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?

Monday, April 30, 2018

In search of the unpaved - Mass Central Rail Trail

Rail trails - a side effect of America's defunct railway system. Now, a great way of building long-range recreational trails on a budget. Some cyclists love them, others - not so much. Yes, they can be boring. They are built in place of former railway after all, which means they are flat and often with long, straight sections. I actually don't mind rail trails as long as (1) they remain unpaved and (2) scenery along the trail changes frequently.

This weekend I decided to give rail trails another try and visit Mass Central Rail Trail (MCRT) between Rutland and Templeton. It's over an hour drive from Boston Metro Area so getting there by bike from your door step is probably not an option, unless you happen to have a lot of time. My main motivation was to give my new bike a spin over a longer, unpaved section and see how it rides in rougher terrain. The planned route was 70km (44mi) long and more importantly 85% unpaved and that should give me a good feeling of how the new bike handles.

The route. Red sections are unpaved. Blue are paved.

I started at a small parking lot just at the trail head on Glenwood Rd in Rutland. It was raining heavily the previous night and as such, morning was soggy and foggy. I moved quickly along the trail, which along its southern section between Glenwood Rd and Rt122 resembles an unpaved cycling highway. It's graded well, smooth and overall very "civilized". I met a few joggers and dog walkers on the way, likely due to proximity of Rutland.
But if you think that the full length of trail is going to be that easy, you would be mistaken. Once you cross Old Worcester Rd and enter the trail section running straight north, conditions change quite a bit. Clearly, this part of MCRT is used mainly by snowmobiles in winter as it remains much more wild, muddy, rough and... empty. During the next 20km (12mi) all the way to Templeton I didn't see anyone on the trail. Or maybe it was the foggy weather that scared locals off?
Once I got to Covered Bridge Rd I went off the route for just moment to find out whether the bridge was still there. A look at Google Maps a day earlier told me that it likely wasn't going to be the case and I would need to find a different route on the way back. Unfortunately, Google Maps was right. The old covered bridge was missing, as well as another bridge at Lackey Lane, just a bit further north. At this point I knew I would have to stick to Plan B and go Granger Rd on the way back.
The rest of the ride to Templeton was uneventful - just a few more miles along the mostly straight and very flat trail. Since, as I mentioned earlier, this part of the MCRT is more wild, I had to cross several muddy sections and some with pretty deep sand. Rolling on 2.2" wide tires certainly helped a lot. I would had to fight it really hard, had I been there on my old bike with "skinny" 35mm tires.
Crossing Burnshirt River. Seriously, who came up with that name?

Once I got to Templeton it got warmer, sun was coming out and for a moment I thought that it would get hot. But the next section was a mad downhill ride on Rt101, which quickly reminded me it wasn't the right time yet to take the jacket off.

The next section of the route ran along Williamsville Rd, which is unpaved but starts as a very hard packed, smooth street, only to turn into a muddy forest fire road later on.

The real fun starts a bit later though, once you enter Gilbert Rd and then Granger Rd. Both are rocky, rough, with some steep sections. In other words - perfect testing ground for my "mountain road bike".
Granger Road in late morning sun.

The rest of the ride was just a fairly typical mix of short paved sections, wide forest fire roads, some rough double-tracks and a few rocky paths. Exactly after 4 hours on the bike I was back at my car and now I think I would need to pay a few more visits to western Massachusetts pretty soon.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Tech talk: The newest tech that you do(n't) need

Just to give you a warning - this will be a part about some recent bike tech with lots of "my opinion" and "what if" scenarios.


Ah, the ever-changing bicycle tech. Manufacturers who always try to sell us the best and the newest certainly keep us entertained. And since "best" is the worst enemy of "good" - this process will never stop, for sure.

There is a lot going on in bike industry but since I'm mainly interested in, let's call it - mixed terrain riding, I'm going to focus on news from the rapidly growing "gravel" bikes market.

So let's start with the elephant in the room - suspension. Technically, your road bike doesn't need suspension. If you ride on rougher roads and you think you need suspension - just put much wider tires on your bike and be done with it. But since there are some people who believe that riding on unpaved roads on a non-suspended bicycle is not adequate in 2018, we will see more inventions such as this most recent one from Niner Bikes.
Full suspension for gravel riding? Niner thinks it's the thing (Source: bikerumor.com)

This new "mountain road bike" is actually nothing new. It's nearly a cross-country mountain bike with a bit slimmer tires and drop bars. And less travel, as it seems that it doesn't offer more than 30-40mm of fork travel, which actually is appropriate for typical gravel roads. Just by looking at it you clearly get this uneasy feeling - "Is it still a road bike?" Sure it is. The same way your cross-country MTB is a road bike too.

But something tells me a suspended "gravel" bike could've been done a bit... better. Ideally, I would like to see the old Cannondale Headshok fork reused here. It seems perfectly suited for this application. The Headshok used one damper, located inside the steerer tube with regular-looking fork blades. The steerer was sliding inside head tube on 4 long linear bearings and thanks to this design, everything was tight and stiff. Travel was somewhat limited, perhaps which is why Cannondale abandoned this tech later on and moved to Lefty forks in their mountain bikes and then also in Slate allroad/gravel bikes.
Actually, Cannondale used to make a Headshok road fork back in 1997. (Source: http://vintagecannondale.com)

Now, in the era of allroad bikes, Headshok could have its comeback for those who think they need suspension. It could be built using lightweight carbon blades and limited to 30-40mm of travel with air damper inside. Also, major advantages of Headshok over Lefty are that it can use standard wheel hubs, allows for easy wheel removal for transport and since it comes with two symmetrical fork blades, you can picture putting some bottle cage mounts on it - something many would appreciate. Why Cannondale decided to promote Lefty for their Slate line and not revisit Headshok is something I can't understand.
Canyon Hover Bars (Source: bikerumor.com)

Anyway, the search for perfect vibration damping solution continues. If it's not the suspension, then maybe compliant handlebars, like these from Canyon? These weird "biplane bars" are supposed to be the answer to unwanted vibrations on unpaved roads - but only if you spend most of your time with hands on flats, which we usually don't. Most cyclists use hoods or drops and these remain much less damped in Canyon bars. Or maybe I'm wrong. Maybe Canyon's main motivation was simply to hide the fact that their bikes have too short head tube and too low stack?

Now let's move on to gearing - one of my biggest issues with modern allroad bikes. Many "gravel" bikes come with a compact double - a crankset with 50/34T chainring combo. These cranksets are simply borrowed from road bikes because, well... there isn't anything else available (or at least still very little). This may explain a sudden popularity of 1x drivetrains in allroad bikes but fortunately, doubles are not gone. Some manufacturers started to notice that a 50T chainring is ridiculously large and barely usable on unpaved roads and offered "subcompact" cranksets with 48/32T combinations (or similar).
Easton "gravel" crankset (Source: theradavist.com)

The most recent example comes from Easton and while it's very commendable of them to offer "gravel" combos down to 46/30T, I still feel that's not revolutionary enough. These cranks definitely bring gearing range down towards what the usual mortal need, as very few of us would be able to spin that "compact" 50T-11T gear on unpaved roads. But it still leaves some to be desired, mainly even lower-geared "road" cranksets such as 44/28T or even 42/26T. I would love to see it becoming the new road bike standard, as few cyclists are racers and need higher gears. But maybe I'm biased, since 42/26T is exactly what I use on my "road" bike.

Let's stay at the gearing for a moment but this time we will look at what's going on at the rear wheel. For many years cassettes have been growing wider, with more gears being added. From 5 to 6 to 7 to 8, then finally 11 speed clusters. Now, we can begin to enjoy 12 speed cassettes thanks to the newest offering form Campagnolo
Twelve speeds have arrived to road (Source: bikerumor.com)

Unlike SRAM, Campagnolo believes that despite having 12 speeds available, road cycling isn't ready to abandon front derailleurs and therefore, the new Super Record groupset is designed as 2x12. At this point you obviously wonder "where is the limit of it?" How many more sprockets are we going to cramp onto the rear wheel and how many do we actually need? There are those who believe that the best drivetrains were those 3x8 or even 3x6 ones. I'm not one of them, but I think that more is not necessary better. There is a clear improvement in shifting precision (at least in Shimano groupsets) when moving from 2x10 to 2x11. Narrower chains and gaps between cassette sprockets require more precise shifters and rear derailleurs, which results in crispier, faster shifting. That's nice. What's less nice is the increased asymmetry of spoke tension in the rear wheel. Will we see wider road rear hubs in the future? Possibly.

Now we are waiting for Shimano and SRAM's response. I'm actually particularly curious about the latter one. Their 1x12 speed Eagle MTB group gained popularity so a 1x12 speed road groupset would be a natural consequence. I just hope that the "Road Eagle" cassette isn't going to be a carbon-copy it the existing MTB Eagle one. On road (paved or not), we really don't need 10-50T range. I would much rather see something like 10-44T. With 12 speeds, some of the larger jumps between gears in SRAM's existing 10-42T cassettes would be reduced and we could have a winner.

So now when we already decided that we don't need suspension, bi-plane bars, compact cranksets or 12 speeds (just kidding), we can look at one silly gadget that marketers think we should buy - tire pressure monitors. Seriously, if you ride your bike and constantly worry that you run on wrong tire pressure (like you really don't have anything else to worry about) then you need this gizmo from Quarq. Tirewiz lets you check tire pressure on the fly, with your smartphone. Because in this all-connected world, even your tires need Bluetooth. Right.
Quarq Tirewiz - because you really, really need to be able to answer the question "What pressure you running?" (Source: bikerumor.com)

So is there too much of it? Too much tech to deal with? Not necessarily. The great thing about bicycles is that you can have a high-tech, all-electronic, network-connected road superbike, or a simple, purely mechanical singlespeed bike. Nobody forces you into buying the latest and newest.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Beaconize it?

This is old news but last month a woman was killed by an autonomous Uber vehicle while crossing the road. This was the first death on American roads caused by autonomous vehicle and media reaction was bi-fold:

  1. AVs are not ready - indicating that autonomous vehicle technology is not matured enough for widespread launch on our roads.
  2. Victim blaming - claiming that it was victim's fault and she should've "watch were she was going", "wear reflective clothing" or something else like it.

As you can likely guess, I'm in the first camp and I think that while AVs are promising and could help solving some of the problems we're having currently on American roads (such as speeding, driving on red or DUI), they are not perfect and certainly not THE solution. 

First, they don't change road use density, still likely carrying only 1 person per vehicle. Next, since you can essentially work inside your AV and not pay attention to road, these vehicles could lead to even larger urban sprawl. Commuting 2hrs to work may not be that bad after all, right?

But I'm also worried about some ideas that came out days after this crash from the camp #2. Mainly, one of them - to require cyclists to wear RFID beacons and thus make them more visible to AV's sensors.

Certainly, small radio beacons installed on moving objects such as bicyclists could make AVs much more aware of its surroundings but it seems like a band-aid solution to what was supposed to be a well-tested technology. What would be the next step then? To put beacons on pedestrians? Dogs?

There is also another very good reason why beacons are a very bad idea. They will serve as a convenient excuse to a kill. In case of a deadly crash media would be reporting it as usual:
"A deadly accident in Boston this morning. Car crashed into bicyclist killing him on site."
But instead of adding "Cyclist was not wearing a helmet" we will hear "Cyclist was not wearing a beacon". Victim blaming of the XXI century.

Finally, there is this one last thing we tend to give up very easily - privacy. This week, Mr. Sugarhill was testifying in front of Congress to explain why his massive surveillance project called Facebook does exactly what it was designed for.

Radio beacons on cyclists could be used for pretty much the same thing - surveillance. For many of you, this would be non-issue. "I have nothing to hide" - you will say. But I keep thinking that bicycles have always been those "free-range vehicles", requiring little resources, taking you to remote places, moving efficiently and quietly while keeping you connected to nature. And being free-range, I wouldn't want any electronics to monitor me on my bike (even though my cell phone technically already does that). Americans love freedom. They shouldn't love beacons.

Having said that, it's a warm day today. The first one this spring (and it's mid April!). Time for a bike ride!
No AVs here. And no beacons needed.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Faster!

It's almost April, which means spring is nearly here. Well, technically, it's already here but as usual, weather doesn't seem to align too well with calendar, so we will have to wait probably another week or two for real spring to arrive.

Nevertheless, it's getting warmer and that means one thing for sure - many, many more roadies out on the bike path. With the beginning of April they crawl out of their indoor hideouts, put stationary trainers back in the closet and roll out on their bicycles to welcome spring. This is to me the best indication of season's change. Far more regular than looking at bird migration patterns or melting snow.
(Source: yehudamoon.com)

Observing these guys and reading some cycling news recently, I thought about the very clear trend in modern road cycling - the focus on speed. Unlike mountain biking that found many niches and offers many different ride styles, road cycling is still driven mostly by UCI rules and catered towards racers.

Hence, modern road bikes emphasize speed over comfort, aerodynamics over functionality and build an image of Lycra-wrapped man enjoying his morning "race" to a nearby cafe. Do you think I'm exaggerating? That it's not that bad? That there are plenty of "other" road bikes that aren't designed for racing? Sure, but those are still minority. A few years ago you would think that gravel bikes would change that. They were not bound by any UCI regulations, yet they still ended up being just another type of race bikes.

If you still don't know what I'm talking about, try to hop onto a modern road bike in regular clothes. It will surely feel weird. You would *want* to wear a helmet, put those Lycra tights on and "race" to your destination (even if that's only your office commute). Plus, "if it's not on Strava it didn't happen", right?
Faster! Like it's a race.

Certainly, part of this focus on speed is that cycling is seen mainly as a sport, much less as a transportation option, and speed is one of the deciding factors how sport can be measured. But I keep finding this "speed matters" approach even in places that aren't focused on competitive sport as much. I've been looking at Jan Heine's blog recently and he published a series of "cycling myths", many of which are speed-related:

I'm not trying to say that Jan hand-picked these because speed matters to him that much, but it seems that all of us collectively find this topic interesting and as such, these speed myths pop out like mushrooms after rain.

So spring is almost here and you may be looking for a new bike, or perhaps looking at your old bike thinking it needs new aero wheels. Just remember - there is more fun in riding a bike than just going faster.