Sunday, September 23, 2012

Small-Scale Utility Cycling Delights on the First Fall Sunday

While others in town were busy with the Peach Ride (and I hope all went well), this ol’ parish priest had his usual Sunday round (plus some) to do.

I began at 5:50 with Morning Prayer, coffee, and a brisk and rather cool ride to church (it won’t be much longer and cycling gloves will be needed for this leg of the ride). There was very little traffic, though I was passed by one rather faster cyclist on 13th. Between us, we sort of made the cycling sartorial A-to-Z. I trundled my way to the parish in extraordinary quiet…perfect time during which to prepare for the day’s activities.

After two Eucharists (communion services) with sermons, a class (on the Holy Spirit—ah, Trinitarian theology!), some pastoral conversations, lunch with the Music Director, Evensong w/sermon (including one of my favorite—if soppy—evening hymns), followed by an organ recital—it was time to go home. It was a long, but good day---really, an ideal Sunday. My ride home made it even better.

The cool morning had become a warm afternoon. My light (and bright) coat was packed away, along with two gift bottles from a kindhearted parishioner: some red-pepper infused olive oil, and some sage vinegar. I was given these gifts with the strong suggestion that when my blackberry cordial was ready, it might make a great return gift. My roomy Ortlieb bag also carried my computer satchel and the usual assortment of tools and oddments.

In the front rack were some Liberty apples in a bag, given me by another very thoughtful parishioner who remembered my rhapsodizing last year about this variety. She works harvests in a local apple orchard that grows this rather rare type and brought me a half dozen. Only five made it home. J Now that’s a treat: cycling while eating an apple….

I peddled off into the lowering autumn sun, tracing my way through familiar neighborhoods, listening to the sounds of mowing, car-washing, and children playing. In the background, a train made its way through the heart of Salem.

Leaves, acorns, twigs, and other fall debris were scattered along the streets. The sun glinted on the street with a particularly golden-orange quality.

As I reached downtown, the traffic cones and other construction warnings on the Promenade blazed my trail ahead of me. I picked my way to Chemeketa, then turned west. Another cyclist and I almost collided, but we worked it out in time.

I found my way to the Capitol building and rounded the MUP (multi-use path) towards State and Winter. Lots of work is being done here to put the streets on a visual “road diet,” helping to slow things down and make pedestrian and bicycle traffic safer and more enjoyable (Salem is not without its efforts for increased livability). The normally empty park had a surprising number of people in it. Young couples were—in Victorian parlance—canoodling. They added a modern element to that ancient activity: taking pictures of themselves with iPhones and Androids.

Salem can be a rather quiet place, and as I biked along today, I was pleased with how that quietness wasn’t just another word for boredom, but a lot of individuals, groups, and families finding ways to enjoy themselves.

Cyclists were in evidence, some pickup games of various types were being held, joggers occasionally passed by, plenty of dogs were being walked, and a number of families where holding celebrations in parks and green spaces. There was activity, but mostly of a low-key type. I admit, I rather like that.  I’ve lived in London and New York City—so I’ve sampled some of that kind of energy—but there was something truly delightful about today’s scenes of Sunday low-energy enjoyment. While I support urban renewal in Salem, I am also aware of the underlying culture here, one which seems to value a certain amount of low-stress laid-backness (sorry about making that last word up).

Part of what made today’s journey so enjoyable was the way my bike felt. I had just tensioned the chain a bit and tightened a few things that were squeaking, so it was extremely “tight” and quiet. I could hear the three-speed hub purring along, and the wheels glinted in the dappled sunlight through the trees and between the buildings. I was done with a productive and busy day; it was time to release some pent-up energy on a pleasant bike home. Having a well-adjusted machine is rather like a metaphor for a balanced life: it all goes together just right.

I think this is an underrated benefit of utility cycling: the degree to which it forms a mental and physical transition from one event to another. When I arrived home, I was ready to be at home. The activities of the day now past were behind me…literally and figuratively: the evening now beckoned.

I notice that when I drive home, I often need extra time to make that transition. When I bike, the physical effort combined with the time and interesting events along the way make for the transition itself. This often makes me a much more enjoyable person (so I’m told) when I get home. Perhaps this is one of the aspects of transportation cycling we have not promoted enough.

So, wherever your travels take you this week, I hope you enjoy the trip and find it to be a time of both renewal and appreciation.

Apples in the re-used Target sack...and a perfect
ride home.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Bikes at School: A Pleasure to See

As I was going by a local grade school on an errand this morning, I noticed something very enjoyable: a little cluster of perfectly-graduated bicycles in the racks. I’m not sure if they had been placed there intentionally that way for some sort of demonstration, but there they were, in serried rank of ascending order. I had to take a picture.

This scene had another element that was both pleasing and hopeful. This school has developed a student/parent/staff-tended garden, which continues to expand in size and attractiveness. Lots of education is taking place in conjunction with this garden. The bikes are, appropriately, parked by the garden. It is sort of a harmonious scene: two responses to the need for a saner, cleaner, healthier, more holistic life. The pumpkin patch next to the bikes must surely rate as one of—if not the most—sincere pumpkin patches in Salem—shades of The Peanuts. Perhaps the Great Pumpkin will rise there on Halloween? Only a very patient person (or a blockhead) can tell.

On a more serious note, though, this scene also brings up another thought. Why are there so few bikes? Yes, the ones that are present are cool and practical (as well as representing part of the increased diversity of bikes in Salem noted in a recent post over on Salem Breakfast on Bikes). But, there aren’t that many for a school this size. Biking to school was once common, but is now rare to see in many places. Some schools have even removed their bike racks, or made them nearly inaccessible, clearly stating the “un-coolness” of biking to school.

I have a friend who works in another elementary school here in Salem who saw a picture of that school taken back in the 1970’s. The bike racks are crammed full. Today, that same school (still in a neighborhood with many children, and with few major changes in streets or driving conditions) has a much smaller bike rack that rarely has many bikes in it at all. Her explanation: a combination of the psychology of fear, increased sedentation, and the perception that bicycling is for “poor kids.” So, now, each day there is a major traffic snarl around the school while many parents transport their children a few blocks to and from home.

All of these factors probably play into the paucity of bikes at the school I passed by today, but as I see various elementary schools at drop-off or pick-up times, I really do wonder how many of those kids being bussed, dropped off, or picked up, could actually bike to school much of the year if their parents were to organize the kinds of practical support needed—and found—in other cities (think bike trains in Portland)? Given the epidemic in childhood obesity, not to mention the benefit of allowing kids to blow off some steam coming back from school most days, it would seem logical to make biking to school a top priority for the same district that is providing huge amounts of breakfasts and lunches—often of a fairly caloric nature.

We know that attitudes towards physical activity are largely set by childhood norms and experiences. In a number of European countries, real efforts have been made to re-introduce cycling to young people as the normative way to get to school and travel short-to-moderate distances. The result of such modest investment has been a lot of healthy young people, and a life-long integration of practicality, exercise, transportation, and community. Getting kids to bike to school has benefits reaching far beyond their neighborhood or their early years.

If we wait for a revival of student biking to come from the central office of the Salem-Keizer School District, we would probably grow old in our patience (and, perhaps, be liable to being called blockheads). So, I suspect that just as the school in question pioneered a community garden, so they (and others in town) will have to pioneer a process of making biking to school cool, attractive, and normal once more—themselves.

I’m interested. It would be a pleasure to see that once more.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Attention-Seeking Behavior: Bike Lights & Shorter Days

A spookily effective way of seeking cycling attention: spoke lights.

It has become very clear as of late that the days are getting shorter. This means two things to me in cycling terms: the joys of autumn cycling (crunchy leaves, crisp morning air, gorgeous blue skies, and the scents of earth and smoke and ripeness), and the need to have good lighting on my “steel steed.”

For many years, I had one form of lighting on my bikes: a 1979 Union generator light set from the then West Germany. I still have it. It still works very well. It is on its third bike now, but it still purrs along just fine. The biggest trouble is finding bulbs! A primary light set is a light TO SEE things with. They come in two forms: generator- and battery-powered.

Generator light sets have come a long way since I purchased my Union model. I will likely someday upgrade to a front hub-mounted dynamo, attaching a bright LED front light and (if possible) a red back light with a built-in capacitor to keep it on while I am stopped at lights and intersections (ahhh, my old Gazelle was a marvelous bike…it came with all of this—standard!). But, for now, it’s the old Union set.

The main thing I look for in a primary light set is whether it actually helps one see the road. Lots of front lights make that promise but don’t deliver. It takes quite a bit of well-aimed candlepower to really light up black asphalt at night. This has as much to do with lens design as with raw electrical current.

Generator-powered lights have the advantage of never needing batteries…but there are some other things to consider: will the amount of power generated make the lights shine brightly (are they matched up properly, in other words)? What about when the bicycle is stopped? Some sets do have capacitors for this purpose, keeping an LED standlight going…others do not. How well sealed is the hub? Some generator hubs have had a problem, when moving from warm to cold conditions, of sucking in winter moisture that leads to corrosion (if you keep  your bike in unheated conditions all the time, you don’t have to worry about it).

Some people prefer battery-powered main lights, and there are some excellent ones out on the market. For me, the main hassle with these is remembering to keep the batteries charged. I suggest a sheet posted someplace pretty conspicuous with “last charged” dates written down. Alternatively, a regular charging/battery replacement pattern during the darker months (as well as an emergency set carried along with you) can help…if the batteries are standard types. Otherwise, you just have to be really, really responsible. Battery-powered lights do not create drag. Generators do (though this has gotten MUCH better over the years). Like most things in this life, there is no perfect solution. Pick your poison.

On the whole, I prefer generators. They simply are more dependable.

The other type of bicycle lights are those TO BE SEEN with. These build on the reflector principle by generating their own light (reflectors are the least effective way to be seen, but they are an important start; reflective sidewalls on bike tires are splendid). There are dozens of products and strategies for this sort of lighting—some on the bike, some on the cyclist.

I use a variety of battery-powered LEDs, as they use less electricity (extending battery life), take a long, long time to “burn out,” and produce a piercing, attention-seeking light.

I have a white front LED that can either function as a steady or a flashing beam. On the steady setting, it provides a marginal beam of light (it isn’t much as a main light), but on the flashing setting, it really does get people’s attention. On the back of the bike, I have a triple-LED flashing light. Some newer versions have an even more effective “random” pattern of flashes between bright and less bright LEDs. These are excellent for rainy winter biking. Both the front and back lights are easily removable, and probably should be take with one for longer unattended stays.

A little busy, but effective.

That covers the front and the back: what about the sides? This is a frequently overlooked matter, but it is pretty important. Being seen from the side is essential, and many light systems don’t provide a good option here. Reflective sidewalls on a bike’s tires are one way to help remedy this, but generating one’s own warning, apart from reflecting light, is quite helpful at night.

Last year I purchased some orange flashing LED spoke-mounted lights. They flash as they revolve with my rotating wheels, so they make a pretty vivid impression—making my bike quite visible from the sides. One night this week, on my way back from a Bible study, two cyclists said “nice lights!” as we passed in the dark. That’s high praise!

If one has reflective elements to one’s coat or shoes…all the better. I’ve also seen reflective gloves (for signaling), helmet-mounted LED flashers, valve-cap LED units, and lights built into all sorts of clothes and parts of a bike. The sky seems to be the limit.

Some cyclists seem to resent having all of this electronic gear, and I do sometimes feel a bit like a mobile Coney Island with all of the lights on my bike going full tilt. But, I think I owe it to the motorists, pedestrians, and fellow-cyclists to be seen at night: I don’t want people to say “I never saw him coming,” something no one can easily say about me now!

Rechargeable batteries have been a blessing!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Upright Cycling: An Introduction

Outside a favorite coffee house in town...

I tend to call the way I use a bicycle--not just ride it--upright cycling. I don’t think something so simple or unfussy needs a pseudo-scientific definition. But, it can be described, of course, and in so doing one can get a sense of why it is both enjoyable and healthy for this cyclist (and perhaps others).

Not about Speed, but Transport and Engagement

At heart, upright cycling is not primarily about speed. Speed in cycling is usually associated with exercise or competition…both veering toward the recreational. The sort of cycling I practice is actually transportation, but on rather undemanding cycling terms. No special "bikey" clothes are necessary, and working up a sweat, while certainly possible, isn’t a goal or particularly valued. I'm not criticizing anyone, mind you. There is nothing wrong with athletic approaches to cycling: they just shouldn’t be seen as the only “real” or “mature” way to use a bicycle.

Upright cycling means being engaged with the environment through which one passes. It encourages interaction with people by its very posture; not being hunched down over the handlebars decreases efficiency but increases appreciation—of people, places, the reality of a moment. Upright cycling treats the bicycle not as a substitute for a car, but a specialized mode of transport having its own benefits and advantages disconnected from speed—a sort of instrument for encountering, experiencing, and examining.

This is probably the most interesting part of upright cycling for me: the question of speed and living life in a truly humane manner.

Going fast appeals to me at times. Like many people, I try to multi-task, making a hash of several things at once but pretending to be doing a competent job at each. I enjoy getting where I want to go in a car on time and efficiently, usually going just over the speed limit in the process. I can get irritated by slow-pokes on the road. Impatience becomes the default mode in diving for me, a certain competitiveness flashing across my mind and compelling me to act in sometimes imprudent ways.

But upright cycling changes things dramatically—to the point of feeling like a different person. Sure, I get sore when people do patently illegal or rude things, but mostly they don’t. They are on their way, just as I am on mine. If I don’t present too unpredictable an obstacle, they don’t mind me much. Most of the time, I take out-of-the-way routes and concentrate on my primary objective: to take in the people and places of my city while getting where I am going—with a little time for some peaceful reflection along the way.

Speed always changes things. Speed on bicycles seems to change them from something that has a certain innocence and counter-cultural simplicity to another tool for competition, anxiety, and aggressiveness. These things all have their place, but upright cycling isn’t that place. It is, rather, a refuge from all that.

Upright cycling slows things down. Appointments have to be spaced out. Transitions from one event to another are allowed significant time. The seasons are experienced and time’s passing is integrated with one’s inner clock and nature. Being forced to take more time travelling ends up making me take more time doing other things, questioning the unspoken American assumption that faster is better, more is always the right choice.

An elaborate civic improvement for pedestrians and cyclists.
 Some people are concerned because of homeless people frequenting this
location, but it has mostly proved very peaceful here, in my experience.

Upright Cycling and an Integrated Life

This led to me looking at my schedule more generally, noting what parts of it normally really called for the speed and distance factors a car provides, and what parts were much better served by a slower, intentional and engaged conveyance. This, in turn, led to identifying some habits that had crept in to my life that were really about self-medicating the effects of living artificially in the “fast lane.” The implications of upright cycling continue to open doors, freeing me to embrace the latter half of life from a less anxious, driven perspective (no pun intended).

Upright cycling is, in my case, a direct function of where I live. Because I live in town, I can get to many places easily and relatively directly via streets conducive to relaxed cycling. If I lived in the suburbs, on top of a very steep hill, or in an enclave surrounded by expressways, it wouldn’t work. Our choice to live where we do was connected to issues of school, neighborhood character, and proximity (by car) to various retailers. That choice has turned out to make this kind of cycling much more feasible.

The life I live--that of a parish priest--means I don't have a regular 8-5 job. I can use my bike more than twice a day, or for only one round trip. The practical utility of a bike for moving in small but congested urban spaces has been made very apparent, and that fits my vocational life, my living choices, and my  actual transportation needs. So, vocation, home, community, environment, transportation, faith…they are now more deeply integrated for me than ever before--and the bicycle has very much been a part of that.

A Mild Protest against Hurry and Anxiety

I cannot help but feel a certain ultra low-key act of protest against the pace and anxiety of contemporary society when practicing “upright cycling.” It doesn’t fit many people’s idea of efficient transport, and it isn’t exactly a leisure activity. It straddles and blurs lines that don’t always need to be there in the first place. Without ever intending it, upright cycling has extended the spiritual dimension of my life into new areas.

While I’m not a bike extremist, I do see the choices we make in transportation (where they really are choices) as significant and having implications. I hope this can be the case for others who, like me, are questioning the direction we have taken in post-war America. We have the ability to change this direction, and part of the recipe might be a dose of upright cycling, or whatever you want to call it...I don't care. Let's just make sure to wave or ring our bicycle bells out there as we pass by; we will probably be able to recognize each other just fine.

A bulky shadow on a late summer's day; off to another appointment.