Tuesday, December 28, 2010
First, however, one observation. If you can find clothing that suits you, you very well may become indifferent to cold. By contrast you will – or should – never become indifferent to snow. It’s possible to ride in the stuff, regularly and successfully, but it’s not ever as safe or as easy as riding on bare pavement. If you want to bike to work over snowy roads or trails, these suggestions will help. But if after trying it a few times you’re still uncomfortable, then don’t do it – wait for the plows to come through!
Moving along. The problem with snow is not so much that it’s slippery but that it’s uneven. Ruts, ridges and hard-packed clumps will all push you off a straight line. As you ride through these spots, your handlebars will twist in your hands, your front wheel will begin to slide, and it’ll feel like you’re going to topple over for sure. But remember Newton. Your bike wants to keep going in the direction that it’s been going; that is, in a straight line. And a wheel wants to spin, not burrow! As soon as your wheel clears the immediate obstacle, it’ll pop back straight and you can keep right on riding. Your aim is simply to allow that happen.
And therein is the essential trick to riding in snow: Let your bike work it out for itself. Loosen your grip. Let the handlebars wobble and twist. Keep pedaling, evenly and steadily, when you feel the front wheel begin to lose its purchase. It feels wrong, but it works out right! (Uh, most of the time – as I said, riding in snow is not as safe as riding on bare pavement.) The feeling of nearly losing control is really disconcerting and it’s hard to suppress the urge to wrestle the bike back into a straight line. But if you fight, you will almost always overcorrect, and wind up on the ground more often than if you just let everything go.
This is one of those lessons that, I think, is best learned through experience. The next snow day that comes along, take an hour or 90 minutes, find a stretch of road that’s not too heavily travelled, and just ride around. Relax your hands, arms and shoulders. Steer in and out of tire tracks, try turning a little harder than seems prudent. Accept that you will fall, and don’t try to stop your bike if it seems to be heading that way. Weirdly, once you accept that you are going to fall, you won’t (as often). And, at 8 mph and onto snow, it’s probably not going to hurt if you do go down. The first time I rode in deepish snow (6-7 inches, on precisely one of these “who cares” excursions), I fell, harmlessly,10 times in 90 minutes before I learned to trust the bike, and its inertia.
Practice helps. The more you ride in the snow, the more comfortable you’ll be with it. (And conversely, less comfortable when you don’t – the first snowy day of each year invariably presents a challenging commute!) Also bear in mind that, staying upright usually comes at the expense of a clean, straight riding line – a sort of Uncertainty Principle for bike riders. So in snow, don’t cut things as closely as you might otherwise, and be particularly vigilant for passing cars.
Finally. All of the foregoing pertains only to snow. None of it works on ice, where you can find yourself on the ground before you can even think the word “Zen”. On 28 degree mornings following a freezing rain, I walk to the Metro – or stay home along with everyone else whose businesses have closed for the day. If you do find yourself on a patch of ice (it happens!), steer as straight and steady a course as you can until you’ve cleared it. Don’t turn, don’t brake, don’t accelerate. Maybe don’t even breathe. And during those tense few moments, relax yourself by remembering that if you fall on ice, you leave a whole lot less of yourself on the ground than if you’d fallen on asphalt!
Tuesday, December 21, 2010
Most people overdress for winter riding, outfitting themselves like Admiral Peary embarking on a North Pole expedition. The main difference between you and Peary is that he spent his day standing stock still on the hind end of a dogsled, whereas you are exercising, and generating heat. (Another difference is that you can’t simply claim to have actually made it to the office and expect people believe you for the better part of a century.) Your pedalling can add 20 to 30 degrees to the perceived temperature, and if you’ve dressed according only to the thermometer, you’ll quickly overheat. So on your torso and legs, you need to underdress a bit. My default outfit for temperatures between about 23 and 35 degrees is two long sleeve woolen layers (at least one a turtleneck), topped by a medium weight (sort of “heavy windbreaker”), lightly water-repellent cycling jacket. On my legs I wear, over standard cycling shorts, a set of winter stretch cycling tights. Set up in that fashion I may be chilly for the first five or eight minutes but by the 10th I’m usually sweating.
(I swear by a Devold woolen zippered base layer I bought from Rivendell Bicycles a few years back. Rivendell no longer sells that brand and the closest thing I can find nowadays on the Devold website are its “Multisport” zip undershirts. Rivendell is now selling a similar high-neck zippered undershirt from New Zealand, which I’m sure is superb.)
The principle of underdressing does not apply to your hands, feet or face. They benefit little from your exertions and it’s important to make sure they’re well covered - don't skimp. Experiment with different weights of gloves and socks for different temperatures – you want your hands to be warm, but arctic gloves that are good at 15 degrees can feel really confining and uncomfortable at 40. A balaclava will keep your face and ears comfortable, and you can carry it scrunched up in a jersey pocket on days when you’re not sure you’ll need it or not.
Oh, finally. All of this assumes that you’re riding straight through to your destination, where within a minute or two after arriving, you’ll be moving indoors. Once you stop pedalling you will begin to lose heat very quickly – and thanks to your sweat, even more quickly at the end of the ride than at the outset.
Friday, December 17, 2010
Remarkably (he remarked), cold isn’t much of a problem on a bike – that is, once you’re a mile or so into the ride. (I think that first five or six minutes – which can be, well, a bit bracing – is what puts most people off winter riding.). Two or three woolen layers under a medium weight windbreaking jacket, winter bike tights, good gloves and a balaclava (for the worst days) are good for temperatures all the way into single digits.
Of course right now it’s dry, and the snowfall has been modest. It’s harder to remain quite so enthusiastic during those slippery, slushy February days when salty road crud splashes up from cars, soaks your legs and collects as puddles in your shoes. In fact the best part of those days is peeling off the cold, wet bike clothes and changing right into something warm and dry.
Which, come to think of it, is itself an advantage that cycle commuters enjoy over those poor sad souls who have to slog, in their all-day clothes, through the same crud to their offices from the Metro or parking garage. Ah, good – something to look forward to even then!
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Monday, September 27, 2010
(What I really want is to figure out how to mount a camera on my bike frame like these folks did!)
Friday, September 24, 2010
Monday, August 30, 2010
Wednesday, July 7, 2010
Monday, July 5, 2010
The rumble strips were taken up after about a year. The speed limit – and the signs stating it – remain in place but enforcement today appears no more substantial than the fading stripes of paint that hint at where the rumble strips once were. Now, two years later, one wonders: What was the point? Are cyclists riding more slowly? Are there fewer accidents? Are pedestrians no longer startled by bicycles speeding past, inches from their elbows?
I confess that on my own almost daily (and always uphill) commute on the CCT I give absolutely no thought to my speed unless the trail is congested, in which case I find a pace to match conditions. It is of course risky extrapolate too freely from one's own experience, but it seems to reinforce the sentiment of several cyclists, expressed when the new rules were instituted, that this "solution" missed the point; that the limit was unrealistically low and that the freer application of common sense and courtesy by all trail users would go further toward enhancing trail safety.
Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Equally perplexing was the fellow (visible on the left hand edge of the photo) who had set up a folding chair right next to and above the sidewalk (the lot is elevated by about 4 feet) and was comfortably reading a manuscript of some kind. He denied any connection to the sculpture and then discouraged further conversation, which seemed incongruous from someone who'd taken the trouble to set himself up in such a visible and public place.
Tuesday, June 29, 2010
You’re slower than cars and harder to see. Sometimes you tie up an entire lane even though physically you occupy only a fraction of it. You are going to get in the way of drivers. Here are a few suggestions on how to keep from annoying them at the same time.
The best general advice is, ironically, simply to conduct yourself like a good driver. Try, within your ability, to become part of and remain within the flow of traffic. So, first – you already know this, but it can’t be omitted – ride predictably. Unpredictable riders agitate drivers. (Not to mention that they are more likely to get hit.) In Washington’s miserable commuter traffic, drivers are already burdened with enough anxiety and frustration. Don’t add to it.
Second. Ride confidently and purposefully. A fearful rider is an unpredictable rider, which is bad. (See above.) You have the right to be on the road; ride as though you believe it. And ride purposefully; don’t dither. Nobody likes ditherers.
Third. You are entitled to make drivers to wait for a bit behind you, to slow to let you into space, or to change lanes to pass you – that’s what “sharing the road” means. But never do anything to force a driver into an abrupt change of speed or direction. It’s discourteous and dangerous. When I drove a taxi, I devised a rule for good hacking: Never give your passengers, or other drivers, reason to reflect upon Newton’s Laws of Motion. You haven’t got passengers but the rule’s good for you too.
In addition to doing your best to become part of the flow, be polite. Really polite. Here you have an advantage. The humans beings piloting cars and trucks vanish within their large and impersonal machines. But you on your bike are visibly, perceptibly, a person. Remind drivers of this, in thoughtful and considerate ways, and you’ll defuse a lot of potential resentment. So:
Fourth. When someone gives you a break, acknowledge it. A wave, a nod – something they’ll see. Maybe they gave you a bit of room at a light so you could ease past them on the curb side. Or slowed to let you into their lane so you could ride around a parked car. Or waved you through at a stop sign. Whatever – say thanks and make sure they see it.
Fifth and finally. When you screw up, apologize. Yeah, it’s hard, but suck it up. Be a mensch. Once or twice I’ve actually turned around and chased down a driver whom I’d wronged. In both instances they greeted me ready to continue the fight, but upon hearing me admit that I’d been wrong, quickly calmed down, allowed that everyone makes mistakes, told me to be the hell more careful and wished me well.
This last bit of advice is, I think, pretty idiosyncratic (I’ve never seen anyone else recommend it) and I suppose that it needs to be applied judiciously (a soft answer doesn’t invariably turn away wrath) but apologies are powerful things and I’m willing to bet that both of those drivers went home and told their wives or girlfriends about the remarkable encounter they’d had that day with a bicyclist. It’s a neat trick to use a mistake to make a good impression, and uncommonly satisfying.
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
Monday, June 21, 2010
(Seven hundred cycling deaths each year in the U.S. compared to 33,000+ in autos and 4,500+ for pedestrians. Injuries similarly skewed, away from cyclists. I wonder how many lives would be saved every year, or how many closed head injuries mitigated, by helmet use by everyone at all times? As they say - "if it saves one life, it's worth it".)
Helmets may help, but your best insurance against serious injury is unwavering attentiveness, the constant awareness of your surroundings and everything that moves in and out of them. The great majority of bicycle injuries and deaths result from auto collisions, and avoiding those one-sided encounters altogether is a more effective way to stay safe than relying on some thin piece of styrofoam once you’re headed toward the ground. (Which is why I direct my scorn toward cyclists with iPods, who, unlike bareheaded riders, are actually increasing their odds of a crash.)
Friday, June 11, 2010
Wednesday, June 9, 2010
Monday, June 7, 2010
In summer rainstorms, all you get is wet. And you quickly discover that wet, by itself, isn’t unpleasant at all. (One long day in the rain in 1995 revealed this truth to me.) The warm air, plus the heat you generate by riding, are usually enough to keep any chill at bay. In the cooler air of spring and fall, add a rain jacket or perhaps another insulating layer on rainy days. And of course no matter how wet you may get on the bike, when you get where you’re going, you peel off your wet bike clothes and climb into a dry set of duds. (The ordinary commuter by contrast has little choice but to wear the day’s weather until merciful evaporation completes its work.)
Staying warm in winter is largely a matter of the right clothes. With good layering and proper cold weather selections (like special lobster gloves and a balaclava), you can ride for half an hour or 40 minutes in temperatures down to 10-12 degrees Fahrenheit and honestly pronounce the weather merely “chilly”. Snow is not much of a problem because it doesn’t make you wet. The worst days are rainy ones right at or just above freezing, and I confess that I don’t really look forward to them. But even they aren’t that bad, and I ride in them too.
After a while at this you really do begin to believe you possess a special, personal kind of immunity to the weather. A couple of years ago I had to spend eight weeks in Chicago in October and November on business. I couldn’t ride to work so I deliberately chose a hotel about a mile from the office so I could at least get in a little walk each day. I know what Chicago weather is like that time of year but in packing I completely neglected to pack an umbrella, raincoat or hat. Only later did I realize I had come to believe that weather was just not something that I ever needed to worry about in travelling between home and office - having completely lost sight of the fact that this was thanks only to the bicycle and was not some superhuman trait. Luckily, taxis are abundant in Chicago even in the rain; I spent enough time in them that month.
Tuesday, June 1, 2010
At 15 or 18 miles an hour you notice things that you might well overlook when driving by. And it's easy to stop for a closer look. This is the Café Putain qui Pue, or "Stinky Whore Café", located on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams (actually 9th & Q Streets NW), along with its motto, "Always Closed".
UPDATE: The photo is from 2009. Sadly the Stinky Whore Café is no more. See here.
Friday, May 28, 2010
One pleasant afternoon in June 2002 I was heading out Pennsylvania Avenue toward Georgetown to connect up with the Capital Crescent Trail and head home. I had just ridden onto Washington Circle near the George Washington University campus and was working my way around it in the empty outermost lane when I was overtaken by a convertible in the middle lane that had entered the circle behind me. As the car came abreast of me, it began to move right, into my lane, forcing me toward the curb.
This pissed me off. The circle was practically empty and I couldn’t imagine how the driver, approaching me from behind in a traffic circle and in an open convertible, could have been looking anywhere but right at me as she prepared to change lanes. I had two choices. I could simply feather my brakes, let the car pass me, and surrender the lane. The other was to take the driver to task for her obliviousness and for threatening to crush me. I chose the latter.
The car was only a couple of inches from my left knee so it was easy to slap the trunk with the flat of my hand. (Experience had taught me that this makes a good bit of noise and gets the driver’s attention, and doesn’t hurt you or the car.) But a problem immediately emerged. I had run out of riding room on the right. Instinct made me steer left to keep from crashing and before I knew it I was leaning hard against the car with only my outstretched arm keeping me from falling onto it entirely. But the car was still moving faster than me, and in an instant it was past me altogether. The moment I lost contact with it I fell into the empty space and thud! was on the pavement. Luckily I landed mostly on the meaty back part of my left leg and even though I’d been going a good 13 or 14 mph, I knew right away that I wasn’t seriously hurt. I picked myself up started to walk the bike (likewise not seriously damaged) to the curb.
The driver was a cute blonde of college age. Her passenger was a matching brunette. The blonde had heard the thump of my hand, looked in her mirror just in time to see me go down, and stopped immediately. (To her credit. She did not, however, bother to get out.) For a moment she thought she’d actually hit me but as I shook myself off, I explained what had happened and admonished her to pay closer attention on the road. She apologized, promised up and down that she would, then sped off. As she pulled away I noticed her Texas license plates and thought, “tourist!”
Only after the adrenaline had worn off did I put it all together. A young blonde and young brunette from Texas, headed into Georgetown at happy hour. And less than a mile from the White House to boot. Who else but Jenna and Barbara? It's true that Secret Service was nowhere to be seen. But Jenna was notorious for ditching her protectors by speeding off in her car. See here. The only thing that has ever caused me to doubt my conclusion is that these two girls were hopelessly self-absorbed, immature and irresponsible; the daughters of a sitting President would certainly have had more dignity and self-possession than that.
Thursday, May 27, 2010
I’ve ridden more than 60,000 miles since I started keeping serious track in 1987. That’s more than 2,600 miles per year, every year, for almost a quarter of a century. A lot of riding, right? Well – it doesn’t even get me close to 10,000 hours. 60,000 miles at an estimated lifetime average of 15 mph is – do the math – 4,000 hours. Not even half.
The upside I suppose is that "expert cyclist" must be a satisfying thing to accomplish when you're 80.
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
You have to build in transition time at both ends of work – cleaning up / drying off and changing into work clothes when you arrive; and then when it’s time to go home, changing back into bike clothes. It gets old. Some days the simple act of undressing and dressing yet again seems like the hardest part of the whole practice.
You are solely responsible for your safe and efficient progress. You’re the motor, you’re the driver – and you’re vulnerable. You must pay attention – to cars, pedestrians, other bikes, the road surface – so say goodbye to the 40 minutes or hour on your old commute when you’d read the paper or listen to the radio or books on tape. (I do see some riders with iPod buds in their ears but they are idiots.) In the same vein, when something breaks, you have to stop and fix it. This can be particularly unpleasant during dark and cold winter months. (It is a particular disadvantage compared to cars, which today are fantastically reliable, but perhaps not as much vis-à-vis Washington’s increasingly doddery subway service.)
Some days you’re just under the weather and biking is a chore, not enjoyable at all. Actual weather, remarkably enough, is not a downside. It’s just data. I’ve heard it said that there’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes. It’s true on a bike, where if you’re warm, nothing else matters. After a few weeks of riding you’ll gain an accurate sense for what jersey, jacket, socks or gloves are appropriate to what conditions. (Write down the temperature and what you wore to help you remember.) You’ll know you’re a pro when you realize you’ve become completely indifferent each morning to the quality of weather you’re about to set out in. It won’t take as long as you think!
Virtue may be its own reward but it’s even truer of fun. Bike to work if you enjoy it. If for some reason you need to maintain a certain level of social consciousness cred, just pretend that you don’t.
Sunday, May 23, 2010
Most obviously, you get to go for a bike ride! And even when you’re crushingly busy at work, you’re outside, in fresh air, for at least the length of your commute. Of course you might not feel like riding every day (some days I dread it), but a lot of those 50/50 or even 20/80 days will tip over to the positive 10 minutes into your ride, and suddenly you'll be grateful to be out on the road again - days that start out bad don't have to stay that way.
You are miraculously able to opt out of the tedious and enervating commute that everyone else, in their cars, buses and subways, must endure. You ride through the chaos, it surrounds you, but you’re not in it any longer. Their problems aren’t your problems. Traffic jams may slow you down but won’t stop you; you can always find a way through or around. Problems on the Red Line? You don’t have to fight for a taxi or stand in line for a bus. Sure, you’ll encounter some new, small and unaccustomed indignities – like, in the rain, you get soaking wet – but you may even come to enjoy the seeming drawbacks (see below).
You’ll almost never be late again because of traffic. Ninety percent of my morning rides take between 21 and 26 minutes. My (longer) return route home requires 38 to 47 minutes. Three or four times a year a Presidential or Vice Presidential motorcade stops all traffic, including me, but bike commuters in other parts of the country can safely discount that risk.
Spontaneity flourishes. Wondering what’s down that side street? Go see. If you ride past something interesting – a new public art installation, or someone’s handing out free samples – you can just pull your bike out of the road and have a look. You won’t slow anyone down and you don’t need to find a parking place.
You’re more aware of, attuned to, the weather. And because you’re regularly out in it, extremes don’t bother you as much. I have come particularly to enjoy summer downpours. “Wet” doesn’t matter if you’re not cold, and it’s a wonderful luxury to be able to enjoy the feel of warm rain on my back and arms while all around me pedestrians are holding newspapers over their heads and scrambling for cover.
And of course, you get exercise – real, every day, aerobic exercise. It clears your mind and dissipates stress; you’ll sleep better, and you know it’s good for you in the long run.
Thursday, May 20, 2010
I lived for 11 years in the Mt. Pleasant area of Washington, DC, where I had a simple and ordinary commute to and from work. A Metrobus picked me up two blocks from home and dropped me off two blocks from my office. The return was just as easy. On crummy days or when the buses were running slow, I’d grab a cab – which under DC’s bizarre taxi zone system, cost just $4.20. Easy peasy.
In 1998 I moved further out into northwest DC. I loved the new house, but it wasn’t near any meaningful mass transit, so my commute came to entail either an unreliable and time-consuming walk-bus-subway combination, or a drive through DC’s dispiriting traffic. I thought I wouldn’t mind the new routine but I did. Then, one cold, snowy day the prospect of waiting at the bus stop seemed particularly grim and I decided, pretty much on a whim, to try riding my bike in. I’d always been a pretty active cyclist, on occasion even venturing out in snow for a change of pace and a challenge. I had a mountain bike in the basement with fat tires and knobby treads, and after throwing on a couple of layers of wool and some long tights, I set out for work.
It was a blast. I wasn’t “commuting” that day; instead I was going for an invigorating bike ride – which, conveniently, left me off at the office where I needed to be! I rode in the next day, and the day after that, and so on until one day the bike simply became the way in which I got to work.
That was 12 years ago. Since that first day I’ve gotten married, moved again and had two kids, but have continued the bicycle commute throughout. I ride year-round and whatever the weather. (Black ice is the one exception, a hard-learned lesson.) My current commute varies from about 6.5 to 10.5 miles, depending on the route, which in turn depends on how late I am to where I need to be. In those 11+ years I’ve logged more than 26,000 commuting miles – those little numbers add up.
Bike commuting suits me because I like to ride bikes and because I live both close enough (and far enough!) from work to make it practicable. And, I have been able to do it so regularly and consistently because it does not interfere materially with work or family obligations. (My wife, realizing that this may be all that stands between me and 270 pounds, is in fact highly supportive.)
These highly favorable circumstances may not hold for everyone who is thinking about commuting by bicycle, but of course there’s nothing wrong with bike commuting three days a week, or “sometimes”, or until the first kid comes along. In the series of entries I’m planning for this site (or “blog”, I’m not sure what it will turn out to be) I hope to make it a bit easier for prospective bike commuters to get underway. I’m also hoping that folks who are already riding to work will stumble across the site and find it enjoyable or useful in some fashion. It's Bike to Work Week right now, and Bike to Work Day is tomorrow - it seems like a good time to get started. Let’s see how it goes.