Saturday, July 4, 2015

MIT Haystack and Nashua River Rail Trail

This year's 4th of July came on Saturday but fortunately my company gave me Friday off so it still counts as a long holiday weekend. Having a full day available I decided to take a longer ride and explore new areas by bike.

I started in Arlington at 6:20AM and used the Minuteman Bikeway to reach Bedford, then crossed Concord River an approached Carlisle. It was supposed to be a very warm and sunny day but early morning air was still crisp and fresh.

Concord River

I continued on North Rd in Carlisle (One of the best places for road biking in this area - very low traffic, decent paving and places to see on the way.), then crossed Bruce Freeman Rail Trail and eventually reached Graniteville.
Railway crossing in Graniteville

From there, it was only a short ride to MIT Haystack Observatory in Westford. What was originally built for the army is now a MIT center for atmospheric research and planetary sciences.
Millstone Rd in Westford, MA - enter here.

Haystack Telescope is on the top of a hill so some climbing is required. The first thing you will notice is a large white ball of the Westford Radio Telescope. At this point you need to cross the gate that wasn't opened yesterday (Maybe MIT had a day off as well?) so I decided to... ignore it and continue up the hill (Sorry).
Westford Radio Telescope

Further up the hill I approached large antenna structures that turned out to be the Zenith Antenna (the one lying flat on the ground) for UHF transmissions, while the vertical one is the MISA Antenna.
Zenith (in foreground) and MISA antennas

MISA Antenna

Eventually, reaching top of the hill I could see the Haystack Radio Telescope (or rather its dome). I spent about half an hour on the top of the hill, taking a break from riding. It turned out that it took me 2 hours to reach Haystack, which was better than I expected.
Haystack Radio Telescope

Millstone Rd is the only way down the hill from Haystack but because I wanted to connect with Keyes Rd to the east, I decided to take one of the forest trails down. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a bad idea. The trails are heavily overgrown in places and are rideable only on a mountain bike or fatbike. Walking my bike, half an hour and multiple mosquito bites later I finally reached the bottom of the hill... at Millstone Hill Rd.
  
Trails around Haystack Telescope hill - don't approach without a good mountain bike. And a mosquito net.

So the shortcut didn't work but then I could keep moving faster and passing by the Upper Massapoag Pond (beautiful place, by the way) I reached Dunstable. I continued further north to cross the state border and arrived at the entrance to the Nashua River Rail Trail at Gilson Rd. This was a bit symbolic for me because for the first time I finally had a chance to ride my bike from my home to another state (and back).
  
Nashua River Rail Trail (NRRT) is very similar to the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail I visited earlier or our Minuteman Trail in Arlington and Lexington. It is narrower but a bit longer than the Minuteman - 12.5mi vs. 10mi.
At that point it was already almost noon and trail was full of joggers, dog walkers and other cyclists but despite that I could keep a steady pace. I took another long break at Groton to stop for lunch. Main Street Cafe offers good food but has no bicycle parking of any kind (not even a lamp post or a road sign), which is surprising given proximity of NRRT.
From there it was a straight shot to Ayer where NRRT ends. I've never been to Ayer before and center of this town surprised me - lots of nice, historic buildings.
Main St in Ayer, MA

It was time to head back home. Sun was at its peak and it was getting very hot. I was glad I put some sunblock on, otherwise I wouldn't look too good the following day. I kept moving through Littleton, Acton, Concord to arrive back in Lexington at the Minuteman Trail. The whole ride took me about 7hrs and 40min total and turned out to be 136km (85mi) long.
Barretts Mill Farm in Concord

By the way, I'm riding now on new tires - Stampede Pass Extralight (32mm wide) from Compass Cycles. From what I read about these, they are a holy grail of all road tires - very light, wide and supple. They feel great at 40-45psi (which is very low for this type of tire). It's kind of like riding on a bit harder tubes only because these tires are very thin. Which leaves an open question about their durability. Fortunately, they have worked very well so far.
That's it. Happy 4th of July everyone. Time for a beer!

Friday, June 26, 2015

Thirteen speeds please!

Long, long time ago pretty much all road bicycles had 10 speeds - 2 chainrings and 5-sprocket freewheels. Over time, bicycle drivetrains developed into 2x6, 2x7,... and today's newest 2x11 systems. That's what you would see now on a typical, new road bicycle.
When mountain bikes became more popular, they needed more gearing range and a standard 2x5 or 2x6 system couldn't provide that. The solution was to add extra chainring so soon 3x6, 3x7 and 3x8 setups became a norm. But when cassettes got more and more sprockets and a wider range (such as 11-36T), it turned out that a 3x9 setup is usually not needed so the extra chainring was abandoned. This is why today's mountain bike feature 2x9 and 2x10 drives and a 3x? (three-by) setup is now a rare sighting.
The situation got more interesting with the arrival of 11 speed cassettes in the mountain biking world. The extra sprocket allowed for even wider range setups and when SRAM came up with a 1x11 system, with a single chainring and a 10-42T cassette, it became obvious that front derailleurs may soon be extinct.
A typical 2x9 MTB setup compared to SRAM's XX1 1x11 - same range but no front derailleur, simpler shifting and a lighter crankset (Simulated using 27.5" wheels with 2.35" tires. Source: gear-calculator.com)
 
But what's good for mountain bikers, is not necessarily good for roadies. Mountain bikes need wide gearing range and clearly 10-42T cassette can provide that. But it's not very useful on a road bike because jumps between the gears are just too wide. Not yet - but in several years when 12 and then 13 speed cassettes show up, such drivetrain is definitely possible on a road bike, providing wide range and tightly spaced gears.
Today's 2x11 road setup compared to a hypothetical 1x13 - similar range with tightly spaced gears in the higher cassette range. (Simulated using 700C wheels with 23mm tires. Source: gear-calculator.com)
 
Both 1x11 and 1x12 drivetrains have many benefits - they can be lighter, requiring less maintenance, easier and faster to use. But there are issues as well. The main one is the tight space available on the rear hub. Adding more sprockets to the rear wheel means that the spokes from the drive side must be aligned nearly vertically and asymmetrically loaded. In order to solve this problem, future rear road hubs may simply become wider, for example, adopting the 135mm MTB, or wider, standard. Such transition happened in the past already - old 5-speed road wheels used to have 120mm rear hubs until the newer 126mm and eventually 130mm standards were developed.
My prediction is that in the nearest future we will see more of:
  • 12 speed cassettes combined with a single chainring
  • lack of front derailleurs on many new bicycles
  • wider standard for road bicycle rear hubs (and possibly MTB as well)
  • more options for wide-range 11 and 12 speed cassettes (plus lower price)
The setup I would like to see for my future road/touring bike - wide range 13-speed 10-40T cassette with a single 38T chainring. (Simulated using 700C wheels with 32mm tires. Source: gear-calculator.com)

The future begins today. SRAM has already showed what the next road setup may look like with their newest 1x11 system. But at this point it's not a particularly interesting offering for those who would want to replace their 2x10 setups - it doesn't have enough range, using 11-speed only cassette.
 
We need more gears on the rear hub and I'm pretty sure we will have them (At least on road bikes. MTBs may get other solutions such as the Pinion gearbox instead). Anyway, the future looks exciting. 

Friday, June 19, 2015

Unfinished business

I mentioned a few weeks ago that town of Bedford, MA planed on adding multiple bike lanes in its area. Earlier this week I was really happy to notice that this process has already begun. Newly renovated section of Route 62 received bike lanes on both sides. Placing bike lanes on this busy road is definitely a good idea. Unfortunately, its execution doesn't look exciting at all.
Route 62 is wide enough in places to allow for wide bike lanes on both sides. But then, there are sections where the bike lane would have to be so narrow that you couldn't possibly fit a bike on it. Obviously, we would expect the traffic lanes to be adjusted or the road widened to make space for regular-width bike lanes. But it didn't happen. Instead, what we are getting is a very fragmented network of lanes, in short sections only.
No bike lane here since the shoulder is too narrow and can't be converted into a proper bike lane easily.
 
But the road gets wider several hundred feet later and we get a "protected" bike lane here.
 
Unfortunately, it continues for only 300ft until the road gets narrower again and we lose the "protected" lane. New lane markings are not complete yet but you can see where the shoulder will be, marked by this preliminary line.
 
The construction is not over yet so I still hope that the remaining part of the road is going to be rebuilt to maintain continuity of the bicycle lane network. Otherwise, I wonder what is the point in painting these bike lanes? If the town is not intending to do this right, then instead of pretending that these short fragments are real bike lanes, it would be better to just leave them unmarked, as road shoulders only. Cyclists could still use them as bike lanes if they wanted to and the town could save some money on paint and labor. But then they couldn't tell everyone how vast network of bicycle lanes they have in their area, I suppose.
In the opposite direction, there is no bike lane despite plenty of space on this side of the intersection.
 
But then, the lane shows up on the other side of the intersection...
 
...only to disappear at the next one.
 
This is what I find particularly annoying about modern infrastructure in many American cities. There is no vision. New bike lanes look like an afterthought, like unfinished business. Almost like city planners didn't really want them, but were required to add a number of new bike lane miles a year. So they did. In few hundred-feet-long fragments, not connected with each other at all. When a new road is built, no one suggests that only short sections of it should be paved, with others left undeveloped, so why is this approach acceptable with bike infrastructure?

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Bikes for your young riders

I follow several bicycle-related, local blogs online and it seems that the author of one of them has moved to Northern Ireland where she can enjoy a perfect summer weather, wearing sweaters and tweed coats. Meanwhile, here in Boston, with outside temperature around 90F (32C) I wonder how many more layers of clothing I can remove without being accused of indecent exposure.

But sunny weather makes kids happy so I try to include my two little gangsters in any bicycle-ran errands whenever possible. Junior is 4 now and I am trying to teach him the whole biking thing but adoption rate seems very slow. Being a cautious kid he's just not that interested in trying on his own. Perhaps his time will come later. His little devil sister is much more eager to explore all the dangers of this world and I have a feeling she will be the first one to ride her own bike. For now, both of them love riding with me on big Eddie.
All this doesn't mean that I'm not trying to find the best future bike for my kids. Even if they are too young or not interested, it's still good to check what's on market. Fortunately, the situation has improved dramatically over the last years. We now have more options of quality kids bikes with new ones popping out each year.

That's good, because so far most children's bicycles were either BMX or some crappy and heavy pseudo-MTBs with really weird geometry. Also, too often, in my opinion, bicycles for youngest kids come with suspension forks and too many gears. Simplicity usually does the trick so let's not make bikes for 6-year olds look like miniature downhill machines, shall we?
A fairly typical bike for little kids. In order to ride this thing they would either have to lean back or have really short arms.

First of all, it's good to see the biggest manufacturers to come up with some new designs that may actually work quite well. For example, Trek sells Superfly 16 and Superfly 20 and both seem to be designed much better than an ordinary Walmart bike. Basic chainguards, better-suited sitting positions and aluminum frames should account for a stress-free riding.

But then I keep finding more and more examples of really well-thought children bicycles coming usually from new, small, family-run businesses. The biggest one of them is probably Islabikes. They have many models of lightweight and well-designed bicycles such as Cnoc 16 ($310) that comes with aluminum frame, lightweight wheels and fully-enclosed chainguard.

Another new player in this market is Cleary Bikes. They offer only a few basic models and, like Hedgehog 16, they are built from steel and as single-speed only. Interestingly, these little buggers have internal cable routing! Price is $295 for Hedgehog and $250 for a smaller Gecko.

Recently, we have also seen something new in this market coming from Linus - a classic-looking Lil Roadster (or Lil Dutchi for girls). For $290 your kid can roll around on a bicycle that resembles daddy's old Schwinn. You may question whether it's worth spending nearly $300 on a steel single-speed bike but this is one of very few that clearly doesn't have a mountain bike heritage, comes with fenders (even though they seem a bit short), bell and an optional rear rack. How many other children bicycles look like Lil Roadster? None, I think.

If you want to be even more original, how about a tiny cargo bike for your kids? You can have one from Republic for $350. It looks like a miniature Christiania bicycle and although its usability may be questionable since the box can hold only up to 10lbs (So no carrying another kid in it. Sorry.), you have to admit that it does look damn cute.
 Miniature cargo bike from Republic.


That's not all. There are more interesting kids bikes on Kickstarter. Priority wants to be a new player on this market with Priority Start - a bicycle with some interesting features such as aluminum frame, belt drive and solid tires. I don't think I'm sold on non-pneumatic tires idea but belt drive in kids bike makes a lot of sense. No more greasy pants and virtually no maintenance required.
Priority Start - a bicycle with solid wheel and a belt drive.


The second one you can find on Kickstarted is The Revo ($260 with discount) from Pello Bikes. It looks really good, I have to say. Aluminum frame with fender eyelets and low weight is a good start. Add a chainguard and we may have a winner.
The Revo from Pello Bikes.

Interestingly, the main motivation of all designers behind those Kickstarter bicycles is to build one with lower weight than an oridinary Walmart bike. That's not surprising given how much a tiny kids bike can weigh. And even though BikeSnob says that "children should not be exposed to weight weenie-ism at such an early age", it's great to see so many higher quality options showing up.

So far it looks like all of these bicycles are priced around $300. It may seem expensive, compared to Walmart's $129 options but in terms of build and ride quality, I'm sure they come from two different worlds. On the other hand, $300 is probably not that much for something our kids will use for a few years and will make them want more. It equals 2 sets of high quality tires or 2 leather Brooks saddles or just 1 Rapha jacket.

It is important for the first bike to be the right one and not discourage our little ones from bicycling by anchor weight or uncomfortable riding position.

Oh, and one more thing. If you happen to have way too much money you can always go full custom. How about a 14.3lbs (6.5kg) bike with a titanium frame, carbon fork, Chris King headset, hydraulic disc brakes and Tune hubs? It can be done. Just don't expect this one to cost $300 (More like $3000 is probably a good guess).
Skyde 246 - a titanium youth bicycle for those who already have everything.

Friday, June 5, 2015

How bike-friendly is your city?

This week's big news in bicycle world (at least for those who just happen to ride their bikes for transport) is the 2015 Copenhagenize Index. Among the most bicycle-friendly cities in the world Copenhagen is first, Amsterdam second, and within the first 10 we also have 3 more Benelux cities, 3 French, 1 Swedish (Malmo) and 1 Spanish (Seville). Really, no surprises here.
 
More interesting things happened in places 10-20. We have Ljubljana and Buenos Aires ranked 13 and 14 and I didn't expect to see these cities ranked that high at all. Then, there is Minneapolis at number 18 (highest from all North American cities) and Montreal at 20. I'm happy to see that some American cities showed up on the Index and in general this is in agreement with many bicycling infrastructure improvements happening here. Unfortunately, with this rate of improvement Boston will show up in Top 20 around year 2150.
 
Speaking about the infrastructure, I was watching this video and really enjoyed how something Dutch and Danes take for granted is simply as foreign as real beer to most Americans.

Unfortunately, Dutch (and Danish) concept of bicycling safety is even more foreign on this side of the ocean. Otherwise, we wouldn't see comments like this one:
I enjoyed the video (...). However, it seemed a minority of the cyclists wear helmets and I am wondering why safety would not be stressed more.
Frankly, what truly surprised me in this video was how MANY cyclists wore helmets as in any other videos of this kind I usually couldn't spot a single helmeted person. I explained it to myself that those wearing helmets must be American tourists.

Anyway, it's pretty clear that in this part of the world helmeted cyclist = safe cyclist and words "bicycling" and "infrastructure" just don't mix together. In general, at least.

But cycling infrastructure is not only about those protected lanes that we want so badly but rarely see here. It is also about parking, such as bicycle racks. I have seen many poorly designed and placed racks and I wondered why there are no installation guidelines to follow. Annie from Anniebikes blog must have felt the same. That's why she came up with this guide. Very well written.
A bike rack next to my office building. Not the best design, but I actually like the non-tubular construction. I can use a lighter and narrower u-lock this way.

Finally, some news from Australia (Because no week is a good week without some ridiculous Aussie news). First of all, if Australia's focus is on ticketing jaywalkers, they clearly use their police resources in a wrong way, but that's probably not news anymore. But then it gets worse. The fact Australia is hostile to all people on bicycles is well known. In such case their idea to remove a protected cycle lane in Sydney, in order to widen the street for more cars, as ridiculous as it may sound, is actually not surprising. I could understand such decision if there was some logic behind it, but even though that cycle lane carries more people during the rush hours than car lanes on the same street, Duncan Gay, NSW minister of transport, is not convinced the cycle lane should stay.
College Street cycle lane is used by more people than adjacent car lanes. Minister's of transport decision? "Remove it!"
 
Actually, Duncan Gay must be mentally stuck in the 70's as he truly believes that bicycles have place somewhere far in the forest but not on city streets:
Gay is a staunch supporter of Australia’s mandatory helmet law for cyclists, has proposed banning cyclists from some roads, and is also a vociferous champion of making cyclists carry license plates. An Australia without mandatory cycle helmets would lead to “rage everywhere” and would be akin to letting “anarchists run the world,” he has said.  He is “increasingly persuaded” that cyclists need to be licensed – banning cyclists from some roads would be considered “on a safety basis.”
Holy shit! With people like that in your government, good luck Australia getting close to Copenhagenize Top 20 before year 2500.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Safety first!

It's so bloody hot outside that I started to melt. Once mercury rises above 75F (about 25C) it's the maximum summer temperature I can tolerate. Despite that, I started to wear one additional layer of protective "clothing". Safety first!

It's not a hi-visibility vest though. Those are better suited for people auditing pedestrian and bicycling safety in Virginia. Apparently, walking through the Washington Metro Area is so dangerous that you need a high-vis vest. Without it, there is no way you can survive a day and not be hit by a car.
Construction workers on their lunch break. No, no, I mean, DOT workers performing pedestrian safety audit.

But hey, who knows, maybe streets in Northern Virginia are so unsafe indeed? What can we do about it (except wearing hi-vis vests, of course)? Volvo engineers came up with a brilliant idea that their cars will now feature self-parking systems with pedestrian detection and avoidance option. Yes, pedestrian detection is an option. So now your car can park itself, mowing down some people on the way. According to Volvo, their safety is optional.

Ah, cars. We spend our lives in them and car makers noticed that. The long commute is literally killing us so cities try their best to shorten commute times. Or at least they think they do their best.

Just like in Houston, where using $2.8 billion of taxpayers money the city created a concrete monster, widening a 8-lane highway to a 23-lane one. That was supposed to shorten the commute but result is... even longer commute, up by 51%.
In 2014, during peak rush hour, it took 70 minutes, 27 seconds to travel from Downtown, past Beltway 8, all the way to Pin Oak, just past the Katy Mills Mall. In 2011, this same trip took 46 minutes, 53 seconds.
Well done, Houston. That's what's called induced demand but U.S. Rep. John Culberson, who begged Congress for money, has probably never heard of it. And I doubt that extra lanes made the new highway safer because we build them too wide anyway.

By the way, is this official then that Houston superhighway beats Burma's 20-lane monster from Naypyitaw
20-lane highway in Naypyitaw. Why, when there are no cars to fill it - you may ask. Because why the hell not - is the government's answer.

And my new safety gear? Well, it's not a helmet either, despite the fact that now I can finally buy a helmet I "would actually want to wear". It looks like a poorly ventilated potty with features like "vegan leather straps" and pop-out ear covers but I still don't know why I "would actually want to wear" it. The designers seemed to miss the point that at 80F weather there is no helmet (except a refrigerated one) I "would actually want to wear". Not that I actually need one on the Minuteman Bikeway (It's not like downhill mountain biking after all).


Thousand helmet, aka The Potty

The only safety gear I'm willing to wear in this weather is the protection glasses from my lab. My eyes suffer too much from all that pollen and dust floating in the air and I found out that protective eyewear is actually very useful for bike riding as well. Especially in May. I guess we desperately need some rain to flush that stuff away.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Friday news and how to find a lemon anywhere

It's finally Friday and the beginning of a long weekend, which means that I can review the passing week.
 
First of all, it looks like I got a lemon. My Sugino OX601D crankset that I like so much has been factory-recalled. Apparently, there is a pretty high chance of failure right where the spindle comes out of the right crank. I haven't noticed anything yet but I was told not to ride the bike and wait for a replacement. This means my Poprad remains grounded and I'm out of any long-range bicycle. No fun this spring so far, only work commute.
A new ranking of cycling-friendly states has surfaced yesterday. Glad to see that Massachusetts scored pretty high. Interestingly, the most bicycle-friendly is Washington, even though some may disagree on road safety in their neighborhoods. I guess they have a lemon too.

Wisconsin was ranked #9 but if they manage to pull off shit like this, I can see them dropping to the bottom, next to Alabama, pretty quickly. An extra tax on all new bicycles - brilliant idea Wisconsin! State Rep. John Nygren must be really short on cash trying to find a way cyclists could pay for their infrastructure. Here is the news Mr. Nygren - cyclists pay for the infrastructure the same way pedestrians do - in form of the income tax. No need to tax them more because they introduce about as much wear and tear to those few bike paths in Wisconsin as mommies with strollers. Or skateboarders. Unless you want to tax mommies with strollers too...
 
I guess Wisconsin simply follows example of Washington's State Rep. Ed Orcutt who also wanted to tax cyclists more because they "are actually polluting when they ride" due to "greater emissions of carbon dioxide from the rider". If only Mr. Orcutt knew how much CO2 cows produce chewing grass, there would be no cows left in Washington state. Wait a minute - is that the same Washington that scored first as the friendliest bike state? I told you that you can find a lemon anywhere.

Anyway, in case you are planning on buying a new bike, don't buy one in Wisconsin. Meanwhile, "staffers in Nygren's office said he was unavailable for comment on Wednesday." Maybe he and Mr. Orcutt went to have their heads checked.
 
Now some news from across the border. In case you found yourself in Vancouver, these are the rules you must obey while riding your bike there. Well, actually, these are the new rules provided by the author after his original rules were mocked on Twitter shortly after publishing. Not surprising, given that they contained such useful advice as "wear a helmet" (duh!), "ride in a single file" because "cycling is not the time for chit-chat", "stay as close to the curb as possible" and more. At least Bob learned the power of Internet and ate his lemon.
Finally, some happy news. Bedford, MA presented its Master Plan for bike and pedestrian infrastructure improvements. I'm glad to see they are planning on adding multiple bike lanes and paths around and even a separated (protected) bike lane on their main street. I will be monitoring their progress as I bike to Bedford every day.

In general, it's great to see that towns in my area do think about cycling and not only for recreation. I discussed Arlington plans already, Lexington tries too and now Bedford has a chance to do the right thing. As long as they don't make it a lemon.