Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Dressing for Success

Where I live, the weather is turning cold and wet. Unlike, the Cyclosaur, my blogging domestique, I have seasons to contend with. And so, at this time of year, the greatest challenge to my riding pleasure is having the right clothing on.

I should start by telling you that I am fairly oblivious to the cold. When other cyclists are decked out in wind-front tights, heavy jackets and balaclavas, I am often still in shorts. I guess I just run warm.

So this morning, when the temperature was in the 40s, I put on shorts, but topped with a long-sleeve jersey and a wool sweater. Because my mother, who watches my kids sometimes, said it was frigid-ass cold (my words, not hers) and the wind was icey and brutal, I added a light jacket, a fleece cycling hat and full-fingered gloves.

I was overheated inside of ten minutes. I shucked the jacket. And the gloves.

I believe that, in colder weather, the best clothing strategy is one that has you fairly cold for the first ten minutes of your ride. The idea is that you will warm into some sort of balance between too-hot and too-cold. If there is one thing I hate it's riding while bathed in sweat, which, in my experience, is also a bad thing to do in cold weather, because then when you stop riding all that moisture becomes a serious liability.

Breathability is important. There is a general clamor, in the cycling world, for wind-proof gear. I have some, but what I find, mostly, is that wind-proof means air-tight, which means too much heat builds up under there. I can only wear wind-proof if the mercury is south of 35 degrees. Or if it's raining like it's mad at me.

The thing that really makes dressing so difficult this time of year is that the weather is so goddamned variable. One day it's sunny and 55. The next day its 40 and raining. It's all over the map.

So every time I walk out the front door onto the porch, with my bike slung over my shoulder, it's really just a guess. Sometimes I turn around and head back in for more (or less) clothing. Other times I hurl myself into the meteorological void and hope I don't end up with hypothermia.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Of course it's fucking scary.

Found myself in a discussion with co-workers about riding in the city. Most them don't do it, cause it's too scary. And one of them used to do it, but doesn't do it anymore, cause it's too scary.

Well, of course it's fucking scary.

It's like being a minnow in a sea full of great white fucking sharks. There are doors swinging out to break your collar bones. If you fall off, you land on fucking asphalt. If someone farts funny while talking on the phone and smoking a cigarette, they can run right the fuck over you with a bump and a bump and thanks for fucking playing.

For some stupid reason, I catalogued my accidents for them, which just made them talk more about how scary and dangerous it was, and mostly I found myself agreeing with them. And for about half-a-minute I thought, "Christ, maybe I should stop riding every day."

And then I remembered a couple of the reasons I'm not going to do that.

First of all, it's fucking thrilling. You zip in and out and through and around traffic, all these stupid, drooling, going-nowhere cars, and it's like you're super-charged. You can't be stopped. You leave them all, sitting right where they were in their crappy exhaust and their dripping, wheezing enginey shittiness.

Second, it's great fucking exercise. I mean, I ride about half-an-hour to work and back twice a day. I ride to the store. I ride to AA meetings and to friend's houses. I ride. And I'm in great shape. Almost all my friends are fat. HA! You're fucking fat, and I'm not. Suck shit! I ride.

Third, you see parts of the city that you would NEVER see walking or driving or whatever other way you want to get around. A bike makes frivolous adventure much less frivolous. Like, "What's down that alley over there? I don't know. I think I'll ride the fuck over there and find out. It'll only take a second." The difference between an eight-mile route to work and a ten-mile ride to work is nothing. I take a little extra time. I see all kinds of different shit.

Riding is awful. If you ride, you will fall off. Hazards will come flying at you like buck shot. You will sweat and bleed, and your heart will race, and you'll get jacked on adrenaline, and people will roll their stupid ass windows down and shout the most awful things at you.

But you'll ride away. You're on a fucking bike, and they're not.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Back On The Horse

I'm riding again. It has been two days so far. I lost some strength! Very surprising. My breathing is hard but that's probably due to the sinus infection. But my legs actually feel it a lot more now.

I noticed it right away at the first climb. I hit it soft. Like the hill was made of deep soft grass. It was such a loss of speed that my brain lit up with, "uh oh. This is going to suck!" Now, I don't know how much strength I lost, but I still had much more than I did when I started biking. So, I was easily able to grind to the top, but it was exactly that, a grind. It used to be sorta easy.

I feel a sort of sadness now on my ride. The thing is I sorta missed the start of fall with my shoulder/sickness layoff. Now when I get on the bike and start my ride, it's dark out. Like the darkest before the dawn dark. I roll off the precipice of my driveway and plunge in with my weak flashing LEDs tearing at the dark. I channel my inner robot - who is lazily programed to not follow the rules of the road, and I take up an entire lane and roll through every light. I glide past darkened houses towards the next traffic light who is metering for no one. Finally, when I get to my bus stop I happily say good morning to the first person I see. Just so I can hear their response and assure myself I'm not a ghost.

What cycling gives me

Tuesdays I ride down through Harvard Square to the river and from there I take the path that runs between the slowly flowing water of the Charles and the fast running traffic of Storrow Drive. On one side, roaring, buzzing, honking traffic, on the other the river, Canada and snow geese, mallards, skittering pigeons and a smattering of people rowing their whisper thin sculls back and forth.

This morning I was rolling along, neither pushing the pedals hard nor dogging it, when I glanced off to my left and saw a giant blue heron standing in the shallows, stock still and stretched to its full height.

So I stopped, because I could, because I wasn't in a car, in traffic, in a hurry, and sealed off from the world.

I stood and watched for about 10 minutes. What an incredible animal, almost four feet tall with its neck fully stretched, then stalking along the river's rocky edge, it's neck curled and cocked in a backwards S, ready to stab out at a fish. When standing its feathers laid smooth like a slick plastic rain coat. When creeping along in the hunt, its back feathers caught the wind and fluttered. Just amazing.

I love riding, just for the sake of it. I love the feeling of motion under the wheels. It can be effortless sometimes, like flying or gliding, but cycling also gives me a connection to the world and a flexibility that driving or walking don't.

Monday, October 13, 2008

I don't have to ride your bike.

I can be a snob. It comes naturally, a voice sneering and scoffing and laughing in the back of my head.

Why do people ride tandem bicycles? Why? Being stuck to another person is completely antithetical to my concept of the reason for riding a bicycle in the first place, that is to be independent and free. Every time I see a tandem, I cringe.

Why do people wrap themselves in lycra to ride across town to work? Are they shaving valuable seconds off their commute? Are they so consumed with the wicking of moisture and arriving at work dry as the desert that they must employ hundreds of dollars of technical fabrics to go to the grocery store? How you need bib tights and rainbow-bright jersey to pedal your hybrid to the coffee shop is a mystery to me.

Why do hipsters spend $3000 on fixed-gear bicycles? I've seen them. Why take a simple thing and make it into a carbon-fibered, space-age-engineered rocket cycle? You're just going to get falafel. Surely a simple steel bike would do the trick, even somewhat stylishly.

But these are all pointless questions. The pertinent query is: WHY DO I CARE?

I don't have to wear the lycra. I don't have to ride the tandem. I don't have to spend the money.

Each of us has our own crazy ideas. And, if cycling is about freedom and independence, then each of us is free to pedal whatever two-wheeled Frankenstein we want. We can dress like clowns or woodland gnomes. It doesn't matter.

It certainly shouldn't matter to me. And on good days, it doesn't.

Friday, October 10, 2008


Or even millimeters. They can make a difference.

For example, I ride in sneakers. I used to ride in a sweet ass pair of Sidi road shoes, but I got tired of schlepping extra shoes around all the time. When I switched over to single-speed it was part of an overall simplification of my whole way of riding. And so I began riding in sneakers. The sneakers I normally wear are Vans' Old Skools, a classic skate shoe with a toe cap that pushes the side of the shoe out about a millimeter- and-a-half. Just that little bit at the inside of my pedal stroke often brushes the crank and squeaks. Not only does it make an annoying sound, it also slows me down.

When I switch to sneakers without a toe cap (like slip ons or Vans' Eras) there's no squeak, and no drag. A millimeter-and-a-half.

Similarly, I recently switched out my handlebars. I went from the bullhorns I've been riding for about two years to a chopped down straight bar. My wife remarked on how narrow the bars looked, but they're actually an inch-and-a-half wider than the bullhorns, and the result is a little more stability in low speed turning and any time I've got my front wheel off the ground.

Try raising your seat to its optimal height, then pushing it up a further centimeter. Ride that way for a week and tell me you don't have saddle sores.

I used to crap on bicycle fussiness, that obsession with getting everything exactly right, and to some degree I still do. I mean, ride your fucking bike. Ride it. There comes a time when you're spending more time tweaking than actually riding. And that's just nuts.

On the other hand, the bicycle can be a deceptively complicated machine, a carefully balanced gyroscope with wide but not infinite tolerances. I am now coming to understand the ways small adjustments effect that balance. It has only taken me about thirty years of riding to begin to understand.

And that boggles my mind.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


First, please excuse my lengthy absence. Unlike my friend, the Cyclosaur, it's not that I haven't been riding. I've been riding more than ever. In fact, it's all the riding and thinking about riding that has made any effort to put riding into words seem so futile.

The truth is, I've been in a very excellent place vis a vis gliding along on two wheels.

It started with some changes. I believe I wrote a few weeks back about having popped a chain and then getting a new chain and that new chain grinding horribly against the chain ring, and anyway if I didn't, I should have, cause that's what happened. And I spent some days riding around with a 15mm socket wrench trying to get the grinding to go away by adjusting and readjusting and rereadjusting the chainline, all to no avail. I then flipped my wheel to the fixed ring, and VOILA, no more grind.

So I've been riding fixed, something I previously chose not to do, because I thought it was unsafe.

But my bike mechanic said something to me the night he replaced my chain that finally settled in about three days later, which is, "look, you say you have more control when you ride free, because you can stop pedaling, but the truth is you have less control. When you're fixed you can stop with your legs AND with your brake. When you're free you only have the brake, and you're almost guaranteed to go over the bars if you use it."

So I'm riding fixed. It's a change, and I'm learning to control the bike better, and I actually feel very comfortable with it now. What I needed to do was accept the change, to ride a different way and learn something new and see what I thought about it afterwards. I think I've spent too much time thinking I knew how to ride.

I don't.

I think I could pedal my whole life and only scratch the surface of it.

So then the other night I was looking at my handlebars (bullhorns with a single MTB brake lever mounted on the left), and I decided, on a whim, to swap out for straight bars. Again, at first I was uncomfortable, I'd lost the hand position I used to sprint and climb in, and I thought that was going to be intolerable.

Instead, I learned a new way to sprint and to climb, and what the straight bars give me is better lateral control of the bike. It's neat, not better or worse, just different.

And as a result of making some changes and learning about the way the ride is different, I'm really enjoying riding even more than I was before. It's motivating me to spend even more time in the saddle, and it strikes me that the worst thing I can do for my riding is to ever believe I know what I like, that I know how to ride a bike, that there is nothing new for me to discover.

Rather, I need to seek experience. I need to ride more, in different ways, on different routes, with a different attitude.

That is all.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Great. Now What?

My shoulder feels good. My tires are pumped up with air. My bag is packed. My jacket is laid out on the chair. I'm ready to go. But I'm not going. I'm sick. I can cough up scrambled eggs. I think it's eggs. It sure looks like it. I should try to get someone to try them. I'm not trying them. I mean, jeez, I just spit that crap out.

What if this was my mutant power. I spit scrambled eggs. What would that mean? I think I'd probably have to be a super villain. Well maybe not "super". Super gross maybe. But anyway I think I'd be a villain. I'd go into the bank and just ask for the money. All nice like. They'd say "no." I'd say "you sure?" Then I'd just start spraying out the scrambled eggs. Like a fire hose! Just hosing that place down like it's on fire! Then I'd stop and say "how about now?" and they'd be all "holy crap! Cut that out. That's nasty. Here's the money! Go away." Could be a good gig.

I could be a hero too I guess. I could just go to Africa or something and feed people, but really, who's that hungry?

I suppose I should write something about bikes and commuting now. I hope to ride my bike next week. I'm spitting up a lot less eggs today.
There. Done.