Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Simplicity and Mystery of Cycling

Viewed from the side (as most of the time happens in real life and in bike ads), a bicycle can appear fairly complicated and massive. Some bikes really are both.

Viewed from above, however, most bikes suddenly become very simple. And that is the beauty of it: the technology involved with multi-speed bikes may be complex, but the experience of cycling itself is usually delightfully simple. The contrast between the two views of a bike express this well.

Another paradoxical aspect of cycling that almost always manages to get me thinking is the fact that balance on a bike can only be maintained through constant correction. In other words, one has to always be making minor re-adjustments in order to stay on a bike. This has the odd effect of making the start of a fall the key to having balance.

This is very significant and has practical impact. I hear a lot people out there trying to “find balance” in life as if the condition were a static reality or “state” to be achieved and then tenaciously held onto. The search for an illusive "balanced state" can become a selfish obsession crowding out everything else in life. But, riding a bicycle reveals how foolish such an approach to balance is.

Balance is a way of being, a constant application of correction, equipoise, and reality. By taking in what is really happening and measuring that against one’s present attitude or actions, a response tending toward re-establishing ongoing balance is made. Rather than a fixed condition, balance is a continual journey into the changing reality of our condition: no obsession, no clutching at straws to stay in a illusory state of being. It is really much simpler than that.

In a sense, biking is a practical exercise in how balance—whether physically, spiritually, emotionally, or in other ways—is kept. Occasionally we fall. Most of the time, we detect the problem and respond to maintain balance. The key is knowing what “reality” is and then staying committed to the pursuit of reality all the way down to the core of our being.

In my work as a pastor, this question of knowing and exploring reality is described by the word humility, which means being “earthed” in reality. Cycling is, for me, a form of the work of humility. Yes, it can be “humbling” to be a cyclist out there in any number of ways, but humility in the sense I mean it is really about knowing what is real in the world around us, the lives of others, our own story, and then correcting the many "falls" that begin to happen by testing the impulse against what we know to be reality. This way of understanding and living out balance is a life-long journey toward healing and integration.

Bicycling is, at heart, about maintaining balance on a journey. Metaphorically, it is also about being in easy dialog with reality so that balance may be maintained. This is a quotidian mystery   with cycling and in all of life. It is this sort of mystery that intrigues me often when out on those pedals; they teach me about the real work and commitment it takes to living creatively with risk and the possibility of falling. 

So, when you lose balance, don’t lose heart: get back on your bike—that complex yet simple machine—and keep pedaling. It has much to teach you.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Thoughts on Cycling in Oregon’s (or Anyone Else’s) Rain

Hugo in the garage: ready for the rainy season.

It is time, I think, to talk about utility cycling in the rain. This is, after the questions of safety and physical preparedness, one of the most frequent dissuasions to day-to-day cycling for those used to driving. Let’s think about it in practical terms.

Cycling is on a fundamental level a much more outdoor activity than driving. One needs simply to accept this from the start. Good raingear helps, and having the right sort of accessories for your bike will go a long way to making things better, but there is no way around the fact that traveling by bike puts one in much more direct contact with the elements. This is part of the charm of cycling, but it can be pretty un-charming, as well. Enclosed cars were developed for a reason.

Getting Real: How much rain really falls?
What has surprised me a great deal over the years is how often—even in the rainy Pacific Northwest—the rain either pauses or diminishes to a pretty light level. There are some days when it is coming down all day long, but very few. So, the first thing I would suggest to someone contemplating moving to bicycle commuting or utility cycling is to pay attention more  closely to the weather and note the actual reality of rain in your area. It may not be quite as bad as you think. Just coming to grips with reality can help. Cycling in a heavy, cold rain is not terribly fun (though it is can be surprisingly enjoyable if one is well-equipped), but doing so in very light rain is not difficult at all.

Fenders/Mudguards, Mud Flaps
Essential to cycling in the rain is protection from wheel splash. Fenders (also known as mudguards) come in a wide variety of styles and forms. I prefer year-round fenders that are sturdy and relatively attractive, but that’s just my opinion. Both wheels need fenders. Generally speaking, the longer the fender the better, as more of the spray is contained and less gets on the rider or other parts of the bike.

Mud flaps are very helpful, too. The one on the front wheel protects the rider’s shoes far more than you would guess, as well has helping keep the bottom bracket area (the place where the pedals and crank arms connect with the bike’s frame) clean. A flexible mud flap will take various kinds of abuse (curbs, striking from branches and other road debris) very well.

The rear fender can also use a mud flap. This helps with spray shooting out onto anyone behind you. Together, mud flaps really help keep one’s bike cleaner and assist in keeping the lower part of your clothes and other biking gear a little neater.

Rain Gear: some essentials & possibilities
There are a great many possible ways to dress for rain when cycling. I’m just setting out some approaches I have tried, or have known about from others’ experiences.

For many riders, the beginning of rain cycling wisdom is the rain pant and jacket combo, as well as the right footwear. I use a Columbia Sportswear bright yellow coat that is billed as waterproof and “breathable,” along with some rain pants I found on Amazon that make the same claim.

In the narrow sense, they are in fact both waterproof and breathable. However, a well-known fact of cycling is that the only moisture we encounter is not what falls from above or splashes up from below: there is moisture that is generated by the act of cycling itself (at whatever fitness level), and that adds up pretty quickly. No matter how “breathable” one’s rainwear is, it won’t be able to keep up with sweating a good deal.

On more temperate, dry days, I can cycle along and know that I’m generating some perspiration that will dry off pretty quickly after I arrive. On a rainy day, that perspiration can really drench my clothes. There are a couple of strategies, at least, to deal with this.

The first is to look into having a cycling outfit that one will change out of upon arrival. Some employers even have shower facilities for cycling commuters. I have heard of cyclists just wearing a very breathable set of clothes that they know will get wet on the way (wool being one such option in the winter…it stays warm even when wet), then changing into their work clothes.

I am less excited by this option because of the work and time it takes to manage. I do occasionally wear a different shirt while cycling, and (often) detach my clergy collar (a starched linen affair) when traveling on my bike,  and do wear waterproof shoes when it is going to be really wet, but other than that I try to wear my regular clothes when biking.

I have heard of some women who wear a special cycling skirt as a solution. I gather that a mother-and-daughter team of designers in Dublin have developed such an article of clothing that works well for those so inclined. Combined with the right kind of footwear and a rain cape (see below), this could be very good rainy weather kit for the ladies.

I have also heard of raincapes as a good solution, and am actively looking into this. This could be the best approach to the ventilation issue (it does mean one has to have good fenders, though).

There are a seemingly-infinite number of approaches to gloves, shoes, and headwear for the rain. I prefer quick-drying but thin gloves most of the time (with something reflective or at least higher-visibility in the dawn and dusk hours, to help people tell I am signaling). For footwear, I have tended to use my tired-but-still-waterproof walking shoes along with rain pants. There are various versions of cycling shoes and what amounts to rain spats out there. The cape + spats idea sounds like a good one for the kind of cycling I do. I'll have to look into it a bit more.

As to a hat, some people put a waterproof cover over their usual helmet. Others prefer to dispense with the helmet (especially on upright bikes) and just wear a rain-resistant or waterproof hat of some kind. I’ve tried both. The question about what to do when one wears spectacles is a real poser. I just pedal slower and occasionally wipe the lenses if needed.

Another point to make in this section is to remember that the harder one pedals the more one perspires, and thus the wetter one becomes from the inside out. I have found that just slowing down a bit helps a great deal. And this leads to my next thought…

Brakes and Rain
Depending on the type of brakes you have, your slowing distance may change in the rain. Roller-type brakes, as well most disc brakes, will remain pretty unaffected by rain. Rear axle brakes won’t be affected, either…but rear-only brake setups in the rain are more vulnerable to going into a skid, so be careful in applying them quickly.

Caliper brakes are the most affected by rain. Road grit combined with water takes more time for the brakes to get a purchase on the rim and also wears the pads down pretty quickly with use. Keep a watch on your pads and adjust your brakes as needed. Most modern brake systems are far better than the ones of years gone by, but if it is raining and you are using some form of rim brake, water is going to cut down on breaking efficiency, and this means biking differently. I have found that it isn’t an enormous issue, but must be taken into consideration in situations where timing really does matter.

One other road-related matter to consider when getting ready to cycle in the rain: metal surfaces (manhole covers, railroad tracks, &c.) can become as slick as ice and need to be approached with care. Don’t try to turn on them, or you could be experiencing Newtonian physics in an entirely new way.

Two for the Road: Bike bags
Much of the year my front basket and one rear pannier bag is enough for my daily cycling storage needs. I use the front basket for items I might want to get to while travelling, as well as a good place to stuff a coat that has grown too warm or my gloves when not needed, or a letter that needs posting, &c. The rear bag (attached to a sturdy rear rack) holds what my wife calls my “man bag” with computer and various other articles contained snugly within, as well as a few basic tools and other supplies I like to keep there in case of need.

During the rainy season, however, I make it “two for the road,” adding the other rear pannier bag to my regular cycling routine. That bag is for various articles of clothing which may or may not be needed along the way. Sometimes I have to stop off under a tree and put on my rain wear, changing shoes as well. That isn’t really too common. Normally what goes in the second bag is either those items I know I will not be needing while cycling (sport coat, sweater, dress shoes), or my raingear that I will likely not be needing for one leg of the day’s travel.

I try to avoid putting wet rainwear in my bag, simply because I don’t want to get the inside of the bag wet and run the risk of forgetting about it, letting it go “sour.” I put the wet stuff in my front basket until I get to my destination and then let it air-dry. The bags I purchased (Ortliebs) are so water-tight that any moisture that goes in will stay in if the bag is closed up. For this reason, I tend to leave both bags open when not in use year around. I haven’t had a problem thus far. Some other types of bags have built-in drains or ventilation.

The bags need occasional cleaning, but not too much (that’s the beauty of good fenders and flaps, again). Though they cost a fair amount, getting cycling bags with a quick-release feature really has helped in making them much more convenient to use, as well as making sure they are not removed without my permission or damaged by malicious persons.

Having the right cycling bags is very important, and I would suggest you look long and hard at this part of the equipment. I knew of one ingenious fellow who made his own waterproof and sturdy panniers using square five-gallon plastic buckets (with their lids) attached to the rear rack via hooks and bungees purchased at the hardware store. They worked very well and cost a fraction of what the “official” panniers would.

Final thoughts…for now
Biking in the rain has its limits. When it is very cold and “raining ice water” hard, I tend to cry uncle and give up my bike for my car. But, I have that option, and many don’t. 

In our city, public transport has been so cut back that it is very hard for many to use it in place of a car when the weather turns. It is an unfortunate part of our economy that so much of the money and infrastructure goes to the preservation of the Autoist culture at the expense of options for those who cannot afford a car or do not want to buy into the car-centric life.

Cycling in less driving rain is, however, much less unpleasant than you would imagine if adequate preparation can be made. The point is that this is not something that only die-hards need do.

Indeed: I have occasionally found myself very delighted while pedaling along in a light rain and taking in the refreshing air that often comes with a rainstorm. On top of that, perhaps the coziest feeling I know is the final approach to my home on my bike in the rain. The thought of changing into some comfy clothes at the end of a day’s work and ride and padding around the house while the rain falls is delightful. Provided that one is working/giving to help in some way or other with those who have no access to safe lodging, I think that indulging in that feeling of cocooned pleasure is another way that cycling contributes to a life of gratitude and enjoyment of the simple blessings.

May yours be a rainy season of at least occasional cycling pleasure!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Cycling and Introversion

A great deal is being written about introversion and extraversion (not “extroversion,” as some seem intent on calling it) in today’s common culture. I suppose it is somewhat predictable that all sorts of labels and generalizations are being made about this rather complex topic, and I don’t want this little essay to fall into that error. However, I have been thinking a good deal lately about the way I experience utility cycling so differently from my time behind that “other wheel” in my car, and how it always changes and challenges me to be on my bike more than in my automobile.

The change aspect has to do with the way cycling around town relaxes and focuses my mind and body. When I drive, I often do so because I need to cover a fair amount of mileage in a short amount of time. This allows me to get more done in a given day. In itself, this isn’t a bad thing.

However, when done regularly over time, it feeds the “production at all costs” mindset that introverts often find very draining. The time it takes to reflect, synthesize, and create gets overlooked in a “24/7” work world. Often, mere repetition or providing easy fixes rather than substantive compassion or thoughtful responses becomes the accepted outcome in the automated, high-efficiency society we have evolved (if evolution is the right word here—I have my doubts). Many of us on the introverted side of the scale find such a life very hard to endure, let alone enjoy.

That is where the “challenge” part of cycling comes in for me. Perhaps most people would think the challenge in biking is largely a physical one or having to do with safely moving in and around a fairly cycle-unfriendly environment like Salem. True—that can be a bit taxing. But, it also good for one (mostly) and gets some of the pent-up stress out through physical exertion and problem solving as I go from start to finish of a journey.

No; the real challenge in urban utility cycling is really about the choices I make generally in how to live as an introvert interacting with a society spinning ever more out of balance. Due to the time it takes, the pace it requires, and the fact that bikes must clearly bow to the centrality of autos in our culture, I find cycling always challenges my tacit participation in and acceptance of the cultural norms and expectations around me. In addition to being good exercise, fun, and often very relaxing, in its own way utility cycling is a very counter-cultural act.

Driving can be very enjoyable, as well. I still take the occasional Sunday drive in the country, exploring parts of the Willamette Valley and the Coast I’ve not seen before and soaking up the scenery through the seasons. But, there is a great difference between the feeling I get in the car and that found while biking. Driving is the norm, the expected thing, and carries with it the character of what has come to pass for “real life” in our day. Modern motoring is about comfort, power, autonomy, convenience, image, individualism, and isolation from the environment. This is not counter-cultural today. Biking, in its mundane splendor, is surprisingly revolutionary. What is more, it is revolutionary in a delightfully under-the-radar way.

The interaction with movement, nature, other people, and time itself is substantially more subtle, articulate, and humane while in the bike saddle. True, it is sometimes less comfortable as well, but in the main that is not what one takes from the experience. Instead, there is a delightful rhythm of pedaling along and feeling part of the passing scene and yet not confined to it. One observes—and is observed—but is also connected to the observed reality. In a far greater way than when traveling by car, I feel a "both/and" quality to transportation on a bike. I often feel I am better able to deal with the greyness and ambiguity of real life when I have been traveling more by bike—and this is critical in the work I do. It is a case of one’s physical self altering one’s psychological/spiritual being for the better.

The challenge found in utility cycling requires I take seriously my own particular character and needs rather than accept the standards, pace, and expectations of the society around me. As an introvert, I can bike to the sound of a different drummer (if you will) far more easily than drive that way. You might say that it is a kind of spiritual discipline for me. It interests me that the thoughts I have while commuting around town are often not too far from those that arise when contemplating scripture or after a time of prayer.

Cycling appeals to a great many different personality types—as do all things most true and basic to the human condition. I know a number of people whose affection for biking has nothing or little to do with the kind of reflections I am making here. But for the mindset I have it is a real blessing to experience the change and challenge of bicycle-time in our harassed, connected, and extraverted world. If there are any others like me out there, know that you aren’t alone…we have a place and a value even if our nature is not to grab the spotlight about it.

So, keep on pedaling!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Braking News...

After a couple of years or so, I have finally worn out my original brake pads on Hugo the Raleigh Roadster. The pads that came with it were rather small, but they seemed to do the job. 

I found out from my local bike shop (The Bike Peddler) that they were “road style” pads, which was in line with a couple of other details on this bike when purchased (especially the quill-style pedals). These details were not terribly consistent with the basic purpose of this kind of utility-style bike, but were functional. They just seemed a bit odd for a three-speed town bike geared this low.

The salesperson suggested I could go with some more road style pads, or I could use something a bit less exotic. I opted for the latter option, as it was well within the normal price range and looked a bit more beefy. While technically for V-type brakes, they are adaptable to the kind of caliper brakes my bike sports. I was given a helpful introduction to the ideal way to mount the pads, and then went on home to put all of this into practice.

With quick-release brakes (something my old Raleigh certainly didn’t have—but then again, it didn’t really have functional brakes at all), it was quite easy to get the old pads off and the new ones on without removing the wheels. Initially, the rear pads were not quite adjusted properly (see photo), but with a little work, they were lined up to the rim, set with the “toe in” so as to reduce squeaking (none so far), and the brake cable adjusted so that I have minimal play in it when coming to a stop. My bike slows down much better now…something I am especially appreciative of with the rain back and stopping distances going up.

Another interesting aspect of these new brake pads has to do with the residue they leave behind. When I bought Hugo, I was surprise how much of a mess the brakes made in wet weather. The rims and tires were coated with a black, gritty goo. I had to use a special wheel cleaner to get things looking better, and anything coming in contact with this stuff was pretty seriously stained. When I switched to natural rubber color tires, the situation was even worse, of course. Ah, vanity….

I thought about purchasing white brake pads, but couldn’t find any locally. One reader of this blog told me that they wouldn't really get rid of the mess, anyway. I was about to order some white pads off the Interwebs when I decided to purchase these pairs just ahead of the approaching change in the weather.

Strangely enough, the new pads don’t make anything like the same amount of mess (thus far). I am delighted! I’ll watch for it as time goes by, but by this point in the rainy season, my first set had already made something akin to a slurry on my wheels. So far, these are doing the job and doing it graciously.

Brakes are one of those things on a bike that are essential but rather easily overlooked. Keeping them in order and adjustment is very important, and checking them out in cursory fashion forms a part of my standard pre-trip once-over. I was very glad to learn more about how they are supposed to be set up on this kind of bike…and I am very happy that I was able to do it myself. And on top of that, a little bit my vanity was left, well, untarnished.

Happy cycling this October!

Friday, October 10, 2014

It's the Little Things...

Back in the mid-20th century, the French had a sort of "answer" to Bing Crosby in the form of the great crooner Jean Sablon. He had a truly elegant voice and somewhat “Hollywood” features, combining to create a relaxed-yet-sophisticated sound that meshed perfectly with the music of the time. 

Sablon’s best-known song was “Ces Petites Choses” ("These Foolish Little Things"). It is a song about memories and reminders of love. I’m thinking about that song and about the "foolish little things" that make life on my bicycle more enjoyable just now.

Painted speed bumps

The first thing to be thankful for are the newly-painted speed bumps on 25th Street (between D and Center streets, cutting through the mostly abandoned portion of the State Hospital grounds). Those two bumps are pretty “aggressive,” and for a long time they were as black as the asphalt around them. Over the last months first one, then the other, was painted  bright yellow and now they stand out day and (most importantly) night. Since I use this route a great deal to get to and from church (and often in the dark this time of year), I very much appreciate the effort to highlight these two cycling hazards.


Then there are fenders. My bike has a nice set of black fenders (mudguards, if you are English) that came as standard equipment. They are quite attractive and do a petty good job of cutting down on the mess of winter cycling. I have had to add a mud flap to the front wheel (and will probably do the same to the rear wheel soon), but nothing other than that.

Fenders—especially ones coming with the bike—are always a sign to me that a bicycle is meant for year-round use in this part of the world. Having ones that are so solidly built and attached (rather than flimsy adjustable ones that frequently rattle become misaligned) makes for more generally worry-free cycling.

Having fenders that not only work well but look nice seems to complete the aesthetic of a classic utility bike, too.


Another little gift recently received was some skilled pruning at Bush House. The old-growth wisteria attached to the side of the house had an elbow-like branch that dipped rather lower than the others, and one day on my bike (in spite of my usual ducking at this point) my helmet came in contact with that branch (at a pretty slow rate of speed, mind you). It broke the top of my helmet. I was very glad I had it on that day!

A few weeks later, that particular branch had been sawn off. That was a mercy.

I still wish the City would think seriously about resurrecting the old carriageway from Mission to the back of the greenhouse area by Bush House. It would be both historic and a boon to cyclists, allowing us to avoid pedestrians (and wisteria) on the twisting sidewalk up to and around that stately mansion.

Good lighting

Another thing (not so little, at least in the price department) that I have enjoyed recently are the various lights on my bike. I have a fair assortment of them. Together with the reflective sidewalls on my tires, they make me very visible at dusk and in the night. 

Perhaps best of all is the “Monkey” apparatus of LEDs lodged in my front wheel, which not only make a very bright array of attention-getting colors, but form patterns as I bike along (I don’t get to see them…only bystanders get to enjoy this particular show).

A bicycle-friendly sensor

The intersection of Winter and Mission has always been a bit of a poser. A bike lane on Winter terminates in a sort of visual dead-end across the street, making one fight pedestrians in the narrow crosswalk aprons for access to Bush Park. But even more frustrating was the often long period of waiting to actuate the light when riding a bike and waiting southbound at the stop light on Winter. The sweet-spot for whatever sensor was there was rather illusive.

Now there is an optical sensor mounted on the light facing Winter which works fine, making Winter a bit closer to the effective through-town bicycle route I think it is supposed to be.

[Now if they could only put such a sensor on Bellevue and Winter. That would complete the necessary steps to making Winter work well for the many current (and more importantly, potential) cyclists who use this as prime access to and from downtown to South Salem.]


These fall days are always my favorite for cycling around town. Once the rain arrives (perhaps starting next week), it won’t be as enjoyable. But, with the right gear and a little determination, it isn’t all that bad, either. Being thankful for the things needed to make rainy-season cycling more enjoyable would be, however, another post. I’ll try working on that as the opportunity arises (and it likely will).

So, these are some of the "foolish little things” that add up to more pleasure and enjoyment of Upright Cycling around town. I hope to see you out there soaking up these waning dry days of Fall, as well.

A blessed Autumn to all…