Tuesday, January 31, 2012

And now, something completely different: photo cameras

This time I decided to briefly write about something different - photo cameras. The problem that I have right now is that my aging DSLR camera does not fit in my jersey's back pockets. Not to mention that its weight is unacceptable on a bike. Taking pictures with this SLR requires me to carry panniers on my bike all the time. This may not seem like a problem on my Schwinn, but when I want to ride Poprad, I end up riding with no camera at all.

So far, I tried to rely on my phone "camera" but to be honest, no matter how "smart" that phone is, its camera is only a ridiculous toy. It is just too dumb to be even called a camera.

I have one more camera that I really like. It is very small, pretty lightweight, fun to use and its output is excellent:
It is the Olympus 35RD and yes, it is a film camera, which makes it unsuitable for taking quick pictures for the purpose of this blog. Too bad.

Because of all this, I have been thinking about buying a new compact camera. The only problem is that I am very picky when it comes to photography and there aren't many compact cameras that I would consider worth buying. Cameras, like bicycles, are just tools for me but it doesn't mean that I like using tools with unfriendly user interface, difficult handling and giving results that I am not happy with.

First I looked at Panasonic DMC-GF2, which is a great little camera, especially when paired with Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 lens. This combo is not particularly cheap (~$650), but I think it is worth it. My only complain would be the lack of optical viewfinder.

Even better than the Panasonic is Olympus PEN E-P3. Yes, it is quite a bit bulkier and also more expensive (>$800, yikes!) but its picture quality can be rivaled only by SLR cameras. PEN with a flat "pancake" lens could be almost the only camera I would need (Well, most of the time).

And then, when I was debating which camera would be better for me the CES 2012 happened at the beginning of this year and two more interesting cameras were announced. One of them was Canon PowerShot G1X, which looks particularly interesting for me since I own a Canon flash lamp and I could use it with G1X as well. Plus, it comes with a viewfinder (although likely a lousy one) and first sample photos looked promising. It shouldn't cost more than Olympus and overall looks quite attractive. I would prefer a faster lens though (even with less zoom).

Another new one was Fujifilm X-Pro1. This looks to me like THE one. It seems to have a fantastic viewfinder, excellent handling and build quality and user controls that are very much like those on traditional film rangefinders. I am really excited about this one and while it still is not going to fit in my jersey's pockets, it is much smaller than my SLR so maybe a small handlebar bag would the most appropriate place for it. The only problem is its price. It is not going to be cheap, for sure.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

2008 Lemond Poprad review

My 2008 Lemond Poprad with cross tires on Nantucket Island

After my move across the pond I had no bike at all for several weeks. Then, an ancient Walmart mountain bike was given to me for free. I accepted it, since I wanted to move around Boston and learn the city and there is no better way of doing it than by bike. That bike was The-Worst-Bike-Ever. In terrible condition, with a single piece squeeky crankset, gears that barely worked, steel rims and caliper brakes (i.e. no brakes when wet). And that color: some crazy, reflective neon green. I dumped it as soon as I could and then I started thinking about a new one.

It was pretty clear to me that the next bike will be a cyclocross bike. Not that I am much into cyclocross or racing. I am not. But these bikes always seemed to be extremely versatile. They can handle paved roads, dirt, mud, snow, rain, whatever. Such bike can be a fast leopard, a mountain goat and a strong mule (with racks added). Since a mountain bike is completely pointless in the city and a road bike is somewhat limited, I knew that a cyclocross bike would be a win-win solution.

It was back in 2008 when I found Lemond Poprad in a local store. I liked it and bought it. Here is my review.
And here with road slicks on.

First impressions
Poprad is really sharp looking. White frame, carbon fork, white bar tape and saddle. Nice group set and pretty cool wheels. I like that almost all components are black. That makes the white parts stand out more.

Poprad feels pretty light (10.3kg) so it is easy to carry. It is stable and handles well but I noticed that with thicker cyclocross tires there is some very small toe overlap. It doesn't bother me much and it is completely gone with road slicks on. The toe overlap may be there for two reasons: first, the frame I have is a bit undersized for my height (I don't like to be stretched on bike too much). Second, it may be due to the short wheelbase, "square" frame geometry (seat tube length is nearly the same as top tube length), and long 175mm cranks. The overlap is so small that it doesn't really bother me much.

Frame and fork
The frame is U.S. made from "True Temper OX Platinum" steel. Whatever it means, it feels light. Some sources say it is essentially the American quivalent of Reynolds 853 tubing. I found some reports claiming around 1870g for frame only. No bad for a steel frame. It has some aggressive race geometry with 72.5 deg head tube angle and short 430mm chainstays. The wheelbase is only about 1020mm so this bike feels compact and agile. It also looks really sleek thanks to the small diameter steel tubing.
The frame has a Lemond emblem on the head tube, some decals on the top tube, and a bunch of braze-ons, although, not necessairly as many as I would like. There are two bottle cage mounts, sufficient number of cable housing mounts, rear brake bosses (Of course!), and even rear rack or fender mount holes in the dropouts. It does have a road brake mount bridge, which could be used for installing a fender or a rack, but there is no bridge at the bottom bracket so that end of the fender would be loose. Not much an issue for me since I don't use fenders on this bike anyway.
The rear derailleur hook is not replaceable (Bad!) and what I would also really like is a top-pull front derailleur. In bottom-pull derailleurs the cable has to go around the bottom bracket and usually gets really messy after a ride in rain or mud. Well, I don't really ride in mud and I don't enjoy rain, but a real cyclocross bike should be designed that way, I think.
The fork is made of carbon by Bontrager. Not much to say here except that it comes with cantilever brake bosses (Obviously!), fender mounts and a caliper brake mount hole. It is one of those aero-shaped forks, which means that I had to use a black electrical tape in order to secure the sensor from my old Sigma cyclocomputer. The standard mount was not designed for non-round fork tubing. Both frame and fork are secured by Cane Creek threadless headset.

I really like how these Bontrager wheels look like. I must admit I felt a bit uneasy thinking about wheel stiffness since they have only 24 spokes. But so far so good, wheels stay true, even after many kilometers. Wheels are built from Bontrager Race rims and Bontrager Race hubs. They use flat spokes, which look cool but are another PITA when mounting my Sigma cyclocomputer magnet. The old type I have does not fit non-round spokes out of the box. The rear hub fits a 10 speed cassette. Stock tires are Bontrager Jones CX 700cx34, which I personally like a lot for off-road use. They are not too heavy and, when taken off the rim, can be folded for storage. Some people say those are not good tires for racing but I don't race so I don't care that much.
The 175mm long cranks are branded by Bontrager and come with two chain rings (46T/38T). Bottom bracket has a hollow axle, opened from the chain ring side. Poprad also comes with a 10-speed cassette in the 11T-27T range. I really like the overall gear ratio. As you can tell this is not a road setup since cranks lack a large 53T chainring. I like it since this way the bike is easier to ride on hills, still pretty fast on road and simply more versatile. Derailleurs are by Shimano, 105 in the front and Ultegra in the rear. Overall, really nice. No issues here. Those are decent components I think and they work very well so far. Gear changing is buttery-smooth.

Brakes and shifters
Poprad came with Avid Shorty 4 cantilevers. I am not happy with these and they will be replaced with something else soon. They are just simply not powerful enough (And yes, they are properly adjusted). Shifter/brake combo levers are Shimano 105 STI. These work really well. The bike has also a second set of brake levers, Cane Creek Crosstop, mounted on the top of handlebars. This definitely makes riding more comfortable. Overall, good shifters, poor cantilevers. I will be replacing Avids with either other cantilevers or regular v-brakes with Travel Agents (To compensate for short pull with STI levers).

Handlebars, stem, seatpost, saddle
Poprad's stem is by Bontrager, with a 10deg rise, which makes the whole bike much easier to ride since unlike road bikes it does not require a fully horizontal body position. I feel however that it is a bit too long (100mm) for me so I may change it with a shorter, 80mm stem. Drop bars are also by Bontrager, 440mm wide. The bike comes also with a Bontrager carbon seat post and a Bontrager Race saddle. Overall, very nice, except the saddle. I just have hard time tuning into it. I guess the saddle should tune into my butt not the other way around. As I mentioned earlier, a white Selle An-Atomica will replace the stock saddle.

Other components
Poprad comes without pedals. I decided to go simply with Shimano PD-M540 as they are relatively versatile and inexpensive. No complains here.

The good:
+ great frame (U.S made), good fork
+ handles nicely, feels sporty,
+ lightweight,
+ good components (except brakes and saddle),
+ very versatile,
+ good transmission ratio.

The bad:
- brakes suck big time and need to be replaced with something that would actually stop this bike,
- uncomfortable saddle,
- frame is great but could have a couple more features (top-pull derailleur, bottom bracket fender bridge, etc.),
- a bit tricky to install a cyclocomputer due to non-round fork tubing and flat spokes,
- slight toe overlap with cross tires.

The ugly (The verdict):
Very nice bike, very versatile, can handle a lot. Great steel frame, nice fork and a really nice drivetrain (gear ratio). Brakes could be much better. The bike was $1500. Not cheap, but pretty good for what I got, I think.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Safety games

This post may not be about bicycling but it is related to road safety and personal health - topics that frequently show up here. Plus, the idea is so cool that I just have to present it here.

I have heard about it before. It is a concept of implementing the video/computer games theory to everyday life. Apparently, this theory can help solving the problem of disobeying speed limits. Most drivers either ignore them or drive just barely over the displayed limit. How can we encourage motorists to truly obey speed limits? Usually, towns would install speed cameras to take pictures of those who drive too fast. Unfortunately, this doesn't really drop the average speed of vehicles on the road. It just penalizes those who drive much too fast as speed cameras are usually set to detect vehicles above certain threshold, say 10kph above the posted speed limit. Otherwise, the system would clog quickly since nearly every single driver would have to be ticketed.

Kevin Richardson from San Francisco came up with a better idea. Together with the Volkswagen company, he installed a speed camera on one of the busy streets of Stockholm, but working differently. His speed camera takes pictures only of those who drive slower than the posted speed limit (30kph, in that case). His camera was also accompanied by a sign informing passing drivers that they can win a lottery for safe driving if their car is selected. This brilliant concept uses computer game theory to encourage motorists to obey speed limits. People like to be entertained and like to compete with each other, so why not have fun on the way to work? And if you can really win some money this way, then why not take a part in it?

Kevin's experiment was successful and during the first 3 days a total of 24,853 cars passed his camera. The average speed before the experiment was 32kph and dropped by 22% to 25kph during those 3 days.
Another interesting example on video games theory applied to everyday life is the experiment with piano stairs. In order to encourage people to use stairs more, instead of an escalator, special pressure plates were installed on steps and connected with audio system to play piano key sounds. The result - 66% more people chose the stairs instead of the escalator. They could enjoy playing the piano while walking up/down the stairs and better health. In fact, the change in usage of stairs/escalator before and during the experiment is quite astonishing as you can see it in this video:

Friday, January 20, 2012

Locking strategy

We have just received the first proper splash of snow last night and this morning I could finally tell that winter has arrived (Even though a quick look at the calendar tells me that we are half way through it already). Last night's snowfall was pretty lousy - just about 3cm, which will likely not survive till the evening as guaranteed by today's sunny weather. We are supposed to get more snow tomorrow. We will see.

In unrelated topic, I realized how lucky I am that I don't have to carry bike locks with me on my way to work. Usually, to park a bicycle in places, which are considered insecure (i.e. most public places), it is absolutely necessary to use some sort of a "thief-repelling" device. The common practice is to use at least 2 good locks (Those rated either Silver or Gold) to secure the bike to something solid and non-removable, like a sturdy steel fence, railing, etc. Well, obviously it would be best to use a designated bike rack, but since we are not in Copenhagen or Amsterdam, finding one in the place of our interest may be as difficult as searching for Yeti.

My locking strategy is pretty straightforward:
1. I don't lock my bike at all when I get to work. I can keep it in my office (Which is on the street level). And I don't have to carry locks on bike.
2. If I can, I don't leave my bike unattendend. This way I don't have to lock it. I take my bike with me everywhere I can.
3. For all other situations, I use two Kryptonite locks: an u-lock for securing the front wheel and a chain to secure the frame and the rear wheel to the bike rack. I remove all removable accessories (lights, etc.).

Two different locks work usually best. The only problem is their significant weight. The u-lock can be mounted on the bike frame in a special bracket. Transporting the chain is a bit more of a PITA but I found out that the ~1m long chain can be easily wrapped around my waist and it doesn't interfere with pedaling.

There are other ways of securing a bike in public places. Below is an example of a novel, lightweight "thief-repellant" installed on this nice Specialized. Very innovative.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Hunting for daylight

 We are half way through the winter and I noticed that days are finally getting longer. Somehow, the biggest demotivating factor for me when it comes to winter cycling (or bike-commuting to be specific) is not snow (since we didn't have any this year) or low air temperature (proper clothing solves this problem) but the lack of daylight.

My bike is equipped in a decent lighting system, I think. I use a powerful 300 lumen light installed on handlebars and two red taillights: one of them I put in steady mode, while the other one is blinking. Still, this doesn't solve the problem of riding in darkness since this issue is not about the the lack of visibility at night. This is a more mental issue - I just don't find it particularly enjoyable to navigate through darkness of the night on my bicycle. I guess part of the reason why we ride bicycles is the feeling of being outside, closer to nature, and not being enclosed in a tin can (read: a car). Darkness negates this advantage.

It is nice that now when I leave my office at 17:00 it is still a little bit bright outside. Unfortunately, by the time I get home it gets completely dark again but still, more daylight is a sign that days are getting longer and spring will come.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Boys bikes, girls bikes (and vacuum cleaners too)

Reading through some bicycle blogs I came up with the following conclusions:
  1. How many cycling women name their bikes? Many. How many guys do that. Close to none.
  2. Who shows a highly emotional attachment to their bikes. Mostly girls.
  3. Who treats their bicycles more as tools? Mostly guys.
0% of beauty. 100% of utility.

This all comes down to the basic difference between men and women. Guys are more rational, girls are more emotional. And you can easily see it in bicycling as well.

Usually, guys don't "love" their bicycles. They just use them. Beautiful lugwork, unique paint color or fancy styling mean less to them. Guys just need a fast and reliable bike. Girls, on the other hand, seem to pay more attention to the beauty of bicycles (Surely, there is nothing wrong with that!).
Sure, I like good looking bicycles just the same way I like good looking cars. But since my bike is mostly just a tool, I mainly need it to be reliable, comfortable, and easy to use just like my car, camera or a... vacuum cleaner.

This is exactly what Mikael from Copenhagenize blog noticed. Most of people in this world treat bicycles same way they treat their vacuum cleaners - they use them as tools. In fact, most car drivers use their cars the same way. Sure, some develop a closer bond with their vehicles and the same way there is probably a small number of people who have a similar bond with their vacuum cleaners (or any other object of desire). Still, for most of us, those are just tools without any deeper meaning.

Velouria, from the Lovely Bicycle, argued with Mikael's post on utilitarian side of bicycles. She believes that bicycles are much more than just tools and it is possible to develop a some sort of romantic relationship with your bike, but not with your vacuum cleaner.

I have to say that I sort of agree with Mikael. Maybe this is our guys' point of view. Ask people in China, the country with likely the highest number of bicycles in the world, how many of them developed a romantic relationship with their bikes. I bet you would get mostly negative answers since Chinese treat their bikes as transportation vehicles and don't spend their days contemplating beauty of their bikes.

For most of us bicycles are "vacuum cleaners". They are utilitarian objects. For some of us (minority), bicycles are something more. And others will not understand why someone would ride a vintage, lugged bike named "Polly" with a wicker basket on handlebars and a matching saddle.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Filling the gap

As I mentioned before, today at 7pm Town of Arlington will hold a meeting to discuss the Arlington Center Safe Travel Project. I was supposed to show up but unfortunately, I have to pass this time. I got some ugly cold last Sunday. This is what happens when you stop bicycling for two days ;)

I read about the meeting and the project first on Biking in Heels blog. Following those links you can find out more about the project here and see the presentation of several different options that will be discussed.

For those of you who do not live in my area I will try to outline the situation. The Minuteman Bikeway is a popular recreational path that connects several towns northeast of Boston. It starts in Somerville, passes Cambridge, enters Arlington, Lexington, and then continues through Bedford ending in Concord. It is 26km (16mi) long and is the safest way of reaching all these towns by bicycle. In Arlington Center the Bikeway has to cut across the very busy intersection of Rt60 and Massachusetts Ave.

Current situation in Arlington Center (Source: Arlington Center Safe Travel Project)

As you can see in the graphics above, both ends of the path (marked blue) are on the opposite sides of the intersection with no facilities  connecting them for a safe passage. I have to admit that I often end up using sidewalk (unfortunately, illegally) to get to the other end of the path. The project proposes several solutions (see presentation link above) from which option 5 is the most revolutionary.
Option 5 (Source: Arlington Center Safe Travel Project)

In this option, the path will be extended along the sidewalk on the northeast side, then continue though a bicycle-only crossing and eventually merge with the southeast end of the Bikeway. In order to fit a double-wide (to travel in both directions) bike lane along Mass Ave, some parking spaces will have to be removed. Personally, I like this option as it guarantees a safe passage for cyclists (designated crossing, bollards along the Mass Ave section), while maintaining status quo for motorists (except removed parking spaces). If you browse through the presentation you will notice that Option 4 is a bit less radical and parking spaces are saved at the expense of the median dividing the traffic in the middle of Mass Ave.
However, there is also Option 3B, which I find particularly pleasing:
Option 3B (Source: Arlington Center Safe Travel Project)

What you see here is a design that is maybe a bit easier to accept for motorists since all parking spaces are saved, but it divides the bike path into separate lanes on both sides of Mass Ave. I already expressed my feelings about Massachusetts Ave. It is wide enough to accommodate bike lanes. This design is, in my opinion, the best option. Not only it merges both loose ends of the Bikeway but it promises bike lanes on Mass Ave. Unlike in the above graphics, hopefully those lanes would be eventually extended also to the east, in Cambridge direction.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Two not-your-average-bicycles

I usually don't write about other people's bicycles but these two are so different that I think they deserve a closer look.

Helen Skelton's Antarctic bike

You probably have heard this news already. Helen Skelton is attempting to reach South Pole by bike (and a kite-ski as well). In order to fight hurricane winds and sand-like snow surface, Hanebrink/Fortune prepared a special bicycle for her, which actually looks a lot like their regular electric all-terrain bicycle, sans electric power, of course. They claim that the goal was to keep the bike design simple and maintenance-free. I am not going to describe it in detail since you can read more about it here. In general, it features 20" wheels, Brooks saddle, extra-large Power Grips on pedals (to fit Helen's polar boots), a long-travel suspension fork, and a single mechanical disc brake in the rear.
Helen's polar bicycle (Source: bbc.co.uk)

Looks interesting, but what makes me wonder is if a suspension fork is really needed on this bike, which was supposed to be as simple as possible. Suspension means extra maintenance.
Also, the size of wheels seems a bit surprising, since I would think that larger wheels will be easier to ride. However, since each tire is really fat (wide) and weighs about 3.5kg (8lbs), larger diameter tires would be even heavier. Maybe this is why wheels are so small.

Marek Jurek's folding bike

This story is also very new but you may have not heard about it yet. Marek Jurek is a person from Poland who was not happy with folding bicycles available on market (Bromptons, Dahons, etc.) and decided to build one himself (The need is a mother of all inventions). He completed the first prototype that looks like this:
Marek Jurek on his bike (Source: gazeta.pl)

What you see a ultra-short wheelbase, large-wheel, front-wheel drive, folding bicycle. I have to admit that the design is definitely original. Jurek's bike has 29" wheels and cranks mounted to the front hub (with a single-speed planetary reduction of 2.8:1). But it is not your childhood's tricycle since front wheel does not turn. Instead, the whole bike frame is articulated. Steering is controlled by two steel cables running from the handlebars to the frame pivot. According to Jurek, his bicycle has some unique advantages over regular city and folding bikes:
  • it has a much more comfortable riding position that is somewhat similar to the one on a recumbent bike, yet more upright,
  • it has large wheels and is faster than most small-wheel folding bikes,
  • it has a very short wheelbase and is extremely maneuverable,
  • it is much easier and faster to fold than all folding bikes - all you need is to grab the frame and the whole bike folds in half.
Jurek's bike, folded (Source: gazeta.pl)

Those (discussion in Polish) who had a chance to ride this prototype bicycle claim that indeed, it is easy to control on turns and maintaining a straight riding direction requires only a brief learning. Interestingly, in order to facilitate turning, Jurek's bike features rotating pedal platforms:
Rotating pedal platforms on Jurek's bike (Source: forum.masa.waw.pl)

I think the design is really smart and innovative but it would be great to see it equipped in fenders, some guards on both sides of the front wheel to keep mud and water off rider's pants, a rear (or front) rack, and maybe a 3-speed front hub. It would be great to see this vehicle in production.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The 3-feet rule

This morning, on my ride to work, I noticed a higher-than-usual number of drivers who seemed to forget about the 3-feet rule: a safe distance to pass a bike. Three feet is just barely a meter - still too close to a cyclist, in my opinion, but not much of change in direction from driver's perspective. Even though, many drivers still fail to obey it. Maybe I should blame it on chilly winter morning, making everyone lethargic and slow to start up?
The route I take has some nice shoulders, divided from traffic lanes by white lines. This makes them look like some informal bike lanes and very suitable for bicycling. I tend to ride just on the outside of the white line, which means that I stay off the traffic lane but still very close to it. This way I don't block the faster traffic but I am more visible to drivers. The lanes are so wide that cars don't even have to enter the opposite lane in order to pass a bicycle. They usually just more more toward the center line.

I remember that my childhood bike in Poland had this funky orange arm attached to the rear rack to force passing bikes and drivers to maintain the distance. It turned out I can still easily get it from Amazon. It is called Safety Wing.
Safety Wing (Picture from urbanvelo.org)

But then, after reading about it on Urban Velo, I figured that Ghost Rider's solution (see comments at Urban Velo) is much, much better.
Ghost Rider's "Safety" Wing

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Wide road, but where are the bike lanes?

I don't visit Massachusetts Avenue in Arlington too often. My daily commute takes me a different route. However, I always wondered why this main street has been built so wide. Since I don't have a better picture, I will use Google Maps street view:
The truck in lower photo is a good reference scale. You can easily tell that Mass Ave is wide enough to be a high-speed expressway, not a busy street in a thickly-settled area. I assume that the Town of Arlington must be saving on paint since the width of this road is asking for painting two lanes in each direction yet what we get is a simple two-lane street. With lanes so wide that they could be runways for Cessnas. The result is predictable: most drivers treat this street as a four-lane street with some virtual lane lines. This situation is not limited to Arlington area. Neighboring towns (Lexington) didn't bother to paint designated traffic lanes either.

Biking in Heels blog reported that the Town of Arlington will be holding a meeting on January 10th (More about it soon) to discuss some ideas of connecting two loose ends of Minuteman Bikeway that has been separated by the always-busy intersection of Arlington Center (Mass Ave and Rt 60). Maybe this would be an opportunity to mention the lack of bike lanes along Mass Ave as well? The width of this street is ideal for designated bike lanes, with enough space for car parking and four lanes total. If we plan to redesign the main Arlington intersection why not to think about the rest of the main street at the same time? Especially, that Mass Ave could be an ideal bike way for many citizens with its multiple businesses along and straight-route connections to Cambridge and Lexington.

Sunday, January 1, 2012


The new year of 2012 finally arrived. It is time to think of any bicycling-related resolutions. I have just three:
1. Put Dr. J. on a bike. He will be old enough to get familiar with it.
2. Ride a 140+ km route from Arlington to Cape Cod.
3. Explore more of northwestern towns by bike (Bedford, Concord, Carlisle).

Looking back, I think that 2011 was a pretty good year. Our family grew: Dr. J. was born, I revisited bicycle commuting with a new, more comfortable bike, and I started this blog as well.

I am looking forward to the new year and wish all of you car-free roads, scenic rides and more bicycling fun.