Where There’s Smoke…

I was pondering this morning how I could best describe for y’all the terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad five miles that were the end of my bike ride a couple of days ago. Today’s plan was to get a happier ride in before it got too hot, then have a beer or two and regale you with my story of (rather mild) heat stroke.

I have been craving protein since that ride and I was in the kitchen piling up turkey and cheese on my sandwich when The Official Sweetie of Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas said, loudly, “Jerry! Come here RIGHT NOW!” In our many years together, I had never been summoned that way before. I dropped the mustard and hurried to find her. I rounded the corner to see the laundry room filling with white smoke.

Both the washer and the dryer were running, and I unplugged them both as one smoke detector after another began to tell us what we already knew. For one heart-stopping moment it seemed that the smoke was actually coming from the garage, but eventually we opened things up and while the dogs cowered from the terrible noise we vented the smoke and things calmed down.

It wasn’t clear at first which appliance had been smoking; but when we opened the dryer smoke came rolling out. “Can you fix it?” Official Sweetie asked, and after some thought I figured I probably could. Fundamentally, dryers aren’t that complicated.

Eventually we restarted the washer and very quickly realized what the problem was. “It’s never made that sound before,” OSMR&HBI said. Our washer was toast. The dryer had filled with smoke as it pulled air in.

Washers like ours have a complex gear box that, when driven by an electric motor, can move the tub and the agitator thingie in a complex motion. My best diagnosis is that the gearbox seized up, and the motor was burning itself up trying to turn it. Time to find some new parts.

This quest was made more difficult because the number on the cover of the manual wasn’t the model number of the washer, but was in fact the part number of the manual itself. Because that’s obviously the most important piece of information a customer might want to know. For a while it seemed that there were no parts for this washer anywhere.

It took me a while to find the actual model number of the washer, first because the plate with that information was well-hidden behind the lid, and second because there was no way to read that information while the lid was open. It took several tries with my phone camera to get a shot from inside the tub while the lid was mostly closed that captured the model number legibly.

Armed at last with the right model number, I was able to look up the parts. Gearbox for sure, and given the amount of electrical insulation that had been turned into a toxic cloud, it seemed a fair bet that the motor would need replacing as well. Cost of parts: $350 after I shopped around a bit. (The gearbox replacement part was an update to the version in our washer, and is used by literally dozens of washers from all the major brands.) Add to that cost a few hours of cursing and bloody knuckles.

New washer: $550-ish. The Official Sweetie set to shopping.

I don’t know if you guys have heard about this Pandemic Thing, but it leads to a lot of uncertainty about just when a product you buy might reach your doorstep. There is no uncertainty at all about whether the product will be brought inside the house. Availability of washers ranged from weeks to months, the delay inversely proportional to the desirability of the machine.

We discussed for a bit whether to get “good enough” sooner, or order what we really wanted and deal with not having a washer for a while. We agreed that waiting for the right machine was better than spending the next few years with a washer we didn’t really like. (“We” in the previous sentence is only 15% me.) Official Sweetie found the right machine online at Lowe’s, but there was no indication when it would be delivered until after the purchase was made. “If it’s too long, we’ll cancel,” OS said.

It’s being delivered tomorrow.

That in itself was a shock, and ultimately a happy surprise, but it took some adjusting to. Specifically, we will have to get the old washer to the street, and haul the new one up our front steps and into the house. This sudden need for logistics and heavy lifting was as much an emotional hill to climb as it was a hassle. Not for the first time, I wished we had a good hand truck.

I’d estimate I ask, “do we know anyone with a dolly?” about twice a year — often enough that I decided it was time to buy one. Back to the Lowe’s Web site for a preorder. Subsequently I set foot in a retail store for the first time in months to snag a Milwaukee with big, stair-friendly wheels. (Even this was not entirely without challenge, as the preorder had not been filled yet when I got there. I went to pull the item myself, and I was told it was on aisle 39. I marched along, 35, 36, 37… and then the wall of the store. There is a 38 and 39, they’re just… looped back around over there.)

Home, carefully washed so I could accept the welcome of the pack, I pulled out the (not-really-that-) old washer and we rolled it to wait by the front door.

I have a few people now encouraging me to ride my bike regularly. I’m hoping “my washer caught on fire” will earn me slack for one day, at least.

I’ll Make a Note for Next Year

I didn’t realize it was turn right in front of bicyclists without signaling day. Had I known that, I might have made other transportation plans.

Talking to Women with Headphones

There’s one of those artificial controversies going on over in Facebook-world that has people so lathered up that even I know about it. There seems to be a competition going on over there now for who can say more stridently than everyone else, “If she’s wearing headphones, consider that she might not be looking for conversation.”

But you know what? I talk to strangers with headphones fairly regularly. I invariably say the same thing, and I often say it loudly: “ON YOUR LEFT!”

I use this little opening line on headphone-wearers (not just women, but mostly women) who are walking down the center of the path, or are not walking in a straight line, drifting over as I approach from behind. Non-headphone wearers get a gentle “ping!” from my bell while I am still well behind them, then a louder “PING!” as I approach if there is no indication they understood the first bell. I love having a bell that I can ping at different volumes.

I get that headphones are fun and provide a signal to those around you that you would prefer not to be disturbed, but for crying out loud, you still need to be aware of your environment. Personally, I never wear headphones while on my bike, because I never know when someone in a car is going to try to kill me, and my ears may provide the only warning I get. On the trails, I am the fast-moving death machine, and while I do my best to be conscientious, a little awareness from those on foot is really welcome.

For the record, now that I consider it, I actually say “good morning” to almost everyone I encounter on the off-street paths, unless they are having a conversation. I say it softly, and headphoners probably are unaware I said anything at all. The earlier in the morning I ride, the more people respond with a friendly “hello” of their own. There are some people who I see regularly, and a few of them return a smile and a wave. Others forge ahead on their health regimens with grim determination.

I generally have more enthusiastic greetings for dogs, like the small Corgi-mixed-with-something-or-other that was hauling a tree branch substantially longer than he was this morning. “Nice stick, buddy!” I said as I rode by. I wonder what the headphoned woman holding the leash thinks I said. Probably nothing good. But as long as the dog’s not wearing headphones, I think it’s ok to talk to it.

A Big Milestone

It seems appropriate that the ride that put me over 5000 miles was a slog. There are days like that, days you find yourself a long way from home and you’re not sure where the energy will come from to get you there. I’d fought a fierce headwind on Wednesday, and Thursday I was still feeling the effort. Man, I hate headwinds.

The traffic lights along Homestead were no help either as I plodded along, but since I had little momentum it was less annoying to lose it. Instead I waited, not winded (I was too tired to burn enough energy to require heavy breathing), and when the light changed in my favor I saddled up and with a moan I pushed ahead.

I catch myself moaning fairly often, in fact, especially when I discover myself in too tall of a gear when I pull out from a light. It’s not so much a moan of pain as it is a super-slo-mo version of a tennis player’s grunt, releasing from the diaphragm as one makes an effort. Only in my case the effort is stretched over a long period of time. “Uh-h-h-h” I sound like Frankenstein’s Monster as depicted in an old B-movie.

5000 miles. That’s a lot in 13 months; not bad at all for a gray-bearded somewhat-overweight dude. (This spring I entertained the idea of crossing that magical line before my bike’s first birthday, but April didn’t go too well, mileage-wise, and May wasn’t great either.) Next week I’ll cross another, perhaps more meaningful milestone: 100 miles for each year I’ve been on this planet. And I should be able to get the next 5000 before another year passes. (Although I won’t be getting many miles in June.)

You might think, with all that riding, that my legs would be really buff by now, but that’s relative. I still have skinny legs. They’re just a heck of a lot more muscular than they used to be.

I still have the newbie glow about my alternate lifestyle, that enthusiasm that makes commuting by bike more fun, not just cheaper and less frustrating and environmentally friendlier and healthier. This might be annoying to the people around me; I mention my bike fairly often in conversation and I’m a regular poster on Apple’s bike-to-work mailing list. The local bike shop knows my face, but they don’t see it as often as they used to. Gradually I’m getting more self-sufficient.

Toward that end, I’ll be taking a class on bike maintenance in July. I’ll be getting 18 hours of instruction by a trained expert while I work on my own bike from the inside out. I’m really looking forward to it. It’s run by a shop in town called Good Karma Bikes, a non-profit outfit dedicated to making the world a better place by providing transportation to people who can’t afford cars and by hiring emancipated foster kids and others who need a good start in life.

I’ve learned a lot since my last bike-milestone post, things like “always give the crossing guards a friendly wave and sometimes they’ll let you pass before stopping traffic,” but really there’s one lesson that stands out above all the others. I mentioned it in a post not long ago, but it bears repeating:

Just keep pedaling.

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This is a Metaphor

Some days you tear up the road.
Attack the hills.
Fly across the flats.
Dance with the wind.

Other days, you just keep pedaling.

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Bicycles and Italian Cars

How Italian sports cars and bicycles are alike: You always have something to do in the garage on a Sunday afternoon.

How they are not alike: If you accelerate through the corners on a bike, you get pedals that look like this:

smashed pedal

My right pedal. The outer metal part used to be rectangular.


It has proven very difficult for me to shed the habit of powering through corners.

Passed by a Fat-Tire

When I started riding to work, I was one of the slower ones out there. When stopped at a light, there was little doubt who would be pulling out first when it was time to crank. After a while, though, there were a few other riders where things were not so clear-cut. I started to look for clues while stopped, to know if I should be getting out of the way, or working to get in front while it was safe.

A couple of lessons I learned: 1) some of those fat-bottomed girls pack a lot of muscle down there; 2) don’t even think about trying to pass someone on skinny little racing tires.

But there is one category I feel pretty comfortable pushing ahead of: guys wearing sweatshirts who are riding bikes with fat tires. Most of them are commuting, like me, but they’re just not in as big a hurry — if they wanted to go fast, they’d have equipment designed for that. I assume they are not going as far.

On yesterday’s ride, however, as I pushed up Willow at (for me) a pretty good pace, a dude in a sweatshirt riding a bike with fairly wide tires passed me in style. I looked at his receding form, his near-effortless cadence as he pushed his pedals, and was impressed. He would have shamed a lot of the spandex crowd.

The Gods of Traffic favored me, and I caught up to him at the next light. No ambiguity about who should be at the front of the pack here. I waited behind him, and when the light changed he moved out effortlessly.

I mean, literally effortlessly. He didn’t pedal at all. His bike had an electric motor. He could go faster than cars do on that stretch, and he had the go-to-the-head-of-the-line benefit of the bike lane at traffic lights. Not a bad way to travel.

An Entropic Milestone

I was riding to work, waiting at a traffic light. Due to the geometry of that intersection, it is safest for me to declare myself in the actual traffic lane rather than sit meekly to the side where cars are willing to brush me aside to pass. Fifty feet after the intersection, there is plenty of space for me to move over. All I have to do is move out smartly and keep with the flow for fifty feet.

On a bike, it’s surprisingly easy to do just that. Watch the light, and when it changes stand up on the pedals, pull up on the handlebars to add arm strength to the power being delivered to the crank, and you as a cyclist can be the fastest vehicle of the cluster to reach fifteen mph. Past fifteen, cars have every advantage, but by then you’re through the danger zone, the motorists behind you appreciate your effort, and everyone parts friends.

Except on this particular ride, at this particular intersection, that’s not quite what happened. The light changed, I stood on my pedals with my skinny (but, I hasten to add, deceptively strong) legs, and began to pull through the intersection. Then… SKPOW! SCHWANG! My chain jumped right off the sprocket! (Not sure if it was the front or rear sprocket; I was too busy trying to not be killed.)

After a half-turn of the crank the chain caught again and the driver behind me did a good job not killing me. But I was a bit rattled.

A mile later, the chain jumped again. WTF?

One advantage of working at a big-ass company: There are company discussion groups about just about everything. I joined the bike-commute group (novices welcome) and asked what might be going on. I mentioned that my bike only had 3600 miles on it.

First came a response from someone asking for more details about my bike. Shit, I had meant to put in my first question, but spaced it.

How about this for a detail? My bike is a 30-speed. Thirty. Three gears in front (excuse me, ‘chain rings’), and ten in back. When I was a kid, there were two kinds of bicycles: bikes and ten-speeds. That was the entire taxonomy of the two-wheel world. My bike was a purple Scwhinn with a banana seat. It was awesome. One by one, however, my friends graduated to ten-speeds, and eventually I did too. Ten-speeds were the bosses of bikes.

Then there was the Schwinn Stingray 3-speed, with the big ol’ shifter lever. We all grew up knowing a guy from the next street over who had one of those. It was a bike, but it was the king of bikes.

Anyway, forty years later, once I revealed that I was riding a bike with a derailleur (or derailer for the less-pompous crowd), it was generally agreed that 3600 miles was more than I should have expected to get out of a chain, and that I was probably damaging my gears with every stroke of the pedals.

You see, the chain is a series of links with rollers that the sprockets mesh with. The rollers turn on the pins that connect the links of the chain. When the spacing of the teeth on the sprockets and the spacing of the links in the chain is exactly the same, all is happiness and joy, as the power delivered by my skinny-but-deceptively-strong legs is shared by every tooth on the sprocket that is in contact with the chain.

But as the chain turns, mile after mile, the pins that connect the links in the chain get worn down, which increases the spacing between links. Only a tiny bit, but that’s all it takes. Now at any given moment all the force of the pedaling is borne by a single tooth of the sprocket against a single roller in the chain, because the next roller in the chain is just a little to far from its corresponding gear tooth. Push too hard, and that one roller-tooth interface just can’t hold up. SPKOW! Even in normal pedaling, all the force from my muscles is being transferred through a single tooth of the gear, which can wear down the gears really quickly.

One more aside to acknowledge what you all are thinking: Yes, I did write this entire episode to brag about wearing out the chain on my bicycle. You know why? Because I wore out the freakin’ chain on my bicycle, that’s why.

Now I’m shopping for a new chain, and will be regularly. Unfortunately, there are a lot of options. They all are the quietest chains; they all shift the best. There’s one choice that costs twice the average cost of the other candidates, but claims to last longer (Diamond-like coating, whatever that means). Does it last twice as long? Pretty much impossible to measure.

I feel like I’m leveling up in the bike world. I’m a guy who wears out chains. I’m a guy who wears out tires. I’m a guy who knows what ‘chain ring’ means (it’s the gear in front). I’m the guy who flexes his calves in the mirror when no one is looking. I’m a bicyclist.

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Dammit, Lyle!

Were you to record the grunts and mutterings I emit as I pedal to work, you would hear me talking to Lyle. You might also hear, “Aw, come on, Victor!” and “Stay with me Johnson, stay with me.”

You might think, listening to me, that I rode with a posse of rather annoying people, but you would be wrong. Lyle is a traffic light. He wears his name on a large electrified sign hanging from his crossbar, the ultimate bling. Most days, Lyle waves me on with a cheery green, which only compounds the feeling of betrayal on those mornings that Lyle chooses to stop my progress to let some chump in a car turn safely onto the main road.

Sooner or later you learn who your friends really are.

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Back in the Saddle

The father of the official sweetie of Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas has a saying when it comes to exercise: 2 days off is rest, any more than that is atrophy.

After riding to work for the first time in more than a week, all I can say is, “amen”. I did not tear up the roadway this morning. Not by a long shot. And my legs are already informing me that they are not enthusiastic about the prospect of the ride home tonight.

On a happier note, I have decided that 55˚ F is about the ideal temperature for a ride. So at least I had that gong for me.

A Clockwork Octogenarian

I’ve been riding to work long enough now that I recognize a few of the faces I meet. One of those I see almost every day is an elderly woman. She seems healthy, if a little thinner than her doctor would no doubt prefer, but time takes its toll on even the best of us, and I would be quite surprised if she were less than eighty years old.

Each day I pass her going the other direction. Depending on how late I’m running, this takes place over a roughly five-mile stretch of my commute (she is much more punctual than I am). So it’s safe to conclude she rides east at least five miles every weekday. I think it’s safe to assume she also rides a similar distance the other way. That’s a nice, steady 50 miles or more each week.

While I have no knowledge of the reasons she bikes (for all I know she’s not allowed to drive anymore), it makes me happy to see her out there. I hope I’ll still be in the saddle thirty years hence.

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100 Commutes

Yesterday marked the 100th time I used a bicycle to get to work rather than a car. Since July, I’ve ridden at least twenty times per month (Well, until I took a week off in October).

On the list of benefits: That’s about 100 gallons of gasoline not burned. That’s a lot of carbon not combined with oxygen and pumped into the atmosphere, but even more important… well, let me tell you a little story…

I was southbound on Los Gatos Creek Trail. I had just crossed a street when a guy flagged me down and gave me a little handbill, explaining that it was to complete an online survey about bike trail usage. “Awesome! Thanks!” I said, taking him aback just a bit with my enthusiasm. I took it as an opportunity to be counted, perhaps to influence the electorate.

Once home, I took the survey. I entered which trail I spent the most time on, how I thought rangers could best spend their time, and stuff like that. Included were questions about why I use the trails in the first place. On one question I told them I primarily biked to get to work. Later it asked why I biked instead of drove. There were plenty of good options, but health wasn’t one of them. I guess commuters aren’t concerned about their health. So I was forced to choose the second-most important reason I rode.

It came down to two choices: to save the environment or to save money. I talk up the environment a lot, and I believe, but I had to be honest with myself. I’m a cheap bastard. I clicked the “save money” option.

… even more important, I’ve saved several hundred dollars in gas money. It will be a long time yet before I save enough to pay for the bike (and also, I suppose, before I save enough gas to offset the energy required to manufacture the bicycle), but I just have to keep at it.

And my calves are looking pretty good, if I do say so myself.

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Sound and Fury

I ride home in the evenings via Homestead Road, which intersects with Wolfe. Currently, construction on Wolfe causes traffic to back up approaching the intersection, and drivers pull into the bike lane and stop, long before the intersection, even though it gains them nothing. Others pull out from parking lots without looking my way, push their noses into the bike lane, and stop, even though it gains them nothing.

Then of course there are the people who pull into intersections before there’s space for them on the other side, to block both cars and bikes when the light changes. Unfortunately, they do gain from their obnoxious behavior.

If I had a giant, super-loud air horn on my bike, it wouldn’t improve the situation in any way. It might even make things worse. But I’d feel better.

bikehorn

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Keeping up with the Spandex Crowd

I crossed the 2k line on Monday, a day I was feeling especially frisky. The second thousand miles on my bike went by quickly. Added to my vocabulary: “Monday legs” when I’m fresh and rested, and “Friday legs” when I’m worn down. This leads to laments like “It’s only Tuesday and I already have Thursday legs.”

Monday I even managed to keep up with Chunky Bald Guy for a fair distance. The first time I ever saw Chunky Bald Guy he was waiting at a traffic light. Despite his narrow tires and spandex shorts, his sausage legs made me think that perhaps I should move in front of him at the light. I did not, and good thing: When the light changed and he started to pedal his calves blasted into superhero-style muscle definition with an audible “BLAM!” He quickly left me behind.

Time has passed, I’ve gotten stronger, and on Monday I was hanging in there, trailing Chunky Bald Guy. Then Gray-Bearded Black Guy passed me easily, the way he always does. GBBG pulled up even with CBG, and it was on. Soon they were a pair of tiny dots, disappearing over the horizon.

So, while I might be able to keep up with one member of the Spandex Crowd, there’s no way I can keep up with two.

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Fixing the Economy

I noticed as I was riding the other day that gas prices have fallen quite a bit lately. I had no idea that my consumption represented such a critical inflection point on the gasoline demand curve, or I would have started riding sooner.

You’re welcome, America.

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