Tuesday, August 23, 2016

A loop around Groton and revisit to Haystack

The weather seems to be a bit more bearable recently. Quite pleasant, actually. Too bad we had to wait the whole summer until its end to enjoy it, but at least we weren't flooded (Louisiana) or burnt (California). Just experienced extreme drought, heat and humidity.

Anyway, last weekend I decided to explore area around Groton, MA a bit more and revisit some old places, such as the MIT Haystack Observatory.

A convenient place to start is the Great Brook Farm State Park in Carlisle, which is a place on its own worth visiting, but that's another story. From there, I made my way towards Westford, eventually reaching Haystack. Once again, I ignored the main gate and climbed uphill to the Death Star Superlaser installation, I mean... the Millstone Hill Radar.
From there, it's just a short ride to the main Haystack Radio Telescope and Observatory. Unlike my last visit to this place, this time it was actually quite enjoyable - cooler and cloudy, despite very humid morning.
Except seeing the giant inflatable golf ball, there isn't much you could do up there and I promptly rolled back downhill to find the hidden and gated access to Hoyt St. From there, I decided to loop around Groton a bit and take Dan Parker Rd through the forested area (Harrison Ripley Forest) north of town. Now, Dan Parker Rd is not a road actually. More like a hidden forest trail that sometimes looks like a fire road that you can ride somewhat comfortably on a bit wider road tires,
and in some places looking like a pretty rough MTB trail that will make you wish you were on your mountain bike.
There is pretty much a bit of everything on Dan Parker Rd - smooth hardpack, grassy spots, sharp and rocky sections and sandy patches.

The road ends at a clear cut in the forest just under the high voltage power lines. From there I turned south towards the center of Groton. Should you get hungry for lunch, stop at Salt & Light Cafe Bistro on Main Street.

I followed Rt 225 back to Carlisle and unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be any better, alternative way of reaching Great Brook Farm State Park from Groton. I wish I could stick to some local dirt roads instead one of the main routes in the area, but they are sadly non-existent. It also seems like the best way to cross I-495. Once in Carlisle, I followed Curve St, passing by the Cranberry Bog, eventually getting back to my car.
It's a quick 60km (37mi) ride that would take you over local roads mostly, avoiding most of car traffic. The rougher gravel sections are best accessible on wider tires. Thinking more about it, something like my Clement X'Plor USH 35mm tires seems perfect for this kind of riding. They are plenty fast on pavement and roll very nicely off-road. If you can fit anything this wide on your road bike, I recommend giving it a try. It opens new possibilities and many new roads for you.

Friday, August 19, 2016

"Cyclists are the worst thing to happen to Boston streets"

Apparently, this discussion is far from being over and it's time to beat the dead horse again (a zombie horse?).

How many times have you heard the "brilliant" ideas that all bicyclists should be registered, licensed, pay "road tax" and obviously - wear a helmet?

I'm getting tired of explaining it yet again and countless pages have been written in rebuttal of such nonsense. Unfortunately, it has resurfaced. First, in a form of editorial by Joel Engardio for San Francisco Examiner. Joel wrote that all cyclists should be registered and have mandatory insurance. This would be their way to "put skin in game" and pay for the use of roads. I was going to write something smart to counter this fallacy but then I found out that Carlton Reid has already done it. And he did it well.
In defense of Joel, he later wrote his response to all the backlash he faced and it seems that he understood at least a little bit what was wrong about his original idea.

Now that we have visited West Coast, let's get back home to Boston. Things got really heated here this week. Drivers killed cyclists in Lincoln and Waltham, three pedestrians were struck in Dorchester, a driver crashed into a teenager in South Boston, an 8-year old girl was struck by car (and killed) in Mattapan, then 3 pedestrians were injured by a driver in the busy Downtown Crossing (The driver tried to flee the scene):
Do you see what's going on here? Do you see who's in fault?

It's obviously cyclists:
If only they were wearing helmets and riding in bike lanes! Unfortunately, they love to "practice anarchy". At least that's what Jaclyn Cashman thinks. She seems to believe that mandatory helmets and strict laws for cyclists would solve many problems with road collisions in Boston, despite statistics showing that it's the drivers who kill people, not bicyclists.

According to Cashman, the problem we face is that cyclists don't want to be "forced to wear helmets or observe traffic laws" and that's why we "should change the laws for bikers — require them to stay in the bike lanes, 
observe red lights, wear helmets". Yet she fails to notice that cyclists are required to obey traffic laws - just like anyone else using the street. Regarding the bike lanes - sorry Jaclyn, but if a bike lane is just a strip of paint squeezed in between the parked cars on the right and speeding trucks on the left, I would rather take the full traffic lane than being either doored by a parked car or clipped by a semi.

Cashman is a journalist and a radio host for Boston Herald. Engardio is a candidate for San Francisco Board of Supervisors. You would think that such people should be well-informed about things they want to talk about. Sadly, it's not the case.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Apidura handlebar bags - mini review

Disclaimer - Because we currently "enjoy" 4 days of  95F (35C) weather with 80% humidity all pictures are taken in my basement because there is no bloody way I'm going outside.

Some time ago I've been searching for a perfect handlebar bag for those little longer rides when you need to take more stuff with you than usual. I'm not a fan of those boxy rando bags such as Ortlieb Ultimate or Berthoud. They excel in ease of packing and accessing your items but they are also heavy and bulky.

For this reason, I was looking more into the bikepacking world of bags and decided to give Apidura a try. I ordered their Handlebar Pack in compact (smaller) size together with the Accessory Pocket and had a chance to try this combo for the first time during my Mount Kearsarge ride.
Both bags strapped to my bike. The Pocket wears now a "patch of shame" because of tire rub.

Both bags are made out of Dimension Polyant VX21 fabric (whatever it means) and seem to be very well constructed. I can't speak of their long-term durability yet but I wouldn't expect any problems there. Fortunately, tough fabrics don't have to be heavy as I weighed these bags at 223 and 125 grams for the Handlebar Pack and the Accessory Pocket respectively. That put together is certainly lighter than a bulky box bag (that often requires a mini rack for support as well) and still lets you pack quite a bit. In fact, I was positively surprised that I can easily fit my ultralight sleeping bag and a rain jacket inside the small Handlebar Pack with some space to spare. This means the bags should work pretty well for bike touring as well, but keep in mind that they are not 100% waterproof. For those requiring maximum protection from water, Apidura makes the same bags in "dry" option, using heavier but less permeable materials.
The mounting straps are pretty typical. Two to secure the Pack to bars and one across to strap it to the headtube. Pocket has very short straps and has to be clipped into the Pack.

The Pack & Pocket combo is clearly a unified system. There are many similar bags on market but unlike those (e.g. from Revelate Designs), the smaller Pocket can't be used as a standalone bag. It must be clipped into the Pack, as it doesn't have any other mounting provisions that would work on their own. That led to my initial confusion. I packed my bags, clipped them in together, then attached to the bars on my bike. As a result, the heavy-loaded pocket started sagging quickly and rubbing on the front tire. I tried readjusting it with no success at all.

This annoyed me so much that after the first few miles on unpaved roads around Mount Kearsarge I announced the bags to be unworkable and decided to not use the Pocket at all. I simply loaded everything into the Pack instead, including the Pocket bag.
This is how not to do it. Here the straps from Pocket run under the bars resulting in a heavy sag over the front wheel.
 Correct installation: Pocket is strapped to the Pack over the bars.

Just a moment later I had this eureka moment and nearly slapped myself in the forehead. "You bloody idiot" - I thought, "This is not how it's supposed be installed!". I realized that I should've put the larger Pack on the bars first, then clip the Pocket onto it, placing it OVER the bars. This way there is no chance the small bag would sag, even under heavy load. By binding the bags together before putting them on the bike I messed it up big time.

Glad to had this figured out I continued my ride and both bags performed flawlessly, even on some very rough roads.

Having said that, after a few rides I was missing one more thing. I like taking pictures, but I don't like using my phone for it. This means, I ride with a dedicated camera - currently, a Panasonic GX1 with 1-3 small lenses. This made me want a solution to keep my camera ready at all times, ideally in a small side pocket, where I can pull it out from and take pictures quickly. The Pocket bag sort of works for this purpose but every time I want to use the camera I need to unzip/zip the bag. This is why I decided to try the Apidura Food Pouch - a tiny bag that attaches to the handlebars and allows me to slide in the camera vertically, having it always ready to shoot. Because there are no zippers on the Pouch, just a draw string I can leave open, it works great as a quick access bag. In fact, I can even use the camera one-handed this way.
Food Pouch - or a camera pouch in my case. Instead of the bars, I decided to attach it to frame.

The Pouch is so small and lightweight (65g) that it almost disappears on the bike. The only complain I would have is that I would actually prefer it to be just an inch wider. This way my camera with a telephoto lens attached would fit as well.

Overall, I'm very happy with those bags. It's a nice system that seems well thought-out, designed and made.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Weston-Wayland Aqueduct Trail

It's must be roasting 90+ American degrees outside now and unfortunately, it seems that we will have to somehow survive this weather for the next 2 weeks. I'm glad I have showers available at my workplace, otherwise, I can't picture cycling to work and not getting sweaty. Even early in the morning it's already 75F (24C). They only time I can go for a ride and make it somehow enjoyable is either at night or during the first 3 hours after dawn. This limits my day trips to short, 40-55km (25-35mi) routes.

The last weekend I started early at 5:30am and drove to Wayland to explore the new Weston Aqueduct Trail. The section between Elm St and Water St has been opened just last year and apparently, it's the only part of the trail officially open to public - something I found out after the fact. I entered the trail somewhat illegally at Pine Brook Rd where the access is "blocked" by a simple chain. If you decide to redo my route you will see multiple of such chains and even more regular gates restricting access to the Aqueduct. This certainly makes the ride less pleasant but not impossible as there are gaps in fencing where you can get through.
Speaking about the ride, the trail is officially open to bicyclists but I think this refers again to the short section beginning at Elm Street. The part I rode was not very bike-friendly. It was basically a stretch of hard-packed soil with short grass growing all over it and occasional roots running full width across. There is no clear path that your bike will want to follow. The roots make it difficult to enjoy the ride at full speed, unless you come prepared on a suspended mountain bike.
Apparently CK really loved this place. I didn't.

There are multiple towers along the trail. I imagine those must be either some kind of service or pumping stations for the old aqueduct. Then there are places I simply can't imagine riding a bike in. Certainly not for an average Joe. One of them is right after you cross Old Connecticut Path. The trail continues on the other side of this road but when I saw it I only thought "You've got the be FFF*** kidding me!". The next water tower sits on top of a steep hill. The picture below doesn't really show the true scale of this climb but let's just say I can't picture anyone sane to attempt riding a bike there. I had to dismount and push my bike uphill.

Fortunately, the trail gets a bit flatter next and more manageable. At some point you will be crossing Sudbury River over a narrow bridge. As you can see in the picture, someone definitely doesn't want people to ride bikes across the bridge as its access is guarded by steel poles.
The rest of the trail is the same story - grass, roots, bumps and just boring surroundings in general. I have a feeling this place is more for dog walkers and short hikes with family. It's too boring for weekend bicyclists and too bumpy for regular commuters. Not too mention, bloody steep in places.
Being a bit disappointed, I continued through Sudbury to Wayside Inn Estate with the historic Grist Mill I visited already once before. From there, it's definitely worth riding through the conservation area along Lincoln Rd, Sherman's Bridge Rd and Water Row Rd. I hardly see any car traffic there and this place is rich in wildlife, especially if you can be there very early in the morning.
I've been to Sudbury area a few times already and I have my favorite places there. Unfortunately, Weston Aqueduct Trail is not going to be one of them.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Revisting Harvard Fruitlands

As I mentioned in my last post, the weather pretty much sucks this week, unless you love to get properly barbecued from all sides. I don't. When mercury rises to over 90F I start to melt. Nevertheless, the last two days were actually a bit cooler and bearable, especially in the evenings.

Yesterday, I decided to take a ride back to Fruitlands - the museum in Harvard, MA that I visited last year. Well, I actually tried to visit it but it was closed. To be honest, I didn't expect it to be open yesterday either, because I would be there too late. But it's not the museum that matters but the view (you will see in pictures below). Plus, it's a nice ride anyway.

I could've just ridden my bike there from my office in Bedford and than back home to Arlington, but this would be likely a 60mi (100km) ride and I wouldn't get home well after dusk, around midnight. I didn't want to ride at night so I decided to put the bike in the car, drive to Acton and start my ride from there.
I'm not going to bore you with details of every turn of my route but if you decide to follow my footprints (or tire tracks, actually) you can expect to find some interesting places on the way. To begin, you will see multiple fruit orchards along the Nagog Hill Rd, then the historic Harvard Shaker Village District - the second oldest settlement of Shakers in the United States. Then get ready for some off-road fun, once you find the entrance to the narrow trail off the Lancaster County Rd. The trail is super fun to ride, especially in this direction - it's all on a slight down slope so you will keep flying on gravel between the trees. Just make sure you bring a bit wider tires with you.
Finally, you will reach the Fruitlands. The last time I was there was in the middle of a summer day and I wasn't impressed. But in the evening, when the sun is about to set, things look much, much better. It would be a perfect place to watch the sunset but I couldn't stay there that long. I had to get back to Acton before it got completely dark.
Mt. Wachusett as seen from the Fruitlands.

I only stayed there for a few minutes and I continued downhill to Harvard downtown. At this point it was almost 7pm so the General Store was closed, but if you get here in daytime, make sure you stop there and have a delicious lunch, as I did last year.
Anyway, the route continues through the forested area south of Harvard and then downhill on Westcott Rd. Eventually, you will reach the Delaney Flood Control Site, which sounds very unappealing but is actually a very pretty pond, full of wildlife and occasional kayakers.
At this point it was getting dark already and I had to ride back to Acton. I didn't have a chance to try food at Nancy's Airfield Cafe at the local Minuteman Airfield but reviews are good and apparently they serve organic ice cream, if that's your kind of thing.

The rest of the ride is going to be uneventful and after about 50km (30mi) you will be back in Acton. Certainly the Fruitlands area is worth a visit. Not at noon, but summer evenings or later in fall, it could be nice.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Wind of change?

The summer weather is giving us a short break for two days. It's cooler (if you can call 82F or 28C cool) and less humid. But don't worry. We will be back to "normal" 95F (35C) this Friday. Yuck.

Anyway, this kind of weather means that riding a bike to work is actually pleasant again. For me, because 80% of my route is on the Minuteman Bikeway, away from any car traffic, it's also the safest way of getting there. You would think that sitting inside a steel box of a car should make me feel safer, but after reading that in 2015 over 38,000 people were killed on U.S. roads, I don't feel safe anymore. This also means that 5500 more people died this way than in 2014 - a tendency that should be reversed. Seems like when gas prices hit rock bottom, we love to drive more and kill each other in the process. Fortunately, I don't really have to drive much. I can ride my bike instead through a forested area, away from metal cans on wheels.

But not everyone is this lucky. I already wrote about multiple cyclists' deaths on Greater Boston's roads earlier. Those who ride their bikes in the congested urban areas are in a far higher risk of getting into collisions with cars. In short,
"In the first four months of 2016, 8 people were killed and 307 injured from crashes on Boston streets, up 20 percent compared to the same period in 2015".
And these numbers will be on rise because "Boston's streets are designed for conflict", says Michelle Wu, who wrote The Road to Fear-Free Biking in Boston, in Boston Globe. It's a real pleasure to see this kind of level of attention to this serious issue in mainstream media. Michelle notices that the only way to increase safety for everyone, cyclists, pedestrians and drivers is to build protected bike lanes essentially everywhere. No other solution will work well because, as she put it,
"Painted bike lanes function as space for double-parked delivery trucks, pushing cyclists into traffic. Posted signs and “sharrows” unrealistically ask drivers and cyclists to get along."
This transformation will not be easy:
"On many streets, adding a cycle track means narrowing or removing car lanes, or eliminating on-street parking — scenarios that bring panic to car and business owners."
She's right. Once people hear about taking "their" on-street parking spots away, they freak out, like the end of the world was near. A fresh example - the owner of the small convenience store at Marlborough Street, who claimed that because there is only one parking spot in front of the store, her business is slow. Something tells me that if you own a store in a congested urban area and there is no large parking anywhere close, most of your customers are not drivers anyway. Those who come, come by foot, public transport or bikes. You chose to run a business in the downtown, so don't treat the street in front of it like your private driveway in suburbs. Sorry, but there is no free parking here.

I'm likely biased because I do too live in suburbs of Boston and I rarely have to visit the city. But when I do, I park in the Common Garage, which costs me plenty $$$. This is the price I'm willing to pay being a visitor in the city. Still, I can't picture driving my car through Boston expecting a prime parking spot right in front of every business I want to visit. I choose to walk there instead.

But going back to Michelle's article. It's important not only because of what she wrote and where she wrote it. It's also important because Michelle Wu is president of the Boston City Council. This is the first time I see anyone from the city government touching this topic. And doing it in style. Don't believe it? Michelle has just bought her first city bike:
A wind of change? Quite possible.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Around Hudson - Independence Day Ride

It's the American Brexit Day today and the weather seems to be unbearably hot for my standards, although it's nothing new this time of the year. I managed to sneak out for a bike ride at 5AM this morning - the only part of the day when you can stay outside without risking a skin cancer within 15 minutes.
Just like I mentioned recently, I know my nearest neighborhood pretty well already, so I decided to put my bike in the car and drive to Hudson - just a bit west of Arlington, to ride there. Maybe, since this is the Independence Day, the more appropriate location would be the Minuteman National Historical Park in Concord, or Charlestown's Bunker Hill, or the Boston's Tea Party place. But I either know those places too well or they are all too urban.
Starting that early has some definite advantages. Not only everyone is sleeping and roads are empty, but also all mosquitoes are asleep as well. Since I started my ride in the swampy Assabet River National Refuge I could expect swarms of those little buggers but they were surprisingly tame this time. That said, I ended up with just a few bites.
Nevertheless, if you can somehow survive multiple mosquito attacks, Assabet River Refuge is a fun place to ride. Some rough fire roads, some gravel paths, multiple ponds and lots of wildlife. During my 30-minute ride through the refuge I saw a deer, rabbits, herons, geese, ducks, swans and a crane. If you are into bird watching, bring your binoculars and you won't be disappointed.
My next stop was at the top of the hill at the Nashoba Valley Winery. I made it there by some small local roads, through the forested area just north of Hudson, meeting with a heavy forestry equipment in the process. This chained monster in the photo below is a feller buncher, used for cutting down trees. My bike looked like a midget next to those wheels.
Anyway, I got to the winery but it was way too early for harvest. The views from the hill are nice though. I'm not entirely sure but I think I could see Wachusett Mountain in the distance from there.
I headed back to Hudson and then, following Assabet River Rail Trail I reached the refuge where I left my car. It was only a quick 50km (30mi) loop that I finished by 9AM - right before it started getting too hot. I guess this is the only way to have a bike ride (apart from night riding) on a hot summer day.
Let the fireworks begin!