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.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

What to do if you sweat too much on your bike commute

Have you had a problem with arriving to work sweaty? You will find plenty of advice what to do about it. The options usually are:
  1. Ignore it and address the issue once you arrive at your destination. You can shower (if available), wash up and change clothes.
  2. Dress lighter. Less clothing means more ventilation. The general rule is to dress for the end of your ride, not the beginning. This means that if you leave your house and feel toasty warm - you're overdressed. It's better to feel cold during the first few miles and warm up on your ride, than to arrive drenched in sweat.
  3. Dress differently. Still wearing that rainshell? Yes, it blocks the wind but it also makes you sweat underneath. Why not try something lighter? A vest? A heavier sweater maybe?
  4. Ride slowly. Maybe you're sweating simply because you're riding too fast? Slowing down should help.
Arriving sweaty again? (Source: yehudamoon.com)
 
So these are the typical advice you will hear. But there is one more thing. Something I haven't read about anywhere on Internet. Option #5 is this - if you don't want to get sweaty, change your riding position. I noticed that even if I consider options 2, 3 and 4, I still can get a bit sweaty on my upper back, especially in humid weather. This is because while riding a bicycle, I have to lean forward to hold the handlebars and that makes the shirt stick to my back. This applies to most bicycles I use. The lack of air gap between the clothing and my back reduces ventilation and makes me sweat. The solution is to ride in a much more upright position. Once I tried it, I immediately noticed the improvement. The shirt now simply drops down loosely from my shoulders, creating a generous pocket of air between clothing and my back, increasing ventilation and reducing sweat.
 
When I thought more about it, I realized that this is far from revolutionary. The Dutch and Danes surely have it in their Urban Cycling 101 handbook. Most people in Amsterdam or Copenhagen ride on urban bicycles, sitting very upright. Most of them move relatively slowly and travel short distances - both things helping them not being sweaty while cycling. But because they can keep their clothing loose, they can wear ordinary clothing and still stay dry. Have you ever seen a Dutch person wearing lycra in the center of Amsterdam? Me neither.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

12 cycling things to do before you die

British magazine Cycling Weekly published a list of 26 things to do on your bike before you die. Some of these activities are British-specific, many are aimed at road bikers, a few are pure nonsense. I'm sure everyone can come up with a list of things one wants to do on a bike before death. And in fact, if you are into bicycles and cycling, you should have such a list. Well, here is mine (no particular order):

1. Ride a 100mi in a day
Ok, I'm a metric guy so normally I would go with 100km but it isn't a distance that is THAT challenging. A hundred miles (or 160km) on the other hand, is. Or can be - depending on your skill level. For an average, fairly athletic person, riding 100mi will take a full day and it's a great opportunity not only to learn more about your body and its limits, know your bike better, but also to see more. Pick a day with nice summer weather (but not too hot and sunny), plan a route that would take you through some quiet roads, new places you haven't yet visited and enjoy it.
My status: done

2. Ride a long distance trail
This is something good to try together with the next challenge below. Exploring a long, isolated trail should be fun. You're on your own, you have a clear goal in mind, you're in the area never visited before. And there are many miles of it ahead.
My status: open

3. Go cycle touring
I always wanted to try it. Just pack a tent, sleeping bag, some clothes, etc. and go for a week long bike tour. Explore new areas, meet new people, camp out in nature. Riding longer distance is not new to me, neither is camping. Now it's time to put it together.
My status: open

4. Ride with your kids
So you spent many bachelor years racing and bike touring all over the world. But now you are a family guy and you have two busy bees to look after. What do you do? Include them, of course! Get a trailer or a child seat. Put your kids on your bike, then when they grow up, on their own bikes. Teach them how to ride a bike and tell them about the traffic rules. Show them world from the saddle and they will like it more than sitting inside a car. Noticed something interesting? You can stop your bike anytime and explore.
My status: done

5. Get a friend into cycling
Cycling Weekly's list calls for getting 50 people into cycling in your lifetime but I would say one is good enough. Pick a good friend of yours and get him/her into cycling. Your kids don't count. Your non-cycling wife might do.
My status: in progress

6. Ride on another continent
I've done it but I don't think it should count. I used to live in Europe and biked there (in Poland, Germany, Austria and Denmark to be exact). Then I moved to U.S. and biked here. But I think to truly claim this one I should try again. How about a cycling tour across New Zealand? I'm in!
My status: done (but must be repeated)

7. Restore an old bike
Hmm, it depends on how I look at this. If restoring a vintage bike means returning it as close to its original condition as possible,  paying close attention to using era-correct components and fabrication methods, I haven't tried it and I may never have a chance to do it. But if we just talk about taking an old bike and bringing it back to a useable condition, then I have done it a few times. Nevertheless, this challenge is just a good excuse to getting your hands dirty. Which is always a good thing.
My status: done?

8. Build a bike
If you bought your trusty Trek at a local bike store and you're happy with it - that's fine. But it doesn't mean you should stop there. Think what your current bike is not and should be. Think about your perfect bike (within the budget, of course) and then try to build one. Unlike owning a car, building your own bicycle is much simpler, cheaper and all components are readily available. You will end up with your own, customized machine, not to mention that the build process itself can be a lot of fun too. A word of warning though - if you haven't try it yet, start small and slow. Learn how to service your current bike an replace its components first. Putting a whole new bike together will come next.
My status: done (multiple times)

9. Ride on snow and at 0 deg F weather
Most people who use bikes for recreation call those warmer months of the year a "bike season". For most of dedicated cyclists, there is no such thing as the bike season because we know that bikes can be ridden year round. But even those who decide to ride their bikes through winter, sometimes decide it's officially too cold for a bike ride, when air temperature drops into negative American degrees. Well, it can be done but it may take you a while to figure out how to dress properly. Choose a shorter distance, wear something to block the windchill, cover your face, nose and ears. Wear goggles and balaclava if necessary. Use good gloves and warm shoes. You may find it challenging and you will notice car drivers looking at you in awe. Snow and 0 degrees? Challenge accepted! 
My status: done

10. Ride a fatbike
Because Cycling Weekly list focused too much on road cycling, I decided to fix it. Hence, riding a fatbike shows up on my list. I had a chance to do it recently and I have to say I couldn't get rid of the smile on my face for the rest of the week. They may look goofy, they may look heavy but once you try it, you will wonder why nobody invented such a thing earlier? Fatbikes are fun!
My status: done (but needs to be repeated!)

11. Ride to work for a full year
You may live too far from your office to try it on daily basis but if you don't, or if you can use light rail to cover some of the distance, you definitely should try bike commuting to work for at least one full year in your life. It's not only about the exercise but it does make you stronger, healthier and more aware of the surroundings. You will see the seasons change. You will notice the first flowers in the spring, experience (and survive) heavy summer thunderstorms, see leaves changing colors and learn how to dress for a ride at 5 deg F weather.
My status: done and still going

12. Ride in the dark
Riding in complete darkness isn't really my type of entertainment. During those dark, winter months I try to avoid pitch black bike paths and switch to riding along main roads that at least have some street lights. But riding in darkness can be interesting, at least in some places. Trails do look different when you can only rely on the headlight on your bike. Your eyes may not be enough to navigate. Time to open your senses and listen. What's lurking behind those bushes?
My status: done in urban setting but I need to try it again in deep forest
Obligatory picture. Unrelated to content.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Monetary and daylight savings

After the cold and rainy weekend sun has peeked through the clouds again. But despite the really nice weather this morning, I had to take my car to work as I needed to run some errands later and running them by bike, although totally possible, would be simply time-inefficient.
 
A quick stop at the pump came with a surprise that a gallon of gas costs only $3.10. Cheaper than a gallon of milk! Looks like bikers have just lost a few fellow commuters. Cheaper gas means usually less incentive to save money and ride a bike to work instead.
Expensive gas = more cyclists on the road? (Source: yehudamoon.com)
 
It's November and the time to switch clocks an hour back. Which means a dark commute for the next 4 months. Time to check on those lights. Don't be a bike ninja!
 
This also means that soon I will be saying goodbye to the Minuteman Bikeway. I like riding my bike that way from Arlington to Bedford, even though it takes me more time to get to work. Avoiding smelly cars and general traffic is well worth it.
But this popular path has one major flaw that makes it less attractive in winter time. It is nearly completely pitch black after 5 p.m. There are no street lamps and even with a decent headlight on my bike I don't find riding in complete darkness enjoyable. This makes me choose the alternative path along the busy Rt 2A, even if it means riding along the car traffic.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Fall(ing) rain

Seems like the sunny and warm fall days are over (at least for now) and we have entered the rainy season. Riding a bicycle in these conditions may be a challenge, especially if you attempt it on a day like today, when a heavy downpour is joined by strong winds. Unfortunately, there seem to be no universal recipe on how to survive a really rainy day on your bike. Some prefer to rain nearly naked, knowing that they all get wet anyway. Others use rain capes to protect them from elements. You really have to experiment and try on your own. Judging on my recent experience, here is what I came up with (applies to urban cycling):
 
1. I would suggest an upright, urban bike with full length fenders, chain guard, lights and ideally disc or roller brakes (although some rim breaks work pretty well even when mucky and wet). Fenders are the most important. If you refuse to use them on your bike, forget about the special rain clothing. You will get soaked no matter what you try.
 
2. If it rains heavily and air temperature is low (32-60F or 0-15C), I wear a waterproof jacket (or something similar), a hat with wider brim (to prevent rain falling on my glasses), waterproof pants and waterproof overshoes. This clothing lets me stay perfectly dry as long as l don't race but ride slowly (which is recommended in wet conditions anyway).
 
3. If it rains and air temperature is high (over 70F or 21C), I normally wouldn't bother much with rain gear except maybe overshoes to protect my shoes, as they would take long time to dry and a hat to protect my glasses. The reason why I don't wear any other waterproof clothing is that when it's hot and humid I would be wet anyway - if not from rain then from sweat collecting underneath the rain jacket. Should I get very wet, I simply change my clothes once I get to the office.
 
4. In June/July, we occasionally get short, but extremely heavy downpours (happened to me recently). The volume of water falling from the sky can be compared to a large waterfall. In these conditions, it's pointless to try to ride a bike at all. It's better to stop and immediately look for some cover. These flash floods don't last longer than 10 min. anyway.
 
Having said that, I decided NOT to ride my bike to work today. It was just too rainy to enjoy the ride this morning and fallen branches and trees on the Minuteman Bikeway wouldn't make my ride any better.
Better to keep moving in rain or be stuck in the car? (Source: yehudamoon.com)

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Foliage season

It's still very warm, but seeing frosted grass and trees yesterday morning reminded me that winter is coming. Slowly. "Frosted grass in Boston?" you may ask. No, not in Boston but in White Mountains, NH, where I spent my long weekend. I didn't pack my bike though, only my family, although seeing the trails and roads in that area made me want to come back with my bicycle. Maybe next time. White Mountains is really the right place to spend the Columbus Day weekend, considering the colorful show mother nature has prepared for us. But if you happen to ride your two wheels over there at this time of the year, don't forget to pack something warmer. Daily temperatures rarely exceeded 50F.
Meanwhile, back in Boston, we can enjoy temperatures in even mid 70's. I inspected foliage along the Minuteman Bikeway this morning and can't decided whether it's in its peak. It probably is.

Being back in town, I had to reinstate my daily Minuteman Bikeway commute. Which means that I will be seeing more of future Lance Armstrongs (riding Cervelos with aero bars) on this popular, bumpy bike path, or even some bike creeps.
Last Tuesday I had a bike creep following me for quite a while on the Bikeway. He rode his bike right behind me, not as close to me as Bikeyface described but close enough to hear his clunky bicycle. Just in case you never experienced this, listening to a bicycle that sounds like it's going to fall apart any minute makes you wonder if there is something wrong with your own one. Plus, the fact that thanks to that clunky music you can't hear your thoughts makes the ride truly painful.

My (t)rusty old/new Schwinn Coffee (handmade in China, A.D. 2012) is still running surprisingly well, considering lack of maintenance I provide. There are some issues with this bike typical to nearly all $400 bicycles, but I have to say that Schwinn did one thing right - the looks. I can't tell you how many times I've been told by some random strangers that my bike is "beautiful", "retro", "awesome", etc. This surprises me knowing how cheap, dirty and rusty my bike is, but I can understand why it may appeal to some untrained eyes. It does feature classic looking frame, chainguard and a single speed drivetrain, plus I added Brooks B67 saddle and leather grips making it looking just a bit more stylish (and much more comfortable). Does riding a 2012 Chinese/American bike that pretends to be a classic British 70's "roadster" make me a cheater?