Monday, December 24, 2012

The Night Ride

Note: This post was originally written in 2011 and was included in my other (only) blog at the time I only went out for a walk. At that time, I was trying to keep all of my blogging in one place. I've since decided that cycling belongs here in my newly-created cycling blog and that my older blog will remain reserved for subjects related to natural history.

Leaving work after a party with co-workers, I walk out into the darkness of early evening. Sure, it's only 7:00 PM but darkness comes early this time of the year. I walk my bike out onto the street and hop on, coasting south towards home. An athletic field at the end of the street is lit up as bright as day. Multitudes of soccer players are broken up into small groups practicing. I downshift and pedal up the ramp to the pedestrian bridge going across Lakeshore Drive. As the traffic zooms by below I looked out over a darkened Lake Michigan. Low fluffy clouds are scudding in from the northeast borne on winds that will strengthen to gale force over the next couple days, throwing 18 foot waves onto shore and drowning this section of the path under a constant barrage of icy cold water. Thankfully though, the path tonight is dry.

As I turn onto the Lakefront Path, I look to my left at the lake. Waves roll in, topped with whitecaps as they come breaking onto the shore. The lake is looking very choppy with the strengthening wind but the waves are nowhere near big enough yet to start breaking up over the sheer walls to throw icy spray onto the path. Pedaling south towards Navy Pier I'm surprised at how many joggers and other bicycle commuters are still out here. The nice tailwind coming from out of the northeast helps lend a bit of welcome extra speed. After a long five days at work I'm looking forward to the ride home and a weekend of relaxation away from the stresses of the job.

I pass along underneath Lakeshore Drive, riding along sidewalk running parallel to Lower Wacker Drive. This evening the path is blissfully free of most of the congestion of joggers, tourists, and other cyclists that I typically encounter on my rides homeward. Passing out into the open again, I down-shift into higher gear and begin to shovel on the coal. The tailwind and the near-deserted path lend themselves to greater speed than I usually get to experience riding through this area. My new front headlight blazes a path in front of me letting me confidently find my way around all the various potholes and cracks in the pavement that I see and swerve around in daylight.

Everything gets a little darker as I begin to follow the section of path curving around the Shedd Aquarium. The aquarium on my right is all lit up with spotlights shining along its sides while out to my left I can see the choppy waves rolling in and the scant few sailboats still moored at the marina this late in Fall. The path rolls by beneath my wheels. I pass hardly another soul as I speed along southwards. Passing McCormick Place I see a few fishermen casting their lines, and beyond them the darkened shore of the little isthmus of Northerly Island.

A few streetlights illuminate the path and the sound of traffic on Lakeshore Drive is a constant rushing sound coming from my right, while the sound of the waves rolling in on the lake shore is more hushed coming from my left. I pass a deserted beach on the left, waves are beginning to build enough to start crashing against the breakwater. There's activity to my left where workmen still man cranes lifting giant blocks of stone as they work late into the evening building the breakwater of the new marina. With the late Fall storms and the looming harsh winter that has been predicted, I think to myself that those guys must be racing against the clock to get that breakwater completed before the bitter cold and ice force them away.

I'm now well into the southern leg of my ride home and well into the stretches of my ride that are the darkest. The beam cast by my new headlight looks even more impressive riding along these darkened stretches. I curve along the edge of the path that juts out into the lake. Everything is dark around me. The clouds rolling in are lit from above by the now hidden half-full moon, and from below by the lurid orange glow of the city lights. The sky meets the water somewhere way out there in a velvety blackness. A few lights from the water cribs or even from industry across the lake on the opposite shore, are the only things marring this darkened view. I can almost image a Lake Michigan free of industry and the hand of man as I look into that inky darkness on the far horizon. Here, the sound of the waves is louder than the sound of traffic.

As the path takes me inland again, the now louder, ever-present sound of traffic calls me back from my reverie. I pass a final few people walking a dog or pushing a stroller as I ride through a better lighted section of the path again. I come up on the turn-off where I leave the path. I lean into a sharp left, then right. I coast downwards and through the underpass running beneath Lakeshore Drive. I pass the Museum of Science and Industry to my left. My apartment is only minutes away now. My arm outstretched, I signal a left turn. Finally I come to a stop at the courtyard gate to my apartment. I switch my lights off and get my keys out. I feel exhilarated.

Why I ride

Note: This post was originally written in 2011 and was included in my other (only) blog at the time I only went out for a walk. At that time, I was trying to keep all of my blogging in one place. I've since decided that cycling belongs here in my newly-created cycling blog and that my older blog will remain reserved for subjects related to natural history.

I started riding bicycles as a kid. Most people get their start in cycling with that first Christmas or birthday present. My first bike was a red Schwinn Stingray with a red banana seat and ape-hanger handlebars. I think I was probably about seven or eight when I got that first bike as a birthday present. I can still vividly remember my dad teaching me how to ride on the street in front of our house. I can even remember the joy, that heady feeling when I realized that I was pedaling along on my own without my dad running along behind me holding onto the seat. I rode that bike all over the neighborhood with my brother and our friends. We pretended we were riding motorcycles, and when we weren't riding we all sat on our bikes in a big circle in the shady street and talked about whatever 10 year old kids talked about back in the 70's.

When I was older I received my second bike, a Sears 10 speed bike. I had graduated from a kid's bike to an adult's bike. Again, I rode that bike practically everywhere. As a teenager, I took it to ride downtown to the hobby shop, or out to the mall with friends. Eventually, I even rode that bike to junior college a few times, but eventually gave up because it was hard, sweaty work. As most kids in high school, I wanted my own car. We live in a country that values automobiles as a badge of freedom. Those who use mass transit or ride bikes anywhere are somehow less fortunate and are to be pitied. I was of the same mindset and I disdained my bicycle, choosing to borrow mom and dad's car whenever I could or simply taking the bus to school or work. When I finally bought my first car in 1988, I never looked back. I had forsaken bicycling forever, or so I thought.

Fast forward a few years. In my last two years of college I had developed an interest in weight lifting, egged on by my roommates, several of whom were muscle-heads. After graduation, I sought out gyms and found them to be far too expensive. Whilst I had been away at college, my older brother had taken to riding my old Sears 10 speed. He had since outgrown using my bike and had purchased his own used Fuji 10 speed. His "new" bike was far closer to something a professional racer would ride than my heavy, poorly specced department store bike. Somehow my brother had become enamored of cycling and had begun to develop into an appreciator of all things "velo." I figured that if I couldn't afford a gym membership at least my leg muscles could stay toned riding a bike. So, I purchased a spiffy new Vetta helmet from a Bike Nashbar catalog and began riding in earnest.

Those first post-college rides on my old 10 speed took me farther afield than I had ever ridden before. Rides stretched from five to ten to twenty miles. I bought a pair of bottle cages and attached them to my bicycle frame with plumbing hose clamps since my bike did not have braze-ons for attaching bottles or pumps. A few months later my summer was winding to a close and I had scored my first real "career" job fresh out of college. I began work as a newspaper reporter and photographer in a little town called Chillicothe on the Illinois River, north of Peoria. I took my bicycle with me rode on my evenings and weekends. I met some fellow cyclists and began regularly riding a rails-to-trails path called the Rock Island Trail on my weekend. I would get up and drive my car to Alta, Illinois which was where the trailhead for the Rock Island Trail was. Those early Saturday morning rides with friends would take us through wide open rolling farmland and along a mostly shaded woodlands on a bed of crushed limestone following the path of a long defunct railroad. Eventually we'd arrive in Dunlap where we'd have a hearty breakfast at a little restaurant. With our bellies full of pancakes, eggs, and bacon we'd head back.

I didn't realize it then, but I had become a cyclist. I was no longer merely someone who rode a bike just for exercise or for simple transportation. I had become someone who rode a bike for the sheer pleasure of it. I had begun to pore over catalogs of bike accessories. I hungered for the next Bike Nashbar catalog or Colorado Cyclist. I read Bicycling magazine, and I read Greg LeMond's Complete Book of Bicycling. I rode every chance I got and soon I craved a new bicycle. My first bike purchase that I made myself was a used Trek Antelope 800 mountain bike bought at a bike shop in Peoria. I had graduated from the world of heavy steel department store bikes into the world of cro-moly frames, gel seats, and Shimano index shifting and Biopace chainrings. Soon, my cycling world expanded beyond the roadways and onto trails. I became interested more in mountain biking and soon my heavy Trek Antelope was replaced by a sleek aluminum-framed Trek 7000 mountain bike. I still hit the roads but more often than not my riding was on trails.

Over the next few years I migrated to Georgia and my stable of bikes constantly changed. I added a classic early 80's Raleigh Super Course road bike to my stable and began riding both on the road and on trails. At one point I even began shaving my legs. My love affair with cycling was all-consuming. I couldn't wait to get home from work so I could grab my mountain bike and hit some trails. When I went back to school for a second degree I took my bikes with me and I continued to bike to class, the coffee shops to study, and I even rode with the university cycling team where members would try to get me to join the team and race with them. Alas, I became more serious about my studies and my cycling soon began to suffer. I rode very little during my last few years in Georgia. I followed my then fiance, now wife back to Illinois when she went to Chicago for grad school. Living in the big city, the closest mountain biking was nearly an hour drive south of Chicago in an area called Palos Hills. The mountain biking was tame in comparison to what I had experienced in Georgia and the heavy traffic on Chicago streets was more intimidating than anything I'd experienced riding in rural Illinois or Georgia.

I eventually parted out my old Raleigh to buy a new Scattante (Italian for "Zippy"), flat-bar road bike from Performance Bike. I had grandiose dreams of commuting to work by bike and getting some sorely needed exercise in the process. When I purchased that new bike in late summer of 2007 I had big intentions. Over the next three years I rode that bike about as many times as I could count on my fingers and toes. Maybe I just wasn't a cyclist anymore. A year-round cycle commuting co-worker would take verbal jabs at me for not riding my bike more, let alone riding it to work. It seemed a sorry state to him that someone like myself, someone so once enamored of cycling that I even raced my mountain bike in several races one summer, would now seemingly forsake the joy of cycling. So, it was in the Spring of this year that I finally began to return to cycling. In a bid to get in better physical shape and lose the pounds accumulated over several years of sedentary living, my wife and I made a pact to begin exercising regularly. We bought a treadmill for walking indoors during winter and a rowing machine as well. I struggled with the monotony of exercising indoors and so when the bleak winter finally broke into a cool Spring, I took my bicycle out of storage and resolved to begin riding it again.

I began riding almost every day after work. I would jump onto the Lakefront Path that parallels the shoreline of Lake Michigan for over 15 miles running from the south of Chicago to the northern end. I would ride as far as I could for half an hour then I would turn around and ride home. I began tweaking my position on the bike. I changed the saddle height, I bought new tires. I read forums and asked questions, I started buying new clothes and new accessories. I set a goal of riding a century, 100 miles in one day, by September. Eventually I changed my handlebar from a flat bar to a road bike drop bar and added bar end shifters and new brake levers. I'd begun to feel some of what I had felt all those years ago. I was beginning to enjoy cycling for the sake of cycling. When I installed my new drop bar and rode out the first time I pumped the pedals a few times out of the saddle. A phrase of longtime Tour De France commentator Phil Liggett came to mind - I was "dancing on the pedals." It was then that I realized I had recaptured my love of cycling.

When I rode the century ride I knew I just wasn't quite in good enough shape to ride a full 100 miles. Instead I rode the 75 mile option. It rained almost all day long. My rain jacket leaked. I was wet and cold most of the day. I started riding late in the morning and missed many of the other riders, so I ended up riding most of the distance by myself. However, through the whole day of riding I felt elated. I had ridden double the longest distance I'd ever gone in all my years of cycling. The more miles I ride the more I enjoy cycling. Leaving work on my bike I often make it home faster than I would had I been driving my car. I'm exercising more than I have in over a decade and I'm saving money by not driving my car as much. My wife and I have begun planning to take cycling tours of interesting places around the country. Every day that I ride my bike to work or just take a joy ride around the city, I feel like I'm accomplishing something. The motive power comes from me. It's my legs pumping to move the pedals. When I see cars starting and stopping in traffic as I ride along next to them on the path, I experience a little smug thrill, proud that I'm not sitting there in my car, creeping forward, wasting gas, looking at my watch and hoping that an accident or a stalled car doesn't make me late to work.

Every day I ride my bike makes me more healthy and makes me feel free. The bicycle is an amazing efficient machine that has remained largely unchanged for over 100 years. I can ride a bike that is little different in design and concept from what Lance Armstrong rode to win his seven Tours De France. It's almost indescribable. There is something inherently uplifting and joyous about riding a bike. It frees you from the confines of an automobile. You're at one with your environment. You can hear the birds and insects calling, feel the wind in your face, feel the sun warming you on a cool Fall morning. As I commute into work, I can look out over Lake Michigan and see the sun rising as maybe a lone sailboat plies the waves. I see geese and ducks, I ride past the restored prairies, and feel the hum of the road beneath my tires. This is why I ride.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Xtracycle shakedown cruise

So, today marked the first test ride of the Xtracycle I've been building for the last couple weeks. The shake down cruise consisted of a jaunt of about 18 miles up to just north of Navy Pier where I turned around and headed back. I hadn't installed leads and sensors for using my bike computer so I had not idea of the speeds I was managing while riding. That didn't really matter though. On a shake down cruise, you mainly want to know if any bolts need tightening, or perhaps an adjustment to the saddle or handlebars, that sort of thing. Getting a better impression of handling and speed will come later. However, my initial impression was that it did feel almost as fast as my regular 700c commuter which is built on a Nashbar touring frame.

The bike feels noticeably different than a road bike, obviously, but it even feels a lot different than a mountain bike on which it is based. Trying to compare a touring bike to a longtail cargo bike is an apples and oranges kinda thing. However, one of the major selling points of the Xtracycle is that you can have a cargo bike that still feels like a bike. It does in fact still feel like a bike, but it also kinda feels like a truck. The more upright riding position and the lengthy wheelbase translate into a much more sluggish feel, particularly in corners. A couple of times I even felt as if the bike was almost understeering similar to how a car feels when cornering and the weight is too heavily balanced over the front tires.

I imagine the sense of understeering probably gets worse the more weight that the bike carries. Still, if the bike is loaded down with dozens of pounds of gear or even a hundred pounds or more, you're not going to be tear-assing around, so understeer is probably not a big issue. No one really talks about racing around on an Xtracycle laden with over 100 pounds of freight. Many other folks who have built Xtracycles have mentioned how nice it is to have a bike that kind of forces them to dial it back and take a more relaxed approach to their riding.

It will take more than a single ride to form some concrete impressions of the bike overall. My initial ride revealed a few areas in need of adjustment and one minor problem. The minor problem consisted of a rear brake cable that wasn't fully tightened leading to a quick trailside adjustment. Luckily I anticipated this sort of thing and had some basic tools along. As far as adjustments, my saddle and handlebar position will probably need to be tweaked. Also, the handlebars I installed were full width which is just way to wide for my tastes. A couple minutes with a tubing cutter will take care of that.

The bike isn't fully completely just yet. The cargo deck is going to get a painted on design and will need to sealed with a durable weatherproof finish such as spar urethane. Also, I plan to install fenders, and rather than having to swap lights back and forth between my bikes I'd like to install a dedicated set of lights as well. I plan to construct some running boards for extra load capacity and I am also making my own panniers using some Swedish military surplus back packs. An upcoming post will show in detail how I built the Xtracycle and how I solved some of the unique challenges involved in building the bike. Stay tuned!

Monday, December 10, 2012

This commute sponsored by...

This commute sponsored by...

There has been more than one time when I wished my commute could be sponsored by a bunch of various gear companies. Let's face it, gear is expensive. Sure you can shop at thrift stores to score some of those Merino wool sweaters people on the forums are always talking about, but that assumes you've got the time to scour the Goodwills and Salvation Army stores of your neighborhood. My wife is also quick to point out that selection depends on the neighborhood too. So, I buy new stuff exclusively. I don't have the time to become a dedicated bargain hound.

So many times, I've purchased a bit of kit, be it booties, a helmet, ski goggles, gloves, you name it, only to be disappointed later regarding the performance or fit of said item. Over the last approximately 6500 miles since I started this return to cycling and cycle commuting, I've tried out numerous bits of kit and yes, I've destroyed a lot of it.

I look at all the cyclocross racers and mountain bikers and even the road racers and think about how my daily commute is in many ways, far more demanding then their racing is. Companies provide teams with bikes and clothes and in turn they probably learn about what holds up and what doesn't. The closest parallels to a serious commute are I think, cyclocross racing, and mountain bike racing. In those instances you have riders punishing gear in all kinds of inclement weather.

Sure it's difficult to ride a cyclocross race for an hour, but I scoff, "Pfft!" That's one hour once a week. I ride in some pretty nasty stuff 90 minutes a day total often well over 120 miles a week! Yeah, let's not get into a chainring-waving contest here. I know my commute is not as hardcore as some other guys commutes are. Hell, in my neck of the woods Eric Puetz who runs Smart Bike commutes all the way from Arlington Heights, Illinois to his shop on Armitage Avenue in Chicago. I don't know where he lives up there, but he's got a commute of at least 24 miles one way. Makes my 22 mile round trip look like chump change mileage.

So, you begin to see what the typical Chicago bicycle commuter faces. If you're a real diehard, you're out there two-wheeling it into work every day regardless of the weather. That means, subzero temps with dangerous single digit windchill numbers, rain, snow, fog, and sometimes even miniature tsunami-like waves if you take the bike path that runs along Lake Michigan. If there ever was a place to torture test cycling gear, the Chicago cycle commute has to be it.

Heck, last year I was biking into work one morning as a September storm was starting to kick up. A huge wave crashed up onto the bike path on the Oak Street curve and swamped my bike up to the wheel hubs. Thankfully the waves weren't as high yet as those in the video, but dousing actually managed to knock the speed sensor magnet for my Sigma cycle computer clean off the wheel. Like I said, torture testing gear.

In another instance of gear failure, I purchased a pair of Louis Garneau neoprene booties to cover my cycling shoes. Within a week the rubberized fabric along the toes of the booties had shredded away to the point that whenever I wore the booties after that, I had to tug the fronts back down over the toes of my shoes several times per ride. All in all, I've blown out seams in jerseys and tights that weren't sewn very well, I've struggled with gloves that have annoying seams that cause discomfort, breathable jackets that are anything but, in short I've beaten the hell outta more kit in a few months than probably most racers would destroy in a couple seasons.

There have been good outcomes though. There were the Fox Incline full-finger gloves that were so comfortable and breathable that I even wore them all summer long, even through days with heat indices over 100F. There is also the Gore Bike Wear Phantom SO jacket that has turned out to be one of the best bits of kit that I've ever bought. My Sigma BC1609 cycle computer has operated flawlessly since I installed it, unlike it's wireless big brother the BC2209 MHR which gave me so much grief I returned two of them.

So you see, I think as an average specimen of the hardy Chicago cycle commuter, I deserve a sponsorship. In case there are any unpaid interns out there working for someone like Pearl Izumi, Garmin, Mavic, Ortleib, Goretex, scouring the interwebz for mention of their products, tell your bosses to send some gear my way. I'll test that stuff until the seams burst or the electronics fry or it rusts or freezes up from exposure to salt and road grime. I'm out there grinding out the miles, eyes streaming from the cold and blowin' snot rockets, or pedaling along through an oppressive heat wave chugging water and electolytes like it's goin' out of style. I'm here. If you want to know how well your gear will hold up, I'm your guy.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Introducing my new blog - Velo Celt

Introducing my new cycling blog, Velo Celt. Why the name Velo Celt you might ask? Will there be musings on kilted cycling or how to throw off one's English or Roman oppressors from the saddle on two wheels? No, afraid not. Velo Celt came to me simply as a lighthearted title that seemed to be kind of catchy. I tried other title variations on the theme of "Two wheels and something," or "Adventures in cycling, something, something," and so on. A few of what I thought were the more clever titles I came up with had already been claimed by other cycling blogs, which goes to show you there are very few original ideas. So, after many false starts I hit on the aforementioned funky combination of two words probably rarely seen together.

While content will focus almost solely on cycling and cycling-related subject matter, I chose to add the "Celt" because I am a dye-in-the-wool Scots-Irishman through and through. I own kilts, I love the bagpipes, and I believe, perhaps smugly, that my ancestry has some of the richest history and traditions of any in the world. Anyway, the content will always have some cycling content, be it a gear review, a pictorial and narrative of a recent trip, or something related to cycling advocacy.

I had originally wanted to keep all my blog-based musings on the web concentrated in one area, namely my other blog titled, I only went out for a walk.... You can read that blog here I only went out for a walk... started out as a strictly natural history blog. That was going to be the repository of my writings on all of my adventures outdoors in nature regardless of whether they were on foot or by bicycle.

I realized recently that even though I could do all of my writing in one blog, it would probably be better to keep my many missives separated by content. I ride my bike 110 miles a week to work and as such I think a LOT about cycling. I think about trips, I think about gear, I think about advocacy and cyclist's rights. I realized that my writing could very well become very cycling-heavy and I didn't want what had ostensibly begun as a natural history blog to become more of a cycling blog than anything else. So, I decided to split my content off into multiple blogs based on subject matter.

There will be inevitable cross-overs between my blogs, as many of my interests overlap. It's even possible that what may start out as a post in one blog will be continued in another. For example, a narrative of a cycling trip from Chicago to Starved Rock State Park, might link to a post in my natural history blog where I examine the geology, flora, and fauna of the park, in addition to the early history of the Native Americans who formerly lived in the area. Another cross-over I've been thinking of writing deal with how I plan to use my cargo bike to take archery materials (bows, arrows, and targets), to an outdoor shooting range on Chicago's lakefront. The crossover there would be between Velo Celt and yet another of my blogs, The Celtic Craftsman

I expect every post will be standalone and won't require you to read on into the content of one of my other blogs if you don't want to. I briefly collected comic books for about a year or two in high school and never could stand it when the ending to a story in Iron Man would cause me to buy an issue of Fantastic Four or whatever the case was. I always saw that for what it was, a cheap tactic to sell more comic books. However, I'm not trying to sell you anything. I just see that there will be places where the subjects of my blogs will overlap and where expounding upon one subject might be better done in one blog versus another. Still, I hope that my varied interests and how they mesh will intrigue you and that you'll find something that interests you in all of the places I choose to write.