Thursday, June 28, 2018

"I am just going outside and may be some time"

The last and only time Oates said those words he didn't return. Don't worry - I'm coming back. I'm just taking a short break for family vacation. More updates soon.

Meanwhile, please make sure you're having fun on your bike.

Friday, June 22, 2018

School's out for summer

I've been busy at work during the last few weeks and I didn't even realize that school year is about to end. This is good. This means that my quiet residential street will remain quiet even around 8am, which is when hordes of drivers rush to work after dropping their kids off at nearby school.
In July, not only my street is quieter in the morning but also much safer. We have no sidewalks in our neighborhood (since sidewalks are so non-American), so we walk to school in the street, risking to be flattened by an inattentive driver. I mentioned here earlier that I would gladly see a state-wide rule that no private cars can enter a perimeter of 500ft radius around school, which means kids would actually have to walk to get there, but that's wishful thinking. It will never happen.

I would think that replacing private cars with school buses could solve the problem, but if bus drivers are like this one from New Jersey, I'm much less enthusiastic about the idea. The 77-year-old driver (who shouldn't be even driving in his age, especially not children), had 14 (!) license suspensions and multiple speeding tickets, which was discovered only after he crashed with a truck on NJ highway, killing a student and a teacher in the process. This brings so many questions out of which the most important one is - how come we allow anyone to have 14 license suspensions and still drive a car, not to mention a frigging school bus?!
NJ highway school bus crash. I'm surprised there were only two fatalities. (Source: News 4 NY)

The answer is simple - we designed the entire transportation system in this country around cars, basically shooting everyone who's unable to drive (elderly, kids, etc.) in the foot. As such, anyone who can't or shouldn't drive, would be unable to get to work and provide to his family, which normalizes driving with suspended license as a relatively "minor" violation.

It turns out that it might actually be easier to lose your license not by driving like a maniac, but by simply not paying traffic tickets.

The only way to turn this around is to provide an efficient alternative to driving, predominantly in form of public transport - both short (street cars, buses) and long-distance (commuter rail, high-speed trains). Examples from other countries shows that it's still the best solution. Unfortunately, many Americans can't grasp this concept because they never had a chance to experience it. People who take MBTA trains every morning here in Boston think probably that inefficiency is inherent to public transportation and major delays must be  naturally occurring everywhere in the world.
S-Bahn (commuter rail) connects suburbs with Berlin Mitte (center).

But it doesn't need to be that way. For me, spending two years in Berlin was eye-opening - bus schedules at every stop, electronic displays showing time to next train at every station, dense network of connections from, to and within the city. Then, there were also bicycles, serving short distances well. All that meant I never really needed a car living there and that's because Germans know that there are better ways of getting around town than by car. 

Coming to Boston was quite a shock...

But some of you may say - why invest in expensive public transport that's so XX-century, when soon a XXI-century solution will arrive - the driverless cars! Unfortunately, I have bad news for you. Autonomous vehicles won't be here for quite a while and until then, XX-century public transport combined with XIX-century two-wheeled invention are still our best options.
Still the best way to move around city...

Monday, June 11, 2018

Bicycles for the unpaved - the "third way"?

Warning: This post contains a large amount of technical information, which means it can be digested only by real bike tech nerds.

I remember my teenage years in mid 90's when world of bicycles was very black and white. On one side we had mountain bikes with their slacker (at that time) head tube angles of 67-71 deg and on the other - road bikes with head tube angles of 73-74 deg and a classic "square" road bike geometry.

But with the arrival of gravel and adventure bikes and many more wheel and tire options, this bipolar world got a lot more complicated. Now it seems that should we be interested in riding on unpaved roads, the bicycle industry offers mainly two types of drop bar bicycles.

One is a gravel bike that is essentially a modification of a road or cyclocross bicycle with 71-72 deg head tube angle and more clearance for fatter tires. These very sporty bikes are typically chosen by folks interested in racing in events such as Trans Iowa or Dirty Kanza.

The other type comes from the old 50's French school of cycling and is embraced more by the adventurous people who are interested in randonneuring and touring. They firmly believe that a steep head tube angle of 73 deg combined with lots of fork rake, which results in low-trail geometry is superior to anything else.

But all this made me wonder - is there a third way? Can a bicycle be designed differently than either an agile gravel rig or a low-trail two-wheeler and still remain comfortable and stable over rough terrain?
This third way approach has been embraced by many small American custom frame builders. One of them, 44 Bikes, ran by Kris Henry, is located nearby in New Hampshire. Since my new bike came directly from his shop, I will use it as an example to describe what this third design option is.

If modern gravel bikes are still racing road bikes and modern low-trail bikes are in fact retro road bikes, my 44 Huntsman is somewhat a "mountain road bike". It borrows heavily from MTB world when it's required. This bike has a very slack head tube angle (By road bike standards!) of 70 deg, which combined with 45mm fork rake results in a high trail geometry and puts it almost in MTB category. Similarly, stem remains short at 80mm to keep steering more responsive. To compensate, top tube is slightly lengthened, in order to maintain proper distance between handlebars and saddle.

The rear triangle is perhaps more traditional, but still MTB-like with lower seat tube for increased standover and short-ish chainstays of 435mm. These allow for quicker turning without the long, "waggy" tail feeling but still provide ample clearance for 2.25" tires.

So is it maybe a mountain bike dressed up as a road bike? Well, not exactly. It's a pretty clever mix of both. Borrowing from it's road bike heritage, Huntsman has a larger bottom bracket drop of 70mm, meaning more stability and lower center of gravity. Also, bottom bracket shell is 68mm wide - another road standard.

This thing rolls on 650B (or 27.5") wheels and 2.20" tires. It's a good compromise between wheel diameter, weight and required space in frame and fork for fatter tires. As an added benefit, the wheel diameter is exactly the same as 700C wheels with 35-38mm tires, which means that theoretically I could swap my current wheels with more road-like ones in a few seconds, should I plan to ride on pavement only.

In terms of comfort and handling I have no complains. Thanks to lots of trail and wide tires it feels very stable over rough terrain. Because it handles a bit like a mountain bike, my Huntsman needs more steering input to guide front wheel. That's a good thing. The last thing you want on rough downhill at high speed is a floppy front wheel. This is also where the 46cm wide Salsa Cowchipper bars come handy.
As you can probably tell by now, the whole thing was designed more for comfort than speed. This is why the head tube is tall enough to place handlebars higher than on a regular road or cyclocross bike. With frame stack of 605mm I can keep my back a bit more upright and don't have to look at the front wheel all the time. And thanks to the slack head tube angle I can avoid annoying toe overlap even with very wide tires (and fenders) - something that many cyclocross and gravel bikes may struggle with.

There are also some minor details I'd like to mention, since many of them are non-standard in mass-produced bikes. The frame has provisions for 3 bottle cages but I requested the one on seat tube to be placed as low as possible. This is to make as much space under the top tube as possible, should I use a half frame bag at some point in the future.

There are full fender mounts on frame and fork but the one on seat stays has the screw hole aligned towards the wheel axle. Similarly, there is a hidden threaded hole under the fork crown. All this means that fenders can be bolted directly to the frame and fork without using any L-shaped brackets.

The fork comes with "everything but the kitchen sink" as Kris called it once. There are fender mounts, rack mounts, internal and external dynamo wiring guides.
I won't get into details about my component choices here, but one thing worth mentioning is the drivetrain. I debated whether I should build it as 1x11 speed, but ultimately decided to go 2x11 simply because it was cheaper (I could reuse a lot of parts from my old bike). As such, I'm running a wild mix of components: Shimano 105 (5800-series) shifters and rear derailleur, SRAM 11-32T cassette, Sugino OX601D crankset with 42/26T chainrings and Shimano Metrea front derailleur. You may scratch your head asking - "why?", but it's actually quite simple:
  • I wanted to use Shimano STI shifters, not SRAM.
  • I wanted to use 2x11 system with low gears that would work well with those shifters.
  • Sugino crankset lets me run chainring combo I find most useful: 44/28T, 42/26T or anything similar.
  • Metrea is the only front derailleur that works with 11-speed Shimano shifters and is designed for smaller size chainrings (that is, much smaller than 50T - the road "Compact").
It was fun putting it all together, although, certainly the most challenging part was... avoiding black color. Maybe that sounded a bit weird, but I simply had this particular color scheme on mind - rusted-looking frame and fork with most components in polished silver. The problem is - many modern components come only in black or dark grey. Those classic, high-polished parts are now quite rare and while I could find brakes, seatpost or stem in this finish, handlebars, cranks or derailleurs were pretty difficult to get. This is the reason why I had the handlebars powder-coated to match frame (Cowchipper bars are only available in black) and I ended up customizing many components by hand-polishing them: crank arms, brake adapters, derailleur cage and light mount - all of which weren't available in the finish I wanted.
Finally, to be completely honest, this bike is not without flaws. Well, maybe not flaws, but some minor drawbacks. First of all, it's noisy on pavement, which is clearly due to MTB tread pattern on Maxxis tires. And speaking about tires, I noticed that they pick up all dirt from road with ease and my bike ends up being sprayed with mud every time I ride (fenders, anyone?).

It's also not exactly lightweight. It carries lots of extras that many "regular" bikes lack - rack, basket, dynamo hub, lights, etc. With all that added junk my Huntsman reaches 12.7kg (28lbs) but if you want to compare it with other, similar bikes you would need to remove all these parts. Then you get a more manageable 11.6kg (25.5lbs), which is about the same as Salsa Fargo or Journeyman. These "issues" don't bother me much since it was never my intention to make this bike a fast, racing machine.

Unfortunately, if you want a bicycle designed and built this way, you would need to go custom and rely on small frame builders (Such as 44 Bikes from NH, Matter Cycles from CO or Sklar Bikes from MT). So far, none of the large bike manufacturers has embraced this design concept. Maybe they will. Soon?

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

My own D2R2 - climbing, more climbing and... swimming

It's the gravel race season! Trans Iowa is already over. Dirty Kanza starts this Saturday. But if you're looking for something more local, you will have to wait until August for Deerfield Dirt Road Randonnee, better known as D2R2 that happens around Deerfield, MA.
After riding the course of Kearsarge Classic two years ago, I said that "D2R2 will be next". The only problem is that I don't race and I really didn't want to wait until August. Which is why I decided to ride the course of 2017 D2R2 100k event on this year's Memorial Day.

It all started early at 5:30AM when I left my house and drove for almost 2hrs to eventually reach Greenfield, MA. It was raining, so I expected all roads to be wet most of the day, but at least it wasn't supposed to rain later on (and it didn't). Since the sun didn't break through clouds until late afternoon it was warm but cloudy - a perfect day for bike riding. If only it wasn't so humid...

The first problem I encountered right in the downtown Greenfield was where to park for the day. Most parking lots have a 4-hour limit and the same applies to on-street parking meters. Fortunately, I was there on Memorial Day and since all meters are free on holidays and Sundays, my problem was solved.

The first miles were a bit boring and fun didn't start until I reached Green River Rd around mile 7 (11km mark). The next 8 miles (13km) passed quickly since I was rolling on a wide, unpaved "highway". The Green River Rd runs along Green River under a full canopy of trees and is certainly a very nice place for a bike ride. I imagine it must look even better in the peak of fall foliage season. But at the same time, it's flat. It so easy that even your aunt could do it. On a Hubway bike. Wearing flip-flops.
These were just the first miles and I still hoped that the rest of the course would be a bit more... adventurous. Soon, road conditions changed and once I got to the Vermont border I entered a forest road (Abijah Prince Rd) that quickly turned into a rough doubletrack.
Finally, I reached the famous Green River Covered Bridge to continue further into Vermont.
Next I climbed Deer Park Rd, making my way up slowly its 11% grade. There was very little car traffic on the road and maybe that's why a large, black bear decided it was a good moment to cross the road about 70ft (20m) in front of me. Hoping that he's not going to hang out at the edge of the road and wait for me, I proceeded slowly,... singing. I guess here is where all those ultra-noisy rear hubs come handy. You simply notify all wild animals that you're coming!
It was close to 11am but still very foggy and humid. Fortunately, the next part was a steep downhill along Jacksonville Stage Rd so I could cool off a bit.
That rest was much needed, as the next part was a mad climb on 18% grade Pennel Hill Rd. I was happy I built my bike with a super low gearing of 26T/32T. Soon, I was back in Massachusetts and since after every tough climb comes a rewarding downhill, I think I broke a sound barrier on Ed Clark Rd.
So far my route followed D2R2 2017 100k and 115k routes pretty much exactly, but once I got to Adamsville I made some changes. First, I wanted to visit Shelburne Falls on my way, which was omitted along the original D2R2 route. I also felt like D2R2 ran on too many paved roads for my taste, so I wanted to include more offroad riding.

For that purpose, I decided to go across Catamount State Forest, which seemed like a great unpaved shortcut to Shelburne Falls... and what turned out to be a catastrophic mistake.
The beginning of the trail was rocky and slippery from all the wet leaves but it actually turned out to be ride-able later on. I was slowly moving forward and thought that I was going to make it to Shelburne Falls pretty soon.
But then I found out that my trail was flooded. It looked too deep to ride through it so I had to do a fair amount of bushwalking (like literally walking through bushes) but I made it across with dry feet.

Then it only got worse. A bit further down the road, trail was flooded again and resembled a small lake. I didn't see any way to get around it so I had to take my shoes off and try to walk through it.
That didn't go well. Water was so deep that not wanting to end up waist-down in it, I had to bail out. I found a narrow ledge along this "lake" that I could use to get to the other side.

Unfortunately, that wasn't the end of it. The last flooded section didn't look that deep so I decided to ride through it. Big mistake. I got stuck in the huge puddle of mud and spent the next half an hour trying to empty mud out of my shoes and clean up at least a little. I guess that was the adventure I asked for.
All this means that if you get an idea to ride your bike there - just slap yourself in the face and find something better to do. Seriously.

The good thing was that the rest of this road was just smooth sailing, if you can describe a very rocky mountain-bike-only trail this way.
I got to Shelburne Falls hungry and wet so I stopped at Hearty Eats (highly recommended!) for lunch. It must've been the food that kept me going since the next miles all the way to Deerfield passed pretty quickly. I know that I cheated a little bit skipping climbing on Patten Rd, which is a part of the original D2R2 course (I chose to visit Shelburne Falls instead) but honestly, traversing Catamount State Forest was much more challenging than that.

In Deerfield, the sun was out, sky turned blue and I quickly realized how lucky I was not having to ride the full 100km in scorching sun. I'll take a cloudy day anytime!

I didn't stop in Deerfield but the historical center looks interesting and cute. Probably worth another, separate visit.
Overall, I found D2R2 route a bit challenging but not due its technical difficulty (there is none), but its length and amount of climbing. I would probably design the route differently, but then you would likely need to wear fishing waders on your bike.

Best D2R2 100km time: about 3hrs 30min.
My time: 8hrs (6hrs riding, 1.5hrs "swimming", 30min lunch).

Friday, May 18, 2018

It's the Bike To Work Month so I took a day off to bike

Today is the Bike To Work Day in the middle of Bike To Work Month. Sometimes I wonder why May is supposed to be the month when we should all bike to work? It must be about weather (which isn't that great in May anyway), because it can't be about the great bicycling infrastructure that suddenly appears overnight on May 1st and disappears on May 31st. If anything, the little infrastructure we get quickly disappears under wheels of parked cars. Bike lanes are the new free parking spots - didn't you get the memo?

Anyway, we had a company safety meeting recently and in one of the examples our director asked who biked to work that day. There was only one hand up in the air (yes, mine) but I can't blame my 70+ colleagues for not using their bicycles to get to work, even though I know many of them live nearby. There is simply nearly no bike-friendly infrastructure in this suburban Boston town, but instead we have multi-lane high-speed arteries with no sidewalks on either side. These mini-highways send a clear message - "You better drive buddy or stay home. Walking or cycling is not allowed here".
Buses are allowed if you are lucky to find any, as many suburban American towns lack decent bus routes. Speaking of which, I missed the Town Hall meeting last Wednesday in my town, Arlington, where a new pilot program for rapid bus transit was discussed in detail. Apparently, there is a chance for designating a bus-only lane on Mass Ave during rush hours, which is something I wrote about in the past, so this makes me very happy. Unfortunately, it's only a pilot program and it will run for just 1 month (in October) and only in the morning rush hours. I'm hoping it will become permanent. Otherwise, what's the incentive of using a bus if it gets stuck in traffic more than private cars?

But now back to my main point. Last Friday I decided it's time for a day off. Yes, it's the Bike To Work Month but doesn't Bike Instead Of Work sound much better?

This time I decided to explore Cheshire Rail Trail running between Winchendon, MA and Keene, NH. I had a bit late start at 10AM, but fortunately trail surface is pretty decent and smooth enough that I reached Keene by 1PM.
Cheshire Rail Trail is 100% unpaved until it reaches Keene town line.

I didn't stop at Keene for lunch, simply because I wasn't hungry and decided to continue along the route. At this point I had two options:
  1. take Ashuelot Rail Trail south to Winchester, NH and then back to Winchendon or
  2. take the more adventurous route through Pisgah State Park.
Since after riding flat rail trail I felt like being more adventurous, I opted for the State Park trail. It was obviously much more hilly than the flat Ashuelot Rail Trail, more wet and more muddy - to the point that I ended up sliding down on mud on Beal's Rd Trail and landing on my butt in the wet pile of leaves.
At the Fullam Pond in Pisgah State Park.

On top of that, there are several flooded sections further down the road and I carefully weighed my options on what to do in such situations. The first time I managed to carry my bike through by hopping from rock to rock. The second time I had to take shoes off since there were no rocks and water was way too deep to ride through it. The third time I figured I could probably ride through, but I ended up with completely soaked shoes and socks. The fourth stream crossing... it didn't matter anymore. My shoes were wet at that point, which means I should've have soaked them much earlier and not worry about it. (Note to myself - next time ride in sandals.)
But the flooded trail was actually sort of fun. At least I could keep my feet cool and refreshed. Much worse were those muddy places like Purcell Rd or Bullock Rd (see the map). It was impossible to ride there and I had to walk my bike sliding on muddy "roads" made by and for 4x4 ATVs.
Purcell "Road" - used only by 4x4 ATVs. No normal vehicle would be able to ride there, I think.

Reaching Ashuelot gave me a much-needed rest. Next, I took the short section of Ashuelot Rail Trail to reach Winchester, NH.
They don't really like Norman here...

From Winchester, I planned to stay off-road as much as possible and take "scenic roads" towards Winchendon, but somewhere around Richmond, NH I had enough. It was getting late, I was getting hungry and I had enough of mud for the day. I decided to bail out, stick to paved Rt 119 and get back to the Cheshire Rail Trail.

After nearly 9hrs of riding I was back at my car. I guess it was the adventure I asked for.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Bike commute through four seasons

I've been commuting to work by bicycle for years and I'm still enjoying it as much as the time when I started. There are certainly many benefits of commuting by bike, but one of my favorite is simply the fact of being outside.

When you drive to work or take subway, you end up missing on many things you can notice from behind the handlebars. How about wild animals on the bike path? A flock of wild turkeys blocking your way, a turtle warming up in the morning sun, a startled deer in the middle of the night? I've seen all of that.

And then, there are the changing seasons.

Probably my favorite time in the year is sometime in September when you can literally smell the seasons change. Mornings become cool, they lack that summer heat already. Air is very crisp, fresh. That's when you know that the best season in New England is coming.
Or how about the time when you ride to work in winter, the day after a snowfall when all trees are covered with fresh snow and frost? The world gets a new, different, better look.
Then comes spring and the first days when you can ride without a jacket. And you see nature waking up after long winter months. Flowers are everywhere and nearly every day brings more and more green leaves on trees.
And then finally comes summer, when days are longer and you can ride more and late. Taking a "longer way home" as I usually call it, is the best part of this season. Who says your work commute needs to be the same everyday? If you want take a long detour, you should certainly do that.
So what about you? What's your favorite part of your commute?

Friday, May 4, 2018

I went for a ride in the forest because it's free of cars

Have you heard it already? Cars are ruining our cities! No, seriously. Designing transportation network around privately owned vehicles that require expensive infrastructure and lots of valuable space, didn't work well in any large city anywhere in the world. Yet for some reason, we would rather follow this paradigm blindly, than realize it's time for a change. I guess old habits die hard.

Most Americans drive, basically because they have to. There are few alternatives. Public transport is lacking and bicycles (being a very decent short-range alternative to cars) are treated with hostility. From cyclist's point of view, "sharing a road" usually means dealing with driver's road rage when he's trying to force you off "his" road.

This likely explains growing popularity of riding, ehm... "gravel" bicycles in places where cars just don't go. The more remote area with worse quality road surface the better. Only then you can be sure you won't meet crazy drivers feeling entitled to own "their" road.

Unfortunately, there aren't many of such places here in eastern Massachusetts. Continuing my search for the unpaved, last Wednesday afternoon, in order to stay away from car traffic I decided to explore Townsend State Forest at the border with New Hampshire.

Big mistake.

I mean, the place is awesome but my big mistake was to go there last Wednesday. It was over 83F (28C) and very sunny, which I would refer to as "officially too hot to ride".
It all started well, even though sun was scorching my head. I entered Mason Rail Trail in the deeper forest hoping to find some shade between trees. Silly me - there is no shade in the forest in early May because spring came late this year and trees simply have no leaves yet!
I continued along the trail to its end and then took Kimball Hill Rd, which was unpaved, muddy, steep and... closed to thru traffic. Fortunately, the maintenance crew let me pass - yet another advantage of being on a bike. Next, I had to climb 8% grade on Isaac Frye Highway to Wilton Center (which doesn't look like center at all). That climb perhaps wouldn't be so bad if not for the burning sun.
Finally, after using a short, unpaved (and very rough) Garwin Falls Trail I reached Wilton and then continued south to find a very inconspicuous entrance to a network of trails just off the Mitchell Hill Rd. This is where all the fun starts. The trail takes you downhill over some rocky terrain until you reach Mitchell Brook, which often floods the area.
The trail will eventually lead you to a small, grassy parking lot (marked Mile Slip Town Forest Parking on the map). I rode further south Mile Slip Rd until it didn't resemble a road anymore. In fact, this forest "road" looked much more like a dried out riverbed - lined with rocks of all sizes. Add a very steep decline to this mix and you end up with conditions that would easily qualify for UCI World MTB Downhill Championship. The good thing is - despite having no suspension on my bike, thanks to its 2.2" wide tires I could actually ride the full length of this trail. I visited this place last year on my old bike with 35mm wide tires and that time riding here was pretty much impossible.
The fun was not over though. I still had another long stretch of fire roads, gravel roads, forest trails and rocky paths to explore before I reached my car parked in Townsend. I have to say the whole area is great for someone looking for some really wild places to ride a mountain bike - especially the section from Mitchell Hill Rd all the way south to Dudley Rd. Technically, it's all forest riding but trail conditions change so frequently that I wouldn't call it boring at all.

If only it wasn't that hot..., which made me think - I have good lights on my bike. Maybe I should try to ride at night?