Tuesday, May 28, 2013

New wheels!

Weather changes periodically, which means that you will likely not be riding your bike on the same set of tires year-round. Sometimes you would wish for those studded winter tires on your wheels, sometimes it is good to have these skinny slicks on, especially if you are not going to hit any dirt roads on your way.

Car drivers change their tires too, using different ones for snowy months and summer tires for the rest of the year. While it is relatively complex and time consuming to switch tyres (or wheels) on your car (Some drivers perfected it by having multiple cars - simple as that), it is trivial do it with the wheels on your bike. The advantage is obvious - you can keep your fast road slicks on one set of wheels all the time and have another set of wheels with those knobby off-road tires installed. After all, it is far easier and faster to switch wheels than tires. But you will need more than one wheelset...

Which brings me to the point of this post, finally. After some research online, I decided to get another set of wheels for my Poprad. The goal was to get something durable and relatively lightweight that I can use on dirt roads in the neighborhood. My choice was a handbuilt wheelset of White Industries T11 hubs and Velocity A23 rims with DT Competition spokes. The quality of White Industries components is legendary and considering my riding style, I am sure they will last forever. The Velocity rims are new to me, but I liked their 23mm width (i.e. a better support for wider tires). These wheels don't looks as fancy as some Ksyriums or Cosmos as they don't have radial lacing of just a few spokes. But maybe that is why I expect them to last longer. The 24 spokes in the front (2-cross laced) and 32 in the rear (standard, 3-cross lacing) should translate into stiffer, stronger wheels. I measured the weight of both wheels (without the tape and skewers) to be about 730g for the front one and 940g for the rear wheel. It is clearly not record-breaking but I find it reasonable.
At the same time, I took the opportunity to order a second cassette to make the wheelset complete. I picked a 10-speed Ultegra with a 30T largest sprocket (the largest available for Ultegra groupset and still manageable by the standard short cage rear Ultegra derailleur).
Now I have to take these for a longer ride and see if I can feel any difference compared to my previous, stock Bontrager wheels. I didn't have a chance to ride much in the couple of past days since I caught some bad cold virus and the rainy weather wasn't very inviting either. So far, after a short ride earlier today, I can tell that the front wheel definitely feels different. The stock, front Bontrager wheel that came with my bike has only 20 spokes, radially laced. The new one has 24 spokes, 2-cross laced and it feels stiffer side-to-side but I also think it is has more cushioning vertically. I think this is due to its crossed lacing, versus radial lacing in the old wheel, which would usually be stiffer vertically. Interestingly, the difference in lateral stiffness is especially noticeable thanks to the... magnetic computer sensor on one of the spokes. With Bontrager wheels on, I often get erratic speed readings when cornering or swinging the bike side-to-side when riding out-of-saddle. Makes sense, I guess. The front wheel would deflect in such situations and the magnet would move away from the sensor. I tried repeating this effect with the new wheels and it just doesn't happen. I have to investigate it further in detail.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Woburn-Winchester Lazy Friday Ride

Last Friday, I left my office in Burlington and took a longer, scenic route back home. My goal was to investigate if the nearby Mary Cummings Park at Burlington/Woburn border is an undiscovered gem where I could ride my bike. I took some back roads and eventually ended up on Blanchard Rd at one of available entrances to the park. Too bad it was so overgrown I could hardly find the path. I continued down the road and found the next entrance. This one looked a bit friendlier.
Once I found myself in the open area I realized that this is a hidden airfield! A miniature airfield, that is. It is maintained by a local RC modeler club and there where a few men there trying to locate their planes in nearby bushes.
I left the field and continued through the forest. Unfortunately, it didn't look like it has seen many walking visitors recently, not to mention cyclists. It was terribly overgrown and I often  had to be very careful not to get decapitated by some low hanging branches.
Then I got lost. I roughly knew, which way to ride. I planned to ride across the park toward the exit at Sylvanus Wood Ln. But in this heavily forested area figuring out my location was not a trivial task. And of course, I ended up in the middle of a bog.
Well, at least I got some flavor of what real cyclocross may feel like. I continued on foot, ankle-deep in mud and water. I managed to lose my sense of direction a few more times, desperately trying to find some paths between the trees. And then, finally, not only I found one, but it was the path I was planning on taking originally. The Sylvanus Wood Ln exit was just in front of me.
My conclusion was obvious. Mary Cummings Park is not your friendliest park in the neighborhood. If you want to explore it in detail be ready to bring your own machete.

I left the park and rode towards Horn Pond in Woburn. The northeastern part of this area is a real gem. The path takes you through some narrow wooden bridges, forest, bogs and around two small ponds on both sides of Fowle Brook. I like riding there since it is usually a quiet place and a bit off the beaten path circumnavigating the Horn Pond.
Next, I continued through Winchester south to the east bank of Mystic Lakes, eventually merging with Mystic River Path...
which connects to the Alewife Brook Greenway. It is a relatively new addition to this area. Completely rebuilt, the Greenway is now a pleasure to ride on and it is a nice biking corridor along always-busy Alewife Brook Parkway. In fact, it is the only reasonable way of moving on your bike along the Parkway. This road is simply too busy and too narrow to ride your bike there comfortably.
So this is it. It took me nearly 2 hours to ride back home from work but at least I was able to explore some new areas around, get my feet wet and lose a sense of direction a few times in the forest.

Time for a beer!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Give it back to people!

Reading the title you may think I am becoming a communist, but I can assure you that I am not calling for robbing the rich. However, there is one thing I would like to give back to people - the public space in downtowns.

In December 2012 I spent 2 weeks in Europe and I visited the city of Meissen (Germany). Walking through the downtown, I immediately noticed how walking and cycling-friendly that place was - something that reminded me some of the Italian cities (e.g. Siena) I visited during my trip to Tuscany in 2009. There is a simple explanation. Both Meissen and Siena are old cities with historical downtowns. These downtowns date back to Medieval times and were built with narrow street surrounding a central plaza (market square). And obviously, they were not designed with cars in mind.
Narrow street in an Italian town.

A street in Meissen.

American cities are much, much younger and lack historical downtowns. They were built in places where vast space was easily accessible and usually were developed along one main artery. All these conditions led to the current shape of American cities - they spread for miles and are full of cars. With all the space available, most people live in houses away from downtowns, yet many companies are located in city centers. This forces people to travel tens, even hundreds of miles a day to/from their work places. And obviously, that travel is done by car. Since if you don't have a car, you can't move around enormous suburbs of American cities efficiently, the downtowns are being designed with cars in mind as well. Public transportation is lacking and seemingly no alternatives exist.

Many today's cities face this problem, not only in United States. Cities erode. They lack human tissue, they evolve into cars' paradises. The main reason of congestion in downtowns is the effect of scale. Cars usually carry just a single person but requrie a substantial amount of space. As a result, public space gets converted into parkings, new lanes, ramps to highways, etc. People are pushed away and cities become unfriendly to pedestrians.
A well-known picture showing space needed by vehicles to transport 60 people. Amount of space cars require is astounding compared with a bus or bicycles.

But as long as cars are the focus point of transportation in cities, the situation will not change. Cars are simply too attractive to be abandoned. Here is why:
  1. They are an extension of our privacy ("I am in my own space in my car").
  2. They are a status symbol to many of us ("Do I look poorer if I don't drive my car?").
  3. City streets can be a dangerous place ("I feel safer inside my own car").
  4. Public transportation is inefficient and unreliable ("I move around faster by driving. Why should I take the subway?").
  5. Cities are too spread out ("I can't get there any other way than by driving"). I see this myself on daily basis.
  6. Public space is pedestrian-unfriendly ("I can't walk there. There is neither  foot bridge nor crosswalk!"). A common problem in many American cities as I mentioned before.
Clearly, if we want our cities to become more liveable, another approach is needed. Solutions exist:
  1. Public transport must be much more attractive: available, inexpensive (perhaps even free - as in Estonia), on time, reliable, efficient.
  2. Public space in cities must be attractive for both citizens and tourists: parks, pedestrian-only streets with cafes, galleries, stores and not difficult to cross multilane streets with only banks and offices.
  3. "Soft" transportation must be promoted: bicycling, walking.
If you read through this short list carefully, you will realize that this means two things: we have to "take away" the cars form people (Aha, that communist thing again!) and give them other transportation options. Closing the streets to car traffic is the first thing to do. Whenever I walk on Newbury Street in Boston's Back Bay or the Hanover Street in North End, I wish they were pedestrian-only. Fortunately, things do move slowly in the right direction. Re-routing the I-93 highway underground brought the entire Boston's downtown closer to the waterfront and made it more accesible to cyclists and pedestrians, even though it is still dominated by cars. But closing the streets only is not enough. Current drivers need an alternative, otherwise they will have few reasons to abandon their cars. A well-planned public transportation system is a must and this is something that most American cities lack the most. I remember that when living in Berlin (the one in Germany) I'd never had a feeling of needing a car, even though I lived in the very center of the city but had to commute to work just outside of its border - about 26km or 16mi. This is a distance comparable with driving from downtown of Boston to Burlington, MA (one of Boston's suburbs). In Berlin, this was an easy task. Hop on the S-Bahn (fast commuter rail) then switch to bus for the last few kilometers or use your bicycle that you can take on the train with you. In Boston, it is far harder to accomplish with the same efficiency. Not only Boston's "T" (the subway) is slower, less frequent and less reliable than its German counterpart, but also it ends in Cambridge - many miles away from Burlington. You would have to either bike for many miles or rely on bus (again: slower and less frequent). But since a picture is worth thousand words let's take a look at tranportation maps (these don's include bus lines):
Berlin's transportation system map...

and the same for Boston.

Interestingly, both cities (when counting Boston as a metro area with surrounding suburbs) have a similar land area and population, yet Berlin's public transport system is clearly more developed. It doesn't mean that we should build an underground subway system in every American city. In fact, sometimes such a system may be a bad thing. That is - when it's poorly designed. First of all, it must not be running in the middle of nowhere (such as in Cleveland where subway runs around the downtown and not through it). It must be accessible (unlike at some station in New York where not only cyclists but even childrens' strollers can't get to the trains - I've tried this myself). It must not be planned underground without reorganizing the space above. Otherwise, the subway system does not serve pedestrians, but drivers. It forces people underground as a way to take them off the streets and leave more space for cars (extra lanes, parking spaces). As a result, traffic congestion is not reduced and no space for people gets created. Streetcars and buses on their own designated lanes can be a good alternative as they force public space to be restructured with people in mind.

All this is called a balanced development. We need this balance in our cities. Right now the scale is tipped on the car's end.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The BCL Dirt Road Ride

The weather is perfect. Warm with low humidity. Time for another afternoon ride. Yesterday, I left my work place in Burlington and decided to ride all three dirt road trails in the neighborhood at once - the Narrow Gauge Trail in Bedford, the Reformatory Branch Trail and the Battle Road Trail. My route led me through Bedford, Concord and Lexington where I picked up the Minuteman Bikeway towards Arlington. This is probably my favorite bike ride in my area. Let me explain it with some statistics:
           total length: 39.8km (25mi)
           dirt roads total: 18.9km (11.7mi) 47.5%
           bike paths total: 24.6km (15.3mi) 61.8%

The length is perfect. I can complete it withing roughly 2 hours, which lets me ride it even after work, on late afternoons. Over 60% of the entire ride happens on bike paths. This way I can avoid most car traffic and ride undisturbed and more relaxed. Nearly half of the course I ride on dirt roads, which turns otherwise a bit boring ride into something much more exciting. Plus, those dirt roads are relatively smooth and flat and this means that a mountain bike is not needed there and my 700x35c tires work perfectly. I can zip through the track at higher speed.
My minimalistic cue card. It is greatly simplified since I roughly remember all turns. It is small enough to be glued directly to the handlebars.

The entire ride took me exactly 2 hrs to complete (I left my work at 5:05pm and arrived home at 7:05pm), which means that I pushed myself a bit reaching an average speed of 20km/h (12.4mph). I just wanted to be home earlier this time and normally, I would give myself more time to complete it.
PS. I also noticed that the Bikeway Source store in Bedford seemed closed. I was afraid that maybe they closed for good since the building looked like undergoing a major reconstruction. Fortunately, I was wrong. Bikeway Source is still there and they are renovating their place. Great!