Friday, September 16, 2016

And now for something completely different - road safety

Road safety - a subject we all find important, yet it gets completely neglected. Last year 38,300 people died in collisions involving cars in United States. Unfortunately, it's just a number because nobody seems to care. We think of those deaths as "acceptable loses" and as such we take no action (or too little action).

But imagine that this translates into nearly 3,200 people dead every month, essentially being a road equivalent to 9/11 tragedy happening every month, every year. Or even better, imagine an airplane full of passengers crashing every 3 days somewhere in United States, with everyone of 300 passengers on board dying in a horrific crash. You would be petrified of flying, won't you? And the government would certainly step in to investigate. Yet, this is exactly what's happening on our roads and nobody cares. It seems that we need our cars like air to breathe and even if this air is slowly killing us, we still inhale.

A major part of this problem is simply our reliance of cars. Compared to other developed countries, we simply drive too much. Lack of other options (notably high speed trains and a very limited public transportation in major cities) means that we often have no choice but to drive. And die. While there's been a slow decline in motor vehicle deaths annually in the United States, the number has fluctuated around 33,000 for the last decade. Last year's spike to over 38,000 deaths could be attributed to lower unemployment rate and cheap gasoline that let Americans drive more.

But even if you still decide to ignore this problem, chances are that you are a parent and I know no parent who would say that safety of his/her children isn't important at all. That's why when they are infants, we make sure they sleep in an empty crib because a fluffy pillow or a soft blanket could result in an unintentional suffocation. When they grow up a bit, we pay attention that they don't fall down the stairs or drown in a pool. But then, they go to preschool and we drive them there in a car, not even realizing that statistically-speaking, this is the worst danger we can expose them to at that age.

"But they sit in their car seats!" - you could say. Unfortunately, car seats don't help that much. Despite their widespread use, still over 6500 children die on U.S. roads each year. That's actually much more than deaths by drowning. As with nearly every other danger, the best strategy is to simply avoid it in the first place, which in current situation means one thing - drive less. That would be a logical solution, yet no organization or government agency recommends that.

Instead, since here in America we pretty much have no choice but drive, we adopted a different "solution" to this problem - minimize loses (injuries) by requiring car seats. Does it remind you of something? Bicycle helmets! They are often seen and promoted the same way - as a "solution" to minimize injuries pushed on the unprotected road users (cyclists). The real solution - avoidance of danger in form of a separated cycling infrastructure is usually neglected. This way car seats became the same thing for parents as helmets for cyclists.

More helmeted cyclists doesn't mean they are safer. Real solutions are elsewhere. (Source: MomentumMag)

Helmets, car seats and high-visibility clothing - all fall into the same category. They push responsibility of staying safe onto victims of road collisions and take our focus away from the real issue. And that issue is with all of us - drivers. We are the ones who break law every day (don't tell me you never drive over the speed limit), don't share the road, always rush, get impatient, fail to notice others and not give way. Some say that replacing drivers with driverless cars is the ultimate solution:
Unfortunately, it's not that simple. Driverless cars may be coming to your neighborhood soon (They are coming to Boston too.), but they come with their own problems. An autonomous vehicle (AV) can be programmed to communicate with other AVs and as such, can effectively avoid most dangerous near-crash situations that are usually attributed to human error or negligence. This could mean (as shown in the video above) that AVs will drive closer to each other, perfectly maintaining the distance between cars. A constant flow of high-speed vehicles? It's the traffic engineer's dream! And a nightmare to all others. If you don't see it, try being a cyclist or a pedestrian in a city filled with tightly-packed, high-speed AVs. Crossing a street could be harder than ever.

As long as we keep our cities filled with single-occupancy cars, whether they are driverless or not, we will be stuck in the same traffic as we are now. The streets might get a bit safer when driverless cars show up, but will they be livable?

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Bicycle touring - thoughts, findings, solutions

Thinking more about my recent bicycle tour of northwestern Vermont (1, 2, 3), I decided to discuss here some new things I learned on that trip.

First of all, the whole concept of bicycle touring is not exactly foreign to me. Neither is camping. The only problem is that the last time I did a multi-day tour by bicycle was about... 20 years ago. Since then, everything in bike touring world has changed, except maybe the fact that wheels are still round.

I dug through the Internet to find some more up-to-date information on how its done now and one question immediately popped up - do I really have to take so much stuff with me? Most of the people who presented their touring setups were packing so much junk on their bikes that they could likely traverse Sahara twice before running out of supplies. Some of their choices were really puzzling. I can understand taking a laptop computer on a multi-month-long tour if we are planning on doing some remote work as well. But how about a camping chair? Or a 10mm hex wrench (found in a packing list of one well-known bike tourist). What is he supposed to do with it? Whack a bear in self-defense maybe? Not to mention... "50 feet of nylon cord for hanging food". Seriously?

Anyway, it all looked like a completely wrong approach for someone who doesn't plan on riding through Australian outback alone, but simply spending a few days in rural New England. The solution was to go ultralight and if you want to understand what it means, you need to visit the website of this guy from Slovenia who pretty much redefined ultralight bicycle touring and took it to extreme. While I definitely wouldn't go that far in reducing number of grams (sacrificing my comfort) I would be hauling with me on a tour, many of his ideas make sense and were perfectly applicable to my situation.

The main advantages of ultralight touring are:
  1. We take less stuff with us, which means less to carry on and off bike, less to pack/unpack, less items that can break and less to worry about.
  2. Because we take less, we don't need big and heavy panniers to carry all this junk. Small and superlight bags will suffice.
  3. Because we carry less and don't use panniers, we don't need strong touring racks. Pretty much any rack will do the job for those <20lbs of luggage.
  4. Because we carry so little, we don't need a dedicated, heavy-built touring bike. Nearly any road bike will work.
  5. Simplicity. We don't take many items regular cyclotourists do, one of them being a cooking equipment. This means no stove, no pots, no raw food, no cooking water, no fuel and no cleaning tools.
Now that I explained the basics, let's see how it worked in practice.

What worked:

First of all, the distance I picked to travel every day was pretty much spot on, which means I know myself and my capabilities pretty well. In general, if the route is flat I can comfortably ride 140-160km (up to 100mi) a day (More won't work because I want to stop frequently to see things, not just ride by them). If lots of climbing is expected, I would shorten it to max. 120km (75mi) a day. It also depends on the time of the year and available sunlight, plus how much time I expect to spend looking for a suitable place to camp. On a "credit card tour" that doesn't involve camping, I could certainly ride a bit more.
Next, my packing setup worked simply great. I carried all small items (cue cards, lenses, wallet, phone, chargers, snacks, keys, cable lock, etc.) in the easily-detachable Apidura Pocket bag. It was then attached to the Apidura Pack handlebars bag, which contained my sleeping bag and a small pouch with few cosmetic and first-aid items. The camera traveled in the Apidura Food Pouch mounted on the top tube. The rest of my gear (tent, sleeping pad, ground sheet, clothes, some food, tripod, tools and spares) were bundled in two stuff sacks, placed on the rear rack and secured by a single bungee cord.

For a moment I questioned the necessity of taking a rear rack at all and using a saddle bag instead (essentially what bikepackers do), but then I realized that this setup lets me pack things faster, easier and better. It would definitely be difficult to fit the whole tent, pad, clothes and tools into a standard saddle bag. Weight-wise, my rack setup is still lightweight at 530g (rack + both bags + bungee cord) thanks to a very lightweight rack (Soma Mini Front Rack, $25, 369g). That's about the same as a large canvas saddle bag that fits less!

Regarding the bicycle, it performed perfectly thanks to adequate gearing. I used a 44/28T crankset with a 12-30T, 10-speed cassette. If I was about to change anything I would likely go with a 11-speed, 11-32T cassette instead.

I checked the weather forecast before leaving and noticed that air temperature was supposed to drop to even 9C (48F) before dawn. Being uncertain how comfortable I would be in my ultralight summer sleeping bag, I packed an extra woolen long-sleeve shirt. This proved to be the only clothing item I didn't use, so overall, I think I made some right choices. I didn't even pack a rain jacket because it wasn't supposed to rain. And it didn't.

Bringing an extra water bottle was also a good decision. I used King Cage Universal Support Bolt to install a third bottle cage on the downtube and I have to say that for long rides, especially in the summer, it's a very good idea to take more water. It simply means less frequent water stops, more riding and less worry about resupplying in general.

My camping setup performed flawlessly. I'm very happy with Big Agnes Copper Spur UL1 tent, although I wished its poles could be packed into a shorter bag (i.e. they would have to fold more somehow). I had no issues with the sleeping pad (NeoAir XLite L) and the bag (Sea-To-Summit Traveller Tri L). For summer camping it's likely all I would ever need.

A new accessory piece I rode with was the tripod, Tamrac TR404 ZipShot. It's a very lightweight (278g) and ridiculously cheap ($16 with QR plate) support for compact cameras that uses the same system for its legs as tent poles. This means after undoing two rubber straps it opens up by itself in ~2 sec. I have never even considered taking tripods on a long bike ride before, due to their weight, but ZipShot is so compact and lightweight that it's definitely worth carrying - not just to take pictures of yourself but also for those low-light conditions.
And what didn't work:

My biggest problem on the tour was electric power. I took 2 charged batteries for my camera and a charger but only used 1 battery during those 3 days. Next time I will know not to take the charger, unless I would be traveling for more than 5 days.

Phone power was much more problematic. Unfortunately, smartphones have notoriously poor battery run time, even after disabling most apps an Wi-Fi, which brings up the issue of recharging the phone daily. The best would be to plug it in at a campground, but if we wild camp, it's not an option. I tried to recharge it a little bit at every longer stop I made (lunch or breakfast break, etc.) using outdoor outlets found on most buildings. Unfortunately, I made a huge mistake taking a combo charger. It charges the camera battery and another USB device at the same time. Works great as long as you can plug in the USB cable into the single USB port on the side of the charger. The outdoor outlets always have a protective plastic cover installed over them, obstructing charger's port. Next time I will certainly take a separate, smaller phone charger with me.

I packed all my clothes into a single Sea-To-Summit Ultra-Sil stuff sack that I bought years ago. Now I see that this kind of bag is designed for backpackers, who would then place it inside a backpack. The fabric is simply too thin to survive constant rubbing of a bungee cord and rack tubing. My stuff sack developed a few tiny holes after only one day of use.

Another bag that left me with mixed feelings was the Apidura Food Pouch. As I mentioned earlier, I use it as a camera holster, not a food bag. It works great but unfortunately it's too small. It just snugly fits my Panasonic camera with the shortest lens. I will certainly be looking for something larger because the whole concept of keeping the camera ready to shoot in a slip-in holster on the top tube is great. The Food Pouch though will likely work better with what it was designed for - food.

Finally, there is the issue of camping or the "where to camp" problem to be exact. Unfortunately, most campgrounds are full in high season, which means that those enormous RVs and motorhomes occupy most space. Then, for some reason (legal regulations?) campground owners are unwilling to fit in a tiny 1-person tent and a bicycle even though both take much less space than one parked car. Obviously one solution is to make reservations prior to going on a tour but... it's not how it's supposed to work. This ties us to camping in a certain place on given day with no flexibility at all. As a result we lose part of that travel freedom we look for when going on a bike tour.

That leaves us with wild camping (also called stealth, primitive, etc.). In theory it looks great - just camp somewhere where you won't disturb anyone and leave no trace. However, I found out that it may work great in very remote areas somewhere in Montana, Utah or Oregon. But in more urbanized New England wild camping can often be tricky.

As such, I have no good solution to this issue, except maybe touring outside of high season for greater camping availability.

That's about it. The tour was a success not counting the lost polarizer filter that I dropped off a bridge into a river below. Fortunately, nothing failed and the only time I had to use my tools was when one cyclists asked me to tighten handlebars on his bike.

Looks like I will have to try to make a short tour an annual event.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Visiting Vermont 3/3

Day 3 - Missisquoi Bay to Essex

It was a foggy and soggy morning. I woke up at half past six and realized that the whole tent was wet from dew. Fortunately, only on the outside. My bike was also covered in a film of water and the cap and the towel that I hang up on the bike previous night were completely soaked as well.
I packed everything on the bike and plugged my phone to a nearby outlet I found at the camping office. With my phone alive again, I left the campground the time most other tourists were just unzipping their tents. It was very quiet at the bay and sun was just rising.
I had to move south towards Burlington, which means I rode along Rt 2 most of the time. It's a major road with a decent shoulder that is often used by cyclists. One thing that I noticed quickly was that it was much cooler at the lake, compared to my previous day between the mountains.
I stopped at Hero's Welcome - a general store and a cafe in North Hero to resupply and then I left Rt 2 to take West Shore Rd on the western bank of Grand Isle. It's a much quieter and enjoyable route that apparently is often chosen by cyclists, judging by the number of "bike rest stops" along the road.

Soon after I arrived at the Island Line Trail that is broken into two sections by a 200-ft gap in the causeway. Fortunately, there is a seasonal bike ferry bridging two parts of the trail, making it a viable bike route to Burlington.
The only problem with Island Line Trail is... dust. The surface is made out of fine gravel and leaves a white powder everywhere. My tires, chain, cranks, brakes, rims and shoes were completely white after riding the trail. My legs were whiter than normal too, probably because the dust got stuck to the sunscreen I put on my skin. I also started being worried about the chain since it seemed to make some squeaky noises for some time already, but after the Island Line Trail they became constant. It desperately needed oil, but I hoped I could make it back to the car with no issues.
I didn't really spend much time in Burlington - just rode through it, passing by Old Spokes Home - a bicycle store and a museum (which was closed on Labor Day).
I got back to the car in Essex at 2PM after riding the last miles in full sun again, not that I enjoyed it. It was then time to pack the bike, change in some more "street-legal" clothes and stop at a nearby Sweet Clover Market for lunch. This place is a like a grocery store and a lunch place in one and is pretty amazing, so if your are in the area definitely check it out.

The rest is a history. Just another long drive back home, unpacking, washing, etc. I still have to clean the bike though. And probably need a new chain.

Visiting Vermont 2/3

Day 2 - Lake Willoughby to Missisquoi Bay

I woke up before 6AM and started with a quick bath in the lake. Packed my stuff only to discover that the tent was wet from morning dew. I had no choice but to pack the tent wet but it wasn't my biggest worry at that time. My cell phone had no reception between those mountains so I had no chance to tell my wife I made it safely to the campground last night. On top of that the battery was nearly dead.
I decided to start riding north until I could get some cell signal but I didn't even made it to the end of the lake before my phone died. Fortunately, most buildings have external outlets available so I had to steal some power from a nearby house. The cell signal didn't show up all the way until Brownington, where I stopped briefly at the Old Stone House Museum...
... and even met some Amish on the road.
It looked like a beginning of a hot, sunny day and my goal was to get to Newport for large (and late) breakfast.
Pine Hill Rd runs along I-91 and is clearly a much more fun place to be than the highway.

In Newport, I stopped at the Natural Market & Cafe, which is a grocer, a cafe, a bakery and a restaurant in one and offers absolutely awesome food selection with everything home-made.

After a delicious breakfast, I took Rt 105 west to enter Searles Rd, taking me through a rural area full of cattle farms (duh!) and corn. From there, I could see Jay Mountain in the distance - the peak of my tour, literally.
Somewhere there on my way to Jay Peak I met a woman riding on a horse. She saw me and a car approaching. The horse was very calm when a car sped by, but freaked out when saw me on a bicycle. She managed to calm him down somehow and asked me to stop so the horse could sniff my bike and get familiar with this type of machinery. Damn XXI century - speeding cars do not scare horses anymore but bicycles do?

Anyway, next came a quick stop at the covered bridge...
... and time to start climbing. For some reason there were more cyclists on Rt 105 to Jay Mt than cars. Many of them were riding uphill, passing me on the way but lots of them were going downhill. Until the following day, it was the largest number of cyclists I saw in Vermont so far, but they were all the Lycra-type guys on their carbon machines. Maybe I ran into a local "roadies" club or something?
I also noticed that while I had to climb continuously for 10km (6mi) in full sun at the peak of the day, those going downhill enjoyed their shade. Is that fair?! At least the mad ride down the mountain was rewarding and I quickly reached West Jay Rd. It was also noticeably cooler and more breezy on this side of the mountain.

My next stop was Richford but first, on my way there I tweeted this:
It seems like it doesn't make sense but if you are on West Jay Rd you will actually end up in Canada not knowing about it. A tiny section of the road runs on the other side of the border without any notification. Not counting a bored border patrol parked nearby.

Richford was just a quick resupply stop before I entered Missisquoi Valley Rail Trail. The best part of all this - it was flat. No more crazy climbing, which means I could move faster.
This part of the route was very straightforward - just follow the trail until pretty much the end. It's just a bit more of everything I saw earlier - more cows, more corn and more gravel.
Once I got to Sheldon Junction, I had to ride north to Swanton. The old railway that used to run along Rt 78 is now gone and I hoped that I could continue on that rail trail. Unfortunately, it turned out that except of removing the old tracks not much has been done to the rail bed in terms of surface preparation. The gravel on the trail was so coarse that I can't picture riding any bicycle there comfortably, except a fat bike. I doubt a regular mountain bike would make it.
I abandoned the trail and took Rt 78 to Swanton, stopping at Highgate for a moment. At that point the sun was already slowly setting and I was worried that I would face the problem from the previous night - a full campground. This time wild camping would be a bit more tricky because the entire area at Lake Champlain is the Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge and camping there would be certainly illegal.
Fortunately, Campbells Bay Campground had still spaces available so I could enjoy a hot shower, company of other cyclo-tourists (mostly from Canada) and swarms of mosquitoes.
And a cold beer.
And a spectacular sunset.
And some time on the pier.

Visiting Vermont 1/3

What is the most difficult thing about bicycle touring? For some, it could be dealing with bad weather, or sleeping in a tent, or navigating in the unknown. For me, the most difficult thing about going on a bike tour is simply finding some damn free time to do it. You see, I have a family, including 2 little buggers in pre-kindergarten age, and a 9-to-5 job. This means my options are severely limited. This is why I was so super excited when a rare opportunity appeared in this first week of September when my wife was staying home and I could take some time off to visit Vermont.

The plan was pretty simple. Pack all the stuff on the bike, including camping gear, load the bike in the car and drive early morning towards Burlington, VT. Next, I was going to leave my car behind for 3 days to loop around northwestern part of the state by bike.

I did some research online first in terms of what to see, where to go, which roads to take (as I wanted to include as many rural and dirt roads as possible) and also, where to park. I assumed I couldn't just abandon my car anywhere for 3 days without the risk being towed. First, I considered leaving it at the Burlington Airport - an obvious choice (even though it's not free) but then I discovered that Vermont has a pretty good network of Park&Ride locations - free-to-use parking lots where long term parking is allowed.

Day 1 - Essex to Lake Willoughby

I had to start early since it's a 3.5 hour drive from Arlington, MA to Essex, VT where I was leaving my car. Getting up at 4:30AM is no fun but at least there are few other drivers on road at such an early hour. Plus you would have a chance to see an amazing sunrise over the highway.

Once you leave more urban areas of southern New Hampshire and venture further north, you will start seeing more and more mountains around you. You will also see "deer crossing" signs on the highway, followed by "moose crossing" a bit later, only to end with "bear crossing" - a friendly reminder that this shit is real!

Past Montpelier, when my car radio was picking mostly French stations I was getting already too impatient to wait so when I finally arrived at the parking lot at 8:15, I quickly packed my stuff and was ready to set off at about half past eight.
All packed. Good to go!

The first thing I immediately noticed was that despite a pretty lightweight load, I could feel those extra ~17lbs (8kg?) on my bike. Not in terms of handling, but the bicycle felt certainly more sluggish, especially when climbing hills. That made me think - how those fully-loaded cyclists even manage to ride their 70lbs bikes?

Initially, I pretty much followed Rt 15 east, making my way through Jericho, towards Underhill, where I had to face the first climb of the day, a "measly" 11% grade on Sand Hill Rd. That's where the countryside clearly becomes more rural, with many cattle farms scattered around.
The roads at this point turned into hard-packed dirt or gravel but they remained wide, with the exception of Stebbins Rd, which looks more like a trail through the forest.
My next stop was at the old Grist Mill and covered bridge. Next, I basically followed Lamoille Valley Rail Trail towards Ithiel Falls.
I passed a few more farms along the way and I merged with Rt 100, where I started seeing cyclists more frequently. In fact, at the General Store in Eden there were so many of them that I felt I was in some kind of a road race. Too bad all those roadies stick to main roads only. They are missing an opportunity to meet all those cows.
It was the peak of the day and once I passed Eden, I started struggling on all those climbs towards Albany and later when approaching Barton. The sun was burning my neck, the wheels slipped on loose sand (when leaning too much over the bars) and the hills... I was swearing at them by the end of the day. Let's just say that the 28T chainring was used A LOT in combination with my largest 30T cassette sprocket.
If only it was a bit more cloudy, a bit cooler. I was ready to plug myself into an IV in one of those maple syrup harvesting installations that were pretty much everywhere.
More cows approaching.

Taking a tripod was a good idea. I could take a shot of my back.

Just a few more hills, few more mad descents and I finally arrived at Barton. This was the last chance to resupply that day so after refilling all water bottles and getting some food, I treated myself with some local beer.
By this time it was already late in the afternoon and sun was slowly setting. I followed Rt 5 south, along Crystal Lake towards Willoughby State Forest.
The plan was to camp at the Lake Willoughby, which means I had to climb over Bartlett Mountain to reach my campground. If you're smart, unlike me, you wouldn't want to leave your worst climb of the day for last, after you got up at 4:30AM, drove for 3.5hrs and rode 75mi (120km). Unfortunately, I had no choice.
Well, at least it was cool. The sun was low and trees shielded me from its scorching rays. I found myself multiple times riding uphill at a snail pace, around 5km/h (3mph), at which point I said "F**k it" and decided to walk. It was equally fast and actually easier. The good thing is, once you reach top of the climb and a clearing between the trees, the views are rewarding.
I arrived at the White Caps Campground around 6:30PM after 136km (84mi) only to find out that it was fully booked ("Obviously!"). Fortunately, it's perfectly legal to camp in Willoughby State Forest and that's what I had to do that night.
The beer was pretty good.