Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Assabet River Trail

Looks like the humid days are over. Finally, I can open all the windows at home and enjoy some fresh air. The weather seems to be nearly picture-perfect and I decided to try a new route this week. I left my office in Burlington and rode my bike west, through Concord, towards Maynard, MA. The first kilometers were a pure pleasure. The bike was rolling nicely thanks to the smooth roads and the new Schwalbe Marathon Supreme tires. After a while, I reached Maynard center - well known for its huge, historic textile mill - the Assabet Woolen Mill, now converted into a business center.
The Assabet Woolen Mill, now called The Clock Tower Place.

From the center, it's only a short ride to the Assabet River Wildlife Refuge. I must say that my initial impression with this place was very positive. It is a beautiful forest with many small ponds, streams and abundant wildlife. Unlike many other conservation land areas in Massachusetts, the trails in the Assabet Refuge are very well marked so finding the right turn is simple and effortless.
This would be a really nice place to ride a bike... in winter. Or a late fall. The problem with this place are swarms of flies and mosquitos. A large part of the refuge is a wetland and insects rule this place. I quickly learned 3 basic rules of survival in the Assabet River Refuge:
  1. Don't stop. Keep riding if you don't want to be swarmed by insects. This rule is impossible to obey if we want to take any pictures.
  2. Don't ride slower than ~16km/h (10 mph), otherwise they will get you.
  3. Use off-road tires, at least 35mm wide. Unfortunately, my Marathon Supreme tires were only 32mm wide and had road tread (or nearly no tread at all). This didn't help in deep, loose sand on some trails and made keeping up with rule #2 difficult.

All this means that I had to move through the forest quickly if I wanted not to be eaten alive. This probably also explains why I saw no one in the deep forest. Locals know well what's lurking inside and are not that stupid to go all the way in. Nevertheless, the refuge is a beautiful place and if you don't mind company of millions of flies and mosquitos, I strongly recommend visiting it. You can be surprised finding WWII bunkers like this one:
This was just the first one I saw at the Otter's Alley Trail. Then I noticed at least 4 more at the Towhee Trail but I didn't bother taking pictures (see rule #1). At first, I wasn't sure what these bunkers could be used for. I suspected that they may be some Cold War era relics but according to Wikipedia, these were munition storage places from WWII and there are about 50 of them in the refuge! Apparently, the location in Maynard was chosen due to its proximity to the railway line to Boston and at the same time, its distance from the coast to protect the bunkers from German battleship's cannons. 

On the way back, I took the road through Lincoln and tried riding the Mt Misery Trails at Rt117. These were definitely less exciting and I didn't bother taking pictures, partly because it was getting dark and maybe also because I still remembered rule #1 very well.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Electric velomobiles - the future of transportation?

I decided to continue the cars & bicycles theme, I started with my previous post and write a quick summary about an interesting article I found a few months ago. LowTechMagazine is a website dedicated to the technology that may make or made our life simpler, more efficient and less energy-dependent but without the unnecessary complexity of many modern solutions. Bicycles, as one of the most efficient transportation vehicles known to a man, obviously fit well in this category. But they are not perfect:

Few people find the bicycle useful for distances longer than 5 km (3 miles). In the USA, for instance, 85 % of bicycle trips involve a trip of less than 5 km. Even in the Netherlands, the most bicycle-friendly country in the western world, 77 % of bike trips are less than 5 km. Only 1 % of Dutch bicycle trips are more than 15 km (9 miles). In contrast, the average car trip amounts to 15.5 km in the USA and 16.5 km in the Netherlands, with the average trip to work being 19.5 km in the USA and 22 km in the Netherlands. (Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.) It's clear that the bicycle is not a viable alternative to the car. Depending on his or her fitness, a cyclist reaches cruising speeds of 10 to 25 km/h, which means that the average trip to work would take at least two to four hours, there and back.
According to the author, the solution may come in form of electric velomobiles but not electric cars (at least in their current form). It is because
While electric velomobiles have a speed and range that is comparable to that of electric cars, they are up to 80 times more efficient. If all 300 million Americans replace their car with an electric velomobile, they need only 25 % of the electricity produced by existing American wind turbines. (...) Now imagine that all 300 million Americans replaced their cars with an electric version like the Nissan Leaf, and all drive to work on the same day. To charge the 24 kW battery of each of those 300 million vehicles, we need 7,200 Gwh of electricity. This is 20 times more than what American wind turbines produce today.
This fantastic efficiency of electric velomobiles comes from the fact that

At speeds below 10 km/h (6 mph), rolling resistance is the biggest challenge for a cyclist. Air resistance becomes increasingly influential at higher speeds, and becomes the dominant force at speeds above 25 km/h (15.5 mph).

which means that once we keep moving in a velomobile, we can easily reach "average speed of 40 km/h (25 mph)". But since velomobiles are heavier than regular bicycles, bringing them up to that speed takes some extra energy. This is where electric assist comes handy. The assisted velomobile author tested had a suprisingly small battery on board, only used for acceleration, not cruising. But as calculation showed, "adding only 6 kg of batteries increases the range of the electric velomobile to 450 km". This is much, much better than any electric car that exists today. For example,

The Nissan Leaf takes you at best 160 km, when you drive slowly and steadily, and when you don't make use of the air-conditioning, heating or electronic gadgets on board.
This answers any questions on why electric cars still have such a pathetic range today, despite all progress in battery and electric motor technology. They are just too heavy and too complex. We are so used to our gasoline-powered cars that we don't want to give up on air conditioning, powered windows, heating system, radio and navigation. But all these things suck juice from batteries very quickly and decrease car's range. Velomobiles, thanks to their simplicity, don't have this problem. In fact,
when we compare the (electric velomobile) with the electric car, still viewed by many as the future of sustainable transportation, it's a clear winner.

Unfortunately, this kind of future doesn't look very bright. It is because

The biggest obstacle for manufacturers and drivers of electric velomobiles is legislation.
There are no unified regulations regarding the use of electric (and unassisted) velomobiles. In some countries, these vehicles are viewed as a bicycle and are required to travel on bike paths (even though they will not fit on many of them), in others, they are viewed as mopeds. Some countries allow velomobiles to use their electric motors at any speed, others, only up to 25km/h (15.5 mph). All these regulations (or the lack of them) lead to
the very strange fact that a car, for instance a Porsche Cayenne Turbo S with a weight of 2,355 kg, an engine of 382,000 watts and a top speed of 270 km/h can be driven anywhere on Earth, while an electric velomobile with a weight of 35 kg, a motor of 250 watts and an electric assistance of up to 50 km/h is illegal in most countries.

Can electric velomobiles be the future of mid-range transportation? The author seems to think so. And even if the rest of the article considers an utopian scenario of replacing all cars with velomobiles, it is an interesting read.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Classics cars and modern bikes - why newer is not always better

I remember my first car quite well. It was a crappy, tiny Fiat 126p but it was all I needed at that time. It was so small that finding a parking space in the city was usually not an issue. It was so lightweight that when once I got blocked by some other cars and couldn't leave my parking space, I asked a few friends for help and we lifted the entire front end of the car up and moved it out of the parking spot (Front was lighter, as the engine was placed over the rear axle). It was so simply built that when the battery died I could just put the car in the 1st gear and push it to start up. It was built in 1975 and my parents drove me home in it from the hospital where I was born. Yes, it brings back some good memories.
Fiat 126p - my first car (Source: Google Images).

I owned some other cars years later, but none of them I felt particularly attached to. Now, I realize why. Modern cars became too complex, too closed, too distant. When my little Fiat had combustion problems, all I needed was a flat screwdriver to adjust the carburetor. If my modern Subaru ever had any of such problems I would definitely had to spend much more time by visiting an authorized service station. There is no carburetor in modern cars but an electronic fuel injection and ignition. All computer-controlled - something you can't fix yourself. And it's not just that. Often, once you pop the hood opened, you can't even see the engine. Everything is hidden behind a plastic cover. Let's say it's winter and the battery died in your modern car? You better call the AAA, since sometimes locating the battery and getting to it with those jumper cables your neighbor has, can be difficult. The battery is hidden as well. In my old Fiat, I could change the flat wheel roadside. In a modern car, I am not so eager to try it since many of them don't even come with a full set of tools. Not to mention a full-size spare wheel.

My old Fiat had (wait for it)... a 24HP engine. Yes, it was slow but it worked in the city. Modern city cars have engines with at least 80-100HP. And while they are faster, they are also much, much heavier. They have reinforced doors, controlled crash zones, multiple airbags, power windows and mirrors, ABS, ESP, 4WD, A/C, GPS and a whole bunch of extra gimmicks that are supposed to make our life easier. Well, in some cases they do. The one of them that I welcomed wholeheartedly is air conditioning. The rest is optional. I don't need GPS, I can read a map. I don't necessarily need power windows and all those airbags and crash zones don't make me feel any safer compared to driving my old Fiat. The one thing that does though, is slowing down.
Mini Cooper Classic - a car in its purest form (Source: Google Images).

What all these extra features mean on daily basis is that I have to dig deep in my wallet. With so much extra junk added, modern cars are much heavier, which means that despite all the progress in combustion engine technology, they burn more gasoline. They would also roll on the road so slowly that the ridiculously puny 24HP engine would not be enough. That's why they need those 100-200HP motors. But even if I wanted to buy a simple, lightweight car, with just the very basic features, I can't. There is a reason why the new Mini Copper is so much bigger and bulkier than its older classic brother. Modern cars are not necessarily heavier because we wanted to have power windows and A/C. They are heavier because of legislation. The new laws require manufacturers to make heavy cars with those controlled crash zones, a whole bunch of airbags and many electronic systems to control handling. That's why we will never see a new, classic Mini. This car would be considered too dangerous to drive today. And while you may think that this is a change for the better, I think that this is the reason why I treat all modern cars the same as my fridge - they are just tools that do their job. They move me from A to B. That's all.

Considering all this, bicycles remain the vehicle of the free. They are usually so simple that rebuilding a bike is something one can easily learn. Owning a bike means less hassle. Easy to fix, inexpensive to own, a bike is the vehicle anyone can personalize they way one wants. Whether you want to repaint the frame or do something much crazier - no problem. Actually, for a fraction of the price of a new car you can even have a completely custom bicycle made just for you, while if you buy a car, you will be joining the anonymous masses. Sure, there is progress in the bicycle industry as well. But unlike in the case of cars, it is a nearly all-good progress. We can have lighter frames, lightweight wheels, suspension forks, disc brakes. We can, but we don't have to. If you really want to, you can add an electronic "ignition" system to your bike such as the Shimano Di2. But there is no legislation that will force you to do it and no one will tell you that your old, single speed cruiser is illegal to ride today.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Great Cape Cod Escapade

I tried to make this one of my goals for the last year, but I couldn't find the right time for such a ride. This year however, everything worked out well. Almost everything. Anyway, the bike was ready, I was ready, Elka and Dr. J were at the Cape staying at my in-laws house, so I thought that I could surprise them, take a day off on Friday and ride my bike from Arlington to Barnstable.

The big question, unanswered until the last moment, was the weather. I learned already that I couldn't trust the forecasts this spring and summer. This week's weather was very unpredictable. Either hot and cloudy or rainy and humid. I didn't mind riding in rain, but at the same time I wouldn't be happy if it was raining the entire ride. Fortunately, my bad luck ended and the weather was nearly perfect - warm, not too humid and mostly cloudy. It kept me cooler and the only time I had to wipe off sweat from my forehead was during a couple of steep climbs around Milton and Manomet.
 My route - Arlington to Barnstable.

I started with planning my route using RideWithGPS. I wanted to use as many bike paths as possible but since there aren't really any in my direction outside of Boston, I had to rely on some quiet local roads. Some roads I chose were just great places to ride, namely Harland St in Milton, Spring St from Rockland to Hanson and Oak/Grove St in Halifax - very little traffic and decent pavement. Some places were less pleasant such as Rt 3A from Manomet to Sagamore Bridge or Granite St in Braintree - heavy traffic, no shoulders.

There are some things I would change if riding this route in the future. The most important one would be to skip Rt 3A (State Rd) from Manomet and ride Old Sandwich Rd instead. Unfortunately, it seems that some things can't be easily changed. There seem to be no good place to cross I-93 without going too much around. I picked Granite St hoping that by the time I get there, the morning traffic will still be mild. I was right. Leaving early from Arlington was the best thing to do. I left my house at 5:45am and the city was slowly waking up, even though it was already pretty bright out there as the sun rose around 5:15am.
BU Bridge in early morning sun.

Riding through Boston at that time was a pleasure - very little traffic, morning breeze, mild air temperature. What surprised me though was number of people jogging along the Charles River at 6 in the morning. A popular location for early risers, for sure. I continued across the BU Bridge, along Jamaicaway, through Mattapan and towards Blue Hills in Milton, where I rode Chickatawbut Rd to Granite St and crossed I-93.
On the road through Blue Hills.
The view from Blue Hills. Boston is straight ahead.
Chicka-tika Rd.

At this point when I passed Braintree, the traffic was pretty light and I was moving faster than expected. My average speed was about 23km/h (14mph) and soon I reached Rockland, Hanson, Pembroke and then, at 9:30am, I reached Plymouth. Since originally I planned being in Plymouth about an hour later, having plenty of time, I decided to stop for breakfast. A thick egg sandwich and some water was plenty. The town was quiet and beautiful. There was a very light breeze from the ocean. Refreshing. I will have to come back to Plymouth some other time.
This fellow cyclist was on his way to somewhere far - judging from the trailer.
 Plymouth harbor.

The next goal was to reach the Sagamore Bridge - the only sensible way of crossing the Cape Cod Channel, unless I was planning on swimming across. I made a mistake by taking Rt 3A, instead of some local roads. The 3A was very busy, with no shoulders and the long climb to the village of Manomet was a bit strenuous at this point of my ride. I was moving slowly at 13km/h (8mph), being passed by multiple trucks. Definitely the least favorite part of the ride. At 11:40am, I crossed the Sagamore Bridge.
View from the Sagamore Bridge. Heavy overcast but no rain.

Next, I moved through the town of Sandwich and continued along Rt 6A east. Once I merged with Rt 149 I recognized a familiar territory. My destination was just a few kilometers away and I reached it at 1:00pm, after riding 136km (~85mi). Interestingly, I was less tired than after riding Barnstable-Chatham-Barnstable route (100km = 60mi) the last year. Well, my knees were sore for the reminder of the day but I wasn't exhausted. It was the longest distance I rode on bike so far and I don't plan on breaking this record for a long time (if ever).
Historic watermill in Sandwich center.

When it comes to the bike setup, it worked pretty well. Fenders were useless - it didn't rain, but having them on the bike was a kind of bad weather insurance. Schwalbe Marathon Supreme tires (well, the front one only) were great. Smooth rolling and usable even on the few dirt paths. The Pika saddlebag (I have to write a review soon) was all I needed. I managed to stuff my spare tube, tools, clothes for change and lightweight shoes in it. The rest - a camera, phone, cue cards, some maps and granola bars, I placed in  a small handlebar bag. I took two water bottles and to one of them I added two Nuun tablets - something I tried for the first time. I really like them. They are supposed to replenish lost electrolytes without sugar. And once dissolved in water, they have a great taste. I bought more water bottles in Plymouth and added more Nuun tablets in them. I also had a single packet of Cliff Shot Razz Gel. I guess this is a kind of thing road cyclists like to use a lot. I got this packet as a free sample with another online parts order. Maybe it was because of its raspberry flavoring, but I doubt it - the gel quickly ended up in a trash bin. The taste was disgusting. Like eating a huge spoon full of sugar with a fake fruity flavor. I think I stick to my chocolate granola bars.

Well, that's it. I am happy I managed to finally ride this route. I am sure I deserved a pint of good beer.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Bruce Freeman Rail Trail and SKS Longboard fenders

The days in July are just long enough to go for a ~60km (40mi) ride after work. I need about 3 hrs to complete such ride and if I leave my work at 5pm, I should be back home shortly before it gets dark.

With this in mind, I decided to explore my northern neighborhoods and visit the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail connecting Lowell with Carlisle. The trail is fully paved, so no off-road riding this time. We had a cloudy day yesterday, but we didn't get any rain. Well, at least not until 5pm, so knowing my luck this week, it started raining shortly after I left my office and pretty much didn't stop until I got home, 60km later. Having said that, I was very happy I didn't take my rain shell with me. Wearing it would just make me sweaty and even though my wool shirt was completely wet after a while, it didn't matter at all. The day was hot, very humid with no wind. The rain was misty and mild. My shirt was wet but I didn't even realize it until I took it off at home.

Since the rain felt more like a gentle water spray, the water falling down from the sky didn't matter that much. The bigger issue was the water on the ground. That's why I was really happy that I installed fenders on my bike recently. When I was looking for fenders, I wasn't sure which model would work best for me. Aluminum fenders are durable but heavy. Chromoplastic ones are relatively lightweight, but may be flimsy and short-lived. I decided to buy something inexpensive first, just to see how I would like having fenders on my bike, knowing that I may have to buy more durable fenders in the future.
I bought SKS Longboard that cost just $35 but as their name indicates, are long. And this is good. As you can see in the picture above, the coverage is excellent and rubber mud flaps are greatly reducing chances of being sprayed. Fenders are very lightweight, being made out of plastic, and the only metal parts are the steel stays. Installing Longboards was relatively easy, although I had to make some adjustments with the rear one. The frame on my  Lemond Poprad has mounting points at the brake bridge and the dropouts, but no chainstay bridge. Plus, there was not enough space between the chainstays to fit the fender. I purchased the 45mm wide fenders to go with 35mm tires on my bike. The chainstay space was only 40mm. I had to cut the fender a little bit on each side. Since the fender is plastic, that part was easy.
A bit more complicated was to figure out how to secure the bottom end of the fender. After playing with different p-clamps, I decided to use the easiest solution and simply zip-tie it to the frame. May not look too pretty, but it works. Nothing rattles.

In general, Longboards work quite well. My feet stay dry, my bike was clean. The only parts of the bike I had to clean after the ride was the chain and the cassette. If I had to complain about these fenders, I would say that the biggest problem with Longboards is their stiffness. Or the lack of it. The fenders don't rattle, but they are not self-supported. The plastic is flexible and that's why plastic fenders need 2 stays on each side of the wheel instead of just 1 as you would see on aluminum models. There is an advantage of flexible fenders, though. In case of a collision (as if some object gets between the fender and the wheel), the plastic fender would simply deform. That may save you from falling. On the other hand, because these fenders are so flexible, my front rubber mud flap once got caught between the fender and the tire and as a result got torn a bit. Next time SKS, stiffer mud flaps please. Having said that, for $35, the Longboards are a decent choice.
Now going back to the Bruce Freeman Trail. Since this bikeway was built in place of railway tracks, you can expect it to be flat and straight. It really feels just like a long sidewalk. Reminds me our local Minuteman Trail a lot. Not surprising - the Minuteman was built in place of the railway as well.
What I did like it a lot, and it is something I didn't see on Minuteman Trail anywhere, was the bike repair station. Self-repair, of course. I loved the idea of a bike rack, with a bunch of handy tools and a pump anyone in need can use.
Tomorrow is time for another bike ride. Let's hope the muggy weather goes away soon.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Schwalbe Marathon Supreme - did I walk under a ladder?

I was looking for new tires recently. I wanted something I could use mostly on pavement, fast rolling, lightweight, but wider than the standard "roadie" 23-25mm tires. Remembering the old rule that buying cheap usually means buying twice, I thought about going for the "best": Grand Bois Cypres Extra Leger. These tires come in 700x32c size, weigh only 232g and are supposed to be the Holy Grail of on-road riding. These fake French tires (since they are as French as I am - they are made in Japan by Panasonic, err... Panaracer), are very thin and lightweight but relatively wide, which is supposed to result in a very comfortable ride. The sidewalls are soft and supple, cushioning road vibrations. They have almost no tread so I can't expect them to work in slick mud at all but they are apparently THE solution for longer rides on pavement, as many reviews indicate. And as the true Holy Grail, they are not only crazy expensive ($85 each) but also completely... unavailable. Well, the last is not entirely true. The do show up sometimes but recently with tan sidewalls, which I don't like at all. Since they exist in all-black version as well, I decided to wait for it to show up.

This all meant that I had to look for an alternative and after some thinking I decided to buy Schwalbe Marathon Supreme in 700x32c size. These tires live by their name - Marathon tire is a legend. The Supreme version is supposed to be lighter (I measured 370g per tire), with softer sidewalls for more comfortable ride, without sacrificing durability. They are not the cheapest ($62 is still pretty steep) but they may be the best commuter tires.

Installing these on my bike was quite straightforward although not painless. They were a bit tight but with an aid of a couple of levers I finally managed to put them on my Velocity A23 rims. The next day I was ready for the first ride. And this is where all the fun ended and my bad luck started. This must have been the worst bad luck I had on bike so far. After only a couple of miles, I heard a loud hiss coming from the rear tire. Getting a flat tire is nothing unusual but I think that earlier that day I must have broken a mirror, walked under a ladder and crossed paths with a black cat.
It turned out that a long nail penetrated the tire all the way in, straight through its sidewall, making two huge holes in the tube. There was no way I could have it fixed roadside. Fortunately, I wasn't too far from a local bike store where I had to buy a new tube and a new tire. Obviously, they didn't have the Marathons in stock so I ended up with a cheap Vittoria Randonneur on my rear wheel. This one turned out to be even harder to put on the rim than Marathons. Anyway, I was able to get back home.

So this is how $62 went straight into a drain. The tire is destroyed. The sidewall is ripped too much and there is no way to fix it. I will have to order a new one. I am not blaming Schwalbe on what happened. Very few tires would survive a close encounter with a nail of this size. It is just a pity to have a brand new tire destroyed on the first ride. I was really starting to like them.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Integrating with your bike - the fitting process

Recently, I decided to take my biking experience just a notch further and try a professional bike fitting process. Until then, I was doing all of the adjustments on my bike myself, based on the knowledge I gained on Internet, from books and articles and by the trail and error. As a result, I have a bike now that I feel quite comfortable on and it seems relatively well fitted to my body proportions.

Still, this approach may work for some, but realistically it will never substitute a professional bike fit. This is because a bike fit is much more than putting a new stem or handlebars on your bike. It is a complex process that will help you find the right size bike, the best (e.g. most aerodynamic or most comfortable) position or eliminate that pain bothering you whenever you ride. A typical bike fit session takes about 1.5-2 hrs and starts with investigating your body capabilities - how flexible you are, what is your range of motion, etc., followed by taking your body measurements: inseam, arm length, shoulder width, etc. You may be surprised, just as I was when I heard that I had relatively long legs but short arms. I guess this may explain why I always looked for a way to move the handlebars closer to the saddle - I just felt like being too stretched on my bike.

The session will continue with putting you on a bike with a frame that fits your body proportions best. And since we have a huge number of different frame designs to choose from, the best way to compare them and measure them is not the seat and top tube length anymore, but stack and reach.
Stack and reach dimensions of a bicycle frame (Source: Google Images)

Because of sloping top tubes of today's bike frames, stack and reach should be measured when finding your optimum bike size. Once you sit on your bike, it is time to make some initial adjustments - saddle height, handlebars position, etc. Next, the pro fitter will look for the way you sit on the bike, your back position, your arms and the way you pedal. At this point of my session I learned that I had a tendency to move my knees outward on the pedal upstroke and inward on downstroke. We started to investigate this problem and it turned out that moving my center of gravity by lowering the handlebars helped, but also that I have high foot arches and my feet were collapsing inward when pedaling. Placing new insoles in my shoes solved the problem.

Eventually, you should feel being fully integrated with your bike. Your back should be straight, your arms relaxed, you should be supporting your body using your legs and your core muscles, your legs should move smoothly in a forward-backward motion (This is how my pro fitter referred to it: "Think about it as moving your feet forward-backward, not up-down").

I have to say that this was a new experience and definitely helped me looking a bit differently at my bike and the way I ride. I learned many new facts about the way a bike should fit me and the way I should position myself on a bike. If you think about riding many miles, if you are looking for a new bike, think about a pro bike fit session as well.