Sunday, August 26, 2012

Over the Hill…but in a good way!

I suspect one of the chief obstacles (in both the literal and metaphorical sense) to many people biking is hill-climbing. Biking can be challenging enough for new utility cyclists, what with rules of the road, gears, braking, dealing with traffic, the weather, &c. Add to this some steep-ish hills that heat a person up and make special cycling clothes seem unavoidable, and it all gets to be too much for many people to “make the leap” into regular utility biking. I do have a suggestion, though:

Get off and walk your bike up the hill.

Unless you live in a very hilly location, walking a bike uphill is legal, sane, and perfectly reasonable. To me, the interesting question is: why is walking a bike up hill so difficult for us today? It wasn’t always this way.

I can remember seeing lots of people (except young men out to prove something to themselves or others) walking their bikes up hill when I was young. Then came ten speeds. Suddenly, cycling was only about sport, fitness, and intensity. To dismount from your bike and walk up the hill was a sign of being a sissy, a wimp, a fatso. So, people had to strain, sweat, and nearly kill themselves to stay in the saddle at all costs so as not to imply they were abject physical failures. This all happened about the same time as it became rare to see middle-aged and older people on bikes around town. These two things seem related to me.

Utility cycling is a great way to get out of the “rat race” by opting for transport that is slower and healthier for the total person. It should not (in my opinion) be about substituting one obsessive compulsion for another. Using a bicycle needn’t always involve getting covered in sweat. It can be a fairly mellow activity. Sure, exercising via bicycle is great, but is that the only way we can justify things in our society? Must it always involve some tangible “product” or “benefit?”

Just a few days ago, I was walking up a hill when I met up with a neighbor walking his dog. It turned out that we were both going the same way, and the block or two we walked together proved both interesting and enjoyable. Yes, I missed a little cardio exercise, true; but a connection was made that I would have missed had I treated cycling as yet more hyper-focused American foolishness. So many of us say we want to live a more European-paced life: perhaps we ought to start doing so in the myriad little ways we are able. I’m beginning to see more seniors out on well-made, multi-weather upright bikes going at a reasonable pace these days, and I think it is a sign that sanity is returning in the cycling world. Let’s add walking bikes uphill to the Utility Cycling Manifesto (if such a thing exists)!

Cycling where I live involves some moderate hills. I’ve become able to go up most of them in the saddle fairly comfortably…but there are a couple of routes that have me walking up the hill, especially in warm weather. When I do so, someone driving or pedaling by is probably thinking “poor fellow—he can’t even make it up that hill.” But I could be thinking at that same moment “poor soul—s/he is more concerned with speed than living.”

Perhaps we all ought to be thinking less about the judgments and more about how we can lead healthy, balanced lives.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Cycling to the Hospital: The case for pedal pastoring

My life involves frequent trips to the hospital…not as a patient (yet), but as a pastoral visitor. One of the central parts of being a parish priest is visiting the sick and those preparing for/recovering from surgery. It gives one a lot to think about.

I am blessed to live within easy cycling distance of the hospital. I say this from personal experience, as the last parish I served was about seven miles away from the nearest full-scale hospital, and in heavy traffic it could take about half an hour to get to a parishioner from my home. Now it is a matter of minutes. In fact, it is close enough that it can take less time to make it to a parishioner’s bedside via bicycle than it does to drive the car, park, and wend my way to the room. Beyond this, though, there is a personal side benefit to bicycle-borne hospital calls.

Hospitals are becoming bigger and bigger; they are also becoming more and more technology focused. Medicine is, to be honest, big business. At times, the purely human dimension of hospitals seems to be on the retreat. The scale of structures, their construction materials (lots of reflective metallic, stone, and glass surfaces) combined with the omnipresence of complex technology can turn a place of healing for humans into something that feels much more like a factory. I know this isn’t the hospital’s intention, but it does strike me that way.

Driving to the hospital requires entering a warehouse-like parking structure, manoevering in various circles, often screeching tires even when going slowly, warily avoiding running into a car backing out or a pedestrian distracted by events connected to a visit, and walking about in semi-empty structures (especially late at night).

When I bike to the hospital, I experience something rather interesting: a re-assertion of the human into the midst of this massive, complicated, sometimes overwhelming place. Rolling up to the hospital quietly and gently on my bike, locking up, and then making my way inside is much less mechanical, much less anxious. I have noted how cycling to see a parishioner in hospital—whether it be during the day or the night—leaves me room to approach the entire experience more prayerfully, bringing less anxiety along with me into this frequently anxious environment. Even seasoned clergy find hospitals can be very challenging places, after all.

This is yet another time when the pace and character of more human-scaled transport has collateral effects. The mere physical act of cycling energizes and opens the body as one is preparing for a potentially profound encounter. Afterwards, the journey back home or to the parish church becomes a time for reflection, consolidation, and (especially) prayer.

I think one of the great themes of the twenty-first century will be returning the world to human terms. Our juvenile love of the machine inherited from the Industrial Revolution can and must mature into an appreciation for the sacredness of the human person, the environment, and the community. Cycling can be a surprisingly simple way to bring these issues in focus, and to act upon them in a creative, humane, practical way.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

When Three Speeds are Sufficient

In a world of mountain bikes with dozens of gears, and even internally-geared hubs with 14 speeds, or the Nu-Vinci hubs with their "infinite" gearing (a bit of a misnomer, really), the old 3 Speed can seem hopelessly out of date. Yet, I would have to say that for most average terrain, it is still a superb solution to the gearing question.

The Shimano Nexus 3 Speed set up on my Raleigh Classic Roadster is every inch a no-frills workhorse. It doesn't draw attention to itself and simply does what it is meant to do. In low gear, one can get up some very steep grades. 2nd gear is great for starting off from a dead stop or going up a slight hill/heading into a light wind. High gear is my main cruising gear. At times, it might be nice to have a slightly higher gear for really rolling along (this could be effected by getting a smaller rear cog), but on a utility bike one just doesn't tend to go all that fast anyway, so it really is not something I wish for too much.

When I had an 8 speed Shimano Nexus hub, I found that I really tended to use three gears most of the time, anyway: a low gear, a middle gear, and a high gear. This is true for derailleur setups having 18 or more speeds, as well. While having a three speed takes away some options (and certainly is not appropriate to all situations), it effectively allows for what I tend to do most of the time, anyway--with a hub that weighs considerably less than one with many more speeds.

Three speed gearing systems are very simple to work with. They require a minimum of maintenance (actually, almost none in the case of this Shimano hub), and only the occasional easily-made adjustment. They are excellent for in-town cycling, as you can change gears while stopped as well as when pedaling. The paucity of choices means that I don't actually have to think strategically about gears very is just "L-N-H" (Low, Normal, or High) in my mind, and I can easily pre-plan.

Oddly enough, one of the bonuses to this sort of gearing is auditory. When coasting, the Shimano hub has the familiar sound of pawls rapidly clicking as the hub rotates; but when pedaling it makes the most attractive mechanical susurration...a sort of liquid purring that I find perfectly delightful, rather like the soughing of the reeds down by the river. I never thought I would enjoy the sound of pedaling a bicycle so much!

As a Christian and a priest, I find the number 3 very appropriate and lends a mystical quality to my cycling. I hope that others will come to realize the practicality and the benefits of the old three speed system in today's utility bike.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Step-Through Frame (formerly the “lady’s” frame): Some thoughts & encouragement

When I purchased my last two bikes (the most recent being a 2012 Raleigh Classic Roadster), both times I chose what has become known as a “step-through” frame. When I was younger, these were universally called a lady’s or a girl’s frame—depending on the size. Few men would be caught riding one.

A lot has changed since then…thank heavens.

First of all, I think sex roles have begun to become less rigidly defined. Second, people who either visit Europe or the utility cycling culture there know that the “step-through” frame is not universally viewed as a woman’s bike design. It is commonly ridden by men, and is the basis for a wide variety of town-type bikes, often with a certain elegance built in to the frame pattern. Perhaps another important reason is practicality: the step-through is a lot easier to deal with when riding with parcels, and in stop-and-go traffic.

One of the concerns I had in moving to the step-through frame was strength. I’m no lightweight. I wondered if my being a fairly solidly-built person would mean I could easily break the frame. I was assured by those selling both bikes that I was nowhere near being in danger of that…especially because these were steel-framed bikes. I certainly haven’t had any problems with either bike in riding around town, even with considerable additional weight from items I’m carrying.

Step-through frames allow a person to mount a bike easily. This is particularly true when carrying packages, bags, &c. on the rear rack. Utility cycling really benefits from that capacity. This alone would seal the deal for me.

The step-through frame allows a person to do something else: to dismount easily and safely. Since switching to a step-through, I have given up counting the times when I was glad (especially in city traffic situations) not to have to deal with a high top tube! I can remember some fairly painful outcomes to life with a diamond frame in the past.

Some people express concern that a bike with a step-through frame will be too wobbly. While I have noticed a bit of this when there is extra weight on the bike (packing a great deal of stuff around…and I do mean a lot), it really has little impact on things. The speeds at which a utility cyclist usually travels negates much of the drawback. Probably the only clear downside with such a frame is when transporting it on a rear-mounted car rack: one has to buy (and use correctly) a special adapter that replaces a top tube. It costs extra, but is easy and reliable.

The step-through frame makes a great deal of sense to me on a practical level…and for the future. I can see myself being willing to cycle about when I get older on such a bike more than a diamond frame. This frame style seems much more forgiving of an aging body.

Being a person committed to the “long haul” in life, this matters to me. I once heard that the best thing one can do for the environment is not to purchase a new car. While I’m not sure that is actually true any longer, I believe the underlying ethic—that long-term purchases and a simple, stable way of life is preferable to rampant consumerism—applies to bikes as well.

I made an initial mistake in buying a bike with the wrong geometry a while back, but when I finally found the right replacement bicycle, I stayed with the step-through frame. I am delighted with the look, the practicality, and the message about the nature of utility cycling it sends.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Pleasure of Utility Cycling

I was recently making my leisurely way home from the office, noticing the changing neighborhoods and landscape along the way, and realized how happy I was cycling. That struck me. I don’t feel that way driving to and from the parish church; rather, I just want to be where I am going. But cycling is a different matter. I find I allow for more time, and I take in the world around me. When it is raining, the journey is usually a bit more interior, true—but in other types of weather I am genuinely interested in the environment, the people, the life through which I travel.

The French have a word that describes this, albeit for pedestrians: saunter. Sauntering is not just to pass through: it means to take in, to learn something of what it means to live in a place, to soak up the environment and appreciate it and the people there.

Utility cycling makes a form of sauntering possible. Unlike some cyclists, I don’t travel quickly on my way, head down and straining. I move through the topography with a lot of intentionality, varying my route slightly all the time, exploring here and there, greeting people and not infrequently talking with them. The bicycle becomes more than a means of transportation—it actually becomes a way to participate in our world, which is really a low-key act of resistance to the passivity and isolation so common today.

I'm interested in having a conversation on this topic. How does your cycling journey compare with your auto experience? How much does cycling cause you to saunter? What is the impact of cycling on your sense of neighborhood or community?