Monday, December 29, 2014

Is it winter yet?

I got used to the fact that December is still pretty mild here in Boston but 55F (13C) is still unusual for this time of year. Right after Christmas I visited Cape Cod for 2 days with my family and because I didn't want to leave my bike behind, I could enjoy spring weather biking in winter, at the waterfront.
What's really nice about cycling at the Cape in winter season is that road traffic is very light. Summer crowds are long gone and those residents who stay here for most of the year move out for winter months anyway. At 6 a.m. you can barely find a single car on the road.

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:
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:
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:

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?

Friday, September 26, 2014

It's Friday and a time to STOP what you're doing

It's Friday finally and that makes it a perfect day to STOP working and go home. It's also a good day to take a look back at some things that happened recently.
A cyclist killed a woman in Manhattan a few days ago and I feel like the whole East Coast talks about it. Or at least New England. Meanwhile, nearly 3000 people die on U.S. roads every month (!) and no one gives the shit. That's like a 9/11 attack on U.S. soil every month. But we don't care because those are "accidents", which would indicate that they just... oops... happened and drivers were not at fault. Which doesn't make it news anymore, unlike a single cyclists training for Tour de Central Park and riding his two-wheeler way too fast. Clearly, it would be better for all of us if this kind of pathetic media reporting STOPPED right now. Just because it's Friday. And because death by bicycle is an exemption, while death by car seems to be the rule, so why don't we focus on what really matters, shall we?
On top of that we are now getting a bunch of local politicians speaking on the topic, even if they have no idea what they are talking about. Typical. So now you can hear that cyclists often disobey the speed limit by "moving sometimes at 40 miles an hour". Makes me wonder where I can buy a bike that goes that fast. I can only accelerate my (t)rusty Schwinn to about 15mph at best. But if you happen to ride your bike at 40mph, please STOP. No, wait. If you're a politician and like to talk about things that you have no idea about, such as riding a bicycle in the city, even though the last time you rode one was when you were 5, STOP! It's Friday after all...
Enough of this nonsense. It's weekend and a time to finally clean up my car even though I haven't used it in weeks. I hope I remember how it looks like. The weather has been perfect this month so I didn't find a single excuse not to bike to work. My Toyota must feel a bit abandoned now.
Anyway, the fall officially arrived. The best time to take a bike ride is now.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Brakes compared - TRP CX9 and Tektro CR720

I went for a short 2-hour bike ride after work yesterday. Unfortunately, days are definitely getting shorter so 2 hours is max. I can ride for before it gets pitch black. I moved along Concord River from Billerica border to Concord, stopping by at the Greenough Pond.
There is a trail along the southern bank of the pond connecting with Maple St. That was supposed to be a nice shortcut, at least according to the map. What map didn't tell me was that the trail looked like this:
I have seen a lot of crazy trails in the woods around Boston but this one beats them all. No matter what bike you bring with you, good luck riding there. I wouldn't want to try it even on a fat bike. I ended up carrying my bike for more than a mile.

But I was supposed to write a bit about brakes. For the last 2 years, I have been using Tektro CR720 cantilever brakes on my Poprad. They were a big improvement over Avid Shorty 4 cantis that came with the bike. CR720s actually are able to stop this bike, something I couldn't say about Avids. These Tektro cantilevers are very nice brakes, especially when you consider that you can get them for $48. For a full set! A single brake pair weighs 144g (with hangers). In my opinion, CR720s provide sufficient stopping power for the money. Available in silver or black.
So why did I even consider replacing them in the first place? Two reasons, I could say. First, they are very wide, which isn't really an issue as long as you don't kick them with your shoe when mounting/dismounting or if they don't interfere with your panniers. The second reason is typical for all cantilever systems - they are really tricky to set up properly. Once you realize that you have to account for the right toe-in, pad angle, distance from rim, hanger cable angle, etc. you may just not want to deal with them at all. This is why I looked for something a bit different.
Tektro CR720 cantilever brakes:
+ cheap ($24 each)
+ quite powerful
- wide
- tricky to set up (typical for all cantis)

After searching through available options, I decided to bite the bullet and get what's supposedly one of the best brakes out there - TRP CX9. These are made by essentially the same company but are positioned in a different performance bracket. Maybe that's why they cost $144 for a full set. Oh, and of course, these are not cantilevers. Being mini v-brakes, they are much easier to install and set up. In fact, I didn't have to do much set up at all. Just align the pads a bit and they are good to go. A single brake weighs 146g (without adjustable noodles) so there isn't any weight savings in brakes, should you be concerned. But once you add the weight of cable hangers (back and front) you should be able to drop the weight of your bike just a little bit.
TRP CX9s are designed to work with road brake levers and they do indeed work very well. However, they have to be set up much, much closer to the rims than cantilever brakes. This is normally not an issue, as long as your wheels are perfectly true. Also, make sure your wheels are build well and strong so they don't deflect under load or you will hear constant pad rubbing. This is the main issue with mini v-brakes and probably the main reason why we don't see them on cyclocross bikes. I don't race in cyclocross so I'm perfectly happy with the new setup. The only other issue that I found with CX9s is very minor - edge finish. Edges of the brake arms are pretty sharp and should definitely be rounded a bit in machining. They just don't have a nice feel.
On the positive note, performance of CX9s is top notch. They are super powerful and locking the wheel has never been this effortless before, even with the stock pads. Speaking about pads - they have replaceable shoes that you can simply slide out and slip new ones in. No need to remove the entire pads from the brakes.
Also, CX9s have 90mm long arms (hence the name), which leaves plenty of space for fenders.

As a final note, the tiny M3 arm tension screws at each brake boss require 3mm hex key, which means that I quickly replaced them with standard slotted screwdriver screws. This way I don't need to bother with even carrying a 3mm hex around as I don't have such screws anywhere else on my bicycle.

TRP CX9 mini v-brakes:
+ super powerful
+ easy to adjust
+ adjustable noodles
+ plenty of space for a fender
- requires pads being placed very close to rims
- sharp edges of brake arms
- a bit pricy

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Three most important hidden components of your bike

We would probably all agree that the most important components of your bike are either the frame or wheels. Some may also argue that even more important is the saddle and handlebars, which define your riding comfort. But what about those hidden parts that you normally don't see, and which are absolutely critical for your bicycle to function properly? Here are the 3 most important invisible components of your bike:
Cables are hidden inside housings (sometimes not completely) and you normally don't pay attention to them as long as they operate your brakes and derailleurs. But keeping cables clean and damage-free is critical if you don't want to suddenly end up brakeless on the long downhill ending at the busy street. Or if you don't want to lose your gears, which happened to me once when the shifter cable for my 3-speed hub broke unexpectedly, forcing me to limp slowly (in the 1st gear) to the nearest bike store to seek a replacement.
Check the cables periodically to make sure they don't have any individual wires broken. That's how the bigger problems start. It's also a good idea to oil cables inside the housings a little. If you ride a lot in wet conditions (rain, mud) you should seriously consider upgrading to Teflon-coated cables and housings with insulated ferrules). Jagwire and Gore make good ones. But even if you generally avoid rain, it may be worth choosing insulated housings for your cables (or at least lubricate them periodically), should you ride a lot in winter. Frozen cables can be a serious problem.
If you don't remember hubs with cup-and-cone bearings that required two wrenches to carefully adjust each bearing cone, you're still a kid. Fortunately, these old-fashioned hubs are pretty much gone today (unless you still ride an oldie from the 80's). We have sealed industrial bearings in all modern hubs, bottom brackets and headsets right now and these require much less wrenching than old cones but still some care. Good quality hubs will last many years unless you spend many miles in muck and mud. It is still a good idea to check on the wear of the bearings once a while and lubricate them when necessary. Should you feel any play in your headset, cranks or hubs, it's definitely time to check on bearings condition.
Ok, air is not really a bicycle component but without it you definitely wouldn't go too far. From all the parts on your bike this is the one you literally can't see but it may be the most important one. For decades, it used to be quite simple. Mountain bikers and cyclo-cross racers would go for the lowest air pressure their tires can handle without risking a pinch flat. Road cyclists would go for the highest pressure their tires can handle without risking a blow out. Now that we are smarter and we have more tire options than ever, it isn't that simple anymore.
The current trend to move towards wider tires changes things quite a bit. Less air pressure would mean more traction and a more comfortable ride, provided that tires on your bikes are not made of a rock-hard rubber. For mountain bikers the biggest change would happen once they try a fat bike or put tires at least 3.0" wide on their 29ers. Running these at high pressure is a mistake.
Road cyclists should still keep the pressure high in their 23-25mm tires but once you start riding with 32-38mm tires on your road bike (provided it has enough clearance to fit them) forget about inflating them to whatever maximum pressure manufacturer specified. I currently ride at only 30/35 psi (front/rear) in my 35mm wide tires and I'm very happy with this setup.
Unless you ride on a perfectly smooth velodrome, small bumps are better damped by a low pressure, wider tire (that simply deflects and rolls over debris) instead of a high pressure, skinny one (that must jump over each small rock).

Friday, September 5, 2014

The summer is over - finally!

We had a few obscenely hot and humid days recently, which made me double-check the calendar to verify that it's September indeed. It felt more like middle of July to be honest.

But it is September finally, which must worry all kids as they go back to school and most parents when they sit in traffic following yellow buses every morning. I, on the other hand, am not worried at all. I'm excited for the cooler autumn weather to come and traffic doesn't apply to me that much. Another advantage of biking to work every day - September 1st is just another day in the calendar.

I took a break in writing here for some time, as I was enjoying a short vacation with my family. My brother who I haven't seen in 3 years, visited me last month, so it was a good time to finally finish building my Frankenbike. This way we both could move around by bikes. The new/old bike is really a nice machine. I realized that some of its components are 20 years old but they show very little wear and in general the whole thing feels and looks new.
I also decided to bite the bullet and invest a bit in my Poprad. I gave it a complete set of sealed cables and housing (Jagwire) and a new set of brakes - TRP CX9. They definitely deserve a proper review but so far my first impressions are very positive. CX9s are very easy to install and adjust and are extremely powerful compared to my old cantilevers. The only, slight, disadvantage is that it's close to impossible to adjust them for a very short lever travel as that would require keeping the pads super close to rims. In other words, STI brake levers require a longer pull in order to apply full braking power but it isn't really an issue at all.


Lots of other things happened this summer. A mother from South Carolina got locked up in a jail because she let her 9-year old daughter to play in the playground unsupervised. Apparently, in USA 9-year-olds are babies who can't be left alone for longer than 30 seconds. Yes, we do live our lives in fear.

Not too long time ago I wrote about the cyclists' perception of stop signs along the Minuteman Bikeway. Because so many drivers yield to bikers and pedestrians in road crossings (A good thing!), cyclists got used to it and now hardly ever stop at stop signs along this popular shared bike path. It may not be a bad thing, as long as they at least slow down and look both ways. By not completely stopping, they may actually be saving waiting drivers some time (And we all know drivers love to save precious seconds of their commutes). But can you be in trouble if you in fact obey the law to the letter? Apparently, yes! Motorists hate us if we run red lights, but when we stop at them, they punch us in the face.


The problem with the Minuteman Bikeway is obviously much broader than just the stop signs. There are number of "Lance Armstrong wannabes" on Minuteman who think it's a race track. Now that the town of Lexington completed a new paving on their section of the Minuteman and our local Armstrongs and Cipollinis don't have to ride on a bumpy surface anymore, I'm sure we will see more of them.


And at the end of today's post, a friendly reminder - if you need to kill someone, just roll him/her over with your car. In America, this can be your perfect crime. The chances you will be prosecuted for such "accident" are negligible. You're welcome!

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Phoenix Bike Project - part 3

It's been a long time since I started working on this bike. The last time I reported any progress was last October. Then the winter came and I had other things to take care of, so building the Frankenbike was put on a back burner for a while.
But recently things were better again. I got a free access to a really good bead blaster that stripped the frame of the old paint with ease. The only difficulty was reach all sides of the frame as the blaster's chamber was just big enough to fit the frame inside, but not big enough to rotate it around freely. Nevertheless, the last week my old/new frame was finally ready.
Putting all the parts together was then simply straightforward and within a single day the Phoenix Bike was reborn. I'm pretty happy with the final result. Even though the raw steel frame and fork looks nice and shiny for now, I'm sure it's not going to last like this for too long. I'm actually curious to see how much corrosion I'm going to find on this bike within the first year of use, keeping in mind that I won't use this bike when the weather is not perfectly dry (meaning no riding in rain or after rain). It's going to be my summer commuting bike.
Working with old components that I removed from the ancient bike I built 20 years ago was a pleasure. They are still in a very good condition so I'm happy I could give them a new life. After the first ride, I quickly discovered how fast this new bike is and how surprisingly comfortable the old Selle Italia Flite saddle was. The brakes were great, the bar end shifter works well with modern Alivio derailleur, the 39T chainring gives me a nice usable gear ratio range combined with the 11-34T, 8-speed cassette.
The only part of the bike that still needs my attention, I think, is the handlebars. I installed Soma Oxford Sparrow bars upside-down and they are actually very comfortable in this configuration, making for a very sporty riding position. But eventually, I think I'm going to try a bit more relaxed config by flipping the bars over and installing flat-bar brake levers instead. Especially that the bars I got are pretty wide and will be better suited for use with flat-bar levers anyway. I think I'm going to ride the bike with Oxford Sparrow bars in both positions for a while to figure out which one I like better.
My Soma Oxford Sparrow bars seem way too wide for the upside down installation, but they should work nicely when flipped over.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Sunday cycling and why you wear tight shorts on your ride

I see them almost weekly, but most often on weekends. Couples in their 60's, riding identical "hybrid" bikes (something that allows for a more upright, comfortable cycling position but is not a typical city bike - lacks fenders, chainguards, lights, etc.). They stroll slowly on a bike path clearly enjoying it. Would be an idyllic picture if it wasn't for what they wear on their ride. They both have reflective cycling jersey's or jackets on, cycling gloves, helmets, sunglasses and obviously padded, tight shorts. Wouldn't you think there is something wrong with this picture?
(A typical American family enjoying their weekend ride, I think. Source:
If you have errands to run and take your car to a grocery store, do you dress like this
(A male representative of a typical race car driver as found on the Internet)
or you just wear whatever you happened to be wearing at a moment? When you want to go for a few miles-long bike ride to a grocery store, a café or a park would you dress like you are ready for a Tour de France stage? I guess not. So why would some people think they need some specific clothing to enjoy a bike ride?
I guess the answer is in the way American culture presents cyclists and cycling. In this country, cycling is still just a sport, something we do for recreation, fun, fitness. We don't see riding a bicycle simply as a... faster way of walking. A way to move from point A to B. In this sense, in America people on bicycles are cyclists, while in Denmark, Holland or China, they are just... well, people on bicycles. This way, even just riding to a café we feel like we need to put those padded shorts on, glasses, gloves and all the other superfluous gear. Those couples in their 60's certainly didn't use helmets, gloves and tight shorts when they were riding their bicycles in their childhood. That time they just enjoyed the freedom of moving around faster than on both feet. Someone or something must have told or showed them that this funky clothing is absolutely necessary to ride a bike in XIX century.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Are all STOP signs created equal?

I used to think so. Stop means stop, after all. But I am not so sure anymore, after I started riding my bike on Minuteman Bikeway more often.
Stop signs have obviously their purpose and even on a bicycle I obey the rules by stopping at them. However, the stop signs in places where a bike path crosses the street are a little bit different animals. Here is why:
  1. Riding on a bike path and approaching an intersection with a stop sign I'm required to stop my bike completely and verify if the road is clear on both sides before crossing it and continuing riding on the other side.
  2. At the same time, at least here in Massachusetts, drivers are required to yield to everyone (pedestrians or cyclists) who intend to cross the street, even if there is no stop or yield sign displayed.
  3. This creates a situation where both cyclists and drivers stop looking at each other, trying to figure out who would move first.
I noticed, while riding on Minuteman Bikeway to work every day that about 99% of drivers stop at the crosswalks seeing cyclists and pedestrians attempting to cross the street. This is good. However, because of it, the cyclists here got trained that all stop signs at Minuteman Bikeway intersections are only a "suggestion" to stop and most of them don't stop at all. Either they simply slow down significantly and after making sure that the road is clear, proceed to the other side of the intersection, or they don't even slow down at all, assuming that cars will stop for them. While the latter behavior may be just plain stupid or at least risky, it seems to me that cyclists who approach the intersection and seeing cars stopped there, ignore the stop signs and cross the street as quickly as possible, are actually saving those drivers time. We often hear from the motorists that "cyclists should obey all traffic laws to gain respect of motorists" but this situation makes me think that sometimes the same drivers would want us to break the law and get out of their way ASAP.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Urban bikes of the future?

If you happen to ride your bike to work in the city, chances are that your bike is similar to mine - it's just a cheap, steel bike with full size fenders, comfortable and relaxed riding position, limited number of gears and a rack or basket for your office bag. These bikes are not speed demons but they do their job very well, taking us to and from work places, running errands, etc.
Apparently, there are people who believe that modern city bikes are just way too old-fashioned and in XXI century we need something better. The organizers of Oregon Manifest Bike Design Project believe that urban bikes get not enough R&D within the bike industry and decided to change it by choosing 5 teams from 5 cities in United States, whose task was to design an "ultimate city bike" of XXI century.
Now it's time to choose the winner. The entries are:

Portland's "Solid"
My take:
+ belt drive (Nice, no more greasy chain)
+ long fenders
+ integrated lights
- too sporty geometry (The main problem I have with this bike is that its geometry looks too sporty. The handlebars are lower than the saddle, which may be useful if you ride on trails but it's nowhere close to a relaxed city-cruising position)
- no way to adjust the stem (The stem seems to be fully integrated so this bike must be made to order for a specific person. There is no way to make any adjustments)
- no loop frame (Riding in dress or getting on the bike with a child seat on the rear rack will be a problem)
- no drivetrain cover (Despite grease-free drivetrain a cover would still be useful. It would protect your pants or dress from being caught in the drivetrain or being splashed by water during rain.)
- smartphone-connected (Why everything has to be now smartphone connected? When I ride my bike I should be looking at the road ahead, not the screen on my phone)

San Francisco's "EVO"
My take:
+ modular cargo racks (Definitely a plus)
+ integrated lights
+ belt drive
- no loop frame (See above)
- integrated cable lock, no u-lock (Nice that the lock is integrated but it's only a cable lock)
- too short fenders (Especially front fender is way too short)
- no kickstand (Seriously? On a city bike?)

Seattle's "Denny"
My take:
+ integrated handlebars lock (Great idea and finally something new. The problem is that handlebars tubing is hollow, not solid like regular u-locks, so I doubt this is going to be durable enough)
+ electric assist (You may say this makes this vehicle a motorcycle but it is a very useful addition in very hilly cities. I guess you wouldn't know if you never had to bike uphill on a bike loaded with bags full of groceries)
+ integrated lights
+ belt drive
- no loop frame
- no fenders (Apparently, it doesn't rain in Seattle. Oh, wait... That little something at both wheels is a joke, not a fender. It's like the designers were trying to reinvent the wheel because the regular fenders are too "oldschool" so they just had to come up with something "new")

New York's "Merge"
My take:
+ collapsible, integrated rear rack (Kinda small, but a pretty neat idea)
+ integrated lights
+ belt drive
- no loop frame
- no fenders (I guess New Yorkers just switch to the subway when it rains. There is a rear fender-like thing but let's be serious and not call it a fender. They didn't bother to include the front fender at all. Plus why do fenders have to be hidden when not in use?)

Chicago's "Blackline"
My take:
+ belt drive
+ leather saddle
+ no loop frame, but here there is at least an attempt to lower the frame for easy mount/dismount
+ integrated lights
+ modular cargo racks
+ u-lock stored under the rack (Not fully integrated but they at least found a nice place for it)
- no fenders (Those tiny strips of metal over each wheel can't seriously be called fenders)
- 3-speed only, but that's probably enough in Chicago

To be honest, none of these bikes ticks all of my boxes and none of them makes me feel wanting to ride them. The problem with them is that they are not really urban. They have some features of urban bikes but... would you leave any of them chained to the fence in front of your apartment overnight? Would you want to ride these bikes in heavy rain? They all come with relatively maintenance-free drivetrain and integrated lights, which is great but at the same time they often feature minimalistic racks, fenders, kickstands. It almost looks like the designers didn't want to spoil the looks of their bikes by including "those dreadful fenders" by default. I guess they forgot we're talking about an utility bike here, not an art object.

If I had to choose, I would probably go with Chicago's "Blackline" but only after putting some proper fenders on this thing, raising the stem, adding a chainguard, replacing the rear rack with something useful... No, I guess that's too many changes. I just keep my old, (t)rusty Schwinn.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Should you be afraid to ride your bike in the city?

A reader left a comment under my Twitter post:
which in general I agree with. Almost. Those last words made me think about it more. Is fear really a good thing in U.S. cities considering we have very little proper cycling infrastructure? Sure, some fear is good. It stops us from doing some really stupid things. But should you be afraid to ride your bike in the city?
When it comes to riding a bicycle in the city, there are three pieces of the puzzle:
  1. First, cycling in the city should not require any special gear such as helmets, reflective vests, gloves, padded shorts, etc. A "gearless" cycling is simply more accessible.
  2. Second, a proper infrastructure is desirable as it increases safety and makes city biking more pleasant and efficient. Protected cycle paths are a good example, but other solutions come to mind as well.
  3. Third, and perhaps often omitted, part is driver's education and liability. In fact, I dare to say this is the most important one. Let me ask: would you rather bike in a city with very good infrastructure but 99% of drivers being hostile, even aggressive towards cyclists, or in a city with no infrastructure at all but 99% of drivers being very aware of bike riders, always slowing down next to them and giving them plenty of space when passing by? You may say, there is always that 1% so it's better to be fully separated, but even those protected cycle paths must cross with car traffic at some point.
So when I see a comment like the one above, I feel that something is missing there. Rewriting it as "With current infrastructure and hostile drivers, fear is good." makes it now sound much more complete.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Plum Island Ride

Yesterday, I finally had a chance to try something a bit more challenging. I rode my longest distance covered in one day so far - 167km (104mi) to Newburyport, MA and Plum Island, and back. For some of you riding 100mi in a day is not a challenge, I know. But since I explained before that I have no intention of riding longer distances than 150-160km a day, I wanted to see how my untrained body would respond to such a prolonged physical activity. Plus, Plum Island is a beautiful place worth visiting whether by bike or not. Sightseeing was certainly my other motivation on this ride.

I left my house at 6:30AM when the sky was still cloudy and it was pleasantly cool. I quickly found my way through Winchester and Reading and reached Harold Parker State Forest, a place I have never visited before. It was a real pleasure to ride a bike there early in the morning - roads were empty, quiet, it wasn't hot (yet) and views were very rewarding.
At the Stearns Pond in Harold Parker State Forest
I was moving forward at a pretty good pace, easily maintaining 20km/h average speed. Next, I reached Georgetown with its small town center and Byfield, which looks like some "sleepy hollow" village - it's tiny.
After that, I had to cross I-95 and merge with the southern part of Clipper City Rail Trail. This section is not officially considered a bike path, I assume. It is wild, narrow, unpaved, but it was a welcomed change from all those rural roads shared with other traffic.
 Bike dog - a sculpture at the Clipper City Rail Trail in Newburyport, MA

The northern section of the trail, beginning at Parker St in Newburyport resembles the Minuteman Bikeway in my town, except that it's much nicer, being smoothly paved and having a number of interesting sculptures displayed next to it.
Around 10:30AM I reached the waterfront in Newburyport. I could take a break and relax for a while. The sun was already up high in the sky so I had to find some shade (I usually overheat easily). Plum Island was next, but before I headed there, I decided to take a short walk through the downtown.
I really like Newburyport. It is a larger seaside town but a lot of buildings in the downtown were preserved with their original, industrial character. At the same time, once you leave the center of the town, you can find some wooden fisherman's cottages. It's fun to visit this place if only to walk the streets for a while.

It was time move again, so I started riding east towards Plum Island. The views from Plum Island Turnpike are spectacular thanks to salt marshes created at the mouth of Merrimack River and abundant birds living there.
My next stop was at the gate to Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island. It's only $2 for a cyclist to enter this place. If you a beach person, you will be delighted. I am not, so I wasn't planing on frying on the beach and decided to focus on wildlife and views instead. My only problem was that Plum Island is like a large frying pan - there is no shade. I had to be careful and pouring some water on my cycling hat helped me staying cool.
Roughly half way down the island, the pavement ends and I started riding on gravel. That wasn't a problem at all (I am using 35mm wide tires on my bike, no skinny road slicks) but occasional passing cars put huge clouds of dust up in the air, which made my riding there a bit less pleasant.

I reached the southern tip of the island and I finally found some place to sit down in a shade. I needed a rest, not from riding, but the heat. I stayed there for a while and after that, it was time to start riding back. The way back north was actually much more pleasant. Not only sun was hitting my back, not my face, but there was finally some breeze coming from the ocean.

I took route 1A south towards Ipswitch and my cycling computer was showing me that I have just passed 110km (68mi) of my ride. My stomach was telling me it was definitely time for a lunch (I only had a couple of granola bars so far). It was difficult to ride those last few kilometers (due to hunger) to finally reach the Clam Box of Ipswitch. I had a chance to visit this place before and the seafood they sell is excellent. Unfortunately, I'm not the only one who knows about it. There are always long lines in front of the Clam Box and yesterday wasn't different. On top of that, every day around 2:00PM they take a 20min. break to replace frying oil, which means even a longer delay. I was there at... 1:50PM.
But I was lucky as the oil change was not scheduled until 2:30PM and after roughly half an hour I could enjoy a lobster roll with a salad. It was time to hop back on the bike but that's where I had a little crisis. Somewhere around the 120km (75mi) of my ride I felt very tired. My legs were fine so I think it was just a general exhaustion. I was still moving forward, still maintaining 20km/h average, but the ride wasn't as enjoyable as before anymore.

I reached Topsfield and entered Topsfield Linear Common - a narrow bike path in the forest. I don't know if the full length of this path looks like in the picture below, but this trail is pretty long, reaching south of Danvers eventually. I only rode a short fragment of it - I wasn't going to Danvers, but Boxford and North Reading.
Once I got close to North Reading and around 140km (87mi) I somehow felt better again. Maybe my body needed time to digest the food and replenish energy reserves, maybe I learned to ignore the feeling of exhaustion or maybe it was the sun that didn't feel as hot as on Plum Island.

I reached my house at 5:30PM, after 11 hours being away and 8 hours of non-stop riding. I was sweaty and tired but not completely exhausted. It was definitely a fun ride and I am glad I tried it. At the same time, I see that 120km seems better suited as my single-day distance, especially when it's sunny and hot.