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.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The 4th of July and why you won't die of dehydration when riding the Edgerunner

We celebrated the 4th of July last Friday - the Birth of the Nation, as we like to call it here in America. I found this interesting, being an European. We, the Europeans, like to find things that make us feel better than our American Big Brothers, so if you happen to ask a person from pretty much any European country when he's celebrating his Independence Day, you should hear a question "Which one?". You see, we managed to screw up our history so much that we could easily celebrate more than one "Rebirth of the Nation", which makes us clearly "better" than Americans.

Here, in Boston, we had our Independence Day on July 3rd this year, as the city governors were worried that people will get wet on the 4th from the wild, wet storm we were getting. And they did. A day earlier, from another storm. Which means that this year's fireworks were canceled and we didn't really celebrate anything.
Speaking of getting wet. I got completely drenched when riding my bike back home yesterday. I left my office when a storm was brewing right above my head. I was hoping to make it back home before the downpour starts, but since I was riding my Slowrunner, I only made it half way to Lexington Center. At that point I decided to stop under a tiny roof and wait for the worst part to end. And this was the right decision even though I was completely soaked already. I wasn't cold though - with air temperature of 88F (31C) and humidity of over 70% it's hard to be cold, even if it rains.

As I was ducking under that tiny canopy, I made some interesting observations about my bike. First of all, this thing is really long, so if you get caught in the rain make sure that the canopy you found is long enough. Next, the X1 cargo bags that came with my bike are surprisingly good in catching about half a gallon of rainwater each, which means that if you ever find yourself running low on water on your ride, just look into the X1 bags. Chances are, you will find plenty there to fight your thirst. Finally, because this bike weighs as much as a motorcycle, there is absolutely no way you can carry it over any fallen trees you will likely find on your way after the storm. That creates a problem that may be tricky to solve sometimes. Fortunately, X1 bags are large enough to fit a gas-powered chainsaw, which would come handy in such situations.
On the positive note though, the stock Edgerunner fenders work really well in rain, even if you ride through 8"-deep puddles and the Deore disc brakes work equally well wet or dry, even though they make a funny, whiny noise when wet.
Anyway, it seems that the days like the last Sunday when we could enjoy low humidity and temperature around 78F (25C) are an exception at this time. It is simply way too hot to ride a bike (to work at least, unless I start to shower at work).