28 April 2006

Bike Commuting: Once a Commuter Always a Commuter

Why should I be afraid to commute now when I used to be a thoroughly experienced bike commuter 30 years ago? Fear may be a strong word. Uncertainty, doubt, inconvenience, excuses. As a child I commuted on a bike to school for two straight years. Grade seventh and eighth. A child really. I rode on the road oblivious to hazards. Never thought of cars as bastards and never called a driver stupid.

I still have no idea as to how I could possibly have convinced my overprotective parents to let me do that, but I apparently did. After we had moved to another section of town I was supposed to change schools. I would have none of that; all my friends were at my old school; I liked the teachers; I was doing well with grades. Why mess it up?

So I commuted on my bright-yellow Columbia ten speed, drop-bar handles, blue lunch box strapped to god knows what. In the rain, in the snow. Never a problem. I still remember that one big hill and that old lady I ran into on the corner of Heald Street. (I was riding the side-walk.) I actually knocked her down and felt terrible about it, but she got to her feet quickly and was strong enough to yell at me. My apologies. I hope she didn’t remember me for years as that bastard biker kid.

What happens to that child in us? Maybe he never really grows up.

Lovely to commute by bike, is it?

Frankly, I have to say that bike commuters don’t make a good case for commuting on a bike. Do bike commuters really enjoy their rides to work or are they on some Quixotic quest to prove the world wrong? What I’m finding all over the internet – in blogs mostly – is this bitter, angry rhetoric about how terrible cars are. I suppose that applies also to drivers. There is this mean – us vs. them attitude – very evangelical in fact. These people on cars pollute, they destroy our lungs, they tailgate, they insult us, they drive us off the road. Hey, these people even kill us! People die on the road, on bicycles and in cars. Some drivers are negligent, others are criminal. So how do commuters enjoy their trip to work?

It seems to me that what is wrong – deadly wrong – is the society in which most commute to work and live in. People self-righteously talk about choices: about bikes vs. cars. What a joke! That is not making choices. There cannot possibly be so many angry people living in one place at the same time. It is not cars; it is not bikes. It is people. What the hell’s wrong with this picture?

27 April 2006


Well it wasn’t exactly on my birthday, but close enough. Looks like my new, beginner’s commuter / touring bike’s gonna be the Specialized Crossroads. Went and bought it today. I think I was driving my LBS guy crazy. Funny it was the first bike I liked when I first saw it a couple of months ago and at the end, after seeing others, just went back to it and got it. (Took the last frame the LBS will have this year and he won’t be able to upgrade it for himself, as he planned to do.)

I was simply disappointed with the Lapierre Sub 550 – it seemed weaker to me and I really disliked the suspension, so once I got through all the bells and whistles it has as compared to the Crossroads – it just didn’t tickle my fancy. (I never got to see the Orbea so that’s something I’ll keep to myself. Might that have been the bike for me?) Frankly, I was tired of looking and waiting and thinking, though I managed to keep my patience for a few months. Not bad for me. “It’s only a beginner’s bike, for God’s sake”, I finally said yesterday. Done.

A beginner’s bike ought to be just that. Something to get pedalling on, reasonably comfortable and not overly expensive. It should provide first experiences on the road – a bit of commuting perhaps – and some easy riding with the children. Might also be able to do a little touring, if one were so inclined. Based on my research I think that the Specialized Crossroads can do just that - perhaps even more as Amahia showed riding it through China -, with the additional bonus that I won’t be afraid to tinker with it – as I did with my Purple Pig; so I can learn to change a flat, to tighten a bolt or two, to center the breaks or to even take the crank right out to see what the hell those things really look like in a horizontal position. Yes, my poor Purple Pig did all of that and had it not been for the broken crank I’d still be riding it today.

In the end, riding is what matters, isn’t it?

26 April 2006

Another Miss-Start (A.K.A. “Another Excuse”)

Another foibled attempt today at commuting on my bike. I’m only 4 kilometers away from work, mostly downhill on the way in and uphill on the way back. This will theoretically keep the sweat down on the way in and up on the way back home, after which I would presumably take a longer ride just to enjoy and train a little. (As a beginning biker my endurance is, well, none.) But once again I could not get started.

First because I had to dress a bit nice today for professional matters. That took care of the morning – cause in Spain we have to commute four times a day. We take a two hour lunch every day to eat with the family. It is our big meal and then return to work in the afternoon. Normal work hours being from 0900 to 1300 and from 1500 to 1900. (In summer we become European and try to work only from 0800 to 1500.) But for the rest of the year it becomes increasingly hard to comply with tradition and, as you can see, with commuting rituals. Luckily, unlike most Americans, we live very close to work. We could not afford it otherwise as we are heavily taxed on gas prices (3 times more than in the states), instead on being killed with property taxes a la Americana. I prefer the way here as I do with socialized medicine. (Perhaps we can get to retirement without having to sell our homes to move to Florida on account of unreasonable / untenable property taxes.)

But that was the first foible of my first commute. The second takes place because I have to meet with my kids’ teachers at 1800 and without a car – due to work commitments – I just couldn’t make it to the teachers on time. So once again I carpooled into work for those horrendous 2.49 miles of no traffic whatsoever. Life.

17 April 2006

Touring With Children: Our First Tour

Carme & Alberte taking a breather...

There’s always a first and after a couple of months of light – very light training – I finally set off with the kids on our first, major, grandiose touring adventure where we covered about 20 miles…in three days. Big stuff, no doubt, and dangerous too. Ask my seven year old whose left hand could not hold the break handle much longer going down that little mountainside!

Our plan – my wife agreed to back us up with the car if necessary during our three-day trip to nearby camping grounds – was to take a familiar route where we climb one quarter-way-up Mt. Curota and then descend towards the camp grounds on the other side. I actually didn’t think that our touring plan would take place as soon as it did as the Easter holidays sort of surprised me with four unexpected days off. On top of that I jammed the toes of my left foot (then they say walking isn’t dangerous) and wasn’t sure whether I could pedal and stop and pedal…as this is what happens with children in the seven and eight-year-old age range. But my children wouldn’t forgive me if I stayed and so we decided to set off Thursday morning. Never mind my foot.

The kids carried three changes of clothes in their panniers. These 9 liter panniers from Decathlon worked well for the kids and in fact seemed full size on their 20”-wheel bikes. For some reason my daughter’s heels hit her panniers a couple of times, but I discovered that I had fastened them too close to the front of the rear rack. She did well nevertheless. They also carried light things such as socks and gloves in their handle-bar bags. It was the first time they rode with the front bags and it took them awhile to understand the different handling of the bike. I carried our tent, tools, etc. but had to have Mom bring us the sleeping bags as I could not strap three of them safely to my bike because of their bulk. (I carry no panniers but a back-up on top of the rear rack. The arrangement which seemed doable in theory was a disaster in practice for loaded touring as the height of the carried weight and bulk destabilized the bike dangerously. I will use panniers next time.)

I was quite anxious not only because this was our first loaded tour but also because I could see that on occasion the children would swerve on the road, probably due to the weight on their handlebars. I stopped them for a few minutes and went over the need to concentrate on maintaining the bike straight and under control at all times. My daughter, who is the oldest at eight, had more difficulty until she gained her confidence and started climbing up the first hills. We made numerable stops on the three-mile climb, but it was okay to set up goals from hill to hill and curve to curve. We even named one hill “The Bike Eater” as it made us all push way too hard to get to the top. All this riding was on paved, country roads but my anxiety always rose with the few cars that came up from behind. (I rode last to warn the children and later simply because my daughter was faster than us boys.)

I had also been fearing the descent, no doubt the steepest the children have faced. I don’t know how to grade descents but this one is about a half-mile long with three curves on its bottom part. It is a challenge for children and steep for adults. Normally, my son Alberte has some trouble pressing the breaks for long periods of time because his small hands can’t totally cover and press the handles comfortably. (Bike makers ought to think small in those instances.) We had to stop for him in the first curve of the descent as his hands hurt from holding the breaks down. My daughter with the same break handles and same size hands had no problems. Go figure.

Thereafter we just had this great bike ride in the sun on our way through kinder hills towards the campgrounds. Still we stopped a number of times because “my neck itches”, or “look at that stream” or “I thought you said it was all flat now”. Well, what’s the harm in a little white lie?

We really had a great time. Three wonderful days, including some very nice unloaded riding for a few miles around the campground and, yes, there were more hills. There was also only one chocolate bar left for breakfast on the morning of our third day because someone ate our emergency energy bars and cookies. I’ll not mention names now. It remains under investigation. It was also fun sleeping in the rain Friday night (as the Quechua Forclaz Pro tent did not leak at all), though not as much fun riding in it on Saturday. Alberte complained of cold hands and wet gloves. Carme complained about pushing her bike up that last hill on the way home despite offers from passers-by who offered a ride. And yes, dad was the one that left the entrance to the tent open in the heaviest downpour – luckily on our last morning at camp. Funny how well sleeping bags soak up water. I was only testing the absorbability of the things! No happy campers agreed with me.

My daughter will be in charge of making the touring checklist for next time, she says. It seems that I forgot too many things – including camera batteries and cookies, more cookies -- and no it didn’t matter that Mom was just a few miles away ready to jump in the car to rescue us. Or perhaps it does matter: Mom says that there’s no way she’s staying home next time while we’re having all this fun.