Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Summer will come again...

As I was peddling through downtown in the lightest of drizzles today, I went by a favorite mural, concealed on an alley wall. It depicts a rebus-like advertisement from long ago, freshened up with new paint in an act of urban restoration. This summer I propped the then-as-yet-unnamed Hugo by the sign for an impromptu photo. It was a warm day--very enjoyable for strolling, sauntering, or peddling. I like to look at this picture from time to time in order to remind me that summer will come again, and that Salem's quiet charms can delight in unexpected ways.

Keep the faith!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Matters Mudflapial

Coining new words is something of an American pass-time, and so I couldn't resist titling my post with a nicely absurd and pseudo-serious term like "mudflapial."

But, the fact is I have been thinking about bicycle mud flaps recently. After a decent dry-and-cold spell, it is back to more usual rain-followed-by-showers weather here.

The fenders that came with my Raleigh are quite solid, attractive, and well designed. They are, however, a tad bit short on the front wheel. My shoes are fairly well protected, but the bottom bracket, chain, and chain stays got quite coated with spray and various forms of guck while cycling in the rain.

Year-around utility cycling means thinking about things like this, especially if you are needing to look semi-presentable once you get to your destination. On extremely wet days, I often wear a special biking pair of shoes (waterproof), but on days where it is only drizzly, or where I am dealing with wet pavement alone, I like to cycle in my usual leather street shoes. Having mud flaps makes that much more practical. It also keeps the bike much cleaner, putting less grit in (and water on) the chain.

In looking at commercial options, I have found a wide variety of possibilities. Most of them, however, require drilling through the fender in order to secure the new mud flaps via a bolt of some type. While this is very practical, it also means going to the bike shop (I am not sure I trust myself to do a truly satisfactory job with this). It also means that removing the mud flaps (as I likely would do in the summer) would be a bit of a pain. So, I'm doing some DIY mud flap development.

The Dutch bike I owned had a splendidly effective mud flap on the front fender. It was quite rigid and wrapped around the tire. It mounted on the outside of the fender, using a metal bracket. I very much appreciated the rigidity of the material used, and wanted to try something similar. However, Hugo's fenders are built differently.  I wouldn't be able to wrap the flap around the lower portion of the fender as easily, but the design offered the possibility of an effective means of mounting externally-applied flaps.

Going down to a local building supply store, I located some rubber material that was rigid enough to stay more or less in place. I cut it so that two "tongues" would fit under the fender stays, thus surrounding the attachment point from the stays to the fender. Punching some holes in the tongues, I was able to slide cable ties through them and around the fender stays, creating a 3-point connection to the stay and attachment bolt.

The result is a prototype for what I am thinking of doing in a more finished form in a couple of weeks. I'm giving it some time for trial use before making any final decisions. It is possible the flap could be a bit longer, but first impressions suggest it might be about the right length.

I'm using a white rubber flap to go with my tires...though that may or may not prove feasible in the long run. I wanted something that worked well, looked distinctive (without being too comical), and had a certain antique quality to it. Though crudely executed at this point, it holds the promise of looking rather attractive in final form.

Once I have arrived at the right length for both wheels (I'll probably put a flap on the back fender as well), I plant to cut out a final set rather more carefully, and run them on Hugo through the spring.

It is entirely possible, of course, that I will eventually put more "official" looking flaps on, but I couldn't resist trying to construct something a bit more individual to start with. The outlay for my DIY flaps is delightfully low, so (using a grand phrase not normally part of my life) "cost is no object."

Such a project is just another aspect of what makes utility cycling creative and entertaining (or, as my mother would say: "simple pleasures for simple minds").

Keep cycling -- spring is not far off!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Going Multi-Modal: Why, and Why Not...

A few years back I decided to use my bicycle for more day-to-day transportation needs. The fit with my life as a parish priest was a good one, and my trusty old three-speed was (seemingly) ready for another go.  It took a little bit of courage for me to essay the streets of Salem, as the distance between my home and the parish church took me through several auto-obssessed speedways, canyons of metallic worship and community-busting asphalt triumphalism--not to mention the main railway through town.

Part of my motivation to get out on my bike was to put some exercise back in my life, part was to put some time back in my life, and part of it was because I like to see myself as a plain old "vicar" of the English village sort, making pastoral rounds via bike in a world based on community and relationships. Quaint, I know.

The previous parish I had served was really such a place, though. Many of its parishioners were reachable by bike, and I was able to do quite a lot of pastoral work that way both during the day and in the evening. I put in a lot of driving, however, as there were members of the parish living twenty miles in just about each direction, and all of the major hospitals were far away.

So, when I moved to Salem, I was both delighted (a great parish, a major hospital just minutes from my home) and frustrated (a town with a lot of steep hills in parts, a sudden spike in gas prices that ate into my travel allowance quicker than a dachshund lunges for a slice of warm Quiche Lorraine).

Then, of course, there is the rain....

Eventually, the desire for some exercise and savings colluded to overcome my objections. I eventually found that I really did need a new bike, and I learned many routes through town, gradually extending  my range. As time went by, I learned some interesting things:

  • It really doesn't rain as consistently in the winter as even this Oregon Native thought.
  • A heavy-weather bike and good rain gear makes winter cycling tolerable.
  • A lot of drivers are pretty courteous; others need considerable prayer.
  • Cycling allows one to practice humility and forgiveness.
  • Real improvement in cycling infrastructure has come to Salem; however, the assumption generally made is that cyclists are of the "fearless and bold" variety, ensuring it will remain a small part of the transportation picture here.
  • By their actions and attitude, many fellow-cyclists are poor PR for cycling
  • Riding an upright bicycle and/or not wearing shrink-wrap clothing on a bike is a minority proposition in the apparent view of both many cyclists and cycle stores.
  • Utility cycling has lots of class issues tied up with it. Some do it because they have to, some because they want to, and some because it makes a statement. None of these groups does much talking to each other.
  • I can often get to places downtown faster on bike than by car, especially the hospital.
  • A person connects with people, nature, and life in a much deeper way on a bike.
  • You learn a lot about a community when you bike through it.
  • I still need a car.

At another meeting, via bike; parking is usually so much easier...
Over the last years, I have become what the experts call "multi-modal." I drive, I bike, and I walk to things. Due to my often spontaneous schedule, I don't use mass transit...but I would if I could. This multi-modality is something I very much enjoy, and it makes me sound very "environmentally-conscious" or "pure" or "new-urbanist" to some. But, believe me, it really is none of those things.

My multi-modal approach to life is not so much a statement or a cause as it is a practicing of the things that matter most to me. I value practicality a great deal. This is part of how I know I am an American. Cycling often "works" very well, saving money, allowing my mind to clear between meetings, helping me understand the community I serve better, and getting some much-needed activity in my life (believe it or not, I am rather book-tea-chat-music oriented).

I also value the quiet and peacefulness utility cycling often involves. Riding through neighborhoods, parks, the grounds of a hospital, a park, or even a prison, is complex experience of reflection, quiet, observation, and prayerful encounter.

I have very little interest in all the purism of some Utility Cycling advocates. Purism tends towards joylessness and arrogance. It is indeed wonderful to see that some people have dropped using a car because it is superfluous to their life. But, it seems pretty hard not to move from purism to judging, and that's where I would like to get off the ride.

I still drive a car because I need to, and I don't see anything deeply wrong about that. I do, however, believe that auto-ism is a kind of idolatry our culture has long practiced, and like all idolatry it exacts a steep price for the delusion and pollution (of all kinds) it produces. This results in my decision to try to work in as much cycling as possible in my ministry. I think it leads to a greater clarity and consideration.

All of this is to say that being multi-modal, to me, is a putting into practice of my faith and its principles of contemplation, compassion, community, and sacramentality (that the created world is able to show forth the underlying holiness of God). If that is a "statement," I guess I'm making it...but that is not how I understand it. It is more of a matter of being than doing, to my way of thinking.

Today was a good example of this. I have some visits to make this week via car, but the deliciously cool and clear weather, coupled with the need to be at church and then later on at one parishioner's home across the river to bring Holy Communion made it a perfect day for cycling. I chatted with several fellow-cyclists, took in some lovely sights as I crossed the Willamette (on an unusually dry day for this time of year), and smelled lots of lovely scents in the air (food cooking, earthy mid-winter scents, and particularly aromatic wood burning in fireplaces to ward off the cold). Tomorrow I will likely be in my car much of the day. But, today, it was blissfully bicycle-ish.

There were actually a number of us Upright Cyclists on the bridge this afternoon
This is what multi-modality in transportation means to me: using the right tool for the right job, and seeing transportation as a part of the way one's faith, life, enjoyment, and connection to the world is nourished. That is reasoning I can live with...and for.

Where some of the best cycling ends up...

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...

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A New Year, a new post, and a bike's new name...

Happy New Year greetings to all!

2013 has started out sunny and cold in the Willamette Valley--perfect weather for some delightful biking about town on parochial duties. Here is a photo from New Year's Day, taken by Willamette's Law School while on my way home from church:

It is a rare moment when the law library is closed and the bicycle racks are empty!

New Year's Day in our faith tradition is called the Feast of the Holy Name (the 8th day of Christmas, and the day when Jesus received his name). It is an important day that gets a bit overwhelmed by its occurring on January 1.

While thinking about the significance of the Holy Name, I realized what my bike's name was going to be. Things often go like that, I find. You just can't keep the sacred from having an impact on everything else....

While I don't name everything in my life, sometimes a name just comes along for an item. My VW is named Eggbert (it is white and egg-shaped). I had a venerable Electrolux that ended up getting named Hercules (it was pretty amazing, considering how old it was). Our kitchen compost bin (executed in the style of an old metal garbage can) is named Oscar.

My old Raleigh seemed to be a Walter, and my Dutch bike was named Gabriel (it was purchased on the Feast of the Annunciation). When I acquired my Raleigh Classic Roadster last year, I was tempted to name it right away; but, every time I got to thinking about a particular name, it seemed forced. It just wasn't time.

While I was biking to Church on New Year's Day, the right name suddenly clicked: Hugo--in honor of Hugo Eckener, the sixth-sense genius Zeppelin pilot and president of the Zeppelin company through its most fascinating years. He was a very creative, adventurous, and dynamic figure--and at the same time quite a traditional character who enjoyed life greatly. I rather admire that combination.

So, Hugo it is.

Our parish had a Holy Name Day Mass that morning, and I biked over to church for it. The morning was quite frosty, so I took it rather slowly to church (I didn't want the first day of the year to be the occasion of a visit to the ER). But coming back was mostly clear of frost and I exulted in the sun and the crisp (dry) air on the first day of the New Year.

This was made even more enjoyable by two of the bike-related Christmas gifts I received this year: Schwalbe Delta Cruiser tires in their natural rubber color. They dress Hugo up quite elegantly, I think. They also sport reflective sidewalls and have excellent treads and a little more cushion.

There's just something about a black upright bike with natural color tires...

My travels today took me through the grounds of the Oregon State Hospital. Made famous in the movie version of "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest,"

Recently remodeled (as well as, in parts, replaced), the original main building is now in excellent shape. I bike through here regularly. I stopped off in front of the main entrance for a quick picture of Hugo, and also of the sunset glimpsed through the trees on this short January day.

It was a good day to be out and about. I hope that you enjoyed a good start to your New Year...and that some contemplative utility cycling figured into it!