycling even less of a drag.

When it does rain, I am likewise struck by how light that rain often is. I've been in a few really good downpours, of course, but most of the time it really amounts to some form of drizzle that my rainwear handles easily.

Riding in the rain is something that dissuades a lot of people from taking up utility cycling either at all, or in the winter. I'm here to say that it isn't nearly the problem I once thought it would be and usually can be managed quite well. Having good gear and a place to stow it when not in use, is invaluable. Having fenders, some mud flaps, and good lights is also very important. All-in-all, a bike needs all these things to become fully practical as an "Upright Cycle."

When one is on a bike, it is often possible to experience beautiful things that could not happen in a car. I am very thankful in the midst of January's cold to witness glorious, beautiful moments like this, when the sun through the fog makes the rays seem palpable and suffuses all of Creation with a sheen of holiness -- revealing in a shimmer of glory what is really there all the time.

Until later, safe travels...

1 comment:

  1. You go, with Hugo!

    I like the "grid's gracious grasp" and will steal that phrase! The grid has been seen as fencing or confinement imposed on the natural order, but in many ways it functions more like a river delta or other distributed system.

    Ice really points out the need for a robust transit system here. We need these partially redundant and overlapping systems so that when one is out or reduced, like biking in the ice, the other can fill in.