Thursday, August 27, 2015

Most important innovations in cycling

A few months ago Jan Heine published a list on his blog about 10 the most important innovations in the world of bicycling. It's a good list and even if you don't completely agree with it, it's hard to argue that cycling has changed dramatically after introduction of derailleurs (and gears in general) or lighter materials such as aluminum alloys, butted steel tubing or even modern carbon fiber.
Certainly, #1 on the list - pneumatic tires, is well deserved. In fact, pneumatic tires is one of the most important inventions in the history of transport, right next to railroads (the first way to travel long-distance and move heavy cargo at high speed) and modern airlines (reaching farthest placed in the world in a matter of hours, not days or weeks). Without pneumatic tires, there would be no bicycles, no cars, no trucks and even no modern airplanes.

There are some things that are missing on Jan's list though. They may not be good candidates for places 1-10 but they should be mentioned as well. While I agree that generator hubs are a game changer (even though they are not particularly popular yet) the earlier important innovation in bicycle lighting came with arrival of LEDs. Old bicycle lights were dim, heavy and had limited battery life. Modern LED lights are not only small and bright, but also seem to last forever. Thanks to LEDs night riding became possible the way it never was before.
Another invention that didn't make the list is a freewheel. I know that fixie enthusiasts couldn't care less, but for most of us ability to coast down the hill is so obvious that we just don't appreciate how important the innovation of freewheel was.

Jan mentioned indexed shifters as one of the inventions that made shifting easy and brought it to the masses. It's hard to argue with that. But, at least in the world of road cycling, there was one more innovation that should be mentioned - integrated shifters (such as Shimano STI). Moving shifters from the downtube onto the handlebars and integrating them with brake levers was a true game changer for all road cyclists. Finally, we had a full control of gearing at all times, without moving hands off the bars. STI shifters may be more expensive, more complex and heavier than downtube shifters, but are well worth the trouble.
Finally, there are things that most of us would probably not think of when putting together their "most important bicycling innovation list". Why just focus on bicycles only? Bicycling is not only about the machine, it's the activity and the entire experience. That's why we really need to add bike lanes (or actually the idea of separating bicycles from a fast-moving car traffic in general) to the list. Long time ago, there was a time when bicycles "owned" the roads but with arrival of an automobile the situation has changed. While sharing the road with cars and trucks is a nice idea, it's often utopian and (protected) bike lanes were the reason why bicycles could be reintroduced in cities and not just belong to the countryside.

Friday, August 14, 2015

What is the best place for bicycle touring?

While rolling along Ocean Blvd towards York last week, I was trying to answer one question - what would be the best place for bicycle touring in the world? I guess there is no definite answer to it. It seems to me that everyone would have his/her own best place for bicycle travel depending on many factors, which make such place attractive for us.
For some people it's simply sheer distance they cover. This kind of tourists could e.g. take their bikes across Canada, coast to coast, riding at least 100mi a day. Others will like to explore some unknown and (maybe) unfriendly places. They may want to traverse the rainforest in Congo and neither the language barrier nor the environment would drive them off.
I think there is one universal denominator to all bicycle tours that we would described as best: changing scenery. On a bicycle tour you would want the scenery to change every day, even every hour. While some people find joy in just riding, I don't think I would want to look at pine trees on both sides of the road for 5 days straight, which may be the case in some places in Canada or Finland.
This made me realize that I knew the answer to my question 10 years ago. In 2005 me and my friend visited New Zealand and spent 2 weeks driving around both main islands. Since then, I've been thinking this is the ideal place for a longer bike tour (Ideal, if it wasn't for their mandatory helmet law such as the one in Australia. But unlike Australia, at least not every animal in NZ is trying to kill you).
You would start in Auckland, where you could climb a top of One Tree Hill to see the city from above. Or, the lazy way, take an elevator to the top of Sky Tower. You could stop by at the marina and walk through the center and try to spot some art deco buildings.
Mt Ngauruhoe

Rt 1 next to Tongariro NP

From there, you could visit Lake Taupo and Tongariro National Park. Hiking through the park is fun and will make you feel a bit like Frodo walking towards Mordor, especially with Mt. Ngauruhoe (the LOTR's Mountain of Doom) towering above the landscape.
 Coast of Coromandel Peninsula

Or you could ride in the opposite direction, north, and visit Ninety Mile Beach and the most tropical part of the country. No matter what you do, you should stop by in Rotorua and visit its thermal valley and hot springs as well as Coromandel Peninsula where 1000-years old Kauri trees still can be found.
On the way to Wellington

Finally, you would go the see Mt. Taranaki - the lone volcano just at the edge of Tasman Sea. Now that you have seen a lot and your jaw completely dropped, pick it up. Because, trust me, you haven't seen anything yet. Next, we are going to Wellington to board a ferry to Picton on the South Island.
Across the Cook Strait

In my opinion South Island is much more fun. You can visit seals or chat with penguins, climb Southern Alps or ride Otago Rail Trail. Or just ride south to Catlins, where you will find yourself closer to the South Pole than the Equator.
 Going through Otago...


 ... and Catlins.


That's the end. Further south is the Stewart Island and then Antarctica.

Don't forget about the famous Milford Sound and fiords. Or Queenstown - the birthplace of bungee jumping (if you are into this kind of thing). Glaciers on the west coast should not be missed either.
Milford Sound

On the road to Queenstown

The reason I think New Zealand would work for me for an ideal bicycle tour location is that it has nearly every landscape and climate zone you could possibly imagine packed into this relatively small country. There is a rainforest, volcanoes, glaciers, cliffs, sandy beaches, rolling hills, waterfalls, little coves and hot springs. Plus, my memory from driving there is that you could stop literally every 10 min. to take pictures and there won't be a single day you would be bored because all you see is a wall of trees or just sand on the desert.
The only problem is that it's pretty far from here. But I will be back there. Someday.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

One too many

As you may have heard already, last Friday morning a 38 year old Anita Kurmann was killed while riding her bicycle through a busy Boston's intersection: Massachusetts Ave and Beacon St. She was ran over by a long flatbed semi truck executing a right turn, while she stopped waiting for the light. The truck driver failed to stop after the crash and simply drove away.
 The truck that struck Kurmann, caught on CCTV camera.

It certainly wasn't the first of this type of fatal collision and unfortunately, likely not the last one in our city. Bicycle crashes are on the rise, as reported by Boston Globe recently. But who's to blame for Kurmann's death?

First of all, the truck driver is clearly in fault. Not only he killed a bicyclist but also simply drove away, which makes this incident look like a hit-and-run. But on the other hand, I wouldn't be surprised if he actually failed to notice he hit anything. I can imagine that when driving a truck of this size, loaded with steel bars, hitting a bicyclist with the truck's trailer may feel like... just a larger bump in the road. This certainly doesn't excuse the driver for not paying attention to the situation on the road but it may mean this collision was more accidental that we would like to believe.

Second, I have to blame the victim here, even though this is the last thing I should probably do considering she's in a better place right now. But if you have ever seen a semi truck turning, you probably know what I have on mind. These things execute very wide turns and the long trailer follows a very different path than the tractor. Had she stopped in the middle of the lane, well ahead of the truck, she would likely be alive right now. The picture below shows exactly the corner where she died and I was lucky to catch a lone cyclist on Google Maps who is waiting for the light in a place where Kurmann should've been waited as well. This way she would've had a much better chance to avoid truck's blind spots and would likely be better seen by the driver.
Beacon St and Mass Ave corner where Kurmann died. Notice the cyclist who is waiting in the middle of the lane, ahead of all cars. This way she can be better seen by the drivers.

Finally, we need to blame the city for lack of any protected intersections in Boston, especially in busy places such as Beacon St/Mass Ave. If we want to avoid situations like this one in the future we desperately need more vision in Boston's Dept. of Transportation. Time to build more protected bicycle lanes and complete them with protected intersections. Davis, California was first. Can we follow this example soon?

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Cape Cod by ferry and bike

My daily escapades this week are over. On Friday, it was the time to join my family at the Cape Cod. I definitely didn't want to drive there for two reasons - heavy Friday traffic of weekend travelers and the problem that on Sunday we would have to drive back in two separate cars, while we know that it's much easier to manage kids during the long ride with two adults in the car.

That left me with three options: (1) take a train from South Station to Hyannis and then continue by bike to Osterville, (2) take a bus to Hyannis and be picked up (no bikes on buses allowed, unfortunately) or (3) ride my bike to the ferry terminal, take a fast ferry to Provincetown, then ride to Osterville, about 68mi (110km) away. Clearly, the last option looked like most fun.

I had to start early to be at the Seaport Blvd. pier well before 8:30AM when the ferry was leaving. Getting there was pretty straightforward - take Minuteman Bikeway to Alewife, then continue along the river on Soldiers Field bike path, cross the Common and over the bridge to the Seaport District. I have never used this ferry before but boarding was quick and the ferry was... well, fast (duh!). The whole trip went well and just a bit over and hour and a half later I was in P'Town.
I'm on a boat! And a whale watch tour is chasing me.

Approaching P'Town

I have never been to Provincetown before and the first thing that surprised me was that Italian-looking tower dominating over the town. As I found out later, it was built to commemorate first pilgrims who came here in 1620 to hang out for a while only to eventually settle down in Plymouth. I always thought those guys came here from England but apparently, there were some Italians among them as well ;)

What didn't surprise me at all about P'Town was the number of rainbow flags decorating buildings in the town, churches included. But P'Town has been famous for it for quite some time.
Race Point, P'Town, MA

I didn't spend much time in the town because my goal was to get to Osterville in a reasonable time. I only took a quick ride to Race Point on the north shore and then continued towards Truro.
Beach from the bay's side

While getting closer to Truro I started being hungry, which reminded me that my breakfast happened long time ago before I boarded the ferry. Fortunately, stopping at Jams Gourmet Grocery took care of that problem.
 
I didn't really plan to stop frequently on my way to Osterville and the rest of the ride was quite boring and uneventful, to be honest. Part of it was because I took the Cape Cod Rail Trail from Wellfleet. It's a bike path built in place of the old railway tracks, it runs through the forest nearly all the time and rarely crosses with car traffic. This means I could just ride, eating miles quickly without any interruption. In fact, what I didn't realize until later, I rode the full length of this trail (~20mi) without making a single stop. It just happened.
Marconi Wireless Station Site - or rather what's left of it

Well, actually there was one planned stop - at the Marconi Wireless Station Site. Reading about it in the past, I was interested to see the place where the first Europe to USA radio communication in the history happened. Unfortunately, the site is quite disappointing. There isn't nearly anything left of the original station. Erosion ate almost all of it over the years. Nevertheless, the history behind it is interesting. Marconi was a brilliant Italian who got into experiments with radio waves at a young age (about the time today's teens experiment with booze). By the time he was 27, three dots crossed the Atlantic. That means - he sent a Morse code for the letter S from a transmitter in UK to a receiving station in Newfoundland. The Cape Cod station was built later and was able to receive much longer messages than just three stupid dots, such as "Check this, dude! #swag #YOLO". No, actually more like: "SOS. We just hit an iceberg and are going down with pride. HMS Titanic".

But going back to my ride. I realized that over the last years I covered many possible ways of getting to the Cape: by car, by bus, by bike, and now by ferry. There are only two options left: a train and a plane. Maybe next year.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

To York and back - A three states mini tour

Just like I mentioned in my previous post, my family is still away at my in-laws so I had to find a way to do something fun during the next two days. The solution was simple - pack whatever is necessary, hop on the bike and ride to York, ME, which is conveniently located within a reach of an average mortal person.

Since this mini tour (I'm going to call it a mini tour because I doubt a 2-day trip qualifies for a bicycle tour name anyway) involved only 1 night at the campground, all I needed to take with me was a tent, mattress, sleeping bag and some off-bike clothes for a change. I didn't even bother to take a rain softshell because it wasn't supposed to rain (and it didn't) or anything warm to wear (no need for it in the peak of New England summer). That made it almost a "credit card tour" (And it would have been, had I booked a motel in advance. But I guess part of fun is to leave something unplanned.)
Byfield -  a tiny village on the way to Newburyport. Population smaller than you think.

Day 1

I started yesterday at 8:00AM and navigating through the morning traffic rush, I quickly left busy suburbs of Boston. Continuing through Harold Parker State Park (I need a separate post about this place at some point), I reached Boxford and Georgetown, arriving just for lunch at Newburyport. I have visited Newburyport several times by bike so far and I always like coming back here. Just in case you find yourself here being hungry, stop by at Port City Sandwich - their grilled Reuben is easily the best one of the kind I have ever eaten.
Newburyport, MA

Past the bridge to Salisbury, I was exploring the unknown (and then entering New Hampshire). The ride along Ocean Blvd. is fun, despite heavy traffic in places and lack of shade. But on the other hand, this road has a wide shoulder that can be used for cycling and it's flat as a surfboard (yes, it has a slight curvature) so maintaining 27km/h (17mph) average was nearly effortless. My next milestone was Hampton Beach that turned out to be a place I would gladly avoid. It looked like a Disneyland on a beach. Noisy, crowded, busy. Not my kind of place.
Hampton Beach - best when avoided

I kept moving and entered Rye, NH, which was exactly what Hampton Beach was not. Rye is clearly a place for people with very thick wallets and that's why you likely won't see any crowds over there.
Rye, NH - ocean on the right, money on the left

From Rye, it was just a quick loop around New Castle and I arrived at Portsmouth. It was a time for a quick fuel stop and next I was ready to continue across the bridge over Piscataqua River, entering Maine.
Memorial Bridge. Maine on the other side.

Portsmouth is pretty close to York so my last miles happened quickly. Once there, I didn't forget to stop by at the Nubble Lighthouse, which is supposedly the most photographed lighthouse in the United States.
It was about 5:30PM so my priority at this point was to find a place for the night. The campground I scouted online before this ride was full. Full of RVs and trailers size of a medium house. And they were not willing to fit a tiny tent and a bicycle in-between. Silly me - no way to find a vacant campground spot in York in the middle of high summer season. Fortunately, they gave me directions to another place that still had spots available. It was just mile down the road, in the middle of a forest, which means that it didn't have any water view (but not many mosquitoes either). In no time my tent was up.
Not a waterfront property but will do
 
At that point I got curious to check how many miles I biked on that day. To my surprise, it was more than originally planned. Way more.
160km (100mi) up to a meter. Wow!

What's more interesting that those 100mi passed easily somehow. I felt a bit tired but not exhausted. Certainly not enough not to bike to a nearby grill place for a pint of Allagash Saison, calamari and Angus burger. Anyway, this 100mi was a very different 100mi than the time I rode to Plum Island and back. Now it seems to me that I did 3 things better this time: I was better hydrated, I was better protected from the sun and I didn't forget to eat before I got very hungry.
The sun was setting. Let's call it a day.

Day 2

The next day I packed my stuff and was ready to hit the road by 8:00AM. York was slowly waking up and beach goers were munching their breakfast. That would explain why local beach looked like this:
 The beach is still there but where are all the people?

"You can do it if you really want..."

On my way back I opted for a more direct route home, skipping some of the scenic coastal sections I visited on the previous day. Soon I was back in Portsmouth.
Time to say goodbye to Maine

That was my first longer food stop on that day and once I replenished my energy levels I continued to Moneytown. I mean, Rye.
Do all houses on Rye's shore look like this one? Pretty much.

I thought it would be good to arrive at Newburyport by 1:00PM but it all happened so quickly that suddenly I found myself in Hampton Beach (a bit less crazy in the morning, for sure) and Salisbury. I entered Newburyport at noon. Good time for lunch.
Another Reuben sandwich later, I rolled towards Georgetown and after a few uneventful turns and several less exciting miles (87 to be exact or 140km) I was back home in Arlington. The whole thing was definitely fun and something I haven't tried in a long, long time (high school time, which is prehistory by now). And never with that distance. Makes me think I'm ready for more as long as I find a free week and keep my wife, kids and my boss happy at the same time.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Harvard 100

It finally happened! That rare moment, which comes every 100 years when all planets are in the right alignment and moon is full - I sent my family away to my in-laws at the Cape Cod and I have several days off at work. In simple words - more time for cycling.

To start easy, I decided to take a 100km route to Harvard, MA and back. There was a storm early morning so roads were wet, morning air was cool and sky was cloudy. I quickly moved through the Battle Road Trail towards Concord, then Acton, Littleton and by 11:30 I was in the center of Harvard. I didn't take a direct route to Harvard but decided to go a bit around. Not sure whether that was the best choice but at least I avoided heavy traffic on Rt 111.
 
It's the sunflower season!

I stopped at the General Store to stretch my legs and snack something. I was actually ready for lunch but then I notice a sign to Fruitlands Museum. I wasn't planning on going there but then I recalled that a few years ago Velouria visited that place and was very fond of it (She's actually visited it several times). So I decided to postpone my lunch and first check what all the fuss was about. Fortunately, Fruitlands wasn't too far from the center.
Mt. Wachusett as seen from Prospect Hill Rd

On the way there, there is a nice open view from Prospect Hill Rd. I guess that was the one Velouria wrote about. To be honest, it wasn't as spectacular as I expected. I mean, yes, you can see several mountain ranges far away but other than that, there isn't much to see there. It can't compare to a view from e.g Cadillac Mountain in Maine or many places in New Hampshire. Not even close. But maybe I was there simply at the wrong time. Noon in early August is not the best time for any pictures. Had I visited this place in the peak of foliage season, my impressions would've likely be different.
Anyway, I continued up the hill towards the Museum...
which is closed on Tuesdays. Bugger! Nothing to see here. It was time to go back to Harvard.
Snake roadkill. Not mine.

General Store had some good selection of drinks and sandwiches and inviting atmosphere with running A/C.
Inside the General Store

I continued south towards Hudson, passing Bolton on the way. My planned route took me on Warren Ave, which surprisingly wasn't paved (although well compacted) - not something you would expect from an "avenue".
  
Old caboose at the Assabet River Rail Trail powered by modern solar cells

I arrived in Hudson after climbing some hills at Bare Hill Rd and a mad downhill ride on Bolton St. I decided not to stop in Hudson but keep going. After a short ride on the Assabet River Rail Trail I continued towards Sudbury.
  
 My bike at the Sudbury Town Hall

Next, I discovered a place I have never visited before - Water Row Rd in Sudbury. It runs through the conservation land and sees very little traffic. Good place for a bike ride.
 
Peculiar looking boats at the old wooden bridge over the Sudbury River

I was approaching Lincoln when I heard some thunders far away. Then I realized that the storm was brewing nearby - right ahead of were I was going.
This doesn't look too good...   

Air temperature was dropping rapidly. I could feel the cool air coming in. According to my cycling computer the temperature dropped by 8 deg from 32C (90F) down to 24C (75F) withing just minutes. That certainly made the last miles of my ride more pleasant. Fortunately, after 125km and 7 hours on the road, I made it safely home about half and hour before the skies opened and heavy downpour hit the ground.
Beer time!

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.