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.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

How I came to love riding centuries

So, July 27th saw me complete my third century ride ever, and my second within literally less than a month. My first brush with riding a century came during the Fall of 2011. When I had started riding my bike again, I decided a worthy goal to train for was completing a century by the end of the year. It turns out the Evanston Cycling Club hosts an annual ride called, 'The North Shore Century.' It is approximately 100 miles (ends up being slightly longer), and winds from Evanston, Illinois to Kenosha, Wisconsin and back. The route is fairly scenic and for those with more modest mileage appetites there are numerous shorter options.

That first year, I started late, it was cold and rainy, and as a result the best I could manage was 75 miles. However, that 75 miles was about 35 miles farther than I'd ever ridden in one day before then. I vowed to break through the 100 mile barrier the following year. So, 2012 arrived and with relative ease I was able to ride the 100 miles. My total time in the saddle, as I recall was something on the order of seven-something hours. I rode with a buddy and we tended to spend a bit too much time at the rest stops, not to mention we blew about 20 minutes earlier in the day waiting for a fellow rider who had bailed out without telling us. Also, we stopped to help several other riders beset with mechanical difficulties on the side of the road. This all increased the amount of time we spent over the course of day to complete the ride. At the end of the day, I completed the ride, lessons were learned, and I decided I could ride more centuries in the future.

So, 2013 rolled around and a co-worker happened to be riding a century that was going to wind its way from Chicago to Milwaukee, one way. Fortunately, this co-worker's wife was willing to play shuttle driver and so arranged to pick us up in Milwaukee following the end of the ride. I wanted to photograph and blog about that particular ride, but seeing as it was only my second century, I didn't want to be weighed down with the extra weight of my camera or the need to document the ride and constantly be having to hustle to catch up with the group. The only photos I ended up shooting from that ride were a couple shots of Lake Michigan shot from a parking lot at the Racine Zoo, in Racine, Wisconsin.

Fast forward to July 27th of this year and I was prepared to ride my third century ever, and my second within less than a month. The route for the 'Pampered Century' was to be very similar to the North Shore Century. The route was a basic loop from Evanston to Kenosha and back. A joint venture between the Chicago Cycling Club and the Evanston Bicycle Club. The Pampered Century was to be what I would call an average pace ride with an average speed of 15 to 19 miles per hour. Some folks will ride a century at a much more leisurely pace while others attempt what is called a Sub-5 century, in other words, riding 100 miles in less than five hours. I think with three century rides under my belt I can safely say that around 15-17 mph is a comfortable pace for me where I don't end up feeling too tapped out at the end of the ride.

Still, the pace sounded good, and having ridden the North Shore Century twice, I was confident that the route would be picturesque and mostly on streets and bike paths with low traffic volumes. The turnout for the ride was around twenty people or so. Light mechanical and sag support was to be provided for the inexpensive sum of $20. Riders were provided with cue sheets and at each rest stop, the gentleman who laid out the route would offer advice on specific things to look out for during the next leg of the journey as well as the occasional historical points of interest along the way. The mid-point of the ride was to be in Kenosha, Wisconsin at the Washington Park Velodrome.

The ride began a little after 7:00 AM at a park in Evanston, a bit northwest of where the North Shore Century typically starts. Even though I got up early enough to eat my usual breakfast of two eggs, turkey bacon, and coffee, I was running late getting out the door. I barely made it to the starting point in time to get my bike off the rack and get the rundown for the first leg of the ride along with my cue sheet. I had neglected to get cash out the night before to pay my ride fee, so I was going to have to stop at the first ATM that presented itself along the ride. This was to be a source of adventure later in the ride.

The first rest stop arrived rather quickly at a park along the way. Typical fare was available such as bagels, bananas, granola bars, and for those folks to who didn't fuel up with a proper breakfast, there was also juice and coffee. Most everyone took advantage of the bathrooms and the water fountains before saddling up to hit the road again. I informed my riding buddy Cesar, that I would need to stop to pick up some cash and thus we'd need to work together to speed back up to catch the group again.

Not long after leaving the first rest stop, I saw a gas station and a small strip mall to the left side of the road. I moved out of the pace line and bolted for the station, Cesar in tow. I hoped I could get the cash out and catch up with the group before they got too far ahead. The gas station turned out not to have an ATM but the CVS Pharmacy next door did. Cesar watched the bikes while I dashed in offer my card to the money god. Cash in hand, we hit the road again and promptly realized we were lost. We hadn't been paying attention to the cue sheet and had instead been relying on the ride leaders to take us along, our ignorance of our location increasing with every turn.

A quick phone call to the rider organizer resulted in some gentle chastisement about developing the skill of reading a cue sheet followed by being put on speaker phone while the sag driver and rider organizer consulted. We quickly figured out where we were and Cesar and I started out again, hoping at best to catch up to the group at the next rest stop. By this time we were around 10 to 15 minutes behind the rest of the riders. Consulting with the cue sheet, now affixed to the top of my front rack bag, I was able to lead us to the next rest stop. The group of riders had not dialed back their speed any, so I was pleased to learn as we rolled to a stop that the slowest riders had only just arrived as we did. I'd been afraid we'd arrive late and not have any time to rest and refuel. Instead, we were were able to relax, top off our water bottles, and have some snacks before hitting the road again. The rest of the day, I'd continue to consult my cue sheet so that I always knew were we were in case I became separated for any reason.

I managed to snap a few pictures from the saddle as Cesar and I paced our way back into the main group before attaining the second rest stop.

The ride had to stay on this bike path for a few miles through one of the communities that frowned upon large groups of cyclists riding through their streets. I was okay with this. Paths can be quite nice when available as they're often quiet and can allow you to relax and enjoy some scenery without having to be constantly vigilant about riding with traffic, even on lightly traveled roads.

Though narrow, this path was a nice, often shady corridor of green. We could hear birds and chipmunks on either side of us and with long straight sections we could keep a nice brisk pace, occasionally having to drop back to ride single file when other riders approached from the opposite direction.

After a lengthy stretch on the path, it was back onto the road. Flanked by trees on both sides that almost met overhead, it was a very pleasant change from the much less green, highly urban environment we usually have to ride in closer to cities like Evanston and Chicago.

Leaving the last rest stop before the halfway point and lunch stop, we passed by a large open area to our left which was one of the many prairie restorations being implemented all throughout northern Illinois and through areas of Wisconsin.

Rolling into Kenosha, I was riding with a guy named Bob who Cesar and I had ridden with back during our Chicago to Milwaukee century. Bob had planned on making a side trip a mile or so out of the way to the lunch stop, with the intent of acquiring some beer not available in Chicago. The plan was to purchase the beer, carry it to the lunch rest stop, and have the sag wagon carry it for us until the end of the ride. This neat older looking building intrigued me as we stopped to wait for a red light.

We detoured off the main route about a mile west and arrived at a neat establishment called Tenuta's Delicatessen-Liquors. If we hadn't been planning on lunching at the velodrome, I'd have been tempted to sample some of the mouth-watering barbeque that was being grilled out on the patio in front of Tenuta's as we pulled in. Inside was a surprisingly huge selection of beers, including New Glarus, a brew from Madison that is not distributed outside of Wisconsin. Many long distance riders who also have a taste for beer make a point of acquiring some New Glarus every time they venture into Wisconsin from the Chicago area. Luscious tasty beer stretched off into the distance. We managed to fill an entire shopping cart between the two of us.

There were so many varieties. I wished I could've taken more, but opted instead for a six pack of Dancing Man Wheat, a bottle of Strawberry Rhubarb Wheat, and a mix-and-match six pack of several different varieties including Blacktop, and Dancing Cow.

Needless to say, I had plenty of space for beer. In fact I could've bought some more. Had I not already had a sampler 12-pack of Big Sky at home, I might have bought more New Glarus.

We arrived at the lunch time rest stop just as everyone else was rolling in. Riding with Bob, Cesar and I made pretty good time, even with our side trip to Tenuta's. We relaxed, each had a bottle of Dancing Man Wheat, dropped off our beer with the sag wagon driver, and enjoyed a leisurely lunch. I partook of a ham sandwich, PB & J, some chips, and of course bananas and oranges. We took the opportunity to refill our water bottles and hopped onto the velodrome for a spin before hitting the road back to Chicago. It's surprisingly difficult to ride the highly banked track, especially on a 35 pound bike loaded with the extra weight of moderately loaded bags and panniers. Here yours truly hammers out a couple spins round the track before declaring it to be too much like work.

Sadly, this was to be the end of the road for Cesar. His expensive Cannondale Synapse bike is shod with tubular tires and he received a flat tire. In spite of my previous warnings to Cesar to sell his impractical rims and buy clinchers, he persisted in keeping them and tempted fate by not acquiring any sort of suitable replacement tires to carry on trips like this. Unfortunately, he finished out his ride  in the sag wagon with his bike on the rear rack. I rode most of the final 50 miles with this group of folks, many of whom turned out to be fellow riders in the Endomondo National Bicycling Challenge.

Views of Lake Michigan as we left Kenosha were picturesque almost beyond words. The waters of the lake were a beautiful greenish blue color almost as if we were biking along an oceanside path.

For a while I dropped back with the main group, the fast guys at the front being a bit too much to keep up with. We rode on the shoulder of one section of busy road before heading into quieter country roads and residential roads.

At the final rest stop before the conclusion of the ride, we were surprised by some nasty storms that began to brew to the west. Realizing we would be caught out in some heavy rain most of the riders finished filling their water bottles, choked down a couple snacks and bolted south for Evanston and the finish. I ended up starting a couple minutes after everyone else, having dashed into McDonald's a couple minutes earlier to get an ice cream cone. I was torn between finishing my cone and hitting to road. In the end I scarfed as much as I could without giving myself a brain-freeze, threw rest away and hit the road. Minutes later, it became obvious I was going to be getting very wet.

With the the rain pouring down, I had resigned myself to a long slow slog for the last 10 miles or so back to Evanston when I heard someone calling my name from the side of the road. Bob, and a few other riders had pulled over to shelter from the worst of the storm under the overhang of a convenience store, appropriately named, "Bob's Pantry."

On the advice of one of our companions, Bernie, we chose to take a path called the Green Bay Trail back into Evanston. The Green Bay Trail runs arrow straight as it follows the Metra rail line from north back southwards into Evanston. With the rain coming down, we rode full out on the muddy gravel trail with the trees close in on either side and our blinkies glaring out in the dim light.

We stopped under an overpass briefly to get some respite from the rain. I experienced a sci-fi nerdgasm when I realized a bit of graffiti on the wall read, "Bad Wolf." Alas, none of my fellow riders were familiar with Christopher Tennant as the 10th Doctor Who along with his lovely companion Rose Tyler played by Billie Piper.

The soundtrack for the last leg of our ride into Evanston went from Jimi Hendrix's "Rainy Day," suggested by me, to "I Can See Clearly Now (The Rain is Gone)" by Jimmy Cliff, suggested by fellow rider Yao. We arrived at the starting point for the ride, the first of any of the riders to make it back. About ten minutes later our sag driver returned, and Bob and I collected our booze and we all parted ways with hand shakes, some of us with a lengthy drive back through Chicago to get home while others still faced another ten-plus mile ride to get back to their own homes. All in all, it was another century ride under my belt and the main thing I took away from this ride was that I no longer felt daunted by the thought of riding 100 miles in a day. In fact, I think I've come to enjoy the challenge of riding 100 miles in a day. I'm even considering undertaking the sport of Randonneuring which will have me participating in brevet rides of longer distances. For the time being though, I'll content myself with the North Shore Century which is just under a couple months away. Until then, I'll continue to rack up longer rides of at least 60 miles on my weekends and maybe a self-supported century before then.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Wherein I ponder affixing my logo to Merino wool jerseys and shirts

I'm big on Merino wool. This stuff is amazing. So amazing in fact, that I currently refuse to spend more money on tech fabric jerseys that are not as versatile and which stink foully within one day of being worn. For the record, when I say "tech fabric," I'm referring to the myriad wicking fabrics, mostly based on artificial fibers such as polyester and their variants. On thing in common with pretty much all tech fabrics is that while they will perform well in the aspect of moisture control, they all pretty much have a shelf life of only being acceptable to wear for maybe one or possibly two rides, tops. I don't  know what it is, but even lightly sweating in these fabrics causes them to take on a horrendous smell of armpity-stank-ness as soon as they dry out. You could have worn deodorant and not actually had your armpits smelling bad, but the jersey will reek like you hadn't bathed in days before you wore it.

Being a commuter/utility cyclist, I prefer not to have to wash all of my cycling gear on a nightly basis or even multiple times per week. I do own multiple pairs of padded shorts though, and I wash them all before they get re-worn. You have to draw the line on cleanliness somewhere. It's the shirts/jerseys though, which bother me the most. Tech fabric jerseys are too expensive for me to have to own one for every day of the week - I'm already doing that with padded bike shorts, and I'm not made of money. So, it comes back to a fabric that stands up to multiple days of wearing and won't stink, allowing me to extend the time frame between washings. Merino wool is that fabric. In the near future, I'll be posting a long term review of my first Merino wool jersey and how it performs in hot weather. However, this is not what I want to talk about today.

I want more Merino jerseys or shirts, yet I want to be able to emblazon them with my own Velo Celt Cycles logo. Velo Celt started out as the name to this blog but has since evolved into my own personal brand. I don't intend to try to make loads of money marketing my own bikes or gear, but I see the brand of Velo Celt Cycles more as an idea. I see advertising my self and my website as a means to drive people to the information that I dispense through gear reviews, trip reports, and the various clever bike hacks that I perpetrate on a regular basis as I try to adapt equipment to meet my own unique challenges. All of this will help me in my bid to become a recognized writer of cycling-related articles.

So, I was pondering the question of how to go about affixing my logo to my beloved Merino wool shirts. Portland/Oregon Cyclewear has a service where they will apply custom lettering or logos to their own discount priced Merino jerseys for a nominal fee. Again, I'll have more details on my impressions of their product in my forthcoming review. Suffice it say, I want to have a greater selection of shirts and the ability to have a larger, more elaborate logo. I was pondering silk screen printing as a method of putting my own logo onto Merino t-shirts but I'd read a few things about Merino being difficult to print onto. The idea I hit upon next was one that goes back over 70 years.

In World War II, allied aviators fighting in the skies over China employed "Blood Chits," which were silk fabric pieces sewn onto the backs of their jackets, offering the local natives a reward for assisting and returning a downed flyer to Allied lines unharmed. It occurred to me that I could buy some silk fabric and screen print my logo onto it, then sew those hand-crafted hand-printed swatches onto the jerseys or shirts as a kind of patch. The idea is still in it's infancy, but it's one I'll be researching over next few weeks. Just one of the many unique bike hacks that Velo Celt Cycles is known for. Stay tuned for future developments!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Honing rusty photography skills at a local crit: The photographer's perspective

So, almost a couple months ago I was lucky enough to take in a few races from a criterium that was held, literally just down the block from my apartment. The University of Chicago Velo Club puts on this day of races titled, Monsters of the Midway. I spent an afternoon scoping out places to try and hone my rusty photography skills. Much of the day was spent trying to get images that went against the typical "cycle-sports-action-shot" model. Here are a few of the best from that day.

 The race circled around the area of campus known as the Midway Plaissance, which was actually once part of the famous Worlds Columbian Exposition. The lovely architecture of the University of Chicago campus provided a nice backdrop for much of the days racing.

I liked the juxtaposition of the flowers and the race in this shot. The bikes whizzing by the flower beds made me think of some Spring Classic race in Europe with cyclists passing through fields of tulips with windmills in the background. I shot two different versions of this photo. This one features the cyclists in focus and the flowers in the foreground out of focus.

The next one I went for the flowers in the foreground in focus. The riders ended up being blurred, which has the effect of conveying the speed somewhat. I'm not sure which version I like better, this one or the one above. I'm kind of partial to this one though.

This shot somewhat violates the common photography "Rule of Thirds," but I like it anyway. When I shot it I was focusing on the riders. Later, when I was looking at the images, I liked the presentation of the riders crossing the geometric pattern of the crosswalk.

This comes under the category of those all too common cycling action shots, but I still like the massive church in the background, visible just through the trees, and the perspective was good. I had a good angle close down to pavement level that allowed me to get close to the riders but not too close.

I liked the perspective of this shot as well. I was able to stand a couple feet above street level on the edge of this planter with all the flowers. I thought it was neat to get shots that were somewhat above the typical eye level of the cyclist as many shots usually are. That large church was looming in the background as well. Much more visible here without so much of the trees blocking it as in those ground level shots. Shots like these help convey a sense of place I think.

I like shots that also convey the atmosphere of the race versus just having a string of action shots that are pretty much interchangeable from race to race. Here a group of riders were having a confab after the race. Presumably a debriefing regarding their performance with strategizing for the future. Or maybe they were just planning on where to go eat and have a beer after the races were over.

Some of the women relaxing moments before the beginning of one of their races. It always strikes me how much the women racers seem to smile. Even on the course in the heat of competition, many of them seem to have a smile on their face. Not so with the men. It's all poker faces there. Maybe it's part of the manly spirit of competition to be all seriousness, all the time?

Finally, one last mundane action shot with more monumental religious architecture in the background.