Thursday, July 30, 2015

To helmet or not to helmet?

I'm guessing it must've been the hottest day of this year so far. Well, maybe it wasn't, but it certainly felt like it. Weather like this (95F/35C and humid) makes me want to just stay inside and leave my bike untouched. Or at least, leave the helmet home, which is what I do in such situations.

To my surprise, this is not a normally accepted behavior here. In the Big Corn Country cyclists would rather suffer from heat than ride with wind in their hair. On my morning ride to work when I stopped at a red light I was accompanied by 7 other cyclists. I was the only one without a helmet. Safety first - you would think, and I may understand that wearing a helmet could make you feel safer when navigating through a heavy car traffic (Even though it's still more like wishful thinking). But when riding a 10-mile long section of car-free Minuteman Bikeway you would be in a very low risk of any collision. Unless, maybe, you hit a squirrel.

Nevertheless, if you are American and you see bicycles, you think helmets. They just fit together here like pancakes and maple syrup or football game and shitty beer. No wonder that this market is huge and many people would want a piece of it for themselves. The problem is - helmets changed little over last decades. They are still a piece of styrofoam covered with a thin plastic shell. How can you convince masses that your helmet is this new, totally cool thing that everyone must have?
Thousand - a "helmet you actually want to wear".

The first thing you can do is to make helmets a bit less ugly. Dappercap or Thousand are good examples here. Apparently, they solve the biggest issue with today's helmets - their ugliness. Unfortunately, despite their looks, these are not the helmets I "actually would want to wear".
Dappercap - a "stylish cycle helmet"

Another approach, and this one gained a lot of popularity among your inventors, is to make helmets smart. Seems to me that in XIX century even a stupid styrofoam hat must be smart, social and connected. Some inventors try to build into a helmet powerful bike lights, which makes me wonder why would I want to strain my neck with the weight of a battery pack? Others go much, much more mad and they want to put about everything into a helmet. This is how Smart Hat must have been born. Or maybe it was just too much of Australian sun that cooked inventor's brain. Anyway, Smart Hat remains clearly the most idiotic idea and the ugliest helmet you can possibly imagine.
Smart Hat - Australian safety device "for responsible cyclists"

Some other smart hats are a bit better looking and seem to be designed by someone... well, smarter. Lumos is one of them. This helmet at least looks like a normal one but features integrated headlight, brake lights and turn signals that are remotely activated. Cool, now when someone hacks your helmet your head can turn into a disco ball. Red, white and orange blinking on all sides. That's innovative!
Lumos - cyclist's disco ball. Er... I mean, a helmet.

Finally, there is another radical solution from Sweden - an inflatable helmet called Hövding 2.0. In theory, this gadget remains hidden in a thick collar worn around cyclist's neck (Can't see myself wearing this stuff on a day like today) and deploys when sensors detect imminent collision. In practice... let's just say that sometimes theory and practice are not the same thing. Hövding could be a good idea if it was smaller and you could hide it in the collar of your jacket and it didn't cost 300 euros. On the other hand, what you're going to do on those hot days when you don't wear a jacket?
Hövding 2.0 - airbag for your head

All it looks to me like inventors are trying to solve a problem that has been successfully solved in a few places in the world already. Instead of taking the Australian approach to cycling safety, many people in Holland or Denmark embraced a simple concept that is still so difficult to accept here in America: you shouldn't need a helmet in a well-designed city. The best "helmet" for cyclists is not the one you would wear on your head but a complex cycling infrastructure that would make you safe without a styrofoam hat.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Accidents are just like... cognac

Car crash - accidental or not? (Source: http://powershiftmagazine.com/)
 
The saga continues. As much as we don't want newscasters to jump to conclusions before all circumstances of a road collision are known, they push back, saying "Not so fast!", because, they may ask: what's wrong with the word accident after all?
The word can also simply describe “a happening that occurs unintentionally.” That seems to be the obvious spirit in which most traffic reports use accident today, and why not? Our justice system distinguishes between negligence and criminal intent for good reason. You could even assert that baked into the prevalence of accident is the fundamentally American idea of “innocent until proven guilty.” Ascribing bloodthirsty motives to a careless motorist feels as problematic as suggesting that she bears no responsibility for the pain she’s sown.
The problem with this word is that it's been overused and applied to every road collision. Accidents are just like cognac. All cognac is brandy, but not all brandy is cognac. Similarly, all accidents are crashes, but not all crashes are accidents.
 
And when proponents of the status quo argue that they "don’t buy the argument that car accident is always an inaccurate phrase", they fail to notice that it's not what Crash, Not Accident campaign is trying to point out.

Describing the situation as an accident is not always wrong. When a tree falls on your car and kills you, it's an accident because this event was completely random and there was essentially no way you could have avoided it (except for not driving). But when you hit a tree because you were texting or tuning the radio - it's a crash (non-accidental), because it happened due to your negligence.

Unfortunately, it's not how media see these situations now. They are quick to call every crash an accident, which would excuse the driver from any blame, yet they are also quick to report that "cyclist wasn't wearing a helmet" even if it had nothing to do with the way he/she was injured. And that immediately blames the cyclist for what happened.

So now it's time to restore the balance because news agencies do not follow "the fundamentally American idea of “innocent until proven guilty”". They don't blame drivers for "accidents" making them look innocent, yet they present cyclists as guilty, without checking first whether they may have been innocent.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Crash, not accident

I remember my first summer in Boston many years ago. I worked in a well air-conditioned building and when I left it to walk across the street to a cafe for lunch, my glasses immediately got foggy from all the moisture in the air. This level of humidity and heat was totally new to me.

Many years later I'm more used to it but I can't say that I enjoy it. Far from it. Every year in July there are days when I choose not to ride my bike because of this unbearable weather. Last Sunday I thought I could take my kids on Big Eddie for a ride but at 95F (35C) air temperature we would probably melt down after just a few miles.

Ok, so I don't like hot weather. Australians probably don't like it much either, because they prefer to drive their kids to school instead of just letting them walk or bike. Hmm... no, there must be another reason why Australians don't bike. Maybe it's because of their mandatory helmet law, push to remove bikes from streets because they are "not safe for cyclists" (That's so Australian - instead of making streets safe, let's just remove bicycles), or the fact that soon they will be required to carry ID (Does it apply to 8-year olds riding their bikes to school?).

It must be all of these things plus lack of any action and funding of bicycle infrastructure. So it seems that things look pretty bad for all cyclists in Australia and the situation won't change any time soon as there are too many idiots at power (The prime example comes from their Minister of Transport, Duncan Gay). Sad.

But let's leave Australians with their own problems. Unfortunately, things are not much better here on the northern hemisphere. We may not be as baby-sited as Australians cyclists but we are not safe either. We can be killed by running over by a police officer, struck by a car door or being impaled on a fence. That's tragic.
"He came out of nowhere!"

What's also tragic is the way these news are brought to us. If you read through these articles you will see that the police officer hit the cyclists because "he came out of nowhere", the cyclist "slammed into the door" and died of sustained injuries and while the other one got impaled into his neck, the most important thing to check was "whether the cyclist was wearing a helmet".

So all is good, right? Those were just accidents and we can now move on. It was an accident the officer hit one cyclist and an accident the door popped up in front of the other one. No one is to blame, maybe except the cyclist in case he/she wasn't wearing a helmet.

Fortunately, there is a (still small) chance we will stop calling these situations accidents and call them what they really are: crash, collision, etc. But in order for this to happen big media must change the way they report news and eradicate "accident" from their dictionary. That surely won't be easy. People behind "Crash is not an accident" campaign want to change it because words do matter.

Monday, July 13, 2015

How to survive hot and humid weather

After reading this title, most people would advise on staying home, turning AC on and serving plenty of cold drinks. However, for us, cyclists, this may not be an option. Here is what you can do to survive the heat, such as one that hit us this week in Boston.

Leave your bike home and drive your car or take a bus instead. This assumes you are willing on giving up cycling and switching over to another vehicle, where you can benefit from air conditioning. Again, not an option for every hardcore biker but if outside temperature hits 90F (32C) and over 70% humidity, you will likely be ready to say "screw it" and enjoy AC inside your car.

Stay indoors and ride on a trainer. Good option for those who desperately want to ride their bikes without giving up the cool indoors. Main problem - you won't get anywhere this way.

Go for a ride very early in the day. By early I mean like 5am to 7am. This way you can avoid the heat and enjoy your ride the best time of the day - the coolest and least humid. The problem with this approach is obvious - it will work for recreational rides but don't expect to run many errands at 5am.

Don't ride with a helmet on. I can't emphasize this one more. I still see cyclists on a quiet bike greenway, such as our Minuteman Bikeway riding with helmets on. Seriously, in a weather like this the risk you damage your head by falling off your bike is significantly lower than getting a heat stroke. Helmets are good for competitive sports but shouldn't be needed in a well-designed city. Sorry, I value my brain too much to let it cook under a helmet.

Buy a "pissing helmet". If you are one of those believers who think that bike and helmet is the same as sushi and soy sauce - they should always go together, consider this crazy invention. It looks as weird as it works and I am not going to try it, but if you don't mind your helmet to pee on your head then who knows - maybe it will keep you cool?

 
Build an AC for your bike. If everything else fails, try equipping your bike with your own "AC unit". All you need is one of those handlebars-mounted baskets. Next, fill it with ice to the top and go for a ride. Melting and vaporizing ice will create a very cool fog in front of you that will be next blown over your face and body as you ride through it. This way you can ride your bike and have air conditioning at the same time (patent pending!).
 
For those who have generator hubs on their bikes, try to connect a small desktop fan to your hub and install it on your handlebars. This will enhance the cooling effect dramatically. Main problem here - riding your carbon road bike with a huge basket full of ice is not exactly aero.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

MIT Haystack and Nashua River Rail Trail

This year's 4th of July came on Saturday but fortunately my company gave me Friday off so it still counts as a long holiday weekend. Having a full day available I decided to take a longer ride and explore new areas by bike.

I started in Arlington at 6:20AM and used the Minuteman Bikeway to reach Bedford, then crossed Concord River an approached Carlisle. It was supposed to be a very warm and sunny day but early morning air was still crisp and fresh.

Concord River

I continued on North Rd in Carlisle (One of the best places for road biking in this area - very low traffic, decent paving and places to see on the way.), then crossed Bruce Freeman Rail Trail and eventually reached Graniteville.
Railway crossing in Graniteville

From there, it was only a short ride to MIT Haystack Observatory in Westford. What was originally built for the army is now a MIT center for atmospheric research and planetary sciences.
Millstone Rd in Westford, MA - enter here.

Haystack Telescope is on the top of a hill so some climbing is required. The first thing you will notice is a large white ball of the Westford Radio Telescope. At this point you need to cross the gate that wasn't opened yesterday (Maybe MIT had a day off as well?) so I decided to... ignore it and continue up the hill (Sorry).
Westford Radio Telescope

Further up the hill I approached large antenna structures that turned out to be the Zenith Antenna (the one lying flat on the ground) for UHF transmissions, while the vertical one is the MISA Antenna.
Zenith (in foreground) and MISA antennas

MISA Antenna

Eventually, reaching top of the hill I could see the Haystack Radio Telescope (or rather its dome). I spent about half an hour on the top of the hill, taking a break from riding. It turned out that it took me 2 hours to reach Haystack, which was better than I expected.
Haystack Radio Telescope

Millstone Rd is the only way down the hill from Haystack but because I wanted to connect with Keyes Rd to the east, I decided to take one of the forest trails down. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a bad idea. The trails are heavily overgrown in places and are rideable only on a mountain bike or fatbike. Walking my bike, half an hour and multiple mosquito bites later I finally reached the bottom of the hill... at Millstone Hill Rd.
  
Trails around Haystack Telescope hill - don't approach without a good mountain bike. And a mosquito net.

So the shortcut didn't work but then I could keep moving faster and passing by the Upper Massapoag Pond (beautiful place, by the way) I reached Dunstable. I continued further north to cross the state border and arrived at the entrance to the Nashua River Rail Trail at Gilson Rd. This was a bit symbolic for me because for the first time I finally had a chance to ride my bike from my home to another state (and back).
  
Nashua River Rail Trail (NRRT) is very similar to the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail I visited earlier or our Minuteman Trail in Arlington and Lexington. It is narrower but a bit longer than the Minuteman - 12.5mi vs. 10mi.
At that point it was already almost noon and trail was full of joggers, dog walkers and other cyclists but despite that I could keep a steady pace. I took another long break at Groton to stop for lunch. Main Street Cafe offers good food but has no bicycle parking of any kind (not even a lamp post or a road sign), which is surprising given proximity of NRRT.
From there it was a straight shot to Ayer where NRRT ends. I've never been to Ayer before and center of this town surprised me - lots of nice, historic buildings.
Main St in Ayer, MA

It was time to head back home. Sun was at its peak and it was getting very hot. I was glad I put some sunblock on, otherwise I wouldn't look too good the following day. I kept moving through Littleton, Acton, Concord to arrive back in Lexington at the Minuteman Trail. The whole ride took me about 7hrs and 40min total and turned out to be 136km (85mi) long.
Barretts Mill Farm in Concord

By the way, I'm riding now on new tires - Stampede Pass Extralight (32mm wide) from Compass Cycles. From what I read about these, they are a holy grail of all road tires - very light, wide and supple. They feel great at 40-45psi (which is very low for this type of tire). It's kind of like riding on a bit harder tubes only because these tires are very thin. Which leaves an open question about their durability. Fortunately, they have worked very well so far.
That's it. Happy 4th of July everyone. Time for a beer!

Friday, June 26, 2015

Thirteen speeds please!

Long, long time ago pretty much all road bicycles had 10 speeds - 2 chainrings and 5-sprocket freewheels. Over time, bicycle drivetrains developed into 2x6, 2x7,... and today's newest 2x11 systems. That's what you would see now on a typical, new road bicycle.
When mountain bikes became more popular, they needed more gearing range and a standard 2x5 or 2x6 system couldn't provide that. The solution was to add extra chainring so soon 3x6, 3x7 and 3x8 setups became a norm. But when cassettes got more and more sprockets and a wider range (such as 11-36T), it turned out that a 3x9 setup is usually not needed so the extra chainring was abandoned. This is why today's mountain bike feature 2x9 and 2x10 drives and a 3x? (three-by) setup is now a rare sighting.
The situation got more interesting with the arrival of 11 speed cassettes in the mountain biking world. The extra sprocket allowed for even wider range setups and when SRAM came up with a 1x11 system, with a single chainring and a 10-42T cassette, it became obvious that front derailleurs may soon be extinct.
A typical 2x9 MTB setup compared to SRAM's XX1 1x11 - same range but no front derailleur, simpler shifting and a lighter crankset (Simulated using 27.5" wheels with 2.35" tires. Source: gear-calculator.com)
 
But what's good for mountain bikers, is not necessarily good for roadies. Mountain bikes need wide gearing range and clearly 10-42T cassette can provide that. But it's not very useful on a road bike because jumps between the gears are just too wide. Not yet - but in several years when 12 and then 13 speed cassettes show up, such drivetrain is definitely possible on a road bike, providing wide range and tightly spaced gears.
Today's 2x11 road setup compared to a hypothetical 1x13 - similar range with tightly spaced gears in the higher cassette range. (Simulated using 700C wheels with 23mm tires. Source: gear-calculator.com)
 
Both 1x11 and 1x12 drivetrains have many benefits - they can be lighter, requiring less maintenance, easier and faster to use. But there are issues as well. The main one is the tight space available on the rear hub. Adding more sprockets to the rear wheel means that the spokes from the drive side must be aligned nearly vertically and asymmetrically loaded. In order to solve this problem, future rear road hubs may simply become wider, for example, adopting the 135mm MTB, or wider, standard. Such transition happened in the past already - old 5-speed road wheels used to have 120mm rear hubs until the newer 126mm and eventually 130mm standards were developed.
My prediction is that in the nearest future we will see more of:
  • 12 speed cassettes combined with a single chainring
  • lack of front derailleurs on many new bicycles
  • wider standard for road bicycle rear hubs (and possibly MTB as well)
  • more options for wide-range 11 and 12 speed cassettes (plus lower price)
The setup I would like to see for my future road/touring bike - wide range 13-speed 10-40T cassette with a single 38T chainring. (Simulated using 700C wheels with 32mm tires. Source: gear-calculator.com)

The future begins today. SRAM has already showed what the next road setup may look like with their newest 1x11 system. But at this point it's not a particularly interesting offering for those who would want to replace their 2x10 setups - it doesn't have enough range, using 11-speed only cassette.
 
We need more gears on the rear hub and I'm pretty sure we will have them (At least on road bikes. MTBs may get other solutions such as the Pinion gearbox instead). Anyway, the future looks exciting. 

Friday, June 19, 2015

Unfinished business

I mentioned a few weeks ago that town of Bedford, MA planed on adding multiple bike lanes in its area. Earlier this week I was really happy to notice that this process has already begun. Newly renovated section of Route 62 received bike lanes on both sides. Placing bike lanes on this busy road is definitely a good idea. Unfortunately, its execution doesn't look exciting at all.
Route 62 is wide enough in places to allow for wide bike lanes on both sides. But then, there are sections where the bike lane would have to be so narrow that you couldn't possibly fit a bike on it. Obviously, we would expect the traffic lanes to be adjusted or the road widened to make space for regular-width bike lanes. But it didn't happen. Instead, what we are getting is a very fragmented network of lanes, in short sections only.
No bike lane here since the shoulder is too narrow and can't be converted into a proper bike lane easily.
 
But the road gets wider several hundred feet later and we get a "protected" bike lane here.
 
Unfortunately, it continues for only 300ft until the road gets narrower again and we lose the "protected" lane. New lane markings are not complete yet but you can see where the shoulder will be, marked by this preliminary line.
 
The construction is not over yet so I still hope that the remaining part of the road is going to be rebuilt to maintain continuity of the bicycle lane network. Otherwise, I wonder what is the point in painting these bike lanes? If the town is not intending to do this right, then instead of pretending that these short fragments are real bike lanes, it would be better to just leave them unmarked, as road shoulders only. Cyclists could still use them as bike lanes if they wanted to and the town could save some money on paint and labor. But then they couldn't tell everyone how vast network of bicycle lanes they have in their area, I suppose.
In the opposite direction, there is no bike lane despite plenty of space on this side of the intersection.
 
But then, the lane shows up on the other side of the intersection...
 
...only to disappear at the next one.
 
This is what I find particularly annoying about modern infrastructure in many American cities. There is no vision. New bike lanes look like an afterthought, like unfinished business. Almost like city planners didn't really want them, but were required to add a number of new bike lane miles a year. So they did. In few hundred-feet-long fragments, not connected with each other at all. When a new road is built, no one suggests that only short sections of it should be paved, with others left undeveloped, so why is this approach acceptable with bike infrastructure?