Saturday, December 24, 2011

Unacceptable Absence

What the hell, I just started this blog and already I abandon it? Well, I have a good reason...

Even "in this economy" I managed to find a new job, which I will not talk about for important life/work separation reasons (yeah, having a bike blog isn't exactly like putting drunk pics on Facebook, but close enough), but suffice to say that employment-wise I'm as happy as I've been since 2007. After such a long time being unemployed, and then experiencing my second worst job of all time, I can scarcely believe my luck in the employment arena.

In bike-commuting terms, this means that my commute is over twice as long as it used to be, and I couldn't be happier about that. Every day I get to see a nice little slice of Baltimore, from where my commute starts out riding the scenic, almost car-free Fallsway right next to the Jones Falls Trail, then onto city streets, which are (for now) completely un-laned but also relatively calm at 8:30 when I hit them. I need to take some pictures, once I get a digital camera that can fit in my pocket and doesn't take forever to warm up. I don't know that my commute is the "best part of my day" because honestly my job is pretty killer but it's a really great excuse for getting in an hour of exercise every day. (And as a bonus, light rail is very convenient to both my job and my home, for when it snows or rains... which hasn't happened yet!)

The downside to my new commute is that the return trip is entirely dark for now, and I have to ride with traffic for most of it (at least for another year until the Jones Falls Bikeway is complete... and check out that link if you want to watch someone who obviously doesn't ride try to talk about bike infrastructure*). In order to not die, I picked up a Nite Rider MiNewt 350 headlight at my local bike store (Twenty20 Cycling in Hampden), and while it worked fine for the first two weeks, three days ago it just didn't come on after work. Apparently, I'm the first person ever to have a problem with this light, and it's currently being repaired and/or exchanged, so I will in fact be able to post a glowing review of it later. While at the LBS, I also purchased a pannier, as my quick-release Wald basket no longer fits on my hybrid due to the headlight. No review needed, as it's just a basic pannier, but I will say that I now find panniers to be a much better stuff-carrying system than front baskets. I still worry that it's going to hit against a car or fall off for no reason, but I can get way more groceries and things in there than I ever could in my basket, and even with twenty pounds of stuff, there's no noticeable fishtailing.

So, yeah, right now life is pretty awesome, despite being winter and the holidays, i.e. my usual least favorite part of the entire year. I have every hope that 2012 will continue to be as awesome. And that I will remember to post to this blog more often.

In closing, my current favorite bike-related Youtube clip:

*Okay, so I have more to say about that post but I don't want to start another post about it so let me just say that it's really sort of insulting to see someone who's willing to throw cyclists under the bus (literally!) because we're "good for the community," in other words scenery. I pass through Mount Vernon twice a day, and look forward to not having to ever pass through it again once the bikeway is complete, because the drivers are insane, and the streets are way too narrow to accommodate a double line of parked cars, plus cars in motion, plus bikes. Yes, people also park on the street in Hampden and the rest of North Baltimore, but we're nowhere near downtown. Also, pretty sure the streets are wider here, because we used to have electric streetcars. Mount Vernon could be a decent neighborhood for bikes if  they got rid of the on-street parking (why people are allowed to park on the street so close to downtown flummoxes me) and put in lanes instead but that will never ever happen ever. So fuck yeah, I want to ride next to a prison if that's the only way I can be almost completely separated from deathmobiles. Man, I just should have made a new post about this.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

My First Group Ride

Yesterday night I participated in my first ever group bike ride, the yearly Holiday Lights Ride in Baltimore City. I've been wanting to participate in group rides ever since starting to ride a bike again a year ago, but getting from Towson to the city is already a mighty journey by itself. And once I moved to the city, I kept finding excuses: my brakes were shot (although they are fixed now, yay!), I probably couldn't keep up, and especially, "I'm not cool/not political enough for this." (That last reason is why I have yet to ride in a Critical Mass.) But eventually, I had to just psych myself up for it, and what with this ride starting less than a mile from my new-as-of-two-days-ago workplace, I had no excuse for not doing it. I'm so glad I did.

Gearing up for the ride. Not intended to be a pun. Also, my camera phone sucks, sorry about that.

I had no problems keeping up. In fact, I was near to the front several times, and often found myself deliberately slowing down. I rode the hybrid, due to the fact that the 3-speed is pretty terrible at climbing hills, plus I had to change a flat on it a few days ago and want to do some neighborhood riding with it first before using it to commute. The route was fairly similar to my route home from the Inner Harbor, except that it detoured from Charles to Howard (I think? Hard to tell where I was sometimes because it was dark and I was focused on staying with the group). After hitting the Miracle on 34th Street, the group went back downtown to a bar somewhere, but I decided to go back home instead. I would estimate around 30 people were there, pretty good for a fairly cold evening in December.

We ran a lot of red lights and there was a fair amount of corking going on, which sort of makes me nervous. I am definitely in the "cyclists should obey all traffic laws at all times" camp and when I'm riding alone, I stop for all lights and generally try to act like a little car. I do this not necessarily because it's the "right thing to do" or "the law" but because if there is an incident or an accident I want to be damn sure I'm in the right of things. (Also, it freaks drivers out when you obey the law, and pisses them off too! It's so much fun to stop at a late-stage yellow and hear a car squealing behind you, the driver cussing you out because they just naturally assumed that a cyclist would run that yellow. My non-cyclist husband gets flummoxed when he sees law-abiding cyclists.) But there were no honked horns or revved motors in our direction that I could tell, so I think drivers were tolerant of the group. The fact that many of us wore lights and the leader dressed like Santa Claus probably helped with the goodwill.

Yeah, this picture came out a little better but still pretty much sucks. But look at all the cyclists!

The best thing about riding in a group is how safe it felt. We took up an entire lane of traffic, and even when I was on the outside of the pack, I felt completely protected. It wasn't a physical protection, but more of a psychological one, the feeling that for the first time in my cycling life, I was part of the transportation majority. (There was very little traffic on the road at 7-8 pm that day.) And it struck me that if people wanted it to, every day could feel like this. Every day could end with a healthy dose of physical activity, pleasant conversation among strangers, really seeing the city you live in. When I take public transportation, I'm never aware of my surroundings, I always have my head in a book or my phone. I honestly don't know why anyone who can physically ride a bike and lives within a bikeable distance of their workplace would not ride to work at least some of the time. But that is smugness for another day!

34th Street light show! Pretty, but I don't envy their electric bills.

Now that I've done one group ride, I want more, more, more! My cycling has fallen into a bit of a rut, as commuting tends to do, and I rarely go out just to explore anymore. I think participating in more group rides would make cycling more of an adventure again, as well as help me meet more people who share my interest. I can't do the next Critical Mass (I'll be in Pittsburgh for the New Year's Weekend Gift-O-Rama), but the one after that I'll definitely do, plus any other rides I might hear about.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

We Are Now Experiencing Technical Difficulties....

First of all, in non-bicycle-related news, I have a new short story in this season's issue of Ideomancer. Do you like depression? Then you'll love this story, people, even if there's no mention of bikes and I don't know why I'm even posting it on my bike blog except I'm so excited.

In bicycle commuting related news, I've hit a snag. Not a snag that would cause me to stop riding (that will not and cannot happen... I have a job now and I don't have another form of transportation!), but something that makes getting around by bike a little less convenient. Both of my bikes have "technical issues." The three-speed sort of sucks on hills, and while that's not a problem usually, I live at the bottom of a pretty steep (for Baltimore) slope, so I'm finding that I have to walk it up the worst part of the hill, until I get to a part where I can easily start it from a stopped position. This adds an extra two or three minutes to my commute, and sometimes, I don't have the time. Not to mention, I really hate walking my bike.

What's the fix? Seems like it might be to lower the gearing, which I'll have to go to a bicycle shop for. Since I was already going to go to one for help with installing my new dynamo, I can just ask about this while I'm there, too. Another fix is to just get stronger leg muscles, but man, who has time for that? I ride my bike almost every day for at least forty minutes, these legs are as tough as they're going to get.

The hybrid, which has a derailleur, can climb hills like a mountain goat (and not the kind that writes awesome songs and has the best Twitter feed ever), but it has no brakes. Well, it does have brakes, but they seem to fail whenever the bike is left out in the rain, which unfortunately I have to do because job + no indoor parking + no other form of transportation. And even after they dry, they don't work well. Actually, they haven't worked well at all for a few months, but it's just now getting to the point where I feel very unsafe riding the hybrid. By which I mean, I almost got hit by a truck, and probably made at least a dozen people hate cyclists in a two-minute span. (Great job, me!)

I did some digging into bicycle brakes, and discovered that the brakes on my hybrid are what are called "V-brakes," which I believe is short for "very poorly designed brakes." The brakes are operated by pulling a "noodle" through a small hole, and they worked just fine when I first got the bike*. However, with heavy use (and I have probably put enough miles on the hybrid to go halfway across the country by now), the hole that the noodle goes through can get bigger, leading to epic fail.

The answer, once again, is to find a good LBS and ask them about new brake pads or even an entirely new braking system. Even though the Raleigh Sports is now my daily commuter, I still need the hybrid for recreational riding and big grocery runs, and if there's one thing worse than being almost hit by a truck, it's almost being hit by a truck while carrying twenty pounds of kitty litter.

*And this is where I start to wonder if the hybrid isn't a lemon. When I went back to the (sporting goods) store I bought it from for a tune-up, they were shocked at how much I rode it. Were they impressed at my stamina... or surprised that someone who bought an entry-level hybrid uses it for more than a few hours a month, that they would ride in all conditions, that they would use it as a primary vehicle? I don't think they intended any of their bikes to be used as vehicles! From here on out, it's dedicated bicycle shops or Craigslist all the way. My bike is not a "sporting good."

Monday, November 21, 2011

Dynamic Dynamo

I will keep to a regular posting schedule on this blog that nobody reads if it kills me!

Aside from my commute, I haven't really been riding much lately. Most of that is due to overwork; when I get home, the last thing I want to do is go for a long bike ride for fun. Or, rather, that's one of the first things I want to do, but I also have to do dishes and wash clothes and all that boring adult stuff. So the riding falls by the wayside, a lot of the time. But I have reason to believe things might improve in January, so yay? Even though I don't think I'll be doing much recreational riding in January anyway, because snow (boo!).

But! I have a new bike toy, and while I can't play with it yet, I am super excited about it. It's a bottle dynamo for a human-powered thievery-averse lighting system.

It looks like a tiny gun. Or maybe a hair dryer.
I now need to get a headlight and taillight, and oh yeah, figure out how to hook up the whole thing. It would probably be better to go to a bike shop to get this done, but I enjoy tinkering, and it doesn't look too too hard, at least once I get the voltages right. The dynamo is used and vintage because it was way cheaper than a new one, but I think I'll stick with modern lights. These would be for the vintage Raleigh as the newer hybrid already has battery lights, and while the battery lights are detachable they don't fit on the Sports very well. I'm also constantly leaving them on the hybrid or on the kitchen table instead of taking them with me, which does nothing for my nighttime safety. So I think I'll be much better off with a system I can't possibly leave at home.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

It's All in the Commute?

So, as I alluded to in my last post, I have a new day job. Without going too far into details, it isn't the greatest job in the world. To go slightly more into details, it isn't the job I applied for and I'm a little irked at the bait and switch. But enough with the details!

I've noticed that, as non-ideal as my job is, I am a lot less cranky than I feel like I "should" be when I get home. Part of that is that I'm (by choice) not working full-time. But I think that, weird as it sounds, a very big part of the reason why I don't come home cranky and miserable is -- you guessed it -- because I ride my bike to work.

See, for around a year when I lived in Pittsburgh, I used to have a walking commute. It was approximately the same amount of time as my current bike commute (20 minutes each way). And I didn't come home cranky then, either. I really liked that job, which could be part of it... but when I moved and had to start taking the bus to work every day, I started getting cranky. And pretty much didn't stop being cranky about my job for the next few years.

I can't really get much thinking done on a bus. Oh, sure, I got a lot of reading done. But deep thinking, the kind I need to cleanse my introvert brain after a long day of working in an extravert's world... no. Not with all the stop calls, the babble of voices, people pushing and bumping into me, and oh god, the motion sickness. I don't get carsick as easily on a bus as I do in a car, but it's still present. (Well, someone's a delicate butterfly.) And I think all these various bus annoyances had a lot to do with why my attitude went downhill all those years.

Maybe there's no correlation. Or only a very weak correlation. I'm not a scientist.

I kind of wish my commute was longer, although I'm sure I won't feel that way after the first snow.

Monday, November 14, 2011

It's New! It's Old! It's Vintage!

Apologies for the delay in posting for the maybe five people who read this. As it turns out, starting a blog at the exact same time you start a new job (after almost two years unemployed!) isn't such a great idea. Really going to have to get on a regular posting schedule soon!

But anyway, big news: I got a new bike! I shouldn't have really been trawling Craigslist's bike section, but I did and came upon a vintage three-speed Raleigh Sports at a price I could afford. After hemming and hawing for a few days, I finally realized that I couldn't not at least look into it, and shot the owner an email.

Parks and Recreation: lessons for life.

The bike lived in my old stomping ground of Towson, at one of the soulless apartment complexes that are so numerous in suburban Maryland. I was late to my appointment, because the road I had to take didn't have sidewalks and drivers in MD speed like hell so I was a nervous wreck. (In fact, the lack of sidewalks in a lot of places there is one of the reasons I decided to start cycling!) But once I got on the bike -- well, after me and the bike's owner went to a gas station to fill the tires -- everything felt a lot better.

I'd been wary of the steel-is-king mantra, believing it just to be a scam to sell expensive steel-frame bikes to suckers. But wow, it's true: steel is better on potholes, cracks, grates, and all the other road inconsistencies that you get in an average city. During the test ride, I deliberately rode it over some extremely shitty potholes, and ones that normally would have put my heart in my mouth were little more than gentle waves. On an aluminum frame, you feel everything, and while I don't dislike aluminum as much as other bike enthusiasts (sometimes you want to feel the road!), I can't deny that steel is in many ways superior for a city environment.

The internal hub feels far different from a derailleur. The "junk in the trunk" effect took a few minutes to get used to, but it makes the bike feel a lot more stable. It's much harder to climb hills on this bike, but that was only an issue for two hills I encountered on the way back from Towson, and will not be an issue with any hills in the city. (I also imagine my riding style and my legs will learn to compensate for the extra rear weight.) I do notice it has a tendency to drop out of gear randomly, usually when I'm trying to shift while pedaling (the opposite of a derailleur, which can only change gears while you are pedaling). But these are just minor inconveniences. On the plus side, my chain hasn't fallen off once; it falls off at least every tenth ride on my hybrid, leading to hands that are stained black for at least the rest of the following day. But then, I tend to give the gears on my hybrid a workout, using all seven on the same two-mile ride.

The bike is in seriously beautiful condition for its age. The blue paint isn't faded or patchy at all, looks like it just came out of a showroom. The only rust I see is a slight bit around the back fender which considering the bike is from 1973 is a goddamn miracle. I wonder if this thing was even ridden at all! The Brooks saddle isn't a "real" Brooks, i.e. leather, but it is super comfy and I don't plan on changing it. And while I'm not usually a person who notices or cares about little details on bikes, I admit to loving the lugged frame and little chromey details on the fenders. And that reflector on the back fender! Everything on this bike is adorable.

So cute I could explode!
Things to add: lights! Right now I put my little clippy lights on at dusk, but I'm probably going to spring for some kind of generator system (at least in the front) as the bike is set up for it with a headlight bracket. I may also get a rack, but not unless I can find one that doesn't look out of place on a vintage bike. This may just become my city commuter, with the hybrid as a grocery bike plus a bike to ride on rails to trails and other recreational rides where I have to drive the bike to the ride spot. (The Sports doesn't have quick release wheels, so no car rides for this baby.)

So, yeah, buying this bike was pretty gratuitous but we all need to do something gratuitous for ourselves every so often. I smile every time I look at it, even when I'm not riding it. And I've already gotten a few compliments, which is something I care about even though it's sorta shallow. Basically, if you have a few Jacksons to spare, treat yourself to a vintage bike. It's still cheaper than a month of gas.

A good view of the front. Hello there!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Daylight Saving Time: A Cyclist's Perspective

If you're reading this American blog written in English, chances are probably pretty good that you've just participated in the twice-yearly changing of the clocks. Amid the jokes about time travel and the elation at getting an "extra hour," there is the harsh reality that we're going to be faced with an ever-decreasing amount of daylight, which moving the clocks back will only hasten. The day we switch to Standard Time is one of my least favorite days of the year, which is why I've spent all day lounging around in my adult onesie and listening to the Smiths.

The view from my window, approximately 5:52 pm.
I am a fan of DST. I like coming out of work and having a good three hours, or even one measly hour, of glorious natural sunlight. Daylight saving time has many non-transportation-related benefits for me and for others: lessened seasonal depression (those sun lamps don't work, that is not the sun), lower energy costs (although those are doubtful), and less time watching TV or playing on the Internet because hey, what else are you going to do? But as this is a bicycle blog, let's just talk about the transportation effects, because those alone are enough to convince anyone that a move to permanent DST is an excellent idea that should be carried out immediately. According to some British news site:

  • Car accident rates in November go up 17% as drivers adjust to darker conditions. This wouldn't happen if the change to darkness was more gradual, and if there was less darkness in the evening overall.
  • Motorcycle accidents go up 41.8% during standard time. Our two-wheeled brothers and sisters bear the brunt of the decrease in driver attentiveness.
  • 80 lives per year in the UK would be saved if permanent DST were the norm. Extrapolate this to the US, where  more people are driving longer distances, and that's a huge amount of people.

Although bike commuters aren't mentioned specifically on that article, it's pretty easy to see that permanent DST would have enormous benefit for us, the main benefit being more people would bike commute. I mean, I'm going to commute by bike all winter long anyway: I don't have a choice. But for people who do have a choice, it's awfully hard to convince them that it's safe and healthy to ride their bike home from work when it's pitch black outside. Most people who work standard shifts, and most students, stop working/going to school around five at the latest, which in standard time is just when it turns from dusk to evening. But with an extra hour? It would still be pretty light, and that extra 20-40 minutes of fading daylight might be enough to assure greener cyclists that the roads are still safe for them. And more riders equals more safety! (But still turn on those lights, kids.)

But also, more daylight means more protection from drivers. Cyclists are just as susceptible to driver inattention and poor night vision (hey, I have both!) as people on motorcycles, and just like them we're much less likely to survive an accident. Lights are an essential tool for cyclists, but no light can match the sun, the ultimate bottle dynamo.

Of course, a trade-off of longer daylight hours is that it will still be dark when many of us leave for the day, but personally I don't mind riding at dawn nearly as much as I mind riding at dusk. Okay, I do hardly any dawn riding because I am lazy and don't like leaving the house before mid-morning if I can help it. But the little I've done, I haven't minded. I'd guess that it's safer than dusk riding, because after all the light is increasing, so every minute that passes gets safer and safer.

I can't think of any good reason why we shouldn't have year-round DST. What do you think?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

First post!

Well, hello there! I previously "blogged" (seriously, I hate that word) about my bicycling adventures on Breakfast at Twilight, but my interest in cycling has grown to the point at which I felt it warranted its own site.

Anyway, here's the story, for those too lazy to read the "about me" link: my name is Erica, I live in Baltimore, and I don't drive. Sometimes this hasn't affected my life in the slightest, and other times, it's been a major barrier to my employment, socialization, entertainment, and independence. I also have a lot of political beliefs shaped by my non-driving status. Up until 2010, I lived in a city (Pittsburgh, PA) with a fairly extensive public transportation system, which is currently in the process of being dismantled. In 2010, I moved to a satellite city of Baltimore where public transportation was severely lacking, so I decided to start bicycling. And I fell in love!

One of the many pieces of Hampden public art.
Cycling has improved my life in so many ways. Although public transportation is a wonderful thing, there is really something to be said for getting where you need to go under your own power. The feeling of being on your own timetable, without the delays common with buses and trains, is liberating. Bicycles really are freedom machines, at least for those of us fortunate enough to live in places where cycling is possible. (I grew up in a place where it wasn't possible, and I'm sure my suburbia hate will come out here sooner or later.) At the same time, cycling in a major American city that isn't Portland is quite often a daunting experience... it's always better than driving (for me), but there's still an ever-present danger which doesn't have to be there.

With this blog, I hope to give a little bit of insight into cycling in Baltimore, as well as talk about what it's like to be a non-driver kinda-but-not-really-but-YES-REALLY by choice (my driving history, it's complicated), public perceptions of cyclists/non-drivers, and how to commute and run errands easily on a bike (protip: it's really, really easy). I'll also probably post more pictures here than at the other blog, although I'm really not much of a photographer.

Happy reading, and happy riding!