Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Cyber-counter-intelligence

When I started this blog, I promised myself that I was going to be completely selfish about it. No counting hits. No writing posts in response to other people. Just talking about myself and you can take it or leave it.

I also told myself I'd never put a speedometer on my bike.

So there's a hit counter in the corner. My little bow to being competitive. As of right now, 314 hits since May. It's not pageloads, which is a little higher number. And it's 314 more hits than some people. Maybe. But what's fun about the hit counter is that it records certain information about each hit. I didn't realize I'd get that functionality as well, especially free, or I'd have started using a hit counter a long time ago. Recently, the hit counter folks even added a map, which is really fun. Now I know that I'm getting a little international business as well.

So mostly, for you other bloggers that are reading this, I guess I'm plugging StatCounter, the hit counter I use. It's fun and easy.

Monday, August 28, 2006

The Last Full-service Gas Station in Brooklyn

I drove back from Albany on Friday. It was another Ford SUV, the Escape this time, which was a little smaller than the Excursion or whatever it was that I rented the last time, but still sucky, for the same reasons. But no leather. It had one of those cool GPS robot things that tells you where to turn, though. That was kind of cool.

But after I found JFK (closest place this rental place had an agency, unfortunately) I had to go buy gas. That or pay $7 a gallon. So I'm driving along Rockaway Boulevard and I see "David's Full-service Gas." I figure it'll be more expensive, but whatever. My time has value too. So I pull in, first on the wrong side of the pump island, which would be slightly embarassing if I cared more, and tell the guy to fill it up. The gas station has two attendants, both Sikhs. Anyway, the gas cost $3.09. As I was driving back, I saw some other gas stations. Same price. And when I got into the airport and drove to the rental return, I passed the BP station for people returning rental cars. (D'oh!) Same price. But it was kind of fun to get to sit in my massive symbol of consumerism and have someone else pump gas.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Bicycling on Popular W& OD Trail No Longer a Breeze

Bicycling on Popular W& OD Trail No Longer a Breeze

I've been commuting on bicycles on and off since High School. Off, lately, because I take tools to my job and wear work boots. Although part of me wants to build a commuter with toe clips now that I'm not carrying as much crap as I used to.

But let's rewind to when I was in college and went everywhere on my bike. Santa Cruz is a pretty radical town, with people advocating and protesting just about everything that's there to advocate or protest. Of course there were the car-free and "one less car" folks on one side, and the liberals who quietly drove on the other. The problem I have with a lot of liberals and radicals is that they insist on wearing a hair shirt when they do something.

Let's look at a couple different bikes I'm used to seeing on the street. There's the messenger bike, which is fast, handles well, and tries almost as hard to kill its rider as the cars around do. There's a broad variety of commuters laid out like touring bikes. This is what I rode. In fact, my Dad's old Trek had been designed to be able to be a touring bike. Most of these bikes are in good repair and the riders have rigged compromises between ease of getting stuff on and off the bike and comfort on the bike. Panniers, wire baskets, etc. Then we get into the land of hippie bikes. Rust-covered chains, milk crates precariously attached to the rack, and the inevitable "One less car" bumper sticker. I find the very existence of such a bumper sticker ironic.

I think that a lot of why it's such a problem to make bike commuting work is that there's a perceived enmity between people commuting on bikes and drivers. When most drivers think of people riding bikes on the street, I think they see either messengers, slow-moving hippies, or both. Some messengers, not all, help to create this friction. In my admittedly biased view, the messengers are responding to drivers' sense of entitlement to the city streets. It doesn't help matters that, in my opinion, the hippies are trying to be a nuisance and "raise awareness." Can't we all just get along?

I think that it's important to strip away all the environmentalism, pollution, entitlement, classism, status, and everything else that clouds the issue of bikes and cars sharing the streets. Let's look at it in terms of convenience and efficiency.

Bikes have a couple of major advantages - they're cheap - a used 10-speed can be a $20 purchase, and a partial re-build to make it fast again costs under $100. Compare this to four figures for a used car, with repairs costing in the hundreds when they become necessary. Gas is also expensive, and in most cities that I would live and work in on purpose, parking is difficult and expensive. By contrast, bikes can usually be stashed in an office somewhere or, failing that, locked to a parking meter or even a bike section in many parking garages. And on city streets, a reasonably strong rider can keep up with the speed of traffic.

Of course, commuting on a bike has its disadvantages too. It's physically demanding, it's hard to carry more than a little bit of stuff, and it can be difficult to look like a professional at the end of the commute. It's also has the potential to be dangerous. The first two of these are big issues for me with the type of work I've been doing lately, although I felt differently when I had office jobs. I think a little exercise in the morning helps to wake up. Using a good pannier or messenger bag makes carrying stuff fairly easy, although cargo capacity is definitely an issue. When I had an office job I rode to, I kept a pair of dress shoes at my desk. I'd put those dorky strap things on my pants to keep them out of my drivetrain and ride to work in cycling shoes, then remove the straps and change my shoes when I got to work. I used to wear a bandanna under my helmet, and that helped mitigate helmet hair. Another way I've seen people address this is that in one office I work in on occasion, most of the lawyers wear casual clothes but keep a suit on a hook in their office.

The perceived danger of riding in traffic is still an issue. Within a city, most people are afraid to ride the streets. Riding a bike on city streets can be very dangerous if you don't ride defensively. Drivers frequently miss bikes on the side of the road, and almost never see a bike on the sidewalk. That means that if the bike crosses an intersection, merges, or swerves, it's at a very high risk of getting clipped by a car.

It's true that city streets are dominated by cars. To me, riding defensively means taking the lane when I'm riding close to the speed of traffic or approaching intersections, especially those with complex systems of turn lanes. If I'm in a bike lane when a right-hand turn pocket is added, even if the bike lane breaks and is resumed between the turn pocket and straight lane, it means that cars will be merging across a lane that they don't perceive as existing. If I'm in that lane at the time, I'll be run over. However, if I'm in the middle of a real lane, not only am I seen but cars don't have to travel across my lane to reach their turn pocket. Drivers also complain about having trouble anticipating the actions of riders. I think it's important to always signal turns and merges, just as cars should.

All of which is to say that I think it's important for riders to learn to commute efficiently. At times, I've even thought that a license should be required.

As far as longer distances, where the speed of traffic hits a consistent 30 mph or greater, I'm more in favor of separate lanes or bike trails. A bike that can't keep up with traffic is just in the way, and in the way of something weighing thousands of pounds is a really bad place to be. I think that the article linked to above shows that the planners of MUPs fail to take this into account. While I may weigh less than 30 pounds more on a bike than I do on foot, I'm going a lot faster, giving me the ability to exert many more pounds of force than my own weight. Putting 180 pounds traveling at 20 mph on the same piece of real estate as a soccer mom with an SUV stroller is a really bad idea. The friend who referred me to this article tells me that the path in question was originally envisioned as a bike route. It should remain a bike route. If everyone travels at 15-20 mph, the relative speeds are low and it's safer for everyone concerned. The presence of such routes also addresses the need for alternative routes for bikes when the roads are freeways with heavy traffic and speeds of 45 mph and up.

I think that for commuting on bicycles to be safe and practical, we don't need more traffic calming measures or politics, or electric bikes sold at non-profitable prices to encourage their use. Riders need to make an informed decision as to whether or not they can hang with traffic and then stake a claim to the piece of territory they're using, and advocates need to see bike commuters as a user group distinct from pedestrians.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

On Shopping for a Bike

Obviously (or not) you should decide before shopping what kind of bike you want. This decision is based on what kind of riding you want to do. Pricepoint's also important, as all bikes involve making compromises and price has a lot to do with what compromises will need to be made. I'm going to assume someone who wants to do medium-distance road riding. What's medium distance? 20-100 miles in a day. I'm also going to assume a high-three figures price.

I think that a classic racing bike is the ultimate road machine. They have low rolling resistance, lots of places to put your hands, and while they're more a result of evolution than design, the influencing factors have been speed, handling and comfort.

The first part to consider is the frame. There's a bunch of frame materials out there, and most of them have good and bad qualities. At this pricepoint, titanium and carbon fiber are out, so it's a choice between steel and aluminum. Aluminum has a reputation for giving a bit of a harsh ride, but it's also lighter for the same strength. Because aluminum is weaker by volume than steel, the tubes have somewhat thicker walls and considerably larger diameters, and aluminum frames are very stiff. There's also a minimum level of crafstmanship that goes into aluminum frames that's higher than in a cheap steel frame. The more specialized welds affect the price too, of course. My bike's made out of boutique steel, but any chromoly steel should be fine too. Good steel bikes are still pretty light, and have a reputation for a very lively ride. They're slightly less stiff than aluminum, so they absorb a little more vibration. High tension steel, "Hi-ten," is not okay. It's heavy and the ride has a dead feeling.

The fork comes in the same breath as the frame. Mine's carbon, and I think it rocks. Carbon is good at absorbing road vibration, so it doesn't travel up into my hands as much. Unless you're planning to violate your racing bike by putting a suspension fork on it, it's the next best thing. Of course, they're a little expensive.

Once you've got a frame and fork, you need wheels and a component group. Low spoke-count wheels look kind of cool, but the performance advantage is pretty insignificant. Deep-V aerodynamic rims also look kind of cool, but cost and weigh more. For the type of riding I'm assuming, they're not better than the shallow-V aero rims that are popular lately. A well-made wheel spins freely and will keep spinning for a very long time after you spin it. Assuming that it's centered between the brake pads, it will never contact them until you squeeze the brake. It should also be perfectly round, so the tire shouldn't get closer or further from the brake arch during the spin. If any of these isn't true, and the wheel is seated properly in the dropouts and the brakes are adjusted right, the wheel needs to be repaired or replaced. Low quality wheels sometimes can't be fixed, or not without being rebuilt, and a good quality hub is very important - it's one of the main sources of resistance to going fast on a bike.

Most commercially distributed bikes come with a mixed group. That's a way that they can put better parts places where they think there's a significant performance advantage, or where they think their consumers think so, and save money where it's not as important. The big name brands here in the US are Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo. A lot of people consider Campagnolo to be the best, but you definitely pay a premium. SRAM has a road group, but I've never seen it advertised on a complete, mass-market bike. My bike has Shimano 105 for all the drivetrain components. It's an all-metal group, which is important because plastic parts don't stay tuned, especially as they start to wear out. I think it's especially important to have good indexing shifters, because repairing them is difficult or impossible and they're expensive and a pain to replace. The next group down is Tiagra, which people on roadbikereview.com describe as being a little less than reliable, and not shifting smoothly under tension. That being said, Tiagra components have the same spacing as 105 components, so if you have a Tiagra-equipped bike, the parts can be replaced piecemeal.

So that's most of a bike. It still needs a seat post and saddle, a stem, and handlebars. It's good to have a seat post that allows both fore/aft and angle adjustments on the saddle because if a level (or whatever angle the seat post is at) saddle isn't comfortable for you, you'll have to spend a surprising amount of money on a new one. A good saddle is very important. Riding should be fun and a bike should be comfortable, and a bad saddle prevents both of those. This guy has a lot to say about saddles. My experience is that a saddle should be firm - not quite as hard as concrete, but very little give - and as narrow as supports your sit bones properly. Those are those two little bony bumps in the bottom of your butt. Sit bones are made to take weight, but a soft saddle makes other parts take weight too, and they're not made for it.

Most racing bikes now use the same threadless headsets that mountain bikes use. They're lighter and sturdier, but a pain to adjust. The handlebars are held by the stem. On a threadless headset, that clamps to the fork's steerer tube. You choose a height and cut off the excess. The problem I have with these is that if you choose too low a height, you're SOL. If you decide your handlebars are too high, you can remove the headset's top cap, the stem, and some spacers, then reorganize them with the stem lower, but sooner or later you'll have to get the steerer tube cut down some more. There's probably not much choice anymore about this. Speaking of headsets, there's something called an "integrated headset" that's showing up on some bikes. It uses the frame to perform the function of one of the parts of a headset. Headsets are relatively cheap and fairly easy to replace, but if the frame gets worn out you need a new bike. So avoid the "integrated" thing.

And that's a complete bike. What to give up if the sticker on the bike with all that is too high?

Carbon forks are pretty expensive. Steel forks were good enough for almost 100 years, and they're better now.

Off-brand brakes are fine. As long as there's no plastic. And frequently the brake pad, a cheap and easily replaceable part, is the only performance-effecting difference.

It's silly to spend a lot of money on the seat post and stem. And expensive headsets are kind of cool, but as long as they're sealed well and move smoothly, the less expensive one is good enough.

A less expensive crankset is probably fine. Hidden behind the crankset is the bottom bracket, which is worth spending money on. Of all the bearings in a bike, the bottom bracket sees the most rotations. It had better be good.

Derailleurs are pretty easy to replace if you can't start with a good one. But you eventually need a good one, or shifting can be a little less than reliable.

The chain, cassette and chainrings, as long as they're compatible with the higher-end equipment, don't need to be expensive.

My commuter had cheap foam handlebar tape. I loved it - it had little skulls on it.

Good pedals are worth it, but once you have something sturdy with a good bearing, it's probably not worth spending money on saving weight.

I like having an odometer, but I really don't need one.

Of course, it's much more economical to buy a complete bike than order by component, so after choosing a pricepoint, there may not be much selection of model. And ultimately, the bike that rides the best is the best choice. But if a shop carries different brands or models with different component mixes and similar ride quality, this should help in choosing. And if you like one bike a lot but it's not available in the right size, they can always order one.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Roads? I don't need no stinking roads!

My day off yesterday was all about mountain biking. That was the first time in four or five years that I've ridden off-road. I was a little afraid I wouldn't remember how to do it, but it turns out to be like riding a bicycle. Go figure.

Neither my native guide nor I own a mountain bike, so we needed to go somewhere with rental on-site. A lot of the ski resorts in the Adirondacks and Vermont have rentals, but they also do the lift-serviced downhill thing. I didn't really want to do that - the kind of mountain biking I learned was a more cross-country style, riding on a hardtail. Sooner or later, I'd like to try a full-suspension bike, but I wanted to ride something a little more familiar given how long it's been.

My friend and I chose Garnet Hill Lodge, a cross-country ski resort near Gore Mountain in the Adirondacks. It's a fairly long drive up, including country highways, two-lane blacktop, and even a little bit of grit. They have a fleet of about 30 Trek 4900s. Not sure which model year, but not this one. Which is fine - they have a smooth suspension fork, the brakes work, and the drivetrain is pretty good. A little heavy, perhaps, but I'm used to a boutique road bike at this point. The guy who owns the place likes mountain biking, so there's a network of singletrack mountain bike trails layed over the ski trail network. The idea is that you climb the ski trail, then descend on the singletrack.

Adirondack mountain biking is much trickier than riding in California. The soil is looser, a little wetter, and more fertile. On the ski trails, where it gets a lot of light, there's grass growing all over the trail. There's also more rock. The singletrack is a lot looser than I'm used to, which made descending the steep bits a lot more intimidating. On Dead Campers, my favorite descent at UCSC, there's a section that's hard to do mounted because the soil is so hard that the tires on my bike had trouble hooking up. In retrospect, I probably could have spent a bunch of money on some fancy tires with a stickier tread compound. Here, the problem was that there was so much loose soil on top that the tires just took it with them. I suppose they might have worked better if the tread pattern was deeper. Or if I was more comfortable on the bike. Whatever.

I think the biggest difference is just how much lusher the mountains are here than the place I learned in California. The singletrack sections are much harder to find than they were around Santa Cruz, and the plant life encroaches much further onto them. While there were more rocks, the fact that they were hidden by the grass had a greater effect than their presence. And the steepness of these mountains was probably about the same.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

What I go riding for

So I was planning to go riding yesterday as part of my every-two-days until I think I can start riding daily again plan. Originally I was going to do this lame little route up and down a trail along the Mohawk, but my friend wanted to see me, so I thought, "Let's go riding together." She had a softball game, somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Opportunistic sort that I am, I decided to have her give me a ride out there so that I could ride around in the country.

Anyway, the ride was pretty great. The route I figured out was a little short of twenty miles, in what looked like rolling hills on Google Earth. On actual riding of the route, they proved to be rolling hills, as expected. I've mostly been riding on flat or almost flat roads since moving to New York, which is pretty boring. I suppose I must hate myself, because there's a part of me that gets into climbing, even though a tough climb can be pretty brutal. But then I get to go down the other side, and that's lots of fun. Even when I wasn't on hills though, because the roads were long and uninterrupted by stupidity like traffic signals, I got to go nice and fast. It's so much more fun when I get to go at high speed and there's some variation in the terrain. It reminded me a lot of going riding when I was living in California and could get to fairly rural, or at least exurban areas quickly.

The numbers (I finally broke down and bought one of those little Cat Eye odometer things)

23.5 miles - I planned twenty but missed a turn and took a little while to re-find it. The big reason I bought the odometer, actually, is so I could use the trip distance to help me navigate.

Around an hour and a half, I think - I started just before 6:30 and I finished just after 8.

Top speed - 45mph going down something. 32 seems to be the highest I can get my rear wheel going if I'm spinning the pedals myself, although on the flats, I can't sustain that kind output for very long.

Bottom speed (not counting stopping, of course) Probably about 6mph, climbing steep stuff in my lowest gear.

Average speed - probably about 16 or 17, if I remember my starting and ending times right. I stopped for a bit to stretch near the beginning of the trip.

I also figured out the difference between the two trip odometers on my new toy, so in future I'll use the second one for navigating and I won't dump the statistics for the whole ride every time I turn a corner.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

If it's not one thing...

It's a little metal plate breaking off of another. I did my first 30-mile ride in four years today, and right at the beginning I tore a chunk off the cleat for my pedal. It's not a big deal - it didn't stop me from riding, and I'll replace it on Monday so it doesn't fail on me later. But it's frustrating that I'm having all these mechanical difficulties.