Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Developing standards

Ah, the ever-changing standards. We love them and hate them. You would think that standards are here for a reason - to make everyone's life easier by designing components that fit together. Unfortunately, reality is less than perfect and that's why we have this modern bottom bracket mess.
Obligatory XKCD comic.

Bicycle bottom brackets are a good example what trying to make good better may lead to. Nearly two decades ago, the most common bottom bracket type was the one with square tapers on a small, steel spindle, assembled into a sealed cartridge.
Square taper bottom bracket cartridge (Source: BikeRumor)

Then, lightweight cranksets arrived and with the tendency to make cranks stiffer, lighter and stronger, a larger-diameter spindle was needed. With bearings sitting inside the frame, there was no space for it so outboard bearings were developed, with cups threaded into the same BSA-threaded frame shell. That worked pretty well and still works today.

But then some companies took it a step further and tried to "improve" it by removing outboard cups and threads, by press-fitting bearings directly into frame. Multiple new "standards" appeared: BB90, BB86, PF30, BB386EVO... Most of them were less than perfect. With frequent tendency to creaking noises due to sub-standard part tolerances, cyclists started to abandon these inventions and go back to what worked just fine. In fact, that's why Chris King developed T47 standard (yes, yet another one) that uses threaded frame shell and can adapt any other BB type to work noise-free.

You may have your own preference and opinion what the best bottom bracket standard is and I'm not going to try to convince you otherwise.

That's not what I wanted to write about. I wanted to focus on... screws. You know, these little parts that hold all of it together.

Decades ago, most screws on bicycles had hex heads, requiring a multitude of various size spanners to make simplest adjustments. Headsets were threaded with large hex nut, cranks had cottered pins with hex head screws. It worked but wasn't pretty.
Hex head stem bolt with large-diameter hex hed nut securing threaded fork shaft. (Source: MyTenSpeeds).

Then things got better. Essentially all bicycle and component manufacturers switched to hex socket screws that require few hex keys (Allen wrenches) only. Thank God they chose metric screws, likely to utter disappointment of all Americans believing in their "standards".
Socket hex head screws are a norm in bicycle world today...

but will they soon be replaced by Torx standard?

This unification of screws was definitely well-received not only by cyclists but also bike mechanics. As a result, now, modern bikes can be put together with just few basic tools, notably the 4mm and 5mm hex keys. With these two small wrenches, you can assemble nearly the entire bike with a few exceptions that require (and always did) specialized solutions such as cassette, chain or headset cups.

Unfortunately, there is ongoing process of improving things that already work and as such we welcome our new overlords - Torx screws. It seems that some bike mechanics or users have problems with stripping of hex sockets, likely by using low quality tools. As such, Torx screws are becoming a new standard as those harder to strip. Do we need them? I'm not sure. But if you think you do, I suggest we replace all hex sockets with Torx and keep it consistent. We don't want to go back to the 1950-era of carrying a tool chest on every ride.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Why self-driving cars won't replace public transportation

The future is here! Soon our cities will be free of congestion, free of rush hour frustration and so much more affordable! Oh, and they will be free of this obsolete, early XX-century invention, called public transportation.

At least that's what Tom Keane seems to think in his Boston Globe article "Why self-driving cars will kill the T". (If you're not from Boston and don't know what T is - it's our public transportation network: subway, streetcars, buses, even ferries). Apparently, according to Tom, all these will soon be gone - replaced by masses of much cheaper autonomous vehicles (AVs). He claims that T is wasteful, inefficient and simply not needed in the future. Because in the nearest future, we all be moving by these electric vehicles that we don't need to own. We just call them, Uber-like, on demand.
Autonomous vehicle, according to Google.

I can't tell what future will bring upon us but something tells me that public transportation will be difficult to replace by AVs in the next 10 years. But first, I'm going to address multiple claims the article makes:
 
"Environmentalists and planners love public transit. Those who ride it? Not so much." 
Maybe, but have you asked yourself why? Compare quality of service (arrival/departure on time, interruptions, breakdowns, etc.) with other commuter rail system in the world and see how poorly maintained and underfunded MBTA is. I can compare MBTA to Berlin's U- and S-Bahn since I lived in Germany prior my arrival in Boston. That was years ago, but I still remember my surprise that buses and trains in Boston run so infrequently, like the timetable was something MBTA has never heard of. Punctuality, efficiency and density of Berlin's public transport system puts Boston to shame. They are like two different worlds. Still, far from what they have in Japan where companies need to apologize if train leaves the station 20 seconds too late.

"Check out the grim faces of your fellow passengers the next time you’re on the subway." 
Or you can check out even grimmer faces of other drivers next time you're stuck in traffic on I-93.

"While driving, you can talk on the phone." 
Maybe you can but it doesn't mean you should. Distracted driving is illegal and talking on the phone counts as such.

"Bostonians suffer through 409 million trips on the T annually. Why? Because owning a car is expensive — almost $8,500 a year. And, of course, the congestion." 
Thank God it's expensive. Can you imagine if owning a car was as cheap as $1/month? People would drive even more and congestion would be even worse. How do you think Boston would look like if we put everyone from those 400 million T trips into own AVs?
 
"Autonomous vehicles’ most profound near-term impact would be in reducing congestion and pollution." 
Very unlikely. If AVs are more affordable and accessible than regular cars and even the T, induced demand will drive numbers of AVs on streets to higher numbers than cars right now. Not only those who drive regularly will use AVs but also those who now take T or don't travel into the city at all. Furthermore, pollution is not only exhaust gases. It's also generation of particles due to wear of tires and brakes and contamination due to dust raised up into air by moving vehicles. The more vehicles on roads, the worse it will be.
 
"Once we’re dropped at our destination, our AV won’t need to find parking; it’ll simply move on to the next customer." 
AVs may need less parking but it's a myth the don't need it at all. Demand on AVs will be highest early morning and later afternoon (rush hours) and nearly non-existent at night. If AVs are going to be as affordable and accessible as this article pictures it, we will need thousands of them and these vehicles have to park somewhere. Ideally, not too far from places they're going to be needed soon, which means likely suburbs in the morning and city centers in the afternoon. While it may be easier to find space for large parking lots in the suburbs, building more garages for AVs in the centerof Boston is going to be a costly development.

"AVs will be electric."
Sounds nice but this means thousands of new electricity consumers that require high energy infrastructure. Those fast-charge stations will be needed everywhere, including city center. That's a serious challenge for our electricity grid.

"Consider that if AVs no longer need to park, an additional lane or two now given over to street-side parking could be available for travel, opening up roads."
As I wrote above - they will need to park (at very least to recharge). But I would rather give that extra space to pedestrians and cyclists than more AVs.
 

AVs will be cheap because "nationally, an average automobile costs $0.56 per mile to drive, says the American Automobile Association."
Don't ask AAA how cheap driving is. Ask someone less biased, please. AVs will be cheap if we keep subsidizing driving. If we put the same money into public transportation, we would also have cheap and efficient light rail, bus and streetcar systems.
 
"But public transit users are heavily subsidized."
It is, but far less than driving in U.S. If you had to pay real market value for 1hr of parking in downtown Boston you would see how subsidized it is now. The fact that we are still stuck with gas tax rate from the 70's and it covers only a fraction of road maintenance costs, shows how much we actually have to subsidize driving in this country. If driving could pay for itself, we all would have to pay much, much more for parking, tolls and gasoline.

"Since we’ll use AVs in an Uber-like fashion, we’ll pay only when we need a ride — without the cost of a driver."
No. You will also pay a fee for parking of "your" AV when it's waiting for you and charging its batteries.

"Insurance will be cheaper (or perhaps unneeded)."
Insurance per passenger may be cheaper but you will pay a fee to cover insurance costs of companies operating a fleet of these AVs.

Also, the article doesn't mention what would happen to all standard cars - those that still require drivers. If AVs could somehow replace 100% of them, then there is some chance for improvement. But unfortunately, it seems right now that AVs will just allow more people to move (such as elderly who can't drive anymore) but won't reduce car ownership. I can't even imagine that - it so non-American not to own your car but to share it with some strangers. That's communism, right?

And finally the last and most important question - will AVs be allowed to save parking spaces with trash bins and folding chairs in winter?

Essentially, it all boils down to travel efficiency as measured by number of people moved in time. In countryside, where distances are significant and space is available, cars on highways, high-speed trains and finally airplanes work quite well. In cities, where distances are shorter and road space is scarce and expensive, placing one person per vehicle makes simply no sense. It doesn't matter if this vehicle has a driver, is electric, or autonomous. It still occupies too much space on road. That's why high-density transport systems such as T still work best (which doesn't mean we need to stick to these ugly, old green train cars). Single-user AVs won't help here, which is why public transport will remain.

So no, AVs won't replace public transport but they may help to solve some current problems. At very least, here is what we could do:
  1. Introduce as many dedicated bus lanes as possible and give signal priority to buses over AVs.
  2. Introduce congestion charging - the most effective way to keep many cars and AVs off streets in the mad morning or evening rush. You want to take AV to work at 8:00AM? That may cost you $50. But if you drive the same distance at 11:00AM it may be only 10$.
  3. In general we want less cars, not more, in the city so let's increase efficiency of AVs by prioritizing those with many passengers. How about autonomous vans and minibuses? I'm going to quote myself here:


The future is bright. It just won't rely solely on single-user autonomous vehicles in highly urban areas. There is no space for that.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Jaywalking 2.0 - "Petextrians"

If you think that American streets and roads are safe, you either live deep in the woods or drive a heavily armored vehicle through your city. But many of us, mortals, think otherwise. Apparently, we made a big move in safety numbers on our streets - just in the wrong direction:
Fatality rates here in 1990 were roughly 10 percent lower than in Canada and Australia, two other affluent nations with a lot of open road. Over the last few decades, however, other countries have embarked on evidence-based campaigns to reduce vehicle crashes. The United States has not. (...) Our vehicle fatality rate is about 40 percent higher than Canada’s or Australia’s.
So it's true what they say about Americans - we love our freedom to the point we would rather kill each other than give up any part of it. In this case, it's a freedom to speed and to drive distracted.

But interestingly, we don't apply the same freedoms to people who don't drive. They are the enemy - those who impair our freedom to move at speed when they want to cross the street, especially "illegally".

Harassing anyone for jaywalking should a thing of the past, but it's coming back. Now, when nearly everyone is glued to a cell phone screen, apparently the biggest enemy of drivers in the city (apart of lack of free parking) is a texting pedestrian - "petextrian". Honolulu has already set a fine of $99 for this "illegal pedestrianism" (which really should be called "freecrossing") of the digital era. Now Boston wants to follow this example with fines up to $200 for distracted walking.
As they say, every place has its own village idiot and here in Boston we have Rep. Colleen Gary, who already made her name as a person who really hates everyone impeding car traffic in any way. Jaywalking 2.0 is her big comeback this year as she pushes for high fines for distracted pedestrians.

Fortunately, not everyone is this blind to see that it's not pedestrians but drivers who are the problem. Perhaps those autonomous vehicles wouldn't be that bad if they pay more attention to traffic than a human driver. But this mean we would need to give up our freedom to drive and speed. Are we ready for it?

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

OTTOLock review - small, light and secure?

Light or secure? You can only have one. That's essentially the only choice we have among all various types of bicycle locks. Or do we?
Enter OTTOLock, a bicycle lock that tries to solve the seemingly impossible - it combines low weight with high security. I wrote about this lock last year during my Kickstarter inventions review and I added that it's likely the first Kickstarter invention I would actually buy. Nearly one year later I finally got one of these locks.

I ordered the 30" version of OTTOLock and my first impressions were very positive. The lock feels very solid in hand. I can't speak of how secure it really is since I'm not going to try to cut through it, so I have to rely on manufacturer's claim that its steel tape enclosed in orange rubbery plastic would withstand any attach with ordinary tools much better than cheap cable locks. Don't be fooled though - OTTOLock is clearly not going to be as secure as heavy-duty u-locks, but that's not the point. It's not supposed to combine low weight with ultimate level of security. Rather low weight with security adequate enough to leave your bike unattended for that longer shopping trip.

When it comes to weight, OTTOLock delivers what it promised. I weighed the 30" lock at 152g - very decent result for a lock of this size.

In my early Kickstarter look I wrote that the only thing I'm worried about is its 3-digit combination lock. Fortunately, the locking mechanism seems to be very solid and doesn't look like it would easily fall apart in use or could be broken into with some simple tools.
However, if I could be critical of one feature of OTTOLock it would still be its combination lock. I just don't feel that not having a key is any advantage here. Certainly it isn't any faster. The way OTTOLock works is that in order to lock your bike you have to set your chosen combination on the dials, push and hold the small metal button on the side, insert the tape into the locking mechanism and finally turn the 3 dials to secure the lock. It isn't that bad as long you already have the right combination set on the dials, but if the dials rotate (and they can rotate quite easily) you will have to reset them to your code before locking your bike.

At this point you may think, this is still better than searching for key in your pockets, but I'm not so sure. You see, it's November, which means that early morning in Boston air temperature hovers around 32F (0C) and that means I wear gloves. And it's much easier to get a key from a pocket and use it to unlock the bike, than to try to set the right code on 3 tiny dials so close to each other.

The only other complain I would have is that depending on how you transport your OTTOLock on the bike, it may have to be rolled first and secured for storage using included rubbery strap. That makes it (again) slower to use than most other locks out there. Without rolling and securing it, OTTOLock wants to unfold itself thanks to its steel tape construction.
Other than that, OTTOLock is very nice. It is lightweight and feels much more secure than most flexible bike locks. I will keep using mine and see how it works for me long term. Since it would be easier to use in warmer weather, it may become my travel lock. My bicycle travels happen pretty much only in June through October and the low weight of OTTOLock makes it a good bike touring companion.
Pros:
+ very light for a bicycle lock
+ feels solid and secure
+ no key required

Cons:
- difficult to use in thicker winter gloves
- slower to use (setting the combination, folding for storage, etc.)

Monday, October 30, 2017

Mason RR Trail

Since I became too familiar with my neighborhood trail I have to frequently venture out further away from home in search for more places to ride.

Last weekend I went to Townsend, MA to ride a short loop north into New Hampshire and back. 

I started just off Rt13 and followed Dudley Rd initially, to connect to Mason Railroad Trail. Being a former railroad, I didn't expect any major hills there but I was actually a bit surprised the trail was so... raw. It simply didn't seem to be used frequently. The surface was covered in leaves, branches and was pretty rough in general. Maybe I expected it to be wide and smooth like those other railroad trails in my area.
I didn't ride the full length of the trail since I wanted to move east and then back south. I took Mitchell Hill Rd to find entrance to another path cutting across Stephens Forest. It all started well...
but then turned out to be very rocky and pretty much unsuitable for anything else but a fat-tire mountain bike.
Finally, I got to the parking lot at Mile Slip Rd and when I thought it was all over, the worst part had just begun. The southern section of Mile Slip Rd is not much of a road at all. It's basically a fairly steep (6-10% grade) downhill section on very rough rocks, boulders and roots. The path seems to be shaped by rushing water during heavy rains and if you feel like riding there, bring your enduro bike with you. Don't make my mistake and try it on a cyclocross bike.

Even though the entire loop is only 24mi (38km) long and it would take about 2hrs to complete it, it's a fun place for bike riding. October weather makes it even better. It's still warm, it's dry, there are no mosquitoes nor flies in the deep forest and fall colors are just spectacular. To be honest, October should be 60 days long!

I will have to return here next year. On wider tires.

Monday, October 23, 2017

A bag of mixed feelings

I'm sure you have heard about Vision Zero - a noble program to reduce traffic deaths to zero (duh). The victims are overwhelmingly those unprotected road users - pedestrians and cyclists. The culprit - mostly drivers. Many cities in United States adopted Vision Zero, or at least claimed they did. It's because still very little has been done to make streets safer for everyone.

There is number of ways city streets can be made safer. Starting simply by reducing number of cars in the city (congestion charging) to a better street design such as physical barriers that separate heavy car traffic from unprotected road users (e.g. protected bike lanes). In fact, physical separation should be a preferred way, as distracted driving is on the rise. As it turns out, smartphones are killing Americans. Texting/facebooking/tweeting/instagraming has become so addictive that most drivers do that while moving. Starring at the smartphone screen is pretty much as prevalent as disobeying speed limits - even though it's illegal, everyone does it.
 
You would think that it should be in everyone's best interest to make streets safer for all road users. Unfortunately, there is always a group of idiots who will oppose it. The best example came recently from Minnesota where some people literally "lost their minds over a bike lane". I've seen many weird things in my life but calling bike lanes "Nazi lanes" is definitely new.

(Photo by Shane Morin)

But the worst things happen when the big opposition to Vision Zero comes not from a small group of local retards but a mayor of the largest city in America. Bill de Blasio - mayor of the New York City called for crackdown on e-bikes. I would never think that simple and relatively slow-moving vehicles that harm no one are the major problem to New Yorkers. As was quickly reported, "in 2016 alone, drivers killed 146 pedestrians and 18 cyclists. And in the first two months of 2017, city drivers have killed 18 pedestrians and one cyclist. (...) Meanwhile, e-bike riders have been involved in zero traffic-related deaths during the time that the city has collected data on their use."

This means one thing - e-bikes are not a problem to citizens of New York City. They are a problem to de Blasio, who, just like our mayor of Boston, is likely "a car guy". So either de Blasio doesn't understand what Vision Zero is, or he thinks it means "zero inconveniences to drivers".

Nevertheless, New York remains the most walkable large city in the United States. If only it would protect its pedestrians better, it could likely score higher on "Walkable Communities Report Card" issued recently by National Physical Activity Plan. Unfortunately, most places in America get a solid F grade, but what I found most shocking is this plot:
As it turns out, 30% of students in this country are being driver to school by their parent at a distance of less than 1/4 mile! That's a lousy 1300ft or 400m. I can't believe how some people's butts got permanently glued to their car's seats.

Anyway, jumping to another topic, the end of year is coming soon and I have an impression that some towns are trying to spend money they have left before December. In Bedford, I noticed they are building a sidewalk on a quiet residential street that is rarely used by pedestrians. The sidewalk won't connect to anything on one end, because the next street doesn't have a sidewalk either. Not sure if this new sidewalk is really needed.

In neighboring Lexington they started to build a ramp connecting Minuteman Bikeway with Maple St. That's great. There is already a ramp on the east side, but now we will have one also on the west side of Maple St.
Lexington also started their first "bike share" system last Friday. It's based on Zagster, it has a number of nice, white bikes available from just... one station. That doesn't make it a bike share program at all - more like an automated bicycle rental station.
Well, let's hope this is just a beginning and the system will be expanded quickly in 2018. Although, since the Minuteman Bikeway connects Bedford, Lexington, Arlington and Cambridge, I would really like to see all 4 communities working together to unify the system. This will allow people to share bikes and commute from Alewife station or Porter Square all the way to Bedford. That would make much more sense.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Parking spaces

Let's talk about parking spaces. No, not parking for cars. There is too much of it anyway. I want to look closer at parking for bicycles in its simplest and cheapest form - bike racks.

Bike racks come in all shapes and colors and some are better than others. On my way to work I counted not less than 6 different racks. Here are some examples.
This pretty, leaf-shaped rack belongs to a local bank. Despite the funky shape, it's actually quite functional. There is plenty of space nearby to park all types of bicycles and the rack provides a number of locking points. The one little problem though - it's not set in concrete but just bolted to it, making it less secure.
This ugly, red "wheelbender" is a very popular place for bicycles in Arlington. That's because it's the only rack available at Trader Joe's and right next to the Minuteman Bikeway. Given its popularity, it's a real shame TJ hasn't replaced it yet with something larger and more secure. The biggest problem with this rack is lack of space. The only somewhat secure spot is the one on the side, where I parked my bike in the above picture. All other spots require locking bikes by the front wheel only and the other side of the rack is blocked by a concrete wall. If you come here with an u-lock, you can only use the side spot. Locking to the inner slots requires you to use a very long chain or cable lock. On top of that, the rack is not even properly bolted to ground!
A bit further down the bike path, in Lexington Center you can find this long, black rack. It may look similar to the red TJ rack but it actually avoids all issues of its neighbor. The top bar is high over the ground so you can push your bike in, far enough to lock frame with front wheel using an u-lock. There is plenty of space for many bicycles in the rack even though most of the time it stays empty.
In Bedford I encountered this beefy structure. It's properly secured to ground and has enough space for a few bikes. I guess it might be the best bike rack here, but that massive tube may not be compatible with some narrower or shorter u-locks.
Finally, here is another rack in Bedford. It works for me, although it could be better secured to the concrete slab than just using a few bolts. I actually like its unique flat shape as it works better with some mini u-locks. 

All the above makes me wonder if we need some kind of national bike rack standard. I know that more regulation is usually not the best answer, but what can we do when we desperately need a place to lock our bikes and all we get is a lousy "wheelbender"?

Finally, I noticed that from all of my bicycles, the easiest one to lock is my Xtracycle - as long as I'm leaving it for only a few minutes! That's because it doesn't need a bike rack at all! I can just park it somewhere out of way and lock the front wheel with frame using an u-lock. No need to lock it to anything!

That's because no one would be able to ride it, nor walk away with it. It's just too heavy to carry and too long to fit in car's trunk. Unless there are two guys nearby with a pick-up truck, I don't see easy way to steal a heavy electric cargo bike. Still, obviously I wouldn't leave my bike locked like this for the whole day.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

It's the end of September and non-motorists are to blame

I just noticed it's the end of September. Time flies! There must be some international conspiracy behind this and it's probably because of those without cars. You know, when in doubt - blame cyclists and pedestrians.

Why?

Because they get away too easily with their crimes! Death by bicycle is rampant, which is why British government considers a new criminal law for cyclists. To be honest, numbers are not exactly in favor because "of 1,730 people killed on UK roads in 2015 just two – 0.12% – were killed in collisions with cyclists". It doesn't matter. Every live saved counts (Ain't that so, Australians?)!

It's also good to blame pedestrians, because they are just a "hazard to cars". That's what they think in California:
This is America. Here, paint on your car has more rights than a person crossing the street so those texting teenagers better be aware of it! If they dive nose-deep in their iPhone screens, they'd better at least wear something bright and reflective. According to American DMV, hi-vis clothing solves such problems. As evidenced here:
Ok, but that's on the other coast. Let's jump to my local backyard. The Mayor of Boston, Marty Walsh, thinks that cyclists don't deserve their space on city streets simply because it's impossible.
Perhaps if we remove cars from some streets, that space would be found. Newbury St and Hanover St seem like perfect candidates. But let's leave our mayor alone. It takes some political balls to pull this off and he's currently fighting for re-election.

Finally, I'm happy to announce that my little village of Arlington and its brother town of Lexington are introducing their own bike share system. How exciting! Obviously, it would make most sense to simply expand Hubway system that already works quite well in neighboring Cambridge and Boston. But it turned out that Hubway is quite too expensive for our town, which is why both towns considered some other options.

Lexington started by approving the location of... one station. Yes, you read it right. They have essentially created the smallest bike share system in the world that operates with 14 bikes from just one station. This means that soon citizens of Lexington will be able to rent a bike to ride twice around town only to drop it off in the same place they took it from. They won't be able to get to work or run errands by bike but who give a shit. They use their cars for "real" stuff anyway.

That's the American way.

Monday, September 18, 2017

S24O - to Pawtuckaway State Park and back

S24O is simply a sub 24-hour, overnight ride. This means, we pack the bare minimum needed for 1 night stay somewhere in the wild, ride to our destination and come back the next day. All that in less than 24 hours.

Last Friday I decided to give it a try - leave my workplace earlier, around 3:30pm and ride to the distant Pawtuckaway State Park in New Hampshire, roughly 60mi (100km) away. This state park has a designated campground, located right on the shores of Pawtuckaway Lake and that's where I planned to stay for the night (even though it's not free).

Because weather was warm and it was only 1 night of camping, I managed to reduce my gear to pretty much bare minimum.
I use an ultralight Big Agnes Copper Spur UL1 tent, which I like a lot (despite a few minor things that could be made better). But one issue difficult to solve when packing it on a bike is where to place poles. They are just too long. Once I strapped them separately to the bottom of top tube, the rest of the tent and the mattress fit in a stuff sack that I strapped to the seatpost. That left me with the sleeping bag, some food, spares and minor items (camera, phone, etc.) that I loaded into Apidura handlebar bag. The whole setup worked perfectly, although I would prefer placing the poles somewhere else, since it was awkward to portage bike over obstacles, when I had to lift it up by the top tube.

Day 1 (66mi or 106km)

Shortly after I left Bedford and was approaching Lowell, it started pouring heavily. In no time, I was completely soaked. I thought about stopping somewhere and waiting for rain to stop but I was kind of racing against the clock. I had 60mi to ride and sun was about to set soon. I paused only to pour water out of my shoes and squeeze out any water out of socks and shirt. It was very warm and humid and this kind of heavy rain felt just like a warm shower and didn't really bother me much.
I didn't stop in Lowell but I really liked its restored historical downtown. Looks like a very interesting place for a longer visit. I continued north through Windham to Chester. At this point it was already around 7pm and because of the thick layer of clouds, it got completely dark. I turned lights on and kept going but had to skip some forest trails I wanted to explore on the way. It was simply impossible to find entrance to some paths hidden in darkness.

I usually don't have a chance to ride at night and this was an interesting experience. There was little road traffic in rural New Hampshire. It was very warm, humid and loud, with noise of crickets playing their night tunes.

Some time around 8:45pm I arrived at the campground. I got a spot right at the lake, pitched my tent in darkness and thanks to nearby bathroom facilities I didn't even have to go to sleep with legs covered in mud. There were many people camping nearby but they didn't bother me since camping spots at the park are conveniently spread out. The campground overall looked attractive for a family camping day I'd like to try some time next year.

I didn't sleep that well. Somehow I couldn't fall asleep right away, then some large animal woke me up in the middle of the night. Not sure what it was, but it kept huffing, puffing and sniffing around my tent, making quite a noise. After I figured out that the only things I left outside are my smelly shoes, I decided not to investigate what that creature really was, as there was a remote chance it could've been a skunk. Fortunately, after not finding anything interesting, the thing went on its way into the dark forest.

Day 2 (78mi or 126km)

I woke up around 6am, when most other campers were still sleeping. The morning was even more humid than last night and a heavy cloud layer was hanging low over the lake. I packed my stuff and headed back. I had a long ride ahead.
My camping spot. No fly on the tent as I started to pack things already.

Bridge to Horse Island at 7am. Humid, wet, cloudy.

I didn't want to take the shortest route home but explore the area at least a bit. I took Mountain Trail towards Reservation Rd, but it turned out to be so rocky that I had to walk my bike a lot. It would likely be easier on a mountain bike, although there are sections on the trail where even a MTB would not be much help.
The Reservation Rd was certainly much more suited for my type of bicycle and the rest of park ride was enjoyable. Next, I got to a power line trail off Brown Rd, and it turned out that it didn't matter my shoes and socks were still wet from the previous day. I soaked them again trying to get through some flooded areas on the trail. One more stop to pour water out of shoes, squeeze out socks and I was ready to go.
Once I got to Raymond Rd I thought I could continue along the power line trail even though this section on map is marked "winter only". Well, there is a good reason for it. There is a small wooden bridge ahead you can see from Raymond Rd but unfortunately, there was absolutely no way I could get to it. The whole area is a wetland and it's only passable in winter once everything freezes over. I empirically verified that a detour was required by soaking my shoes for the second time that day when my front wheel sunk up to the axle in a ditch full of water.


At this point I had enough of off-road exploration and decided to take RT107 to Raymond. There, I merged with Rockingham Recreational Trail towards Epping and it was a very pleasant ride. The trail is wide, with hard-packed surface. Too bad crossings with major roads are not designed better. Right now, the trail lacks the feeling of continuity.
From Epping I took the southern section of the trail towards Sandown but it soon turned out to be a disappointment. The first part up to RT107/Main St is very bumpy and difficult to ride. It seems to be used mainly by horseback riders and the entire surface is destroyed by horse hooves.

Then the next section, south of Main St, was free of horse presence. Unfortunately, it seems to be frequently used by motocross bikers and it's just too sandy for my 35mm tires. Had I been there on a plus-sized mountain bike, the situation would've been different. I decided to abandon the trail and take a shortcut along RT111A to Salem, NH.
In Salem, I entered Salem Rail Trail that has a compacted gravel surface and would've been a good place to ride a bicycle, if only busy RT28 wasn't right next to it. Once the trail crosses Massachusetts border it turns into Methuen Rail Trail that started promising, but unfortunately then entered Lawrence where it runs next to an area occupied by a bunch of homeless people, tons of trash and derelict buildings. I teleported myself ASAP away from Lawrence and continued to Tewksbury.

The rest of the trip was relatively non-eventful as I managed to get lost only a couple of times. Navigating through some more remote areas around Billerica I finally reached familiar waters and arrived home at 3:15pm - a touch away from 24hrs mark.

The whole thing was fun even though it took me longer than I expected. If only Pawtuckaway Park was a bit closer! Weather was a bit of a problem. It would be nicer if it wasn't that humid but on the other hand, it would be likely much worse riding on a hot, sunny day. The one thing I have to remember about next time is spare waterproof socks.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

I disappeared in Catalonia for a while but I'm back

It's finally September. I'm waiting for the cooler weather to arrive as I'm a bit tired of the usual summer heat, especially that I spent the last week in rural Catalonia with my family. It was hot, sunny and pretty. I spent time starring at mountains, sleeping late and eating copious amounts of cured ham.

I didn't have my bike with me but it seems that I should return one day to tour some of the lower Pyrenees. Those scenic, unpaved roads are what I craved most and they can't be found anywhere here in New England.
Some roads will lead you to mountain tops, where you will find either an old monastery, view deck for tourists or at very least, a Catalan flag. No matter what's waiting for you at the top, be ready for stunning views.
At the end of our stay, we actually did just a bit of bike riding. I wanted to get a feeling of what Barcelona looks like and for that purpose, me and my brother rented bicycles to ride around the city. Judging by the bikes available for rent, fixies seem to be still fashionable in Barcelona. Thankfully though, they were configured with freewheels so at least I didn't have a chance to quickly kill myself.
Now it's time to revisit the usual grounds. Fall is absolutely the best time to ride bicycles here in Massachusetts - no heat but still warm, less bugs and pretty foliage colors. Can't wait!

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Groton Double Loop

It's no secret that I find typical road cycling a bit boring. Speed, power meters, Strava segments - all this is just not for me. I think the fun starts when you get off the beaten path. In my search for unpaved roads and interesting places to ride, I explored areas a bit further from my home in Arlington, yet still close enough to be reachable within an hour by car, or not more than a 3-hour bike ride.

One of my favorite local spots are forests of Groton, MA. It takes 2.5 hrs to get there by bike from Arlington, but only a quick 30 min. drive from my workplace. Last evening, I drove there to leave my car at Martins Pond Rd and rode this fast 26km (16mi) double loop. The route is short and usually takes only 1.5 hrs to ride but that's what I like about it. I can get there after work and finish it before sunset, even in fall when days are shorter.

Starting at Martins Pond Rd, I entered a small network of trails called Wharton Plantation. I followed Dan Parker Rd, which doesn't look much like a road to be honest. It's a wide trail through forest, full of rocks, roots, sand and occasional mud. It may be challenging in places but overall, it's pretty fast to ride. And if you come here in summer, you would want to be fast. Otherwise you're risking being eaten alive by mosquitoes and deer flies.
The road took me then to a clearing where I merged with a maintenance road under high voltage power lines. It quickly turns into a paved section starting at Kemp St, running through some farm land, then continues along Groton St to Hall St. Next, I reached entrance to the Red Line Path, where I went off-road again. This place is not only pretty, overlooking several ponds along the way, but also super fun to ride. The path is very wavy, featuring multiple little hills and pits. If you ride fast enough, you get a feeling of being on a bicycle roller-coaster.
Once the trail ends, I made my way back to Martins Pond Rd, continued past the place where I parked my car to reach Orchard Ln - a small road cutting through a farm, turning into some broken chip seal and then ending with gravel and sand. At the end of this road I found the beginning of Bruce Clements Trail - a narrow singletrack ending at the historic Williams Barn - nowadays the location of Groton Farmers Market.

The trail continues on the other side of Chicopee Row and is marked as McClain's Woods Trail. I followed green arrow markers to reach Reedy Meadow Rd. From there, it was only a short ride to Dan Parker Rd an back to the car.
As I wrote earlier, the route is short is pretty quick to ride. If I could change anything to make it more interesting, I would love to see a way to continue along the power line maintenance road to ride from Kemp St all the way to Hall St. That would eliminate the paved section along Groton St and would let me stay off-road longer. Unfortunately, when I scouted that possibility I found out that a large area under the power lines is completely flooded and inaccessible. Judging from the size of the pond with multiple dams and lodges, I can tell that beavers had something to do with it.

If you are in the area and want to give this route a try, make sure you bring a bike with wider tires. I can't picture riding there on anything narrower than 32mm. My 36mm wide X'Plor MSO were perfect, especially tubeless. I wouldn't want to get a flat in the middle of a mosquito-infested forest.

Now I'm waiting for fall to arrive. I really want to revisit this place in late September.