Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Gear--and not the kind with teeth

One thing keeping some people from cycling on a regular basis is the notion of how much gear it takes to really "be" a cyclist. If one ever ventures into a bicycle shop, it can quickly become overwhelming. In addition to the bike itself (a pretty complicated area, if we are honest), there are all sorts of other oddments, clothing, lighting, racks, packs, and whatnot. Then there are the subtle and not-so-subtle pressures to "gear up" with as much of everything as possible, or to get tricked out with expensive speciality clothes. 

Perhaps most off-putting of all is the notion, conveyed by all sorts of magazines, videos, still shots, and the "culture" of many bike shops, that cycling is essentially a form of sport for the wealthy and leisured, focused mostly on fitness, youth, or at least the nervous preservation of youth. All of this means having a lot of gear.

Cycling, like most things, has quite a few meanings and uses, sport being just one of them. For me, cycling is about transportation, connection with the community I live in, somewhat about keeping active, and mostly enjoying a slower pace of life. Gear is just a means to that end.

Because I live where it rains a lot, I have had to plan accordingly. I purchased a breathable rain coat in an eye-catching yellow, that makes me look like an overstuffed Big Bird, but makes me a bit more visible to distracted drivers, also. I found some rain pants that work well, though they aren't all that breathable (I found over the years that no matter what, you still get wet inside stuff like this, just from sweat, not rain). 

I zip-tied my garage-door opener to the handlebars (this makes getting into the garage a lot easier, as there isn't an outside lock or handle on the main door), and then rubber-banded some plastic wrap over it to keep it dry inside. Classy.

I have some old cycling gloves that I use much of the year (my hands are prone to getting cold). A cycling helmet with an attached side-view mirror is another piece of gear I own. The biggest expense (outside the bike) I have incurred in getting my bike "kitted out" has been some good quality waterproof panniers. After reading online and talking with folks, I found that you get what you pay for here. 

Then there are my "cycling shoes" (some tired rubber moccasins) for when it gets really wet--which is isn't all that often, really. 

The kind gift of a bicycle pump has proven helpful, and I have some flashing lights for the front, the back, and spokes (in addition to the dynamo-driven ones that came with the bike), mostly with rechargeable batteries--these lights help with distracted drivers, too. 

I splurged and got a cup-holder for the occasional mid-ride coffee and as part of a future umbrella carrier setup. A couple bungee cords prove useful occasionally. 

That pretty well covers it.

Other than the panniers and the coat, everything but the bike was quite affordable or something I already had. It doesn't have to be hard, complicated, or expensive. I know one person who used old plastic laundry soap bins with handles as the basis for some very effective, rugged, and cool DIY panniers. He just added some bolt-on hooks to them, a few reflective stickers...and bingo: cargo-carrying capacity. Like many in in the daily cycling world, he just keeps his eyes on the prize of it all: affordable, effective transportation.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Going Upright: The good and not so good

For many years I rode a 1960's Raleigh Sports (dubbed "Walter") on an occasional basis. I had tried a drop-handlebar 10 speed (Peugeot... ah, youth), but had never liked it as much as Walter's more upright style. However, the Raleigh had one major drawback: its brakes were practically non-existent in the rain. This was a big problem in the Pacific Northwest. When it wasn't raining, the front brake--no matter what I tried--set up a vibration that caused the fender to make an amazing shriek. I kid you not.

Well, I lived with all of this because Walter had relatively wide tires, three speeds that pretty well covered the needed range, good mudguards, a well-worn Brooks saddle, and lots of little personalized touches. The bike was so well-worn that no one was interested in stealing it. It served me well, especially when I was living in a very flat, small town. 

But those brakes....

There came a time when a number of repairs needed to be made, some key parts were wearing out, and I really wanted better braking in all weather (and at least some in the rain). Then I was introduced to Dutch bikes. Suddenly, I found the bike I had always really wanted: very, very upright, very solid, and with excellent brakes. It came with a full gear case, superb heavy-weather capability, and a very nice rack. While costly, I decided that it would likely be the last bike I would purchase, since the previous one had lasted me nearly thirty years.

I cannot begin to tell readers just what a pleasure this bike has been. Being this upright means being much more aware of traffic around me. The design and construction materials mean a very solid, smooth ride. This takes the cake when it comes to an in-town, dependable transportation tool. 

Upright bikes have a specific purpose at which they excel: basic transportation. They have their limitations, too. The main one is wind. If one is bolt upright and there is any wind opposing the bike, you feel it. This can be quite debilitating on a gusty day. Another matter is weight: Dutch bikes tend to be heavy. They do not take off from a stop quickly, and they never get "fast." Then, there can be the issue of turning and "cockpit" room. If, as on mine, your Dutch bike's handlebars reach far back toward the saddle, one has to get used to making sharp turns with a considerable lean--or by moving one's leg out of the way at a slower speed. Hills are another issue: this bike's weight and geometry make it very difficult to go up steep hills, even with an expensive/extensive set of gears. It is nearly impossible to "pump" the pedals while standing. Since most Dutch bike riders go about town in their regular clothes, there are many times when I just walk it up, rather than get wringing wet trying to tough it out uphill.

But the general utility, stability, and durability of these bikes wins out in my experience. This bike (with the right racks and panniers) can perform many functions of a car, and lead to a variety of added benefits.  Going upright has been a joy, and saved me quite a bit in gas money. This bike also allows me to drink coffee while riding pretty darn safely. That is worth something...

I still have Walter... I can't quite give him up. I trot him out in the summer, for some rides in parks and the like. But Gabriel (my Dutch bike), has proven to be the type of bike I was searching for long ago, but didn't know how to find. I hope others will find the bike allowing them to go "multi-modal" and experience more of the world from two wheels in coming years.

Monday, February 6, 2012

A job well done

As I noted in my last post, our city has a fairly long pedestrian/cyclist walkway along the railroad right-of-way that passes through town. I call this the "promenade," though I have no idea what its official name is. When I was working in Brooklyn, we had something called the Promenade that ran along the East River, and so I'm borrowing the term.

This civic improvement was put in some years back to help with the problem of having many grade crossings right in the middle of town. It helps cut down on the chances for people to be hit by the train, and it also funnels walking and cycle traffic (along with a few places where slow-moving auto traffic can can gain one-block access). It seems to have done that admirably.

The quality of the design and materials used is very high. It really does make it much easier to get through this part of town. I appreciate the way it invites people to saunter along... particularly office workers during their lunch hour. The appurtenances are generally elegant, even a bit classy. We could use more of that sort of feel in our cities: humanization, warmth. The effect of such a place is an easing of the tempo of civic life. So much so, this is one place where having a good bicycle bell is very important: people get that relaxed and inattentive here.

The "Promenade" also brings up something easily overlooked: one improvement project can meet many needs simultaneously. This one added safety, attractiveness, and utility (for transportation and seating in some places). It connects the only large grocery store for miles with nearby neighborhoods, and it gives cyclists a (relatively) safe way to move about an area fraught with potential problems. 

Of course, there are some difficulties, here and there: it is unclear how pedestrians and cyclists are supposed to "relate" in some places (other than cyclists simply dismounting or going very, very slowly), and the placement of benches results in some serious congestion at times. However, I think with some common sense and a little respect, it generally works well.

It will be a long time till so many cyclists are out that the Promenade becomes overburdened. In the meantime, I think this multi-use environment shows that even in a city with sometimes less-than-logical planning for a multi-modal transport future, there is creativity and foresight.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Encounter and participation: its advantages and its problems

After a period of rest from writing on this blog, I’m back. During the interim I took a rest from commuting on the bike for a while (darkness, ice, some sore knees from assuming I am younger than I really am and trying to do things in too high a gear…), then eased back into it. The gradual increase in daylight, coupled with a run of very nice (though still chilly) weather coaxed me back, as did my much less stressed knees.

Very recently I experienced one of the curious aspects of cycling: its greater “immersion” in the world through which one passes, with complex consequences.

On that day, I came over the pedestrian bridge in the photo’s far distance, meeting the promenade that runs alongside the railway passing through town. As I did, I heard the horn of train. At that same moment, I saw a man standing on the promenade, leaning on the fence. He was looking intensely down the tracks, towards the oncoming train. He had a darkened countenance, almost rubber-mask like in its grimness. I almost blurted out: “don’t do it.” It seemed like he was contemplating something rash. Whatever was going on, it didn’t feel right. He stared at me for a moment, then pulled away from the railing and began to walk over the bridge, away from the tracks. I continued on my way, listening to the horn of the train as it drew nearer to passing by me. I glanced over my shoulder and could see its lights as well as feel the diesel engine’s throbbing rumble: soon the crossing gates would drop—and I would have a passport to an easy journey through town as the train formed a moving wall, protecting me from traffic. Except, it didn’t.

After I went about a block, I realized that no bells were ringing, no gates dropping. The train had stopped short of where I had been when I saw the man peering down the tracks. For a moment, I had a sickening feeling. I turned back and went to the stopped train. There was no apparent reason for its sudden halt. As I looked along the right-of-way, I saw figures in the distance, moving about in a place one normally sees nothing but brush. Something had happened, but what I could not say. I offered a few quick prayers. Sirens sounded, going to someplace hidden by the train’s immense bulk. After a while, it seemed that there was nothing to do but head on home. Later in the evening I read that the train had struck a man walking beside the tracks with a glancing blow. He was treated at the hospital, but apparently not seriously injured. Who was this person? Did the man I saw on the promenade see the accident as it happened? I doubt I’ll ever know the answers to these questions, now coupled indissolubly with that spot in town.

Years ago, I used to live near the sight of this event. At that time, there was no promenade, with its cleverly (and attractively) designed fencing. Many impaired, drunk, or careless people were injured or killed there. I grew to know the peculiar sound of the train’s horn when it had struck someone. Another loss, another painful story of a victim… but that was not all. Having had a relative in the rail industry, I knew it deeply affects the train crew when such things happen.

Now this long series of grade crossings right in the middle of town is much more effectively fenced off. This thoughtful project also made it possible for pedestrians and cyclists (in places, very slow-moving local car traffic, too) to progress safely through town on a North-South axis. It is often a preferred route of mine. Along the way, one encounters office workers, pan-handlers, college students, homeless people, neighborhood denizens… and the train. It is a cheek-by-jowl place, one in which the cyclist is right in the midst of it all.

When I travel this way, as well as through a number of other sections of town, I am reminded how much the automobile acts as a screen from encounter and participation in daily life. Our environmental seclusion in a car is such that we often don’t have time or safe opportunity to register the world around us. When traveling by car, I simply don’t notice much… and that is part of the “message” of the car: speed, yes—but detachment, too. The auto has contributed mightily to the culture of disconnection that marks much of our American life today.

I take great delight in cycling through town in part because of the changing seasons, and in part because of the encounters with people I know along the way (this was the case just today). It humanizes transportation as well as grounding it in nature, in reality. But just as one fellow I used to pass and wave to in a trailer park turned out to be the man who, off his medication, held his family at gunpoint and caused the police to lock down an entire neighborhood for much of one day, so this experience on the promenade made me realize how fragile life is, how real participation in anything—however slight—means sharing in the complexity and ambiguity of real life. Potentially costly, but worth it, I think.