Thursday, May 28, 2015

Safety first!

It's so bloody hot outside that I started to melt. Once mercury rises above 75F (about 25C) it's the maximum summer temperature I can tolerate. Despite that, I started to wear one additional layer of protective "clothing". Safety first!

It's not a hi-visibility vest though. Those are better suited for people auditing pedestrian and bicycling safety in Virginia. Apparently, walking through the Washington Metro Area is so dangerous that you need a high-vis vest. Without it, there is no way you can survive a day and not be hit by a car.
Construction workers on their lunch break. No, no, I mean, DOT workers performing pedestrian safety audit.

But hey, who knows, maybe streets in Northern Virginia are so unsafe indeed? What can we do about it (except wearing hi-vis vests, of course)? Volvo engineers came up with a brilliant idea that their cars will now feature self-parking systems with pedestrian detection and avoidance option. Yes, pedestrian detection is an option. So now your car can park itself, mowing down some people on the way. According to Volvo, their safety is optional.

Ah, cars. We spend our lives in them and car makers noticed that. The long commute is literally killing us so cities try their best to shorten commute times. Or at least they think they do their best.

Just like in Houston, where using $2.8 billion of taxpayers money the city created a concrete monster, widening a 8-lane highway to a 23-lane one. That was supposed to shorten the commute but result is... even longer commute, up by 51%.
In 2014, during peak rush hour, it took 70 minutes, 27 seconds to travel from Downtown, past Beltway 8, all the way to Pin Oak, just past the Katy Mills Mall. In 2011, this same trip took 46 minutes, 53 seconds.
Well done, Houston. That's what's called induced demand but U.S. Rep. John Culberson, who begged Congress for money, has probably never heard of it. And I doubt that extra lanes made the new highway safer because we build them too wide anyway.

By the way, is this official then that Houston superhighway beats Burma's 20-lane monster from Naypyitaw
20-lane highway in Naypyitaw. Why, when there are no cars to fill it - you may ask. Because why the hell not - is the government's answer.

And my new safety gear? Well, it's not a helmet either, despite the fact that now I can finally buy a helmet I "would actually want to wear". It looks like a poorly ventilated potty with features like "vegan leather straps" and pop-out ear covers but I still don't know why I "would actually want to wear" it. The designers seemed to miss the point that at 80F weather there is no helmet (except a refrigerated one) I "would actually want to wear". Not that I actually need one on the Minuteman Bikeway (It's not like downhill mountain biking after all).

Thousand helmet, aka The Potty

The only safety gear I'm willing to wear in this weather is the protection glasses from my lab. My eyes suffer too much from all that pollen and dust floating in the air and I found out that protective eyewear is actually very useful for bike riding as well. Especially in May. I guess we desperately need some rain to flush that stuff away.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Friday news and how to find a lemon anywhere

It's finally Friday and the beginning of a long weekend, which means that I can review the passing week.
First of all, it looks like I got a lemon. My Sugino OX601D crankset that I like so much has been factory-recalled. Apparently, there is a pretty high chance of failure right where the spindle comes out of the right crank. I haven't noticed anything yet but I was told not to ride the bike and wait for a replacement. This means my Poprad remains grounded and I'm out of any long-range bicycle. No fun this spring so far, only work commute.
A new ranking of cycling-friendly states has surfaced yesterday. Glad to see that Massachusetts scored pretty high. Interestingly, the most bicycle-friendly is Washington, even though some may disagree on road safety in their neighborhoods. I guess they have a lemon too.

Wisconsin was ranked #9 but if they manage to pull off shit like this, I can see them dropping to the bottom, next to Alabama, pretty quickly. An extra tax on all new bicycles - brilliant idea Wisconsin! State Rep. John Nygren must be really short on cash trying to find a way cyclists could pay for their infrastructure. Here is the news Mr. Nygren - cyclists pay for the infrastructure the same way pedestrians do - in form of the income tax. No need to tax them more because they introduce about as much wear and tear to those few bike paths in Wisconsin as mommies with strollers. Or skateboarders. Unless you want to tax mommies with strollers too...
I guess Wisconsin simply follows example of Washington's State Rep. Ed Orcutt who also wanted to tax cyclists more because they "are actually polluting when they ride" due to "greater emissions of carbon dioxide from the rider". If only Mr. Orcutt knew how much CO2 cows produce chewing grass, there would be no cows left in Washington state. Wait a minute - is that the same Washington that scored first as the friendliest bike state? I told you that you can find a lemon anywhere.

Anyway, in case you are planning on buying a new bike, don't buy one in Wisconsin. Meanwhile, "staffers in Nygren's office said he was unavailable for comment on Wednesday." Maybe he and Mr. Orcutt went to have their heads checked.
Now some news from across the border. In case you found yourself in Vancouver, these are the rules you must obey while riding your bike there. Well, actually, these are the new rules provided by the author after his original rules were mocked on Twitter shortly after publishing. Not surprising, given that they contained such useful advice as "wear a helmet" (duh!), "ride in a single file" because "cycling is not the time for chit-chat", "stay as close to the curb as possible" and more. At least Bob learned the power of Internet and ate his lemon.
Finally, some happy news. Bedford, MA presented its Master Plan for bike and pedestrian infrastructure improvements. I'm glad to see they are planning on adding multiple bike lanes and paths around and even a separated (protected) bike lane on their main street. I will be monitoring their progress as I bike to Bedford every day.

In general, it's great to see that towns in my area do think about cycling and not only for recreation. I discussed Arlington plans already, Lexington tries too and now Bedford has a chance to do the right thing. As long as they don't make it a lemon.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Bike to work, at least you won't kill anyone

Apparently, it's Bike To Work Month right now and today is the Bike To Work Day. I suppose this is aimed at those who could bike to work if they really wanted to, but are too lazy to try. For the rest of us, biking to work is either impractical (too long distance) or a regular thing we do everyday. Like brushing teeth. Therefore, we just call this day Friday.

BikeSnob wrote:
The greatest hope we cyclists have for Bike to Work Week is that it might make a few people into more considerate drivers.
That's true. Although, to be honest, I don't really have high hopes for it. One week or even a month is just not enough time to change behavior of most drivers. Especially that 93% of all collisions with bicycles are driver's fault. At least in Vancouver. Not to mention those (fortunately, rare) situations where drivers deliberately hit people on bikes, such as this hit and run in Australia. No matter how hard you try you won't make such motorists more considerate.

Speaking of Australia (We, cyclists, love to make fun of Australians because they give us many reasons to do so.), their politicians must really have their brains upside-down if they come up with some crazy shit like this - a call for cyclist licenses. Like their mandatory helmet law was not enough, now they want to license all cyclists as well, despite the fact that it didn't work anywhere else in the world. Shit like this must make Bike to Work Week (and cycling in general) as popular in Australia as beetle taxidermy classes.

Bicycle licensing is just plain stupid. It's costly and it won't stop cyclists from breaking the law just like it doesn't stop motorists from doing it. But I'm sure any reasonable argument won't convince Aussie politicians. They "know" their styrofoam hats are the solution for all the dangers on the road. Even though data shows mandatory bicycle helmet laws have little impact on safety among children, who should be the most vulnerable.

So if we can't make certain motorists more considerate towards other, more vulnerable, road users, maybe at least we could penalize those who are clearly at fault for killing people? Wouldn't that be nice to make more drivers aware that the 2-tonne vehicle they drive is like a loaded gun? You don't swing it around because you may kill someone, so stop doing the same with your car. Like this guy, who killed 3 kids in a crosswalk. He faced no criminal charges, despite the fact that he deliberately ran a red light at 40mph. How come driver's licensing didn't make him think twice before he broke the law? Aussie politicians are trying to answer that right now.
Looks like we will need more time to put more people on bikes. Not to make them healthier but to take them away from their cars. So while Bike to Work Day is nice, Bike to Work Month is even nicer. How about Bike to Work Year then?

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Ed becomes Eddie

Spring is in full swing! Which means that my pollen allergies that I never had but somehow got them only 3 years ago, have entered their most annoying phase. It also means that I had to disassemble my old Schwinn, clean it, scrape off new rust that showed up this winter and replace the chain. This year I also have to do a major rear hub overhaul since it's performance has been very erratic recently (I often could use only 2 out of 3 gears). For now, Schwinn sits still, and I use Ed as my main transport vehicle.

It's short for the Xtracycle Edgerunner, that I (very) briefly reviewed last year. I really like that bike. It carries a bunch of groceries and my kids with no problems. It's comfy, it's quick to accelerate and it's actually fairly lightweight - for a cargo bike, of course. However, my main complain about Edgerunner is it's best feature - the tiny rear wheel. That small, 20" wheel definitely helps loading up and hauling lots of cargo. Keeping that weight down to the ground makes Ed more stable and less top-heavy.

At the same time, the small wheels means much more torque so acceleration is quick - something you wouldn't expect from a cargo bike. On a flat bike path, you won't need to switch from the largest chainring at all.

But the tiny wheel creates a problem - it doesn't have enough inertia to keep this large bicycle moving. Yes, it does accelerate quickly but at the same time it takes some significant effort to maintain speed. Obviously, I'm very biased. I compared Ed to my other bikes, all of which use 28" wheels and are not cargo bikes. They are about 3x lighter than Ed and roll on narrower tires. But even my rusty Schwinn with its 3-speed hub rides easier than the Edgerunner. It's not faster (in terms of top speed), it's not quicker to accelerate, but it's easier to roll, thanks to its large wheels.

All I wanted is to keep Ed's quick acceleration, cargo capacity and low center of gravity but make it faster, easier to roll and easier to ride uphill (Like that 10-13% grade in front of my house).

And this is how Ed became Eddie.

There was one good way to do it - go electric. I already had a chance to test Bionx electric assist motor on a bicycle and because my first impressions were very positive I knew that sooner or later it would be a good addition to my "Slowrunner". Back in February I found a good deal for Edgerunner Bionx motor kit (P350DX, 48V) so I couldn't wait any longer. Ed gained an "E" becoming Ed-E, or Eddie.
Eddie - my electric Edgerunner

Why electric?
I mentioned that many times. In short, Arlington is located on two large hills with its main street in the valley between them. I live on top of one of those hills and running any errands means riding my bike downhill to the town center (easy) and back home uphill (much harder, especially with kids and full grocery bags). Edgerunner works very well for these trips and in general, climbing these hills is possible even on a fully loaded bike, thanks to its low gearing, but it's neither pleasant nor fast. In fact, due to the 10-13% grade and weight of the bike, it's a hard work.
That's why e-bike in my area makes perfect sense. The times where I would feel more like driving to my destination happen less often. I can take my bicycle instead. However, to be honest, in my case electric Ed is not a full car replacement. Many errands are still better (easier and faster) to be done by car.

The second reason why I wanted to turn Ed into Eddie I already mentioned above. With such a heavy bike (especially loaded with cargo) e-assistance is very helpful even on a flat bike path. It simply gets you to your destination faster.

You may think that sounds like cheating and in a sense, it probably is. But it doesn't mean you can stop pedaling with Bionx system on board. It doesn't turn your bike into a scooter - more on that in a moment. While I would likely never consider e-kit for a "normal" bicycle, I can see that e-cargo bike does make a lot of sense.

Bionx kit came in a large box that felt surprisingly lightweight - probably because I was expecting the whole system to weigh much more than the specified 14lbs (close to 7kg). Now, 14lbs isn't lightweight by any means, but if you're concerned about your e-bike weight, you shouldn't simply look for one anyway. A few more pounds added to big Ed really don't make much difference at this point.
Not easy to take a good picture of the hub motor on Eddie. It's hidden behind the panniers and the disc brake.

The removable battery sits in its own bracket. Fortunately, Edgerunner comes with braze-ons for Bionx battery brackets on the down tube.

The kit comes with full installation instructions and all the hardware required to properly mount it on the bike. The process was very straightforward. First move the tire and disc brake rotor to the new wheel, install the new wheel on bike, then install battery bracket and the battery. Next comes throttle and the computer console. While the console was easy to attach to handlebars, throttle installation requires some more time. One has to remove right grip and brake lever to place the throttle between the lever and the shifter. I found this position to be the most comfortable one, even though my handlebars look very crowded right now.
Lots of stuff crammed at the right-hand side: disc brake lever, throttle, shifter and G2 console.

One of the last things to do is to run all the wiring along frame from G2 console to the battery and then the hub motor.

Finally, in order for regenerative braking to work, a tiny magnet has to be secured to the brake lever. It senses position of the lever and once brake is activated console puts the hub motor into a regeneration mode (level 1). This is actually the only complain I have about Bionx kit. The regen mode is very effective (but more on levels 3-4). It can slow down my heavy bike to a crawl. But the way it has to be configured is not very user-friendly and tricky at best. Because my hydraulic disc brake levers don't have any large, flat surfaces to glue magnetic sensors to them, I had to be creative to figure out how to make the whole thing work. The distance between both magnets has to be very small, otherwise hub motor will be running in constant regeneration mode. Because the right hand side of handlebars was already busy with brake lever, shifter, throttle and the Bionx console, I planned on putting the magnetic sensor on the front brake lever (left side). Unfortunately, the way all connectors are designed, Bionx expects you to install the magnet on the right hand brake lever.

After trying different positions for the magnet, I finally got it to work but then it turned out that the sensor likes to slide, randomly putting the system into the regen mode. To be honest, instead of spending more time trying to make it work, I simply removed the magnetic sensor altogether. This means that I don't have automatic regenerative braking on my bike anymore but I can still set the motor to brake manually (using throttle buttons). It's actually simpler this way.

Let's discuss now what Eddie can do, although it may be better to list what it can't do. It can't ride without recharging for the whole week and it can't ride in assisted mode faster than 20mph (32kph) because that's the legal restriction (the motor will simply cut off above 20mph). Other than that, it's unbelievably awesome!

Going 15mph up the 10% grade? No problem. Accelerating up the hill faster than a car? It can be done. Saving 15 min. on my usual work commute? Yes, riding 10 miles to work takes me now 45 min. instead of the usual full hour.

Adding Bionx system to my cargo bike truly transformed it into a go-anywhere, do-anything vehicle. Eddie can do everything a regular Ed can do (a lot!) but does it easier and faster.

Speaking about speed, e-assistance surely gives my heavy bike a nice boost, yet at the same time I don't feel like I'm cheating. In fact, riding assisted Edgerunner still gives me a good workout so I quickly realized that Bionx system is pretty smart indeed and it won't turn your bike into an electric scooter. That's all thanks to the system's torque sensing capabilities. Sensors built into the rear motor hub detect how much force is applied to pedals and increase the assistance level when I push harder or disable it when I simply coast on my bike. This means that Eddie is still a bicycle and there is only one situation when it turns into a scooter - when I press the red throttle button. Only then hub motor will give me the maximum available power, no matter whether I pedal or not. That is useful when restarting the heavy bike from full stop or going up a short, steep hill.

I'm not going to review the entire Bionx kit in great detail here, as you can find many other reviews on the Internet anyway. But let me just say that in terms of performance the system is impressive. It comes with 4 levels of power assistance where level 1 seems to be barely noticeable (It helps overcome the weight of the system and the bike a bit), level 2 is best suited for 90% of your daily riding, level 3 gives you a good boost up most hills, and level 4 is just damn crazy - it turns my 60+ lbs bike into a high-speed pursuit vehicle. All these levels can be set via the throttle or directly from the G2 console. The console also offers some basic functions such as a speedometer, odometer, clock, etc.

Bionx system obviously has some limitations. I mentioned the maximum assisted speed already. The more important one is the maximum assisted range. According to the manufacturer, with a 48V downtube battery I have, there should be enough juice to cover a 40-50 mile range and I found out that this was indeed the case. With a fully charged battery I can ride for about 45 miles, using level 2 assist mode 90% of the time and levels 3 and 4 the remaining 10%. Then it takes about 4-5 hours to fully recharge the battery.

Because Bionx has 4 regeneration modes built in as well, I wondered whether one can realistically recharge the battery while riding the bike. The short answer is no. That's because regen settings are very effective in slowing you down to a crawl. On level 4 I can slowly roll down a 10% grade without using my brakes at all. That means that only on regeneration level 1 I can try to ride the bike, other levels being simply too resistive. But then at level 1 regeneration effect is too small to have any significant impact on battery charge. The only way of recharging the battery while riding the bike would be rolling down a (very) long, steep hill with regen mode set to level 4. In other words, it's not realistic.

Eddie is clearly so much better than Ed. It's a lot of fun to ride, even heavy loaded. My kids love it and overall, Eddie does a really good job as my family minivan.

The only problem is that you can't buy electric Edgerunner with Bionx from Xtracycle anymore. They used to sell them last year but for 2015/2016 they came up with another Edgerunner, with a center-mounted Bosch motor instead. Whether it's much better than the wheel-mounted Bionx motor, it's hard to say. For sure, I can easily convert my Edgerunner back to non-electric, should I ever have to go this way. It's something you can't do with 2016 electric Edgerunner (it uses a special Bosch kit-only frame). But you can still add Bionx to your older Ed on your own. It's not difficult at all!