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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


The Riddle of the Man who Passed Me Twice

It is not uncommon for me to be passed by faster cyclists on my way to and from work. I try to make it easier for them, moving over to the right as far as I am comfortable. Often I will toss a “good morning!” or “afternoon!” at their receding backs.

Good mornings are more frequent than good afternoons, actually. Not sure why that is. Maybe I’m fresher. Maybe it’s the cooler temperatures in the morning. Maybe I’m just an asshole after 2 p.m.

Anyway, this story happens in the afternoon. I was rolling down Park street, which is a very pleasant part of my homeward ride, and doing pretty well. You know, for me. A rider passed me easily, an I noticed that he had some sort of fin attached to his helmet, like the dorsal fin of a long fish, presumably as decoration. He was past me before I could summon the breath for a greeting.

Because I have a Y-chromosome, and because Y-chromosomes are demonstrated to have a negative effect on intelligence in competitive situations — even situations that aren’t actually even remotely competitive — I started pedaling a little bit harder, to keep the guy in view and maybe catch a moral victory if he got stopped by an unlucky traffic light. Thus I knew as I rounded the bend in the road to head due east that he and I were still on the same track. After that, however, I lost sight of him.

I went under the tracks, took a right, and followed Bird street over the freeway. Not my favorite bit of riding, as there are ramps on and off, flanked by side streets, that make the whole situation bike-unfriendly. I’ve never had a close encounter along there, but there really are people coming at me from every direction.

The overpass safely negotiated for another day, I continued south on Bird. That’s when the guy passed me again. This time, he gave me the four-finger hand-still-on-handlebar wave as he went by. “Hey,” he said. To an outside observer, that might be all that happened. But he really said much more.

He wanted me to recognize him. He wanted me to remember that he had already passed me. I know a better way, he told me. Not a faster way, obviously, but a safer one.

“Thank you, mysterious stranger!” I called to him as he sped away. “I will solve the riddle!”

OK, actually I didn’t say that. I wheezed “Good afternoon”, trying to disguise how winded I was. By the time I got home, however, my brain was fizzing. I would solve the riddle of the man who passed me twice.

Just as in the days of Blackbeard, when one is searching for something of great worth, nothing beats a good map. I pulled the Goog up onto my screen and pored over the maps, based on my recollection of where I’d last seen the mysterious man after he had passed me the first time.

The maps let me down. I zoomed in closer and closer, but all there was was a jumble of ramps for the freeway interchange just to the east. Not a bike path, not a foot path, nada. Had the man who passed me twice merely paused on his trip, then followed the same course I had? Had I merely imagined the weight of significance in his “Hey”?


The next day was a Saturday, so rather than ride to work I rode to the awesome neighborhood bike shop to give them more of my money (this time for gloves — holy crap who knew what a difference they would make?). Before I left I checked out ye olde mappe to see if I could find a more scenic way home.

And there it was. The very northernmost part of Los Gatos Creek Trail, running along the railroad tracks as they passed under the freeway. The trail flirts with surface roads, making it hard to spot, but the real reason I hadn’t found it in my previous searches was that I’d assumed I’d seen the man who passed me twice after he’s passed that turnoff. But at that time I hadn’t known how significant that one data point would be.

Monday: homeward bound. A right turn before diving under the tracks, a spin through an industrial area, then onto the trail, tricky to spot if you don’t know where to look. A winding path, crossing a few streets (mostly quiet dead-ends), and blissfully under the freeway.

I had solved the riddle.

Another day will come, a day when the man who passed me twice passes me for a third time. Only this time, it will be on that hidden path, and when he says “hey”, he will really be saying “congratulations.” I’ll probably just wheeze “Good afternoon” again, and spoil the moment.