Thursday, January 29, 2015

"Snowmageddon" and beyond

It looks like the dry winter is now over. That is - the cold winter but free of snow. Enter the wet winter season as we've got some snow last Tuesday. Apparently, this time it was supposed to be something spectacular hence the "Snowmageddon" name present in media. But we've got "only" 2+ feet of snow so there was no "mageddon", just "snow". Sort of like in 2014. And 2013. And 2012. Or any other year.

It all started slowly on Monday afternoon. The nature was waiting quietly:
In fact, some crazy people were out running barefoot on Minuteman path, hours before the snow.
Ok, to be honest, that's what I first thought when I saw these footprints. Until I passed a guy jogging in Fivefingers. Anyway...
The snow came,
the city froze,
no one drove,
except the plows.
Everything was white,
suiting our needs.
It was the time
to take back the streets!

And that's what happened. With not much car traffic the first hours right after the blizzard were the perfect time to play outside. I almost wished we could keep the driving ban for a little longer. Let's just say that my son had so much fun outside he didn't want to go back home despite his cheeks being well frozen.

The following day the city recovered. It turned out that the full length of Minuteman Bikeway was nicely cleaned up. Riding my bike to work next morning was easy...
until I got to my usual shortcut in Bedford. I had to carry my bike over this section of the trail. I may have to find an alternate route unless I consider bringing a shovel with me to clean up this mess.
But the worst part turned out to be the total lack of parking space at my work building. The only bike rack around was completely buried in snow. With nothing to chain my bike to I had to be creative. Still, I can't keep tying my bike to the railing at the loading dock for the rest of this winter.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

It's time to just ban cycling altogether!

The Bikeway got icy. It's been just a bit warmer for the last 3 days and we've got a mild precipitation of rain/snow recently. Everything got coated with a thin layer of snow, including my bike that seemed frozen solid yesterday. A crust of frozen snow on fenders, frame and hubs may look pretty, but does not help me getting to work any faster.
No matter. After reading the news recently, biking to work seems like the dumbest idea ever. In fact, mankind seems to do everything to make sure that riding a bicycle in XXI century should be considered an oddity and the only right thing to do is to ban those ridiculous two wheels completely. After all, those bloody cyclists take up way too much valuable space on OUR roads so why not just give them their own roads to ride the bike? Like... in the middle of the forest. But, God forbid, in the city.

In rare circumstances when you encounter a cyclist on the road in front of your SUV, you should make sure that he leaves plenty of space for your vehicle by staying at least 3 feet away from you and riding somewhere where he's out of your way, like in the gutter. This makes perfect sense! This way you don't have to deal with those lycra-clad idiots who think that they own the road and trying to pass them won't force you into the opposite lane. You could save 5 seconds out of your 1 hour long commute. Perfect!

But even if the worst happens and a guy on two wheels finds himself too close to your front bumper, don't worry. Our friendly police will make sure to ticket his sorry ass for not giving space to more important users on the road, like you in your F-350.

So as you can see, it's definitely the right time to just ban all cycling altogether (Finally!). We all know well that everything those bloody cyclists do is not only annoying but plain wrong. And while we are at it, let's look at walking as well. Especially those little kids walking around the neighborhoods. Not only they should just be at school or sitting in front of TV but when they crawl around they may even want to cross the street, slowing you down by another 5 seconds. And you wouldn't want that, would you?

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Defeat winter on your bike - cycling at subzero temperatures

First, a little explanation. By "subzero" I mean sub-American degrees zero, which translates to about -19C. Otherwise you would be thinking - where is the challenge in that?

Every single year in January we get a week or two when temperature drops to single digits Fahrenheit or below -15C. This morning my kitchen's thermometer showed -20C outside and it made me think twice whether I should attempt riding my bike to work. It takes me about 50 min. to ride 10 miles and it might be an unpleasant ride in such conditions. But when I checked on my car, it failed to start. No wonder, the battery was weak and I haven't used it in over a week. I could've jump started it from my wife's car but... it was just much easier to take the bike.
Nearly -5F outside (or -20C). And yes, it's only 61F (16C) in my kitchen at 6AM but I like it that way.

When it comes to riding a bicycle in winter it's not the air temperature that matters but exposure, defined as the outside temperature multiplied by the time spend on a bike. And this means that even when it's really freezing outside but you only have to bike to the grocery store 2 blocks away, you will likely be fine wearing your regular winter clothes. You won't freeze to death before you reach your destination anyway.
However, rides that take about an hour or maybe even longer, require some more preparation. The three most important parts of your body to take care of during such rides are:

Hands
Unlike the core of your body that will likely stay cozy warm due to extra heat you produce on bike, your fingers may start to freeze. Except of operating brakes and shifters occasionally, fingers grasp on the handlebars and don't move. Also, they are exposed to wind chill, so ideal winter gloves should not only be insulated but also wind/water proof. After years of experimenting with double gloves, liners, bike-specific ones, etc., I decided to spend some more to get more and bought Hestra Army Leather C-Zone mittens. At $108 a pair (after discount), they were not exactly cheap but well worth the money. Being a 3-finger mittens they are much warmer than anything I tried before, yet still let me operate brakes and shifters with ease. Add to it a lot of insulation and waterproofing and you get a glove for those freezing winter rides. I have been using them for the last month and noticed that at temperatures above 22F (-5C) they are just too warm. But whatever mittens you buy get a pair a size too large. The extra pocket of air will help keeping your fingers warm.

Feet
Keeping your fingers warm is easy compared to protecting your toes. You (rarely) move your fingers when biking but when it comes to your toes, they stay still all the time. And that means that sooner or later (likely sooner) they will start to freeze. I haven't found a 100% perfect solution except of cheating with some chemical toe warmers. But after I switched to North Face Snowsquall Mid my toes stayed warmer for much longer. In fact, the best test of these boots happened just this morning. I usually take a shortcut through a forested area in Bedford, next to some industrial buildings and a parking lot. Last night that place was fully passable but this morning it was flooded, with its top layer frozen. Could it be from a bursted pipe somewhere nearby? All this means I had to walk through this puddle of icy water that turned out to be a 3-4 inches deep. Fortunately, my boots survived this treatment easily but stayed iced for the remainder of the ride. Good that Snowsqualls are waterproof. I wouldn't want to have wet feet at -5F weather.

Head
Your ears need special care at these temperatures so cover them well. I use a fleece headband, a thin wool hat and a helmet. The helmet is obviously the least important part of this puzzle but I wear it because it reduces wind chill pretty well. You may want to replace it with a thicker hat if you like.
Covering face is tricky and in general I don't like full-face balaclavas. They are too warm for me for most conditions. If you decide to get one, I suggest you look at models with nose and mouth holes. Without these openings your balaclava will soon be completely frosted with iced water vapor you exhale.
My solution to this problem is a thin, wool buff. I wear it to protect my neck (so no scarf needed) and I pull it over the back of my head (covers back of my neck) so it covers my cheeks (at least partially) from both sides. This way the buff doesn't cover my mouth and nose yet still works quite well as I can quickly adjust it and pull it down from my face if I get too warm or pull it up over my nose if I encounter severe wind chill.
Over the course of the last 4 winters I found out that the most difficult face part to protect from severe wind chill are the cheeks right over the cheek bones. In those places the skin is very thin and bones underneath act like a heatsink, which means your skin cools down there very quickly. The only good solutions are either a full-face balaclava or those funky pieces of tape, professional cross-country skiers use. Neither of which seems terribly attractive to me.

That's it. The rest of your body is much easier to take care of. Rule #1 is not to overdress. If you get sweaty and face severe wind chill you're asking for trouble. I usually end up wearing only my regular work shirt plus a wool sweater (a thicker one for those subzero rides). Then I wear a waterproof softshell over it. The softshell is there only to cut off any wind chill from my body.

Even in subzero conditions I don't use any special insulated pants - just my regular work chinos. But because wind chill can make my ride very unpleasant, I put a second layer on - waterproof cycling pants I got at REI for $25. They don't let any air through so my legs stay toasty warm for the entire ride and they are easy to remove at destination pretty much anywhere. No need for a private changing room.

This morning ride was much easier than I expected. No wind chill and low humidity resulted in surprisingly pleasant conditions, despite -5F on the thermometer. In fact, I remember a day about 2 years ago that was easily 10 degrees warmer but my cheeks and toes were pretty much frozen when I arrived to work. Wind chill does make a huge difference.

Nevertheless, I was stopped by a driver in Bedford who must've felt sorry for me when she asked if I needed a ride. It may be difficult to believe for some people but -5F on a calm winter day is actually perfectly appropriate for bike riding.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

2015!

2015 is here. The previous year turned out to be a pretty busy year for me. In January we were supposed to be hit by a mysterious polar vortex but it seemed to skip New England for some reason.

In February I learned that I live in a "wrong city" because Boston doesn't want to "waste time" to plow bike lanes in winter.

In March I finally took my road bike a for a ride from its winter hibernation and learned a fascinating story about how Americans ruined their public transportation.

In April I decided that it was time to go back to the beginnings and I switched to platform pedals on my road bike, putting my SPD shoes deep in a closet. I tested the new pedals on two short rides and I was very happy with my decision. Oh, and I opened my Twitter account.

In May I got a new bike - Xtracycle Edgerunner 27D. It's been a great addition to my garage and helps me running errands together with my son. He loves it too.

In June the warm weather kept me motivated to explore the surroundings a bit more so I completed several short rides on my Poprad. And I also had a chance to ride a fat bike - Salsa Beargrease XX1. It was fun!
In July I completed the longest ride so far (over 100mi or 160km). I also looked at the "urban bike of the future" competition but I was unimpressed with the results.

In August I finally completed my Frankenbike. It rides very well and I use it on those warm, dry days to get to work.

In September I replaced Tektro cantilever brakes on my Poprad with TRP mini v-brakes. So much more power! I also thought about 3 the most important components of your bike that you can't see.

In October I took a family foliage season trip to New Hampshire. No bikes this time.
In November I looked at the list of 12 cycling things you should do before you die. You should try to make your own list too (That's thing #13).

In December I wondered why most bike headlights are so bad and I wanted to remind you that holiday season is probably the best time to start bike commuting.

What will 2015 bring?

Monday, December 29, 2014

Is it winter yet?

I got used to the fact that December is still pretty mild here in Boston but 55F (13C) is still unusual for this time of year. Right after Christmas I visited Cape Cod for 2 days with my family and because I didn't want to leave my bike behind, I could enjoy spring weather biking in winter, at the waterfront.
What's really nice about cycling at the Cape in winter season is that road traffic is very light. Summer crowds are long gone and those residents who stay here for most of the year move out for winter months anyway. At 6 a.m. you can barely find a single car on the road.

Friday, December 19, 2014

When is the best time to start riding your bike to work and why is it the Christmas season?

If you ever wanted to try riding your bike to work but were still hesitating - don't. Now it's the best time of the year to try it! You may think it's crazy - why start now, in winter when weather is cold and days are short? Wouldn't summer be a better time? Don't get fooled. There are several good reasons why Christmas season is the best time of the year to try your new bike commute. Here is why:
  1. It's a slow season. Many companies close between December 24th and January 2nd and kids have no school. This means that road traffic is significantly lighter and that's important for those of us who have to share roads with cars on the way to work for at least a part of our commute (which means most of Americans).
  2. It's a busy season. The last week before Christmas the road traffic may be actually quite the opposite - heavy to the point of standstill. Roads get loaded with cars because everyone rushes to malls for holiday shopping. I absolutely hate visiting malls this time of the year but if I have to do it, I do it by bike. This way I don't have to circle 10 times around the parking lot hunting for space. And a very heavy and slow road traffic makes it much easier to ride a bike too - when cars get stuck, you are still moving.
  3. Good weather. This will sound crazy but weather in December in Boston is actually nice. It's pretty mild, around 32F (0C) and it rarely snows. At least in our area January to March is very cold with lots of snow, April to June is warmer but often very rainy, July and August are way too hot and humid, September and October are the best but traffic gets heavy as the school starts and November is rainy. So there you go - the dry, mild winter of December looks actually quite attractive for bike commuting.
  4. Cars slow down. If snowfall happens, drivers become more careful and slow down significantly. If you're afraid to ride on some roads in the summer because you feel like all drivers are speeding, try cycling there in winter, after a fresh snowfall. Suddenly, all drivers become very polite, observant and cautious.
  5. Your own bike lane. If a heavy snowfall happens, the huge snow banks on the side of the road block often a good chunk of the rightmost lane making it too narrow for cars, but perfect for bikes. Suddenly that scary 4-lane road becomes a slow 2-lane one with dedicated bike lanes in both directions!
  6. Grab the bull by its horns. If you try bike commuting now, you will be ready for the worst - low temperatures, darkness, poor traction. You will have a chance to figure out what lights work best on your bike, how to ride on snow and what to wear. After that, there will be no situations that would surprise you.

Friday, December 5, 2014

"Cover your light!"

I mentioned a while ago that my company moved to the new building. It's only a mile away from the old location but now it's more convenient for me to ride on Minuteman Bikeway to work every morning. I usually avoid this popular bike path in winter months for two reasons: 1) lacking any street lights, it's very dark in places and 2) it doesn't get plowed often enough so once the first winter blizzard comes, the paths becomes unusable until spring.
But we still didn't get any major snow storm so I decided to continue biking on the Minuteman. This lets me experience something new this season. The first time it happened I didn't know what the fellow cyclist was talking about. If you pass someone at high speed and that person is talking to you, all you hear is some mumbling. Then I realized that he was telling me to cover my light, the same way some other cyclists were doing when they were passing me. "Cover my light?", I thought: "Why? Is my light really blinding everyone?" Just to be sure that wasn't the case, I pointed it a bit further down, even though it was already positioned that way. Yes, my headlight is mounted on the handlebars, the same way most cyclists lights were mounted. But what if I had a proper generator light installed just above the front fender? Would you expect me to reach over the handlebars to cover it as well every time I was passing someone?
My Planet Bike Blaze headlight. The 2-Watt version.
 
Now keep in mind that the headlight I'm using is not a 800 lumen death ray that would turn night into a day. It's just a very basic and inexpensive 2-Watt version of Planet Bike's Blaze lamp. I find it perfectly adequate for urban cycling and I noticed that it's far from being the brightest light on the Minuteman path. So when I heard another passing cyclist yell it again, I thought: "Dude, your light is brighter than mine anyway. What you want me to do? Point my headlight to shine on my front tire?".
 
That makes me wonder:
         a) Are bicycle lights too bright?
         b) Do cyclists know how to position their head lights properly?
         c) Are cyclists oversensitive about being blinded?
         d) Other (please specify): _______________
         e) All of the above.