Monday, September 17, 2018

Local news - Arlington introduces BRT system

If you have even wondered why public transport is so bad in your city, you may want to read this:
I have touched this topic here before. Basically, Americans worked very hard to destroy pretty decent public transport system (streetcars) they already had at the beginning of XX century, in order to replace them with highways and cars. That might have worked very early on, when few people owned cars, but after WWII, when everyone wanted a dream suburban house with a garage, everyone started to drive into the city - and this was the beginning of the end.

It's really quite simple. Cities are not made out of rubber and you can't stretch valuable real estate forever to make space for more and more cars. Turning vast surfaces in downtown into parking lots is clearly a very bad investment for the city (free parking lots don't pay city taxes), which took us way too long to understand (and some of us still don't get it).

But there is hope. More and more city governors and planners notice that situation is not improving, despite opening new roads, bridges, parking garages, etc. They finally started turning their focus to what they destroyed 80 years ago - public transport.

One good example how a city can quickly improve the situation without spending massive amounts of money (Because let's be clear - building a new streetcar line from scratch wouldn't be exactly inexpensive.) is BRT - bus rapid transport. In short, it's about giving buses dedicated lanes whenever possible, adjusting signals to prioritize buses over the rest of traffic and moving bus stops to avoid buses leaving and merging with the flow of traffic.

My town of Arlington played with this idea for a while and this October we will see the introduction of a pilot BRT program on our main street - Massachusetts Avenue. I'm really happy such initiatives turn into solutions - hopefully permanent, but there are a few bugs in this early design that I'd like to point out.

First of all, this BRT program has a very limited range, running only between Lake St and Alewife Brook Parkway - that's only 10 blocks/intersections, but since it's just a pilot, I can live with that.

Then, there are some major issues in the design of BRT bus route and I seriously hope that this is only temporary and should Arlington decide to keep the BRT forever (and they should!), these bugs will get fixed before we make anything permanent.
Just take a look at this route design near Henderson St. The third, bus-only lane is placed where some parking spots used to be. Unfortunately, the city decided to place bike lane on the wrong side of these parking spots and now, since BRT lane replaces those spots, cyclists will get squeezed between moving buses to the right and speeding cars to the left. Honestly, who would want to ride a bike in a lane like this? Obviously the right way to handle this is to move the bike lane all the way to the right - next to the curb, and place buses next to car traffic.
This is what we have - with bike lanes painted on the wrong side of parking lanes.

 This is what are getting for now - bicyclists will be squeezed into a space between buses and cars.

And that's what we should have - move bike lane behind bus stops. No need to for buses to move into/out of their BRT lane and safer for cyclists.

Similar problem is shown in the second picture from city's presentation. It looks like buses will have to cross the bike lane in order to reach bus stops, then cross it again to merge with the BRT lane. Again, this makes no sense. The correct way is to swap bike lane and BRT lane, placing bike lane closer to the sidewalk, ideally running it behind the bus stops. That makes it easier for everyone - car drivers don't need to worry about buses and bikes, bus drivers stay in their BRT lane all the time and cyclists are physically separated from all heavy car/bus traffic.

Let's wait until October to see BRT in action and then hopefully we will have a chance to address these problems and make it right before anything becomes permanent. For now, I'm being optimistic.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The Nahmakanta Tour - Day 3

Day 3 - Endless Lake to Pittsfield (126km/78mi) 

On day three, the sun woke me up early when it rose above the treeline. On these short bikepacking trips my daily routine changes quite a bit. I go to bed at sunset, since there isn't really much to do in darkness. This lets me get up at sunrise and maximize daylight usage for riding.
I tend to travel pretty light, which means no cooking equipment, not many clothes, no big supplies. As such, packing my camp in the morning takes me a little more than half an hour. By 6:45AM I was already rolling out.
The first part of my route was to cross Seboeis Land forest and reach shores of Schoodic Lake. Fortunately, the road was wide and empty and cool, cloudy morning presented perfect conditions for a bike ride.
I eventually reached Railroad Bed Rd, which is basically a wide, smooth, flat and straight highway in place of a former railroad (obviously!). It was a welcomed change from all rough ATV trails I visited day before. Rolling there was like riding on a high-quality pavement. So nice, so easy.
Logging industry is the mainstay of Maine's economy. In fact, I'd bet that it's not moose or bear who is bicyclist's biggest threat in these lands, but logging trucks.

In no time I reached Milo - a small town on Sebec River. My goal was to get to Dover-Foxcroft by noon and stop for lunch. Of course, I could've just followed Rt6 and be done with it but this would've been too easy and not fun enough. So I opted for River Rd, which is actually a dead end road ending somewhere deep in the forest with a concrete barrier - a serious problem if you're in a car but only a minor obstruction if you're on a bike.
I finally got to Dover-Foxcroft and stopped at The Mill Inn & Cafe, which I can certainly highly recommend. Their food is delicious and the only minus I would give them is for the lack of a bike rack in front of their building. I had to chain my bike to the railing of nearby bridge.

Next, I had to get back to my car in Pittsfield and conveniently there was a long off-road trail extending all the way from Dover-Foxcroft to Newport, which means I could stay off the main roads and ride through some quieter areas. At least that's what I hoped for.

Unfortunately, people in Maine have a bit different understanding what "recreational trail" is and Newport/Dover-Foxcroft Rail Trail turned out to be heavily used for Maine-type of recreation. That is - ATV riding. By noon, sun was out, it got drier, which means it was dusty. Like - very dusty. During the full 40km/25mi of the trail I encountered only one cyclist, one jogger and hordes of ATVs blowing clouds of dust in the air. This proved to be tiresome and I was happy to get off the trail in Newport and merging with a regular paved road. 

After getting back to Park & Ride in Pittsfield all I had left was to spend the next 3 hours driving back to Boston,... which welcomed me with hot and humid weather again. Argh..., I should've just stayed in Maine!

The Nahmakanta Tour - Day 2

Day 2 - Lily Bay State Park to Endless Lake (134km/83mi)

The next morning, I woke up early, packed up and was ready to hit the road by 7:20. I stopped briefly at the shore of Moosehead Lake, since I didn't have a chance to see it the previous day - it was already too dark when I got to my campsite.
A deer family didn't even look at me when I rode by. They were too busy consuming breakfast.

My first quick stop was in Kokadjo, which is a tiny settlement at the edge of First Roach Pond and also the last resupply stop for miles to come. From here, the vast forested areas of Nahmakanta Public Reserved Land swallowed me whole and gave me a solid workout.
Kokadjo Camps & Trading Post

I admit, I've never had a chance to explore remote National Forests in the West or Midwest. I live in New England where most land is highly urbanized and even if you enter countryside, distances between towns and residential areas are measured in minutes - even when you travel by bike.
The Nahmakanta Land was my first experience of being in a truly remote place. Yes, there were roads, although those roads were barely appropriate for trucks and locals use them mostly for ATVs in summer and snowmobiles in winter. Yes, I could see tire tracks in the ground, telling me that someone comes there once a while. But not knowing how old these tracks where and knowing that the next settlement is 40mi (60km) ahead, gave me some uneasy feeling. At least for a moment.
ITS86 was my main ATV "highway" I followed to Millinocket

Main Nahmakanta Land road. This one was really nice - few rocks and no mud.

So it was just me, my bike and... surprisingly few animals around. No mosquitoes, no moose, no bear, just a single porcupine. And the sound of wind.

But once I got to Nahmakanta Lake I saw a car with two people and a dog inside. They were equally surprised seeing me as I was seeing them. They asked where I came from and where I was heading. When I said "Millinocket", they seemed puzzled: "How the hell do you get to Millinocket from here?".

Good question. And a tough one to answer if you're in a car. But since bicycles are true freedom vehicles, they take you to places where cars don't go. As I found out - also to places where not even ATVs go.
One of my trails. This one was snowmobile-only, which explains lots of vegetation.

I knew where I wanted to go. But what I didn't know was that the next section of my trail was for snowmobiles only, which means that it was completely unused in summer. And that means it was so heavily overtaken by vegetation that for the first two miles I spent more time walking my bike or rather pushing it through, than riding it.

For a moment I thought that if something bad happens there, I could be in trouble. Not only no one is going to find me there in summer, but it's also questionable anyone would find me there in winter - once heavy snow comes and covers everything.
Fortunately, after a couple of miles the situation improved and the rest of the trail was actually usable. Once I got to the wide gravel Grant Brook Rd I knew the toughest part was behind me. From there I finally reached Millinocket where I stopped for late lunch.

Another burger and two more Allagash White later I was back on the road. My initial goal was to reach the edge of Seboeis Lake, which is a public reserved land and where camping is generally allowed for free.
It was getting late and I still had miles to go. I decided to abandon the ATV trail that runs along the main road (Rt11) since it would slow me down too much. Instead, I stayed on Rt11 and by 5:30PM I entered Seboeis Public Land.
There still was some daylight left so I figured that was an opportunity to push a bit more forward and camp further down my route - giving me a head start the next day.
This way I eventually reached Endless Lake with a picture-perfect camping spot right at the waterfront. After pitching my tent, I went for a swim. Water was surprisingly warm and refreshing. Could there be a better way to end the long day?

The Nahmakanta Tour - Day 1

This summer is just not going away! Since it's still too hot and too humid in Boston to enjoy outdoors, I decided to run away to central Maine, with my bike, obviously.

I rode the length of Maine coast all the way to Canada and back last summer and I visited many other places in Maine earlier with my family, but I never had a chance to see the interior of this most-forested state in USA. To fix this mistake, last Friday early morning I packed my bike, put it in the car and drove for 3 hours to Pittsfield, ME to begin a 3-day mini-tour of Moosehead Lake, Nahmakanta and Seboeis Lands and Piscataquis River valley.

This time was a bit different though than my other biketouring trips. First of all, I have a different bike. It's heavier but it's much more capable in tough terrain and as such, I planned my route to stay away from main roads as much as possible and include many unpaved roads and small trails.

Then, there was a matter of carrying the load: tent, mattress, sleeping bag, clothes, etc. In short, I gave up on a rear rack entirely. In fact, the only load over the rear wheel (except my body) was a tiny saddlebag with tools and spares. Everything else I carried weighed down the front wheel.
This, in general, turned out to be a pretty good idea. The front load didn't seem to affect performance of this bike in any significant way. Handling was still very stable and predictable. But now, I think that perhaps the next time I should leave some things packed over the rear wheel as well. That's because when climbing steep gravel roads while riding out-of-saddle, the rear tire had a tendency to slip too easily and weighing it down could help.

Day 1 - Pittsfield to Moosehead Lake (138km/86mi)

It's a pretty long drive to Pittsfield, ME so I left home early in the morning. I parked my car at one of Park & Ride lots where you can leave your car for free for several days and by 9:30AM I was on the bike. The first miles were maybe a bit boring, since I was going mostly through some farmland. On the other hand, the smell of fresh natural fertilizer wakes you up better than coffee...

The best thing about rolling through central Maine this time of the year was the temperature. It was cool at only 60F (16C) in the morning and then barely 72F (22C) in the late afternoon - a much needed relief from hot and humid Boston.
The fun started when I got to a 20km/12mi mark and entered Scott Rd - a wide, unpaved forest road. This way I eventually reached the town of Harmony - a stop for logging trucks.
Next, I made my way further north to Kingsbury Plantation and then continued on a rocky ATV trail (Old Stage Coach Rd) towards wind power generators on the hilltop. Unfortunately, here is where my navigational skills failed me and I found out that the road that exists on map, doesn't in real life. I ended up riding all the way back down to Rt16 and then taking Happy Corner Rd back north towards Blanchard.

Rocks - this (and mud) is what most ATV "highways" in Maine are made of

These things are huuuge up close!

Right after passing Blanchard I was supposed to merge with another ATV trail going north, but it turned out to be closed due to "saturated soils", which is a nice way to say that you will likely either drown in mud or water. I decided not to try that and took the main road to Shirley Mills.
The good thing was that from there it was a straight shot along a wide gravel road (and a former railroad bed) to Greenville. The bad thing was that it was already pretty late and I didn't have much daylight left to enjoy.
I stopped for a dinner at Stress Free Moose Pub & Cafe, which as it turns out, serves very decent burgers and has a good selection of beers. Two Allagash White later, I was back on the road making my way north to Lily Bay State Park. Unfortunately, it got completely dark and I spent riding the last miles, as well as pitching my tent, in darkness. Yes, I made a big mistake not taking a flashlight with me.

The park turned out to be a very nice place to stay for the night. Nothing beats a hot shower and a view of starry sky after a long ride.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Sinewave Beacon - not your ordinary headlight

Summer is nearly over, which means days will be getting shorter and if you plan riding your bike through winter you will need a decent headlight.
Beacon headlight (Source: Sinewave Cycles)

Beacon by Sinewave Cycles is a highly regarded dynamo headlight among American bikepackers, probably because it's one of few such lights made right here in USA. Plus, it's packed with features such as high power beam delivering a flux of 750 lumens, integrated USB charger, waterproofing, standlight, taillight output and more. Its three LEDs are enclosed in an anodized aluminum shell and there are no plastic parts anywhere in the light, so I'm pretty sure it's up to task of years of use (or abuse) during your bikepacking expeditions.
Backside with external power connector (left), USB charger output (middle) and main on/off switch (right). Two cables coming out of the unit are for the dynohub and a taillight. (Source: Sinewave Cycles)
I imagine if you heard about Beacon the most important question you want to have answered is - is it powerful enough to let you ride on forest trails in the middle of the night? The short answer is yes, but... it depends. If you're used to battery-powered headlights, you may be a bit disappointed. While batteries provide more-or-less constant voltage, dynohubs do the same only if they spin at constant (and high) speed. And here is the problem. I noticed that you can get high beam power only if you move at over 15kmh (9mph). At that minimum speed Beacon was certainly bright enough that I could easily navigate rocky forest singletrack. That is in good agreement with what Sinewave states on their website. Apparently, at over 8mph Beacon provides flux of 500 lumens, to eventually reach max. of 750 lumens at over 13mph.

But once the path you're on gets more technical and you slow down, the beam dims significantly to the point I wouldn't call it bright enough for off-road riding anymore. This isn't really the issue with Beacon but rather a limitation of all dynohubs. Fortunately, this is where the external power input feature comes handy. At this point you can plug in your external battery pack to Beacon and power it that way, basically abandoning the dynohub.

Now, let me tell you about my dislikes because there are a few. First of all is the price. At $350, it's clearly one of the most expensive headlights you can buy and probably the most expensive dynamo light I know. Of course, this high price is somewhat explained by the fact that Beacon is 100% US-made in small batches and that it carries an integrated charger on board. Once you take that into consideration, it's only a bit more expensive than other high-power headlights, but not 2 or 3 times more.

But the main issue I have with Beacon is it's beam pattern or rather lack thereof. According to Sinewave Cycles, Beacon has a symmetrical beam pattern which is an "ideal choice for off-road riding". Somehow, I'm not completely buying that explanation. The torch-like, omnidirectional pattern has no horizontal cut-off, which means that you will always be illuminating the road ahead of you as well as tree tops nearby. Even in a deep forest, I'm not entirely convinced this is a welcomed feature. I would much rather have less light coverage vertically and more horizontally, i.e. a wider beam. Maybe then I would've noticed that deer next to the road that scared me on my last ride. I understand though that it's just much easier to slap 3 LEDs together behind a piece of glass, than design a proper beam-shaping reflector.
This symmetrical beam becomes a real problem once you leave the dark forest and ride on a bike path. I had a cyclist yell at me "Too bright!" simply because my Beacon was blinding him. On my bike, this presents a major problem. My light is not handlebars-mounted but instead I have it mounted on the front rack. There is no way for me to reach there and cover it with my hand once I see approaching cyclist. Essentially, the only thing I can do is to significantly slow down, which would dim the light sufficiently that it will stop blinding others. However, that's not really a solution I would want to use frequently. I wish there was some kind of low power mode, when maybe only a single LED is on, just to be seen on a bike path and not blind others.

+ powerful beam at 750 lumens
+ built-in USB charger
+ 100% waterproof
+ can be battery-powered
+ charger priority mode - you can charge devices and use light at the same time
+ standing light with built-in capacitor
+ taillight output
+ US-made, even better - made here in Massachusetts
+ custom colored finish available

- omnidirectional beam without horizontal cut-off blinds others
- no low power mode for city use
- expensive?

Who is it for?
Beacon is clearly aimed at off-road riders, bikepackers and anyone who has to ride bikes in remote areas, further from civilization. For such applications, it's nearly perfect. But where it really fails is in-city use. Basically, be ready to be constantly reminded by others to "cover your light" or "turn it off".

I still very much like my Beacon and I think it's great... for what it's designed for. But part of me thinks that it's silly you pay $350 for a headlamp that turns out to be pretty much unusable on a bike path.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

We need more dangerous roads!

I ride to work everyday (despite the heat), I ride for sport and I ride with kids. And the only thing that can truly ruin my day is... cars. Or drivers, actually. So, no - it's not the weather (A little summer rain can be welcomed in this heatwave). It's not even about facing road rage of some idiots on road. It's just about having to physically "share" the road space.
Some say that bicycles are vehicles so it's fair to expect cyclists to follow the same rules other vehicles follow. In other words - bike-specific road space (such as bike lanes) is pointless because if all vehicles on road are equal, then why designate some of this space to bikes, if they are not special? Right?
"Share the road" - they say. And then they give you this...

 which is why I would rather have this (at very least).

This approach is called vehicular cycling and it's a sound concept - on paper. Unfortunately, our reality is not black and white and decades of road transportation all over the world proved that vehicular cycling just doesn't work.

At all.

Well, in fact, it sort of does - in just one situation. On those narrow, neighborhood streets, where car traffic is severely slowed down by design (speed bumps, chicanes, etc.), there's really no need for a separated bicycle infrastructure. If cars are tamed and move not faster than 20mph (and usually even slower than that), bicycles can easily share the road with them.

But that's an exception. Meanwhile, vehicular cycling proponents would like to apply their ideas to all roads because bicycles are vehicles so why make an exception? Technically, they are right. Bicycles are vehicles, but they are not cars and as such, applying the same rules and privileges to both makes little sense. And it makes drivers crazy. Because if the same rules apply to everyone, then why cyclists can't use the full lane whenever they want, but are expected to ride "in the gutter"? At least, that's what most drivers want them to do. If you don't believe me, try riding your bike in the middle of the lane next time. We'll see how quickly you'll hear complains from passing drivers.

So there you go. Because virtually 100% of drivers break law (Show me one who always obeys speed limits), we - cyclists, need protection. We need safer streets and separated infrastructure. We really don't want to share road with cars (And don't even get me started on trucks). So how do we design safe streets?
"Share the road"? Not with you, maniacs!

The more I think about it, the more examples I see, the more collisions (often deadly) I read about, the more I come to conclusion that the only right answer is this - make them be afraid.

Make drivers afraid of the only thing they truly care about and are afraid to ruin - their cars!

That's right. Idiot drivers don't care if they hit you, don't care if they damage your bike, don't care if they break your leg, often don't even care much if you end up dead.

But they are afraid of damaging their cars (How many times have you seen an angry driver threatening a cyclist not to touch his car?). So this is the only way it will work. When we  design safe streets we need to think like drivers. The right question to ask is not how to make streets safer for pedestrians or cyclists, but how to make it "unsafe" for drivers. This could include narrower lanes, trees close to the road, chicanes, tight turns, speed bumps, etc. Only then drivers will have to put down their cell phones and look at the road, look for other people, bicycles, cars. We need more roads like these - "dangerous" roads.
It's the only thing that will make them pay attention.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Wet vs. dry - the yin and yang of chain lubricants

There is nothing worse in riding a bike than a flat tire and a squeaky chain. I discussed going tubeless to avoid the former, now it's time to discuss the matter of lubrication to avoid the latter.

First of all, let's hope you're not putting canola oil on your chain but you use something better. By better, I don't mean imported Italian extra virgin olive oil. I mean the proper chain lubricant.

During the last few years I've been using two different lubricants - Chain-L and Dumonde Tech Original. Now some of you might still think that it doesn't really matter what chain lube you use. You would be mistaken.
I'm not being paid to review here anything. The products mentioned were purchased with my own money and all I do is to share my opinion.

To save you time and get to the point, let me say that these two lubricants are like fire and water - completely different. How different? See for yourself:
As you can see, these two are the yin and yang of bicycle chain lubricants. Dumonde Tech is the typical dry lube - designed to dry out quickly, leaving a dry film that does not attract much dust. As such, it's perfect for dry and dusty conditions. Unfortunately, it wears out relatively quickly and requires more frequent re-application. Fortunately, thanks to its low viscosity it can be applied in a short time and it will dry out almost immediately. Just don't try to use it on a rainy day as it gets flushed out by water too easily. In fact, it's good to re-apply it every time after your chain gets soaked.

In short, I can't imagine a more perfect lube for dry conditions, if only it lasted a bit longer and didn't smell so bad (use it outdoors, not in your kitchen!).

On the other hand, Chain-L is a wet lube, meaning it creates an oily, sticky film that will last long time and won't get rinsed off by rain. Unfortunately, it also means that it attract dust like crazy and after riding on a dry, dusty road your bike chain may look like a breadcrumb-encrusted fillet. Because it's more viscous, it also takes more time to apply as you have to wait for it to soak into chain links.

Overall, it's a really good lubricant for those wet, soggy conditions. Just make sure you wipe off any excess from outside of the chain links. This will minimize dust collection and reduce overall mess.

Now you may think that you will have to buy both and apply them whenever weather changes, but I don't think this would be necessary. In general, if you don't like too much mess and avoid riding in rain, use something like Dumonde Tech. But if you ride in any weather and don't want to re-apply lubricant often - go with a wet lube like Chain-L. Switching from one to another makes no sense (unless you swap chains) but if you want to, in general it's no problem to use a wet lube over a dry lube but not vice versa.

I use Chain-L on my all-weather commuter bike. This way I'm ready for any conditions. I just need to remember to clean the chain once a while to avoid dust collection. I use Dumonde Tech on my recreation/exploration bike since I ride it mostly in the summer and on unpaved dirt roads. When necessary, I re-apply the lubricant every time the chain gets wet.