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."