Wednesday, April 22, 2015

You're drunk Winter! Go home!

You can hardly tell it, but the sun was trying to shine through all of that gloom this morning. Winter decided to try and overstay his welcome yet again this morning. Granted, this is Chicago and winter often persists in the form of cold temperatures even into the beginning of May, despite calendar proclamations and pronouncements from rodents about the beginning of Spring. In spite of that I just wasn't ready to ride into work on yet another day with temperatures in the low 30s Fahrenheit. I wish that figure was Celsius. So, I layered up with my mild winter gear and headed out the door. With no forecast for rain I was aggravated to see the ominous low hanging clouds, for all the world portending rain. I hadn't packed my new Showers Pass jacket, the forecast for the next several days said I didn't need it.

Still, about five minutes in and I was feeling drops hitting me. But wait, not drops. Nope. Sleet.

Sleet?! Really?! April 22nd and sleet for my ride in. Seriously Old Man Winter, stop being such an asshole and leave already. We're done with you. Some folks would tell you to just grin and bear it. Yeah, it might have looked like I was grinning but no, that was not a grin but was instead a rictus of determination. Nope. Mr. Car-free-bike-commuter-man just sucks it up and keeps turning the cranks over. Winter, you can suck it because I know that even though you keep trying to overstay your welcome, your days are numbered dude. Man I love riding my bike!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Car-free, whether you're ready or not

This was the scene about a month or so ago, when my loyal and mostly trouble-free Subaru was hauled off to a junkyard. Unlike those dumb commercials from  few years ago, I didn't drive my Subaru out into a field in the rustic country and park it under a giant old tree, where crying hipsters could come filch parts from the rusting hulk. No, I called a bunch of random junkyards who advertised paying cash for junk cars, until I got one that actually answered their phone. They asked me a few questions.

"Do you have the title?"
"Does it run?"
"Yeah, kinda. It misfires pretty bad on cylinders two and four, but it will still start up and go."
"Does it have catalytic converter (said in a thick, indeterminate accent)? Cuz if it doesn't you get $100 less."
"Yeah, the exhaust is completely intact."
"When you want to have it pick up? Today good for you?"
"Yeah, sure. I'm home all day."

It just so happened, I was busy building the bike that was going to replace this Subaru wagon, so I wasn't going anywhere. A little over an hour later, I was $275 richer, and one car lighter.
The tow truck driver had me sign over the title after which he unceremoniously yanked the license plates off the car and handed them to me. "Plates still good! You can put on another car!"
"No, I'm good," I told him. "I'm going to go car-free. Yeah, that's right, I'm not going to own a car anymore." He told me about some other cars he liked. Mercedes, BMW, and how one of his daughters who was going to go to medical school insisted on a new BMW. No used car for her.

So, how did it all come about? Well, for the last three years I've been a pretty diehard bicycle commuter. I rode my bike a minimum of 120 miles a week or more, depending on how many days I might make side trips to the grocery store or somewhere else to run errands. During that whole time, I still owned a car. As the car was driven less and less, I started to think more and more about whether it could be possible to go truly car-free. I know from reading other people's tales that it was indeed possible without much in the way of undue hardship.

If  my wife and I really needed a car, there was always the option of rentals or some form of car-sharing service like Zip Car. Fortunately, my wife has been able to walk to work as we live mere blocks away from the university where she works. I have a relatively easy commute to get to work by bicycle, and our car was increasingly driven less and less. Things began to really gel in 2014, when the car was seldom driven more than once or twice a month. Even then, the total mileage put on the odometer in a month was typically no more than maybe 30 miles or so at the most.

What really planted the car-free seed (pun intended, as you'll see), was coming out to use the car one day last summer. In the area between the hood and the windshield there were actual tiny green plants starting to grow in the layer of humus that accumulated there. Over months of neglect trees dropped their leaves on the perpetually parked car, and birds regularly fertilized the paint job and windshield, no doubt contributing the seeds of whatever it was that now grew from the loamy medium collected there. I laughed about it at the time and pointed it out to my wife. It was as if I'd unlocked a trophy in a game on my Xbox 360 console. Bike commuter car neglect - Achievement Unlocked!

We had indeed talked about getting rid of the car, but it was always more me talking about it, and my wife insisting that we should still own a car, "for emergencies," even though she never actually drove it, being mortally afraid of having to drive in Chicago traffic. I all the years we owned the car, it was never needed for an emergency, the closest thing being a last minute need to get to the grocery store or hardware store without taking the bike on a lengthy trip, or slogging through two feet of snow for a mile round trip walk.

It was the car itself that eventually forced the issue. Through neglect, things had begun to break down. The struts needed replacing and their mounts made annoying clunking sounds while the failing struts allowed the springs to groan and complain loudly. A check engine light would periodically come on, but since the engine ran fine once it warmed up, I chose to ignore it, frequently resetting the CEL with a code reader I bought for just such instances. Finally, the car experienced a major failure of the exhaust system driving it home from work back in January. The engine was running terribly, no doubt because of sensor now in alarm mode due to the sudden decrease in exhaust back pressure.

I parked the car in early January and never drove it again. Once the snow finally melted away enough, I walked out one day to start it up and see if it would still run. We'd decided a few weeks before to get rid of the car, briefly dithering over purchasing a used Volvo 240 wagon for $2000 from a local dealership. We decided instead to take some of our tax refund money not to pay for another car or fix the existing one, but instead to pay off all of our remaining credit card debt. The car we decided, we could do without. If we absolutely needed a car there would be cabs or car shares. We'd make do.

So, I called a junkyard and had the car towed away. The immediate cost savings of no longer owning a car came a scant few weeks later when I was able to ignore the dire warnings to buy my city sticker for display on my windshield, or suffer late payment penalties and fines. A few days after I gleeful threw the city sticker mailing in the recycling bin, I was pleased to see street cleaning signs appear on the street. I wouldn't have to move my car from one side of the the street anymore, lest I incur an expensive ticket or a towing for impeding the operation of the street cleaner.

A few days after that, a major storm blew threw, knocking numerous tree limbs down and pelting the area with hail. Once again, I didn't need to worry about whether my car was damaged or not. Little by little, the trepidation of being sans auto has lessened. It's a hard thing to adjust to not owning a car, especially when you've been driving for the last 29 years and have always had a car at your disposal. Still, I think the last two to three years of driving so little had begun to prepare me. Here in America, we've been taught that getting one's driver's license is a rite of passage, a passport to freedom. With our rampant car culture we're taught to think in terms of using our cars for even the shortest trips.

As my car rolled away on the back of a flatbed truck a month ago, I felt no sense of remorse or foreboding. I wasn't losing any measure of freedom. I wasn't free because I owned a car, I was free because I no longer owned a car.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Winter - survive it with dignity and become a better person

I'm going to occasionally use this space to share some good posts by fellow bloggers. Here's the first of I hope many of these shares.

The worst of the foul weather is probably behind us for a long time. Winter sucks the fat one. I can take the heat and a thunderous, drenching,  downpour better than I can ever take bone chilling, hypothermia-inducing cold. Here's an interesting take on the weather and how we interact and get along with it. These are some sage words, and I hope next winter I can slay that shit with some real dignity.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Bikes, beer, astronomy, and classical music

Beer and bikes seem to go together like peanut butter and jelly, macaroni and cheese, Bonnie and Clyde, well you get the idea. Anyway, it's rather fitting that since I resurrected one of my long lost hobbies, amateur astronomy, and combined it with bicycling, that there would be a series of beers with an astronomical theme to come along. Bell's Brewery has just released their Venus beer. Venus, the second beer in the series, (Mars  was the first), is out on the shelves now. If you poke around you might still be able to score some Mars, but I doubt it, as it was a fairly limited release beer. Bell's created the series to commemorate composer Gustav Holst's symphony The Planets. The beers are being released in the same order as the movements in the symphony. I picked up a six pack of the Venus and it's very good. It's blond ale brewed with honey, cardamom, apricot juice, and vanilla. It's a nice tangy kinda beer that harkens back to the warmer days of summer as the nights are getting colder now. Sort of a last hurrah for the season. Anyway, I suggest if you're a beer drinker you go pick up some Bell's Venus, pop in your CD of Holst's The Planets and enjoy a couple. Even better if you can enjoy a couple out on your back deck with a telescope and some stars. Dark skies!

Monday, September 22, 2014

The recumbent grin and how I feel about century rides these days

The "Recumbent Grin."
A few months back, I jumped ship from world of the traditional bicycle into the weird and arcane world of recumbent bicycles. That grin you see on my face is what is known to aficionados of these wacky bikes as the "Recumbent Grin." It's a reaction that occurs when one realizes this weird "un-bike" they have just learned to ride instills the most joyous reaction one has probably had on two wheels since first learning to ride. Even though I've been riding my 'bent (recumbent owner slang), now for the last four and a half months, and over 2000 miles, I still get this little grin on my face every now and then.

The photo above was taken by my friend Bryan during our annual trek on the Evanston Cycling Club's North Shore Century. The ride goes from Dawes Park in Evanston, Illinois, a literal stones throw away from the shore of Lake Michigan, and winds north to Kenosha, Wisconsin and back. As Bryan snapped this photo we were cruising along the Wisconsin shores of Lake Michigan heading south. The wind was finally at our backs and we were reveling in the warm sunshine and cool weather, the first hints of autumn in the air. Our conversation was animated as we talked about enjoying just rolling on bikes through great scenery, and more mundane topics like cooking for our spouses.

Bryan mugs a selfie. Lake Michigan peeps through the grass in the background.

That was a Recumbent Grin born not only from the joy of a riding a bike that didn't cause me any aches or pains as previous traditional bikes had, but also a grin from the sheer joy of rolling through the country on two wheels with a good friend. I elected to ride the North Shore Century, even though I'd continued to experience some discomfort in my left hip, one of the reasons I'd been driven to try a recumbent. The story of my aches and pains and how I defected to the world of 'bents is for another time. I went into the ride not knowing whether I'd be able to complete the full 100 miles. I think I was mentally prepared for the possibility of a necessary abandonment part way through if I began to experience discomfort. Amazingly, I felt good. In fact I felt great. I battled the wind for 50 miles on the way to Kenosha along with Bryan. The lower profile of the 'bent must have conveyed at least a 15-20% aerodynamic advantage. I think I did well to maintain a 15 mile per hour average while riding a roughly 47 pound bike and at the same time keeping up with someone more than 15 years my junior riding a sub-20-pound cyclocross bike. 

In the past, on a traditional bike I'd have pedaled with my head down, cursing the wind and staring at the surface of the road in front of me, or even at my front wheel. Instead, I was sitting on this "contraption" of a bike able to look around me as comfortably as if I was behind the wheel of a car. In fact much better than being behind the wheel of a car because I could enjoy the sights and sounds and smells of being out in the country versus seeing it all whizzing by at 60 miles per hour. I was seeing some sights on this ride that I'd never really noticed before. I certainly wasn't riding any slower than I'd ridden the North Shore Century in the past. Averaging 15 miles per hour for the entire 107 miles of the ride was on par or better than my averages from years past riding traditional bikes. Our overall average was probably tempered by headwinds during the first 50 miles that we characterized at times as being hors cat├ęgorie.

I hoped riding the century would resolve a few things for me. My longest ride of the year before this had only been 46 miles. I was hoped that completing the full 100 miles would show me I was putting the aches and pains of the early part of the year behind me. I also hoped the ride would finally clarify some things I'd been thinking about regarding long distance riding. In my amateur cycling career, 2013 will probably forever be known as The Year of the Centuries. I rode three centuries in 2013, more long distance riding than I'd ever done before. I completed my second century of the year and proudly proclaimed here that along with the North Shore Century completed the year before, I had come to love riding centuries. A little over a month later, I was riding my third century of the year, and by its finish, I was no longer so certain that I was so enamored of riding 100 miles in a day.

My one and only century this year was to be a deciding factor in whether I'd make long distance riding a regular pursuit in the future. As the day wound down, the final 20 miles or so were passing beneath my wheels and I had time to reflect. Bryan had ridden off ahead to get in his obligatory "balls-out sprint" as he put it. I found myself in a rhythm of pedal, coast, pedal, coast, pedal, coast. I was still taking in the scenery, but I was checking the odometer of my cycle computer a lot more. I'd press a button and see, "85 miles". A little while later, "88 miles," and I'd think, "Alright, 90 miles is just around the corner! Probably only another 40 minutes or so of riding." The final miles and minutes of the ride became the cycling equivalent of watching the clock at work count down towards quitting time.

I had finally realized upon the cusp of completing my fifth century ride, that 100 miles in a day was just a bit beyond what I wanted to do. There seems to be a rush to finish the ride within a certain time. Everything feels scheduled and regimented. There's little time to stop and take pictures, step into a little bar and grill and get some food, or stop and read historical markers. It seems like going beyond a certain distance becomes a pursuit more of the mileage and not so much the experience. The drive to get the miles subjugates the ability to stop and actually experience the landscape you're rolling through. I came to realize in those last few miles that for me, 80 miles is probably my limit for a day's riding. Just enough miles to feel as if you've accomplished something, but not so much that you don't have time to stop and savor the experience. From here on out. My longer rides will be only so long and they'll include a Recumbent Grin.

Hang loose, and enjoy yourselves!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Out with the new, in with the old - at least temporarily

So, my brief flirtation with Keen cycling shoes is over. My Arroyo Pedal sandals are getting sent back to Keen for a full refund tomorrow. The bungee lace would never stay tight, the sole around the clipless pocket was SO thick that clipping in and out was an issue, not to mention I couldn't run the clips all the way back as is often recommended for 'bent riders, and finally the top end of the tongue would move to the side resulting in giving me chafe spots on the side of my foot in that area.

I wanted to exchange them for the Commuter III sandals which have a better retention system around the ankle opening. However, Keen has sold all of their cycling shoes out and are not manufacturing any more. Apparently they're taking a hiatus from cycling footwear because they focus on the commuter/touring market and feel that neither is "quite there yet," which I think translates to, "We're not making enough money on cycling shoes."

So, my beat-to-hell Pearl Izumi All-Road shoes are coming out of retirement. They look a little worn, perhaps a little rough around the edges. They've served me well for over 10,000 miles but their days are numbered. The soles have worn so much that my cleats were protruding to the point where I was "click-clack-crunching" all the time and walking on tile floors like at the grocery store had become a roll of the dice as to whether I'd end up inadvertently doing the splits. Also, the material over the toes was becoming worn enough that very soon, my toes will be poking through the tops of the shoes.

Knowing that my P.I. All-Roads still need to retire gracefully, I'm going to REI tomorrow to try on a pair of Giro Rumble shoes to see if they fit. REI only has one pair of size 47, which I do wear in Pearl Izumi, but of course no company ever has shoes that match any other brand because there is no consistency in sizing. If they fit great. If not, I'll order then next size up or down and have them shipped to the store accordingly. I've been thinking about clipless pedals a lot lately and how I'd hoped to do away with them in favor of platform pedals.

I was sorely disappointed with the performance of my Garneau 0 Degree winter cycling boots this last year. They just didn't have what it takes to deal with Polar Vortex. It occurs to me, "you get what you pay for," so I'm going to save my pennies (it's gonna take a LOT), so I can buy some 45North Wolvhammer boots. I just can't seem to get the clipless monkey off my back. 

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Simple Errands by Bike Become Journeys of Discovery

With a couple hundred miles on my newly-built Surly 26" Disc Trucker, things have started to settle in. The disc brakes have needed a couple minor adjustments, new racks and bags have been purchased as others such as these have proven their lack of durability.

An infrequent yet bothersome screeching began to emanate from what I suspected to be the sealed bottom bracket. I called around hoping to find someone stocking a common Shimano UN-55 bottom bracket in 115mm spindle width. After a few minutes of calling around I found a shop that had my bottom bracket in stock. Comrade Cycles had the necessary part, so I had them hold it with the intention of riding over to pick up on my next day off.

Comrade Cycles had come through for me before, being the only shop in the Chicago area I could find with a suitable disc brake caliper mounting bracket that I needed to complete the V-brake to disc conversion on my cargo bike when I was in a rush to get the job done before the Chicago Cargo Bike Roll Call annual picnic. I was looking forward to the ride through the city and over to Comrade. Their shop is a narrow, crowded place staffed by guys with crazy beards, tattoos, and multiple facial piercings. In other words, typical hard-core bike wrenching folks who love bikes. It's also cool that their shop is organized like a collective. I'm sure they're not making money hand-over-fist, no-one who owns a bike shop is, but at least they're all sharing equally in the profits.

So, I set out to do the 26 or so mile round trip ride to Comrade with the intention of documenting the trip. I realized a mile away from home that I had forgotten to bring my camera. Oh well, maybe some other time I thought. Fighting a stiff headwind most of the way, I enjoyed the ride nevertheless. I arrived at the shop, and comrade Bailey assisted me. It also happened to be Bailey who I'd dealt with several weeks before when I needed that disc brake part. A fellow Surly owner, he came around from behind the counter to check out my bike, complimenting me on my Disc Trucker build. We talked about Crane Suzu bells which I'd been wanting to acquire for some time. The last time I'd been in, Comrade had been out of the stem mount bells with the clapper. Bailey was using one on his bike, a Cross-Check so I went outside to check out his bike, locked up to a rack out front.

We talked about plans to tour and lamented that fact that neither of us seemed to get much more saddle time than what was involved in the daily commute. I left the shop with well-wishes to enjoy the North Shore Century, which I was intending to ride in just over a weeks time. About two blocks away from the shop, I decided to turn around and go back to get some shots. I'd enjoyed the ride over and had seen some interesting things. I thought the simple errand to could be turned into a blog post afterall, showing some of the neat sights along the way. Instead of my Nikon D200, I'd make due with my phones camera instead. I stopped back in the shop, took the phone off my Randonnerd mount and snapped a few pics. Comrade Jesse was intrigued by my phone mount so we spent a couple minutes talking about it before I hit the road. Jesse's page on Comrade's website doesn't do his beard justice. You need to go in an see it in person for the full effect. If anyone was ever rockin' a Sheldon Brown tribute beard, it's gotta be Jesse.

You can get this design on a really cool, super soft T-shirt for $20 - well worth it, and currently one of my favorite Ts.

The shop extends around the corner into a whole other cramped back room area with more stock and several repair stations. Obviously, the cell phone camera with it's lousy sensor and incredibly lengthy shutter delay is definitely not the best tool for the job. Perhaps I should invest in a small point-and-shoot Nikon Coolpix for trips like this where I don't want to lug along the bulky Nikon D200.

 A turntable sits in a cluttered corner near the cash register. I think it's totally cool that these guys are rockin' out to tunes played on classic old vinyl. Kids these days don't know what vinyl is for, except maybe ruining with their DJ turntable scratching crap. Sigh!

The actual reason for this trip. Hopefully, installation of the new bottom bracket will eliminate the screeching sound. The bell with its incredibly loud tone and lengthy sustain will work far better for announcing my presence on the bike paths than the pitifully quiet, facetiously-named "Incredibell" that I was using before.

The actual reason for this trip. Hopefully, installation of the new bottom bracket will eliminate the screeching sound. The bell with its incredibly loud tone and lengthy sustain will work far better for announcing my presence on the bike paths than the pitifully quiet, facetiously-named "Incredibell" that I was using before.

Heading back from Comrade, I documented many of the interesting sights I saw along the way. Making the journey from east to west across the city, I like to take Hubbard Street to get close to Comrad. Although it has no bike lane, Hubbard is far quieter with much less traffic than the similarly direct route of taking Milwaukee Avenue.

Woodworkers will recognize this as the home base for Jorgensen and Pony brand woodworking clamps. I had no idea that this more than 100 year old staple of the woodworking industry was based right here in Chicago.

I saw these large wheel things from a half block north over on Hubbard street. I don't know what they are but the looked interesting. One of the Metra diesel commuter train lines runs parallel to Hubbard Street. Its elevated tracks provide a canvas for some weird and unique murals as well as some strange graffiti.

This section of the expressway running under Hubbard Street is known as Hubbard's Cave, for obvious reasons.

The final, (first) panel along the railway shows these murals were painted back when I was still five years old.

Passing from Hubbard to Kinzie Street I ride through one of Chicago's first protected bike lanes which goes right by the Blommer Chocolate Company factory which has been gifting downtown Chicago with the luscious smell of chocolate since practically forever.

Kinzie Street takes me right by Dearborn Street where I decide to take Chicago's latest protected bike lane, a two way path that runs through the heart of The Loop replete with bicycle-specific traffic signals that evoke images of similar cycle paths in Copenhagen, Denmark. The two-way lane and signals are kind of neat but I find Dearborn to be a frustrating way to move from north to south through the Loop. There is no "green wave" timing of the lights, so you often find yourself frequently waiting for the lights to change.

Dearborn goes right by Daley Plaza, dominated by an iconic Chicago landmark, a sculpture by Picasso that is supposed to be a woman, but instead looks like a duck to me. I never have liked anything by Picasso anyway. I find the pigeons far more interesting. There are some neat "splash-white" guys in that flock there. Daley Plaza is also the assembly point for the Chicago Critical Mass ride, taking place on the last Friday of every month, all year round, regardless of the weather.

Over on 18th Street, just before I make my way back onto the Lakefront Trail, I pass by the historic landmark Glessner House Museum. The Glessner House was built in 1886 and is one of Chicago's oldest buildings and has a strangely monolithic medieval look about it. Across the street is a more decorative yet still similarly old house that is the site of the US Soccer Federation, whatever that is. Apparently there are guided tours of these buildings. I'll have to make a point to come back to take the tours one of these days.

The Lakefront Trail has numerous areas of ongoing prairie restoration which aim to return parts of the Chicago lakefront to a more natural state, resembling what the area looked like before European settlement. These restored prairies act as vital resting areas for migratory birds coming through the Great Lakes area during Spring and Fall migrations. Several of these spots along Chicago's Lakefront Trail are known as some of the best places in the country for birding during the twice yearly migrations.

 A few more miles of this and I completed my trip, arriving back at home. Parts were installed and a celebratory beer was consumed.